This curious drawing was created around 1625 by an unknown artist from 17th-century France. Although the artwork is labeled with the nondescriptive title, Witchcraft, the subject of the image may have been inspired by tales from ancient history and folklore. One prominent theory, notably held by the artwork’s housing institution, the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, is that the artwork depicts the Biblical tale of King Saul of Israel (dated to the 11th century BC) meeting with the so-called Witch of Endor. At the king’s request, she summoned the spirit of the then recently-deceased prophet and military leader, Samuel, to appear before them and speak a new prophecy about the future. The scene was 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)
While this gives an explanation for the witch and the robed figure, there is still the matter of the Romanesque-geared warriors. If the figures are meant to be Romans instead of warriors from ancient Israel, then the scene could depict a different tale, entirely. Notably, there was a curious story told by the Roman poet, Lucan (c. 39-65), in which a Roman general sought out a witch in hopes of receiving a prophecy about the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.
In Lucan’s poem, Bellum Civile (or Civil War), it was Pompey’s son, Sextus, who wanted information about the future, and to accomplish this task he tracked down the lair of a notorious Thessalian witch named Erictho. She agreed to use her skills in order to glean information about what would come to pass. Similar to the Witch of Endor, Erictho employed necromancy to reveal secrets about the future. Erictho’s magic, however, was far more gruesome than the cleaner spirit summoning of the Witch of Endor. Instead of having a spirit appear in its own spectral form, Erictho took the more morbid route of procuring a cadaver that the spirit could temporarily inhabit. After filling a corpse with fresh blood and anointing it with bizarre and grotesque ingredients, Erictho went on to use magical items and incantations to summon a spirit that would possess the body and do her bidding. Describing the scene of Erictho carrying out her work in front of Sextus and his companions, the poet Lucan wrote:
“Clad in motley dress
like a Fury’s mottled robe, she bares her face
and binds her tangled hair up with a crown of vipers.
When she sees the young man’s friends are quaking
and he himself is trembling, his fixed eyes staring
with life drained from his face, she says, ‘Put off
the fears your fretful minds have conjured. Now
new life in its true form will be restored, so that
even the horrified can hear him speaking.
why should you be scared, you cowards,
to meet with ghosts who are themselves afraid?’”
(Lucan, Civil War, Book 6, approximately between lines 644-676)
As told in Lucan’s narrative, Erictho went on to successfully compel a ghost to possess the body she had prepared. The spirit subsequently did, indeed, predict the future, albeit in obscure and cryptic wording that is characteristic of ancient oracles. This tale could explain the Roman-looking warriors on the left side of the illustrations. The Sextus and Erictho’s story, as well as the tale of King Saul and Witch of Endor, are both decent explanations for what might be occurring in the artwork above. Whatever the case may be, the artwork’s loose title of, Witchcraft, leaves ample room for interpretation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Civil War, by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.