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Faust or Faustus (Latin for "auspicious" or "lucky") is the protagonist of a classic German legend in which he makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge. The tale is the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works, such as those by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Mikhail Bulgakov, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Washington Irving, Charles Gounod, Randy Newman, Gustav Mahler and Oscar Wilde. The meaning of the word and name has been reinterpreted through the ages and has come to take on a connotation completely different from its original use, and is often used today to describe a man whose headstrong desire for self-fulfillment leads him in a diabolical direction.

The Faust of the early Faust-books — and of the ballads, dramas and puppet-plays which grew out of them — is irrevocably damned because he prefers human to "divine" knowledge; "he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of Medicine."

Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust to a figure of vulgar fun. The story was popularized in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. But in Goethe's reworking of the story two centuries later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for "more than earthly meat and drink."

Sources of the Faust legend

The first printed source on the legend of Faust is a little chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Iohan Fausten published in 1587. The book was re-edited and borrowed from throughout the 17th century. Other "Faustbooks" of that era include the following:

  • Historia von D. Johann Fausten (published by Johann Spies, 1587)
  • Das Wagnerbuch (1593)
  • Das Widmann'sche Faustbuch (1599)
  • Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang (Frankfurt 1609)
  • Dr. Johannes Faust, Magia naturalis et innaturalis (Passau 1612)
  • Das Pfitzer'sche Faustbuch (1674)
  • Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Meergeist (Amsterdam 1692)
  • Das Wagnerbuch (1714)
  • Faustbuch des Christlich Meynenden (1725)

The 1725 Faustbook was widely circulated, and also read by the young Goethe.

The origin of Faust's name and persona remains unclear, though it is widely assumed to be based on the figure of German Dr. Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540), a magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg University in 1509.

Some sources also connect the legendary Faust with Johann Fust (c.1400 - October 30 1466), Johann Gutenberg's business partner or suggest that Fust is one of the multiple origins to the Faust story.

The character in Polish folklore named Pan Twardowski presents similarities with Faust, and this legend seems to have originated at roughly the same time. It is unclear whether the two tales have a common origin or influenced each other. Pan Twardowski may be based on a 16th century German emigrant to the then-capital of Poland, Kraków, or possibly John Dee or Edward Kelley. According to the theologian Philip Melanchthon, the historic Johann Faust had studied in Kraków, as well.

Other related tales involving a pact between man and the devil include the legend of Theophilus of Adana, the 5th century bishop; and the plays Mary of Nijmegen (Dutch, early 15th century, attributed to Anna Bijns) and Cenodoxus (German, early 17th century, by Jacob Bidermann).

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

The early Faust chapbook, while already in circulation in Northern Germany, found its way to England, where in 1592 an English translation was published, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus credited to a certain "P. F., Gent[leman]". It was this work that Christopher Marlowe used as the basis for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published c. 1604). Marlowe also borrowed from Acts and Monuments by John Foxe, on the exchanges between Pope Adrian and a rival pope. Another possible inspiration of Marlowe's version is John Dee (1527-1609), who practiced forms of alchemy and science and developed Enochian magic.

Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust complicates the simple Christian moral of the original legend. A hybrid between a play and an extended poem, Goethe's two part "closet drama" is epic in scope. It gathers together references from Christian, medieval, Roman, eastern and Hellenic poetry, philosophy and literature; ending in a Faust who is saved, carried aloft to heaven, as Mephistopheles looks on.

The legend of Faust was an obsession of Goethe's. The composition and refinement of his own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years (though not continuously). The final version, published after his death, is recognized as a great work of German literature.

The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life ("was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält"). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge and power, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who agrees to serve Faust until the moment he attains the zenith of human happiness, at which point Mephistopheles may take his soul. Faust is pleased with the deal, as he believes the moment will never come.

In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful and destructive relationship with an innocent and nubile woman named Gretchen. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires and actions. The story ends in tragedy as Gretchen is saved and Faust is left in shame.

The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into rich allegorical poetry. Faust and his devil pass through the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature Faust experiences a single moment of happiness.

The devil Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust's soul when he dies, is frustrated as the Lord intervenes – recognizing the value of Faust's unending striving.


Goethe's Faust was the source material for at least two successful operas: Faust by Charles Gounod and Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito. It has inspired numerous additional major musical works, such as the "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust, the second part of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, and Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes.

Translations into English

In September 2006, Oxford University Press published an English, blank-verse translation of Goethe's work entitled Faustus, From the German of Goethe, now widely believed to be the production of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although Coleridge famously insisted during his lifetime that he "had never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust", he was never the most trustworthy source for matters autobiographical. Moreover, the volume's editors, UCLA Professor Emeritus Frederick Burwick and University of Montana Professor James McKusick (both renowned Coleridge scholars), have assembled over 800 verbal echoes between the translation and Coleridge's other poems and dramatic works, uncovered a wealth of circumstantial evidence, and used computer-aided stylometric analysis in order to support their claim that Coleridge was the author. The translation, which was published anonymously in 1821, was previously attributed to George Soane. Despite this evidence, the status of the translation as the work of Coleridge is still disputed by some Coleridge authorities.

Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus

See also

Black Metal Band 'Akercocke' were named after a monkey in the book Faust.


  • E.A. Bucchianeri: Faust: My Soul be Damned for the World. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2008
  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Edited and with and introduction by Sylvan Barnett (1969, Signet Classics)
  • J. Scheible, Das Kloster (1840s).


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