Be careful what you wish for. These men and women allegedly signed contracts with Satan to get what they wanted. The deals may have paid off in the short-term, but the eternal return was far from positive. There is always someone looking for the easy way of obtaining more pleasure, wealth or power. I always find it fascinating the lengths some will try just to achieve what they desire most.
St. Theophilus of Adana
Many view St. Theophilus of Adana (also known as Saint Theophilus the Penitent) as the first man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for social or political advancement. So the story goes, Theophilus was unanimously elected to become a bishop in the sixth century. He declined the offer out of humility. Another man accepted the position, and promptly made Theophilus’ life miserable. Regretting his decision, Theophilus summoned a sorcerer who helped contact the Devil. The Devil was more than happy to rectify the situation—provided the cleric renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract spelled out in his own blood. Theophilus accepted the demands, signed off on the pact, and ascended to the title originally offered him.
As the years went by, however, doubt crept in. Theophilus begged forgiveness from the Virgin Mary. He fasted for forty days, after which time the Virgin reportedly appeared and rebuked him; Theophilus pleaded for mercy, and she left with the promise that she would talk to God on his behalf. After Theophilus fasted for another thirty days, the Virgin Mary returned with the message that God had pardoned him. Three days later, however, Theophilus awoke to find the bloody contract placed upon his chest. Satan refused to relinquish his hold on the cleric’s soul. A terrified Theophilus sought counsel from another bishop, who burned the contract and freed him from the infernal pact. Overwhelmed with joy, Theophilus died on the spot, relieved to be free.
Robert Johnson was an American blues musician from the early 20th century who, as legend has it, acquired his musical prowess from a midnight deal with the Devil. Born in 1911, Johnson grew up along the Mississippi Delta. As a young man, he yearned for musical greatness and one night took his guitar to the crossroads in hopes of conjuring dark forces. The Devil appeared and took Johnson’s guitar; he played a few songs, and then handed it back, granting the young musician complete mastery of the instrument.
The story thus explained Johnson’s extraordinary skill; it also led to rumors that Johnson’s drooping eye spoke of an infernal connection, and that he turned away from his audience while performing to hide the presence of evil. Johnson did little to discourage such tales—if anything, he fanned the flames with lyrics such as “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door / And I said, ‘Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.’” In 1938, Johnson died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27. Some say he succumbed to syphilis, others poisoning, whereas others contend it was the Devil himself collecting his due.
Nearly 150 years before Johnson’s midnight pact, another famous musician was accused of bargaining with the Devil in exchange for musical greatness. Nicolò Paganini, born in 1782, was an Italian violist, violinist, guitarist, and composer known for his complex pieces and uncanny musicianship. The virtuoso began performing publicly at the age of 12, only to collapse under the pressure just four years later. He returned to the music scene at age 22, performing complex arrangements of his own devising. Several of the compositions were so demanding that Paginini was the only person alive who could properly play them.
As word of his talent spread, so too did the rumor that his abilities were the result of an unholy pact. Some even said they saw Satan on stage with Paganini, assisting the violinist during concerts. Such claims were so widespread, in fact, that Paganini was denied final rites and a proper burial upon his death. It took 36 years after his passing before his body was finally laid to rest in a cemetery in Parma, Italy, a great distance from his home in Genoa.
Guiseppi Tartini is another Italian violinist said to have struck a deal with the Devil. So the legend goes, a dark figure visited Tartini in a dream one night in 1713. It was the Devil offering his services in exchange for the musician’s soul. Tartini agreed to the pact, after which the Devil scooped up his violin and played the most beautiful song. Upon waking, Tartini grabbed his instrument and desperately tried to recreate the song. The result was the “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” which remains one of the most difficult pieces of violin music ever written. Observers who witnessed Tartini play the piece were convinced he must have had otherworldly assistance to be able to perform it so perfectly. Tartini, however, was never satisfied with the piece. He maintained that it could not hold a candle to the original tune played by the sinister figure from his dream.
Of the souls on this list, Grandier is unique in that his alleged contract with the Devil actually exists. Born in 1590, Grandier was a French Catholic priest known for being sexually promiscuous with more than a few nuns. He was also an outspoken critic of the church’s stance on celibacy. At some point, several of Grandier’s former bedmates accused the priest of witchcraft, claiming he employed dark magic to lead them into temptation. A trial commenced, though it resulted in an acquittal.
France’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, was no fan of Grandier; the priest had published several withering criticisms about him. So Richelieu ordered a second trial. Grandier was arrested and put through torture during his interrogation. The damning evidence, however, came in the form of a document allegedly found among Grandier’s belongings. It was a contract, written in Latin and covered in strange symbols, which boasted Grandier’s signature and the signatures of several demons—including Satan himself. The bond promised Grandier “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers” in exchange for the priest’s allegiance. It’s unclear if Grandier was forced to sign the document under duress, or if it was completely forged by those angling for his demise. In either case, Grandier was found guilty of fraternizing with Satan and sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake in 1634.
Jonathan Moulton, born in 1726, was a famed soldier of colonial America—serving in King George’s War as well as the French and Indian War. He became one of New England’s wealthiest men after his service, which gave way to rumors that the man was in cahoots with the Devil. Rumors swirled that General Moulton had struck a financial deal with Satan; in exchange for eternal devotion and retention of his soul, the Devil would visit Moulton’s home every month and fill his boot with gold. Despite such a handsome sum, General Moulton grew greedy; he cut a hole in the floor above his basement, over which he placed his boot with a freshly punched hole in the boot’s heel. Moulton may have thought himself quite clever—but one should never try to outfox the Devil. Upon realizing the scheme, the Devil burned down Moulton’s house, along with the gold coins.
Antoine Rose, the first female of this list, was a woman from the 15th century who confessed—under torture—to regularly meet with the Devil. Today, she’s credited with our modern-day image of a witch riding a broomstick. Rose, who came to be known as the Witch of Savoy, France, claimed that she had been destitute, and in dire need of money. Seeking help from her neighbor, Rose was led to a group of people who convinced her to ask the Devil for help.
The Devil appeared and agreed to assist the struggling woman—so long as she rejected God and worshipped him instead. The Devil also gave her a stick, a foot and a half in length, and a small pot of ointment. She was to smear a bit of the ointment on the stick, place the stick between her legs, and say, “Go, in the name of the Devil, go!” In her confession, Rose described some of the tributes the worshippers paid to the Devil, including dancing and feasting, and kissing the Devil’s hindquarters when he appeared in the physical form of a large black dog. Rose also stated that the Devil had a low, raspy voice in human form, and she was terrified of him the first time they met.
Johann Christoph Haizmann
Born in 1651/52, Johann Christoph Haizmann was a painter who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil after the death of his parent. In exchange for relief from poverty and depression, Haizmann agreed to be the earthly “son” of the Devil for nine years. Afterward, Haizmann’s body and soul would pass into the Devil’s hands.
Haizmann claimed that he signed two documents confirming the pact—one penned in ink and the other in his own blood. As the due date approached, the painter grew worried. In 1677, he sought help from a Catholic priest, who performed an exorcism on the young man. The ritual soothed Haizmann’s troubled mind; he had a vision in which he successfully retrieved the pact penned in blood. Soon thereafter, Haizmann sought to annul the ink-written contract. He secured a second exorcism in 1678, which succeeded in calming his nerves.
Haizmann continued to paint after the exorcisms, creating several pieces that depicted his encounters with the Devil. Such works illustrated Haizmann’s journal entries that described his infernal visions. Toward the end of his life, Haizmann joined the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God. He died in 1700. It’s said that Haizmann was frequently visited by the Devil and other demonic beings, who tried to tempt him away from his newfound life of piety.
Pope Sylvester II
Pope Sylvester II was one of the most learned men of his time. Well versed in mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics; he is credited with inventing the hydraulic organ, pendulum clock, and introducing Arabic numerals to Western Europe. He also wrote books on mathematics, natural science, music, theology and philosophy. Pope Sylvester II was the first French Pope and certainly the most significant in the 10th century. Upon his death, rumors began to fly that his great intelligence – and, consequently his inventive genius – was the result of a pact with the devil. This was most likely due to his regular contact with great scientific minds in the Arab world and his brave attempts to root out simony in the Church.
Gilles de Rais
Gilles de Rais was considered intelligent, courageous and very attractive with a bluish black beard. Born to one of the most distinguished families in Brittany, he came into his own when his father died in Gilles’ 20th year. He found himself with untold wealth and power which eventually led to his downfall. Gilles got an attack of “keeping up with the Joneses” which ultimately led to the loss of much of his wealth. In desperation he began to experiment with the occult under the direction of a man named Francesco Prelati, who promised that Gilles could help him regain his squandered fortune by sacrificing children to a demon called “Baron.” Over the course of his killing spree, Gilles raped, tortured, and murdered between 80 and 200 children. He was tried, found guilty, and executed by hanging and burning.
Cornelius Agrippa was the most influential writer of renaissance esoterica. He studied law and medicine but never obtained a degree. He was considered a magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer and alchemist. He was a leader in feminist rights and often defended women accused of witchcraft. He wrote 3 books on the occult that are still in use today. In 1535 he was labeled a heretic and sentenced to death. He escaped and on his way home fell ill and died. After Agrippa’s death, rumors circulated about his having summoned demons. In the most famous of these, Agrippa, upon his deathbed, released a black dog which had been his familiar. This black dog resurfaced in various legends about Faustus, and in Goethe’s version became the “schwarze Pudel” Mephistopheles.
Dr. Johann Georg Faust
Dr. Johann Georg Faust was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician of the German Renaissance. His life became the nucleus of the popular tale of Doctor Faust from ca. the 1580s, notably culminating in Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) and Goethe’s Faust (1808). Legend has it that Faust wanted a life of pleasure and having been involved with the occult learned how to summon the devil. Having done so he made a deal with him for his soul in return for 24 years of service from Satan. Unfortunately, after 16 years he regretted his deal and wanted to withdraw it. The consequences of this attempt to withdraw the deal are well known to any who have read the various fictional tales of Faust’s life: the devil brutally murdered him.