• SumoMe

Stories of men who sold their soul to the devil in exchange for some sort of ability or object go as far back as the concept of the devil itself. Many people were killed as a result of these bargains, and many of them enjoyed a huge amount of short-lived worldly success. These are the stories of five men who were alleged to have sold their soul to the devil during their life, and the subsequent societal reaction to their accusations.

1. St. Theophilus of Adana (c. 538)

It’s believed that Theophilus was the inspiration for the Faust legend.

The story of Theophilus is perhaps the oldest accusation of soul-selling on record. Theophilus was a 6th Century cleric who was accused of selling his soul to the devil to gain a position in the church. The story goes that he was originally unanimously elected as a bishop, but was too modest to accept the position. The guy who took over that bishop spot wound up making Theophilus’s life pretty bad, so he regretted his humility and sought out a wizard to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his aid, Satan demanded that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract signed with his own blood. Theophilus complied, and the devil gave him the position as bishop.

Years later, fearful for his soul, Theophilus repented and prayed to the Virgin for forgiveness. After forty days of fasting, the Virgin appeared to him and verbally chastised him. Theophilus begged forgiveness and Mary promised to intercede with God. He then fasted another thirty days, at which time Mary appeared to him again, and granted him Absolution. However, Satan was unwilling to relinquish his hold over Theophilus, and it was a further three days before Theophilus awoke to find the damning contract on his chest. He then took the contract to the legitimate bishop and confessed all that he had done. The bishop burned the document, and Theophilus expired, out of sheer joy to be free from the burden of his contract.

2. Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

Rolling Stone ranked Johnson as #5 on the 100 best guitar players of all time.

Robert Johnson is a world famous blues player whose life of a short 27 years is largely unknown outside of the rumors of his bargain with the devil. According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician.

He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad at midnight where he was met by the devil who took the guitar and tuned it. Then, the devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.

Son House, who once retold the story, said it was the only explanation for Johnson’s rapid mastery of the guitar at such a young age. Johnson often encouraged the legend, rather than backing away from it, and wrote songs such as “Me and the Devil,” which presents lyrics such as: “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,'” and continues with, “You may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”

To this very day, tourist attractions in Clarksville, Mississippi mark the very crossroads where Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil, showing just how powerful the legend is as well as how interesting the mysterious life of Robert Johnson was.

3. Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770)

Tartini was an Italian baroque composer and violinist. By far his most famous work is the “Devil’s Trill,” which remains one of the hardest pieces on the violin ever written to date. The story of this work gave rise to his deal with the devil.

Before Tartini was famous for his skill, he was a merely adequate violinist who was allegedly very disappointed in his skills. One night he went to sleep and saw the devil in his dream, where the devil taught him how to play the violin in exchange for Tartini’s service to the devil. Tartini agreed, and he handed his violin to the devil and played the most breathtaking song Tartini had ever heard.

When he woke up the next morning, he immediately wrote down the sonata, note for note, trying to capture what he heard the devil play in his dream. That sonata eventually came to be known as the “Devil’s Trill.” The song is so difficult to play, the legend is that Tartini had a sixth finger that allowed him alone to play the work. Despite the popularity of the song (it’s still played centuries later) with audiences, Tartini wrote that the song is “so inferior to what I had heard, that if I could have subsisted on other means, I would have broken my violin and abandoned music forever.”

4. General Jonathan Moulton (1726-1787)

The Moulton house in New Hampshire.

Moulton was a general in the American army for the King James War and the French and Indian War. Eventually, he became one of the wealthiest men in New England which gave rise to the rumors of his deal with the devil.

The story goes that Moulton sold his soul, and in exchange the devil would come to his home once a month and fill his boot with gold. This worked out as planned for a while, and then Moulton had an idea. Greedy for more gold, he cut off the soles of his boots and dug a hole in the ground (or into his basement–the story is told both ways) and put the shoe over the hole.

The devil returned to give Moulton his monthly payment, and this time it took many more coins to fill the boot because the coins fell through the boot and into the hole (or basement). The devil, wondering what was going on, figured out what Moulton did. Upset, the devil burned his house to the ground in revenge, and the coins disappeared.

When Moulton died his body disappeared out of the coffin and was replaced by a box of coins stamped with an image of the devil. Moulton’s coffin was buried without a tombstone (there is, however, a marker in his commemoration) and its location is still unknown to this day.

5. Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840)

Paganini was widely regarded as a virtuoso of his time.

Paganini is still regarded as one of the best violinists to ever live. He mastered the mandolin at five years old, and started composing at seven–he didn’t mess around. He made public appearances when he was 12, but by 16 he couldn’t take the stress and sunk into alcoholism. He regained his composure and at 22 came back to become one of the first music superstars.

Now only did he compose huge amounts of works, many of them were so complex (even for today) that only he could play them at the time because he essentially created his own way to play the violin.

Rumors of his involvement with the devil started when he wrote one of his famous pieces, “Le Streghe” which translates to “Witches’ Dance.” Audiences believed Paganini made a pact with the devil to perform supernatural displays of technique in exchange with his soul. There are even reports from people at the time who said they saw the devil helping him during his performances. Because of his widely-rumored association with the devil, he was denied his last rites in the church. It took four years, and an appeal to the Pope, before the body was allowed to be transported to Genoa, but was still not buried. His body was eventually buried 36 years after his death in 1876 in a cemetery in Parma.

Which one of these 5 men who sold their soul to the devil is your favorite? Who are some other people who made the dreaded Faustian bargain? Let’s talk history in the comments below.