Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Return You Want My Soul

Mephisto: I told you, our destinies are made up of the smallest brush strokes, the finest details. Some of those details I am not allowed to touch. But others can be touched, with the permissions of the one involved.
Where everyone else has failed, I can guarantee that I can and will save your aunt's life.
Spider-Man: And in return you want my soul, is that it?
- Sensational Spider-Man #41
by J. Michael Straczynski and Joe Quesada

I don't know if people can actually make a deal with the devil. I don't know if that's ever actually happened in the course of history, recorded by humans or not. There certainly are a lot of tales about the notion, though.

The most common story is that of Faust (which is why these deals with the devil are often called Faustian), who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for such things as unlimited knowledge. But I find it very intriguing that one of the earliest tales of such a deal (at least in Christian mythology) is about Saint Theophilus the Penitent of Adana. Theophilus lived in the 6th century and sold his soul to the devil for a position of power: the office of a bishop. Yes, as the story goes, he made a deal with the devil in order to get a position in the church.

How's that for a cynical portrait of the clergy?

Of course, the idea of the devil offering worldly power in exchange for allegiance was nothing new by the time of Theophilus. Satan tried to make such a Faustian bargain even with Jesus!

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
- Matthew 4:8-9 (NRSV)

Of course Jesus didn't accept the deal. But this does lay a pretty solid precedent that the devil has the capability to broker such exchanges. 

However, since comic books are comic books, Spider-Man isn't making a deal with the actual devil. Not exactly anyway. According to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (yeah, I have research books about comics as well as theology. Don't be so surprised), this Mephisto that Spider-Man talks to is "an extradimensional demon whose origin is unknown...He rules a fiery pocket dimension that he calls "hell" or "Hades" although it is neither the hell of the Christian religion nor the Hades ruled by Pluto, the Olympian god of the dead."

Aren't you glad you know that now?

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