Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (1526) was painted at the very beginning of the witch craze in early modern Europe, and anticipates later, lurid depictions of the woman of Endor as a fearsome hag. The early modern period saw differences between male and female magic. While the learned magic of the magus could be seen as divinely sanctioned, even respectable, woman’s magic was considered ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’, like the natural world with which women’s bodies were so often compared (Merchant 1980: 127–48).
The unruliness of women’s magic, and its relationship to the respectable art of the male magus, is at the heart of Van Oostsanen’s depiction of the woman of Endor. On the one hand, we notice several references to a well-known Renaissance grimoire of learned magic, The Key of Solomon the King. The woman is depicted in the midst of a spirit-conjuration as instructed by the Key: the grimoire requires the magus to draw a protective circle around himself while reciting psalms, lighting incense, and writing the name of God. Hence the two tapers in the woman’s hands, the circle at her feet, and her half-open mouth, poised as if to speak. Deus, ‘God’, is the last word on the page of the book from which the woman is reading (Peacock 2017: 663; Mathers and Peterson: 2016).
Yet those attributes of the learned magus which seem to elevate the woman’s status also debase her by the same stroke. In Van Oostsanen’s painting the woman transgresses gender roles in a manner clearly meant by the painter to be an occasion for ridicule rather than reverence: her bared, sagging breasts, puckered skin, and generally unlovely visage gesture at the perceived unloveliness of her work. A dark cloud and a host of strange-looking creatures descend from top right, alluding to the unruly forces of the natural world and to the direct connection women were thought to have with these powers. And the woman of Endor herself is unruly, trespassing as she does on a man’s circle of power, speaking words reserved for a male magus.
While Van Oostsanen’s woman of Endor is made to perform the respectable magic of Solomon, the fact that she is a woman means that her execution of learned magic can only ever be a performance: at bottom she remains the ‘witch’ and evildoer of the painting’s title.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperCollins)
Moffitt Peacock, Martha. 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
Peterson, Joseph (ed.), and S. L. MacGregor-Mathers (trans.).  2016. The Key of Solomon the King: Clavicula Salomonis. A Magical Grimoire of Sigils and Rituals for Summoning and Mastering Spirits (Newburyport, MA: Weiser)
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.