Making a deal with the devil is a common element of stories in folklore and literature from around the world. Fundamentally, it involves making an oral or written contract with Satan or a lesser demon to exchange one’s soul for diabolical favors. As such stories are generally grounded in Christian folktales, they are less about actual practices and more about illustrating morality. Accordingly, the main character will either face eternal damnation or cleverly outwit the devil himself. What follows is a series of historical figures whose own lives have become entangled with such stories – and with the tensions they reveal.
Johann Georg Faust (1480 to 1540)
As the basis for the Faust of Marlowe’s classic The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust, the real-life Dr. Fuast was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer, and Germain Renaissance magician. According to legend and literature, Faust summoned the Devil make a deal to experience life’s pleasures, but, over time, he regretted the pact and withdrew, leading to his own destruction. Although the actual Dr. Faust didn’t leave behind any pacts with Satan, he did die in an explosion resulting from an alchemical explosion – or so it seems.
Father Urbain Grandier (1590 – 1634)
This Roman Catholic priest served in the Loudun area of France but came under fire for ignoring his celibacy vow. Even worse, Grandier made a reputation in his sexual relations with women as being a philanderer with an elevated sense of lustful depravity. In 1632, he was accused of bewitching a group of local, Ursuline nuns by sending demons to commit evil acts with them and so turn them into his sex slaves. After being tortured by judges, a contract that was supposedly with Satan was found in his bedroom and brought forth as evidence of his pact. In the end, he was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.
Giuseppe Tartini (1692 – 1770)
As a composer and violinist, Tartini was extremely influential in Italy and internationally, but he was also infamous for his hot temper and inferiority complex. As the story goes, Tartini overheard someone playing violin better than him, and this sent him into a spiralling depression that took him into a solitude spent on 12 hour practice sessions. During this time, he had a dream in which the devil appeared offered him success in exchange for his soul, at which point the devil played a sonata with master virtuosity. When he awoke, Tartini immediately wrote down the sonata but could never get it to meet the same standards.
Delphine Lalaurie (1780 to 1849)
Born Marie Delphine Macarty, Lalaurie was a New Orleans Creole socialite and a serial killer of the human slaves in her employ. While she had likely long tortured and killed people in her home, it was an 1834 fire at her Royal Street mansion that led to the discovery of bound and mutilated slaves there. Afterwards, her home was sacked, revealing the gruesomeness of her torture methods and general treatment of human beings. Although Lalaurie was able to escape to France, she left behind enough of a scandal that rumors spread about her practice of Voodoo and black magic, as well as the pact with the Devil she must have signed to accrue wealth while committing such atrocities.
Robert Johnson (1911 to 1938)
Johnson is a paragon of American Blues and is ranked number 5 on the Rolling Stone list of all-time greatest guitarists. However, it was not always so; many close to the guitar-player were astounded when he transformed from someone with no musical talent in high school to a skilled musician later on. According to a story that he himself supported, Johnson went to a crossroads where the Devil offered him talent for his soul. When the young musician agreed, the Devil tuned his guitar, allowing him to go on to produce 6 records before his death at the young age of 27.
From musicians to alchemists and more besides, many people are portrayed in popular stories as making deals with the Devil. However, as the examples above demonstrate, these are more than mere morality plays or clever jokes. Such diabolical tales can boost a musician’s reputation, provide an outlet for social anxieties, help imagine new creative goals, or even provide a means to access political power. So, while tales of pacts with the Devil may not be as devious as they seem, they do help us cope with the devilish actions of humankind.
Have you been tempted to part with your soul? Then you’ll be interested in this DIY Faustian Bargain Kit: Sell Your Soul to Satan available on Etsy.
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