The narrative tells us nothing about the procedure the woman went through in conducting the séance for Saul. We might imagine the classical setting of a fortuneteller's dark room, a few chairs around a table, a crystal ball sitting atop the table, and perhaps a lone candle flickering off to the side. Saul's séance was probably nothing like this. She may have pretended to scry in a bowl of water or maybe she gazed in the fire or perhaps she burned some incense in a censer and sought images in the smoke. She may not have done any of these things, but simply closed her eyes and fell theatrically into a trance.
All we really know is that, this time, the woman really sees something—Samuel, she thinks—and cries out at the sight (verse 12). Immediately, she turns to Saul and identifies him by name, asking, “Why have you deceived me?” The details of this verse confirm that the woman is a fraud: She pretends to be a medium, but she never really contacts the dead. Yet, this time is different, and it scares her.
Her client, she guesses, must be someone special, and who but Saul has enough pull with God and the prophet Samuel to cause him to appear—to her!—so long after his death? In addition, she suddenly realizes that, like the king, this man is tall—taller than any other man that she had ever seen in Israel (I Samuel 9:1-2). She immediately fears again for her life, thinking that Saul had tricked her into revealing herself as a medium.
That the woman is afraid of the apparition is a clue that she does not see a friendly spirit. Scripture contains a number of instances of people seeing angels, and in nearly every case, the angel speaks positive, soothing words (see, for example, Judges 6:12; 13:3; Daniel 9:22-23; 10:11-12; Luke 1:12-13, 29-30; 2:8-10; Revelation 1:17; etc.). On the other hand, when Job's friend, Eliphaz, has a demon-inspired dream and sees a spirit pass before his face, he feels extreme fear and receives no comfort (Job 4:12-21).
The text says that “the woman saw Samuel,” but upon further study, it is clear that she only thinks she sees Samuel. She had called for Samuel at Saul's request, and a spirit rose before her, so she assumes that it is indeed Samuel. However, when Saul presses her, “What did you see?” she replies more vaguely, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth” (I Samuel 28:13). Note that Saul sees nothing; he has to ask her what she sees.
The fact that the spirit rises “out of the earth” is a telling detail. The Bible consistently indicates that spirits that come from the earth are not from God, as His messengers come from Him in heaven (see Galatians 1:8; Revelation 10:1; 14:6, 17; 15:1; 18:1; 20:1; etc.). Spirits associated with the earth are demons, who come from Satan, the god of this world (II Corinthians 4:4; see Job 1:6-7; 2:1-2; Luke 4:5-7; Revelation 12:9; 13:1-2, 11; 16:13-14). The writer of the book is indicating that this spirit is not Samuel but a demon impersonating him.
In Hebrew, the woman describes this being as elohim. She may have meant that the spirit was one of the “strong ones,” which is the meaning of its root, el, but that is unlikely. Here, the word is accompanied by a plural verb, so her actual words are, “I saw gods ascend out of the earth.” When elohim is paired with a plural verb, it is a scriptural indication of pagan gods (see Psalm 96:5; 97:7). Most likely, several spirits rose with the one she thought was Samuel. Would not the great prophet be accompanied by a retinue of angels?
Saul is not content with her vague answer, so he seeks more detail. She replies that she sees “an old man . . . covered with a mantle” (I Samuel 28:14), and from this meager description, Saul perceives that the spirit is the dead prophet and prostrates himself. Why is her scant description so convincing?
Samuel had indeed been an old man when he had died (perhaps as old as 92), a fact everyone knew. However, what sways the king is the mention of a mantle, a loose outer cloak (like an overcoat) that, it appears, had already become associated with prophets. Less than two centuries later, in the days of Elijah and Elisha, a prophet passing his mantle on to another would indicate the transferal of the office (see I Kings 19:16, 19). That Elisha later duplicates one of Elijah's miracles with the mantle verifies his status as prophet (II Kings 2:8, 14). Perhaps Samuel himself had begun this tradition by wearing such a mantle.
Whatever the case, Saul wants the apparition to be Samuel so that he could get some answers. These two nebulous details prove to be enough to sell him on the identification.