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On the day of his death Dr Johann Faust made an unusual announcement to his students at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. He explained that, years before, he had sold his body and soul to the devil. Now the hour drew near for the contract to expire. The night the students left their teacher alone in the hall but they lay awake in their beds, listening fearfully. Presently they heard a door burst open and their master cry in a smothered voice, “Murder! Murder!” Then all was silent. At daybreak the students found blood and brains spattered on the hall’s floor and walls. In the courtyard, on a heap of horse dung, lay the mangled remains of Faust’s body.

The legendary Faust, also known as Faustus, was loosely modeled on the real Dr George (later Johann) Faust (c. 1480 – 1540) who, as well as being both a magician and soothsayer, did indeed teach at Wittenberg, but details of his death are unknown. The legend says he turned from theology to the study of the black arts and conjured up Mephistopheles, the devil’s servant. Mephistopheles promised to serve him for 24 years, giving him power and knowledge, in return for his soul. They drew up a written contract, and Faust signed it with his own blood. Mephistopheles passed on considerable occult knowledge to Faust, who became famous for such exploits as summoning the shade of Alexander the Great and conjuring ripe grapes in the middle of winter.

After 23 years Faust began to repent, but there was no going back on the agreement. From then on he pursued evil heedlessly and had Mephistopheles bring him the fairest women in the world for his pleasure. As the twenty-fourth yer of the contract neared its end, Mephistopheles told Faust to prepare for the devil himself to come and fetch him away.

The Faust legend was spread through Europe by a series of books beginning with the story of Johann Faust, published in German in 1587. The early Faust was presented as an arrogant charlatan who deserved his dreadful end. This was a far cry from the tragic hero of English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century drama Tragical History of Dr Faustus, which became the model for the German poet Goethe’s two-part drama Faust, published in 1808 and 1833.