This painting, by the American artist William Sidney Mount (c. 1807-1868), depicts the Biblical tale of King Saul of Israel (dated to the 11th century BC) meeting with the so-called Witch of Endor. As the story goes, King Saul went to the Witch of Endor—a necromancer—on the eve of a battle with his persistent foe, the Philistines. Saul wanted the witch to conjure the spirit of the then recently deceased Samuel, a prophet and military leader who had first supported King Saul’s reign, but died denouncing Saul’s kingship. The Witch of Endor agreed to the task and succeeded in summoning Samuel’s spirit for a conversation with King Saul. It is a scene described in the First Book of Samuel:
“‘Then the woman 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 ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.’
‘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.”
(1 Samuel 28: 11-14, NIV version)
Such is the scene that is occurring in the painting by William Sidney Mount. It shows King Saul prostrating himself before the summoned ghost of Samuel. Unfortunately for the king, the late prophet’s newest prophecy was not a good one. As the story goes, the summoned Samuel told Saul that the forces of Israel would be defeated in the upcoming battle with the Philistines, and that Saul and his sons would be killed. Samuel’s prediction proved true, but the defeat of King Saul paved the way for the ascendance of King David.
Written by C. Keith Hansley