A. The Historical Faust
- George Sabellicus, the Younger Faustus
- Other mentions of Faustus
- Beginnings of the Legend
1. George Sabellicus, the Younger Faustus
In 1507 the abbot of Spanheim monastery, Johannes Trithemius
(1462–1516), himself a magician whose story may have contributed to the
Faust legend (see "Sources for the Legendary Faust" below),
wrote to an astrologer friend concerning a magician whose calling card
was, “George Sabellicus, the younger Faustus, the chief of
necromancers, astrologer, the second magus, palmist, diviner with earth
and fire, second in the art of divination with water.” Trithemius
writes that he is a complete fraud and charlatan, and accuses him of
various crimes. However, it is not irrelevant that at this very
time Trithemius was attempting to defend himself from the charge of
being a magician, and so it was essential to distinguish his own
activities from those of the notorious Faustus.
Tritheim does seem to be referring to the Faustus around whom the
legends arose, but it also raises the interesting question of who the
“elder Faustus” might be. We may detect feigned modesty in
Faustus' calling card: calling himself "the second magus" makes
him second only to Zoraster, the legendary "first magus" (and a key
figure in the Ancient Theology); likewise, "second in the art of
divination with water" places him just below Numa Pompilius, an early
king of Rome who was supposed to have originated this art. The
name Sabellicus (Lat.) means Sabine, and was probably adopted
as a good name for a magus, for the land of the Sabines was notorious
for witchcraft in the ancient world; Numa was a Sabine. Faustus (Lat.) means lucky, favorable, auspicious, and was appropriate for his occupation as a fortune-teller. In German, Faust means fist, but this appears only in later sources and is unlikely to be the original form of his name. (Baron, 1978)
2. Other mentions of Faustus
Over the succeeding 30 years we can trace the progress of a figure
variously called “Georg Faustus,” “Johann Faustus,” or—most often—just
“Doctor Faustus,” through various letters and city records, for example
when he is paid for a service, such as casting a horoscope, but more
frequently when he is chased from some town. (The name "Johann"
seems to be a mistake, which has replaced the correct name in the
legend, especially after Goethe wrote his Faust.) He was
also known to Luther (who did much to create the legendary Faustus) and
the Protestant Humanist Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560).
As may be reconstructed from these reports, Faustus was born near
Heidelberg about 1466, studied scholastic philosophy at the University
of Heidelberg, and received his Masters there in 1487 (in record time
and near the top of his class). At that time, the university was
a hotbed of Renaissance humanism, especially in the form of the
Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism of Ficino and Pico; astrology, magic, and
occult studies were popular. Baron (1978, 49) observes that a
characteristic of the humanist movement was "the close relationship
between occult science and the studia humanitas." Faustus
was probably dead by 1539, but all direct accounts of his death are
filled with legendary material, and so of doubtful reliability.
Apparently Dr. Faustus' magic was respected by members of the clergy
and nobility, and to some extent by scholars, although they denounced
him in public; he had both supporters and critics among the well-known
people of the time.
3. Beginnings of the Legend
In reports written after the death of Faustus it is often difficult to
separate truth from fiction. For example, these records state
that while he was lecturing on Homer in the university at Erfurt, he is
supposed to have conjured up the heroes of the Trojan War, an event
which also occurs in Goethe's drama. However, he may have
accomplished this perfectly naturally by means of a "magic lantern,"
projecting the images on smoke (as may be implied in Goethe's
description). Certainly, Faustus bragged of many skills and feats
and wove a legend around himself, perhaps even claiming, for example,
that he was the devil's brother-in-law. Although an account of a
1537 conversation with Luther states that Faustus did make this claim,
there is no direct historical evidence of it, and the early sources do
not connect him with the devil. Nevertheless his calling card did
boast of his skill as a black magician (negromanticus).
In 1548 a Protestant clergyman, Johannes Gast, claimed to have dined
with Faustus, although the context is a collection of entertaining
after-dinner stories, and it is unlikely to be true. He wrote
that Faustus had with him a demon in the form of a dog, who also
sometimes took the form of a servant (cf. Goethe's
Mephistopheles). He also wrote that Faustus was eventually
strangled by the devil, who has served him
Within a generation of Faust's death (i.e., the 1560s and ‘70s), at the
same time the witchcraze was beginning, the Faust legend began to grow,
and a number of collections of Faust stories circulated. Most of
these tales were traditional and had been told of other sorcerers in
the past, but they developed, especially under the influence of Luther,
to have a moral: all magic is diabolical and will result in eternal
damnation. The publication of the Faustbuch (1587, see below), which codified many aspects of the Faust legend, coincided with the peak of German witch burnings.
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