FAUSTUS & FRIENDS: HOW SATAN’S BAD RAP HELPS HIS IMAGE
(At least being jobless now will give that guy more time to go catch COVID in DC this week…)
Stories usually present Faustus as a cautionary tale about overweening ambition, pride, and, of course, running with the devil. But I don’t think anybody has kept this curious legend in circulation for five centuries years because they care about the moral of the story.
Rather, I think moralizing is just an excuse to get some kicks. You could even say, it’s how Anti-Satanists give themselves permission to enjoy Satanism.
The real Johann Faustus, if there was a real Faustus (historians disagree on this point, which is by the way their default setting), was probably an itinerant astrologer, alchemist, and fortune-teller in 16th century Germany.
In 1507 (our earliest extant reference) the abbott and magician Johannes Trimethius referred to him in a letter as “a knave worthy to be whipped,” which for the period was a sick enough burn to be worth 500-plus years of posterity.
Evidently he was famous to a degree that warranted gossip, so the story got around that he’d sold his soul. This had been a popular trope for over a 1,000 years, going back to a fourth century biography of St. Basilius in which the saint frees a slave from a contract with Satan by just praying really hard at the sky. Which is what I used to do before running laps in high school gym, for the record.
According to pagan writer Gareth Medway’s book Lure of the Sinister, “The story of the youth saved by St. Basil was included in The Golden Legend, a 13th-century best-seller, and it became common to accuse any successful man of a diabolical pact.” The original “haters gonna hate,” apparently.
Near the end of the century, an anonymous German writer stumbled on the miraculous innovation of–stop us if you’ve heard this one–adapting a popular story into book form. The 1587 Faust Book crystallized key details of the legend, including Faustus’ deal with Mephistopheles (rather than Satan himself), and of course, Faustus’ hilariously gruesome death:
“Doctor Faustus’ door creaked open. There then arose a crying out of Murther! and Help! but the voice was weak and hollow, soon dying out entirely. […] The parlor was full of blood. Brain clave unto the walls where the Fiend had dashed him from one to the other. Here lay his eyes, here a few teeth. O it was a hideous spectaculum.”
Well we’ve all had that morning-after hangover sometime. Faustus’s Peter Jackson-esque death scene (we have no idea how the real Faustus died, by the way, so I like to imagine he suffocated to death from reading too much Sophocles, like Sophocles did) is part of the moralizing tone of the book.
“A highly essential Christian warning and admonition,” the title page promises, including “how he [Faustus] at last got his well-deserved reward.” So you see, since it’s a “Christian warning,” it’s okay for upright folks to read this book about devils, black magic, fornication, and murder–because it’s didactic, honest.
This is rather like what I said about cracked-up crackpot fundy cartoonist Jack Chick in an earlier BMA episode last year: I strongly (strongly) suspect that a lot of the appeal of his comics for fellow fundies was just having an excuse to read exploitative stories about sex, drugs, violence, and Satanism.
Chick’s version of these realities is wildly naive, but oddly I think that increases the appeal. Simple fact is that people find allegedly unseemly things entertaining, and I have REAL trouble believing that fundies are the big exception to this.
So they put a very thin layer of preachiness on top of their exploitative media and call it a wash. Of course, even preaching carries with it a distinct atmosphere of sadism: In St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, he wrote, “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them [in Heaven…], they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned, so that they may be urged the more to praise god.” Oh is that the reason, Tom?
Dante spent years composing Paradiso, his account of Heaven, gilding it with some of his most beautiful poetry. But most people just want to read Inferno, universally acknowledged as the part with all of the far-out stuff: mazes, monsters, swords, poison, spells, battles, maiming, killing. You’ve got to give the people what they want.
And this is why I don’t usually mind the way that media and popular culture portray Satan and Satanism. In the past I’ve talked about how I suspect that future generations of Satanists will demand more sensitive and nuanced depictions, and possibly they’ll even call people like me sell-outs for defending older media that perpetuates negative stereotypes.
But for now, Satan is a villain and that’s his lot in life. There are a handful of truly sympathetic depictions: The Revolt of the Angels, The Master & Margarita, Les Enfants de Lucifer, just Lucifer (the TV show that is), etc.
But these are few and far between; our storytelling conventions just cannot seem to abide many nuanced devils. Maybe the world isn’t ready.
And to me, that’s fine. Because, as with old Faustus, it’s always pretty obvious what people are really here for. If Satan didn’t make stories attractive, nobody would have continued to perpetuate his myth, and Satanism wouldn’t even exist.
A fig leaf can be fashionable depending on the season, but it doesn’t really cover anything. We all see the naked truth.