About a year has passed since Valentine’s death. It is April 30th, Walpurgis Night—a dark celebration in the devil’s honor, held on Brocken’s summit in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. Faust and Mephistopheles are hiking in a labyrinth of valleys among welling and plunging waters, elements of nature that make Faust feel energetic and alive. He feels spring in his limbs, but the devil feels like it’s winter inside of him, and the red moon seems dreary. Mephistopheles summons a will-o’-the-wisp, a fairy-like flame, which guides the two to Brocken.
At this point, Faust does not know what has befallen Gretchen—she has killed her infant and been imprisoned for it—and he is still in love with her. The devil’s boredom suggests that the year since Valentine’s death has been uneventful for him, perhaps because Faust has been too racked with guilt to take advantage of the devil’s services.
As they hike, Faust and Mephistopheles see many wonders, like the glowing, mist-surrounded palace of Mammon, a devil of wealth. A storm begins to rage and Mephistopheles instructs Faust to grab a nearby rock so he isn’t hurled to the bottom of the gorge. Witches riding on both broomsticks and pigs approach, all singing in a chorus, followed by warlocks. Mephistopheles, however, is master here, and he tells the mob to make way so that he and Faust can join a small club of naked witches who are accompanied by their veiled elders. It’s an ancient practice, he says, to make small worlds inside the great one.
Wicked beings associated with bodily pleasure and blind appetite take to the mountains on Walpurgis Night. Among these are Mammon, the lewd, naked witches, and their pigs. The devil enjoys asserting his power over them, dominated by he is with ideas of mastery, slavery, and indebtedness. He has power here, in this demonic microcosm, but only here—in the macrocosm of the universe he is impotent to do anything but ultimately serve the divine will.
With his cloven foot, proof of his identity as the devil, Mephistopheles serves as spokesman for the tongue-tied Faust. First the two approach a group of old gentlemen who complain about how one can trust neither the Government nor the People, how nothing’s stable, and how impudent the young have become. Looking suddenly very old, the devil anticipates that the Judgment Day is near, when the physical world will be destroyed and the kingdom of heaven revealed. A witch tries to sell to the devil a variety of objects that have done great harm to people and society, but he tells her that she is behind the times and should sell not objects of the past, but novelties instead.
The old gentlemen are bitter and cynical, which is perhaps a justifiable attitude based on the world they live in, but they, like the devil, are content to just talk negatively, never acting creatively to actually make the world a better place. Buying and selling, which draws the human mind away from higher pursuits, is associated with devilry throughout the play.
Faust hopes his mind remains intact, because he’s never seen such a lively carnival as this. Lilith, the first man Adam’s first wife—now a temptress and demon—is there along with dancing witches. Faust and Mephistopheles join in with them, with Faust singing about apples in a tree (a reference both to breasts and the fruit which Adam and Eve ate in Eden, leading to the Fall of Man from paradise), and the devil singing about a gaping hole in his tree, which suits him just fine. A mortal who doesn’t believe in ghosts approaches, and says it’s impossible that these supernatural beings should be dancing together—and yet here they are.
Walpurgis Night is a highly sexualized nightmare, a fitting context for us to learn about the tragic aftermath of Faust’s love affair with Gretchen. Lilith, a demon who kills children, anticipates the revelation that Gretchen killed her infant. Lilith is contrasted with the Virgin Mary, whose son Jesus died to redeem humanity. Faust sings about the Tree of Knowledge, while the devil’s Tree is one of negation. Knowledge for him is just a pit, an absence.
Faust leaves his dance, disturbed when a red mouse leaps from his partner’s mouth. He also confides in Mephistopheles that he saw a deathly-pale lovely girl who looks like his own dear Gretchen (whose fate he has no knowledge of at this point). Leave that alone, the devil advises. He says it’s mere sorcery, a woman who appears to every man as the woman he loves. This sorceress, he points out, can also transport her head between her arms. The devil observes that Faust has not yet lost his craving for illusions, and urges him on to a theater he sees, where a play is scheduled to begin.
That the deathly-pale girl can hold her head between her arms anticipates the fact that Gretchen is set to be executed by beheading the following morning. The devil intentionally withholds this news from Faust, however, perhaps because he worries that seeing Gretchen again alive might move Faust to change his life for the better. The devil instead tries to distract Faust with more illusions.