Faust (pronounced ‘fowst’) or Faustus is a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil. Although fictional in literature, the legend is based on an actual magician who lived in the area of northern Germany in the fifteenth century.
Once idealistic, he is now disillusioned and bitter with despair. He foresakes God 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.
The legend has inspired many great writers, musicians, and other artists. The two most famous 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.
Faust has studied for years without satisfactory progress, losing his faith and his idealism. In frustration he becomes a black-magic sorcerer and summons the Devil. The demon Mephistopheles (or Mephisto) appears. Together 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 deceptions. Despite their adventures, Faust accomplishes little or nothing of substance while beguiled by his power–he wastes it with frivolous tricks and indulgences. Faust futilely strains to revoke his pact under the burden of growing disgrace and damnation, but is humbled by Satan. Will Faust become a true super-man and be saved, or will he prove his human weakness and be seduced by the cunning of the devil and his own baser instincts? Is Faust the sort of man, and is this pact the sort of thing that God can forgive? Can Man step outside the embrace of God and face the world on his own to become free?
Today, the name “Faust” has become attached to tales about a person of power whose pride and arrogance lead to his doom. The term faustian has come to mean a tarnished deal for worldly power or knowledge at the expense of a higher (spiritual) value or reward, or, simply, “possession” with a thirst for skill or knowledge.
There have been many tales about people who make pacts with the Devil. One of the oldest versions known is that the tale of Theophilus of Adana. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for people of unusual abilities and accomplishments to be suspected of making a pact with the Devil, and it was well known (particularly during the times of the witch hunts) that witches made real or implied pacts with the Devil to get their powers.
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.
“Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
King James’s Bible Galatians Chapter 5 20-21
There are other tales that may have contributed to the Faust tale, although they may also have a common origin or have influenced each other.
In Polish folklore there is a 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. According to Melanchthon, an associate of Martin Luther, who claimed to have known the real Faustus, the historic Faustus had studied in Kraków, suggesting a common root for the two tales.
There are also older tales which will have influenced the Faust theme, for 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).
Another source may be 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 teacher 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. 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 an inspiration, as were witchcraft, the occult and nascent Freemasonry.
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 used this work for his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published around 1600).
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 Latinised 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