Brief History of Compacts with the Devil

Faust and Mephisto in Fausts's study, engraving by Tony Johannot after “Faust” by Goethe (1845-47).

Faust and Mephisto in Fausts’s study, engraving by Tony Johannot after “Faust” by Goethe (1845-47).

“When did you compact with the Devil?” So does the Reverend John Hale storm in his fierce inquisition of the slave Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Under threat of being whipped to death, she replies:

He say, “You work for me, Tituba, and I make you free! I give you pretty dress to wear, and put you way high up in the air, and you gone fly back to Barbados!”

Pacts with the Devil have an ancient lineage. An early example of a diabolical offer refused is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. In the desert, the Devil offers the Messiah “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,” if only Jesus would worship him. (4:8)

Later on they acquire a stricter commercial formality. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus uses his own blood as ink to sign a parchment in which he promises Mephistopheles his soul after death in return for power, riches and knowledge on earth:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,

And make a bridge through the moving air

To pass the ocean with a band of men;

I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore

And make the country continent to Spain

And both contributory to my crown.

Faust, in Goethe’s masterpiece, hesitates before the binding nature of a written contract:

A parchment, signed and sealed, is an abhorrent

Specter that haunts us, and it makes us fret.

But eventually he consents, seeking life more abundantly:

In sensuality’s abysmal land

Let our passions drink their fill!

In magic veils, not pierced by skill,

Let every wonder be at hand!

(trans. Walter Kaufman)

American bluesman Robert Johnson—it is rumored—also sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for talent to play the Blues.

In all cases the “compact” with the Devil is simple and clear: you sell your soul in order to gain riches, power, knowledge, skill or sensuality in this lifetime; the Devil can then take your soul away to Hell after death.

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College Class of 1919, pictured in the college yearbook.

Stephen Vincent Benét, Yale College Class of 1919, pictured in the college yearbook.

A significant biographical detail appears in Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic tale The Devil and Daniel Webster. Jabez Stone, from New Hampshire, pierces his finger and signs a pact with the Devil. His farm prospers and lightning never strikes his barn. He runs for selectman and is elected, and on the verge of considering a run for the state senate, his lease expires after seven years (plus a three-year extension). Stone engages the debating skills of the legendary Daniel Webster to wrangle his way out of his diabolical agreement.

Webster is surprised when the Devil (who calls himself Scratch) claims U.S. citizenship. Scratch explains:

“When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England?”

No one enters willingly into a pact with the Devil to be poor and miserable (“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Matthew 5:13). One must look for those who sold their souls among the rich, the powerful, the beautiful and the mighty.

No wonder Scratch claims U.S.—and not Haitian—citizenship.


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