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Pamela Colman Smith

High Priestess from the series of 22 Major Arcana, popularly known as the Waite pack, c.1937, Colour lithography, 12 x 7 cm, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Collection, Yale University Library, 2003230, Photo: The Beinecke Library / Public Domain

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen

Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526, Oil on panel, 85.5 x 122.8 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-668, Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Unknown artist

Saul and the Witch of Endor, from German World Chronicle, c.1360, Illumination on vellum, 343 x 242 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.769, fol. 172r, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Demonic and Divine

Comparative Commentary by

Why these wildly divergent, even contradictory, portrayals of the woman of Endor? How can she be depicted both as a type of Christ—as in the fourteenth-century illumination from the German chronicle—and as the loathsome hag in Jacob van Oostsanen’s Saul and the Witch of Endor?

One would have thought it easy and straightforward to paint her as an evildoer, in the manner of Van Oostsanen, given that the biblical text contains so many prohibitions against magic (1 Samuel 28:3; Exodus 22:18; see Hutton 2017: 51–54). But perhaps the matter is less simple. For is not magic an ability to communicate with forces more awesome and powerful than oneself? And did not Christ do something similar when he prayed to God that Lazarus might be raised from the dead? (Smith 1978: 81–139). Christ is clear that he performs his miracles not by himself, but by the power of the Holy Spirit that acts through him from the Father (John 5:30; Acts 10:38). Well then, who is to say that the woman of Endor did not act by the power of the same spirit?

But in the ancient world spirits were many and it was not easy to know or verify that the spirit invoked by one person was the same as that prayed to by another. There were many daimones, many invisible intelligences carrying messages from gods to humans and petitions from humans to gods (Skinner 2014). To the ancient mind, the question was not whether or not the woman of Endor really did raise the spirit of Samuel, but by which spirit she raised it and whether or not Samuel’s ghost was a malefic illusion sent by an evil spirit or whether its arrival was caused by the will of God (Copeland 2014: 314). To the anonymous illuminator of the German chronicle it seemed (as it had done also to Origen) that there was something ineluctably divine about the magic of Endor.

Even in the ancient world, however, the attitude toward magic and spirits was not without the opprobrium levelled at it in later centuries. While Augustine, for instance, found it difficult to deny that the ghost of Samuel had spoken God’s truth and predicted, accurately, Saul’s downfall, he was not as ready as Origen had been to compare the woman of Endor herself to Christ. For Augustine, the woman was still to be condemned for practising sorcery and associating with evil spirits through her art (On Christian Doctrine 2.35).

Augustine’s condemnation of the woman and her magic anticipates what, in the painting of Van Oostsanen, has become a delight in the grotesque and degrading. From the onset of the witch craze in the sixteenth century, visual representations of the magic at Endor such as Van Oostsanen’s were influenced strongly by sensationalist portrayals of naked women gathering to perform magic for nefarious purposes. Van Oostsanen’s woman of Endor calls to mind Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving of The Witch (c.1500)—and the female figures descending onto the scene at upper right are riding, like Dürer’s witch, on goats (Zika 2017).

From the early modern period onward, the possibility of representing the woman of Endor, which is to say woman’s magic, would reside in the image of the witch and of witchcraft as such. That image would not alter substantially until the emergence of the occult revival and of the modern women’s movement in the late nineteenth century. It was then that the sensationalism associated with women’s magic first began to be questioned seriously and the witch reimagined as a person of power and mystery, rather than of maleficence, more akin to a sibyl or a pagan priestess than to Dürer’s caricature of an early modern witch.

Pamela Colman Smith’s High Priestess card from the 1910 Waite–Smith Tarot deck, with its allusions to Solomon’s Temple and the mysteries of Persephone, is an example of the most popular and influential reimagining of woman’s magic along these lines. It had been prepared for, earlier in the nineteenth century, by a number of depictions—among them two striking images by Russian painters Dmitry Martynov and Nikolai Ge—which portrayed the woman of Endor as a tall figure with stately and formidable bearing. Though these images do not engage explicitly with the Christ-typology, their depictions of the woman of Endor seem to recover important aspects of a tradition of interpretation that pre-dates the witch-trials but which look forward, also, to the Neopagans and female magi of the twentieth century who have chosen to reclaim the name of ‘witch’ for their own (Starhawk 1982: 1–14).

 

References

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

Hutton, Ronald. 2017. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Peacock, Martha Moffitt. 2017. ‘Magic in Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’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

Skinner, Stephen. 2014.Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic (Singapore: Golden Hoard)

Smith, Morton. 1978. Jesus the Magician (San Francisco: Harper Collins)

Starhawk (Miriam Simos). 1982. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press)

Zika, Charles. 2017. ‘The Witch and Magician in European Art’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic, ed. by Owen Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 134–67