The Historical Faust: “Font of Necromancy”

Johannes Trithemius; German Abbot and Occultist

The following letter counts as one of the primary sources regarding the historical Faust, who made his way into German folklore, legends, and literature. This letter is known as “Würzburger Faustbrief” (engl. Faust letter of Würzburg). Here we have a very upset Trithemius trying to dissuade Johannes Virdung, an astrologer, from trusting Faust.

For context on who Trithemius was: Johannes Trithemius was a German abbot and the occult teacher of Agrippa and Paracelsus. So here we aren’t dealing with someone who was hostile to the occult, quite the contrary. However, if you decide to read both Agrippa and Paracelsus, you will see that this branch of magic could be seen as “holy magic”, a magic which was reverent towards God and therefore not heretical in their eyes; which is something the official Roman Catholic Church still disapproved of. Thus the approach of Trithemius, Agrippa and Paracelsus towards magic is quite different. To them it was a holy art, best kept hidden.

Note: I do not have the original Latin text at hand. This is not a translation of the Latin original; it is a translation of the German translation I had at hand and translated to English myself! This is supposed to give you an idea on the historical Faust, whose figure sparked its own grimoire and magic tradition! It won’t be perfect, and if I get my hands on the Latin, I might do a translation on that as well. Until then, this will give you a decent idea of what the primary account to the historical Faust says. Source for the German text.

An illustration of the demon “Ariel” from the book “Magia naturalis et innaturalis”; also known as “Faust’s Dreyfacher Höllenzwang”; one of the books ascribed to Faust

Letter of Johannes Trithemius to Johann Virdung (1507). Copy of the original, Rome, Vatican Library (Pal. Lat. 730, 174r-175r).

“This person – Georg Sabellicus – about whom you are writing to me; who dared to call himself Lord of the necromancers, is a vagabond, an empty blabbermouth and a dishonest1 thug, worthy to be flogged; so he would not further publicly teach despicable things and things which are hostile to the Holy Church. What are the titles, which he arrogates to himself unduly, other than proof of this most stupid and unreasonable spirit; which shows that he is a fool, not a philosopher!

So he dressed himself up in these for him convenient following titles: Magister Georg Sabellicus Faust the Younger, font2 of the necromancers, astrologer, second of the magicians, chiromancer, aeromancer, pyromancer, second in the hydromancy. Behold the foolish audacity of (this) man; what insanity has to belong to this, to call yourself font of necromancy!

Someone who in all truthfulness is not educated in all good sciences, would have done better to call himself a fool rather than a magister.

But his wretchedness is not unknown to me. When I returned from the mark3 Brandenburg last year, I met this man in the proximity of the city Gelsenhausen; where many people in the harborage told me about his with big cheekiness conducted worthlessnesses. When he heard of my presence, he fled from the harborage at once and he could not be persuaded by anyone, to introduce himself to me.

We also remember, that he sent us documentation of his folly in written form through a civilian, which he gave to you.

In that city clergy told me, that he had spoken in the presence of many that he has such big wisdom and such great memory of all wisdom, that, if all works of Plato and Aristotle with all their philosophy would be erased from mankind’s memory, that he could – like a second Hebrew Esra4 – reconstruct them – and even better [than they were before] – completely through his genius.

When I was later in Speyer, he came to Würzburg and in the presence of many people he is said to have lauded himself with spiritual pride, that the miracles of our savior Christ would not be worthy of astonishment; he could do anything that Christ did, as often as he wants to.

During the fasting of this year he came to Kreuznach, where in similar bigmouthery he lauded himself to be able to do big things and said that when it comes to alchemy, he is the biggest whoever was, the most perfect and that he knows and is able to do whatever people desired.

During this time the position for a schoolmaster in this city was free; which through Franz von Sickingen, the magistrate of your Lord – a man curious of mystical things – was assigned to him.

But soon after that, he began to commit the most nefarious fornication with the boys, and when this came to light, he fled from the threat of punishment.

This is it; what I know by reliable testimony of this man, of whose arrival you are awaiting with such great desire.”

1The German word here is “betrügerisch”; which basically means that Trithemius calls Faust a con artist here.

2The German word ”Quellbrunn” basically means source; in this context, it is similar to calling something the “font of life” or “font of mercy”.

3”Mark” usually describes some type of province.

4Esra(commonly spelled “Ezra”) is a prophet of the Old Testament/Tanakh, who restored the Torah to the people of Israel.

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