The Torah is emphatic about prohibitions against sorcery, witchcraft, necromancy, and all other kinds of magical ritual. But the language smacks a bit of “thou doth protest too much methinks.” While the language is clear — and repeated — that witchcraft is punishable by death, there are a surprising number of examples of rabbis or sages doing witchy stuff in the Torah. After all, in Judaism, a religious tradition where notions of the afterlife are often fuzzy to say the least, the idea that one could use magic, particularly to talk to the dead, is especially appealing.
So, why have a law that is continuously undermined by the people who set it? Maybe because the problem isn’t magic itself, but who has access to it.
Take the biblical story of the so-called “Witch of Endor,” a fascinating tale that seems to recognize the power of magic and suggests that warnings against this particular taboo — the desire to talk to the dead — might arise from the ability it gives women to confront the patriarchy.
In the story of the Witch of Endor from I Samuel, King Saul is having a rough time. God seems to have given up on him. His legitimate sources of advice, like oracles, have given him no help. And, in keeping with Jewish law, he’s outlawed all other forms of magic from the land, including necromancy. Even so, he asks around and finds a professional witch, a woman in Endor, and decides to go to her to ask her help in conjuring the spirit of Samuel so he can consult him for advice.
Saul goes to the woman in disguise (itself a form of prohibited deceptive magic) and asks her to conjure Samuel’s spirit for her. She is not happy to see him. First, she accuses him of trying to trick her into breaking the law. Then, she’s angry that Saul has tricked her by wearing a disguise. But finally, and perhaps a bit reluctantly, she does what Saul asks and conjures Samuel for him.
The meeting doesn’t exactly go as Saul had hoped.
The woman lets Saul know that Samuel has appeared. And the ghost of Samuel, apparently, is none too pleased to have been woken from his netherworldly slumber. Saul can’t see Samuel, but he can certainly hear him… although it’s not clear in the story where the voice is coming from (more on that in a second).
After he reprimands Saul for waking him up, Samuel has nothing but bad news for him. Samuel tells him that God has forsaken him, David is going to take over as king, and the Philistines are going to take out his army — all events that later come to pass.
At the end of this terrible message, Saul collapses on the floor. He knows he is done for. The woman then insists on feeding Saul over his objections, saying he must be exhausted and needs to eat. The food she serves him is, as far as we know from the narrative, his last meal before he dies fighting the Philistines.
So, what does this story tell us about women and the taboo power of witchcraft? Among other things, it highlights the (literally) unorthodox methods women have at their disposal to confront leaders they think are incompetent or corrupt — and the way these messages can come shrouded in mystery and mysticism.
The woman in this story is often called “The Witch of Endor” but the Hebrew text describes her as a ba’alat ov, which could be more literally translated as a “controller of the spirit.” In the Torah, where women are typically described as wives, mothers, or prostitutes, it is significant that Saul seeks out a woman for advice, and not just any woman, but a woman who exercises unquestioned power and authority over others — she controls them. And, in this specific case, she is a woman who exercises power over two men: Samuel, in conjuring his spirit, and Saul, in forcing him to eat his last meal. This is no small thing. It suggests that perhaps part of the reason magic has been made so taboo is because it was seen by the rabbis as a competing and legitimate form of power and knowledge that can be directed by women over other people, including men.
It’s also worth noting that the woman in the story is given no name. Names are critical in the Torah. They are, in some Jewish traditions, seen as being innately tied to one’s soul. (If you’re Ashkenazi, you yourself may have grown up with the tradition of not naming children after living relatives for fear that their soul will be sucked out of their body and put into the child’s.) That the Witch of Endor has no name deepens the mystery around her power. She does not advertise her services. She cannot be traced or tracked. Unlike Saul, a king, whose power is made visible through ceremony, war, and sacrifice, the Witch of Endor’s power is in her invisibility.
Perhaps that is part of what makes her, and others like her, so dangerous — and so remarkable. The underground nature of her power makes one think of the countless ways throughout history that women have fought the patriarchy in these hidden ways: through whisper networks, through unconventional methods like charm and deceit, and, yes, through magic.
As they say, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes, it can feel good or even necessary to indulge in a little magic, just like Saul. When someone dies, we can understand the desire to conjure their spirit, to hear what advice they would have for us, to tell them what is going on in the world of the living. As we have seen, women in particular play an important role in acting as a mediator between the living and the wisdom of the dead. But what is most fascinating, most revealing, about this story is the simple fact that Saul couldn’t actually see Samuel’s spirit. He had to rely on the woman’s word that Samuel was there.
But, let’s recall the woman’s reluctance. Did she really do a spell? Or could it be that it wasn’t truly Samuel’s spirit, but actually the woman herself speaking? In fact, perhaps, in that moment, there wasn’t really any magic at all, but simply a nameless woman speaking truth to power. And what could be more taboo — or more desirable — than that?
Header Image: Saul and the witch of Endor by Edward Henry Corbould (Wikimedia Commons)