A Brief History of Making Deals with the Devil: Niccolò Paganini, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page & More

When the term “witch hunt” gets thrown around in cas­es of pow­er­ful men accused of harass­ment and abuse, his­to­ri­ans every­where bang their heads against their desks. The his­to­ry of per­se­cut­ing witches—as every school­boy and girl knows from the famous Salem Trials—involves accu­sa­tions mov­ing decid­ed­ly in the oth­er direc­tion.

But we’re very famil­iar with men sup­pos­ed­ly sell­ing out to Satan, dealing—or just dueling—with the dev­il. They weren’t called witch­es for doing so, or burned at the stake. They were blues pio­neers, vir­tu­oso fid­dlers, and gui­tar gods. From the dev­il­ish­ly dash­ing Nic­colò Pagani­ni, to Robert John­son at the Cross­roads, to Jim­my Page’s black mag­ic, to “The Dev­il Went Down to Geor­gia,” to the omnipres­ence of Satan in met­al…. The dev­il “seems to have quite the inter­est in music,” notes the Poly­phon­ic video above.

Before musi­cians came to terms with the dark lord, pow­er-hun­gry schol­ars used demonolo­gy to sum­mon Lucifer­ian emis­saries like Mephistophe­les. The leg­end of Faust dates back to the late 16th cen­tu­ry and a his­tor­i­cal alchemist named Johann Georg Faust, who inspired many dra­mat­ic works, like Christo­pher Marlowe’s The Trag­i­cal His­to­ry of Doc­tor Faus­tus, Johann Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Doc­tor Faus­tus, Mikhail Bugakov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta, and F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film.

The Faust leg­end may be the stur­di­est of such sto­ries, but it is not by any means the ori­gin of the idea. Medieval Catholic saints feared the dev­il’s entice­ments con­stant­ly. Medieval occultists often saw things dif­fer­ent­ly. If we can trace the notion of women con­sort­ing with the dev­il to the Bib­li­cal Eve in the Gar­den, we find male ana­logues in the New Testament—Christ’s temp­ta­tions in the desert, Judas’s thir­ty pieces of sil­ver, the pos­sessed vagrant who sends his demons into a herd of pigs. But we might even say that God made the first deal with the dev­il, in the open­ing wager of the book of Job.

In most examples—Charlie Daniels’ tri­umphal folk tale aside—the deal usu­al­ly goes down bad­ly for the mor­tal par­ty involved, as it did for Robert John­son when the dev­il came for his due, and con­vened the mor­bid­ly fas­ci­nat­ing 27 Club. Goethe impos­es a redemp­tive hap­py end­ing onto Faust that seems to wild­ly over­com­pen­sate for the typ­i­cal fate of souls in hell’s pawn shop. Kierkegaard took the idea seri­ous­ly as a cul­tur­al myth, and wrote in Either/Or that “every notable his­tor­i­cal era will have its own Faust.”

Mod­ern-day Fausts in the pop­u­lar genre of the day, the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, are famous enter­tain­ers, as you can see in the unin­ten­tion­al­ly humor­ous super­cut above from a YouTube chan­nel called “End­TimeChris­t­ian.” As it hap­pens in these kinds of nar­ra­tives, the cul­tur­al trope gets tak­en far too lit­er­al­ly as a real event. The Faust leg­end shows us that mak­ing deals with the dev­il has been a lit­er­ary device for hun­dreds of years, pass­ing into pop­u­lar cul­ture, then the blues—a genre haunt­ed by hell hounds and infer­nal crossroads—and its prog­e­ny in rock and roll and hip hop.

Those who talk of sell­ing their souls might real­ly believe it, but they inher­it­ed the lan­guage from cen­turies of West­ern cul­tur­al and reli­gious tra­di­tion. Sell­ing one’s soul is a com­mon metaphor for liv­ing a car­nal life, or get­ting into bed with shady char­ac­ters for world­ly suc­cess. But it’s also a play­ful notion. (A mis­un­der­stood aspect of so much met­al is its com­ic Satan­ic overkill.) John­son him­self turned the sto­ry of sell­ing his soul into an icon­ic boast, in “Cross­roads” and “Me and the Dev­il Blues.” “Hel­lo Satan,” he says in the lat­ter tune, “I believe it’s time to go.”

Chill­ing in hind­sight, the line is the bluesman’s grim­ly casu­al acknowl­edg­ment of how life on the edge would catch up to him. But it was worth it, he also sug­gests, to become a leg­end in his own time. In the short, ani­mat­ed video above from Music Mat­ters, John­son meets the horned one, a slick oper­a­tor in a suit: “Sud­den­ly, no one could touch him.” Often when we talk these days about peo­ple sell­ing their souls, they might even­tu­al­ly end up singing, but they don’t make beau­ti­ful music. In any case, the moral of almost every ver­sion of the sto­ry is per­fect­ly clear: no mat­ter how good the deal seems, the dev­il nev­er fails to col­lect on a debt.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Blues­man Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Dev­il Retold in Three Ani­ma­tions

Watch Häx­an, the Clas­sic Cin­e­mat­ic Study of Witch­craft Nar­rat­ed by William S. Bur­roughs (1922)

Aleis­ter Crow­ley: The Wickedest Man in the World Doc­u­ments the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Moun­taineer

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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