The Faust legend had its inception during the medieval period in Europe and has since become one of the world's most famous and oft-handled myths. The story is thought to have its earliest roots in the New Testament story of the magician Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). Other references to witchcraft and magic in the Bible have always caused people to look upon the practice of magic as inviting eternal damnation for the soul.
During the early part of the fifteenth century in Germany, the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil to procure supernatural powers captured the popular imagination and spread rapidly. The original Faust has probably been lost forever. In various legends, he was named Heinrich Faust, Johann Faustus, or Georg Faust. But whatever his first name really was, this Faust was apparently a practitioner of various magical arts. A cycle of legends, including some from ancient and medieval sources that were originally told about other magicians, began to collect around him. One of the most widely read magic texts of the period was attributed to Faust, and many other books referred to him as an authority.
Later in the fifteenth century, around 1480, another German magician gave further credence to the legend by calling himself "Faustus the Younger," thus capitalizing on the existing cycle of legends about the older Faust. This later Faust was a famous German sage and adventurer who was thought by many of his contemporaries to be a magician and probably did practice some sort of black magic. After a sensational career, this Faust died during a mysterious demonstration of flying which he put on for a royal audience in 1525. It was generally believed that he had been carried away by the devil. Owing to his fame and mysterious disappearance, popular superstition prompted many more stories to grow up around the name of Faust, thus solidifying the myth and occult reputation of the legendary character of Faust.
During the sixteenth century, additional stories of magical feats began to attach themselves to the Faust lore, and eventually these stories were collected and published as a Faust-Book. A biography of Faust, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, based upon the shadowy life of Faust the Younger, but including many of the fanciful legendary stories, was published in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1587. That same year it was translated into English as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. In both these popular editions of the Faust-Book, the famed magician's deeds and pact with the devil are recounted, along with much pious moralizing about his sinfulness and final damnation. In fact, the moral of the story is emphasized in the title of the English translation. It was in these versions that the legend took on a permanent form.
When the Renaissance came to northern Europe, Faust was made into a symbol of free thought, anticlericalism, and opposition to church dogma. The first important literary treatment of the legend was that of the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe, unfortunately, allowed the structure of his drama to follow the basic structure of the Faust-Book, thus introducing one of the structural difficulties of the play. The first part of the book (through Chapter 5) showed Faustus' determination to make a pact with the devil, and after this is accomplished, the large middle portion of the Faust-Book handles individual and unrelated scenes showing Faustus using his magic to perform all types of nonsensical pranks. Finally, the Faust-Book ends with Faustus awaiting the final hour of his life before he is carried off to eternal damnation by the agents of the underworld.
Marlowe's rendition of the legend was popular in England and Germany until the mid-seventeenth century, but eventually the Faust story lost much of its appeal. The legend was kept alive in folk traditions in Germany, though, and was the popular subject of pantomimes and marionette shows for many years.
The close of the eighteenth century in Germany was a time very much like the Renaissance. Before long, the old Faust story, with its unique approach to the problems of period, was remembered. The German dramatist Lessing (1729-81) wrote a play based on the legend, but the manuscript was lost many generations ago and its contents are hardly known.
Perhaps the most familiar treatment of the Faust legend is by the celebrated German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the rare giants of world literature. A brief outline of Goethe's Faust will show both similarities and differences in the handling of this famous theme.
Heinrich Faust, a learned scholar, feels that none of his many achievements has provided him with satisfaction or a sense of fulfillment. He yearns to gain knowledge of truth and the meaning of existence. Faust turns to magic in the hope of finding a way to transcend human limitations. When Mephistophilis appears to him, Faust is willing to make a pact with the devil but includes many conditions in his agreement. He will yield his soul only if the devil can provide him with an experience so rewarding that he will want the moment to linger forever. But this experience will have to combine extreme opposite emotions such as love and hate at the same time. Furthermore, Faust knows that his essential nature is one of upward striving, and if the devil can help him strive upward enough, then Faust will be at one with God. There is no mention of the traditional twenty-four years of servitude.
In Part I of Goethe's drama, Faust attempts, with the devil's help, to find happiness through emotional involvement. He has an exciting but tragic relationship with the beautiful and chaste Gretchen which ends in her disgrace and death, but Faust is much chastened by this experience. In Part II, he tries to satisfy his craving through temporal accomplishments and exposure to all that the world can offer in terms of ideas and externalized gratifications. He attains an important position at the Imperial Court, learns much from the figures of classical antiquity, woos Helen of Troy, wins great victories, and is renowned for his public works, but none of these things gives him that complete satisfaction which transcends human limitations.
When Faust's death approaches, the devil is there to claim his soul, but a band of heavenly angels descend and carry him off triumphantly to heaven.
The chief philosophical difference between Marlowe's and Goethe's treatments lies in the final scene of the drama, where Marlowe's Faustus is dragged off to the horrors of hell but Goethe's Faust is admitted to heaven by God's grace in reward for his endless striving after knowledge of goodness and truth and his courageous resolution to believe in the existence of something higher than himself.
Furthermore, Goethe introduced the figure of Gretchen. The Faust-Gretchen love story occupies most of Part I of the drama, whereas Marlowe confined himself to showing tricks performed by Doctor Faustus.
Goethe's great tragedy struck a responsive chord throughout Europe and reinforced the new interest in the Faust story. Since his time, it has stimulated many creative thinkers and has been the central theme of notable works in all fields of expression. In art, for instance, the Faust legend has provided fruitful subjects for such painters as Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863). Musical works based on the Faust story include Hector Berlioz' cantata, The Damnation of Faust (1846), Charles Gounod's opera, Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito's opera, Mefistofele (1868), and Franz Lizt's Faust Symphony (1857). Even the motion picture has made use of the ancient story, for a film version of Goethe's Faust was produced in Germany in 1925. But most important, the legend has continued to be the subject of many poems, novels, and dramatic works, including the novel Doctor Faustus (1948) by Thomas Mann and the poetic morality play An Irish Faustus (1964) by Lawrence Durell.
Each succeeding artist has recast the rich Faust legend in terms of the intellectual and emotional climate of his own time, and over the past few centuries this tale has matured into an archetypal myth of our aspirations and the dilemmas we face in the effort to understand our place in the universe. Like all myths, the Faust story has much to teach the reader in all its forms, for the tale has retained its pertinence in the modern world. The history of the legend's development and its expansion into broader moral and philosophical spheres is also an intellectual history of humankind.