The elixirs of the devil

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Title page of the first edition of Volume I.

The novel The Elixirs of the Devil by ETA Hoffmann (1776–1822) was published in 1815/16. Hoffmann took over the basic idea of ​​the novel from Matthew Gregory Lewis ' novel The Monk , which is also mentioned in the text in the sixth chapter - albeit without naming the author.

Although Hoffmann himself was not very religious, he was so impressed by the life of the friars and the atmosphere during a visit to a Capuchin monastery in Bamberg that he decided to write The Elixirs of the Devil and set them in this religious setting. It is characteristic of Hoffmann that he practically wrote down this book in just a few weeks. The work can be classified in the Black Romanticism .


The novel is a fictional autobiography. The protagonist, the monk Medardus, who is related in some way to almost all characters in the novel, is unaware of these connections at the beginning of the novel and is accepted into a heavenly monastery after a happy childhood. He grows up here and, as he is commendably following his path, receives two important roles in his monastery: He manages the reliquary, which contains one of the devil's elixirs, according to a legend left by St. Anthony . He also begins to preach. His speaking talent rises to his head and so he declares himself to be St. Anthony and loses his speaking talent in a swoon.

He wins it back when he drinks the devil's elixir. When a young woman, Aurelie, who is very similar to St. Rosalia , confesses her love for him, he wants to leave the monastery to look for her. The prior , who noticed his unrest, sent him to Italy as envoy of the monastery.

On his hike he sees a sleeping man over a ravine who threatens to fall into the ravine. When he tries to wake him up, the latter is startled and falls down. Due to a misunderstanding, Medardus is now mistaken for the fallen and is accepted into a castle as Count Viktorin. He begins a relationship with Aurelie's stepmother, Euphemie, but later suddenly meets Aurelie herself. His love for her escalates and he kills Hermogen, Aurelie's brother, and Euphemie. He escapes and first ends up in a town where he meets Pietro Belcampo (alias Peter Schönfeld), as he was called in Germany. Later, through an accident, he ends up in a forester's lodge, where he meets his doppelganger, a mad monk who is mistaken for his brother Medardus, i.e. himself. This monk turns out to be Viktorin who fell into the ravine, who suffered a head injury in the course of this and so went mad.

Medardus next stop is a prince's court, where he appears in disguise, but by Aurelie, who appears there when she is recognized as her brother's murderer and thrown into prison. But from there he is rescued by his doppelganger, because he confesses the act. Aurelie confesses her love to the released Medardus and they want to get married. But on the wedding day, Medardus meets the doppelganger Viktorin, who is to be led to death, shouts the truth at Aurelie and says that she stabbed her at the same moment out of affect. He frees the doppelganger and flees for the second time.

But his doppelganger follows him, the two fight a bitter fight, which Medardus wins, but which lets him sink into a deep swoon. He wakes up in an Italian clinic and from there, remorseful, moves on to a monastery. There he atones for his sins, gets involved in a plot for the Pope, narrowly escapes death and makes his way to his former monastery after reading the writings of an old painter, in which he found his own life story written down and now understood.

When he returns to his home monastery, he witnesses Aurelie's costume, but then has to watch his doppelganger kill her and flee. Medardus begins to write down his life and dies a year later on the day of Aurelie's death.


The life story that Medardus finds in the painter's writings is a motif that is taken up several times in the devil's elixirs . Different people (e.g. the forester, the personal doctor, the abbot) tell him his own story over and over again - sometimes without their knowledge. So this narrative comes up again and again and the reader suspects what Medardus only learns at the end: That he is related to almost all the people who appear (everyone he injures or kills are relatives). He recognizes a dark power that seems to stand above his life and pull the strings together:

It becomes clear that the mysterious painter has placed an original sin on his future blood line through the forbidden relationship with a devil woman. He is forced to watch it go through and condemned not to find peace until it breaks. Medardus is the painter's great-great-grandson; every single one of Medardu's paternal ancestors bears a variation of the name "Franz", it turns out. The curse on Medardus' bloodline is probably that each of his forefathers is led to instinctuality and through forbidden, sinful love affairs the descendants who come from them are burdened with this original sin. In Medardus' case, this diabolical power tries to entangle Medardus and Aurelie in another sinful love by using visions and merging their fates. In the end, Medardus breaks the curse of his tribe and thus presumably also redeems the painter, as the union between himself and Aurelie intended (by the devil) never came about: Through the events her love is based on platonic affection until the end, and when Aurelie dies , Medardus is no longer able to pass on the corrupted seed.

It seems possible to understand the story as an early literary treatment of the topic of a split personality , since Medardus encounters his other self in his doppelganger . However, the duplication of people is a common motif in fantastic literature . In ETA Hoffmann's Master Flea, all characters have an equivalent in the fairy tale realm. However, the internal struggle is rarely expressed through an actual encounter between the protagonist and his doppelganger, as in Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson from 1839. Hoffmann deserves one of the earliest depictions of this motif.

At the beginning of the novel there is a variant of the well-known Temptations of St. Anthony , according to which the monk should be seduced by the devil with an elixir. This legend, however, is not based on the so-called Vita Antonii , but on an apophthegma that is attributed to Makarius the Egyptian (cf. Apophthegmata Patrum , no. 456 after the edition by Bonifaz Miller).


  • First edition: The Elixirs of the Devil. Disused papers of the brother Medardus of a Capuchin. Edited by the writer of the Fantasy Pieces in Callot's manner. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 2 volumes; Vol. I 1815, 378 pp. + 2 sheets. Publisher's advertisements; Vol. II 1816, 374 pp. Vol. 1 , Vol. 2 , each digitized and full text in the German Text Archive

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