The Faust Legend
The Faust Legend
The Faust legend is probably based on the life of a real person named Jorg or George Faust, also referred to as Georgius and as Johannes Faustus. He was a traveling performer or magician, thought to have been born around 1480 in the Württemberg region of southwest Germany, and to have died in the same region around 1540. The first lengthy historical mention of him occurs in a letter written in 1507 by the Benedictine scholar Johannes Tritheim. The letter is not complimentary of Faust. In it, Tritheim refers to him as one "who has presumed to call himself the prince of necromancers," but who is in fact "a vagabond, a babbler, and a rogue, who deserves to be thrashed so that he may not henceforth rashly venture to profess in public things so execrable and so hostile to the holy Church."
The principal German source of the legend surrounding Faust is the volume edited by Johann Spies in 1587 and published as Historia von D. Johann Fausten. This version, commonly called the Faustbuch, is also referred to as the Volksbuch or the Historia. This folktalewas altered and augmented over time in numerous forms (including puppet shows) and in a variety of languages. The first known English-language publication appeared under the title The Historie of the damnable life, and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. The basic story is about a magician who makes a pact with the Devil in return for superhuman powers, sexual pleasures, and arcane knowledge. As part of the bargain, the Devil requires Faust's soul and ultimately claims it by torturing Faust's body and dragging him to Hell.
During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and the proponents of the Reformation found the Faust myth a useful tool. It was modified into a warning against what were considered the excesses and idolatrous practices of the Catholic Church. At the same time, the story of Faust's overreaching the normal limits of human knowledge and ability was also directed against Humanism in Renaissance Germany.
The Faust legend has been a rich source of creative inspiration. Christopher Marlowe wrote one of his most famous plays based on the legend. It was published in 1604 as The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. And in the nineteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Parts I (1808) and II (1832) of his poetic drama, Faust. Over the centuries, the legend has continued to fascinate novelists, poets, painters, film-makers, and musicians. Whether they see Faust positively as a seeker of benevolent knowledge, negatively as a diabolical harbinger of fascism, or tragically as a symbol of humanity's insatiable curiosity, composers like Louis Hector Berlioz (The Damnation of Faust, 1846), novelists like Thomas Mann (Dr. Faustus, 1947), and poets like Karl Shapiro ("The Progress of Faust," 1968), have turned Faust into a cultural archetype.
SOURCE: "Introduction," in his Marlowe: "Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"; Greene: "Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay", fourth ed., rev. and enlarged, edited by Adolphus William Ward, Clarendon Press, 1901, pp. xv-clxvi.
[In the following excerpt, Ward examines in detail the origins of the Faust legend, including its basis in fact and its manipulation by proponents of the Reformation. He concludes with a discussion of possible source material for Christopher Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus.]
… The century of the Reformation and that which succeeded to it were the period in which the belief in necromancy and witchcraft reached its height. An era of theological controversy on an unprecedented scale had set in; and it was only where the schism never came to a head, as in Italy and Spain, or where, as in parts of the Empire, it was averted by a practical compromise, that the epidemic found little or no material to feed on1. Warning voices were indeed not wanting to protest against the perils of popular credulity; some of these, as has been seen, were those of the very men who were decried or persecuted as sorcerers. 'In England,' says an eminent historian2, 'the belief in the reality of witch craft was strongly rooted in the minds of the population. James I, in his book on Daemonology, had only echoed opinions which were accepted freely by the multitude, and were...
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SOURCE: "The Historical Faust," in their The Sources of the Faust Tradition: From Simon Magus to Lessing, Oxford University Press, 1936, pp. 81-126.
[In the following excerpt, Palmer and More present testimony and hearsay from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries concerning the actual existence and career of Faust; they note that the fantastic nature of the "evidence" increases during the second half of the sixteenth century.]
The documentary evidence which is generally advanced for the existence of a historical Faust is of varying value. The mixture of legendary matter with material that is really authentic is inevitable and increases as we get into the second half of the sixteenth century. Nor is it always easy to sift out the one from the other. Such evidence as we get from Tritheim, Conrad Mutianus Rufus, the account book of the Bishop of Bamberg, Kilian Leib, the Nuremberg and Ingolstadt records, Luther's Tischreden, and Philip von Hutten is first hand and genuinely historical, though Tritheim brings in some material that is probably hearsay. The evidence from the matriculation records of the University of Heidelberg is certainly historical but the question remains whether the "Johannes Faust ex Simem" is Faust the magician. In other cases the evidence is partly hearsay, but it is well to remember that the authors were frequently scholarly men and should be given credit...
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SOURCE: "Reconstruction of the Faust Book: The Disputations," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 3, June, 1963, pp. 175-89.
[In the following essay, Haile pieces together several variations of the German Faust Book in order to establish as accurately as possible the original, uncorrupted version of that text.]
Toward the close of the last century, one of the busiest areas of literary research centered about the Faust Book. The Faust image, that unique gift of Germany to Western tradition, had fascinated scholars and critics for over a hundred years, and the oldest printed texts of the Faust Book had long since been established and edited. During the nineteenth century, however, further documentary references to the historical Faust had been accumulating, while at the same time researchers had gained a more complete and accurate knowledge of the scope of the Faust legend together with its relationship to similar sorcerers' tales. Then, beginning in the 1880's, a number of important discoveries were made in such rapid succession as to hinder careful evaluation of any one document.1
Our two basic editions of the Faust Book accurately reflect those hectic times. Gustav Milchsack was ready to submit the newly discovered Wolfenbüttel Manuscript (W)2 to the printer in 1892, but he never considered his long introduction to it finished, and, during the next five years while he...
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SOURCE: "The First German Faust Published in America," in American Notes & Queries, Vol. X, No. 8, April, 1972, pp. 115-6.
[In the following essay, Stern discusses the original publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust in America during the nineteenth-cenitury Transcendenitalist literary movement. Stern also comments on the resonance of the Faust myth in the American mind.]
The importance of Goethe in the cultural life of 19th-century America has been so well documented that any further evidence may seem superfluous and all but impossible. Yet a footnote, in the form of a previously underestimated "first", may now be added to the towering superstructure of the bibliography on the subject.
From the time of Edward Everett's return from abroad in 1819, the fame of German literature and philosophy began to spread in this country. The foreign seeds were sowed here by Margaret Fuller, Emerson and others. Carlyle's influence was effective and in time copies of Goethe's writings appeared upon American shelves and articles on Goethe enriched American periodicals. James Freeman Clarke wrote in the Western Messenger (August, 1836): "Five years ago the name of Goethe was hardly known in England and America.… But now a revolution has taken place. Hardly a review or a magazine appears that has not something in it about Goethe". Margaret Fuller planned a biography of...
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SOURCE: "The Seventeenth-Century Dutch Faust Play," in Husbanding the Golden Grain: Studies in Honor of Henry W. Nordmeyer, edited by Luanne T. Frank and Emery E. George, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan, 1973, pp. 238-54.
[In the following essay, Pott discusses adaptations of the Faust legend in Dutch drama.]
Holland's contribution to the Faust literature is a modest one. But with much of sixteenth-century Europe it shared an early interest and knowledge regarding the notorious doctor. For in the course of his wanderings Faust came also to the Low Countries. He even gained a kind of prominence there: he was imprisoned most probably in the castle Batenburg in the province of Gelderland as punishment for one of his typical escapades the nature of which is unknown.1
The Spies Faustbuch of 1587 elicited an almost immediate response in Holland. In 1592 appeared DE WARACHTIGHE HISTORIE VAN DOCTOR JOHANNES FAUSTUS, published in Dordrecht. This work is, excepting minor deviations and omissions, a faithful translation of Spies. Its author, not finally identified until 1863, was the Stadtmedicus of Dordrecht, Karel Baten. It is a little difficult to understand why his nom de plume, Carol B. Medic, should have mystified anyone for long but this seems to have been the case. A most detailed authoritative treatment of this...
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SOURCE: "Faust As a Character and a Type: Changes in Interpretation and Motivation," in his Faust in Literature, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 14-33.
[In the following excerpt, Smeed traces the development of the Faust character in literature: from a wicked, grasping trickster, to an overreacher lusting for knowledge, to a noble character striving for a knowledge that will correct the injustices of the world.]
Le magicien coupable et maudit—l'esthète ambitieux—le 'génie original' tumultueux et passioné—le surhumain ou l'homme intégral selon Goethe—le blasé romantique—l'utopiste d'un monde meilleur—Faust est cela tour à tour, selon le tempérament du poète et l'idéologie en faveur aux diverses époques.1
Geneviève Bianquis' list is not complete, but it is a useful corrective to the view that the sole or main motivation of most Fausts is the quest for knowledge. The changing attitudes towards Faust as a character in fiction and as a human type, and the different ways of interpreting what made such a figure dissatisfied with the conditions of ordinary human existence have been hinted at briefly in the preceding chapter; but they deserve consideration in detail. Faust is probably the figure most often treated in modern literature, and it is in an examination of how successive authors have stood to him and attempted to...
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SOURCE: "The Faustbuch and The Golden Legend: The Faustian Reversal of the Saint's Life," in her The Faust Legend: Popular Formula and Modern Novel, Germanic Studies in America, Vol. 53, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985, pp. 13-41.
[Allen suggests that the Faust legend as it developed in Germany in particular appeared during the Reformation as a Lutheran response to the Catholic Golden Legend, a popular rendition of the lives of the Saints, which Martin Luther condemned as idol worship.]
If the Faustbuch is a popular formula, where did it come from? What are its popular roots? Why did the Faust formula thrive? I believe the answers to these questions lie in a work rarely mentioned in Faustbuch scholarship, an immensely popular formula for the entire Middle Ages: the Calendar of Roman Catholic Saints, best represented in the collection of saints' legends by Jacobus de Voragine known as The Golden Legend. The formative structural principle of the Faustbuch is a reversal of the formulaic pattern typical of the medieval Calendar of Roman Catholic Saints.
Recognition of a specific connection between the Faustbuch and individual stories contained within the Calendar of Saints is-not lacking in Faustbuch scholarship, but the relationship between the Faustbuch and the Calendar as a whole has not been fully appreciated....
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SOURCE: "From Witchcraft to Doctor Faustus," in The Verbal and the Visual: Essays in Honor of William Sebastian Heckscher, edited by Karl-Ludwig Selig and Elizabeth Sears, Italica Press, 1990, pp. 1-15.
[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses the historical background of the idea of a pact with the devil, as well as the case of the highly educated and initially well-respected doctor of law, Dietrich Flade (who was burned for witchcraft in 1589), to draw connections between the witch hunts of late-sixteenth-century Europe and the enduring Faust legend.]
Despite the great mass of literature on the Faust legend, the question about the relationship between witch hunting and the Faust legend has not attracted serious attention. The fact is that the stereotype of the persecuted witch, who was generally an uneducated woman, does not appear to be relevant to the lofty idea of the scholarly Faustus. The Faustian pact, with its effort to transcend human limitations in knowledge, does not seem to originate in the literature of witchcraft. A certain degree of patience is required to discover that below the surface there are complex but intriguing historical forces that bring these two topics together. If we consider that the Faust Book (Historia von D. Johann Fausten, 1587) appeared in the midst of an intense era of persecution, this is not entirely surprising.
In the second half of the...
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SOURCE: "The Making of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten: The Emergence of the Faustian Pact," in his Faustus on Trial: The Origins of Johann Spies's "Historia" in an Age of Witch Hunting, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1992, pp. 110-46, 157-68.
[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses the literary tradition of pacts with the devil that preceded the first known instances of the Faust legend in print.]
Augustin Lercheimer speaks of a pact that Faustus had made, but he supplies few details. As far as we know, Lercheimer was the first to claim that Faustus made a pact for twenty-four years and that when he later tried to repent, the devil forced him to sign a second pact and thus brought about his damnation.1
Aber sein geist warnet jn daß er davon [from Wittenberg, where he was about to be arrested] kamm, von dem er nicht lange darnach grewlich getodtet ward, als er jm vier vnd zwantzig jar gedient hatte.2
Der. vielgemeldte Faust hat jm ein mal fürgenommen sich zu bekeren, da hat jm der teuffel so hart gedrawet, so bang gemacht, so erschreckt, daß er sich jm auch auffs new hat verschrieben.3
The reference to Faustus's intention to repent indicates the relevance of other passages in Lercheimer's book. Lercheimer relates, for example, that Faustus visited Melanchthon, who attempted to...
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SOURCE: "The Precarious Legacy of Renaissance Humanism in the Faust Legend," in The Harvest of Humanism in Central Europe: Essays in Honor of Lewis W. Spitz, edited by Manfred P. Fleischer, Concordia Publishing House, 1992, pp. 303-15.
[In the following essay, Baron discusses the evolution of the Faust legend from its inception through its transformation into both a tale of warning against Renaissance humanism and its veneration of the heroes of classical antiquity; and as a Protestant condemnation of the Catholic Church.]
Although Goethe portrayed his Faust as a Renaissance scholar, the original legend on which he based his story displays surprisingly little interest in the past and even less in the ambitions of the humanistic movement. But to obtain an accurate picture about the legacy of Renaissance humanism in the legend, we need look at Faust as a necromancer, a role in which Faust appears most prominently as a humanist. As a necromancer Faust tries to raise spirits of antiquity from the realm of the dead, and he seems to look to the ancient world as a superior age. The early authors of the Faust story did not look with approval on such efforts, however. In this way humanism found itself in a dangerous position, linked to those who were accused of diabolical magic and persecuted in an age of widespread witch hunts. Whether humanism could survive in this process is debatable. Nevertheless, the story...
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SOURCE: "Evil Alchemists and Doctor Faustus," in her From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 9-22.
[In the excerpt below, Haynes contrasts the sinister medieval view of Faust as a black hearted alchemist with more benign Renaissance humanist interpretations that see Faust as an inquisitive mortal striving to surpass his human limitations.]
Remote as they may seem from twentieth-century atomic physicists or industrial chemists in white lab coats, surrounded by equipment costing more than their life earnings, the medieval alchemists were the predecessors of modern scientists. Not only were they at the cutting edge of experimental research into the mysteries of nature, but they contributed to the profession an aura of mystery, secrecy, suspicion, and, at times, irreligion from which it has never wholly succeeded in detaching itself, either in literature or in the public perception, of scientists.…
The diverse traditions and the social status of alchemy determined many characteristics of both the art itself and its practitioners. Because of the intimate relation between alchemy and the alleged production of gold, the presence of charlatans trading on the greed of the populace was almost inevitable. The Hermetic element of secrecy, deriving from the priestly origins of alchemy, was also there from the...
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SOURCE: "Prometheus Transformed and Transposed: Faustus As the Reformation Prometheus," in his Prometheus and Faust: The Promethean Revolt in Drama from Classical Antiquity to Goethe, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 67-104.
[In the following essay, Wutrich traces the evolution of the Promethean myth in classical drama and suggests that elements of this myth converged with the legend of Faust the magician, so that by the sixteenth century, artistic interpretations of the Faust legend, and in particular Christopher Marlowe's drama Doctor Faustus, contained aspects of both archetypal stories.]
Magus, Gnostic Philosopher, and Occult Scientist
We have come to the point at which the road from the Caucasus and the road to Wittenberg converge, and it is on this road that the Promethean and Faustian personae meet, travel together for a while, and ultimately, almost mystically, emerge as something new. In the present chapter, I shall deal with the magus tradition as it leads to the Faustus legend, before dealing with the historical Faustus, the rapid rise of the Faustian mythology, and Marlowe's mighty tragedy. Finally, I shall return to Prometheus to consider where, when, and how the rebel Titan and the renegade scholar became permanently linked in literature, art, and the history of ideas.
In chapter 4, I surveyed the development of the Prometheus myth...
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Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Authors: Editions and Translations
Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Translated with introduction by David Grene in The Complete Greek Tragedies. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
——. Murray, Gilbert, ed. Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938.
——. Griffith, Mark, ed. Prometheus Bound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
——. Page, Denys, ed. Aeschyli septem quae supersunt tragoediae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
——. Prometheus Bound. Translated by James Scully and C. John Herington. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
——. Aesclhylus. Greek with English translation by H. Weir Smyth. Two volumes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
——. Prometheus Bound. Translated by Philip Vellacott. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologia. Latin with English translations. Herbert McCabe, general ed. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1964.
Aristophanes. The Birds. Translated by William Arrowsmith in Aristophanes. Three Comedies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
——. The Birds. Greek with English...
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Barnet, Sylvan, ed. Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.
Baron, Frank. "George Lukacs on the Origins of the Faust Legend." In Four Hundred Years of Faust. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1989, pp. 1-25.…
Boas, Frederick S. Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940…
Brune, Lester H. "Magic's Relation to the Intellectual History of Western Civilization." Journal of Thought 18 (1983): 55 - 64.…
Butler, E. M. The Fortunes of Faust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.
——. The Myth of the Magus. Cambridge University Press, 1948.
——. The Tyranny of Greece over Germany. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.…
Cullen, Bernard. "Heresy." In Volume Six of the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Joseph R. Strayer, editor-in-chief. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.…
Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vemant, eds. The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
——. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of...
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SOURCE: "The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus," in his Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 27-47.
[In the following essay, Watt demonstrates that through his play Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe guaranteed the longevity of the Faust legend while altering it to suit Renaissance tastes as well as his own individuality and Faustian-like temperament.]
The English Faust Book
The Faustbuch was a tremendous success, on an international scale. Within two years there were some sixteen German versions, including additions to the original book, and a version in verse. The story soon spread abroad, with translations into Low German, Dutch, and French. In England the story of Faust had been referred to as early as 1572. In 1592 there appeared The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus … according to the true Copie printed at Franckfort, and translated into English by P. F. Gent.1 This English Faust Book was actually a rather free adaptation, but it was to be almost the sole source of major elements of Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which was probably written later in the same year.
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Baron, Frank. Doctor Faustus from History to Legend. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1978.
Examines the historical figure of Faustus and the development of the body of legend surrounding him.
Baron, Frank. "Who Was the Historical Faustus? Interpreting an Overlooked Source." Daphnis: Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur, Band 18, Heft 2, 1989. pp.297-302.
Examines indications in original source materials, including an exchange of letters from 1534, to support the theory that a student named Georg Helmstetter was the historical Faustus.
Berghahn, Klaus L. "Georg Johann Heinrich Faust: The Myth and Its History." In Our Faust: Roots and Ramifications of a Modern German Myth, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, pp. 3-21. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Discusses Faust as an archetypal German symbol. The critic included discussion of Spies's Historia of 1587 through Goethe's nineteenth-century text.
Butler, E. M. The Fortunes of Faust. Cambridge University Press, 1952, 356 p.
Discusses a range of literary and philosophical approaches to the characater of Faust and to the Faust legend throughout different eras of world literature and popular culture.
Druxes, Helga. The Feminization of Dr. Faustus: Female Identity Quests from...
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