The legend of Faust tells the tale of a man who makes a deal with the devil to gain magical powers. The devil’s representative is Mephistopheles, who gives Faust power for twenty-four years, after which the devil takes his soul to hell. There are many different versions of the tale and it changes to reflect the transformation of the culture from the Renaissance into the Reformation and beyond into the modern world.
In Creative Mythology, Joseph Campbell describes Faust as a Protestant legend that appeared in Germany in the 16th century and later fed into printed versions of the story. The legend may have been based on a real person called Johann Georg Faust, an alchemist, astrologer and magician who lived during the Renaissance around 1480-1540.
The real Johann Faust appears to have caused some consternation in religious circles. He was first mentioned in a letter dated 1507 from a Benedictine Abbot to the astrologer and mathematician Johann Windung, which described Faust as “a fool, vain babbler, and mountebank fit to be whipped.” A Protestant pastor called Johann Gast was the first to accuse Faust of gaining supernatural powers from the devil. And others described him as “a disgraceful beast and sewer of many devils.”
I can’t help thinking there’s some projection going on here – a sort of moral religious panic, which may be the case, as we’ll see.
It was Gast who set the legend going and it became hugely popular with songs, dramas and puppet plays spreading through Germany. The first printed version of the Faust legend was published in a chapbook called Historia von D Johann Fausten by Johann Spies in 1587. (there were a lot of Johanns in Germany at that time 😉)
The book sold out and was immediately pirated. People couldn’t get enough of poor old Faust choosing the devil and being condemned to hell. Alongside the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch depicting the torments of hell, the Faust morality plays based on the pamphlet gave people a cathartic release. It gave them somewhere to put their fears as Faust suffered on their behalf.
All this was happening during a time of great upheaval in the Christian Church and the spiritual consciousness of the people was changing. Following the Reformation, there was a lot of criticism of Catholicism which was seen as corrupt, and the Faust story poked fun at this. Faust’s servant is portrayed as the son of a Catholic priest and all the fine wine and meat comes from the clergy. Joseph Campbell says:
“The Faust books are marvellously Protestant. Mephistopheles, Faust’s devil, appears in the costume of a monk and when Faust asks for a wife declares that, since marriage is pleasing to God, it would be a violation of their contract.”
In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May compares Faust with Dante’s Divine Comedy, the latter being about the journey through hell to return to divine love. During the Middle Ages when Dante wrote his poem, people still had a sense of faith, but by the Reformation things were starting to change.
The Renaissance had opened people’s minds and the printing press made new ideas more widely available. People wanted to think for themselves and question the power of the Church. Calvinist predestination aside, the Renaissance encouraged people to believe that the individual had the power to become whatever they chose, if they worked hard enough.
Copernicus was busy transforming cosmology by putting the Sun at the centre – although the idea took a while to take hold – and people needed a new myth. Into the breach stepped Faust, as Rollo May says:
“This was a man who was born in that spiritual and psychological maelstrom [of the Renaissance] and who partook of that lust for knowledge to be gained by magic.”
Christopher Marlowe wrote his version of Faust shortly after the Spies book came out. His play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, was written and performed from 1589 but wasn’t published until about 1604. As the Renaissance developed, there was a gradual rise of respect for reason and appreciation for the arts, despite Protestant grumblings. Joseph Campbell says Marlowe had a secular perspective so:
“his own sympathy for the yearning, daring hero, and recognition of the tragic force of a life torn between the claims of eternity and time, set him spiritually completely apart from the fiercely moral Christian-Lutheran stand.”
Marlowe humanised the legend of Faust and made him a Renaissance man, “thirsting for the infinite and willing to risk for it Hell itself – as had been Tristan for Isolt…”. (more on that here)
Marlowe’s Faust is a bored professor who has degrees in medicine, philosophy and theology, but is consumed by a desire for exciting magical knowledge – a common feeling during the Renaissance. He’s especially critical of divinity which he calls, “unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.”
Faust is bored by God and wrapped up in his own ego and this condemns him. He doesn’t want to be a man – or only a man. He wants to be God.
The Renaissance was an exciting time, full of revolutions and new discoveries. But people were obviously worried, perhaps unconsciously, that they might be transgressing some divine law. They were straying into areas that only God had been before – a powerful temptation to change the world and remake it in their own image.
This unconscious fear is reflected in the story when Faust tries to sign the contract with the devil and his blood won’t flow. His body betrays his fear that perhaps giving away his soul isn’t a good idea. Even Mephistopheles tries to argue against him signing the contract. But sign it he does, and then the fun starts.
Faust asks for various things, starting with a wife, then a book of spells and a book on astrology (careful now!), and finally a book on herbs and plants. Later, they go travelling and visit the Pope and Mephistopheles makes Faust invisible so he can do whatever he wants. Faust snatches food and drink and generally trolls the Pope, before hitting him and running away.
It reminded me of Father Ted kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse!
Faust becomes a famous astrologer and conjures spirits to impress an emperor, but ends up not able to trust anyone. He conjures Helen of Troy who drifts about a bit, and then Faust begins to regret what he’s done. He realises that having Helen for himself would take his mind off being damned, but it’s too late. His time is up.
Various characters argue with Faust and try to persuade him to repent, but Faust is scared:
“The devil threatened to tear me in pieces, if I named God, to fetch both body and soul, if I once gave ear to divinity…”
With one hour left to live he has a damn good whinge about his plight and wishes he could “leap up to my God!” Finally, he pleads,
“I’ll burn my books! Ah, Mephistopheles!”
Exit Devils with Faustus. And the Chorus warns us not “to practice more than heavenly power permits.”
By our reckoning Faust doesn’t seem to have done much wrong. It’s all pretty tame compared to Goethe’s Faust who does some terrible things. In this version, Faust has plenty of opportunities to repent but never does. He even tries to blame Mephistopheles for seducing him, even though it was Faust who called him in the first place. Rollo May explains:
“It is the fact of Faustus’ denial of God, his setting himself up as opposed to God, that constitutes the tragedy. It is similar to Thomas Mann’s later interpretation of the myth; Faustus is damned by his thoughts, by his very wish for godlike control, not simply by his actions.”
The issue in Marlowe’s version is the conflict between the Church and the new world of science and book learning. Faust is damned because he prefers human knowledge to the divine. He doesn’t want to blindly believe what he’s told by the power structure of the Church. Rollo May again:
“The evil shown in this version of the myth of Faust is that man tries to be omnipotent, to usurp the position of God. It is a situation of hubris, the unseemly pride, the negation of humility and repentance. The crime is the refusal to accept the human role… It is instead the demand that one’s self be God. The Greeks put this sin above all… Socrates repeats time and again the need for acceptance of one’s limitations. But Renaissance man, having tasted the joys of knowledge, has not yet learned to transmit it into wisdom.”
It’s hard for us modern folk to relate to Marlowe’s Faust, despite there being plenty of people suffering from unseemly pride and hubris. Back in the Renaissance, the myth worked as a warning and a catharsis to alleviate people’s fears and guilt over the changes in society and the new ideas of progress.
It was a warning we failed to heed, but that was inevitable. Hence the need for a new version of the myth. Enter Goethe two hundred years later. When people talk about Faust, they’re usually referring to Goethe’s version of the tale, which Colin Wilson calls the greatest symbolic drama of the West because:
“it is the drama of the rationalist suffocating in the dusty room of his personal consciousness, caught in the vicious circle of boredom and futility, which in turn leads to still further boredom and futility.”
We’ll explore Goethe’s Faust next time, after a Jupiter Neptune diversion…
You can read Marlowe’s Faust here