The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Monday, 16 January 2023

A Deal with the Devil

The story of Faust, or Dr Faustus, selling his soul to the Devil has been told many times, notably by Christopher Marlowe and by Goethe. The figure of Faust is supposed to be based on a real-life scholar, Johann Georg Faust (c.1480-1540), but the idea is widespread. The concept of Souls Saved from the Devil takes up types 1170-1199 in Uther’s Types of International Folktales.

         But there is documented proof of a man who tried but seemingly failed to sell his soul to the Devil. His name was Daniel Lorenz Salthenius (1701-1750), and he was Professor of Theology at the University of Königsberg from 1732 to 1750. Immanuel Kant was one of his pupils, and when he died Salthenius’ personal library of around 22,000 volumes included no fewer than 300 Bibles.

         M.R. James used the story of Salthenius’s pact with Devil as inspiration for his ghost story “Number 13”.

         When Salthenius was 17, and a student at the University of Uppsala, wrote two versions of the letter in which he exchanged his soul in return for various gifts. He managed to lose the first letter on his way to the appointed place—an old (sacred?) oak tree in the village of Markem in Sweden, where his father was the priest. So he wrote another shorter one, and pinned that to the oak instead.

         Salthenius seems to have been quite serious about this. Both letters are written in his own blood. This is the longer one, in the translation given in John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales:


I, Daniel Salthenius, desire from you, O Devil, the following items which you shall give me in exchange for payment.

1. You shall now at this time give me a purse which shall never run out of purely minted money, and that money shall remain in my possession or in that of the one I give it to.

2. You shall grant me particular success in the world with gentlemen and ladies of high station, as well as success in hunting and fishing, so that I shall never return empty-handed.

3. That all the arts I already have learned, or later shall learn, I shall retain.

4. That I receive from you now the Black Book.

5. That I can become visible or invisible whenever I wish.

6. You shall also now give me that thing, whatever it may be, that has the quality, that when I have it about my person, I may immediately come to any place I name.

In return I promise to serve you during my lifetime as best I can and after my death to belong to you, body and soul. Anno 1718, this I affirm with my signature and blood.


Next morning Salthenius returned to the tree, Bible in hand, to receive his gifts, and was immediately arrested by the authorities, who had found both letters. He was tried, and sentenced to decapitation. 

         But then it turned out that as he was a student at Uppsala, and also a minor, the court had no legal jurisdiction in the case, which must be dealt with by the University’s Consistory Court. This took a more lenient approach, and sentenced him to just eight days (some sources say a month) in prison, presumably regarding the whole episode as a juvenile prank. And so Daniel Lorenz Salthenius lived to become a highly respected theologian, rather than the Devil’s thrall.

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