“God is Love, but get it in writing” – Gypsy Rose Lee
Ever since we figured out that bad things happen to good people, which no doubt dates to the first little primate who warned his fellow monkeys about the approaching predator, giving them time to head for the trees, but getting eaten for his trouble, we’ve assumed that praying to gods and relying on their good graces was an iffy proposition. You were pretty sure you were making obeisance to the proper divine critter, acting like a righteous dude, sacrificing your firstborn, dedicating your football victories, and worshipping at the temple on schedule, so it’s inevitably a bit of a let down when things go sour anyway. The main problem is that you never got it in writing. Now if your deity of choice is supposed to be an omniscient, omnipresent, and upstanding fellow brimming with love for humanity, this merits a little explanation, typically involving the machinations of a slightly less powerful, but nonetheless supernaturally fearsome antagonist dedicated to thwarting the mild-mannered, although occasionally surly, management of the highest of the high. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that would be the Devil.
Where the gods presumptuously assume we are going to worship them in bulk (that is, everybody is assumed to be on board unless otherwise specified – for those of you raised in the warm screen flicker of the internet era of the anthropocene epoch, this is that pesky, default “opt-in”), the Devil knows you a little better and would like a little ink on paper to seal the deal. Okay, I guess he’s not as fussy as all that and will accept a legally-binding oral agreement, but the main point is that traditionally, you personally have to make a very specific agreement with the Prince of Darkness, whereas the more heavenly-oriented divine beasties just figure peer pressure will keep you in line. In contrast, just because you reject the light side of the Force, the Devil doesn’t assume you’ve instantly gone all Darth Vader and start heaping titles and riches on you in celebration of your choice. You have to negotiate. Frankly, this seems to say more about our egocentricity as a species than it does about Satan’s business model, because the Devil is obviously not very choosy. He’ll sign you up regardless. It’s not like most of us are so good at being dastardly that we would get the big contract in the first-round infernal draft. It’s not really an achievement when anybody can do it. This implies that English moralist Samuel Johnson was on to something when he suggested, “The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it; for, however absurd it may be thought to boast an honor by an act which shows that it was conferred without merit, yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance”. This of course, begs the question of how our nasty little species came up with the notion that you could make a personalized pact with the devil.
One might rightly point out that numerous religions have traditions of agreements between mortals, gods, and demons, but it seems prudent to focus on those wacky Semitic desert religions, since that sort of hardcore monotheism tends to make it a little more personal. If you don’t have a personal and personalized devil running about, it’s difficult to know who to hold accountable under tort law (evidence that the principle of corporate personhood has diabolical origins?). The Tao ain’t signing nothing (lacking an incarnate form, and by logical extension, hands); Coyote will just trick you and weasel out of the deal; Buddha told you life is suffering in the first place, and the portfolio of the Hindu pantheon is too diversified and ambivalent about your existence to know who to talk to about selling one’s soul, assuming you own your own spirit. So where, in the common law name of all things Judeo-Christian or occultist, did this notion originate? The obvious answer is, yet nobody expects it, that the whole concept emerged from the pseudo-legalities of the Inquisition, and while they certainly gave it a time-honored form, they firmly believed in precedent, and thus must have derived the idea from somewhere. And that “somewhere” likely harks back to the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah. The King James Version differs only slightly from the Hebrew Tanakh, substituting the English “Hell” for “Sheol”. In early Judaism, the wicked and the righteous wind up as “shades” (with neither personality nor motive force) in Sheol, the “abode of the dead”. Second Temple Judaism (beginning about 500 B.C.) started to play with the idea of the separation of good and evil in Sheol, and mulled over the punishments levied upon those of unsavory character.
Around 200 B.C., when the Greeks started translating the Hebrew scriptures, they replaced “Sheol” with “Hades”, when in fact a more accurate translation would have been “Tartarus”, which referred to the gloomier and torment-related parts of the Greek Hades. Nonetheless, when that little Jewish cult called Christianity penned The Bible II: The Nightmare Returns (or what most people call the New Testament), they made a few adjustments. The Old Testament also tangentially mentions Gehenna (“the burning place”), but is generally thought to refer to the “Valley of the son of Hinnom” in the context of being a place where the Canaanite gods received their child sacrifices. Once those loopy Anglo-Saxons got hold of the New Testament, they just went right ahead and used “Hell” to interchangeably refer to Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, “Hel” (with one “l”) being the Old Norse for both the ruler of the underworld that a portion of the dead go to, and the underworld itself. Thus, to “go to Hel” simply meant to die, unless of course you met the quota for raping and pillaging and got a first-class ticket to Valhalla via Valkyrie Air. Despite these varied transcriptions, all versions seem to concur that a pact with Hellish personages was possible.
Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves (Isaiah 28:15, King James Bible).
Judaism already looked askance at witchcraft and sorcery as likely involving contact with the shades of Sheol or placing oneself in league with rebellious anti-God factions, and such practices were expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy, which exhorted, “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer” (Deuteronomy 18:10). Tie that together with all that unpleasantness in Exodus like “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18), and you have yourself the grounds for an inquisitorial barbecue, but the legal precedent for contract negotiations with the devil is still a little murky. Along comes Origen Adamantius.
Early Christian theologian (perhaps the first) and long-time resident of Alexandria, Egypt Origen Adamantius (184-253 A.D.) considered the possibility that you could make a formal compact with Satan. You might want to dismiss him as a little on the odd side, but nothing suggests you might have had a good point like getting declared anathema (officially separated from the church) by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D., which unfortunate Origen was (luckily he had been deader than a mackerel for a few centuries or painful poking might have been involved), in the august company of Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius Nestorius, and Eutyches. Origen had a few theories about the pre-existence of souls and the final reconciliation of all creatures with God (including the Devil) that five ecumenical councils found distasteful. Origen, like most early Christian theologians was opposed to witchcraft and sorcery (particularly augury and divination), but as part of his condemnation of these practices was inclined to believe that they implied a covenant with demons.
So I am not in doubt that all these things are done by the operation of demons, that is, augury, the examination of entrails, various kinds of immolation, lots, observance of the movement of birds or animals, and any inspection of scales that would seem to indicate anything about the future. For the demons direct the movements of the birds or animals or scales or lots in accordance with these signs, which likewise showed that the demons are observed by those to whom they handed down the knowledge of this art…In all of these things it seems to show that all who are involved in these things are doing nothing else but consulting the dead; for they are dead, since they do not share in life. But our God is the God of the living and not of the dead (Origen, Homilies 16 Numbers, n.7).
Yet Origen, though he assumes some sort of demonic arrangement that provided the oracle with the knowledge of how to read the signs and predict the future, was not explicit about contractual obligations. The robust theory behind making a pact with the Devil awaited rock-star Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), or as he is known more affectionately, St. Augsutine. He laid it all out in his four volume De Doctrina Christiana, a guide to reading and interpreting scriptures. Let’s face it, if you need four books to explain one book, odds are that one book is pretty open to interpretation (or just really badly written).
All the arrangements made by men to the making and worshipping of idols are superstitious, pertaining as they do either to the worship of what is created or of some part of it as God, or to consultations and arrangements about signs and leagues with devils, such, for example, as are employed in the magical arts, and which the poets are accustomed not so much to teach as to celebrate. And to this class belong, but with a bolder reach of deception, the books of the haruspices and augurs. In this class we must place also all amulets and cures which the medical art condemns, whether these consist in incantations, or in marks which they call characters, or in hanging or tying on or even dancing in a fashion certain articles, not with reference to the condition of the body, but to certain signs hidden or manifest; and these remedies they call by the less offensive name of physica, so as to appear not to be engaged in superstitious observances, but to be taking advantage of the forces of nature. Examples of these are the earrings on the top of each ear, or the rings of ostrich bone on the fingers, or telling you when you hiccup to hold your left thumb in your right hand. To these we may add thousands of the most frivolous practices, that are to be observed if any part of the body should jump, or if, when friends are walking arm-in-arm, a stone, or a dog, or a boy, should come between them. And the kicking of a stone, as if it were a divider of friends, does less harm than to cuff an innocent boy if he happens to run between men who are walking side by side. But it is delightful that the boys are sometimes avenged by the dogs; for frequently men are so superstitious as to venture upon striking a dog who has run between them, not with impunity however, for instead of a superstitious remedy, the dog sometimes makes his assailant run in hot haste for a real surgeon. To this class, too, belong the following rules: To tread upon the threshold when you go out in front of the house; to go back to bed if any one should sneeze when you are putting on your slippers; to return home if you stumble when going to a place; when your clothes are eaten by mice, to be more frightened at the prospect of coming misfortune than grieved by your present loss. Whence that witty saying of Cato, who, when consulted by a man who told him that the mice had eaten his boots, replied, “That is not strange, but it would have been very strange indeed if the boots had eaten the mice.”…And so these notions also, which have their origin in certain signs of things being arbitrarily fixed upon by the presumption of men, are to be referred to the same class as if they were leagues and covenants with devils…All arts of this sort, therefore, are either nullities, or are part of a guilty superstition, springing out of a baleful fellowship between men and devils, and are to be utterly repudiated and avoided by the Christian as the covenants of a false and treacherous friendship. Not as if the idol were anything,” says the apostle; “but because the things which they sacrifice they sacrifice to devils and not to God; and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.” Now what the apostle has said about idols and the sacrifices offered in their honour, that we ought to feel in regard to all fancied signs which lead either to the worship of idols, or to worshipping creation or its parts instead of God, or which are connected with attention to medicinal charms and other observances; for these are not appointed by God as the public means of promoting love towards God and our neighbour, but they waste the hearts of wretched men in private and selfish strivings after temporal things. Accordingly, in regard to all these branches of knowledge, we must fear and shun the fellowship of demons, who, with the Devil their prince, strive only to shut and bar the door against our return. As, then, from the stars which God created and ordained, men have drawn lying omens of their own fancy, so also from things that are born, or in any other way come into existence under the government of God’s providence, if there chance only to be something unusual in the occurrence, as when a mule brings forth young, or an object is struck by lightning, men have frequently drawn omens by conjectures of their own, and have committed them to writing, as if they had drawn them by rule (Augustine of Hippo, De Doctrina Christiana, Book 2, c.20-23).
So the way St. Augustine laid it out, pretty much anything involving magic, including any formula written or spoken of any sort required fellowship with a demon, and thus constituted an infernal pact. This laid the serious groundwork for the notion of a contract with the Devil. One of the earlier recorded pacts with the devil involved the ministrations of Saint Basil of Caesarea (329-379 A.D.) and is notable in that it involves the procurement of an official document registering the sale of a soul, and the destruction of said document by the Saint to invalidate the contract. This is no doubt why we today have notaries.
The Greek Life of St. Basil, once attributed to St. Amphilochius, but now thought to originate in a Greek community in North Italy c.800 A.D., contains an episode in which a young man approaches a magician who helps him draw up a pact with the Devil by which he will renounce Christ in order to win the affection of a young lady who had vowed to enter a convent. Eventually he is taken to a church by St. Basil and the prayers of the congregation defeat the wiles and torments of the Devil; the pact comes floating through the air into the saint’s hands (Ryan, 1999, p41).
Another watershed moment in the history of written contracts with the Devil is the case of Theophilus of Adana, bursar of the church of Adana in Northern Cilicia (ca. 538 A.D.). He was fired by the local Bishop, but apparently loved his job so much that he entered into discussions with Satan in order to get his position back. Many scholars think his legend may have been a source for the Faustian literature that followed, mostly because it was so widely translated with extant versions in Greek, Latin, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic, and Swedish. Theophilus repented, got saved by the Bishop in collusion with the Virgin Mary and went on to be canonized.
Theophilus, an officer of the church and a pious man, living in Adana, a town of Cilicia, was unanimously elected by the clergy and by the laymen as their bishop, but he refused the honor from sheer modesty. So another man became bishop in his stead. The new bishop unjustly deprived Theophilus of his office, who now regretted his former humility. But in his humiliation Theophilus went to a famous wizard and made with his assistance a compact with Satan, renouncing Christ and the Holy Virgin. Satan at once causes the bishop to restore Theophilus to his position, but now Theophilus repents and prays to the Holy Virgin for forgiveness. After forty days of fasting and praying he is rebuked for his crime but not comforted; so he fasts and prays thirty days more, and receives at last absolution. Satan, however, refuses to give up his claim on Theophilus, and the Holy Virgin then actually castigates the enemy of God and men so severely that he at last surrenders the fatal document. Now Theophilus relates the whole story in the presence of the bishop to the assembled congregation in church; and after having divided all his possessions among the poor dies peacefully and enters into the glories of Paradise (Carus, 1900, p415-417).
After that and through the Middle Ages, everybody then got in on the written contract with the Devil from German nobleman Michael Louis Von Boubenhoren to French cleric Urbain Grandier. The Devil must have had a lot of paralegals to keep up with the volume. By the 1486 A.D. publication of the inquisitorial handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Witches Hammer”), the personal pact with the Devil was fairly well enshrined and formed the basis for a whole bunch of trials, torture, and burnings, giving the practice a legalistic edge.
And that the works of witches can in some way be called miraculous, in so far as they exceed human knowledge, is clear from their very nature; for they are not done naturally. It is shown also by all the Doctors, especially S. Augustine in Book LXXXIII, where he says that by magic arts many miracles are wrought similar to those miracles which are done by the servants of God. And again in the same book he says that Magicians do miracles by private contract, good Christians by public justice, and bad Christians by the signs of public justice. And all this is explained as follows. For there is a Divine justice in the whole universe, just as there is a public law in the State. But the virtue of any creature has to do with the universe, as that of the private individual has to do with the State. Therefore inasmuch as good Christians work miracles by Divine justice, they are said to work them by public justice. But the Magician, since he works through a pact entered into with the devil, is said to work by private contract; for he works by means of the devil, who by his natural power can do things outside the order of created nature as known to us, through the virtue of a creature unknown to us, and it will be for us a miracle, although not actually so, since he cannot work outside of the whole of created nature, and through all the virtues of creatures unknown to us. For in this way only God is said to work miracles. As it said: Thou are God Who alone workest great marvels. But bad Christians work through the signs of public justice, as by invoking the Name of Christ, or by exhibiting certain sacraments (Mallleus Malficarum, Part I, Question V).
Many of our western notions of contract law are expressly derived from Roman contract law, codified in Justinian’s law books of the 6th Century A.D., which more or less coincides with the rise in popularity among theologians of discussions about pacts with the devil and the appearance of official legal documents attesting to the business of soul selling. The Devil was no slouch. He adapted to the times. These days, if you’re going to make a pact with the Devil, you better believe he’s going to want your John Hancock on a piece of parchment. Interestingly, the Devil usually seems to honor the terms of the contract, even when us devious little mortals find loopholes that give us an out. There are a number of legal problems with selling your soul anyway, in that contract law is very concerned with whether or not the negotiating parties actually have the right to sell the property or service they are offering, begging the metaphysical question of who owns your soul, or if the Devil is subject to fraud statutes. After centuries of trying to steal our souls with binding contracts, the Devil still doesn’t seem to appreciate the subtleties of the legal mind, and this is why most humans can cheat their way out of Faustian bargains. I guess we can’t expect too much, after all, as George Eliot observed, “Satan was a blunderer who made a stupendous failure. If he had succeeded, we should all have been worshiping him, and his portrait would have been more flattering.”
Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. On Christian Doctrine. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958.
Carus, Paul, 1852-1919. The History of the Devil And the Idea of Evil, From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Chicago: The open court publishing company, 1900.
Institoris, Heinrich, 1430-1505. Malleus Maleficarum. London: Arrow Books, 1971.
Origen. Homilies on Numbers: Ancient Christian Texts. Trans. Scheck, Thomas P. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.
Ryan, William Francis. The Bathhouse at Midnight: A Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1999.