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Definition: Faust or Faustus from Collins English Dictionary


1 German legend a magician and alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power

Summary Article: Faust
From Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

The protagonist of a popular German tale in which a scholar makes a pact with the Devil; based on a historical 16th-century figure, the legend has inspired many fictional, operatic and musical works and films.

The historical character on whom the popular German legend of Doctor Faustus was based was Georg (or Johannes) Faust, a magician and alchemist from Heidelberg who travelled widely, performed apparently magical feats and died under mysterious circumstances some time around 1540. The idea of devil’s pacts was a common one in the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries, and Faust was widely believed to have sold his soul to the Devil for knowledge and power. Many features of stories originally told of earlier magicians, such as paracelsus and Simon Magus, became added to the lore surrounding Faust, and he quickly became the archetypal man who sells his soul to the Devil. In Faust’s legend, the ambitious scholar, in his quest for forbidden knowledge, rejects the legitimate forms of learning and resorts to black magic. He summons a demon, usually identified as mephistopheles, through whom he enters into a pact with the Devil, promising his soul in return for an agreed period during which he will be granted power, knowledge, youth and physical gratification. At the end of this period, payment is claimed by the Devil, and Faust is dragged down to Hell. In Polish folklore, a tale which appears to have originated around the same time as that of the historical Faust, tells of Pan Twardowski, a physician who makes a similar bargain and comes to the same end.

Faust’s legend grew, and his exploits allegedly included such feats as the production of a bunch of grapes from across the world in the middle of winter, and the summoning of various spirits – most famously that of Helen of Troy. For a long time, popular interest focused on his reputation as a wonder-worker, rather than on his ultimate fate, and the numerous stories which grew around him were assembled after his death into a ‘biography’, a small chapbook published in Frankfurt in 1587. This Historia von Dr Iohan Fausten portrayed Faust as a ‘damnable’ rogue who was said to have enjoyed an allotted period of 24 years filled with luxury, excess and perversion, to have become the most famous astrologer of his day with predictions which never failed and to have astonished his contemporaries with his knowledge. The book was translated into English and was an instant success. The English playwright Christopher Marlowe used this English translation as the basis for his 1604 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, although it is likely that his work was also influenced by stories of two other historical occultists, cornelius agrippa and Dr john dee. Marlowe portrays Faust as a highly intelligent man and invites us to pity him as a victim of his own intellect and pride. Later, the 19th-century German writer Goethe was inspired by Marlowe’s drama to produce his own, definitive classical work on the legend, a two-part play Faust, in which Faust is ultimately redeemed.

The Faust story has been retold and alluded to in many other works of fiction, in opera and music, in films and in forms of popular culture such as video and computer games, graphic novels, manga and anime. In modern times, the adjective ‘Faustian’ is often used figuratively to denote any act in which hubris leads a person to their doom.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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