Johann Georg Faustus (1480–1540) has the distinctive honor of bearing a name that is practically synonymous with devilish deal-making. When most people hear the term "Faustian," their immediate thought isn't of the historical figure himself, but rather his infamous – and now eponymous – pact with the Devil, in which he bargained his everlasting soul in order to gain limitless knowledge. Faust is undeniably the most notorious on the list of historical figures who've struck deals with the Big Man Downstairs, but there are several others whose bargaining history may surprise you.
The concept of selling your soul to the Devil for fortune and fame is hardly recent. In fact, while not the first, the legend of Faust has largely served as a progenitor of this cultural motif. More recent developments to this trend could be the Internet-wide conspiracy that many celebrities are actually members of the Illuminati and the much more somber online theory of the 27 Club. Whatever form this recurring legend of soul-selling takes, the names of those below are thought to belong to a very elite list.
Listed on Rolling Stones's list of the greatest guitarists of all time, Robert Johnson (1911–1938) was such an astounding guitar player, some people thought he gained his incredible skills through supernatural means. Behind Faust himself, Johnson is perhaps the most well-known for making an infernal bargain.
As the story goes, Johnson was directed towards a crossroads where he met the Devil, who tuned his guitar and taught him how to master the blues. According to legend, the price for Johnson's gift was an early demise, which is speculated to be the fault of a jealous husband who poisoned Johnson after catching him with his wife. Even more than a century after his birth, Johnson's legacy is still plagued with rumors surrounding his end. Johnson was prolific as a musician, producing six records before he passed at the age of twenty-seven. The location of Johnson's unmarked final resting place is still unknown.
Another masterful musician, Niccolò Paganini was an Italian violinist born in the late 18th century. He learned to play the mandolin by age five, and was composing music two years later. He struggled with alcoholism as a teenager, but by twenty-two, he was known across Europe and became a musical star. At twenty-three, he composed 24 Caprices, music so difficult that years would pass before another musician could master the notes.
One of his most famous pieces is titled “Le Streghe,” which translates to “Witches’ Dance.” Because of this title, many believed that Paganini had made a deal with the Devil to become the greatest musician in the world. The claim was supported by his unmatched skills, which including the ability to play three octaves across four strings in one hand – a feat that is still considered nearly impossible. He once won a rare, very valuable Stradivarius violin by playing a piece so technical it was said to be unplayable without extensive preparation. Paganini played it on sight.
Of course, there are more down-to-earth explanations for his seemingly superhuman skills, such as Marfan syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in elongated fingers, among other traits. Other theories offer Ehlers-Danlos syndrome as a possible cause, an inheritable disorder commonly know as Rubber Man Syndrome.
Thanks to Paganini’s skill and the eerie theories surrounding it, people both adored and feared him. Fans claimed he was the son of the devil, or the devil himself. Others claimed they could see a demonic figure just off stage, guiding Paganini’s bow. Eventually, Paganini had to publish letters from his mother to prove that he was born to human parents. The rumors even impacted him posthumously, as no church would give him a Catholic burial. His family ultimately had to make a formal papal appeal in order to give him a proper burial.
This French Catholic priest was burned at the stake in 1634 after he was accused of witchcraft. Unlike many other witch hunt victims, there may have been evidence of Grandier’s collusion with the Prince of Darkness. While he had taken the oath of a Catholic priest, Grandier was known to have sexual relationships with a number of women, and was even accused of bewitching a group of nuns, sending the demon Asmodai upon them to commit "evil acts."
At his torturous trial, the judges revealed documents that supposedly proved his demonic pact. The pact was written backwards in Latin, and is thought to even include the signature of Satan himself. The pact reads:
We, the influential Lucifer, the young Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, and Astaroth, together with others, have today accepted the covenant pact
of Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And him do we promise
the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers. He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him. He offers us once in the year a seal of blood, under the feet he will trample the holy things of the church and
he will ask us many questions; with this pact he will live twenty years happy on the earth of men, and will later join us to sin against God.
Bound in hell, in the council of demons. Lucifer Beelzebub Satan Astaroth Leviathan Elimi. The seals placed the Devil, the master, and the demons, princes of the lord. Baalberith, writer.
Grandier may have also confessed under torture, his downfall carefully orchestrated by a jealous nun whose advances he had rejected, though little evidence supports this theory.
The rock & roll genre has long been rumored to be under demonic influence. As such, it’s no shock that one of the most successful rock bands in history has been rumored to make deals with the Devil. Guitarist Jimmy Page, known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, stated, “My interest in the occult started when I was fifteen. I do not worship the Devil, but Magick does intrigue me. Magick of all kinds. I read Magick in Theory and Practice when I was about 11 years old, but it wasn't for some years that I understood what it was all about."
Page even had occultist Aleister Crowley’s words, “Do what thou wilt,” inscribed into the grooves of the original III vinyl, and later went on to purchase Crowely’s old house.
Though Page denies any demonic involvement of his own, he seems to believe that Zeppelin front man Robert Plant was visited by a possibly Satanic power when he created their beloved track "Stairway to Heaven." In an interview, Page said,
"Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there."
Plant corroborated Page's account:
“My hand was writing out the words, 'There's a lady is sure [sic], all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven'. I just sat there and looked at them and almost leapt out of my seat."
Perhaps the fact that Plant didn’t actually write the words to "Stairway" explain why fans have discovered Satanic messages when playing the IV album backwards. For example, “Oh, here's to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path made me sad, whose power is Satan. He'll give those with him 666. And all those fools who made us suffer, Sad Satan."