One of the most fascinating characters that ever originated in German literature.
Johann Wolgang von Goethe used him as the antagonist for his tragic novel: Faust.
Faust is the story of Doctor Heinrich Faust, who strives for wisdom and uses any means necessary to satisfy his thirst for it. Even making a compact with the Devil – in this case the devilish character that is Mephistopheles (or short: Mephisto).
An ambiguous man that even describes himself as such:
Part of that Power, not understood,
Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.[…]
I am the Spirit that Denies!
And justly so: for all things, from the Void
Called forth, deserve to be destroyed:
‚Twere better, then, were naught created.
Thus, all which you as Sin have rated,—
Destruction,—aught with Evil blent,—
That is my proper element.
Or in the old English version:
Part of that power which still
Produceth good, whilst ever scheming ill.[…]
The spirit I, which evermore denies!
And justly; for whate’er to light is brought
Deserves again to be reduced to naught;
Then better ’twere that naught should be.
Thus all the elements which ye
Destruction, Sin, or briefly, Evil, name,
As my peculiar element I claim.
Or the ever so great original version:
Ein Teil von jener Kraft,
Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.[…]
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
Ist wert, daß es zugrunde geht;
Drum besser wär’s, daß nichts entstünde.
So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
Zerstörung, kurz, das Böse nennt,
Mein eigentliches Element.
Sorry, I simply had to show these different versions.
I personally prefer the last one. Not just because I am German, but simply because I adore the German language so much. If I find the time for it I might record those three quotes to show you verbally the difference in the sound of them, which in my opinion makes the German the outstanding winner – if it would be a competition.
Anyway, by now I am not so sure if the idea for the Mephisto-character really was created by Goethe or even the old stories about the Faust content (the lore about Johann Georg Faust, Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus).
Simply by reading quite some bit of Norse mythology made me realize that one „character“ does have quite similar traits…
Mephisto is the master of lies, Lord of the Flies, Rats and what not. Someone who wants the human existence to end. Permanently. By all means he tries to win his bet with god. To win Fausts soul. The ambiguity I mentioned earlier is kind of his trade mark. He tries to win by causing evil deeds, but the result is not always evil. For example does he cause – through Faust’s wish – Gretchen’s tragedy, but instead of wanting his live to end (by saying his catch-phrase: „Verweile doch du bist so schön.“/“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!“/“Linger awhile! so fair thou art!”) because of the bliss he had with the girl, Faust simply wants more. Knowing more. Experiencing more. Living more. He is not satisfied. Yet he learns what the girl had to suffer through because of him and it makes him realize his mistakes and trying to save her. And even though Mephisto claims the girl to be lost, god claims her soul to be saved. Faust kind of grows character-wise from this and strives for a different woman – Helena.
The point is: Mephisto tries to get to his goal without a care of what happens to the ones around him: The deaths of Gretchen’s matron and brother, the pregnancy and the punishment of the girl for killing her own child is the content of the tragedy. Yet the devoted girl is still able to ascent to heaven.
A similar ambiguity can be seen in the myths concerning the Norse god of mischief: Loki.
If you look at the story about Balder’s death for example you can see a similar tragedy.
When everything except the mistletoe had vowed to not harm Balder and everyone was throwing things at him, Loki simply did what he considered fun: He disguised himself and talked Balder’s blind brother Hodur into throwing a sharpened mistletoe at his brother, while guiding his hand. Never intending to kill the beloved god he caused his death by this, as the twig went right into Balder’s heart. As everyone mourned for him they hoped to fulfill Hel’s (Loki’s daughter’s) condition for Balder to return to the realm of the living. Only one person – a giantess who is said to be Loki in disguise again – did not care whether he returned or not, thus Balder would have to stay in the realm of Hel (Helheim) till Ragnorök, where he would be one of the sole „survivors“ and creators of the new world, after the end of everything.
In short: Loki tries to mock the Aesir’s behavior regarding Balder’s invulnerability and causing the biggest tragedy in the Edda, still his „victim“ later has a new role in the recreation of the world, which wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the trickster.
On a German (unofficial) page [LGM] about the Norse mythology it is even concluded, that his doings, despite their evil intent, caused more good things then bad. And that sounds fairly familiar. 😉
Even though I only display shortened versions of both „stories“ and there would probably be a more fitting one for Loki (e.g. the tale of Mjölnir), you might be able to see my point nevertheless: Two characters – one from German lore, one from Norse mythology, who display the same mind set. Doing how they please to accomplish what they want. Making intentionally evil deeds that cause more good than ill. Characters that play with the people around them, to trick them into doing what they see profit in.
Neither of them is (completely) evil (hence the ambiguity). They both just follow someone else’s plan. Bound to act according to it, regardless of all their effort to act on their own „free“ will.
(And seemingly I was not the only one who came to this conclusion, though I did not find an official source [UPG] either…)
I find this characterization quite fascinating and not just for me it is the source for inspiration for characters with similar traits. It is hard for me to grasp – let alone explain – why I like it, but I am mostly compelled to favourite them over the simple minded or less complex characters. Therefore one of my favourite characters in the book I’m co-writing is not even based on/inspired by Mephisto, but will also get a scene that is inspired by the myths concerning Loki – looking forward to officially writing that one.
Reading Faust and being taught of it by a teacher with so much passion for this piece, simply made me inherit this passion. Therefore I think I can claim it one of my favourite books.
Still other authors used Mephisto in their work as well. Not just in Marvel Comics did he became „real“ again (which is pretty funny, as they also have a Loki…), no also a quite new Manga series has a character named „Mephisto Pheles“ (honestly: Took me a while to get that one, as I’m too used to the short version …). I am talking about Kazue Katou’s „Ao No Exorcist“ (Blue Exorcist).
A story about two brother’s whom discover their heritage as sons of Satan. One of them (Rin) who has inherited their father’s (blue) flames and the other (Yukio) already being an Exorcist, who is now guiding his brother to become one as well.
Mephisto is the (demonic) headmaster of the Exorcist school and seems to have his own plan(s) concerning the brother’s. He puts them into several trial fights to see how they are able to cope, even using his own (demonic) brother as bait.
He is capable of using magic. Even going as far as to turn himself into a small terrier like dog. (Another trait all three characters share: Shape shifting 😉 )
In the Anime-version there even is an episode where it is said, that he is the Mephisto Faust made the compact with, though I still prefer the Manga-version…
My fascination for this series – and the kind of character – caused me to write this: Not His Day
A little parody about Mephisto. (Some more information on the creation process can be found, if you follow the above link to the story on Fanfiction.net.)
One thing is clear to me: If I ever would get to own a poodle, I’d call it Mephisto – just for the heck of it. 😀
- [HCE] Bartelby Havard Classics: Faust Online (Old English)
- [LGM] Unofficial Page about Norse Mythology: „Lokis Germanische Mythologie“(German)
- [PGE] The Project Gutenberg: Faust Online (English) [direct link no longer accessible from Europe]
- [PGG] Projekt Gutenberg: Faust Online (German)
- [UPG] Das Universal-Prinzip: Die Götter (German)