As far as name recognition in demonology goes, Mephistopheles has an unparalleled acceptance as the head honcho of demons, and it's not just because he has the coolest name out of all the devilish characters from literature. Mephistopheles, or Mephisto if you’re nasty, is a much younger literary character than his demonic counterparts. While Satan made his first appearance in the 6th century BCE, Mephistopheles didn’t appear until the middle ages when the German folk tale Faust began to spread by word of mouth.
The story behind Faust's Mephistopheles is a fascinating story that follows a minor character as he grows from a demon that damns unlucky souls to a satire of the intellectual elite before finally being worked into modern Satanic imagery. Hopefully the following Mephistopheles facts will give you a better understanding of one of the most misunderstood characters in all of western literature.
Faust is the German legend that tells the tale of a man so dissatisfied with his life that he makes a deal with a wandering devil going by the name of Mephistopheles. Prior to this legend, which was first printed in 1587 under the title Historia von D. Johann Fausten, there was no entity referred to as Mephistopheles. The character doesn't appear in the Bible, and he's nowhere to be found in Middle Eastern texts. Some theorists believe that Mephistopheles could be a reincarnation of Judas, but that seems like a stretch.
Because the Faust legend was passed down through word of mouth, it's impossible to pinpoint where the name came from. Goethe scholar K.J. Schröer notes that most demonic names from the Middle Ages come from the Hebrew language, and he speculated that the name Mephistopheles is a portmanteau of mephitz and tophel which mean "destroyer" and "liar."
As Mephistopheles was absorbed into the modern religious canon, a space had to be made for him in the hierarchy of Hell. Laypeople confuse Mephistopheles with Satan because he fits into the archetype so well. While he is a devil, he's not The Devil. and he's certainly not Satan. Satan is essentially the physical manifestation of wrath, of which Mephistopheles seems to have very little.
In Faust, Mephistopheles seems mostly content with tricking his human counterpart and when he loses out in the end he's perturbed, but he's not angry. Mephistopheles is actually considered to be a prince of Hell, or even a manager of demons, if you will.
Throughout the variations of Faust, Mephistopheles' role changes from story to story, but he rarely seems to be putting a lot of effort into anything that he does. In some instances, he tricks people into damning themselves and in others, they're already damned and he's just showing up to seal the deal. The various texts of Faust fail to offer a lot of light on this topic.
While he does place a bet with Faust for his soul, it's never clear if this is what God intended to happen the entire time. If that's the case, then Mephistopheles is simply playing his part in a story that had been set into motion long before he arrived. Either way, Mephistopheles isn't going to go out of his way to score your soul.
In the opening of Goethe's Faust, Mephistopheles and God have a short discussion about the titular Dr. Faustus and whether or not he's ever going to turn to the way of the Lord. This conversation turns into the action of Mephisto insisting that he can completely turn Faust away from God. If Faust hadn't already been on a path to Hell, Mephistopheles wouldn't have cared, but because Faust has already done so much work to distance himself from God, it's now the demon's duty to finish the job.
The task of damning unfortunate souls is an ugly one, but it's something that Mephistopheles genuinely seems to enjoy. If you were to meet this demon, it's likely that you were already on your way to Hell and he's just scooting you along.