While writing and essay based on the film Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, I started trying to track down where the idea comes from that you can play Death for your soul. It’s an interesting one, and one I thought would be a fairly trivial one to solve. It appears, however, that what you end up with is references to the Seventh Seal, or a picture hosted on Wikipedia.
The picture, reputedly done by Albertus Pictor (1440-1507), and can be found at Täby Church, Diocese of Stockholm. This confused me. I spend a lot of time looking for where this idea came from. It then struck me. Early Christian mythology linked Satan with death, so I looked for a depiction of Satan playing Chess. It was this search that took me to what I was looking for. A website about chess had a list of pictures depicting the game of chess, starting with Venus and Mars playing chess, and then Moritz August Retzsch (1779 – 1857) picture of Satan playing a man for his soul. Finally I was on to something. So, I started to see who had written about it, what had made it transfer from (so far) two paintings into popular culture. I found an excertp by Huxley in a book called “Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book” By Elbert Hubbard (Published by Kessinger Publishing, 1998, pp 91), this however contemplates swapping the Devil for Jesus, in a fight for our souls verses the Devil. I also found an excerpt from a sermon. This talks about a myth where there is a painting which depicts faust being caught by the devil, and the devil mocking him. One day, a chess master sees the painting, and after veiwing it for many hours, claims that Faust has another move.
As interesting as both these are, I don’t seem to be nearer to my goal. Where did this idea come from? The Christopher Marlowe(1604) play, Dr. Faust doesn’t mention the game, and so even the Goeth’s version is a bit too late to explain the paintings, the final version comming as it does in 1839. Even if we consider the rumoured earlier drafts, they only get us back as far as 1772.
There may be something in the idea that a Chapbook(A small, pocket-sized book), of the stories of folk-lore with the name of Faust tagged onto it may be the original source of the idea, this means, of course, that the idea that the Devil, or Death will play a game with the deceased for their soul is deep in folklore, and may indeed have come down to us from the Greek idea of gods cheating death.
Further searching finds depictions from folklore. In a book entitled “Satanism” by Robert Passantino, 1995, pp 22, we find three “pact” stories, which involve the outwitting of Satan by ordinary people, one of which is a man who wagers his soul in a card game with satan(though it doesn’t say what full terms were, did the man get anything for this wager?), wether he be burried inside or outside of a church, and so has himself bueried in a church wall. Not exactly chess, but a wager for a soul, over a game played with Satan. Snopes.com has this listed under it’s “Urban Myths” Section.
There are many tantalising extracts on books.gooegle.com, most of which from books that can’t be seen on that site.
It is possible that the paintings had such an effect on the minds of those that saw them that they simply slipped into folklore, to be re-awakened by the Seventh Seal, but I don’t think so. I’m sure that there is a popularised myth somewhere, some root to it. What is, I don’t yet know. However, the research I have done so far is enough fo rme to be able to say in my piece that I can’t find out where it started!