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Faust of Fact and Fiction

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The devil Mephistopheles

Very little is known about the life of Faust. Even his name is shrouded with uncertainty - various sources describe it as George, John or Johann (the most likely, since he was German), and his surname is Faust or Faustus depending largely on who you talk to. In this entry, he will be referred to as Faust.

So why should this man, so unimportant that his name isn't even remembered, have had such an impact on society?

The Facts

Faust was born at the end of the 15th Century, somewhere in Germany, and for a long time lived in Wittenberg. He was a scholar, an astrologer and a magician who liked to travel around the country and lived until he was roughly 60, dying of an unspecified accident. Sources of the time, friends and foes, describe him as either a rogue with no scruples, or a respected citizen.

The Legend

Faust's name lives on today because of the rumours that followed his death. It was believed that he had possessed supernatural powers - he could do magic. Stories were further exaggerated until it was widely believed that he had entered into a pact with the devil Mephistopheles and had sold his soul in return for 24 years of Mephistopheles' service.

According to some, Faust was championed by the Archbishop of Cologne, which only served to propagate more rumours of his powers. It was a point which the puritans who condemned Faust after his death emphasised, using it to provide evidence of sin in the Catholic world.

The first book on Faust, Historia von Dr Johann Fausten commonly known as the Faust-Book was written by an anonymous author in 1587, and was a Protestant piece designed to spread the word that affiliation with the supernatural, and too much ambition, were dangerous and undesirable. This was translated into English in 1592, now bearing the title The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr John Faustus. The translator, known only as PF, embellished the story until its focus was on Faust's thirst for knowledge.

Later came the play, supposedly by Christopher Marlowe, although popular opinion is that it was a collaborative work, Doctor Faustus. Marlowe was an English playwright surrounded by controversy - depending on the source, he was an atheist, secret Catholic, a spy in on the Catholic conspiracy, a killer (manslaughter), and Shakespeare in secret. Such a controversial man was well-suited to take on the legend of Faust.

The German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote perhaps the most famous drama on the subject, Faust. It was in two parts, published in 1808 and 1832, and contrasts with other versions because Faust is not damned at the end. This could be a reflection of the fact that Goethe himself was a keen scientist, and perhaps had more sympathy for Faust than previous writers.

There are many other pieces on the subject of Faust, some with literary merit, some with a new angle, and some with nothing new to add to the legend.


In the 15th and 16th Centuries when Faust lived, and indeed for long periods either side of those times, magic and science were seen as one. Many scholars were persecuted, although some really did blur the boundaries by delving into astrology and alchemy. Knowledge was treated with suspicion, and the pursuit of it was seen not only as folly, but as an ungodly thing.

Many people retold the story to suit their own purposes; some wanted to warn against science, while others preferred to embellish the story with their own creativity. The Faust of the legends, therefore, probably has very little in common with the Faust of reality.

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