Monday, October 28, 2013

Witches of Note: The Witch of Endor

The story of the Witch of Endor is told in the Bible, in I Samuel 28, v. 3-25:

3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.

4 And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and pitched in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.

5 And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.

6 And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

7 Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor.

8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee.

9 And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?

10 And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.

11 Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel.

12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.

13 And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

14 And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.

15 And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.

16 Then said Samuel, Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy?

17 And the LORD hath done to him, as he spake by me: for the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David:

18 Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the LORD, nor executedst his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day.

19 Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.

20 Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel: and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.

21 And the woman came unto Saul, and saw that he was sore troubled, and said unto him, Behold, thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto thy words which thou spakest unto me.

22 Now therefore, I pray thee, hearken thou also unto the voice of thine handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before thee; and eat, that thou mayest have strength, when thou goest on thy way.

23 But he refused, and said, I will not eat. But his servants, together with the woman, compelled him; and he hearkened unto their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed.

24 And the woman had a fat calf in the house; and she hasted, and killed it, and took flour, and kneaded it, and did bake unleavened bread thereof:

25 And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants; and they did eat. Then they rose up, and went away that night.

When I went looking for further information on this episode, I found notes on Wikipedia stating the Witch of Endor as being "a ba'al ob; ba'al ob literally means master of spirits. The corresponding parts of the Septuagint refer to eggastrimuthos (gastromancy), a form of necromantic ventriloquism, in which the voice seems to be located in the stomach. The Witch of Endor was a ba'al ob; the Septuagint again renders this as eggastrimuthos, thus describing her as a (necromantic) ventriloquist, although (one who has) familiar spirits is the more common English translation. The woman is described as "a woman with an ob" (אוֹב, a talisman or perhaps wineskin) in Hebrew, which may be a reference to ventriloquism, Classical Jewish sources argued that yidde'oni might be another form of ventriloquism, in which the voice is cast into/at a bone which is placed into the ventriloquist's mouth.

Tractate Sanhedrin-- VII. 7b. The Ba‘al ‘Ob, that is, the Python who speaks from his armpits, and the Yidd‘oni who speaks from his mouth, are punishable by stoning; and he who has inquired of them (offends) against an explicit warning.

T. X. 6. The Ba‘al ‘Ob, that is the Python who speaks from between his joints and elbows, and the Yidd‘oni, who has the bone of a Yidd‘oni in his mouth, are to be stoned; and he who inquires of them offends against an explicit warning.

I couldn't help but immediately think of the "swozzle," the strange little instrument that Punch-and-Judy men place in their mouth to produce the weird, buzzing, high-pitched voice for Mr. Punch. A further note from the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) seems to reinforce this idea with a look at Isaiah:

"One of the oldest of these practices was that of consulting the dead. The spirit of the dead was called "ob," and the consultation of such a spirit was accomplished through a woman who was called a "mistress of an ob" ("ba'alat ob"). The earliest and most famous instance of this on record is that of King Saul on the night before the fateful battle of Gilboa, in which he lost his life (comp. I Sam. xxviii. 3, 7 et seq.). It appears from the account that this method of gaining information was under the ban even at that early date. The "mistress of the ob" whom Saul found at Endor is said to have been able to summon Samuel's spirit from the underworld and to talk with it. The narrative represents her as able to call up any "ob" desired. Wherever "obot" are mentioned there also is found the term "yidde'oni" (R. V., incorrectly, "wizard"). It is, apparently, a synonym of "ob" as a designation of a departed spirit (comp. Lev. xix. 31; xx. 6, 27; Deut. xviii. 11; I Sam. xxviii. 3, 9; II Kings xxi. 6, xxiii. 24; Isa. viii. 19, xix. 3; II Chron. xxxiii. 6). "Ob" designated a subterranean spirit, but perhaps "yidde'oni" was a more general term. It is probable that the wizards who consulted the dead were ventriloquists, for Isaiah (comp. viii. 19) describes them as those that "chirp and . . . mutter." Probably the ventriloquist impersonated the dead as speaking in a faint voice from the ground, whence this description. Deut. xviii. 11 adds to consulting an ob or a yidde'oni, "inquiring of the dead," as though there were still another means of consulting them. If this be so, no information as to the method of consultation has been preserved. "

And what about the ob being described as a "wineskin"? Did the Witch of Endor have a literal wineskin, perhaps inflated with air , to help project noises? Or did it perhaps refer to a "talisman" as a figurative "bottle" for a familiar spirit guide? With a kind of whoopee cushion, "speaking from the armpits," and ventriloquism, it sounds like some ancient version of a Catskills stand-up routine.

Exactly who or what the Witch of Endor actually called up has been something of a vexed question for Christian scholars, as has been the exact extent of her agency in the summoning of Samuel. Here are some thoughts summarizing what has been said (I've lost the sources):

"The passage does not give us any reason to believe it was anyone other than Samuel, who is described by the medium as “an old man wearing a robe” (v. 14). Obviously, age and clothing do not exist in the realm of the spirits of those who have died, but God miraculously gave Samuel such appearances as would enable Saul perceive who the spirit was. The message Samuel gave Saul was completely accurate. God allowed the witch of Endor to summon the prophet Samuel in order to give King Saul the news of his coming defeat and death…This does not mean that it is genuinely possible for witches or mediums to speak with the dead, only that God allowed it in this one exception."

And also:

"F. What is going on here? This strange incident is controversial, and several different approaches have been used to understand this passage. Here are four of the most commonly suggested possibilities.

"i. Some believe that this was a hallucination of the medium. But this doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t explain why the medium was so frightened. It doesn’t explain why Saul saw Samuel also, and why Samuel spoke to Saul, not to the medium.

"ii. Some believe that this was a deception by the medium. But this also isn’t an adequate explanation, for the same reasons given to the previous suggestion.

"iii. Some believe that this was a demonic impersonation of Samuel. It is possible that the medium, with her occultic powers, summoned a demonic spirit that deceived both her and Saul. But this suggestion is also inadequate, because it does not speak to the issue of motive. After all, what advantage does Satan gain by “Samuel’s” words to Saul?

"iv. Some believe that this was a genuine (but strange) appearance of Samuel. This is the best explanation, because it is supported by the reaction of the medium, who got more than she bargained for. It is also supported by the truth of what Samuel said (and the text says that Samuel said it). Some may say that it is impossible for Samuel to reappear in some way, coming from the world beyond back to this world. But Moses and Elijah also came from the world beyond back to this world when they appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).

I must admit that I was always impressed by the concern of the Witch for Saul after he got his bad news. Sterner moralists have sometimes described it as two lost creatures clinging to each other in the shadow of disaster. But I like to think of it as a kindly act, a generous impulse from one human being to another, as anyone might do for some person in distress. Though after this last meal Saul goes to his doom, this is the last we hear of "the Witch of Endor."

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