While Goethe’s Faust is probably the best known version of the Faustian legend and one of the greatest epic poems of the modern era, it is not the first or only telling of such a tale. The architecture of the Faustian legend dates back to some of the earliest oral cultures. It is a story that perseveres and continues to be part of the cultural and intellectual context of the modern era.
The major theme of Faust, that of supernatural temptation and human strength or weakness, is seen in the earliest literature of ancient cultures. One of the first written iterations of the legend is in the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible. Job, a faithful servant of God, is the subject of a bet between God and Satan. Satan bets that through torment and pain, he can turn Job against God. God believes that his servant Job will remain faithful. Satan proceeds to torment Job, killing his family, taking his property, and causing him great physical pain. Job, however, does not relent in his faithfulness to God. By the end of the story, Job is rewarded with even more riches than he previously had. Goethe’s Faust alludes to Job in many ways, including the epic’s opening scene in which God and Mephistopheles barter over Faust’s soul.
The New Testament echoes the same scene. Jesus, God’s son, goes into the wilderness where he faces three temptations from Satan, including the ability to rule the world as a great King. Jesus does not give into such temptations. Scholars believe the scene to represent the dichotomy between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. He is able to feel temptation just as a human being would, yet he resists such temptation because he is the Son of God.
Such temptation myths exist in other cultures and other religions as well. For instance, the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism espouses the concept of “Aka Manah,” a state of mind that causes evil intentions or evil thinking. Aka Manah, which is of the demonic realm, represents a kind of divine temptation for Zoroaster, who must overcome his own evil intentions through right worship of the gods who counter these evil thoughts.
Medieval and modern myths relating to the Faust legend have taken on more ambiguous and morally fraught interpretations. While many of these early myths of divine interplay featured characters who remained morally and spiritually upright, newer versions of this myth, such as Faust, offer characters that give into temptation and are refused salvation. The earliest versions of the Faust legend began appearing in chapbooks, cheaply produced books and pamphlets, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. The books, based on what scholars to be a real doctor names Faust who lived in the sixteenth century, depicted a man who received magical powers after selling his soul to the Devil. In one of the most famous Faust stories, alluded to in Goethe’s Faust, Faust appears at Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig for drunken revelry with the tavern goers. At the end of the story, Faust flies away on a magic barrel of wine. In these early Faust tales, Faust gains great power while on Earth but is doomed to eternal damnation. The moral of the story is clear. One should be morally upright in this life in order to assure eternal comfort and salvation. Deals with the Devil only lead to future suffering.
The Faust legend has continued into the modern era in other forms as well. In modern American culture, one of the stories that best exemplifies the Faust archetype exists in American twentieth century music. Robert Johnson was one of the great bluesmen of the twentieth century and is credited with creating the modern form of the blues, an amalgamation of black gospel and spiritual music, combined with the sorrowful tales sung by slaves and black sharecroppers in the American South. Robert Johnson was so prolific at blues music, and his early death was such a great loss for the blues community, that legends and stories began to grow around him and his personality. The most famous legend concerns Johnson’s meeting with the Devil. The tale says that Johnson met the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads, and in exchange for being able to play blues music on his guitar, Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Only the devil could create music with such sorrow and controversial rhythm, and Johnson became the sacrifice for the creation of modern blues.
The legend of Robert Johnson, as well as numerous stories and tales with similar narratives and arcs, shows that the Faust legend has moved from a simple popular story in the late middle ages to an archetypal narrative that defines cultures other than the one out of which it originally grew. Goethe’s version of the Faust story, while more deeply infused with philosophical and literary culture than other versions of the legend, shows that the basic narrative of such stories resonates deeply with people in varied and diverse cultural contexts. The story survives and is recreated again and again.