Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832) German writer, poet, and alchemist. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s works are heavy in alchemical symbolism, especially his most famous work, Faust, considered one of the world’s greatest literary achievements. Goethe was born at Frankfurt-on-the-Main on August 28, 1749. His father was a lawyer. At an early age, he Demonstrated an ability to draw and was interested in drama. By his early teens he was writing and also was learning several languages: Italian, Greek, Latin, English, and Hebrew. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 115 Goethe entered the university at Leipzig intending to become a lawyer, but instead he was drawn to the classics and to writing prose and verse. In 1771 he returned to Frankfurt where he wrote poems and critiques for the newspapers. The publication of his love poems for Lilli Schonemann, the daughter of a local banker, made him instantly famous, and Duke Carl August invited him to court at Weimar. He performed numerous administrative duties and founded a court theater. He maintained a rigorous schedule of writing, producing some of his best works. In 1795 Goethe met the noted poet and playwright Frederich von Schiller and entered into a collaboration with him to produce a literary magazine that was intended to educate the masses. He wrote plays. His work impressed Napoleon Bonaparte, who decorated him with the cross of the Legion of Honor. Goethe was famous for his love affairs, but in 1806 he settled down and married. He enjoyed a celebrated life and met other famous people, such as Beethoven and William Makepeace Thackeray. In his later years his health declined, and he died on March 22, 1832. Goethe was fascinated by alchemy, and he had an alchemical laboratory in the attic of his father’s house where he conducted long experiments in search of the el ixir of l if e. He began his experiments in 1768 on his return, ill, from Leipzig University. First he immersed himself in the writings of alchemists, notably Paracelsus, basil val ent ine, jean bapt ista van hel mont , george starkey, and others. In addition to alchemy, he studied pal mist ry, astrology, and numerol ogy, as well as other occult sciences. Goethe even had his own soror myst ica in his explorations, the Pietist Fraulein von Klettenberg. His interest in alchemy was further bolstered by his own cure, aided by a “Universal Medicine” given him by a Dr. Metz, who was a friend of Fraulein von Kletterberg. In his experiments, Goethe sought to create the Liquor Silicum, a transparent glass that melted on contact with air and took a clear liquid form. The Liquor Silicum would in turn lead him, he hoped, to Virgin Earth from which he would be able to create other magical substances. Goethe also tried to create Airy Salt, another substance that melted on contact with air and combined with other “superterrestrial things” to create a substance of great magical power. Though he experimented for nearly two years, Goethe was unable to produce anything of magical import and created only a fi ne powder that had no wondrous properties whatsoever. In 1770 Goethe met J. G. Herder, who criticized his occult pursuits and influenced Goethe to turn gradually away from alchemy toward science. From 1771 to 1775, Goethe turned to the works of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who mixed both occultism and science. Goethe never completely deserted alchemy and magic but looked for a bridge that would join them to science. Faust Goethe began Faust in 1774 and worked on it for 60 years, leaving parts of it to be opened posthumously. The story is of a genius who sells his soul to the devil, then sins, repents, dies, and is redeemed. Faust is an aspect of Goethe himself and shows Goethe’s knowledge of religion and alchemy and his mystical speculations. The Prologue in Heaven was probably influenced by Goethe’s reading of Paradise Lost by John Milton. It presents God with the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Mephistopheles, the devil, enters as a court jester and asks God about humankind’s wretchedness. God mentions Faust, “my serf,” and agrees to let Mephistopheles try to sway him. Faust is “doctor” of all knowledge of all the realms but has no solace. He projects a noble aspiration of the human spirit, despite his sinister side. He serves as the focal point for the struggle between good and evil as a necessary part of evolution. In Goethe’s view, the seeds of good can lie hidden in evil, but at the same time there can be something satanic in the most lofty feeling, or the satanic can even grow out of it. In Part I, Faust is in despair with weariness and emptiness. He deplores the limitations of book learning and decides to seek real power through magic, but both his immense knowledge and his magical power have been rebuffed by the Earth Spirit, the lesser deity that dwells in the Earth. He is miffed that he, “godhead’s likeness,” “more than cherub,” has been “withered” by the Earth Spirit’s rejection. Faust is about to commit suicide when Easter bells and a chorus of angels interrupt him. Mephistopheles—a symbol of the libido’s greed for gold and lust—arrives on the scene with attendant spirits he calls “my airy Cherubim.” The seduction of Faust through his limitations begins, and Faust sells him his soul. His youthful vigor restored by a witch, he descends into sensuality, which destroys Gretchen, an innocent woman who loves him. Faust attends a witches’ sabbat. He watches Gretchen die and pray to the heavenly hosts for protection. A heavenly voice proclaims that she is redeemed while Mephistopheles insists that she is damned. As Part II opens, it seems lifetimes later. Faust wakes in a charming landscape with fairies and Ariel (the same spirit of the air from Shakespeare’s play). Mephistopheles next takes Faust to Greece for an inside view of an emperor, lovemaking with Helen of Troy, and frolicking among the gods, the satyrs, the fauns, and the nymphs. His steady movement to damnation contrasts with the glories of knowledge and sensuality. After Faust dies, he is buried by angels and Demons. In Act V, the heavenly angels confront Mephistopheles and his devils to seize Faust’s soul and carry it off. In the epilogue male and female saints and blessed children sing of God’s plan as the ranks of angels comment on the ascent of Faust’s immortal essence. Gretchen is heard among the chorus of penitent women, and Faust’s soul is received by a Sophia-like “Woman Eternal.”



  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, vols. 1 & 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • ———. Faust. Ed. Cyrus Hamlin. Trans. Walter Arendt. New York: Norton, 1976.
  • Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A Study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Mansfield Centre, Conn.: Martino Publishing, 2002.
  • Lukacs, Georg. Goethe and His Age. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1969.


The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy  Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.