Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Witch of Endor
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination depicts the Witch of Endor summoning the spirit of the prophet Samuel for King Saul. The inscription circling the roundel labels each figure in the illumination: Phitonissa (sorceress), Samuel, and Saul. The Latin word “Phitonissa” is a rare word in medieval texts, and references the Witch of Endor’s powers as being similar to those of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the Pythia, who foretold the future. The Witch of Endor is situated directly behind Samuel, and her arms are extended in order to show that she is lifting him from his grave. In the roundel, Samuel is still wrapped in his burial shroud.

    The inscription on the edges of the image reads “Querens ventura Saul, audit tristia dura”, which may be read as, “Seeking to know what will come, Saul hears terrible and sorrowful news.” In his struggle against the Philistines, Saul seeks confirmation of future victory only to learn of his forthcoming defeat and death. This image is one of five scenes on a page depicting events in the lives of Saul and David. The manuscript, the Gumbertus Bible, was created in Regensburg around 1180. Because of its large dimensions, scholars estimate over 150 animal skins were required for its pages. The Bible is extensively illustrated with full page scenes and decorated initials and ranks as one of the most complete decorative cycles in surviving Romanesque bibles.

    While the Witch of Endor was typically denied agency in representations of the summoning created prior to the fifteenth century, this illumination is unique in that it shows the Witch in a position of great power. In other pre-fifteenth century illuminations, the Witch of Endor was typically depicted behind Saul, or off to the side with Saul being the main focus of the image. In this illumination, her position with outstretched arms behind Samuel indicates a role of direct, autonomous action in the resurrection. She is one of the main actors of the image, rather than being sidelined as an onlooker.

    Additionally, describing the Necromancer of Endor as a "witch" was not actually popularized until the sixteenth century. The word is used in this entry to offer an easy colloquial reference; the actual historical transition to using the word "witch" is part of a less innocuous narrative. Prior to the sixteenth century, the Witch of Endor was often referred to as a necromancer, sorceress, medium, diviner, or phitonissa. These terms did not carry an inherently negative or accusatory connotation. During the period of witch hunting and persecutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word "witch" was popularized in order to inextricably link the sorceress to demon worship, evil, and deceit.

  • Source: University Library Erlangen-Nürnberg
  • Rights: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
  • Subject (See Also): Bibles Magic Prophecy Saul (Biblical Figure) Witches
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 12
  • Date: Last quarter of the 12th century and before 1295
  • Related Work: Full page view from the Gumbertus Bible, Bavaria, 1180/85, Erlangen, University Library, MS 1, fol. 82v.
    Digitized Gumbertus Bible volume.
    Boucicaut Master Workshop, Bible Historiale, France, Paris, ca. 1415, New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.394 fol. 127v. The Witch of Endor kneels before Saul.
    Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, Bible, Northern Netherlands, 1430, The Hague, National Library of the Netherlands, KB, 78 D 38 I, fol. 175v. The Witch of Endor raises Samuel from his earthen grave.
    Weltchronik, Germany, Regensburg, ca. 1360, New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.769 fol. 172r. The Witch of Endor gestures toward the risen Samuel.
  • Current Location: University Library Erlangen-Nürnberg, MS 1, 82v
  • Original Location: Bavaria
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 67/46/
  • Inscription: Querens ventura Saul, audit tristia dura” ( “Seeking to know what will come, Saul hears terrible and sorrowful news.")
  • Related Resources: Die Gumbertusbibel: goldene Bilderpracht der Romanik : Ausstellung im Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg 1. Mai bis 27. Juli 2014. Edited by Anna Pawlik and Michele Camillo Ferrari. Verlag des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 2014;
    Page, Sophie. “Medieval Magic.” In The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic. Edited by Owen Davies. Oxford University Press, 2017. Pages 29-64;
    Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. University of Chicago Press, 1998;
    Zika, Charles. "The Witch of Endor before the Witch Trials." In Contesting Orthodoxy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft. Edited by Louise Nyholm Kallestrup and Raisa Maria Toivo. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pages 167-191.