Poets, storytellers and musicians have used the legend of the satanic pact -- or "deal with the devil" -- to explore questions of morality, corruption and inspiration. During the era of the witch trials, the legend inspired many witch-hunters to persecute innocent people. Even in modern times, some people believe that it is possible to make a deal with the devil.
The First Pact
The first known reference to the satanic pact is the legend of Theophilus of Adana, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in the year 538 in exchange for a promotion from priest to bishop. In this early version of the legend, Theophilus doesn't receive magical powers or special talents, just the promotion he thought he'd been unfairly denied. At the end of the story, he succeeds in getting out of the contract by asking the Virgin Mary to intercede for him. The point of the story isn't so much that Theophilus sold his soul to the devil, but that the Virgin Mary is powerful enough to help him despite his contract with Satan. However, later versions of the legend switched the emphasis to the devil and his supposed powers.
Witches and Sorcerers
The story of Theophilus was often told throughout the Middle Ages, and it inspired a number of other legends. One of these was the story of Dr. Faust, a German academic who supposedly sold his soul in exchange for both worldly success and the powers of sorcery. Unlike Theophilus, Faust was unable to get out of his pact and was said to have died horribly when the devil came to claim his fee. The legend of Faust inspired great works of literature by Marlowe, Goethe and others, but these stories were not just innocent entertainment. When a priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of having made a satanic pact in the 17th century, he was burned at the stake as a witch.
At the Crossroads
The legend of the deal with the devil became part of popular folklore, but in the folk version, the devil often offered a good deal less power than what Faust was supposed to have received. For instance, a Maine lumberjack named George Knox, who died in 1892, was supposed to have sold his soul for a mere $30-- plus a magic ax that would do his chopping for him. Knox actually died of tuberculosis at age 30, but the fact that he died young was now an expected part of the legend. Knox was said to have met the devil at the crossroads at midnight, another motif that occurs in many folk versions of the legend.
Hellhound On My Trail
One of the most widely known versions of the crossroads legend is the story that Delta Blues musician Robert Johnson gained his guitar skills by selling his soul to the devil. Johnson seems to have encouraged the stories, recording spooky blues songs such as "Crossroads" and "Hellhound on My Trail," as if he wanted people to believe the legends about him. Johnson also died young -- in 1938 -- under unclear circumstances. More recently, the same legend has attached to the rock band Led Zeppelin. Like Johnson, the members of the band have not discouraged the myth-making.
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