Johann Georg Faust was a wandering magician, alchemist and astrologer, reputed by legend to have gained unnatural magickal powers by making a pact with the Devil and his minions. Faust lived during the German Renaissance at a time when the church was violently suppressing the practice of magick, yet over the course of 30 years (beginning in Gelnhausen in 1506) accounts of his flamboyant supernatural feats spread throughout various German towns. Faust's exploits gave rise to so many rumors and legends that it is difficult (or impossible) to sort out which of the tales have a basis in truth. A scholarly but very entertaining examination of historical evidence tracing his wanderings through Germany is available thanks to Leo Ruickbie's Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician.
The location or exact year of Faust's birth is unknown. He is popularly reputed to have been born in Knittlingen in a house with rune-carved oak beams, a strange parchment found hidden in a crack in a door frame, and a mysterious cabinet inlaid with alchemical signs. It is known that Faust was a nobleman and a commander of the Knights of St. John, and he moved in the same circles as Franz von Sickingen and the Bishop of Bamberg. He was evidently well-educated, and was a physician and doctor of philosophy as well as a magician, alchemist and astrologer. He may even have been of the noble family of Von Helmstatt, whose coat of arms sports a black raven — an enduring symbol associated with Faustus. The Black Raven also became the name of one of the grimoires attributed to Faust after his death.
Faust's aristocratic status is likely all that prevented him from being tortured and executed for his blasphemous boasts and reputed feats of magick. His contemporaries Paracelsus and Agrippa also aroused controversy due to their involvement with magick and the occult— but of the three, Faust's brazenness appears to have aroused the greatest animosity from detractors. Faust described himself as the fons necromanticorum, "fount of the necromancers," although it is believed he used title "Second Magus" in deference to Zoroaster. He was famous for his boasting, allegedly claiming that he could easily reproduce the miracles of Christ and the knowledge of the wise men of antiquity. Faust's enemies vehemently denounced and defamed him, accusing him of being a blasphemer in league with the Devil.
One of Faust's most enthusiastic detractors was Abbot Trithemius, a churchman of high rank who himself practiced astrology, necromancy, and other forms of occult arts, while denouncing others who did the same. Trithemius wrote of Faust: "That man about whom you wrote to me, Georgius Sabellicus, who dares to call himself the prince of necromancers, is a wandering vagrant, a driveller and a cheat, who deserves to be punished with a whip that he may not lightly dare to publicly profess that which is abominable and against the holy church." Faust was reviled by Protestants as well as Catholics. Martin Luther himself denounced him on several occasions, and another Protestant detractor in Wittenberg wrote that Faust "He had neither house nor courtyard in Wittenberg or elsewhere; he stayed nowhere, but lived like a villain, was a parasite, a gourmandised drunkard, and fed himself by his jugglery." Another of Faust's detractors was Johannes Gast, who wrote a moralizing work in which Faust meets a gruesome end at the Devil's hands, thus fulfilling the pact that the magician had allegedly made with the Devil in exchange for his powers.
No evidence seems to exists indicating that the historical Faust ever actually attempted to enter into a pact with Satan or his minions, yet this undoubtedly became one of the most famous aspects of his legacy.
According to legend, Faust set out into the forests around Wittenberg at sundown, where he intended to summon an infernal spirit and make a pact to acquire riches and supernatural powers. He cast a magick circle at a crossroads, inscribing arcane sigils deep into the night until the circle was completed. He then began a conjuration that caused a great storm with howling winds and lightning flashing in the darkness as the infernal powers attempted to resist the magician's Will. Yet Faust's Will finally triumphed, and the ritual concluded with the summoning of the infernal spirit Mephistopheles (said to be the Devil himself in some versions of the legend). Faust and the spirit then entered into a pact, both parties agreeing that Faust would be given "certain years to live in health and pleasure, and when such years were expired, that then Faustus should be fetched away."
Having acquired his occult powers, Faust began to wander throughout Germany. He was reputed to travel with several supernatural familiars, including a demon horse and a dog which would sometimes transform into a servant. Numerous Faust legends involve the Magician using sorcery and the power of illusion to play mischievous tricks or to defraud innkeepers, peasants, and other persons. Faust and Agrippa were both notorious for paying innkeepers with bewitched coins, and in another legend Faust was said to have caused a herd of pigs to transform into bundles of straw. While many Faust legends are highly improbable, many of his impressive feats can in fact be reproduced using hypnosis, while others can be imitated using various forms of stage magic and sleight-of-hand.
Whatever the true extent of his abilities, the real Johann Faust's antics caused him to be expelled from a number of towns during the course of his wanderings. He was driven out of Erfurt around 1513, and afterward he found sanctuary in monastery of Maulbronn. Here Faustus promised Abbot Entenfuß of Evisheim an abundance of alchemically produced gold. The Abbot, who had a fondness for extravagant spending, accepted Faust's offer and enlisted him as an alchemist. According to this account, Faust successfully produced either gold (or some substance that looked convincingly like gold to be exchanged as such) and the operation was deemed a success. Despite this, Entenfuß was dismissed from the post of abbot shortly after this time in 1518, quite possibly due to his financial excesses.
Later in his wanderings Faust was at Boxberg Castle as a guest of the von Rosenbergs, and his stay at Boxberg gave rise to several famous legends. In the first, Faust was walking in the Castle grounds with the nobles on a frost-bitten winter day, when he caused an enchanted winter garden to appear. The sun began shining down as a result of the enchantment, melting the snows, causing violets to grow and causing trees to blossom and bear fruit, to the delight of the nobles. He was also said to have summoned a ghostly carriage driven by black horses, and attended by demonic spirits which bore him to a banquet at a nearby town with supernatural speed.
Despite his reputation as a diabolist and blasphemer, Faust was later enlisted as an astrologer by Georg III Schenk von Limpurg, the Bishop of Bamberg, who was actively involved in the Church's brutal suppression of magick. The Bishop himself had decreed that those caught practicing magick would be tortured and burned to death— yet despite Faust's having been condemned as a necromancer, the Bishop's accounting records show that Faust was received as an honored guest to provide astrological forecasts: "Ten gulden given and presented to honour Doctor Faustus, philosopher, who made for my Lord a nativity of judicium. Paid on the Sunday after Scholastica's by order of his reverence." A similarly contradictory position toward occult practices was held by Faust's enemy Trithemius, who lambasted divinatory astrologers as a group, saying that demons cooperated with practitioners, and that the astrologer or diviner was "an imitator and disciple of the Devil." Meanwhile, Trithemius himself practiced astrology and divination, having composed an astrological history of the world for Maximilian I, and attributed a riding accident to the influence of Saturn.
Faust later rejoined his patron the Bishop of Bamberg outside Münster, and was present during the bloody and chaotic revolt of the Anabaptists. Faust correctly predicted that the Bishop would capture the city on that very night, which he did.
Faust continued his wanderings, and stories of his reputation as a conjurer continued to proliferate. One account describes Faust stopping at a wealthy monastery near Lixheim, where he was credited with the summoning of a poltergeist. According to the story, Faust had become angry after the monks refused to serve him the best wine available, as would customarily be given to nobles. Vowing revenge, he left the monastery and never returned, but a demonic servitor Faust had summoned soon arrived at the monastery at the sorcerer's command. The spirit caused an intolerable disturbance whenever a monk set foot in their haunted rooms, so that they were forced to flee. The Count Palatine eventually turned them out of the monastery due to their inability to rid themselves of the poltergeist.
Faust was also believed to be capable of summoning more pleasing entities: According to the Faustbook he conjured up of seven of the greatest beauties in the land and "began to live a swinish and Epicurish life" in their company. Faust was even credited with the conjuration of magickal armies and castles by some legends. He may at least have bragged of this capability, regardless of whether he was really capable of it— Philip Melanchthon allegedly stated that "the same magician Faustus, a wicked beast and a sewer of many devils, lyingly boasted that all the victories of the Emperor's armies in Italy had been won by means of magic."
It is still unknown exactly when and where Faust died, or how he actually died, although sometime in the 1540s is often suggested as the date. Faust's enemies made up a variety of stories in which the renegade magician came to a gruesome end as the Devil came to collect his due. In some versions he was grievously mutilated in an alchemical experiment, while in others the Devil arrived and tore him limb from limb with a hellish cacaphony. Such stories tended to include overt moralizing by Faust's enemies, along with less-than-subtle admonitions that a similarly ghastly fate would lie in wait for impious readers or listeners tempted to follow Faust's example.
He may just as likely have retired, as another story describes Faust summoning the Devil in the ruins of an old chapel in Wittenberg, commanding him to reveal the location of a hoard of buried treasure. The Devil did as requested and Faust successfully claimed the hoard from the giant serpent set to guard it. The Faustbook claims the treasure was later discovered after the magician's death, and valued at a princely sum.
Various other individuals continued to claim that they had encountered Faust in person, even as late as 1602 when Philipp Camerarius claimed to have heard directly from people who had encountered Faust.
Whatever became of the man himself, tales of Faust's exploits stimulated popular imagination so profoundly that he became the subject of a huge amount of legends and folklore. Many Grimoires were also attributed to him (most of which appear to have been written after the real Faust's death), containing elaborate rituals, sigils and instructions for summoning spirits to acquire treasure, bewitch people, and perform supernatural feats. Faustian legend later inspired the famous works by Christopher Marlowe (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust, 1808).
Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West called this a Faustian age, as the renegade magician has become a symbol of the burning desire to reach infinitely beyond known boundaries in search of knowledge and power. As the Faust Chapbook of 1587 said of Faust: "No longer limited by earthly constraints, he traveled from the depths of hell to the most distant stars."