Divination by aid of the dead is said to have been common among the Persians (Strabo, xvi. 2, 39, νεκυονάντεις), and at a later time among the Greeks and Romans as well (see passages in Winer, "B. R." ii. 26). The Israelites possibly borrowed the art from the Persians, and practised it extensively, so that the Bible repeatedly forbids it (Lev. xix. 31; xx. 6, 27; Deut. xviii. 11; I Sam. xxviii.; Isa. viii. 19). There were three classes of necromancers, "ob," "yidde'oni," and "doresh el ha-metim" (questioner of the dead), the first two usually being mentioned together. While the general meaning of "ob" and "yidde'oni" is clear, their etymology and exact connotation have not yet been determined. "Ob" is said to denote the soothsaying spirit (in this sense as early as Josephus, "Ant." vi. 4, § 2) or the ghost of the dead (Baudissin, "Studien," pp. 141 et seq.; Davies, "Magic, Divination," etc., pp. 86 et seq.). The Septuagint generally translates the word by ἐγγαστρίμυθος = "ventriloquist," deriving this meaning from the tone of voice adopted by the necromancer. Jewish tradition says: "Ob is the python, who speaks from his armpits; yidde'oni is he who speaks with his mouth" (Sanh. vii. 7; Sifra, Lev. xx. 27). According to the Talmud (l.c. 65b), the yidde'oni used a bone of the animal called "yaddua'" in his mouth, which is made to speak by magic. The "possessor of the ob" stooped while speaking, to make it appear as if the spirit spoke from his joints and arms (ib.). Two objects are mentioned by means of which the necromancer worked, one being a human skull (but see also Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." i. 537b. s.v. ).
Paraphernalia. Although the Bible does not mention the apparatus used in necromancy, that some sort of paraphernalia was employed is clear from the mention of teraphim, etc. (II Kings xxiii. 24), and also from the expressions which designate the employment of the oracle (ib. xxi. 6; II Chron. xxxiii. 6; Lev. xx. 27 et passim). The Bible indicates still more clearly the manner of appearance and speech. Samuel was manifested to the witch of Endor as an old man covered with a mantle, so that she immediately recognized him as a man of God. Theshade invoked evidently assumed the same shape that he had had in life. The form, however, was visible only to the necromancer, while the questioner heard merely the voice (I Sam. xxviii. 13, 14). The latter sounded as if it came out of the earth, the speech of these necromancers being therefore called whispering and muttering (Isa. viii. 19, xxix. 4). The questioner prepared himself by fasting to be in a proper spiritual condition to receive the ghostly visitant (ib. verse 20; Sanh. 65b).
The fact that necromancy was classed with idolatry and all kinds of magic shows its connection therewith, and, probably, its foreign origin (Deut. xviii. 10, 11; II Kings xxi. 6, xxiii. 24; Isa. xix. 3 et passim). Necromancy, like idolatry and magic in general, was practised chiefly by women (I Sam. xxviii. 7). Saul, who applied in his distress to a female necromancer, had previously driven from the country all those who practised divination by aid of the dead (ib. 9). But Manasseh favored them as well as all other idolaters (II Kings xxi. 6); his elder contemporary, the prophet Isaiah, has in fact given the most explicit references to necromancers (Isa. viii. 19, xix. 3, xxix. 4). Josiah, who took for his guide the newly discovered book of the Law, destroyed them (II Kings xxiii. 24).In Talmudic Times.
Nevertheless, even in post-Biblical times the necromancers persisted in practising their art, in spite of all measures directed against them, and notwithstanding frequent interdicts in the Torah. The principal passage of the Talmud referring to them has been given above. The teachers of the Talmud call magicians "those that dig up the dead" (B. B. 58a et passim) and "those who predict by means of bones of the dead." A Babylonian scholar declared the art and speech of osteomanty to be deceit and falsehood (Ber. 59a). In general, however, the veracity of the spirit was not doubted, since even the ghost of Samuel had been evoked, according to I Sam. xxviii. (see Shab. 152b). It was regarded as a rule that if the necromancer saw the ghost which he evoked, the questioner heard the voice; but if the latter saw the apparition, the necromancer heard the voice. To hear and to see at the same time was impossible (Sanh. 65; comp. Josephus, l.c.). When Onḳelos bar Kalonikos, nephew of the emperor Titus, was thinking of embracing Judaism, he evoked the spirits of Titus, Balaam, and Jesus in succession, and asked them for advice. The first two dissuaded him, while Jesus counseled him to carry out his intention (Giṭ. 56b-57b). Rab (d. 247), the foremost teacher of Babylon, "performed some ceremony in the cemetery, and ascertained that 99 out of 100 persons die from the evil eye and that only one dies a natural death" (B. M. 107b, above). A later Babylonian teacher says that the necromancer burned incense to the demon, and thus questioned him (Karet 3b).
A more innocent mode of necromancy was listening secretly to the conversation of the dead (Ber. l.c.). Some persons fasted and spent the night in a cemetery, in order that the "spirit of uncleanness" might visit them and enable them to find out the future or other hidden matters (Sanh. 65b; Ḥag. 3b), since the dead were supposed to dwell in an unclean place. This belief may be implied in Isa. lxv. 4 (comp. Acts xvi. 16). This kind of necromancy is perhaps meant in the expression "a consulter with familiar spirits" (Deut. xviii. 11). According to Jewish tradition, necromancy will be punished by God and not by man (Sanh. l.c. et passim).
- Baudissin, Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgech. i. 141 et seq., Leipsic, 1876;
- Brecher, Das Transcendentale, Magic und Magische Heilarten im Talmud, pp. 125 et seq., Vienna, 1850;
- Davies, Magic, Divination, and Demonology Among the Hebrews and Their Neighbors, pp. 85-89, London, 1898 (with voluminous bibliography);
- W. R. Smith, Rel. of Sem. p. 198;
- the Bible dictionaries of Cheyne, Hastings, Winer, and others;
- Jew. Encyc. v. 159, s.v. Endor, The Witch of.