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Mephistopheles flying over Wittenberg, in a lithograph by Eugène Delacroix

Mephistopheles[a] (/ˌmɛfɪˈstɒfɪˌlz/, German pronunciation: [mefɪˈstoːfɛlɛs]), also known as Mephisto,[1] is a demon featured in German folklore. He originally appeared in literature as the demon in the Faust legend and has since become a stock character appearing in other works of arts and popular culture.

Etymology and name meaning[edit]

The name Mephistopheles is a corrupted Greek compound.[2] The Greek particle of negation (μη, ) and the Greek word for love or loving (φίλος, philos) are the first and last terms of the compound but the middle term is more doubtful. For the middle term, three meanings have been noticed and three different complete etymologies have been established:

  • not loving light (φως το, phōs to; the old form of the word being Mephostopheles)
  • not loving Faust
  • allied to mephitic, a term which designates the poisonous vapors arising from the earth in certain places—pools, caverns, springs—destructive of human life.[2]

It is likely that the name was invented for the historical alchemist Johann Georg Faust by the anonymous author of the first Faustbuch.[1]

In the Faust legend[edit]

MEPHISTO_PHILES in the 1527 Praxis Magia Faustiana, attributed to Faust
Mephistopheles and Margaretta, wooden double sculpture, c. 1876

Mephistopheles is associated with the Faust legend of an ambitious scholar, based on the historical Johann Georg Faust. In the legend, Faust makes a deal with the devil at the price of his soul, Mephistopheles acting as the devil's agent.

The name appears in the late-sixteenth-century Faust chapbooks—stories concerning the life of Johann Georg Faust, written by an anonymous German author.

In the 1725 version, which Goethe read, Mephostophiles is a devil in the form of a greyfriar summoned by Faust in a wood outside Wittenberg.

From the chapbooks, the name entered Faustian literature. Many authors have used it, from Goethe to Christopher Marlowe. In the 1616 edition of Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Mephostophiles became Mephistophilis.

Mephistopheles in later treatments of the Faust material frequently figures as a title character: in Meyer Lutz's Mephistopheles, or Faust and Marguerite (1855), Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (1868), Klaus Mann's Mephisto, and Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes. There are also many parallels with the character of Mephistopheles and the character Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.[3]


Mephistopheles by Mark Antokolsky, 1884

Although Mephistopheles appears to Faustus as a demon – a worker for Lucifer – critics claim that he does not search for men to corrupt, but comes to serve and ultimately collect the souls of those who are already damned. Farnham explains, "Nor does Mephistophiles first appear to Faustus as a devil who walks up and down on earth to tempt and corrupt any man encountered. He appears because he senses in Faustus' magical summons that Faustus is already corrupt, that indeed he is already 'in danger to be damned'."[4]

Mephistopheles is already trapped in his own Hell by serving the Devil. He warns Faustus of the choice he is making by "selling his soul" to the devil: "Mephistophilis, an agent of Lucifer, appears and at first advises Faust not to forego the promise of heaven to pursue his goals".[5] Farnham adds to his theory, "...[Faustus] enters an ever-present private hell like that of Mephistophiles".[6]

Outside the Faust legend[edit]

William Shakespeare mentions "Mephistophilus" in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act I, Scene I, line 128), and by the 17th century the name became independent of the Faust legend.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Variants of the name include: Mephistophilus, Mephostopheles, Mephistophilis, Mephastophilis, Mephastophiles and others


  1. ^ a b "Mephistopheles". Encyclopedia Britannica. 20 July 1998.
  2. ^ a b Snider, Denton Jaques (1886). Goethe's Faust: A Commentary. Sigma. pp. 132–133.
  3. ^ "The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)".
  4. ^ Farnham, Willard (1969). Twentieth Century Interpretations of Doctor Faustus. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0132163095.
  5. ^ Krstovic, Jelena; Lazzardi, Marie, eds. (1999). "Plot and Major Themes". Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Detroit, Michigan: The Gale Group. 47: 202.
  6. ^ Krstovic & Lazzardi 1999, p. 8
  7. ^ Burton Russell 1992, p. 61


External links[edit]