Just before fighting his final disastrous battle on Mount Gilboa against the Philistines, King Saul, in disguise, asked the Witch of Endor to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel so that he could consult with him. In the ancient world, necromancy, or the summoning up of the ghosts of the dead, was frequently done by means of “ghost pits” dug into the ground. As will be seen, when the Witch of Endor summoned up the ghost of Samuel, she was using a ghost pit. The use of ghost pits was a common pagan practice in the ancient world.
Most English translations of 1 Samuel 28:7 have Saul sending his servants to find a woman who has a “familiar spirit.” However, the Hebrew word ob/ov, which is almost always translated into English as a “familiar spirit,” should be more properly translated as a “ghost pit.” Saul is sending his servants to find a “woman possessing a ghost pit.” Such ghost pits could not be dug just anywhere, but only at special, prescribed, sacred pagan sites.
The word ob/ov is a foreign loanword borrowed by the Jews from the Indo-European Hittites of Asia Minor, probably through the Philistines, who had contact with both the Hittites and the Jews. The word ob/ov is found in ancient Hittite texts, and it is now known from these same Hittite texts that it should be translated as a “ghost pit.” As will be seen, such ghost pits were frequently used in necromancy for summoning up the ghosts of the dead. Ancient texts indicate that the spirits supposedly coming up out of these ghost pits had voices that sounded like chirping birds. It should be noted that the ancient Egyptians pictured human spirits as birds with human heads.
The Witch of Endor was at first reluctant to try to summon up the ghost of Samuel, but eventually she agreed. For this study on the use of a ghost pit by King Saul, the key portion of this story is found in 1 Samuel 28:11–15a, which reads as follows:
Then the woman [the Witch of Endor] asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
“Bring up Samuel,” he said.
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
The woman said, “I see a spirit coming up out of the ground.”
“What does he look like?” he asked.
“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
It should be noted that the Witch of Endor was shocked when Samuel actually appeared, and it should also be noted that there is no indication that Samuel did any “chirping.” The Witch of Endor’s statement that she saw Samuel “coming up out of the ground” clearly shows that she was using an ob/ov ghost pit to summon Samuel. As the context of this story clearly shows, Saul knew that the use of such pagan ghost pits was forbidden to the Jews. To read God’s prohibition against the practice of necromancy, see Leviticus 19:31.
As was noted above, the use of such ritual ghost pits for practicing necromancy was common in the ancient Middle East and eastern Mediterranean area. The ancient Sumerian/Babylonian story Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld, which dates to before 2000 BC, has the hero Gilgamesh digging and using a ghost pit to summon up the ghost of his friend Enkidu from the netherworld. It is apparent that the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians believed that a ritual pit or hole dug in the ground could be used as some sort of a gate for summoning up the souls of the dead from the netherworld. This Sumerian/Babylonian occult practice was borrowed by the ancient Hittites, Greeks, Philistines, and heretical Israelites.
That the Israelites were very familiar—too familiar—with the use of such ghost pits for summoning up the dead can be seen in Isaiah 29:4, where God predicts judgment on the apostate Israelites, many of whom were apparently practicing necromancy and using ghost pits to summon up dead spirits. The Lord, through Isaiah, predicts death for these apostate Israelites and intimates that after their deaths their spirits will chirp like birds from such ghost pits. Isaiah writes,
You will be brought down [to Sheol], and you will speak out of the ground, and your speech will come from below and out of the dust. Your voice will be like one coming from an ov [ghost pit] from out of the ground, and your speech will be like a bird chirping out of the dust. (Is 29:4; my translation)
It should be noted that this reference to an ov and “chirping” spirits in Isaiah’s predicted judgment on heretical Israelites would have been understood by the Jews only if they were very familiar with—and almost certainly involved in—the use of such ov ghost pits.
The best example from the ancient world of description of such ghost pits and detailed instructions concerning them is found in the Homer’s Odyssey, which dates to ca. 900 BC. In Book 10 of The Odyssey, the witch Circe gives instructions to the hero Odysseus on the creation and use of a ghost pit. Odysseus wanted to summon up the ghost of the dead Greek seer/prophet Teiresias in order to consult with him. The witch Circe’s instructions to Odysseus on the creation and use of a ghost pit are as follows:
When you have reached the spot, which I told you about, dig a pit in the ground a cubit or so in length, breadth, and depth, and pour into it drink-offerings to all the dead. First pour in honey mixed with milk, then wine, and in the third-place water, after that sprinkle barley meal over the whole. Moreover, you must offer many prayers to the poor feeble ghosts, and promise them that when you return to Ithaca you will offer as a burnt sacrifice to them a heifer cow, the best of your herd, one that has not had a calf; and you will also promise to pile other good things on its pyre as burnt offerings. More particularly, you must promise that Teiresias shall have a black sheep all to himself, the finest in all your flock.
When you have thus beseeched the ghosts with your prayers, offer them a ram and a black ewe. When you sacrifice them, you are to bend their heads towards Erebus [while cutting their throats]; but you must turn [your head] away from them towards the river. When you do this, the ghosts of many dead men will come to you. You must tell your men to skin the two sheep that you have just killed, and offer them as a burnt sacrifice with prayers to Hades [the god of Hell] and to Proserpine [his wife]. Then draw your sword and place it there to prevent any other ghost from coming near the spilt blood until Teiresias has answered your questions. The seer [Teiresias] will presently come to you and will tell you about your voyage, what you are to do, and how you are to reach your home. (my slightly updated version of Butler’s translation of 1900)
The similarities between the story of Odysseus and that of Saul are striking. It should be noted that both kings wanted to obtain advice from a dead prophet, and both used a ghost pit to do so. While the rituals used by the Witch of Endor to prepare her ghost pit are not given in 1 Samuel 28, she almost certainly poured drink offerings into it like Odysseus, probably including blood from at least one sacrificed animal.
When the real ghost of Samuel appeared, he spoke directly to King Saul, and his message was not a good one. He told Saul that he and his sons would die the next day fighting against their enemies, the Philistines, at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. Saul’s sons were killed in the fighting, but Saul committed suicide rather than be captured by the Philistines.
One of the great ironies of the story of the Witch of Endor is that it was Saul’s enemies the Philistines who frequently used ghost pits. First Samuel 28 does not say whether the Witch of Endor was an Israelite or a Philistine; it appears that she was an Israelite. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that she learned the use of ghost pits from the Philistines. Endor where she lived was at times under Philistine control, and the Battle of Mount Gilboa took place within a few miles of her home.
Archaeologists have now found at least three ancient Philistine ghost pits in Israel. Since there were Greeks who once served as allies with the Philistines in the Sea Peoples Coalition, it is very likely that Philistine rituals for ghost pits were very similar to, if not identical to, those of the ancient Greeks as described in The Odyssey.
As is seen above in the instructions given to Odysseus by the witch Circe, such ghost pits were directly connected to pagan, polytheistic religious beliefs; the references to the Greek deities Hades and Proserpine should be noted. By making use of a ghost pit, Saul was not only disobeying God about practicing occult necromancy, but he was also dabbling in the polytheistic religion of his pagan enemies the Philistines.