1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mephistopheles

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MEPHISTOPHELES,[1] in the Faust legend, the name of the evil spirit in return for whose assistance Faust signs away his soul. The origin of the conception and name of Mephistopheles has been the subject of much learned debate. In Dr Fausts Höllenzwang “Mephistophiel” is one of the seven great princes of hell; “he stands under the planet Jupiter, his regent is named Zadkiel, an enthroned angel of the holy Jehovah . . .; his form is firstly that of a fiery bear, the other and fairer appearance is as of a little man with a black cape and a bald head.” The origin of the idea of Mephistopheles in Faust’s mind is thus clear. He was one of the evil demons of the seven planets, the Maskim of the ancient Akkadian religion, a conception transmitted through the Chaldeans, the Babylonians and the Jewish Kabbala to medieval and modern astrologers and magicians. This fact suggests a plausible theory of the origin of the name. In the ancient Mesopotamian religion the Intelligence of Jupiter was Marduk, “the lord of light,” whose antithesis was accordingly conceived as the lord of darkness. Mephistopheles, then (or rather Mephostophiles, as the Faust-books spell the name) is “he who does not love light” (Gr. μή, φῶς, φίλης).[2]

To Faust himself, somnambulist and medium, Mephistopheles had—according to Kiesewetter—a real existence: he was “the objectivation of the transcendental subject of Faust,” an experience familiar in dreams and, more especially, in the visions of mediums and clairvoyants. He was thus a “familiar spirit,” akin to the ’‘daemon” of Socrates; and if he was also half the devil of theology, half the kobold of old German myth, this was only because such “objectivations” are apt to clothe themselves in forms borrowed from the common stock of ideas current at the time when the seer lives; and Faust lived in an age obsessed with the fear of the devil, and by no means sceptical of the existence of kobolds. It is suggested, then, in the light of modern psychical research, that Mephistopheles, though (as the Faust-books record) invisible to any one else, was visible enough to Faust himself and to Wagner, the famulus who shared his somnambulistic experiences. He was simply Faust’s “other self,” appearing in various guises—as a bear, as a little bald man, as a monk, as an invisible presence ringing a bell—but always recognizable as the same “familiar.”

The Mephostophiles of the Faust-books and the puppet plays

passed with little or no modification into literature as the Mephistophilis of Marlowe’s Faustus. Mephistophilis has the kobold qualities: he not only waits upon Faustus and provides him with sumptuous fare; he indulges in horse-play and is addicted to practical joking of a homely kind. He is, however, also the devil, as the age of the Reformation conceived him: a fallen angel who has not forgotten the splendour of his first estate, and who pictures to Faust the glories of heaven, in order to accentuate the horrors of the hell to which he triumphantly drags him. Goethe’s Mephistopheles is altogether another conception. Some of the traditional qualities are indeed preserved: the practical joke, for instance, in the scene in Auerbach’s Keller shows that he has not altogether shed his character as kobold; and, like the planet-spirits of the old magic he appears alternately in animal and human shape. He is also identified with the devil; thus, in accordance with old German tradition, he is dressed as a nobleman (ein edler Junker), all in red, with a little cape of stiff silk, a cock’s feather in his hat, and a long pointed sword; at the witches’ Sabbath on the Brocken he is hailed as “the knight with the horse’s hoof,” and Sybel in Auerbach’s Keller is not too drunk not to notice that he limps. But his limp is the only indication that he is Lucifer fallen from heaven. He could not, like Marlowe’s Mephistophilis or Milton’s Satan, regretfully paint the glories of the height from which he has been hurled; for he denies the distinction between high and low, since “everything that comes into being deserves to be destroyed.”[3] He is, in short, not the devil of Christian orthodoxy, a spirit conscious of the good against which he is in revolt, but akin to the Evil Principle of the older dualistic systems, with their conception of the eternal antagonism between

good and evil, light and darkness, creation and destruction. (See Faust.)
 (W. A. P.) 

  1. In the Faustbuch of 1587 it is spelt Miphostophiles; by Marlowe Mephistophilis; by Shakespeare (Merry Wives of Windsor, Act i.) Mephostophilus. The form Mephistopheles adopted by Goethe first appears in the version des Christlich Meinenden, c. 1712.
  2. Kiesewetter, p. 163. To Schröer this derivation seems improbable, and he appears to prefer that from Hebrew Mephiz, destroyer, and tophel, liar (Faust, ed. 1886, i. 25), which is certainly supported by the fact that almost all the names of devils in the magic-books of the 16th century are derived from the Hebrew.
  3. Alles was entsteht ist werth dass es zu Grunde geht.