A Powerful Sorcerer or Charlatan?The horrible uproar shook the walls of the Lion's Inn throughout the night. Shrieks, roars, and a weird rumbling frightened the neighborhood, and not until the first light of dawn did the innkeeper find the courage to knock at the room assigned to the strange man known as Faust. When there was no answer, the trembling landlord unlocked the door. There, amid broken sticks of furniture, the body of the renowned sorcerer lay sprawled and twisted on the floor, gruesomely mutilated and disfigured.
The solution to the mystery of his death reached by the townspeople can be read on a wall plaque at the inn in Wilatemberg, Germany: "One of the most powerful devils, Mephistopheles, whom he had called brother-in-law during his lifetime, had broken his neck, as the pact had expired after 24 years, and delivered his soul to eternal damnation." The murder occurred sometime around 1540. Contemporary accounts disagree about the actual date, but all concur that Magister Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Junior, as he styled himself, had been famous for decades throughout Europe for either fraud or true wizardry.
Mountebank or Monster?One view of Faust comes down to us from the work of a Protestant pastor, Johann Gast, who wrote that the magician's performing horse and dog were in fact evil spirits, working with their master as part of his contract with Satan. Another writer described Faust as "a disgraceful beast and sewer of many devils." On the other hand, the respected scholar and monk Trithemius, himself a dabbler in magic, dismissed his notorious contemporary as a fool and mountebank who should be horsewhipped. Others agreed, including a historian who ranked Faust with "wicked, cheating, useless, and unlearned doctors."
Despite his ability to arouse such impassioned condemnation, surprisingly little is known about the highlights of Faust's life. Probably, as Johann Faust, he graduated from Heidelberg University in 1509 and went on to study natural science in Poland. Evidently, he soon became a wandering astrologer and necromancer, for it is known that, as Georg Faust, he somehow made himself unwelcome at the University of Erfurt. In 1520 he was at the court of George 111, the prince-bishop of Bamberg, casting the ruler's horoscope. Thereafter Faust advertised himself as "Prince- Episcopal Court Astrologer." Eight years later, by then known as Jorg Faustus the fortune-teller, he was thrown out of the town of Ingolstadt. For a time thereafter, he was employed as a schoolmaster at a boys' boarding school in Nurnberg, but in 1532 he was dismissed and exiled from the city for corrupting the morals of his young students.
Evidently, the historical Faust had the tenacity of a natural survivor, for he continually resurfaced after disgrace and defeat. Blithely, it would seem, he passed out calling cards in which he described himself as "Fountain of the Necromancers, Astrologer, Second of the Magicians, Chiromancer, Aeromancer, Pyromancer, Second of Hydromancy." In 1536 at least two distinguished clients sought him out for a glimpse into the future: A senator in Wiirzburg wanted an astrological reading on the outcome of Charles V's war against the king of France, and a German adventurer, mounting an expedition to South America to find the fabled Eldorado, wanted to know his chances of success. Apparently, Faust satisfied both customers, although his prophecy to the second one probably partook more of common sense than of supernatural prescience. He told him that the mission would be unsuccessful, and indeed Eldorado was never found.
The Elusive Meaning of ScienceToday it may be difficult to understand Renaissance attitudes toward the many different "sciences" practiced by Faust and other soothsayers, alchemists, astrologers, and illusionists. Astrology, even in the judgment of the most educated, was a respectable science. Some forms of magic, too, were considered acceptable, or "'white," because they sought to discover and master secret forces in nature by natural means.
If legend is to be believed, Faust was one of the few who dared practice "black" magic, accepting the spiritual risks of consorting with evil spirits and demons in order to gain secret knowledge. While offensive to the pillars of secular and church society, such diabolism might well have been more impressive to the common folk, the prey upon whom Faust apparently fed with much success.
It seems likely that, like others who practiced mainstream alchemy, he was seeking the socalled Philosopher's Stone, the supposed catalyst for turning base metals into pure gold. Some historians have theorized that he may even have been one of the "true alchemists," those who strove to attain inner perfection and purify their souls in their lonely, grueling studies. According to this theory, the many gaps in his known history were periods of seclusion during which, having set aside monies earned by his fortune-telling and magical performances, he was able to study in secret. But this revisionist view has not been widely shared. Rather, by the end of the 16th century, his name had become forever linked with the black arts. Even Martin Luther, whose protests against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church precipitated the Protestant Reformation, claimed that he required the help of God to save himself from demons set upon him by Faust.
A Legend for the TimesWhatever the truth about the historical Faust, the time was ripe for the legends about him to flourish. In an age dominated by Christianity, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, it was assumed that the truth of divine revelations and the very different truths of human science would inevitably come into conflict. In fact, secular learning was considered so inherently evil that, as far back as the 6th century, there were legends based upon the idea that scholars must have had to sell their souls to the devil in order to gain so much knowledge. Theophilus, an archdeacon in the early Christian church, was supposed to have trafficked with Satan, and Pope Silvester II, a scholar whose erudition was far in advance of his time, was widely believed to be in league with infernal spirits. Even earlier, at the dawn of the Christian era, certain Jewish mystics had created incantations for calling on Satan, and these formulas were still to be found in books of magic available in Faust's day. It must be remembered, too, that in those days practically everyone believed in the efficacy of witchcraft. And demons were thought to be feverishly going about the devil's business at all times.
An additional factor in the enormous popularity of the Faust story was the Reformation, during which adherents of Protestantism set themselves against the Roman Catholic Church. To these reformers the established faith had become corrupt, and they were returning to the ideas and practices of the "pure word of God." To them Faust's investigations into forbidden knowledge were impious, as were all revolts of human intellect against the laws in the Holy Bible. According to orthodox Protestant belief, the necromancer deserved his eternal doom simply because he chose human over divine knowledge.
From Satanist to BuffoonFrom Germany, Faust's fame spread like wildfire because of a crudely written collection of legends, The History of Johann Faust (1587). This socalled Faustbook considered by some critics to be the first important German novel, proved irresistible to popular taste and was translated into several languages. "History is composed of true and observed events," the anonymous author observes sententiously before recounting his updated versions of medieval tales about men of the occult while substituting Faust as the hero. He also adds scenes of simpleminded humour, with Faust's dupes as the butt of the jokes. Nonetheless, passages such as descriptions of eternal punishment in hell convey the intensity of sincere conviction. His portrayals of Mephistopheles as a savagely bitter fiend and Faust as a terrified sinner struck a common chord with readers. Two more versions of the book would be successfully published over the next century.
Meanwhile, the oral tradition remained strong, based upon anecdotes about the sorcerer's amazing powers. His compact with Satan was said to be abundantly evident in everyday life, as when he was able to tap a plain wooden table so that wine flowed forth or order the fiend to bring him fresh strawberries in the dead of winter. In one tale he was so hungry that he literally devoured a horse, along with its cart and load ofhay. When he was bored and overheated in summer, the demonic powers brought snow so that he could take a sleigh ride.
On a night of carousing, Faust supposedly noticed four brawny men struggling to bring a heavy barrel up from the cellar. "What foolish people!" he shouted. "I can bring up the barrel all by myself." As the innkeeper and his customers drew back in wonder, the necromancer descended the staircase, mounted the barrel, and triumphantly rode it back up the stairs into the saloon.
From Buffoon to HeroThese trivial displays may seem ridiculous, particularly when they have been earned, as the legends claim, at the price of the eternal damnation of Faust's soul. Yet the basic elements that appealed to the untutored popular mind proved to have universal meaning, inspiring great works of drama, poetry, and music.
The first widely acclaimed work premiered in England in 1594, a year after the mysterious death of its author Christopher Marlowe. Although flawed with gratuitous insults to Roman Catholicism and by oafish humor, the theme of The Tragicall Historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus would influence all serious Faustian literature for the next 200 years. The protagonist must pay with his soul for revolting against the word of God. Not simply a trickster or diabolist, Marlowe's Faust wants Satan's aid in learning about all the possibilities of human experience. The drama often soars with glorious poetry, as when the ghost of Helen of Troy appears. But the most powerful of Marlowe's lines portray Faust's doomed efforts to repent when he finally recognizes the enormity of his bargain and knows that he is unable to elude the consequences. Renaissance audiences shuddered in horror at the vision he conjured of his everlasting fate:
O, if my soul must suffer for my sin, Impose some end to my incessant pain! Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, A hundred thousand, and at last be saved.Less impressively, many other plays and puppet shows were produced throughout the 1600's and 1700's, mostly in Germany. Generally speaking, they stressed the gruesome and silly rather than the literary aspects of the material. At the same time, manuals of magic using Faust's name were widely sold. The reader who capably followed instructions could supposedly avoid any dangerous contract with Satan or, alternatively, enter into such a pact and safely break it later.
It was almost 300 years after the death of Faust, however, that perhaps the greatest literary version of his life was completed. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the revered German poet, worked almost 30 years to complete his poetic drama, Faust. Part One appeared in 1808; Part two, in 1832. His main character makes a clear break with the traditional interpretation. In fact, God saves him from perdition, for, "A good man through the obscurest aspiration is ever conscious of the one true way." In other words, Goethe's Faust is a hero. Unfulfilled by intellectual and scientific knowledge, he bargains his soul for one moment of experience that will give him complete satisfaction. No "low" pleasure of the senses will suffice, but he finds the meaning of life in the constant love of a simple peasant girl he has seduced and abandoned. His final salvation comes, however, because he aspires to the creation of a better society for all mankind. Goethe's is that man can achieve nobility and goodness despite the evil in his makeup.
Perhaps no other artist has produced as profound a philosophical and psychological work from the Faust legend, but many have been inspired to create works that endure. Hector Berlioz composed The Damnation of Faust, a dramatic cantata that is sometimes performed on the operatic stage. Charles Gounod's Faust has become one of the most admired operas of all time.
Why has the violent death of a despised charlatan intrigued so many creative geniuses? Why do their works remain so popular today? Perhaps the answer lies in the wall plaque at the Lion's Inn, with its clear indication that Faust - though finally damned - did indeed for 24 years enjoy the power and pleasures of the forbidden secrets of satanic evil. Forbidden ... but seductive.