Not many stories captivate readers like Marlowe’s Faust can captivate. It’s the classic story of a man who risks hellfire by dealing with the devil for a brief, yet magnificent, period of otherworldly knowledge and power. This story has been rewritten and reformulated many times. I will be exploring the connections between the magical traditions in Marlowe’s Faust (and the chapbook that inspired him) and the story of Adam and Eve.
Many have heard of Faust in one way or another. A “Faustian Bargain” is one where an agent trades away the future for a boon in power during the present. What accounts for this story’s persistence? I think it is because readers are gripped by the fantasy of humans possessing divine powers, engaging in adventures and magical exploits, and trafficking with the greatest of evils.
Many view the Faust tradition from the perspective of magus literature. Their searches for Faust’s beginnings often turn up magicians. The historical Johann Faustus, a sixteenth-century charlatan who wandered across Germany and exercised a "minimum of pharmaceutical knowledge…with a maximum amount of malice,” was himself a magician (Magus 122).
E. M. Butler, in The Myth of the Magus, links Faust with a broad number of magicians extending back to Moses and others (Magus 29). Other scholars, seeing the Faust legend as a Christian story, seek Faust's roots in a more limited way. Here the consensus identifies Simon Magus as the earliest real Faust figure not only because of Simon's heretical and magical activities but because, apparently, Simon had a disciple called Faustus and consorted with a woman named Helen. Between Simon Magus and Faustus the magicians most frequently cited in the research literature include Apollonius of Tyana, Hermes Trismegistus, Solomon, and Zoroaster (Magic 208).
Faustus has violated the ultimate religious taboo, at least from the perspective of that time. Competing with God, and enlisting Satan’s services in the process, represents the worst of sins. Faustus has violated not so much a moral code as a fundamental theological one; the true gravity of his sin lies not in weakness of the body or craving for material pleasures but in his arrogant competition with God.
To begin with, the Chapbook enacts a story of religious heresy, of disobedience to God, and indeed of a direct competition with God. The instigator in this instance, unlike the biblical analogue rests initially with Faustus: he is motivated from the outset by hubris, by a mind, as Christopher Marlowe puts it, "swollen with cunning of a self—conceit (Marlowe 3).” Yet from the moment Mephostophilis makes his appearance, in response to Faustus' summoning, he takes over completely. Whatever happens thereafter occurs at his desire, and much of his sinister malevolence emerges in the way he totally dominates Faustus’ life during the twenty—four years of their contract, while slyly letting Faustus believe throughout that it is himself who controls their relationship....