Translating "witch" (was RE: The Potterverse)

minnow at minnow at
Sun Feb 22 17:57:55 EST 2004

Charlie wrote:

>> That's the story I find in 1 Samuel 28.  Y'know what I think interesting
>> there?  That we call her the Witch of Endor, whereas that word is *not*
>> used in the King James (nor in the New English) any more than it
>> is in the original.  She's called "a woman who had a familiar spirit".  So
>> when and from where did she get the title "witch" tacked on to her?
>Interesting question - I think the short answer is that it *is* in the King
>James Bible, but in the page heading, not the text itself.

So it is.  Thanks, Charlie!  So that's the time by which the word was being
used for her...

>But whether that
>was the first English bible to use the word, I'm not sure. Interestingly
>it's not in the Geneva Bible's translation or marginal notes - though the
>notes emphasize that it wasn't the real spirit of Samuel that she raised,
>just Satan in disguise - as with the necromantic scenes in *Dr Faustus*!

Again, this is evidence that by that date and in that place there was a
belief in Satan as an individual evil spirit who had his paws in
everything: but it doesn't say anything about the time prior to 1560, drat
it.  Just as Cruden's notes on "divination" in his Concordance are
interesting, but only tell us what he thought in the nineteenth century,
not what people thought in 1600.

Yes, I'd be interested in looking at the places where "witch" occurs in the
King James (well, all right, both the places: Ex 22.18 and Deut 18,10), and
then seeing whether Wyclif uses "witch" in the same places; I s'pose it'd
help to have a quick scan of the Vulgate from which he was translating,
too; I don't think that anything as late as Tyndale, Coverdale or Rogers
would do much to help, because by then the whole "witch-craze" thing was
getting underway and whether they used the word witch or not would have no
particular use as evidence of anything beyond that, which we knew already.
Aelfric might be interesting -- he did the Heptateuch, didn't he, and he's
early enough (ninth century?) not to have been influenced by the
witch-craze -- in fact as a good Christian he probably shouldn't have
believed in witchcraft at all at that point -- but I don't know what his
source was.  Not the Hebrew, I don't suppose.

Has someone got access to the Vulgate, just for starters?  What does *that*
have for the two places where the King James has "witch"?  And does it seem
to draw a distinction between "witch" and "sorceror" and "diviner" and "one
who has a familiar spirit"?  (I know, that's a lot more difficult to check.
I make a habit of assuming that on the web every sort of search is really
easy.  If it isn't, pay me no nevermind: I can have a butchers at a Vulgate
in the library tomorrow.)


To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at

More information about the Dwj mailing list