This article centers on the legend of an old and scholarly man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in order to gain infinite knowledge and wisdom, youth and the pleasures of the flesh. Some of the numerous stories, which stem from this legend say that Faust signed a pact with the Devil in exchange for these things. Some stories have it that Faust met his tragic end when the Devil came to claim his soul; while other stories say that he repented and was redeemed.
It seems the legend is loosely woven around several men who eventually composed the character Faust. There probably was a real Dr. George (later named Johannes) Faustus, a German living approximately between 1480 and 1540. What is fact and fiction concerning this man is indisputably unclear. Perhaps this is a reason for the longevity of the legend. It was thought the man could have been one of the charlatan magicians who traveled throughout Europe during the Renaissance, entertaining at fairs and at royal courts. About him, stories circulated that he had sold his soul to the Devil for magical powers. Alleged stories credited him with various activities such as he had a familiar in the form of a dog, he road through the air on bales of hay or on bear or wine barrels, and conjured the spirits of the dead. Mephistopheles was his infernal servant twenty-four years who did his bidding.
Little is known of the actual person upon whom Goethe’s Faust is based. He was probably born in Germany between 1480 and 1540 at Knittlinger in Wurttemberg. The first mentioning of him is in 1507, as Georg Sabellicus, an ignorant necromancer, Faust the Younger. Possibly he was the Johann Faust who relieved a degree from Heidelberg in 1509, and went on to study magic (natural science) in Poland and reported as fact by Philipp Melanchthon.
A Georg Faust received a hostile reception at the University of Erfurt. He cast a horoscope for the prince-bishop of Bamberg in 1520. As the soothsayer Jorg Faustus of Heidelberg, he was expelled from Ingolstadt in 1528. Dr. Faustus, the sodomitic necromancer, was not permitted in the city of Nurembery in 1532. In his latter year he practiced medical alchemy, and, according to Melanchthon, was destroyed by the Devil at a rural inn in Wurttemberg. Another theory put forth by the occult authority E. M. Butler is that the different Fausts mentioned could have been brothers or twins.
When reviewing the traditional feats of magic attributed to Faust one must remember the and in which he lived. It was an age of schism, any unorthodox ideas, and those holding them, were considered dangerous. The feats attributed to Faust during life and after his death placed him in this category. Such public opinion was often dangerous for religious and scientific innovators, and especially for those unfortunates accused of witchcraft. Even though humorist scholars consider his magical feats as petty and fraudulent, such men as Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon took him seriously as previously indicated. Both his notoriety and negligible achievements made him a convenient symbol of the “wrong” religious, scientific, and philosophical thought of his day; so he appeared in the first so called “Faust-book,” the anonymous Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587). Ironically, however, this relatively obscure character Faust has come to be preserved in legend as the representative magician of the age from which came such occultists and seers as Paracelsus, Nostradamus, and Agrippa von Nettesheim.
The Faust Character:
Faust was indebted for his posthumous fame to an anonymous author of the first Faustbauch (1587), a collection of tales concerning the ancient magi-who were wise men skilled in the occult sciences-that were retold in the Middle Ages about such reputed wizards as Merlin, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon. In Faustbauch Faust performed similar feats. They were narrated crudely, and further debased with clodhopping humor at the expense of Faust’s tricks. The author’s vivid descriptions of Hell and of the fearful state of mind of his merciless hero, as well as his creation of the savage, embittered, yet remorseful fiend Mephistopheles were so realistic that they inspired a certain terror in the reader.
From the Faust-book emerges the first fictional character of Faust. The book endured many editions and translations. Through all these changes the character naturally changes too. The story is one of an elderly-scholarly man in Luther’s Wittenberg who turns from theology to magic and medicine, associates with spirits, and finally curses God and exchanges his soul for 24 years of knowledge, power, sensual pleasure, and the services of the demon Mephistopheles. Faust appears to be arrogant in his adventurers of flying over various parts of the earth just to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and performing feats of magic. Towards the end of his life he takes Helen of Troy as his paramour. She bears him a son, but disappears from Wittenberg after Faust’s death.
Even though the “Faust-book” was called the first important German novel, it like many
earlier versions of Faust was nothing more than a morality play; about the scholarly gentleman who had been good all his life, but in his reclining years chooses to explore and enjoy what life can offer him. For this reason the tale of Faust appealed to both the clergy and public. The clergy could say, see the trouble man gets into when he abandons God and the Church. Then there were always those who were tempted to do what Faust had done but never had the courage to do so; for them the tale was both tantalizing and intriguing.
The “Faust-book”, or Faustbauch, was hastily translated throughout Europe. An English translation (1592) inspired Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragicall History of D. Faustus. In this adaptation Faust turns to magic with high expectations of gaining power and honor. However, when trying to win the services of Mephistopheles and a life of “all voluptuousness” he ignores the supernatural warnings that leads to his damnation and makes the work a morality play.
In this play Faust leaves Wittenberg and travels to Rome where he invisibly plays tricks on the pope. Later, at the court of the German emperor, he shows “the true substantial bodies” of Alexander the Great and his paramour.When returning to Wittenberg Faust conjured up Helen of Troy for his paramour only to be swept off by devils through a mouth of hell.
It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) who made the legend more reasonable. Goethe’s first attempt at his creation of Faust was in the manuscript discovered in 1886 entitled Urfaust. Faust attempts magic as an escape from the sterile rationalism that surrounds him. Despondent of any ultimate knowledge, Faust indentures himself to Mephistopheles in hopes of forgetting his frustration in a life of sensual pleasure, only to discover with tragic poignancy, through the love of Gretchen, a simple girl whom he had seduced, the full meaning of life.
Goethe took the legend out of the pure theological and placed it in the realm of reality. Faust discovers his escape was not in the servitude of Mephistopheles but in Gretchen herself. This was the beginning of the insertion of practical life applications into the legend.
These are only some of the versions of the legend of Faust, or Faustus, or Doctor Faustus as he has been called. No doubt, there are other versions, which is why Faust has a variety of meanings for different individuals. The legend inspired many literary and musical works. The first book, Faustbauch, seems to also have been called Dr. Faust, the Notorious Magician and Necromancer appeared in Germany in 1857 and was an immediate success. Notably other works include Marlowe’s play The Tragicall History of D. Faustus, published between 1589 and 1592, and Goethe’s play Faust, which was published in two parts between 11803 and 1833. Goethe’s play was the basis for three operas composed in the 19th century of the Faust legend: Gounod’s Faust, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, and Boito’s Mefistofele.
In 1962, a grimoire entitled Great and Powerful Sea Ghost was published in Amsterdam. Its authorship is attributed to Dr. Faust. The introduction describes Faust’s dealings with Beelzebub and how the demon agreed to send Mephistopheles to Faust to be his servant. A.G.H.