While the story of Theophilus is older and the story of Robert Johnson is uniquely American there is no better known story of a man who cut a deal with Satan then that of Doctor Faustus. Originally a Germanic legend about an alchemist it was chronicled in plays by both Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. Both the original legend and these two plays have gone on to influence movies, television shows, comics, games, poetry, music and operas.
The general story (the details depend on the retelling) is that Faust had grown bored with the extent o his knowledge of the magical arts and summoned a devil, identified as Metistopholes, for several years of service in return for his immortal soul. In most accounts he accomplishes little in the time he is given and is finally killed by the Devil and taken to Hell. This last bit varies and in some versions he is even saved from damnation by seeking redemption usually at the last moment.
The story is probably at least partly drawn by the historical figure of the 15th and 16th centuries named Doctor Johann Georg Faust, although some scholars think the Faust part was not his given name. The historical Faust was an alchemist and a con man active in Northern Germany in the 1500’s and supposedly was even remarked on by Martin Luther. The historical Faust is believed to have died around 1540-41 possibly in an explosion caused by his alchemical experiments. This story would also coincide with the popular legend the devil tore him asunder and left his remains on a dung heap.
How much of the legend is true and how much is fiction is difficult at this point to say because the actual history has gotten mixed in with the folklore. Certainly enough evidence exists that a historical figure that at least went by Faust was active in the 14 and 1500s who was known to have been an alchemist and a magician. He was well known enough to be denounced by the Church and several grimoires are attributed to him that date back far enough it’s likely they were either his direct work or plagiarized from his own writings. The influence of his story, particularly as retold by Goethe and Marlowe, on modern culture is undeniable as the main elements of his tale virtually define the modern concept of making a deal with the devil.
Copyright 2013 Kevin P Meares All Rights Reserved
The Tragical History of Dotor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/779
Goethe’s Faust: http://www.einam.com/faust/index.html
The Historical Faust: http://lettersfromthedustbowl.com/faustusE.html