Christopher Marlowe based his “Dr. Faustus” on Germany’s Faust legend, which was in turn inspired by Johann Georg Faust’s reputation.
And on J. G. Faust’s abrupt death in 1520, give or take a few decades.
Someone or something wrung Faust’s neck. Or he didn’t survive an alchemical laboratory explosion. Stories agree that he died abruptly, but vary on details.
J. G. Faust had been a Renaissance con man of sorts, presenting himself as an alchemist, astrologer and magician. His reputation grew after his unpleasant death, inspiring a slew of chapbooks, plays, operas, ballets and video games.
Gounod’s “Faust” was an early Faustian opera, and I’m wandering off-topic.1
Or maybe not so much.
- Faust’s Literary (?) Debut
- Faustian Origins
- Taking Satan Seriously: But Not Too Seriously
Its Brobdingnagian title, translated into English, runs to 70 words and tells the whole ‘Faust’ story.
We don’t write stuff quite like that any more, which may explain why academics haven’t agreed on whether the chapbook is literature, trash or something else.
As far as we know, “Historia von” and so forth put “Johann Fausten” on the literary map. It’s a tale of “…the renowned sorcerer and black magician…” who sold his soul to the devil. And therefore is “…a sincere warning to all the arrogant, curious and ungodly.”2
Maybe that needs explaining.
Bear in mind that “Historia” etc. was written in 16th century German.
J. G. Faust, the Renaissance con man whose life inspired the Faust legend, was almost certainly German. Or northwestern European, at any rate.
Back in Germany, in 1587, calling someone a [redacted] magician didn’t have the meaning my culture’s self-appointed guardians might assume.
Let’s see if I can fix this affront to contemporary mores.
A more politically-correct translation might be “misunderstood magician,” or maybe even “fascist” or “oppressed” magician, depending on whether Faust is in or out of favor at the moment.
Speaking of names, I’m not convinced that “Faust” was the alleged alchemist, astrologer and magician’s original name.
My Latin’s rusty, at best, but seems to me that “faustus” means “good luck” or “lucky” in Latin. Maybe Herr Faust had a surname ironically suited to his profession and legend.
Or maybe it’s a name he used to make his job easier. “Faust” is also German for “fist,” but never mind that.
I’ve heard that there are three, 20, 36 and seven basic stories: archetypes expressed in everything from “Hamlet” to “Watership Down.” Or maybe just one.
I’m not sure which or whose story archetype model has academia’s current approval. Or whether any are generally accepted.
A fair number of well-known stories fit Christopher Booker’s seven archetypes:3
- Overcoming the Monster
- “Dracula,” Bram Stoker
- Rags to Riches
- “David Copperfield,” Charles Dickens
- The Quest
- “The Lord Of The Rings,” J. R. R. Tolkien
- Voyage and Return
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll
- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” William Shakespeare
- “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde
- “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens
Maybe fashionable melancholy is going out of vogue. If so, it’s about time. And another topic. (October 22, 2017)
In Booker’s seven-point breakdown, Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” would be a tragedy: the story of a hero with a serious glitch.
Anyway, England’s Christopher Marlowe didn’t make up the “Faust” story. It was maybe a century old by the time his “Dr. Faustus” first hit the boards.
‘Pact with a devil’ tales are older. And, maybe, have very deep roots.
I’m also pretty sure that Germans weren’t the only folks with Faustian folktales.
Pan Twardowski, for example, looks like an adaptation of the Faust story.
Pan Twardowski’s basic plot is pretty much the same as the Germanic Faust’s.
P.T. makes a deal with the devil, enjoys fame and fortune, and comes to a bad end.
Since the Pan Twardowski tales we have say he’s a 16th century Polish noble, they look like Faust legend knockoffs.4 But my language, English, is a Germanic language: so maybe my sources don’t go deep enough into Polish tradition.
I’ll get back to ‘pact with a devil’ stories, after looking at two other chaps who really should have known better.
At any rate, Pwyll was a VIP in Dyfed and Rhiannon’s husband. Maybe “consort” would be more accurate.
This is a Welsh tale, set in a culture with its own rules.
Briefly, Rhiannon is smart, Pwyll is generous, and they’re both at a feast when Gwawl — I’m not sure who he is — asks Pwyll for a favor. Pwyll’s response boils down to ‘sure, anything I can do.’
Gwawl says ‘I want Rhiannon,’ and the conversation goes downhill from there.
Rhiannon being from Annwn didn’t help.
Annwn, Tír na nÓg, Mag Mell and Emain Ablach — are cans of worms I’ll leave for another day. The same goes for Tech Duinn.
The point I’m groping for is that Pwyll was deeply involved with someone from an otherworld, and not exercising sufficient prudence.
Pwyll’s story, the versions we have of it, may have been influenced by post-Christian contact scribes. Or garbled. Ongoing academic arguments over what the ‘real’ Mabinogion was like may never be settled.
Then there are post-Enlightenment efforts to reanimate Druidism, and I’m skidding off-topic again.5
I’m pretty sure that most cultures have stories about someone who lacked street smarts when it came to otherworldly powers.
That’s the Aegean civilization that came just before Plato and company.
Think of them as the Ancient Greece for Ancient Greeks.
We don’t know much about them, thanks partly to the Late Bronze Age collapse. We lost many records in that incident, whatever it was.
I was going somewhere with this. Marlowe. Faustian opera. The Mabinogion. Right.
Dionysus is mainly known as the Greek god of wine, intoxication and insanity.
His story probably goes back to Zagreus and pre-Mycenaean cultures.
The little we know about pre-Mycenaean cultures is not even close to being internally consistent. No surprises there, since some of the fragmented narratives we have may predate Sargon by several millennia.
Pentheus, king of Thebes, reminds me of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Sort of. They’re both a trifle clueless when it comes to dealing with otherworld persons.
Dionysus wasn’t, back in the day, just the god of wine and lethal benders. Among other things, the stories have him taking long excursions, disguised as a human.
Sometimes he’d help folks out, teaching them how make wine.6
Other times: well, there was that Pentheus incident.
Why, I don’t know.
Meanwhile, a stranger had arrived in Thebes.
Figuring the stranger was a Dionysian, Pentheus put him in prison.
Tried to put him, that is. Chains wouldn’t stay chained and doors wouldn’t close properly.
Then the stranger suggested that Pentheus dress as a woman and go see what Theban gals were up to when they went out in the woods.
Pentheus — I mentioned he was clueless, right? — thought this was a good idea.
Long story short, the stranger and Pentheus arrive during Dionysian rites.
The stranger wasn’t a Dionysian follower.
He was Dionysus. Obviously, I figure, to everyone but Pentheus.
And Dionysus was not pleased with the Theban king’s anti-Dionysian policy.
Dionysian rites being what they were, the gals were unhinged.
They spotted Pentheus, misidentifying him as a wild animal.
Pentheus was promptly deboned.
We know the Pentheus story mainly because Euripides wrote “The Bacchae,” a play that’s currently in favor among academics.7
A tip of the hat to number-one daughter, for pointing out the Faust-Pwyll-Pentheus connection. Which may or may not eventually get traction in academia.
Tales about Satan and devils in general abound in my culture: from Robert Johnson’s legendary deal and Tartini’s inspiration, back to stories about St. Theophilus of Adana and St. Cyprian of Antioch.
Then the regrettable piece of work who became bishop fired him.
Theophilus, the story goes, asked Satan for help, and got it.
Along with the Bishop’s job. In exchange, as usual, for his soul.
Then, smitten by buyer’s remorse, Theophilus changed his mind. He prayed for and got forgiveness: after a lengthy process. Some 14½ centuries later, we recognize Theophilus of Adana as a real historical figure, and a Saint.
“Buyer’s remorse?” Maybe that should be “seller’s remorse.” Moving on.
I see his ‘Satanic interval’ legend as European folklore. Mainly because the legend started with Eutychianus: who is known mainly for cashing in on T. of Adana’s fame by writing an unauthorized biography. Or maybe he really thought he’d been a witness.
Theophilus of Adana’s legendary Satanic deal may be an inspiration of “Faust” legends.
Or maybe St. Cyprian of Antioch’s life was where the Faust legend began.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, Cyprian of Antioch was an alleged magician, repented and is now recognized as a Saint.
He and Justina lived about 17 centuries back, when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. They were killed during Diocletian’s effort to protect his realm.
Ill-advised effort, I think: but I’m a Christian, so I would see it that way.
Maybe Diocletian didn’t realize that, aside from their refusal to recognize the Caesar as a god, the Christian obligation to love their neighbors made them good citizens. And that’s yet another topic.
That’s also a lot of “maybes.” I figure that Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” is based on a German chapbook, which told the story of a con man whose life fit pre-existing folklore. Probably.8
And that vaguely-Faustian cautionary tales were ancient in Homer’s day.
Before I wrap up this installment in my Marlowe’s Faustus series, a few words about humans, angels and demons.
I’m a human. When I die, I won’t become an angel. I can’t.
We’re very different sorts of creatures.
Like I said, a really bad decision.
I’ll be talking quite a bit about demons, Satan and Marlowe’s Mephistophilis. Necessarily, since the play is about Dr. Faustus’ demonic deal and its consequences.
But I also think C. S. Lewis made a good point:
“…There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight….”
(“The Screwtape Letters,” Preface, C. S. Lewis (1942))
Posts that aren’t entirely unrelated to this one:
- “Rereading Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’”
(January 6, 2021)
- “Wheat, Tares, Fear of the Lord and Working on Wisdom”
(December 19, 2020)
- “Halloween, COVID-19, Wolfgang’s Axe and Apple Bobbing”
(October 31, 2020)
(April 29, 2018)
- “Satan Didn’t Make Me Do It”
(November 13, 2016)
- Historia D. Johann Fausten, Title Page.
Columbia College in the City of New York
- Faustbuch, Spieß’sches
The Oxford Companion to German Literature (3 ed.), Oxford Reference
- The Mabinogion Project: A Brief History of the Mabinogion
Sebastian Rider-Bezerra, The Camelot Project (2011); Robins Library Digital Projects, University of Rochester
- Character and Conflict in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi
Catherine E Byfield; First printed in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 40 (1993): 51–72; revised. Via Academia.edu
Euripides, Bacchae; T. A. Buckley, Ed.; Perseus Catalog; Perseus Digital Library; Tufts University
- The House of Thebes
Department of Classical Studied, University of Pennsylvania
- The Wanderings of Dionysus
Vasilios Alexiades, Professor of Mathematics, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
- Brothers Grimm via Gutenberg.org
- The Catholic Encyclopedia, via NewAdvent.org
- D. L. Ashliman, University of Pittsburg