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The devil has always been a source of fascination in Judeo-Christian belief. He is seen as an all powerful entity, second only to God. Even Jesus, in the Gospels, refers to him as “prince of this world”. 1
In fact, according to scripture Jesus himself was offered the greatest bargain by the devil when he fasted in the desert. The devil stated that he could give to Jesus “all their [man’s] authority and splendor”, proclaiming that “it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.” If Jesus agreed to “worship” the devil, it would all be his.2
If you worship me, it will all be yours.” 3
Jesus refused to be tempted and said no. However, it is claimed that many others after him have said yes, and have made deals with the devil.
5 – Pope Sylvester II
Born Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II was a Renaissance man hundreds of years before the time, born in 946 and dying in 1003.
Being well-read in classic literature and a man of mathematics and science, Gerbert had many scholarly accomplishments. He is known for having reintroduced the abacus – an ancient calculating tool used before written numerals – to Europe, and is even noted for having constructed a hydraulic-powered brass organ which was hailed as having surpassed all previously built musical instruments. 4
In fact, his intellect was so great that it aroused suspicion. Some held the belief that Gerbert of Aurillac was a sorcerer. It was whispered that he had acquired such occult knowledge during his time spent in the Iberian-Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus.
In the twelfth century, the English monk-historian William of Malmesbury wrote that during his time in al-Andalus, Gerbert acquired a book of spells from an Arabic philosopher. Contained within this book, it was said, was the knowledge to subdue the devil. 5
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With the book of magic in his possession, it is said that Gerbert was able to contact demons and sell his soul to the devil. This is how, at least according to legend, Gerbert gained the papal throne. 6
According to the tale, there was a caveat to Gerbert’s deal with the devil: should he ever hear mass in Jerusalem then the devil would come to claim him. With this knowledge, Gerbert, now Pope Sylvester II, was easily able to reject any offers of pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. Yet, a man of Sylvester’s wisdom should have known that a deal with the devil is never so simple to negotiate. One day, upon hearing mass in a church in Rome that he learned too late was called the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, he knew that he was doomed, and soon after fell mortally ill. 7
In another version of the legend, the devil came for Sylvester in person, accompanied by a horde of demons. The wayward Pope met a grisly end in front of the whole congregation, with Satan’s minions given his gouged out eyeballs to play with. In both variants of the legend, the devil’s price was paid.
4 – Dr. John Fian
The North Berwick witch trials began in 1590 and lasted for two years. During this time, a number of people from East Lothian in Scotland were accused of witchcraft. Over seventy people were implicated by their close. Amongst those said to be witches, was Doctor John Fian.
Fian, who went by the alias Cunningham, was discovered with the aid of another, Gillis Duncan, who confessed to the authorities that he was a fellow practitioner.8
At first Fian said nothing at all. The inquisitors then began the customary torture, starting with one of their milder punishments, which involved thrashing Fian’s head about with a rope around it. After that, he started to talk. Yet, he provided no coherent confession that satisfied his tormentors. Thus, a torture method known as the “boots”, which King James described as “the most severe and cruel paine in the world,” was employed.9 Still, Fian was resolute – he would not confess to witchcraft.
Eventually, it was discovered that Fian had cast a spell, by means of two pine needles under his tongue, to prevent confession under torture. According to Daemonologie, King James’ own reportage on the examination, once they were removed Fian confessed to everything.
He stated that his soul belonged to the devil, after having made a covenant with him long ago. It was by serving him that Fian had gained his powers of witchcraft. It was recorded that amongst his powers was the ability to bewitch a gentleman and send him into fits of lunacy.
One man, who supposedly suffered in this manner, was brought before the King’s presence on 24th December 1590. What the man allegedly did under Fian’s command is described in King James’ own book, Daemonologie.
“[…] suddenly he gave a great screech and fell into a madness, sometime bending himself, and sometime capring [gesticulating] so directly up, that his head did touch the ceiling of the Chamber, to the great admiration of his Majesty and others then present.” 10
After much torture, Fian recanted and claimed to have severed ties with the devil. Yet, soon after this he broke free from his jailers and fled. This was the act that would cost him his life. With forgiveness now out of sight, when the king’s men caught up with him, Fian was tortured further before being sentenced to death.
3 – Bernard Fokke
In the 17th century, the Dutch were obsessed with speed. Their empire expanded across the world, with colonies on most major continents. One of their most lucrative colonies was in Batavia, modern day Jakarta, which had a highly profitable trade in spices. At the time, spices were extremely valuable, being used not only for culinary purposes but to disguise bad odours and make medicine. 11
Thanks to the spice trade, the Dutch became a very wealthy empire. However, they were in intense competition with Portuguese and English merchants. Thus, if they could find the fastest routes, and employ the most able captains, it would help secure their dominance of the spice trade.
At the beginning of the century, a journey from the Netherlands to Indonesia would take around one year. Yet, in 1678 Captain Bernard Fokke, made that trip in just over three months. At the time there was no Suez canal to cut through, so this meant that he had somehow sailed around a large portion of Europe, along the entire length of Africa, and across the Indian ocean, in a cumbersome wooden ship, in a meagre amount of time. This was a speed that would only be beaten in more modern times. For the seventeenth century this speed seems unbelievable. However, the sail time was verified by the dates stamped on the letters the captain delivered. 12
After his feat, ominous stories started to circulate about the captain, describing him as a severe taskmaster who made serving under him a misery. Then there was an allegation of diabolical treachery: Fokke had sold his soul to the devil to be the fastest sailor in the world. It is said that in return for his soul, the devil turned the masts of his ship from wood to iron and thus he was able to change sails during even the fiercest of storms, something which a wooden mast made very difficult. Thus, with the devil’s supposed help and his unyielding leadership, Fokke performed one of the fastest voyages of the age. 13
2 – Christoph Haizmann
On 29th August 1677, Christoph Haizmann was found on the floor convulsing violently whilst he was working in a small castle in Potterbrun, Austria. The authorities took him in for questioning, initially believing him to be bewitched and that he himself was possibly a witch. 14 However, Haizmann claimed that he was not bewitched, but rather that he had made a deal with the devil and was now demonically possessed.
Haizmann explained that nine years ago the devil appeared to him whilst he was an impoverished painter. The devil tempted him repeatedly, hounded him, offering him money, power and women, until, finally, he succumbed on the ninth temptation. The reason he finally agreed to strike a deal was because the devil promised to cure his depression, which he had suffered since the recent loss his father. Two pacts were then supposedly signed between him and the devil: one in ink, the other in blood. Haizmann pledged in those agreements that in return he would give himself, body and soul, to the devil in nine years’ time, on 24th September. At the time of his arrest, this was only a few weeks away. 15
When the local Catholic priest, Leopold Braun, heard Haizmann’s story, he took pity on him, describing him as a “miserable man”. The priest wrote to the abbey of Mariazell and asked them to assist him. They in due course accepted Haizmann and the monks there started to perform severe exorcisms.
Haizmann was a dutiful penitent and did everything the monks told him. Yet, at midnight on 8th September, he met the devil again. The monks attested that, whilst holding him in a state of agony, Haizmann freed himself and ran to their chapel, only to return with a piece of paper some time later. Haizman claimed that the piece of paper was the contract written in blood many years ago. He said that he had snatched the accursed pact from the very claws of the devil, who appeared to him in the form of a winged dragon. 16
Yet, far from being freed, Haizmann continued to suffer convulsions.
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After another series of exorcisms, he claimed to have met the devil again, and this time retrieved the pact written in ink. His torments, however, never stopped. They would plague Haizmann for the rest of his life until he died in the year 1700, “peaceful and of good comfort”.17
1 – Tommy Johnson
One of the most prominent Blues musicians of the early twentieth century was Tommy Johnson. He was part of a musical movement known as the Delta Blues, so called for having originated in the region of the Mississippi delta of the United States. This movement was also known by another name, the “Devil’s Blues”, for many believed that the music and its artists were closely associated with the devil. Some had even come to believe that artists, like the unrelated blues’ musician Robert Johnson, had to have sold their souls in order to gain such mastery over the guitars which made them famous.
Whilst many claim that it was Robert Johnson who began the legend of selling one’s soul to the devil to play the blues, one of his biographers, Tom Graves, stated in 2008 that this story actually originated with Tommy Johnson, and was later ascribed to Robert. 18
And, Tommy was indeed a perfect candidate for such a damnable pact. He was a troubled soul and a chronic alcoholic. He had, however, been somewhat commercially successful during his lifetime, with hits like Canned Heat Blues, a song about drinking methanol from the cooking fuel Sterno.
His live performances were legendary, inspiring the flamboyant antics of later Rock ‘n’ Roll artists. He was known to play the guitar behind his neck, in between his legs, and in mid-air. Asides from his guitar, Tommys’ voice was unique and incredibly difficult for anyone to imitate, for he was able to express a wide range of vocal tones effortlessly. People at the time started to believe that such great ability must have come from the devil himself. This idea became all the more popular when Tommy himself began to confirm the claim. 19
Sometime after Tommy’s death, in 1966, his brother LeDell Johnson stated in an interview with Tommy’s biographer, David Evans, that Tommy had in fact told him about his pact with Satan personally. Not only that, Tommy had supposedly described how anyone could sell their soul to the devil.
“Now if [Tommy Johnson] was living he’d tell you. He said the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself […] A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.””20
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