Pacts, pranks and public performances


The drawing above is said to be a copy of a potrait Rembrandt had made. It is from 1630 and said to be one of the few authentic portraits of Dr. Faustus.

Part II of the monography on Dr. Faustus

His life, pranks and adventures according to first biographies and folk tales

I – early youth

The first books on the magician’s life give different facts about his social background. Some of his contemporaries reported that Faustus was born in a farmer’s family and that wealthy relatives paid for his education in Ingolstadt.

After finishing his theological studies Faustus moved to Wittenberg, where his relatives were living. He disappointed his family in turning his back to a theological career and instead showing a deep interest for the occult sciences – magic, alchemical and all kinds of divination.

According to those sources he also learnt chiromancy from gypsies and started studying medicine, but soon turned from that to studying astrology. Casting his own birth chart lead him to the decision that he wasn’t only a true genius but also being talented to communicate with spirits, as he was sure, that these had a strong inclination and favour for him.

After his relatives’ death Faustus moved into their house. Not much later he met a man, who taught him how to divine with the help of a crystal. Eager to learn more about the magical arts Faustus now decided that it was time to make a pact with the devil.


II – Making the pact with the devil

Carrying his grimoire and being equipped with a barrel’s hoop, on which he has inscribed magical symbols the hopeful adept went to the wilderness. Standing at a crossroad where five paths meet he is waiting for nightfall. Midnight is drawing near Faustus starts his call to hell. As a result of that experiment he sees a fiery globe, which was falling down from the sky and with a mighty bang aimed towards the trembling neophyte’s circle only to change it’s direction and rush again towards the sky. That overture to his further adventures in that night shocked the young man and let him nearly to leave his magical circle and flee.

But the young adept soon had overcame that first shock and soon made a new endeavour to evoke some inhabitant of hell. This second attempt soon was answered by noises of a storm raging through the forest, cracking branches and howling through the branches of the ancient trees. That was followed by the spectacle of many coaches, coming with enormous speed out of the wood. The hooves of the horses, which were drawing those vehicles from hell whirled so much dust into the air that poor Faustus in his magical circle stood blinded for a few moments.

When the clouds of dust had settled and Faustus has overcome his second shock, he perceived some shadowy being strolling around the circle.

Happy and proud on that result of his magic Faustus addressed the spirit and ordered him to visit the magician’s home, which the spirit agreed to before he was allowed to leave.

The following day found the magician in happy anticipation for his infernal visitor, who appeared from behind the oven after the magician had called him again. Now Faust asked the ambassador of hell about the conditions of his service. But the spirit denies these informations to the adept, who now repeats the evocation, this time stronger and more forceful. As a result the room looks like filled with flames, and the spirit appears with a human head and a furry body until Faustus orders him to appear in a more convenient shape. The spirit, now presenting himself as the duke of the hordes of hell informs the magician that according to his high position in the hierarchy of hell he isn’t able to appear in a more convenient shape. He offers to send one of his subjects in the realms of hell to Faustus. That spirit would be completely to the magician’s service, if Faustus would agree to the contract, presented to him by the satanic majesty. But if the magician would refuse to sign that contract he would never again be able to force any of the entourage of the earl of evil into visible appearance.

Now the devil dictated the conditions of the questionable contract.

The necromancer had to

  • Renunciate the Christian god and his heavenly hosts
  • Be hostile towards all humans, especially towards those, who criticise his evil doings and / or want to persecute and punish him.
  • Be hostile towards all cleric folks
  • Not to go to church, not to listen to prayers, not to receive the sacraments
  • Not to marry
  • Sign the contract with his own blood

Faustus agreed, silently thinking for himself, that he could get out of that contract after some time, as the devil is a liar himself and won’t be able to fulfil all of the magician’s wishes.

After having signed the contract the infernal earl tells his prey that he himself is standing far too high in the hierarchy of hell to serve anybody, but that he would send one of his servants on the following day, and that this sub-devil should become the magician’s wish fulfilling spirit.

On the following day Faustus was visited by a man in grey monk’s habit, presenting himself as Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s servant, instructed by his boss to serve the magician.

Faustus had frittered away his inheritance with banqueting and gambling. So he was happy to be provided by his spirit servant with kitchen of distinction, vintage, fine clothes and money to gamble.

Mephistopheles ensured his master, that all he brought would be always of best quality, as it all was stolen from he most luxuriously equipped courts, kitchens and cloakrooms of kings and nobles. After some time people began to become suspicious, asking questions about the origin of all that wealth, as Faustus never raised a finger to care for his fields, meadows and orchards.

His infernal servant warned him an suggested the adept to take care for his property, and that this would not become too toil some for the magician, as he, Mephistopheles, would do most of the work, caring for the harvest to prosper and to be brought in.

Faustus followed that advice for a short time, but soon got bored of caring for his property.


III – Magic for the public

Being back at the banqueting table he entertained his guests with his magic: he let appear singing birds and blooming flowers in his garden in the midst of winter and makes his habitation look like the chambers of a royal palace. Now he is said to be always accompanied by a black dog with ragged fur and red glowing eyes.

The magus studied several methods of divination. He seems to have worked mainly with chiromancy, crystal gazing and astrology. He became the author of astrological yearly almanachs, which were filled with all kinds of prophecies about kings’ rises and downfalls, the ongoing of wars and other political issues, that were interesting for the readers. It was said that Faustus’ prophecies were most reliable, when the issue was forecasting the weather.

Legends tell about a mantle, which could carry his owner through the air and make him invisible. Several folktales report about the use of this mantle.

Faustus, being always in need of money for gambling and partying used his magic to create living pigs and horses from bundles of straw. Then he drove them to the cattle market and sold them. The bewitched straw bundles resumed their original shape as soon as they came in touch with water. Here we find a reflection of the idea that magic cannot cross flowing water.

Spending his time boasting with his magic while partying with bored young members of the regional nobility he once had been asked to perform an evocation of Alexander the Great and the heroes of Greek mythology. Faust let appear Achill, Ulysses and all the heroes, whose adventures were described by Homer. At last he let appear Polyphemus, the cyclops, huge, wild, clad in furs and with one eye in the middle of his brow. All the appearances silently passed through the room, entering it through the wall on one side and leaving it in the same way on the other side.

The magician’s auditory was delighted about that performance. But at the same time they were afraid of the magic they had witnessed.


The ride on the barrel

One of the most famous anecdotes about Dr. Faustus is that one about the ride on a barrel. In it we meet Dr. Faustus strolling around in Leipzig with his friends. They saw some transport workers, who were trying in vain to get a big barrel out of a pub’s cellar, as the pub had got a new and smaller door after the big barrel was stored in the  pub’s cellar. Dr. Faustus boasted that with his spirit’s assistance he would manage to get the barrel out on the street. The workers asked him to prove that, and the magician agreed under the condition that after his success he should get a barrel of wine for free for himself and his friends. The landlord agreed, and in the next instant he saw the doctor riding on the barrel out of his pub’s cellar.

Vintage and a hungry horse

Another anecdote tells about a meeting of friends in Erfurt. During a dinner party the host of the company said that it would be nice to have Faustus in the round, as the young nobleman would love to see a performance of his magic. Short after he had uttered that wish they heard somebody knocking at the front door. Looking out of the window to find out about the identity of the nightly visitor, they were seeing the magician, who had been thought to have been in Prague at that time. The unexpected guest was happily invited, and his horse was brought into the stable.

The merry round asked Faustus to perform some of his magic for them, and the new guest agreed, asking them about their favourite wine. Each guest wanted a different sort, and Faustus drilled as many holes into the table as there were guests sitting around it. He plugged the holes and glasses were fetched and put under the holes. As soon as the plugs were drawn out from each of the holes a different sort of wine was filling the glasses.

Not much later the round was disturbed by a servant, who informed them that the magician’s horse had been eating not only all of it’s own food, but has gone to the other horses’ mangers to empty them, too. And still the horses seemed to be hungry.

Faustus informed them that his horse was in truth his infernal spirit, always as hungry as hell itself. He had given it the shape of a horse, as no normal horse had been able to get over the distance between Prague and Erfurt in nearly no time. After the third whicker of his horse he had to mount it and travel back to his study in Prague.

Hay and hypnotism

Once, when residing in Gotha the drunken magician was moving wagering from one side of the street to the other. A farmer, annoyed about that asked him to give way for him and his vehicle, laden with hay. Faustus was so angry that he made that poor farmer think that he had eaten his own vehicle, including hay and horses. When the magician’s victim went to the town’s mayor and told him that Faustus had made him eat his hay, including horses and vehicle the mayor laughed at the man, but had also Faustus be brought before him. But meanwhile Faustus had disappeared without leaving a trace behind him.

Many stories tell, how the magician had fooled people by letting them see, hear or think funny things, a phenomenon we nowadays know as hypnosis.


The bewitched drunkards

During a fair in Wittenberg the drunken farmers, who were sitting in the pub, becoming more and more drunk and in consequence exceedingly noisy during their bout, had been asked by the landlord to stop shouting and roaring. But the drunkards completely ignored the landlord’s request. Faustus has witnessed the trouble and now entered the room, where the misbehaving men were making their noise. The landlord was afraid that Faustus might be beaten to death by that drunken mob. But after a short time all was silent, and the doctor happily left the room. When the landlord and his staff dared to glimpse into the chamber, they saw the farmers sitting or standing there like frozen in the instant of the move they had been making, some with their mouth wide open, others tearing each others hair and noses, as the magician’s spell had hit them in the instant they were about to start a brawl.

When the effect of the magic seemed to have faded, the angry farmers thought about beating up the landlord or at least to refuse paying the bill. But the enchantment was still effective in that way, that the men were neither able to complain nor leave without paying.

It was not before the following day, when they were sober again, that they could tell about the prank, Faustus had played on them.

Poltergeist pranks

The creation of poltergeist phenomena seems to have been another infernal service Mephistopheles has done for his temporary master.

One story tells of a neighbour of Faustus in Wittenberg, who had visited the magician trying to convince him to take refuge in the Christian sacraments. Faust refused, and during the discussion the whole house and all it’s furniture seemed to creak and rumble. When the well-intentioned neighbour came back to his own house, the noises started in his  home. He sat down praying, and the noises vanished.

Once Dr. Faustus had an affair with a landlord’s wife in Gotha. When the husband found out about it, he threw his rival out of the house and prohibited him forever to enter his home. The magician, plotting revenge, answered the alleged ignominious ness by sending a poltergeist to the landlord’s edifices.

From that moment noises of creaking and rumbling were heard, as if the house would fall into pieces. Whenever someone would go into the pub’s cellar, an invisible force blew out the candle or torch, so that the individual, who had dared to enter the subterranean vaults was standing in pitch lack darkness, listening to some gloomy howling and groaning.

After some time nobody dared to enter the cursed cellar, and nobody wanted to rent a room in that house anymore. The pub had to be closed, and finally the once pretty mansion became a ruin, as nobody wanted to share one roof with some hooligan from hell.


IV – Old age

When Faustus’ life came to it’s end, he usually was seen accompanied by a dog, whom he called “Praestigidar”. He also found a pupil, Wagner, to whom he started to teach his magic.

According to rumours of that time, more than one of the popes had experimented with magic or was studying the science of astrology. As the fear of magic and of the devil had been strong , and as Luther’s reformation divided the people, more than one of the hatemongers

On both sides revelled in blaming those of different belief of having friendly relationships with the infernal forces.

The abbot of Halberstadt had been one of the clerics who were suspected of practicing magic. Folklore says that he owned a crystal, in which he had captured a spirit, who had to deliver his master with reliable weather forecasts.

That abbot and Dr. Faustus had become friends during the magician’s stay in Halberstadt. The magician even left his dog Praestigidar to the abbot for a year.

After 12 months the dog left the abbot, and it was not long until the man met his death through a sudden illness.


V – Dr. Faustus’ death

When Dr. Faustus felt his death drawing near he gave all his books to his pupil. He informed him, that all the grimoires were protected by a spell, so that they would become invisible of all, who would prosecute the young man for practising witchcraft.

Before Dr. Faustus has died he had left to his pupil a spirit in the shape of a monkey, called “Auerhahn” .He had also asked his pupil Wagner to write his teacher’s biography.

The magician’s death at night had been accompanied by all kinds of noises – a last greeting from his poltergeist . When the doctor’s students looked into their master’s bedroom they found the bed empty and their teacher’s body lying on the dung hill in the hostel’s backyard.


To be continued



Part III of this monography gives some examples for the impact of Dr. Faust and the books about him and / or ascribed to him on german folklore and witchcraft.




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