Introduction IV:

B. Sources for the Legendary Faust

Baron (1978, 80) claims, “There is hardly a passage in the [Faustbuch] that cannot be related to a closely corresponding passage in Luther's works.”  Although Luther's widely reprinted writings may be the proximate source, stories about other magicians contributed to the legend of Dr. Faustus, which became a kind of summa of all the morality tales teaching the evils of magic.

  1. Simon Magus (c. 67 CE)
  2. Trithemius (1462–1519)
  3. Agrippa (1486–1535)

1.    Simon Magus (c. 67 CE)

The story of Simon Magus (Acts viii: 9–24) may have inspired parts of the Faust legend.  Indeed Melanchthon explicitly compared the two, when he said that Faustus was dashed to the ground and severely injured when he tried to fly at Venice, just as had Simon Magus when Peter prayed that he would fall.  Also, both Simon and Goethe's Faust had a relation with a semi-divine woman called Helen, as we will discuss when we come to that part of the drama.  Early ecclesiastical writers attributed all sorts of Faustian magical accomplishments to Simon, and according to later legends, he was court sorcerer to Nero, which may be compared to Faust's service to the Emperor in Goethe's drama.  Simon Magus is often identified with the Simon who founded the gnostic sect of Simonites.

2.    Trithemius (1462–1519)

Johannes Trithemius, the abbot of Spanheim, where he assembled a huge library, and later of St. James at Wurtzburg had, as already noted, a reputation as a magician, which caused him many difficulties.  He was deeply influenced by the natural and Hermetic magic of Ficino and Pico, but he was critical of alchemy and other occult sciences.  Twice he heard reports of Faustus when they were in the same city, but they do not seem to have met; as noted, he was critical of Faustus, perhaps to distance his magic from the necromancer's.  He wrote,

Study generates cognition; cognition gives birth to love; love to similitude; similitude to communion; communion to virtue; virtue to dignity; dignity to power; and power produces a miracle.  This is the sole path to the perfect magic, divine as well as natural… (Baron 1978, 27–8)

Trithemius wrote a notorious book (Steganographia), ostensibly about the evocation of spirits, but the part that survives is a system of secret writing; the rest he is supposed to have destroyed (although it might not have been written).  Among other occult books he also wrote one about alchemy and he was said to have used the alchemical philosophers' stone (which he a materialization of the World Soul) to produce to wealth for operating monastery at Spanheim.  For the Emperor Maximillian I of Germany, Trithemius was said to have conjured up a vision of the Emperor's dead wife, the beautiful Empress Mary of Burgundy.  When the Emperor tried to embrace her, he fell to the ground as if struck by lightening and Mary disappeared (cf. the evocation of Helen in Faust 6377-6565, "Hall of Chivalry").

3.    Agrippa (1486–1535)

Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim was a student of Trithemius.  He was highly educated and served as a soldier, physician, magician, alchemist, and astrologer for various members of the nobility, including Emperor Maximillian.  Nevertheless, he was accused of heresy at a young age, and often thereafter he had to flee enemies hostile to his ideas.

Trithemius encouraged him to commit his learning to writing, but he delayed publishing his magnum opus, On Occult Philosophy, for twenty years, publishing it in 1531 only after he had attempted to protect himself by recanting it in an apologetic profession of faith, On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Arts.  He also wrote On the Nobility of the Female Sex and On the Excellence of Women, and Agrippa and his student Weyer (or Weir) defended innocent women accused of witchcraft, which earned Agrippa even more enemies.

Johannes Manlius, a student of Melanchthon, wrote in 1563 about Faust's dog familiar, which he compared to Agrippa's, also in the form of a dog.  According to one tale, when Agrippa was dying he repented of magic and accosted this large black dog as the cause of his destruction, whereupon it fled the room and drowned itself in a river.  This may be compared to the idea of the repentance of Faust, which was not a part of the old stories, but was used by Goethe.  He was also said to have paid his bills with money that later turned into worthless horn or shell, to have called back Cicero from the dead, and to be able see distant scenes in a magic glass, all of which may be compared with events in Goethe's Faust (although they were the stock in trade of many magical tales).

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