Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Bible's Most Famous Witch

She's by far the most famous witch in the Bible.

So, the king is in a bind.

He has prohibited all forms of divination on pain of death, but now he needs someone to divine for him. The kingdom next door is about to invade, his long-time counselor is dead, and he needs advice.

“Find me a witch (ba'alat 'ov),” he tells his servants.

“There's one at Endor ('Eyn Dor, 'Spring [of] Dor*'),” they tell him.

So he disguises himself and goes to see her.

“Raise someone for me,” he tells her.

“What, are you trying to trap me?” she replies, cannily. “You know the king has forbidden such things.”

He vows that she will come to no harm, and tells her who to raise: the spirit of his long-time counselor.

Clearly, the witch knows her stuff. First off, she sees right through his disguise. But, trusting to his oath—the king may be a hypocrite, but he is nonetheless a man of his word—she works her magic for him.

“What do you see?” he asks her.

“I see gods ['elohim] rising from the Earth,” she tells him.

She successfully channels his old counselor, who is cranky at having been disturbed, but all to no avail. In the end, the king is defeated, kills himself, and his throne passes to other hands.

Quite a story, in which the witch, like her cinematic sister the Wicked Witch of the West, makes an outsized impact far beyond the miniscule amount of screen-time that she receives.

So, is she really what we would call a witch?

Like most other ancient languages, Old Hebrew has many words for different kinds of magic and magic-workers which, at this remove of time, we can (for the most part) no longer distinguish from one another.

The word most commonly translated in the Queen James Version (“We used to have King Elizabeth; now we have Queen James,” they used to say) as “witch”—makhashefá—means a késhef-er (fem.): a woman who practices késhef magic. (England's James I had a lively—and deadly—interest in witchcraft himself, and actually wrote a book on the subject.) But that's not the term used here.

The Lady of Endor is identified as a ba'alat 'ov, בעלת אוב: the mistress/owner/possessor/lady of an 'ov.

'Ov is an interesting word. It means “jar.” It also means, apparently, some sort of spirit, and (confusingly) can also be applied to a person who does magic by means of such a spirit.

(My friend and colleague Hebraist Jake Rabbinowitz sees here a parallel with the govi of Vodun: a jar in which a spirit is kept. This is an intriguing possibility, but there's simply not enough data to say for sure.)

So, is “witch” an accurate translation for ba'alat 'ov?

Well, yes and no.

Contemporary Bible translators usually draw on the vocabulary of Spiritualism (!) and translate “medium.” Others translate by context and choose “necromancer.” Insofar as traditional beliefs concerning witchcraft among English-speakers saw a witch as someone who works magic by the agency of spirit helpers, “witch” seems to me a fair enough—if un-PC— translation. Just to be nasty, I'd probably translate “channeler” myself, but you won't be finding the Posch translation of the Bible on A**zon anytime soon.

The Bible's most famous witch, whoever she was—assuming she existed at all—has left behind a minimal, but amusing, legacy to the modern Craft.

After a childhood encounter in the woods with the Horned One**, “Dr.” Herbert Arthur Sloane (1905-1975) ran a “Gnostic Ophitic” coven in Toledo, Ohio during the late 60s and early 70s, which he wryly named “Our Lady of Endor Coven.”

The Witch of Endor's most enduring legacy (such as it is) to the modern Craft, though, is probably her namesake Endora,*** über-witch, mother of all mother-in-laws, and jet-setting mom to Samantha in the 60s sitcom Bewitched, inimitably played by the immortal Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974).

Endor, by the way, still exists, a small Palestinian village about four miles SW of Mt. Tabor. If you go there today, as a friend of mine did a few years back, you can still drink from the eponymous spring—still the source of the local water-supply—that the Witch of Endor drank from in her day.

Whoever the heck she was.


*Dor was an ancient coastal city south of Mt. Carmel. The original meaning of the name would seem to have been “City Wall.”

**I had one of these myself, although I reached a different conclusion than Doc Sloane did about exactly Whom it was that I encountered.

***In the Bewitched universe, before Samantha got the job, the reigning Queen of the Witches was Hepzibah. In one episode, she's pursued by a would-be suitor.

“Hepzibah: what a charming name,” he says. “Is it Biblical?”

“Hardly,” she replies archly.

But, in fact, Hepzibah is a Biblical name, as are those of Tabitha and—in a sense—Endora.

If it weren't ironic, it wouldn't be witchery.


















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Tagged in: Bewitched necromancy
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Jet
    Jet Saturday, 26 May 2018

    Very well said. I love your sense of humor.
    That being said: I enjoy learning where the name of the witch Endora came from. I had no idea. When I was younger I never read the bible and knew nothing of it (my family didn't want to push religion or spirituality on us and we were allowed to do whatever we wished, which was why I became pagan at age 10). Endora is one of my favorite characters. She is so sassy. I can just see her as the witch in the story you told at the beginning (the "what are you trying to trap me?" sounds like something someone with her wit would say).
    This was educational on many fronts.
    Thank you.
    -Aunt Vyv

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Sunday, 27 May 2018

    Thanks, Aunt Vyv. The trendy, jet-setting witches of Bewitched were indeed a revelation. And, one could say, a prediction. A dear friend of mine says that Maurice was his first paradigm in warlockry. (I've got a great story about the actor that played Maurice; stay tuned.)

    One of the things that, as a historian, I find so striking about the modern Craft is that it takes everything to itself. By virtue of this self-identification, anything that anyone, anywhere, has ever said about witches somehow belongs to us.

    That's singular, and fascinating.

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Saturday, 26 May 2018

    I once read an article in which the author tried to identify the different types of magic in the ancient near east. It has been awhile since I read it. He compared one form of magic to the spirit trumpets used by spiritualists, I'm not sure if that was the 'ov or not.

    For confusion I like the word wawarun. I read it in a book on Indians of the south east. It refers to dead chiefs, the priests who serve them and the power they provide.

  • Mike W
    Mike W Sunday, 27 May 2018

    I love it Steve. I guess that Maurice from Bewitched and Nicky Holroyd from Bell, Book and Candle were powerful media role models for Warlocks back in the day when we didn't have much else. Nicholas Blair on Dark Shadows with his widow's peak just didn't do it somehow, a little too intense. Interesting that in the film his sister Gillian said that Nicky used the Craft for his love life, but didn't specify who or what she meant by that? I think I know, we need a remake!

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Tuesday, 29 May 2018

    I remember asking *why* all these various arts were forbidden in Sunday school, and why if we believed in religious tolerance/freedom as Americans, how come there was all this idol smashing going on in the Bible? How did these things really go together? Like so many others of us, no one really made much of an attempt to answer my questions, so I sought the answers elsewhere.

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