The most famous demon of all, though not the most revered or most powerful, is Mephistopheles, who is fabled to have to served as familiar demon to the German wandering scholar and magician Georgius Sabillicus Faustus (1480-1540?) as part of Faust’s pact with the Devil. The demon’s name has many variant spellings, among them Mephistopheles, Miphostophiles, Mephisto, Mephostophiles and Mephistophilis. The name is associated with the Faust legend of a scholar — based on the historical Johann Georg Faust — who wagers his soul with the Devil. The name appears in the late 16th century Faust chapbooks. In the 1725 version, which Goethe read. Mephostophiles is a devil in the form of a greyfriar summoned by Faust in a wood outside Wittenberg. From the chapbook, the name entered Faustian literature, many authors used it, from Marlowe to Goethe. In the 1616 edition of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Mephostophiles became Mephistophilis. The word could derive from the Hebrew mephitz, meaning “distributor”, and tophel, meaning “liar”; “tophel” is short for tophel shequer, the literal translation of which is “falsehood plasterer”. The name can also be a combination of three Greek words: “me” as a negation, “phos” meaning light, and “philis” meaning loving, making it mean “not-light-loving”, possibly parodying the Latin “Lucifer” or “light-bearer”.
Mephistopheles in later treatments of the Faust material frequently figures as a title character: in Meyer Lutz‘ Mephistopheles, or Faust and Marguerite (1855), Arrigo Boito‘s Mefistofele (1868), Klaus Mann‘s Mephisto, and Franz Liszt‘s Mephisto Waltzes. There is good evidence that Faust actually lived, and practiced magic, but none at all that he ever sold his soul to Lucifer or consorted with a demon named Mephistopheles. During his lifetime Faust was known throughout Germany as a fraud and a trickster. The great Abbot Trithemius, who knew as much about real magic as any man alive, referred to Faust in a letter dated 1507, calling him a mountebank who should be whipped. Faust had the audacity to send Trithemius his calling card, which is how we know his full name, but he fled the city rather than meet with Trithemius, who would undoubtedly have denounced him as a fake. Shakespeare mentions “Mephistophilus” in the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act1, Sc1, line 128), and by the 17th century the name became independent of the Faust legend. According to Burton Russell, “That the name is a purely modern invention of uncertain origins makes it an elegant symbol of the modern Devil with his many novel and diverse forms.” Mephisto is also featured as the lead antagonist in Goethe’s Faust and in the unpublished scenarios for the Walpurgis night, he and Satan appear as two separate characters.
Faust’s reputation as a magician swelled in the German literature of magic shortly after his death, when a number of grimoires were attributed to his hand, though it is unlikely that Faust wrote any of them. The earliest popular retelling of the Faust legend, as opposed to the grimoires attributed to Faust, appeared in print in 1587. In this supposedly true history, the first name of Faust was changed from Georgius to Johannus.
Mephistopheles might have remained no more than an obscure footnote in demonology had not the fable of Faust been used by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) as the subject for his entertaining work The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus (first recorded performance, 1594). The German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) further cemented the fame of both Faust and Mephistopheles with his play Faust, which Goethe began to compose in 1773, but which was not published in its complete two-part form until after his death. In both dramas, Mephistopheles is nearly as important a character as Faust himself.
Marlowe’s Faust is a great scholar who grows tired of the vanity and impotence of ordinary human knowledge. He decides to turn to magic to fulfill his lust for fame, wealth and power:
Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.
‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me.
Faust evokes Mephistopheles with a Latin incantation, which is here translated into English (Marlowe spelled the name of the demon Mephostophilis):
May the gods of Acheron be propitious to me. Away with the three-fold godhead of Jehovah. Welcome, spirits of fire, air, water, and earth. We ask your favor, O prince of the East, Belzebub, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, that Mephostophilis may appear and rise. What dost thou delay? By Jehovah, Gehenna, and the holy water which I now sprinkle, and the sign of the cross which I now make, and by our vows, may Mephostophilis himself now rise, commanded by us.
At first Mephistopheles appears in the form of a terrible dragon, but Faust sends him away and commands that he reappear in a more pleasing shape, that of a humble Franciscan friar. The demon does as Faust orders and asks Faust what the scholar would have him do.
Using Mephistopheles as his messenger, Faust sends the following promise to Lucifer, the lord of the demon in Marlowe’s version of the legend:
Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer:
Seeing Faustus hath incurred eternal death,
By desperate thoughts against Jove’s deity,
Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask;
To tell me whatsoever I demand; To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends, And always be obedient to my will.
Mephisto returns with the news that Lucifer has accepted Faust’s bargain, but first Faust must draw up a formal deed agreeing to give over to Lucifer his soul at the end of the term of the agreement. This is the infamous black pact that forms the centerpiece, either explicitly or implicitly, of all versions of the Faust legend. Mephistopheles declares:
But now thou must bequeath it solemnly, And write a deed of gift with thine own blood,
For that security craves Lucifer.
In this manner Mephistopheles becomes the demonic familiar servant of Faust in the guise of a Gray Friar — that is to say, a Franciscan monk. There is an interesting exchange between Faust and Mephisto early in their relationship when Faust asks the demon how he is able to walk the surface of the earth, since he is one of the damned in hell:
Faust: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Mephisto: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
This is a rather neat explanation as to how Satan and his minions can appear in the world of humanity from time to time — our universe is merely an extension of hell, a subdivision if you will. Goethe’s Faust is a more noble and more heroic figure than Marlowe’s protagonist. He turns to magic seeking true knowledge, not luxury and power. In a book supposedly by the French seer Nostradamus he sees an image of the Macrocosm and his soul is ravished and empowered by it. He calls up the Spirit of the World but the nature of the spirit is too pure and potent for Faust to endure. It vanishes. Later that day while out walking Faust is followed by a black poodle that fawns on him and crawls on its belly seeking favor from the magician. Faust takes the strange dog home, where it transforms itself first into a fearsome beast like a hippopotamus, then when Faust attempts to bind it with a spell, into a form that resembles an elephant, and finally into a mild, obsequious vagabond scholar. When Mephistopheles appears to Faust a second time, he is dressed as a young nobleman in a red doublet trimmed with gold, with a stiff silk cloak, a cock’s feather in his hat, wearing at his side a long sword. This is how the demon is usually represented in modern illustrations, which draw their inspiration from Goethe’s play. Goethe’s Mephistopheles is very clever with words, smooth in his manner, sly, deceitful, flattering — a likeable rogue who is not to be trusted, but nevertheless is good company.
There is an older and rougher Mephistopheles who appears in the German grimoires. In the tract Doctoris Iohannis Fausti magiae naturalis et innatural he is presented as one of the seven planetary electors, the Elector of Mercury. In the closely related tract Dr. Iohannis Fausti cabalae nigrae, magiae naturalis et innaturalis he is the Elector of Jupiter. The electors are the highest of the planetary spirits in the spirit hierarchy of these works. The second treatise is said by Butler to be an expanded version of the first, which is dated 1505 (see E. M. Butler, Ritual Magic, Newcastle Publishing, page 159). This date is very likely false, something that may be said about the dates of composition for almost all of the grimoires.
The author of the second treatise executed 42 portraits of the spirits it describes, among them the image of Mephistopheles that appears at the top of this page. This version was copied out of the original manuscript by an artist named Karl Kohl for the Stuttgart edition of J. Scheible, published in 1849. It depicts Mephisto as he is described in the manuscript, as an “old gray man,” that is, an elderly Gray Friar. In the portrait the demon has a monkey-like aspect, but the artist has preserved his ingratiating, obsequious manner, so familiar from Goethe’s drama.
Before he appears as a monk, Mephistopheles goes through a series of frightening forms, as suggested by Marlowe in his play. In Magiae naturalis et innatural the author, who presents himself as the historical Faust, writes:
This hellish Grand-Duke Mephistoph. appeared to me, Faust, first at a cross-road, and in a very cruel guise, like a bear, then mannerly like a lion; but through much persistence in my conjurations I managed to get him to promise to come to my study, and he came in the form of an old grey man. This spirit immediately made a pact with me for twenty-four years, and promised to bring me quick as thought to any place. Also I was to learn from him all the secret arts of nigromancy, and he promised to teach me magic properly. He also said: ‘All secret arts of nature lie hidden in me. I govern in the hour of Jupiter; therefore I am very much attached to man, and warn him against making pacts. But if he will not heed my warning, then he will find no mercy from me when his hour strikes; nor would the star of Lucifer my Principal which is called Cerumepihiton and hardens the heart of men, allow it. I am most friendly when I appear as a grey man.’
In another of the early German Faust grimoires, known as Faustbooks, Faust evokes Mephistopheles in the depths of a forest. A great wind arises that presses the trees almost flat to the ground and roars around the outer edge of the magic circle that protects the magician with the fury of a thousand roaring lions, or as the grimoire phrases it, like a thousand wagons running together over paving stones. Thunder and lightning crashes from the four corners of the world. Suddenly above the head of Faust a great dragon materializes — this is evidently the dragon mentioned in Marlowe’s play. The dragon is replaced by a flame that falls like a lightning bolt. This flame changes to a globe, out of which comes a burning humanoid figure who runs swiftly around the outer edge of the circle, then changes into a Gray Friar and asked Faust what he wants.
The seal of Mephistopheles above was published in a German grimoire, and reprinted by J. Scheible in his twelve volume anthology of occult works Das Kloster in 1846. It was reproduced by Butler in her book Ritual Magic (Plate VII). It is the same seal that appears in The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, where it is shown greatly corrupted by the carelessness of copyists.
Compare this relatively clear version of the seal with the vague version that appears in the mini-grimoire I extracted from the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and published on this site under the title Spiriti Commando. You will see how badly magic symbols, seals and sigils tend to become degraded and distorted over the centuries, until………………………………………..
Although Mephistopheles appears to Faustus as a devil—a worker for Satan—critics claim that he does not search for men to corrupt, but comes to serve and ultimately collect the souls of those who are already damned. Farnham explains, “Nor does Mephistophiles first appear to Faustus as a devil who walks up and down in earth to tempt and corrupt any man encountered. He appears because he senses in Faustus’ magical summons that Faustus is already corrupt, that indeed he is already ‘in danger to be damned’.”
Mephistopheles is already trapped in his own hell by serving the Devil. He warns Faustus of the choice he is making by “selling his soul” to the Devil: “Mephistophilis, an agent of Lucifer, appears and at first advises Faust not to forgo the promise of heaven to pursue his goals”. Farnham adds to his theory, “…[Faustus] enters an ever-present private hell like that of Mephistophiles”.