The Witch of Endor receives her indelible moments in the spiritual history of the Judeo-Christian traditions in Chapter 28: 4–28 of I Samuel. Saul, King of Israel, had begun his reign with a great military victory over the Ammonites, but he, who had once been a humble man, allowed his early successes to go to his head. When it becomes apparent to King Saul that David, once a mere shepherd boy whose musical talents eased his troubled mind, has found favor in God's eyes and will soon claim the throne of Israel, Saul tries to kill him. But David has evolved from the boy who slew the giant warrior Goliath with a sling-shot and the giant's own sword to a capable leader with his own army. Thoroughly frightened and confused, King Saul wishes that he would once again be able to seek the advice of the great and wise Samuel, who, before his death, had served Israel as the last of the judges, the first of the prophets, and the founder of the monarchy, the sole ruler between Eli and Saul.
Receiving no answer to his prayers to God, Saul tells one of his servants to find him a woman who has a familiar spirit (i.e., a spirit medium) who can speak to the dead. The servant reminds Saul that he had passed laws that forced all such mediums and wizards out of the land under penalty of death, but, he admits, he does know of such a woman who lives at Endor.
Saul disguises himself and, accompanied by two loyal men, comes to see the Witch of Endor after it is dark. Getting directly to the point, Saul asks the woman to ask her spirit control to summon someone from the dead so that he might speak with him. No fool, the medium plays it very carefully, and reminds the stranger that Saul has driven all such men and women who claim to have familiar spirits out of the land of Israel. If she even acknowledges that she has such abilities, she could be put to death.
Saul, desperate for counsel from the spirit of Samuel, swears to her by the Lord that no punishment will come to her if she will perform this favor for him. He promises that he will tell no one. Satisfied with her client's oath of secrecy, the witch asks whom she shall ask her spirit control to summon from the land of the dead. Saul answers, "Bring me Samuel."
When the woman sees the spirit of Samuel materialize before her, it is also given to her to know that her client is King Saul, none other than the very ruler who had banished all mediums and conjurors from Israel. Saul once again reassures her that no harm will come to her, but he can see nothing and asks her what it is that has startled her. She describes the elderly man covered with a mantle who has appeared, and Saul, knowing that it is the spirit of Samuel, bows before him.
Although it seems Saul cannot see the form of his mentor, he can clearly hear the prophet's words of distress at being disturbed and brought back to the land of the living. "Why are you bothering me by bringing me up like this?" a querulous Samuel demands. When Saul explains how worried he is—the Philistines are preparing to attack his forces and God appears to have turned his back on him—Samuel goes on to say that there is nothing he can do or say to help him, because the Lord has departed from him and will turn the kingdom of Israel over to David. Moreover, Saul and his sons will soon be with Samuel among the spirits of the dead, slain in battle by the Philistines.
Saul trembles and falls to the ground in a faint. He is weak because of fear and because he has not eaten a single bit of food all that day or night. The Witch of Endor prevails upon him to eat something, and Saul's two bodyguards agree with her insistence that he needs nourishment. The woman kills a calf that she has been fattening for a special occasion, prepares its meat along with some unleavened bread that she bakes, and Saul dines with her and his men before he takes his leave to meet his destiny on the battlefield.
The Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend states that the Witch of Endor was able to raise Samuel from the spirit world because he had been dead less than 12 months, "and the soul stays close to the body for this period." Certain traditional accounts of the incident state that other spirits, including Moses, came with Samuel because when they saw his spirit arise, they thought that the Resurrection of the Dead had begun. Other scholars are divided in their opinions whether the apparition of Samuel was real or fraudulent, some stating that the Witch of Endor only placed Saul into a trance and deceived him into believing that he had seen Samuel. The Witch of Endor has become the prototype for the spirit medium as a necromancer, a magician who raises the spirits of the dead.