Introduction IV:

A. The Historical Faust

  1. George Sabellicus, the Younger Faustus
  2. Other mentions of Faustus
  3. 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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