Mephistopheles: A Possible Etymology
by Giovanna (SuccubaSuprema)
I recall reading Faust when I was 13, in a delightful edition which had the original German on one page, and the English translation on the facing page. Within a year, I had come across some source (I believe it was Richard Cavendish, 1967) claiming that the name "Mephistopheles" was derived from "Lucifuge Rofocale," which I thought dubious, even back then before I was a language geek. Over the years since then, I've encountered assorted other claims for an etymology of the name, some of which were also dubious, while others had a semblance of greater credibility. Suggested origins for the name have included Mefitz-tofel (K.J. Schröer, 1886), Mephitis ("Philologos," 2010), Megist-Ophiel (Julius Goebel, 1904), and others. I must admit that I've not actively sought out these discussions, and have actually done very little investigation, because the origin of the name "Mephistopheles" has not been a fascination for me, and I would only encounter such discussions incidentally as I was researching other matters.
As might be supposed (by someone familiar with the folklore and legends of southern Europe) from the handle I use here ("SuccubaSuprema"), I do have an interest in the pre-Christian myths and legends of the Italic peoples concerning those beings who started off as woodland spirits, became spirits of the field, then night spirits, and finally dream spirits known as "Incubi" and "Succubae" (before the Church came along and perverted the legends into the idea that a "Succubus" was actually an Incubus in false female form, because, in the patriarchal view of the Church, of course no spiritual being could possibly be female ...). These dream spirits naturally were said to be involved in the wholly natural phenomenon known as a "wet dream." When the Church came along, this association was predictably seized upon as evidence that the spirits in question were "evil" and so on. Having already distorted the original meaning of the Greek word "daimon" into a concept of "fallen angel," this Latinized term "daemon" was (also predictably) applied to the Incubus (and the very existence of a Succuba was denied, except insofar as an Incubus was, according to the Church, able to engage in deceptive illusion in order to appear female). As such, when researching these folkloric beings, the student or scholar will encounter references to other beings alleged to be "demons" by the Christian religion.
As I have also made plain several times in the history of this blog, I am not only a language geek, but also a gamer. I started playing RPGs in the late 70s, when the hardback rule books for the first edition of AD&D were still being published. With the newer editions and expansions and so on, the mythical aspects of what is now D&D have been expanded, including the "Powers" (Gods, Demigods, Devils, Demons, etc) of the "Outer Planes." Three or four years ago, I came across a mention of the "Succubus Queen" in D&D (who didn't exist when I started playing, or at least had not been named or implied by the literature available then), known as "Malcanthet." I did a little research on this character then, and filed it away for future reference.
This afternoon, I was talking with a friend and referred to Shendilavri (the home of Malcanthet), and this occasioned my revisiting the information I had already collected about Malcanthet, as well as looking around to see what new information I might find on the internet. In the process, I noticed that her current consort is named as "Mastiphal the Hunting Sovereign." Many of the names found in what was once The Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia were based on (or taken directly) from actual real-world myths and legends, so I thought to see if this "Mastiphal" might have some such real-world origin. After some digging around in search engines, I eventually came to a pdf file of the 1902 translation by R.H. Charles, D.D. (Professor of Biblical Greek at Trinity College, Dublin) of a text (generally regarded as apocryphal) known as "the Book of Jubilees" or "The Little Genesis," which, quoted by the 11th century Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos, was supposed to be the origin of the name "Mastiphal." On searching the text of the work, however, I could find no instance of that name. A less precise search provided the reason for the lack. Somewhere along the way, someone had apparently mis-rendered the name as given in Syncellus and Kedrenos ("Mastipham" or "Mastiphat," and called "the archon of the demons") as "Mastiphal." The Ethiopic text from which Doctor Charles made his translation gave the name as "Mastêmâ." In his note 8 at page 80 of the text proper, Dr. Charles states:
Mastêmâ. In the Latin version this name appears as Mastîma, and in the Midrashic Book of Noah as [Hebrew letters which read ShR HMShTMH, that is, Sar ha-Mastemah, or "Prince Mastemah" -- although more likely intended as "Prince/Ruler of Mastemah," since "Mastemah" as a name would be a feminine name]. Hence the form in which it appears in Syncellus and Cedrenus as [this next is my rendering into Latin characters of the Greek letters: Mastipham, ho archOn tOn daimoniOn, meaning "Mastipham, the Archon of the Demigods" the latter word which most will incorrectly translate as "demons" -- which is probably what Dr. Charles understood it to mean, and almost certainly what Kedrenos intended], or Mastiphat is less accurate. Outside the Jubilee literature, as Römsch has remarked (p. 418), this word is not found as a proper noun except in the Acts of Philip (ed. Tischend., p. 98): [more Greek I'll render into Latin characters as: ho de MansEmat, tout' estin ho Satanas, hypeisElthen eis ton Ananian kai eplEpOsen auton thymou kai orgEs, which means something like "the Mansêmat, which is the Satan, entered into Ananias and seized him with wrath and anger"]. As a common noun it is found twice in Hos. ix. 7, 8 in the sense of "enmity." The word appears to be the hiphil of [Hebrew letters which are ShTM (= ShTN)], i.e. [Hebrew letters MShTIM], and is therefore the equivalent of [Greek letters ho Satanas] in point of meaning and derivation.[Boldface floral lavender notes inside square brackets are mine, including the transliterations from Hebrew and Greek into Latin letters, as well as the translations given from Hebrew and Greek into English. -- Giovanna]
While reading all of this, the idea of a connection with the name "Mephistophiles" did not occur to me until after I had sorted and made some sense of the Hebrew and Greek and began then to wonder how "Mastiphal" had come about from these references. I looked more closely at the name and these references, and decided that the spelling "Mastiphal" was most likely a Latin scribal error for "Mastiphat," and suddenly the connection hit me. "Mastiphal" might be confused with some kind of Greek shorthand by someone who knew no Hebrew and was reading Syncellus or Kedrenos in Latin. From that, "Mastiphiles" could easily be chosen as the probable name intended, which would mean "friend of scourges" or "lover of scourges." Transposition of letters being an intentional practice when dealing with alleged names of spirits has a long and not unfamiliar history, and so "Mastiphiles" could naturally become "Maphistiles." From that name, the change to "Mephistophiles" is rather obvious. Many variants of this name have shown up throughout history, including (but not limited to) Mephistopheles, Mephistophilus, Mephistophilis, Mephostopheles, Mephisto, and Mephastophilis.
If the Muse has breathed in me as a result of these (admittedly somewhat cursory) investigations, then the mysterious "Mephistopheles" would have his name from "Mastiphiles" ("lover of scourges"), which in turn was derived by erroneous reading of "Mastiphat," itself an inaccurate rendering of "Mastêmâ," Hebrew for "enmity" or "hatred" and considered to be another name for ha-Shaitan, "the Adversary," originally viewed in Iyov (the book of "Job") as the Hebrew God's Prosecuting Attorney.
Copyright 2014 by Giovanna (SuccubaSuprema). All Rights Reserved.