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Faust: man, myth or legend?

4 min read

Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend, based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540).
In short, the erudite Faust, a German necromancer or astrologer, was highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for youth, unlimited knowledge, earthly pleasures, and magical powers.
Hero of one of the most durable legends in Western folklore and literature, there was a historical Faust, perhaps two, one of whom more than once alluded to the devil as his Schwager, or friend.
Little is known of the actual Johann Georg Faust but there is some evidence of his magic tricks, that he studied at Heidelberg University and died in an explosion.
One or both died about 1540, leaving a tangled legend of sorcery and alchemy, astrology and soothsaying, studies theological and diabolical, necromancy and even sodomy.
Contemporary references indicate that he was fairly well known, but all testify to his evil reputation.
Contemporary humanist scholars scoffed at his magical feats as petty and fraudulent, but he was taken seriously by the Lutheran clergy, among them Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.
Ironically, the relatively obscure Faust came to be preserved in legend as a representative magician of the time that produced such occultists and seers as Paracelsus, Nostradamus, and Agrippa von Nettesheim.
This legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have reinterpreted it through the ages.
“Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” imply sacrificing spiritual values for power, knowledge, or material gain.

The Faust of early books, as well as the ballads, dramas, movies, and puppet-plays which grew out of them, is irrevocably damned because he prefers human to divine knowledge.
Literally “he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of medicine”.
Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust and Mephistopheles to figures of vulgar fun.
Faust owes his posthumous fame to the anonymous author of the first Faustbuch (1587), a collection of tales about the ancient magi, wise men skilled in the occult sciences, that were retold in the Middle Ages about such other reputed wizards as Merlin, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon.
In the Faustbuch the acts of these men were attributed to Faust.
The Faustbuch was speedily translated and read throughout Europe, and the story was popularised also in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (whose date of publication is debated, but likely around 1587). His play invoked more effectively than the original the summoning from the underworld of Helen of Troy to seal Faust’s damnation.
In Goethe’s reworking of the story two hundred years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for “more than earthly meat and drink” in his life.

As story goes, Faust is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar and, after an attempt to take his own life, he turned away from God and he calls on the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge all the pleasure and knowledge of the world.
In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears, and he makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul, and Faust will be eternally enslaved.
During the term of the bargain, Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways.
In Goethe’s drama, and many subsequent versions of the story, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed when she gives birth to Faust’s bastard son.
Realizing this unholy act she drowns the child and is held for murder.
But Gretchen’s innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven after execution.
In Goethe’s rendition, Faust is saved by God via his constant striving, in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God.
However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven and, when the term ends, the Devil carries him off to Hell.

The Faust legend has penetrated every cultural space, including classical music and opera (Schubert, Wagner, Berlioz), fiction (Bulgakov, Turgenev, Wilde), poetry (Pushkin, Byron, Heine), and drama (Havel, Mamet, Gertrude Stein), as well as ballet, sculpture and painting. The folklore has suffused also popular culture, and It has been the subject of dozens of films, musicals, fairy tales, video games, graphic novels, comics and manga.
His tale serves as a warning for those seeking to fulfill their earthly desires without the help of God.

Images from Web – Google Research