In this illumination from a fourteenth-century German chronicle, the anonymous artist shows the spirit of Samuel predicting the downfall of Saul, here shown kneeling in front of Samuel’s opened tomb. The woman of Endor stands left of centre: dressed in a blue gown and red cloak, wearing a white headdress, she is depicted as a person of noble birth, respectable and refined. Confidently she gestures at the spirit of Samuel, while at her feet Saul the king bows in fear.
It is an image quite unlike the sensationalist portrayals of the woman of Endor in many Early Modern illustrations and paintings, which picture the woman as a malefic hag. But the German chronicle was composed well before the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in medieval illuminations like this one it is unusual to see the woman of Endor painted with negative attributes (Peacock 2017: 260–61).
This is despite the fact that the Hebrew Bible contains several prohibitions against magic. 1 Samuel 28 itself is no exception: we are told that, prior to his desire to speak with the spirit of Samuel, Saul had banished all the ‘wizards and mediums’ (v.3). Why then is there no hint of evildoing in this medieval depiction of Saul and the woman of Endor?
The answer may be found by revisiting some of the earliest Christian commentary on this passage (Copeland 2014: 308). While early modern visual interpretations connect the evildoing at Endor to the woman and her profession, many older biblical commentators tended to link the evildoing instead to Saul, the subject, in this story, of God’s anger and of Samuel’s indignation. Origen of Alexandria, for instance, was able to interpret the woman of Endor as a conduit for God’s anger at Saul rather than as an agent of evil, and to compare her to Christ rather than to a sorceress (Murphy 2010: 266; Smelik 1977).
It is this Christ-typology that explains her striking appearance in the German chronicle. Here she is dressed in red, a colour often associated with Christ, and moreover raises a body from an opened grave. Far from being a nefarious act of spirit-conjuration, this (as Origen had suggested) bears a striking resemblance to the story of the raising of Lazarus from his tomb (John 11:1–44; Peacock 2017: 661).
Aran Murphy, Francesca. 2010. 1 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos)
Copeland, Kirsti Barrett. 2014. ‘Sorceresses and Sorcerers in Early Christian Tours of Hell’, in Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World, ed. by Kimberly B. Stratton and Dayna S. Kalleres (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 298–318
Peacock, Martha Moffitt. 2017. ‘Magic in Jacob Cornelisz van Oostanen’s Saul and the Witch of Endor’, in Magic and Magicians in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Time: The Occult in Pre-modern Sciences, Medicine, Literature, Religion, and Astrology, ed. by Albrecht Classen (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 657–80
Smelik, K.A. D. 1977. ‘The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis until AD 800’, Vigilae christianae 33: 160–79
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the wizards out of the land. 4The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboʹa. 5When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at Endor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments, and went, he and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit, and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” 10But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.
15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress; for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David. 18Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amʹalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19Moreover the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”
20 Then Saul fell at once full length upon the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your handmaid has hearkened to you; I have taken my life in my hand, and have hearkened to what you have said to me. 22Now therefore, you also hearken to your handmaid; let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23He refused, and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he hearkened to their words. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed. 24Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25and she put it before Saul and his servants; and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.