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The Devil, fighting with God for the possession of mankind, was supposed to have a special passion for catching souls. Being the prince of the world he could easily grant even the most extravagant wishes of man, and was willing to pay a high price for his soul. Thus originated the idea of making compacts with the Devil; yet it is worthy of note that in these compacts the Devil is very careful to establish his title to the soul of a man by a faultless legal document. He has, as we shall learn, sufficient reason to distrust all promises made him by men and saints. Following the authority of the old legends, we find that even the good Lord frequently lends his assistance to cheating the Devil out of his own. He is always duped and the vilest tricks are resorted to to cheat him. While thus the Devil, having learned from experience, always insists upon having his rights insured by an unequivocal instrument (which in later centuries is to be signed with blood); he, in his turn, is fearlessly trusted to keep his promise, and this is a fact which must be mentioned to his honor, for although he is said to be a liar from the beginning, not one case is known in all devil-lore in which the Devil attempts to cheat his stipulators.
He appears as the most unfairly maligned person, and as a martyr of simple-minded honesty.
The oldest story of a Devil-contract is the story of Theophilus, first told by Eutychian, who declares he had witnessed (!) the whole affair with his own eyes.
Theophilus, an officer of the Church and a pious man, living in Adana, a town of Cilicia, was unanimously selected by the clergy and by the laymen as their bishop, but he refused the honor from sheer modesty. So another man became bishop in his stead. The new bishop unjustly deprived Theophilus of his office. The latter deeply humiliated went to a famous wizard and made with his assistance a compact with Satan, renouncing Christ and the Holy Virgin. The bishop at once restores Theophilus to his position, but Theophilus repents his crime and takes refuge in the Holy Virgin. After forty days fasting-and praying he is rebuked for his crime but not comforted; so he fasts and prays thirty more days, and receives at last absolution. Three more days and the fatal document is returned to him. Now Theophilus relates the whole story in the presence of the bishop to the assembled congregation in church; and after having divided all his possessions among the poor dies peacefully and enters into the glories of paradise.
Even popes are said to have made compacts with the Devil. An English Benedictine monk, William of Malmesburg, says of Pope Sylvester II., who was born in France, his secular name being Herbert, that he entered the cloister when still a boy. Full of ambition, he flew to Spain where he studied astrology and magic among the Saracens. There he stole a magic-book from a Saracen philosopher, and returned flying through the air to France. Now he opened a school and acquired great fame, so that the King himself became one of his disciples. Then he became Bishop of Rheims, where he had a magnificent clock and an organ constructed. Having raised the treasure of Emperor Octavian which lay hidden in a subterranean vault at Rome, he became Pope. As Pope he manufactured a magic head which replied to all his questions. This head told him that he would not die until he had read Mass in Jerusalem. So the Pope decided never to visit the holy land. But once he fell sick, and asking his magic head, was informed that the church's name in which he had read Mass the other day was "The Holy Cross of Jerusalem." The Pope knew at once that he had to die. He gathered all the cardinals around his bed, confessed his crime, and, as a penance, ordered his body to be cut up alive and the pieces to be thrown out of the church as unclean.
Sigabert tells the story of the Pope's death a different way. There is no penance on the part of the Pope, and the Devil takes his soul to hell. Others tell us that the Devil constantly accompanied the Pope in the shape of a black dog, and that this dog gave him the equivocal prophecy.
The most famous, most significant, and the profoundest story among the legends of devil-contracts is the saga of Dr. Johannes Faustus. Whether the hero of the Faust legend derives his name from the well-known Strassburg goldsmith Faust, the companion of Gensfleisch vom Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, or whether he was a historical personality is an open question. Certain it is that all the stories of the great naturalists and thinkers whom the people at the time regarded as wizards were by and by attributed to him, and the figure of Dr. Faustus became the centre of an extensive circle of traditions. The tales about Albertus Magnus, Johannes Teutonious (Deutsch), Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, Agrippa of Nettesheim, Theophrastus, and Paracelsus, were retold of Faust, and Faust became a poetical personification of the great revolutionary aspirations in the time immediately preceding and following the Reformation. The original form of the legend represents the Roman Catholic standpoint. Faust is allied with the Devil, he worked his miracles by black art, and has to pay for its practice with his soul. Faust begins his career in Wittenberg, the university at which Luther taught. Faust is the embodiment of natural science, of historical investigation, of the renaissance, and of modern discoveries and inventions. As such he subdues nature, restores to life the heroes of ancient Greece, gathers knowledge about distant lands, and receives Helena as the ideal of classic beauty.
As the fall of the Devil is, according to biblical authority, attributed to pride and ambition, so progress and the spirit of investigation was denounced as Satan's work and all inquiry into the mysteries of nature was regarded as magic. Think only of Roger Bacon, that studious, noble monk, and a greater scientist than his more famous namesake, Lord Bacon! When Roger Bacon made some experiments with light, and the rainbow-colors of light, at the University of Paris, the audience ran away from him terrified, and his life was endangered because he was suspected of practising the black art.
"What is great Mephistopheles so passionate,
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess."
The oldest Faust book, dated 1587, is preserved in one single copy only which is now carefully preserved in Ulm. Scheible has published it in his work Dr. Johannes Faust (3 Vols., Stuttgart, 1846). The preface states that the publisher had received the manuscript from a good friend in Speyer, and that the original story had been written in Latin. The contents of this oldest version of the Faust legend are as follows:
Faust, the son of a farmer in Rod, near Weimar, studied theology at Wittenberg. Ambitious to be omniscient and omnipotent like God, he dived into the secret lore of magic, but unable to make much progress, he conjured the Devil in a thick forest near Wittenberg. Not in the least intimidated by the Devil's noisy behavior, he forced him to become his servant. Faust, being the master of demons, did not regard his salvation endangered, and when the Devil told him that he should nevertheless receive his full punishment after death, he grew extremely angry with him and bade him quit his presence, saying: "For your sake I do not want to be damned." When the Devil had left, Faust felt an emptiness not experienced before, for he had become accustomed to his services. Accordingly, he ordered the Devil to return, who now introduced himself as Mephistopheles. The name is derived from the Greek MH TO FWS FILHS, "not-the-light-loving," and was afterwards altered into Mephistopheles. He now made a compact with the Devil who consented to serve him for twenty-four years, Faust allowing him afterwards to deal with him as he pleased. The contract was signed by Faust with his blood, which he drew with a pen-knife from his left hand. The blood, running out of the wound, formed the words: Homo fuge (man, fly!). This startles Faust, but he remains resolute.
Mephistopheles entertained his master with all kinds of merry illusions, with music and visions. He brought him dainty dishes and costly clothes stolen from royal households. Faust became luxurious and desired to marry. The Devil refused, because marriage is a sacrament. Faust insisted. Then the Devil appeared in his real shape which was so terrific that Faust was frightened. He gave up the idea of marriage, but Mephistopheles sent him devils who assumed the shape of beautiful women, and made him dissolute.
Faust conversed with his servant about eschatological subjects, and heard many things which greatly displeased his vanity. The Devil said, "I am a Devil and act according to my nature. But if I were a man, I would rather humiliate myself before God than before Satan."
Faust became sick of his empty pleasures. His ambition was to be recognised in the world as a man who can explain nature, presage future events, and so excite admiration. Having received sufficient information concerning the other world, he wanted to come into direct contact with it, and Mephistopheles introduced to him a number of distinguished devils. When the visitors left, the house was so full of vermin that Faust had to withdraw. But he did not neglect his new acquaintances on that account, but paid them a visit in their own home. Riding upon a chair built of human bones, he visited hell and contemplated with leisure the flames of its furnaces and the torments of the condemned.
Having safely returned from the infernal region, he was carried in a carriage drawn by dragons up to heaven. He took a ride high in the air, first eastwards over the whole of Asia, then upwards to the stars, until they grew before his eyes on his approach into big worlds, while the earth became as small as the yolk of an egg.
His curiosity being satisfied in that direction, he concentrated his attention to the earth. Mephistopheles assumed the shape of a winged horse upon which he visited all the countries of our planet. He visited Rome and regretted not having become pope, seeing the luxuries of his life. He sat down at his table invisible and took away the daintiest morsels, and the wine from the pope's very lips. The pope, believing himself beset by a ghost, exorcised its poor soul, but Faust laughed at him. In Turkey he visited the Sultan's harem, and introduced himself as the prophet Mohamet, which gave him full liberty to act as he pleased. Beyond India he saw at a distance the blest gardens of paradise.
Faust, being invited in his capacity of magician to the Emperor Charles the Fifth, made Alexander the Great, the beautiful Helen, and other noted persons of antiquity appear before the whole court. Faust fell in love with Helen, so that he could no longer live without her. He kept her in his company and had a child by her, a marvellous boy who could reveal the future.
When the twenty-four years had almost elapsed, Faust grew melancholy, but the Devil mocked him. At midnight, on the very last day, some students who had been in his company heard a frightful noise, but did not dare to enter his room. They found him on the next morning torn to pieces in his room. Helen and her child had disappeared, and his famulus Wagner inherited his books and magic art.
This briefly is the contents of the Volksbuch.
A transcription of the Faust-book in rhymes was published as early as 1587 in Tubingen. Another version of the Faust legend was Widmann's Hamburg-edition of 1599. It is less complete than the first Faust book and lacks in depth of conception while it abounds rather more in coarse incidents. Widmann's version became the basis of several further editions, 1674 by Pfitzer in Nurnberg, 1728 in Frankfurt and Leipsic. Faust must have appeared on the stage, for the clergy of Berlin filed a complaint that Faust publicly abjured God on the stage. The puppet-play Faust was compiled for the amusement of peasants and children, in fairs and market places. Yet it was powerful enough to inspire Goethe who saw it still performed when a boy, to write the great drama which became the most famous work of his life.
English editions appeared very early, and Marlowe, the greatest pre-Shakespearian dramatist, used the Faust story for one of his dramas, which is still extant.
Goethe's Faust represents the Protestant stand-point. Goethe's Mephistopheles is not as grand as Milton's Satan, but he is not less ingenious in conception. Mephistopheles is "the principle that denies." He is not a hero, not a noble-souled rebel like Milton's Lucifer, but the spirit of criticism, of destruction, of darkness. As such he plays an important part in the economy of nature. Says the Lord in the Prelude to Faust:
"Man's active nature seeks too soon the level;
Unqualified repose he learns to crave;
Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,
Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil."
And Mephistopheles characterises himself in these words:
"I am the spirit that denies!
And justly so: For all things from the void
Called forth, deserve to be destroyd:
T'were better, then, were naught created.
Thus, all which you as sin have rated,—
Destruction,—aught with evil blent,—
That is my proper element."
In Goethe's conception, Faust allies himself with the spirit of negation and promises to pay the price of his soul on condition that he should find satisfaction; but Faust finds no satisfaction in the gifts of the spirit that denies. However, he does find satisfaction after having abandoned the chase for empty pleasures in active and successful work for the good of mankind. Goethe's Faust uses the Devil, but Faust rises above his negativism. However, he inherits from the revolutionary movement the love of liberty. Says the dying Faust:
"And such a throng I fain would see, —
Stand on free soil among a people free."
This Faust cannot be lost. His soul is saved. Mephistopheles now ceases to be a mere incarnation of badness, his negativism becomes the spirit of critique. The spirit of critique, although destructive, leads to the positivework of construction; and thus Faust becomes a representative of the bold spirit of investigation and progress which characterises the age of the Reformation.
We ask in fine: How can we explain the origin of devil-stories and devil-contracts, and what is their significance? Our answer in brief is: The devil-stories are myths in which Christian mythology is carried to the extreme. Symbols are taken seriously, and from the literal belief of the Christian dogmas the imagination weaves these pictures which to our ancestors were more than mere tales that adorn a moral.
In modern times, the figure of the Evil One begins to lose the awe he exercised during the middle ages upon the imagination; he develops more and more into a harmonious character. Victor Hugo uses him as a relief for his political satire. No more trenchant sarcasm in poetic form can be imagined than his lines on Napoleon III. and Pope Pius IX. He says:
"One day the Lord was playing
For human souls (they're saying)
With Satan's Majesty.
And each one showed his art:
The one played Bonaparte,
The other Mastai.
An abbot sly and keen,
A princelet wretched mean,
And a rascal, upon oath.
God Father played so poorly,
He lost the game, and surely
The Devil won them both.
'Well, take them !' cried God Father,
'You'll find them useless rather!'
The Devil laughed and swore:
'They'll serve my cause, I hope.
The one I'll make a pope,
The other emperor!'"
The Devil in the literature of to-day is of the same kind: a harmless fellow at whose expense the reader enjoys a hearty laugh. Lesage's novel The Devil on Two Sticks is a poor piece of fiction, and Hauff's Memoirs of Satan are rather lengthy. Hell up to Date is a genuine Chicago production of modern style. The author introduces himself as a newspaper reporter who interviews "Sate," and is shown round the Inferno. He finds that "Hell is now run on the broad American plan." "Captain" Charon, who began his career as a ferryman with a little tub of a "rowboat," is now running big steamers on the Styx, "the only navigable river in hell." Judge Minos sits in court, and an Irish policeman introduces the poor wretches one by one. The lawyers are condemned to be gagged, and their objections are overruled by Satan; the inventor of the barbwire fence is seated naked on a barbwire fence; tramps are washed; policemen are clubbed until they see stars; quack doctors are cured according to their own methods; poker fiends, board of trade gamblers, and fish-story tellers are treated according to their deserts; monopolists are baked like pop-corn, and clergymen are condemned to listen to their own sermons which have been faithfully recorded in phonographs.
For a list of all of my disks and digital books click here