It is August 9th, and darkness lies over the Pharsalian Fields, where on this day in 48 BC Julius Caesar won a decisive victory over Pompey the Great during the Great Roman Civil War. The Thessalian witch Erichtho presides, anticipating the night’s celebration. She says that human beings, who are incompetent to rule over themselves, arrogantly seek to impose their wills on others, and power always meets a greater power, as was the case when Caesar defeated Pompey. Fires glow and redden in the Fields. Erichtho sees a shining light fly through the night and she withdraws.
The mention of the Great Civil War foreshadows the rebellion soon to break out in the Emperor’s realm. Erichtho understands that human beings are only a small part of the universe, but they still falsely think themselves capable of mastery—and this causes their arrogant, futile wars. This point will be elaborated on later in this scene, in the war between the Pygmies and the cranes.
From the sky, accompanied by light, enter Homunculus, still in his vial, Mephistopheles, and Faust, who wakes upon landing, refreshed just to be in Greece. The three decide to seek their own adventures and split up. Mephistopheles, desiring erotic fun, meets griffins, who argue that the sounds of words reflect the origins from which their sense derives. He also meets riddling Sphinxes who sense that the devil is ill at ease here in pagan Greece. Soon after, he meets sirens too—part-bird, part-woman creatures that seduce men to their deaths with beautiful song—but their singing is wasted on the devil.
The culture of Classical Greece is one where (in Goethe’s mind) reason, passion, and nature all existed in harmony. The Northern Germanic culture that produced Mephistopheles, in contrast, separates these elements, leading to unnaturalness of feeling and ugliness. The devil is indeed out of place here. Note that the griffins’ theory of language contradicts the devil’s—the griffins say that ideas are inherently attached to the words describing them, whereas the devil thinks of words as merely sound.
Faust enters, newly vigorous because of the strength and grandeur of Greece and its inhabitants, even the ugly ones. He asks the Sphinxes if any have seen Helen, and one suggests he speak to Chiron. The sirens attempt to tempt Faust, but he withdraws to look for Chiron. Mephistopheles insults and threatens the sirens, and begins ogling the Lamiae, who are coquettish creatures, part-snake and part-woman, said to devour children. He exits to speak with them.
This is the first time in the drama that Faust has been taken to a world not of the devil’s choosing. It is no surprise, then, that he feels so refreshed. While Mephistopheles pursues sensual pleasure, the only part of Greek culture he understands, Faust and Homunculus seek to transcend themselves.
Meanwhile, Faust approaches a River God who is surrounded by streams and nymphs. The nymphs invite Faust to rest, and he experiences a beauty very similar to the dream he had while sleeping in his former study earlier, complete with woodland springs and swans.
In Greece, dreams of sensuous, ideal beauty become a reality for Faust. The magician also hopes to rediscover Helen here, not as a mere vision but as a reality.
The centaur Chiron enters, and he invites Faust to mount and ride him. Faust acknowledges Chiron to be a great educator and skilled in medicine, and modest as well. The two discuss Greek heroes like Hercules, before Chiron adds that once Helen rode on his back just as Faust is doing now. Faust is beside himself. Chiron says that Faust may act heroically for a mortal, but in the spirit world his behavior looks like madness. The centaur offers to take him to Manto, a healer. Faust says he doesn’t want to be healed, but it is too late, and they’ve already arrived at the temple where Manto is living, at the foot of Mount Olympus.
Chiron has the upper body of a man and the lower body of a horse, and as such portrays the integration of intelligence and sensation—reason and passion. Horseback riding is often associated in Western culture with sexual activity, which is perhaps why Faust is so excited to learn that Helen once rode on Chiron’s back as well. Faust’s behavior looks like madness in the spirit world because Faust has no concept of his microcosmic limitations.
Chiron introduces Manto to the crazed Faust. Manto says she loves this man who wants what cannot be. Chiron gallops into the distance, and Manto invites Faust to enter with her into Hades, the Greek underworld, so that joy can be his. The two exit, descending.
Manto appreciates Faust’s desire for transcendence and so agrees to help him restore Helen to life.
Elsewhere, earthquake-tremors rattle and rumble, making the Sphinxes uncomfortable, and a mountain rises up to the earth’s surface. (It is implied that this is caused by Faust rescuing Helen from Hades, which brings about upheaval in nature). Out of nowhere emerges a society of Pygmies, diminutive people, who begin to settle the mountain, building a forge, furnishing their troops with armor and weapons. A Pygmy general orders the destruction of a nearby flock of herons for their feathers, which will be used to plume Pygmy helmets. Just then, from the sky, an army of cranes enters. The cranes are disgusted by the murderous greed of the Pygmies and vow vengeance.
The Pygmies, often portrayed as pudgy, exaggeratedly comical dwarfs, have no sense of self-restraint. They act impulsively and self-importantly, not unlike their counterparts in the Emperor’s court. They attempt to violently master the newly arisen mountain, living as though what is in their reach is the whole universe. They also violate nature in their conquest, killing the herons needlessly. The smallness of the scene provides a clear lesson for how humans look in the divine scheme of things.
Mephistopheles enters the plain beside the mountain. He complains of being uncomfortable with the witches here in Greece, but is nonetheless lured on by the Lamiae. The devil gives chase, only to stop and complain that their tight-laced waists and pained faces tell us how absolutely worthless these coquettish creatures really are, offering only what’s unhealthy.
Mephistopheles feels like a stranger in a strange land. He is sexually aroused by the Lamiae, but they are unlike the lustful witches he’s used to, which makes him uncomfortable. He enjoys unhealthy pleasures, but the Lamiae seem resistant to him.
The Lamiae invite Mephistopheles to take his pick and choose the prettiest among them, but those he picks are revealed to be less than what they seem: a desiccated broomstick, a lizard, and a pine-cone headed wand. The Lamiae then summon bats to confuse and horrify this so-called uninvited witch’s son.
Beauty and ugliness in Greece are idealized and ephemeral, and Mephistopheles is only used to taking pleasure in coarse flesh. Rather than sensually enjoying the Lamiae, they turn the tables on him by making him a victim of illusion, which must be rather embarrassing for the devil.
Mephistopheles shakes himself off, none the wiser, he says, for again pursuing mere sensual illusion. He walks off into some rubble, where he loses his way. A mountain nymph greets him and directs him to Homunculus, who is trying to destroy his vial and achieve a proper existence.
Mephistopheles’s pursuit of the Lamiae is echoed later when he attempts to sexually engage angels while they rescue Faust’s soul. The devil is consistently, and humorously, a victim of his lustful disposition.
Homunculus tells Mephistopheles that he’s on the trail of two pre-Socratic philosophers, Anaxagoras and Thales, from whom he hopes to learn about Nature, real existence, and the wisest course for him to follow. The devil tells Homunculus that he’ll never learn if he doesn’t make his own mistakes, and the two separate.
Homunculus’s search for transcendence leads him to fall in with two philosophers. In the play, philosophers are different from scholars in that Anaxagoras and Thales cultivate debate and draw their ideas from nature and experience instead of just reading. Homunculus does learn from these two, despite the devil’s warning.
Anaxagoras and Thales enter, arguing about the creation of the mountain on which the Pygmies have settled. Anaxagoras says it was created by fierce fire and an outburst of gas, while Thales holds that it was created without violence, by water. Homunculus introduces himself as one eager to evolve. Anaxagoras says that, for living modestly and like a hermit, Homunculus could be king of the creatures on the mountain, but Thales advises against it, saying that a little world produces petty deeds.
Anaxagoras believes that land forms violently, while Thales believes that it forms peacefully. This debate becomes metaphorically important later, when Faust attempts to create new land by driving back the sea. Anaxagoras suggests that Homunculus should become politically involved. Thales, a more open-minded thinker, argues that in the microcosm, only little deeds can ever be performed.
Suddenly Thales observes that a black cloud of cranes is menacing the Pygmies on their mountain, avenging the herons. Anaxagoras, who has always praised the subterranean powers, now begs the moon to relieve the distress that the Pygmies and the other earth-bound creatures suffer. The moon comes near and explodes and flares, raining down rocks on crane and Pygmy alike. Thales urges the bewildered Anaxagoras and Homunculus not to get worked up, and proposes that the three pleasantly celebrate at the sea.
Anaxagoras only thinks about the earth, whereas Thales thinks about the whole macrocosm of existence. As a result of his limitations, Anaxagoras takes sides in the political squabble between Pygmies and cranes, earth and sky. His intervention in this conflict ironically only results in future strife, as all self-important political action does.
Mephistopheles enters, climbing the mountain where Pygmies recently ruled. In a dim cave he sees an astoundingly ugly and monstrous triple shape, the Phorcides, three witch-sisters who share but one eye and one tooth between them, born in darkness and related to all that is nocturnal. The devil approaches and asks for their blessing, flattering them. He asks the sisters to combine their triple essence in two persons so that he can take on the likeness of the third. This is granted, and Mephistopheles stands transformed into the hermaphroditic Phorkyas, a bit embarrassed to be a hermaphrodite. He exits.
Mephistopheles is drawn to the Phorcides because they alone in Greek culture embody something he can understand: ugliness. He seeks to transform into one of them so that he can play a part in the events to come, which will center on Helen (a devil, after all, has no role in Classical mythology). He is embarrassed to be a hermaphrodite, perhaps because he sees in his new body a sign of his own self-conflicted nature.