Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Legend of Faust by Lewis Spence 1920

The Legend of Faust by Lewis Spence 1920

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Faust is a magician of the sixteenth century, famous in legend and literature. There is sound proof that such a person existed. Trithemius mentions him in a letter written in 1507, in which he speaks of him in terms of contempt, as a fool and a mountebank who pretended that he could restore the writings of the ancients were they wiped out of human memory, and blasphemed concerning the miracles of Christ. Mudt, a canon of the German Church also alludes to him in a letter as a charlatan. Johann Gast, a Protestant pastor of Basel, appears to have known Faust, and considers a horse and dog belonging to him to have been familiar spirits. Wier, the great protector of witches, mentions Faust in a work of his, as a drunkard who had studied magic at Cracow. He also mentions that in the end Satan strangled him after his house had been shaken by a terrific din. From other evidence it is pretty clear that Faust was a wandering magician or necromancer, whose picturesque character won him wide publicity or notoriety.

Faust boasted that were all the works of Plato and Aristotle effaced he could restore them with greater elegance. He declared that Christ's miracles were nothing to wonder at, as he could perform deeds equally as marvellous. The magician took about with him a dog which was supposed to be possessed of a devil. Melancthon describes Faust as "a disgraceful beast and sower of many devils.

By the end of the century in which he flourished he had become the model of the mediaeval magician, and his name was for ever linked with those of Virgil, Bacon, Pope Silvester and others.

Faust personified the old spirit of mediaeval magic as Luther personified the Protestant religion. The person around whom the magus-legend clustered was one Johann Faust, who from 1516 to 1525 resided with his friend the Abbot of Maulbronn, where the Faust-kitchen and Faust-tower still exist. He was forced to flee from Wittenberg because of his magical practices, and after many wanderings, ended his life in a village of Wurtemberg. He has nothing in common with John Fust, the printer of Mainz, with whom, without any historical justification, he became latterly identified.

The origins of the Faust legend are of very great antiquity. The essentials underlying the story are the pact with Satan, and the supposed vicious character of purely human learning. The idea of the pact with Satan belongs to both Jewish and Christian magico-religious belief, but is probably more truly Kabalistic than anything else, and can scarcely be traced further back; unless it resides in the savage idea that a sacrificed person takes the place of the deity, to which he is immolated during the period of life remaining to him before his execution, and afterwards becomes one with the god. The wickedness of believing in the all-sufficiency of human knowledge is a favourite theme with the early Lutherans, whose beliefs strongly coloured the Faust legend; but vivid hues and wondrously carven outlines were also afforded its edifice by the thought of the age in which it finally took shape; and in the ancient Faust-books we find tortuous passages of thought and quaintnesses of conception which recall to our minds the artistry of the Renaissance.

The Faust-book soon spread over Europe; but to England is due the honour of the first dramatic representation of the story by Christopher Marlowe, who in the Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus produced a wondrous, if unequal drama, the outstanding passages of which contained most of his best work. Lessing wrote a Faust play during the German revival of the eighteenth century, but it remained to Goethe to crown the legend with the creation of the greatest psychological drama the world has ever seen. The manner in which Goethe differed from his predecessors in his treatment of the story lies in the circumstance that he gives a different character to the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles, whose nature again is totally at variance with the devils of the old Faust-books. From Lessing Goethe received the idea of Faust's final salvation. It may be said that though in some respects Goethe adopted the letter of the old legend he did not adopt its spirit. Probably the story of Faust has given to thousands their only idea of mediaeval magic, and this idea has lost nothing in the hands of Goethe, who has cast about the subject a much greater halo of mystery than it perhaps really contains.

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