Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fortunes of Faust

“The remark was made: If I... had given him [Faust] even my hand, he would have destroyed me...

- Martin Luther, The Tischreden (1566)

What wonders is the notorious sorcerer Faust said to have done in our times.”

- Ludwig Lavater, The Von Gespansten (1569)

Not long ago I was asked as to why I decided to use the pseudonym “Jack Faust” to refer to myself. I discussed it a bit, but I didn't discuss the historical or legendary character of Faust very much. Since I came into possession of a few books that detailed both the legendary Faust (1540 onward), and the historical Faust (1507-1530 or so) I figured... Why not discuss some of the details?
One of the first things I was warned about when people discovered that I referred to my “magickal self” (I'm not a big believer in the divergence of the two, honestly) as “Faust” was that it would have certain... real-time ramifications and that such iconic names have a tendency to influence one's life. I responded jovially, saying something along the lines of: “Well, I've already sold my soul... What else could possibly happen?”
Quite a lot, actually. And none of it actually... bad. Really! And maybe I'll talk about that more in... another entry or entries...
The Historical Faust
Knowledge is the Enemy of Faith.”
- Martin Luther.

Historians seem to disagree about the historical personage of Faust. For example, there may have been as many as two or three individuals operating under the psuedonym of Faust between 1507 and 1540 when the historical character himself drops out of history and the legendary character emerges. The first mention of Faust comes from letters from Johannes Trithemius (1507) in which he discusses listening to a man named George Sabellicus who claimed to be:
The younger Faust, the chief of necromancers, astrologer, the second Magus, palmist, diviner with earth and fire, second in the art of divination with water.”
- Letter to Johannes Virdung (August 20th, 1507.)
After this first letter more and more of the followers of Martin Luther began discussing the fellow, and the correspondence traces Faust's ascent from obscurity into one of the most legendary figures of the 16th century. We can be sure that such a fellow (if not fellows) did exist, however, as extant records show such: A 'Johannes Faust ex Simern' gained a degree in Philosophy by the University of Hiedelberge. The records are unfortunately in German in my copy of The Sources of the Faust Tradition (highly recommended for interested readers) by Philip Mason Palmer and Robert More, and as such I can't do much more than decipher them hap-hazardly. All of the letters, on the other hand, are conveniently translated from Latin.
The same book contains a few other contemporary records such as this:
On Wednesday after St. Vitus' Day, 1528, a certain man who called himself Dr. George Faust of Heidelberg was told to spend his penny elsewhere and he pledged himself not to take vengeance on or make fools of the authorities of this order.”
- Records of the City of Ingolstadt.

And this:
Safe conduct to Doctor Faust, the great sodomite and necromancer, at Furth refused.”
- Entry in the Records of the City Council of Nuremberg.
May 10th, 1532.

The letters between the Lutherans tend to indicate that Faust studied Philosophy at Hiedelberg, and then moved on to Cracow where he studied Hermetic magic and possibly even alchemy. He seems to have been accused of sodomy between 1507 and 1530, but was not convicted; he had a generally 'evil' reputation, in that he claimed to understand and practice Nigromancy (literally: “black magick” in Latin), and seems to have impressed those who weren't detractors with his wit and intellect.
Martin Luther himself is part of the reason that Faust became entrenched in the public record and mind; for Luther sought to link Hermetic magic with witchcraft, and made an icon out of Faust. For the Lutherans, Faust stood for everything they did not: humanism, diabolism, practicing magic, chicanery, and a few good con-jobs.
After the 1530s, what emerges from the letters between the Lutherans is the face of the legendary Faust. They wedded him to both the ancient image of Simon Magus, and to that of Don Juan, not to mention a number of other sources.

The Faust Books
In 1587 Johannes Spiess wrote the first of what came to be called The Faust Books or Faustbuch. It was heavily pirated and by 1588/9 had spread across Europe; the basic premise involves the first step in the emergence of the character known as Faust. Interestingly, this first Faust Book also closely ties Faust with the practice of witchcraft. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russel writes:
The Faustbook tells how Faustus, abandoning Philosophy, turns to magic. Given the antischolastic bias of the Protestant Reformation, it was natural that the Faustbook should make the figure of the man who sells his soul to Satan a scholar: Faust desires to obtain knowledge by his own efforts rather than receive it by grace. This individualistic rebellion ties Faust's sin to the original sin of humanity (Adam and Eve's theft of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge) and to pride (the original sin of Lucifer himself)...
In order to master magical lore, Faustus determines to call up the Devil. Going to the crossroads at night, he inscribes magical circles and characters upon the ground and invokes a spirit (Gaist) by the name of Beelzebub. Here the author deliberately mixes magic and witchcraft, the traditional signs and symbols of hermetic magic with the witch-like invocation of an evil spirit.”
- Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern Age (P. 60-61; italics mine)

The spirit which appears first takes the form of a dragon, then turns into a fiery globe, and finally into a greyfriar. It gives it's name to Faust as “Mephistophiles,” a combination of Greek, Latin, and possibly even Hebrew elements. Russel breaks the name down as such: “Greek mē, not”; phōs, photos, “light”; and philos, lover” – yielding “he who is not a lover of the light,” an ironic parody of Lucifer, light-bearer.”
It was the Faust Books, and there were many to follow Spiess first, that led to Christopher Marlowe writing The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and later to Goethe's Faust.
Further reading:
And a fascinating little piece titled: “Did Coleridge translate Goethe's Faust?
[EDIT] 11/6/12: Pacts with the Devil: Faust and his Precursors by Ingrid Shafer has vanished off the 'net, in that way Ephemera often does. I'll re-add it if I ever see it again.


Frater.Barrabbas said...

Jack - I found the following information on Faust, taken from one of my articles (unpublished) -

"Even though the Faust legend had all but obscured the original historical figure, there was a man named Dr. Johann Georg Faust (1466 – c. 1540), and many historians believe that he was the role model for all the legends that followed. In fact, occultists and magicians of the 17th century fabricated an entire tradition of magic using his name and his legendary fame to make it legitimate. Dr. Faust was a typical renaissance scholar, he was an alchemist, astrologer, and a reputed magician; but little else is actually known of him other than he may have come from Knittlingen, and he may have gotten his doctoral degree from Heidelberg (1480's). There were a number of books supposedly written by Faust on the magical and alchemical arts, and some may have actually been produced by him."

Hope this helps.

Jack Faust said...

@Brotha B.: It does indeed. Do you recall where your source material for that little bit came from? I'd never come across a potential 'middle name' of George, and so I'm now quite interested for obvious reasons.