10 November 2010

The Madness of King Saul: Mental Illness in Ancient Times

by Timothy S. Wilkinson 

               Hollywood loves stories about demon possession; it has become a mainstay of horror movies. The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity, and The Amityville Horror all purport to depict actual cases of demon possession.  Emily Rose is based on the experiences of Anneliese Michel; The Exorcist on a patient with the pseudonym Robbie Manheim; The Amityville Horror on the Lutz family of Amityville, New York.
                Despite Hollywood’s assertions, though, all three of these famous cases are highly controversial—and not just among skeptics. Independent legal and scientific inquiries into all three share a common theme:  in all three cases, doctors and researchers have claimed that mental illness, not possession, was the culprit.
                Of course, some believe this diagnosis is based primarily on a refusal to believe in the supernatural. It should be noted, though, that many of the people who question the validity of these accounts do believe in demonic possession—they just didn’t see clear evidence of it in these cases.
                People have been confusing mental illness and possession for millenniums. It wasn’t until the time of Hippocrates that “doctors” even began to consider “madness” as a disease. The Greeks identified melancholy, hysteria, and phobias in their medical literature, but well into medieval times it was commonly believed that madness was the work of malevolent (or sometimes benevolent) spirits.
                Long before this, though, Bible writers were describing the symptoms of mental illness in amazing detail. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel chapter four Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the greatest empire in the world, was struck with madness that sent him from his throne into the forests and fields where his hair and nails grew long and “vegetation he began to eat just like bulls” (Daniel 4:33). Modern doctors would call this lycanthropy, defined as the sickness of people who believe themselves to be changed into an animal, and who imitate the voice or cries, the shapes or manners of the animal.
                But an even more fascinating case, in my opinion, is that of King Saul. Saul belonged to a prominent Israelite family. When he was chosen as king he was also shy—he hid among the supply wagons to avoid being brought before all the people and crowned. Initially he was a good king—although his shyness seemed to continue to manifest itself in that he refused to live the life of a king, instead remaining in his family home and plowing his fields himself.
                By the time his successor, David, entered the picture, though, Saul had changed. He began to suffer fits of depression. His advisors recommended music therapy, and a teenaged David was brought in to play the harp for him. Shortly thereafter, David became a national hero when he slew the Philistine giant Goliath, and at that point Saul’s madness became much worse.
                When David returned from another battle against the Philistines, Saul interpreted the people’s celebration of David’s victory as a personal attack. Twice while David was trying to soothe the king with the harp, Saul attempted to kill the young man by throwing a spear at him (1 Samuel 18:11). Saul believed David was after his throne, and hatched elaborate plots to have him killed. When these failed, Saul again attacked David physically, and the young warrior fled from the palace into the wilderness.
                Saul’s son, Jonathan, recognized his father’s madness for what it was and confronted him about it. Saul’s response was to accuse Jonathan of being in league with David—and even to throw a spear at his own son one evening during dinner.
                Saul now began to hunt David through the wilderness, intent on destroying him and anyone who allied themselves with him. This might seem understandable for a king who believed his throne was in jeopardy, but what is telling is the strangeness of Saul’s attitudes during this period. Gathering his followers at his home in Gibeah, Saul begins to whine about his predicament: “You have conspired, all of you, against me; and there is no one disclosing it to my ear when my own son concludes a covenant with [David], and there is no one of you having sympathy for me and disclosing to my ear that my own son has raised up my own servant against me as a lier in ambush the way it is this day” (1 Samuel 22:8).  Next, he has an entire town of priests and their families slaughtered for daring to help David—but then, when David confronts Saul (yelling down at him from a mountaintop in the wilderness), Saul bursts into tears and begs David’s forgiveness.
                Some time later, David has the chance to kill Saul and refrains; in the exchange between the men Saul once again bursts into tears, blesses David, and tells him that, with God’s help, David will be successful in taking over the king’s throne. He follows up this admission by continuing to hunt David through the wilderness.
                In the end, King Saul fell upon his own sword after a battle. But looking over his actions, it is not hard to identify symptoms characteristic of paranoia. The official “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” of the US mental health industry gives the following as symptoms of paranoia:
  • unfounded suspicions; believes others are plotting against him/her
  • perceives attacks on his/her reputation that are not clear to others, and is quick to counterattack
  • maintains unfounded suspicions regarding the fidelity of a spouse or significant other
Additional symptoms can include dramatic mood swings, melancholy, extreme anger or fear, and the belief that anyone who disagrees with the sufferer is part of a plot or conspiracy against him.
All of these are manifest in King Saul. In recording these details, the Bible writer Samuel may have inadvertently provided us with the first diagnosis of paranoia.

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