Though trained in theology, he turns to magic and makes a perilous deal with the Devil in which he commits his soul to eternal damnation in return for power and knowledge in this life. But he is only human, and arrogant and reckless. Can Faust — or anyone — wield the powers of God or resist the temptations of the Devil?
The legend has inspired many great writers, musicians, and other artists. The earliest known published sources for the legend are the Wolfenbüttler manuscript dated about 1580-1587, and a printed chapbook (the Spies edition), intended for popular sale dated 1587. Two famous literary works on the Faust theme are Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Faust.
While Goethe’s Faust has been called the definitive Faust, there is no one Faust story, instead, there are hundreds or thousands of variations on the theme in theatre, music, film, poetry, art, and literature including classics and favorites: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Phantom of the Opera/Paradise, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Damn Yankees, The Little Shop of Horrors and many more.
The Wolfenbüttler manuscript of Faust, (1580-1587), at lettersfromthedustbowl.com
Faust has studied for years but is dissatisfied. He becomes a sorcerer and attracts the attention of the demon Mephistopheles (or Mephisto) who appears. They make a pact in which Mephistopheles offers to serve Faust for a period of time, at the cost of Faust’s eternal soul.
Mephistopheles is a difficult servant, and Faust is challenged by his tricks, lies, and temptations. Despite their adventures, Faust accomplishes little or nothing of substance, wasting his opportunity with frivolities and indulgences offered up by the demon. Faust tries to revoke his pact under the burden of growing disgrace and damnation, but is dominated by Satan and his own doubts.
Can Faust become a true super-man, be resolute and perhaps be saved; or will he prove his human weakness and unsuitability and be damned? Is salvation possible? In modern times, we might also ask: can we leave the protection of God and face existence on our own?
Faust began as a morality tale in a Protestant-leaning region of what is now Germany. In a time and place which believed in the literal Devil on Earth, it was a frightening tale, and warned against godlessness, worldly ambition, and of course, magic. For the audience, Faust’s religious salvation was at stake. It is said the Devil himself appeared at one of Marlowe’s performances, so even the audience feared the Devil’s notice.
Today, the name “Faust” has become attached to tales of persons of power who betray principles and values for the knowledge and power to achieve their goals. But with their ambition and their power more than they can handle, predictable doom is made more tragic by their inability to seek forgiveness. However, there are also Faustian tales of redemption, where Faust has been the better man, overcome his human nature, and won God’s approval. That was the Faust of forward-looking, idealistic Europe becoming like a god.
The possible plot outcomes reflect attitudes of Europe through the ages. Five hundred years ago it was unthinkable that Faust could be saved; hundreds of years later, it had become essential. Europe changed, and so did Christianity.
Faust is also Europe itself, organically changing from being a religious society and culture in the “Dark Ages” to a secular civilization through five hundred years. It, like Faust, has turned away from God and personal salvation, to ambitiously take its chances in the material world, dependent upon science and technology to achieve salvation for all—in time. So the Faust story appears to also be the story of western civilization, and its destiny, prophetically written as the change began. The result of success is utopia; of failure, is destruction.
The Faust story first appeared in print in 1587 in the form of a chapbook (a cheap book or pamphlet), Historia & Tale of Doctor Johannes Faustus. Although the earlier tales may be sources of inspiration for the Faust tale, this chapbook is the first known printing of the traditional Faust legend, which was essentially re-told by Marlowe and then modified by Goethe.
The chapbook was translated into English by a “P. F., Gent” before 1592 as The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus. Christopher Marlowe probably used this work for his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published around 1600 but performed before then).
The Faust story was based on a real magician and alchemist known as Dr. Johann Georg Faust who was active in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and seems to have originated in northern Germany. According to Leo Ruickbie and others, “Faust(us)” was an assumed name.
There are other tales that may have contributed to the Faust tale, or shared a parentage. The Biblical story of Simon Magus is about a magician who tries to buy the powers of the apostles, granted to them by the Holy Spirit. Simony, named after him, is the sin of buying a position or power from the Church.
While the real Faust provided the character and the setting, there have been many tales about people who make pacts with the Devil.
One of the oldest versions known is the tale of 6th century Theophilus of Adana who made a deal with the Devil to become a bishop. It was not uncommon for people of unusual abilities and accomplishments to be suspected of making a pact with the Devil: even Pope Sylvester (c. 946 – 12 May 1003), a man of exceptional learning and faith was said to be allied with the Devil; and it was understood (particularly during the times of the witch hunts) that witches made real or implied pacts with the Devil to get their powers.
In Polish folklore there is the late 16th century tale of a Pan Twardowski who lived in Kraków. Pan Twardowski sold his soul to the Devil for magical powers, and raised the ghost of the wife of the King. He was carried off by the Devil, but dropped on the moon, where he lives to this day.
There are also other tales which will have influenced the Faust theme subsequently, or if they didn’t influence it directly, they were earlier versions of a similar train of thought—a tinge of rebelliousness against God which predates even Christianity (and of course, the tales of the ancient arts of conjuring and divination were always hovering in the background, despite the Church).
One influence on Goethe’s Faust is Jacob Bidermann’s treatment of an 11th century legend of the Damnation of the Doctor of Paris, Cenodoxus, an exceptionally good and charitable man damned for the pride that inevitably arises from a lifetime of good acts. Another of his influences may have been his contemporary, the infamous Cagliostro.
Another source is a fourteenth or fifteenth century Dutch play, Mary of Nijmegen. It tells the story of a young woman who takes a demon called One-Eyed Moenen as her tutor to learn the seven liberal arts (rhetoric, music, logic, grammar, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy). Mary regrets, repents and seeks forgiveness. She eventually receives her reward in heaven.
A possible inspiration of Marlowe’s version in particular is John Dee (1527-1609), who practiced forms of alchemy and science, and developed Enochian magic. Dee has been linked to other tales, such as Pan Twardowski, and perhaps even the original written Faust tale. Other possible inspirations include alchemists such as Paracelsus and Agrippa who were contemporary to the historical Faustus, though it might be safer to assert that alchemy was the inspiration, as were witchcraft, the occult and even nascent Freemasonry.
People wonder where the name “Faust” or “Faustus” come from, and what it signifies. Inasmuch as there was a recorded historical person of that name who seems to have provided the inspiration for the story, we are left to wonder if that was a natural family name, or a nom de plume, and if the later, if the use of the Faust name provides any clues into his origins and identity.
Certainly “Faust” is a family name, and “Faustus” is a Latinized version of that. Apart from that, the German word “faust” means “fist;” the Latin adjective “faustus” means “auspicious” or “lucky;” and “fustum” is the Latin word for a doctor’s staff.
In Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician, Leo Ruickbie notes that it was not unusual for people to take on a Latinized nom de plume, deduces that Faust’s full name provides clues to his true identity and to his association with the growing Renaissance humanism movement, and attempts to place both the historical and fictional Fausts into their contexts in history.
“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Matthew 16:26-27
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Motif in Literature: The Faust Theme
- Faust Legends
- Faust at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
- Lectures on the Harvard Classics
- Pacts with the Devil: Faust and Precursors
- The Pre-Death Thoughts of Faust by Nikolai Berdyaev