Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749 -1832) epic poem Faust presents us with a highly unconventional representation of the devil in the figure of Mephistopheles. He is a malevolent force, yet brings about good despite himself. Aware of this, he still performs his duty in Faust’s corruption, and in his eventual salvation. This devil-as-saviour motif is perplexing from the standpoint of traditional Christian doctrine, though it did correspond with contemporary ideas expressed in the writings of William Blake (1757-1827) and Lord Byron (1788-1824). Yet to truly understand the role that Mephistopheles plays in Faust we must look deeper still, into the shadowy light of the alchemical and Gnostic sources that were so influential in Goethe’s formative years. Mephistopheles is inextricably connected to the Ouroboros serpent, the alchemical motif of a snake devouring its own tail. This interpretation not only helps us to understand Mephistopheles’ individual role in the drama of Faust but can shed new light on the entire structure of the Faustian narrative.
In the first part of Faust Mephistopheles is twice directly connected with the serpent, in the Prolog im Himmel and then in Wald und Höhle. In the Prolog im Himmel he brags that he will quickly return to heaven and declare his victory: “No doubt; it’s a short journey anyway. / I’ll win my wager without much delay. / And when I do, then, if I may, / I’ll come back here and boast of my success. / I’ll make him greedy fort he dust, the way / The serpent was, my famous ancestress!“. For Alice Raphael, author of Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone, this is the first indication that we should see Mephistopheles’ role as something other than that of the traditional devil, but rather as that of the Ouroboros in both its destructive as well as constructive qualities. According to her Goethe knew of the Gnostic Naassenes, or Ophites, probably through Geschichte der Schlangenbrüder by J.L. von Mosheim. As she says, they worshiped the Naas, which in Hebrew was Nachash (serpent) and was the numerological equivalent of Messiah. In this regard the Naas was: “in primitive times a cult object, later a matriarchal power, and finally a symbol of wisdom. [There is a hidden reference to the Serpent in Faust, Part I] not as the traditional temptress of Genesis, but as ‘Frau Muhme,’ Goethe’s allusion to the female divinity of the Ophites”. In this scene Mephistopheles describes his motion as circular (from heaven to earth to heaven), and his serpent ancestor’s hunger for dust. On the one hand this could be seen as referring to the bible, yet given his later confession that he seeks to specifically destroy all matter it could instead be interpreted in terms of the Ouroboros’ symbolic role of breaking down matter in the alchemical vessel into prime matter, so that it may be purified.
The next time Mephistopheles makes an appearance alongside a serpent he does so in his role as instigator and agitator of yet more circular action in the play. Faust, after a moment of calm reflection, is yet again driven by the “fire” of desire to pursue the maiden Gretchen for his pleasure. Before he does so, however, he curses Mephistopheles for disturbing his quietude with the insult: “Snake! Snake!” This in and of itself will come as no surprise, for even in orthodox Christianity the serpent is seen as being a sign of the devil. What is perhaps more telling in this scene is its thematic circularity, a circularity which, when seen in light of the whole work, is a fundamental component of Faust’s redemption. It occurs almost immediately after Faust, in a high point of spiritual reflection, muses to the Erdgeist, the earth spirit: “You added a companion, who already / Is indispensable to me, although / With one cold mocking breath he can degrade me / In my own eyes, and turn your gifts to nothing“. Faust’s dubious companion compels him forwards at the same time as he pulls him back to baser desires. In his unconventional role as guide and saviour, Mephistopheles had already joked that Faust should bring some poet with him in the style of Dante being led through hell and purgatory by the poet Virgil.
Might I suggest you take along / With you some well-known poet? He will teach / you many things his thoughts will reach / Out far and wide, all sorts of virtues crown / Your noble head at his behest […] [A]nd while / You’re still a young warm-blooded man, [he will teach you] / How to fall in love by a prearranged plan. / The result, I’m sure, would be well worth meeting; / Mr. Microcosm!’ shall be my respectful greeting.
Yet the devil’s great irony here is that he himself is the guide who will lead Faust through a carnival of experiences to become the microcosmic reflection of the macrocosm.
The image of the serpent as saviour, in the most blatant of alchemical formulations, had already appeared in Goethe’s Das Märchen, published in 1795, thirteen years before the publication of Faust: One. According to Ronald Gray in his text Goethe the Alchemist, Goethe encountered the destructive-creative principle of the Ouroboros in numerous forms. As he says: “The self-destruction implicit in the rotating serpent was identical with the ‘putrefaction’, or death to self, spoken of elsewhere. Only when man’s lust had completely consumed itself ‘by revolution’ […] could he appear again in his former angelic splendor […]. It was necessary to yield all personal desires and become one with the universe”. Seen in this light, the excesses that Mephistopheles leads Faust to on Walpurgisnacht can be made sense of in terms of the logic of the Ouroboros, for only when Faust’s lust has consumed itself will he able to become “one with the universe” or “Mr. Microcosm”, his soul purified like alchemical matter through a successive series of decompositions and reconstitution.
This esoteric trajectory is already present in the earliest and most blatantly alchemical scene in the beginning of Faust: One, Vor dem Tor. Faust, who having the night before contemplated suicide by poison, is seen walking among people while talking about his father’s ambivalent work. He was an alchemist:
With the initiated few / He practiced in the Black Laboratory, / Mixing, by this or that strange recipe, / Elements in an ill-assorted brew. / Thus in tepid immersion he would wed / The Lily to the Lion bold and red; / Then with intenser heat he forced his bridal pair / From one glass chamber to the other – by and by / The Young Queen was engendered there, / The rainbow-hued precipitate: this, then, / Was our specific.
When looking at Faust as a whole, this passage takes on a much deeper significance when we compare the physical processes of his father’s alchemy to the spiritual alchemy which Faust himself undergoes. In terms of the direct alchemical language the “young queen” in the glass could be seen as Helen of Troy, who Faust sees in the mirror in the witches kitchen (which is not so different from “die schwarze Küche”, or black kitchen of the alchemist). The movement from one glass vessel to the other could be interpreted as the movement from Gretchen to Helen, or the cyclical, but progressive development of the plot from Faust: One to Faust: Two. The „Red Lion” and the „Lily” were symbolic in alchemical language to the male and female principles in nature, being the first to join in chemical union before the “Young Queen” can be engendered. This would be conjecture if not for the unifying theme of the “Brautgemach”, the bridal pair of masculine and feminine qualities that seek their balance and perfection in the alchemical vessel. In many ways this search for the “Divine Feminine” to match himself with is Faust’s ultimate goal, and serves as an overarching theme.
The symbolic and physical transformation from one colour to another in the alchemical vessel is another leitmotif played out through the Faust epic. The “peacock’s tail”, or a rainbow-like effect produced in the furnace when the path to the philosopher’s stone is drawing near is echoed in a variety of forms throughout the narrative. The “rainbow-hued precipitate” mentioned by Faust in the previous quotation is the most clear example of this, but there are others. The various periods of colour change represent different renewals of the spiritual cycle that Faust undergoes. This renewal is seen in the beginning of the second part of Faust when he exclaims while contemplating a waterfall: “The rainbow blooms, changing yet ever still […]. I watch a mirror here of man’s whole story, / And plain it speaks, ponder it as you will: / Our life’s a spectrum-sheen of borrowed glory“. This passage is preceded by a discussion of fire and consumption by fire, and then moves to something much akin to the alchemical water’s constant action of flux and reflux, herein mirroring the restlessness of Faust’s own passions, but also the rest in restlessness that offers some hope for a conclusion to his work.
The seemingly paradoxical juxtapositions of alchemical fire and the alchemical waters, destruction and renewal, find another representative in the epic through the use of various potions. Following the discussion of the alchemical work of his father, Faust claims to have poisoned thousands. While this is consistent with his study of medicine, insofar as he was trying to cure them but chooses to cynically interpret his own actions, it could also be seen in light of the ambiguity of the alchemical pharmakon (the ambiguity of the ouroboros itself), which is both medicine and poison. This is in keeping with the chemical motifs that are seen throughout the work; firstly, with Faust’s intent to poison himself, then his failed attempt to cure the plague victims in his youth, the potion of longevity given to him by Mephistopheles, his accidental poisoning of Gretchen’s mother, and even the Homunculus, born in a bottle.
They psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) described Faust as an alchemical drama through and through, though he himself did not explain in detail how it could be interpreted as such. With this brief discussion I hope to have shown that an alchemical interpretation of the drama is indeed a worthwhile pursuit. With this in mind it is possible to gain a better grasp of Mephistopheles’ role, and where it may have come from. If we see Mephistopheles as the Ouroboros of the Alchemists and Gnostics (and not merely as the Christian Satan) he maintains the traditional associations of the devil, such as destruction, the obsession with the material, fire and the serpent, but gains all the other roles he plays in Faust. The destruction he brings is inextricably bound with creation, which is purified through cycles of fire, be they physical or metaphorical. These cycles tend to be brought about either directly though his catalyzing acts or through pharmakon which share in his inherent ambiguity. It is in this way that Mephistopheles as the Oroborus can serve Faust as Vergil did Dante, allowing him to explore the whole circle of creation: “And with swift steps, yet wise and slow. [Go] [f]rom heaven, through the world, right down to hell“!
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: Der Tragödie erster und zweiter Teil, Urfaust. München: C.H. Beck oHG, 2007.
—-. Faust: Part One. Trans. David Luke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
—-. Faust: Part Two. Trans. David Luke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.
Nuttall, A.D. The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1998.
Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.