Monday, January 08, 2018

The netherworld

Commenting on the witch of Endor episode, Robin Parry says:

The direction from which the spirit comes is repeated five times–he arises up from out of the earth. That makes perfect sense because the dead dwell under the earth R. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos (Cascade Books 2014), 80. 

Parry cites this to show that Biblical writers subscribe to a three-story universe. The realm of the dead is literally a huge subterranean cavern. However, Parry's inference is fallacious on several grounds. Here's the text:

8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. 15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered,  (1 Sam 28:9-14, ESV). 

i) The narrator doesn't say that that Samuel's ghost "came up". Rather, the narrator quotes three characters who use that terminology. Narrators don't necessarily or even presumptively endorse what they quote other people saying.

ii) Underworld imagery is based on the fact that graves are literally underground. Graves lie under the surface of the earth. 

iii) It's possible that some percentage of people in the ancient Near East actually thought the dead lived on in a vast, gloomy, subterranean necropolis. It's hard from our distance to say whether this is just an extended metaphor.

iv) In this context, "bring up" seems to be a necromantic formula based on netherworld imagery. An idiomatic phrase or incantation for summoning the dead. 

v) Apropos (iv), the medium may well continue to use the "up" language in her description of Samuel's apparition because that's part of the idiom. A linguistic convention for contacting the dead. 

In other words, it may be a dead metaphor (pardon the pun). The account begins with a stock formula, used by both characters (Saul and the medium) for conjuring the dead. And Samuel uses the same idiom. 

In addition, the repetition of the phrase makes it a leitwort. The whole account is suffused with the jargon of the trade to give it a particular cast. 

vi) Finally, if Samuel's ghost wanted to make a visible appearance, and speak to someone, where would that happen? Since Saul and the medium are earthlings, a face-to-face encounter requires a ghost to address the embodied human at eye-level. In other words, the ghost will appear, and assume a standing position, or create the illusion that he is standing, on terra firma. What other spatial frame of reference would work? Floating overhead? The encounter must take place at ground level because Saul and the medium are above ground. So we'd expect the surface of the earth to be the spatial frame of reference. What other spatial orientation would be feasible in that setting?

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