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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