Saturday, April 18, 2015


First letter of a Nibelungenlied manuscript
from the early 13th century
Written down in approximately 1200 CE by an anonymous poet, most likely in the south-eastern German region, the Nibelungenlied’s appearance as a text stands temporally halfway between the composition of early Christian writings and the publication of scholarly work of our own times. In this article, I posit a close reading of three key scenes – the defeat of Prünhilt on the competition field, the defeat of Gunther in the bedroom, and the defeat of Prünhilt in the bedroom – in light of texts from both ends of the chronological range: early Church written sources on the one hand, and modern scholarly works such as Peter Brown’s The Body and Society and Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride on the other.

I am not trying to argue any direct influence of early Christian texts on medieval German poetry; I am using concepts derived from recent scholarship on the source texts as lenses through which to read these three scenes and examine ways in which analyses of early Christian thinking on virginity, the body, gender, marriage and sexuality can provide new ways of reading the Nibelungenlied. Instead of solely approaching the poem from this side of modernity, I am also attempting to approach it from the other side – from early Christian thinking. I am primarily using the conceptual frameworks of Brown and Cooper as guides to reading this poem – to discover if their way of approaching and interpreting texts can be applied to these scenes.

In the introduction to The Body and Society, Peter Brown writes:
The study of gender has led us to examine exhaustively the manner in which rival protagonists on the brightly lit stage of late Roman society used the themes of sexuality, marriage, and gender to construct their own identities and to highlight (often by means of garish contrasts) the identities of their opponents.
Theodor Loos as Gunther in Fritz Lang's
film Die Nibelungen (1924)
All three of the Nibelungenlied scenes are constructed around sexuality and marriage; the first is a wooing ritual, the second is a failed attempt at consummation, and the third is an act of sexual subjugation. Throughout, Gunther’s identity as a masculine ruler of men is constructed via “garish contrasts” of gender with Prünhilt. In order to assert and solidify Gunther’s masculinity, the poet first paradoxically presents him in highly feminized terms while painting Prünhilt in an overtly and overly masculine manner. It is by overcoming and subjugating Prünhilt – and by stripping her of her masculine attributes, both figuratively and literally – that Gunther’s own masculinity is established. The role of Sivrit as the third party that accomplishes this masculinizing will be discussed in detail below.

The impetus for the action is Gunther’s (initially somewhat abstract) desire for a wife. In her discussion of “cross-gender intrigue” in the story of Ismenodora in Plutarch’s Erōtikos, Cooper writes:
This mix-up provides a parodic introduction to the thesis that the pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts. Yet, while Ismenodora’s passion furnishes the comic impetus of the dialogue, Plutarch is not so much concerned with female desire as with male desire: with passion as a corridor through which objects of desire exert power over men.
In the Nibelungenlied, Gunther’s desire comes into direct conflict with the implacable unwillingness of Prünhilt. Her absence of desire powers his lust as she becomes an objecting object. She is only important to Gunther for what political benefit (warriors, treasure, land) she can bring him; her value is in her ability to confirm and raise his status as king. Although her overwhelming strength and single-mindedness suggest great agency, it should be noted that what she is fundamentally doing is repeatedly saying no to Gunther’s advances. Rather than acting to further her own agenda as a character, she is portrayed only as acting to negate the action Gunther attempts to accomplish. The Nibelungenlied poet “is not so much concerned with female desire”; Prünhilt is an external Other who is only considered by the poet for the desires she raises in the male character. However, Gunther’s “pursuit of private desires endangers the fulfillment of social contracts.” As discussed below, his insistence on wooing Prünhilt places in jeopardy the status and honor of his men, in addition to his own.

Brunhild (Prünhilt) in a 1961 Nibelungenlied
illustration by Edy Legrand
Prünhilt is introduced as queen of far-away Iceland, and her physicality is immediately foregrounded: “There was a queen who resided across the sea, whose like no one knew of anywhere. She was exceedingly beautiful and great in physical strength.” There is no mention of her virtue (as in the poem’s portrait of Gunther’s sister Kriemhilt) or wisdom (as in the Icelandic Völsunga saga’s portrayal of Brynhildr, the Old Norse equivalent of Prünhilt); her characterization is solely of the body. In order to win her in marriage, a suitor is required to best her in physical combat:
She shot the shaft with bold knights – love was the prize. She threw the stone far, and then leapt a great distance after it. Whoever desired her love had to win three games without fail against that well-born lady. If he failed any of them, he would lose his head. The damsel had won at such games countless times.
Prünhilt’s physical defense of her own virginity is at least partially explained by the absence of her father. After the contest, when Gunther’s companion Dancwart gives away much of her wealth, Prünhilt rebukes him: “I want to keep my wealth for a while yet. Moreover, I trust I’m well capable myself of squandering what my father bequeathed me.” Writing of unmarried Christian women of the fourth century who wished to become consecrated virgins, Brown writes that
the majority of such young women were the daughters of widows. They had acted as they did after their father had died, at a time when male control over the women of the family had been withdrawn.
He notes elsewhere that “Basil’s own mother, Emmelia, had wished to remain a virgin, but was forced to marry when her father died.” In the absence of a father, Prünhilt is left to defend both her virginity and her inheritance herself. The fatherless women of late antiquity described by Brown sometimes sought protection for their virginity from the Church; in a Germanic setting, Prünhilt adapts the masculine heroic stance of northern culture to protect own virginity. While Gunther and Sivrit are both clearly provided with parents in the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt’s only mentioned living relative is her mother’s brother, who is left to manage Prünhilt’s lands when she departs for Worms. The relationship between a young man and his maternal uncle is “the closest of male family relationships in the Germanic heroic world,” so the nature of Prünhilt’s one living relation is one small textual element (among many obvious ones) that emphasizes her masculinity. The idea of the loser of a contest losing his head, of course, echoes the stakes of Germanic contests from the Edda to the Wartburgkrieg – contests that are, inevitably, between male characters. Taken together, these details begin to create a characterization of Prünhilt as a female with masculine traits.

Like the knightly sports that occur throughout the Nibelungenlied, the wooing contest is purely a test of physical strength and prowess. Given the commonplace of sport in the poem, Sivrit’s warning that Gunther should avoid the Icelandic contest seems odd:
“I advise against that,” said Sivrit then. “Indeed the queen has such dread customs that anyone who seeks her love will pay a high price.”
He repeats the same phrase shortly thereafter:
“No matter how great an army we were to take with us,” Sivrit replied, “the queen holds to such dread customs that they would, nevertheless, have to die, so haughty is she.”
"Gunther's Bride-Journey to Iceland" by Ivo Puhanny (c1910)
The disturbing nature of the “dread customs” (vreislîche site) is not due to their fatal nature – as mentioned, the fatal contest is a Germanic commonplace – but to the fact that a woman is taking the role of male aggressor, that she is unnaturally “haughty” (übermuot, “overbold”), and that her physical strength is greater than that of any man. Discussing the implications of “a searching gender-based analysis of late Roman modes of identity and authority,” Cooper writes:
The introduction of the figure of the virgin, the daughter who refused to pass from her initial role within one household to that of the wife in another, offered a new model of moral authenticity, one that classical society would have rejected as opening the way symbolically for other antisocial actions but one that, after a struggle, late Roman society accepted with enthusiasm.
It is Prünhilt’s refusal to pass from the role of virgin to that of wife that is at issue here. Her haughtiness and supernatural strength are poetic amplifications of her core characterization as the resolute virgin whose actions will, as the poem progresses, be posited as having societal implications. As will be made explicit in Sivrit’s exclamations during his bedroom struggle with Prünhilt, it is these implications that cause his disquiet. In the world of the Nibelungenlied, Prünhilt does not project “moral authenticity” but a threat to established gender relations.

Throughout the first half of the poem, Kriemhilt is portrayed as Prünhilt’s antithesis – the quiet and subservient maiden opposed to the willful virgin – as in her scene with Gunther and Sivrit before they depart for Iceland:
The damsel replied: “My dearest brother, I’ll show you most willingly that I’m at your disposal and will give you all the help I can. If anyone were to refuse you, that would grieve Kriemhilt. You must not ask me anxiously, noble knight, but must proudly give me your commands. I am ready and willing to do whatever I can to please you,” said the charming maiden.
Prünhilt vs Kriemhilt by Carl Otto Czeschka (1908)
Prünhilt’s behavior is in extreme contrast to that of Gunther’s quiet sister. While Kriemhilt is the epitome of socially mandated proper feminine behavior, Prünhilt is a threatening figure of “dread customs.” While Kriemhilt is welcoming and deferential, Prünhilt is oppositional and demanding. While Kriemhilt stays inside to do needlework with her ladies-in-waiting, Prünhilt struts outside to engage in knightly sport with the men.

Discussing the powerful gaze that Perpetua turns on her tormentors in the text of her Passion, Shaw writes:
Her ability to stare directly back into the faces of her persecutors, not with the elusive demeanour of a proper matrona, broke with the normative body language in a way that signaled an aggressiveness that was not one of conventional femininity.
Prünhilt’s speeches to Gunther and his men and her aggressive body language during the contest demonstrate a break with “conventional femininity” similar to that of Perpetua. As Perpetua’s transgression of gender norms is amplified by comparison with the ideal of the “proper matrona,” Prünhilt’s transgression of gender norms is highlighted and exaggerated through the poet’s implicit comparison of her behavior with that of the thoroughly conventional Kriemhilt.

From the moment Gunther, Sivrit, Hagen and Dancwart arrive in Iceland, they are effeminized by Prünhilt’s overwhelming masculinity. The men must give up their swords and armor at the gates of Prünhilt’s castle:
Then Sivrit told [Hagen] the truth of the matter: “In this castle the custom is, I tell you, that no strangers are to bear weapons here. Now let them be taken away – it would be as well.” Hagen, Gunther’s vassal, agreed to this most unwillingly.
As part of Prünhilt’s “dread customs” (here man pfliget, “one is accustomed to”), the men are left both physically vulnerable and emasculated; the phallic symbolism of the swords is made increasingly explicit as the text progresses. The virgin, in being overly “haughty” in her militant protection of her virginity against threats, has begun a process of forcing the men into a threatened feminine state. Hagen later underscores the relationship between taking of the swords and Prünhilt’s haughtiness:
“We could easily leave this land unimprisoned,” then said [Dancwart’s] brother Hagen, “if we had the armour we are sorely in need of and our fine swords – then this mighty lady’s pride would easily be tamed.”
Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) & Hagen by Arthur Rackham (1911)
Hagen in no way means that the four men would fight their way out of the situation; the immensity of Prünhilt’s army precludes any such notion. Rather, the reference seems to be Gunther’s sword-less impotence; he is quite simply incapable of imposing his desires upon “this mighty lady’s pride” (der starken vrouwen übermuot).

Prünhilt’s speech to Sivrit makes clear that all four men will die if Gunther loses the contest (“if he proves master in them, then I’ll be his wife – but if I win, it will cost all of you your lives”), and her answer to Hagen’s challenge suggests that there is something additionally at stake in the outcome:
“[Gunther] will have to throw the stone and leap after it, and shoot the javelin in competition with me. Do not be in too much of a hurry! You may well lose your honour and your lives here! Think long and hard on this,” said the lovely lady.
Prünhilt asserts her masculinity while simultaneously diminishing that of the men. Her admonishment not to hurry (niht sîn ze gâch) tauntingly suggests the men are getting hysterical (with the original connotations of the word); they do actually become increasingly nervous as the events progress. The disjunction between the commanding tone of the words and their ascription to a “lovely lady” (mînneliche wîp) underscores the inversion of gender roles Prünhilt embodies. It is this inversion that attaches “dread” to “custom” when Prünhilt suggests that loss of honor (êre) will accompany loss of life. Shortly before the contest begins, Dancwart laments, “I regret from my heart this wooing expedition. We were always renowned as warriors. What a way to lose our lives if women are now to be our ruin in these lands!” It is the potential loss of honor in being physically bested by a woman that most worries Gunther and his men as the action progresses, and it is this worry that prompts Gunther to accept Sivit’s offer of supernatural aid.

Sivrit counsels Gunther to be unafraid and says, “I will guard you well against her by my wiles.” He later uses the same word (“wiles,” liste/n) when describing how he will defeat Prünhilt in the bedroom scene. The narrator had earlier used the term to foreshadow the events of the contest, stating that Sivrit “set about the wooing of that most noble woman with great cunning [listen].” The mighty hero of Germanic legend is unable to physically defeat Prünhilt in a fair contest of strength, but must resort to indirect methods; charges of unmanly (Old Norse ergi) behavior are raised against Odin in the Eddas for similar underhandedness. Sivrit’s willingness to resort to trickery is paralleled by Gunther’s fear (angest); neither are manly qualities in the heroic ethos, and both are thrown into relief by the physical strength and coolness of Prünhilt.

The description of Prünhilt’s contest kit contrasts an outer masculinity and inner femininity:
She ordered good battle-gear to be prepared for her, a breastplate of red gold and a good shield’s rim. The maiden put on a silken shift beneath her armour, one never slashed by a sword in any battle, made of phellel-silk from Lybia – it was most fair. Brightly embroidered braids could be seen to shine from it.
Hanna Ralph as Brunhild (Prünhilt) in Fritz Lang's
silent film Die Nibelungen (1924)
On the outside, Prünhilt wears the very sort of armor protection she took from Gunther and his men. Beneath the manly exterior, she wears a “silken shift” (wâfenhemde, lit. “armour-shift”). That the feminine undergarment under the masculine outerwear represents the unviolated virginity she seeks to protect is made clear by the statement that it has never been “slashed” (versneit) by an opponent’s weapon (wâfen). As with the swords being taken from Gunther and his men, the symbolism is not particularly subtle.

While Prünhilt prepares for battle, Gunther’s group is “met with many taunts and threats” (in gelfe vil gedreut). In this context of effemination, the taunting is reminiscent of the flyting of Icelandic literature, in which the insulter asserts the cowardice, honor failing, taboo breaking and “receptive homosexuality” of his opponent. In a discussion of Roman attitudes of the second century, Brown writes:
No normal man might actually become a woman; but each man trembled forever on the brink of becoming “womanish.” . . . It was never enough to be male: a man had to strive to remain “virile.” He had to learn to exclude from his character and from the poise and temper of his body all telltale traces of “softness” that might betray in him, the half-formed state of a woman. The small-town notables of the second century watched each other with hard, clear eyes. They noted a man’s walk. They reacted to the rhythms of his speech. They listened attentively to the telltale resonance of his voice.
It is this judgmental male-on-male scrutiny to which Gunther is now subject; he is forced into a “soft” feminine role through comparison with Prünhilt’s overwhelming “hard” masculinity. Describing the thought of Ambrose, Brown writes that “[t]o surrender any boundary line was to court the ancient shame of the Roman male – it was to ‘become soft,’ to be ‘effeminated.’” By giving up his sword and agreeing to Prünhilt’s “dread” conditions, Gunther agrees to a passive role – in Icelandic accusatory terms of male homosexuality, he is a “soft cat.” Prünhilt, armored and (as will be discussed in Part Two) armed with a comically phallic weapon, plays the role of the penetrating “hard cat.”

To be continued in Part Two.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Daniel's Thor's hammer from Mjölnir Project of White Hart Forge
At the beginning of January, I interviewed veteran Josh Heath and current soldier Daniel Head about their efforts to have Ásatrú and Heathen added to the Army's religious preference list as faith options. You can learn more about Josh and Daniel and their work by reading the January article here.

This was a done deal. Daniel was told that the preferences had been approved by Chief of Chaplains and by the head of the personnel department. All that was left was for the new preference codes to be keyed into the Army computer system. Josh and Daniel provided instructions for soldiers, veterans and the families of deceased soldiers to have their preferences changed by the Army.

Then something changed. The new codes were not added. In response to Daniel's inquiries, the Chief of Chaplains stated that the codes would be added within a few weeks. Nothing happened. Daniel was subsequently sent emails that backed away from previous statements. He was told that the additions had never been approved.

Over two months after being notified of approval, Army Heathens are now in a state of limbo. Inquiries are being given stock responses from the Chaplains Office. In January, the only issue was waiting for the code to be entered. Now, the Army position is that the original request for addition of the religious preference has not been approved, but is “under active consideration.”

In an era where supposed assaults on religious freedom are routinely covered by the media, it's disappointing that Heathens are being told that it's not yet time for them to receive the basic respect and rights given to members of other faiths.

Today, I asked Josh and Daniel to give us an update on this ongoing struggle. My questions and their answers are below.

KS – Before our first interview, what exactly were you told by the Army about approval of Ásatrú & Heathen as religious preferences?

Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker
DH – In an email dated 5 January 2015, Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker [Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains] wrote, “It has been approved, however the code is not yet in the system. That will probably take a week or two. In any event, long road travelled with success…”

JH – Chaplain Walker indicated we had received approval, but we were a few days to at most two weeks away from having the code approved by Army Human Resources Command. Because of this, we felt we were close enough to make everyone aware of all the work we’d been doing in the background. The message we’d received made it appear that we could let people know, and it seemed smart to get the word out early, so people could make appointments with the S1, in case that couldn’t be handled immediately.

KS – What happened? Why were the preferences not added?

JH – Though Chaplain Walker indicated we were good to go, at this point it appears as if there was some form of technical issues that had not been surmounted. Chaplain Walker has been helpful through the process, but he later admitted he miswrote when he told us we were approved. The process seems to have been much farther way from finalization than indicated, and our current feedback has provided almost no information on what – if anything – is holding up the process.

Chaplain Corps Insignia: "For God and Country"

According to the Pentagon, "The pages of the open
 Bible represent the primacy of God's Word."
DH – Around 21 January, I emailed Chaplain Walker concerning the absence of the code in the religious preference list. Initially he said to give it a week or two, so I did.

The code still wasn’t present, and when I emailed him back he then clarified what he really meant:
The last time we talked I said that I did not recommend putting out news of a new religious preference because it had not yet received Army finalization and new code generated. Thus my suggestion to you then that you check with your S1 in a month or so to see if the new code was in the system. If not, check again in another month. I appreciate your patience to date and ask that you would be patient for a little while longer for the process to complete. Feel free to call me if you have any questions. Thanks.
He’s been great communicating back and forth, and I have no malice or animosity towards him. In a conversation back and forth he concluded:
I mis-communicated as to the G1 approve and sign. I meant to say that the recommendation was for the G1 to approve the request, however, I should not have communicated that the G1 had already signed off. My language reflected my confidence in the outcome, however, I erred by sounding too confident. Nothing as to moving it faster, from what I can see the process is continuing and near the end.
Chaplain Walker wasn’t the final approval. However, he did provide the recommendation for approval to Army G1. As representative of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, he worked diligently and communicated continuously with me through the process until it reached Army G1.

KS – In our first interview, you gave instructions for current and former Army members to change their religious preference. Do you know what happened to people who tried and were denied?

JH – I’ve heard several stories. They usually go like this: “I went to S-1 to make the update and I was told the option was not in the system.” Generally, this is a paperwork issue at the lower levels, and nothing can be done if the option isn’t available. No one has stated they were treated poorly – just denied because the computer system has no love for them.

DH – I don’t have any stories I was directly involved with, but I did see the outbursts on social media like Facebook about it being “lies” and whatnot. My own story was the embarrassment of walking a new S1 guy through the religious preference code system only to find it wasn’t there.

KS – What do you personally think and feel about this development – or lack of development?

Daniel Head
DH – I’m a little angry, but more determined. I understand the Army is in the process of merging administrative systems to something more amiable with on overall Department of Defense system. The claim from Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Walsh is that this is the hold up, although he hasn’t explain why this is the hold up in any comprehensible way.

JH – I’m pissed, but I am struggling at determining who to be mad at. I’m angry as all get-out that this is still not completed. I recently put together a detailed timeline. We’ve been at this for over 5 years now. There is no need for this to still be in the works, and the fact that it is still not done is infuriating.

Part of me really regrets accepting Chaplain Walker’s approval message at face value. That is what really burns me, we should have kept silent, said nothing until we had hard evidence that it was completed before we publicized, but I was so excited, I thought we were in the clear.

KS – What is the Army saying now? What’s the latest statement?

DH – Chaplain Walker handed me off to Chaplain Walsh since the latter is directly involved with Army G1 and this process. Since then, communication hasn’t been the best – although not for lack of reply. Every questioned has been answered with, “Your request that the Army add a religious preference to the database is under active consideration.”

JH – The Army is telling us the process is under active consideration. Basically, they are working on the issue somewhere within the big green machine. However, that tells us nothing, and we literally have received no positive feedback.

KS – What's the next step?

DH – The emails aren’t really getting anywhere. I think they’re too impersonal to convey much in communication. I don’t know what “active consideration” means, and I don’t think Army G1 understands my questions either.

Josh Heath looking dapper
JH – We are involved in a campaign of pestering and constant follow-up. Often in the Army things are done in the background that seem like they should take ten seconds to anyone else. For example, getting vacation approved requires a process that goes through like ten channels, with multiple signatures, and is usually lost or returned because something is incorrect several times.

The next step is to wait, but also to publicize that we are waiting. Journalists like you have reached out to us to begin constructing a narrative around this entire process.

One source we have seems to think that we’ll have this completed by April – but also was told we could end up having to wait till August. That is unacceptable, but there sadly doesn’t appear to be a lot we can actively do, which makes things even more frustrating.

KS – Do you have any message for Ásatrú and Heathen soldiers?

DH – I think everyone should be patient, but should also start sending up their own requests and inquiries.

JH – Don’t give up. Never surrender. We will kick this door until it breaks. Be patient right now, because as much as I want to have every soldier, veteran, and civilian ally e-mail or call over this issue, I don’t think it will help at this juncture. We’re in this together, and we will keep fighting the fight till the fight is won.

Monday, February 23, 2015


Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two of the series.

Vintage postcard of the Wartburg
The castle of the Wartburg was a symbolic touchstone for German nationalists of the Romantic era. In 1521, after Martin Luther had been declared an outlaw for defying the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he hid at the Wartburg under the protection of Saxon elector Frederick the Wise and threw his inkpot at the devil who tried to distract him from his new project – a German translation of the Bible.

On the three hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, young radicals of the 19th century rebranded the castle from a symbol of the struggle for religious reform to one of their own struggle for political freedom when the Wartburg was the site of the first large-scale, inter-state student political protest. The Wartburg was a well-known symbol of German nationalism as Wagner was finishing his Tannhäuser libretto, six years before his own involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849.

Wagner makes the political symbolism of the Wartburg in his opera quite clear. When Elisabeth greets the hall, the “beloved place,” in which only the songs of Tannhäuser can awaken her from “gloomy dreams,” Wagner is also saluting the nationalist cause and positing himself as the artist who can write the music of the revolution. This messaging continues with the chorus that subsequently enters, singing “Joyfully we greet the noble hall.” To make his intentions absolutely transparent, Wagner gives a third salute to the hall when the Landgrave sings “A great deal, much of great beauty, has been sung already here in this hall.”

There is nothing particularly subtle about lines such as “Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernsten Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät.” This is exactly the type of Wagnerian rhetoric that gives Woody Allen the urge to conquer Poland.

Saint Elisabeth of Hungary
In addition to being the location of the legendary song contest, Luther’s dealings with the devil, and the student demonstration, the Wartburg was the home of Saint Elisabeth. This Hungarian princess was, while still an infant, betrothed to the son of Landgrave Hermann. After her husband died while crusading for Christ, the twenty-year-old widow left her comfortable life in the Wartburg and became the first of her social class to follow in the footsteps on Saint Francis of Assisi, who had died only the year before. She became a lay member of the Franciscan order and chose to spend the rest of her life in hard poverty, doing charitable works.

She was widely known and was quickly canonized a saint only four years after her death. She is the subject of forty-one chapters in the book by Bechstein that gave Wagner the idea of combining the Tannhäuser legend with the song contest of the Wartburg. In the opera, Wagner includes her saintliness, but fundamentally transforms her story. There is no husband, no crusade, no life of service. Instead, Elisabeth’s journey from princess to saint is centered on her love for Tannhäuser.

Elisabeth was the last of the opera’s central characters to be conceived by Wagner. Her role in the second act is indebted to “Kampf der Sänger,” an 1819 short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann – the author, composer and music critic whose work also inspired Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. From Hoffmann, Wagner borrowed the scene of the hunters’ arrival, Wolfram’s kindness to the prodigal Heinrich, the idea of love as the contest’s subject, the striving between the two for the love of a beautiful young countess of the court, the lady’s protection of Heinrich after his bizarre performance, and the image of the knights of the court drawing their swords on the errant poet.

Elisabeth & Tannhäuser by Willy Pogany (1911)
These cribbed concepts comprise much of the basic action of from the end of Act 1 through the end of Act 2, but a mere human countess could not provide the necessary weight of meaning Wagner needed for the conclusion of the second act and all of the third. The location of the Wartburg in Act 2 provides a counterbalance to the Venusberg in Act 1, but Wagner needed a character in the third act to balance Venus in the first.

In the original ballad, after the pope spurns Tannhäuser’s request for absolution, the knight bids farewell to the Mother of God as he had done to the goddess of love:
He went forth from the city’s gate
in grief and sick at heart.
“Maria, mother, Holy Maid,
from you I now must part.”
Unwilling, perhaps, to bring the Virgin Mary onstage as a singing role, Wagner found a simple solution: he combined Mathilde von Falkenstein – the countess of Hoffman’s story – with the Catholic Saint Elisabeth. While again playing fast and loose with the original sources, this decision solved Wagner’s dramatic problems.

Lithograph of Franz Betz as Wolfram (c1860)
As for the drama of the contest itself, Wagner was determined that the competition be about conflicting ideas, not which opera star could sing the most impressive showstopper. When Wolfram steps to the fore and sings his song, Wagner uses very sparse orchestration in order, as he wrote in his autobiography, “to force the listener, for the first time in the history of opera, to take an interest in a poetical idea, by making him follow all its necessary developments.”

Continuing the association of the hall with German nationalism, Wagner prominently places the word deutsch in Wolfram’s salute to those in the hall on a high note and a downbeat. Although Wagner’s nationalism is willfully obscured by the usual supertitle translation of noble or upright, the original lyric again underscores the Deutschtum or Germanness of the hall.

Tannhäuser now sings a fourth verse of his “Song to Venus.” Where the earlier verses concluded with Tannhäuser’s “let me go” demand, this final verse ends with an exulting call that the others should join him in a return to the Venusberg. He has given himself fully to the enchantments of Venus. He is now her knight, and he sings her praises to the world:
To thee, goddess of love, shall my song ring out!
Now let thy praise be sung aloud by me!
Even through the foggy lens of loose translation, the words sung here by Tannhäuser echo the words of Venus in the medieval ballad:
Tannhäuser, you may take your leave;
though you must lend your tongue
and sing my praises through the land.
Mural of the song contest at Neuschwanstein
by Joseph Aigner
To the medieval mind, Tannhäuser’s mortal sin was not breaking the bonds of chastity, which would have been forgivable through penitence. His true transgression is that of apostasy – of defecting from Christianity back to heathenry. Seriously singing the praises of a pagan goddess would indeed have caused consternation in a Christian court.

The idea of Heinrich being saved from the wrath of the knights by the lady and then being given a grace period to make amends occurs in the version of the Wartburg song contest that appears in the Deutsche Sagen of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm of 1818.

Although Wagner cut down Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer for his niece Johanna, who played Elisabeth in Dresden, he insisted that the song represented the culmination of Elisabeth’s character arc. From her pangs of love for Tannhäuser through the confusion of the contest, all leads – according to Wagner’s essay “On the Performing of Tannhäuser”– to this moment of “the final efflorescence of the death-perfumed bloom” of Elisabeth’s short life.

In “the simple outlines of this tone-piece, completely bare of musical embroidery,” Wagner shows the young woman turning from the world to the “self-offering and death” of a pure, spiritual love. Wagner calls upon the sympathetic acting ability of the soprano – not the mechanical flourishes of grand opera singing technique – to bring out the meaning of the prayer; “only the highest dramatic, and particularly the highest vocal art,” he wrote, “can make it possible to bring this sensibility to outward operation.”

Vintage postcard of Geraldine Farrar as Elisabeth
Structurally, the prayer provides a conceptual counterpoint to the words of Venus in the first act. Elisabeth sings: “Let me perish in the dust before thee, oh, take me from this earth! Make me, pure and angel-like, enter into thy blessed realm!” Nothing could more clearly portray the difference between the world-affirmation of the old heathen religion and the world-denial of medieval Christianity.

Wolfram’s third showcase of the opera, like those in the first and second acts, is a restrained tribute to Elisabeth as an unreachable star. The first section centers on Wolfram’s presentiment of Elisabeth’s death. Wolfram’s melody reaches its high point on the word soars; his heart is breaking as the object of his long-hidden love leaves the world.

Wagner’s source materials sometime shine through rather clearly. In The Ring’s libretto, some passages are quite close in wording to German translations of the Icelandic Poetic Edda that Wagner had been studying. Here, as Tannhäuser tells Wolfram of his pilgrimage to Rome, his opening words echo a corresponding scene in Ludwig Tieck’s The Faithful Eckart and the Tannenhäuser of 1799, reprinted in 1828. Wagner’s Tannhäuser says, “Nun denn! Hör an! Du, Wolfram, du sollst es erfahren.” Tieck’s Tannenhäuser says, “Nun, so mag dein Wille erfüllt werden, du sollst alles erfahren.”

The pope’s condemnation of Tannhäuser and reference to his staff appear in the original medieval ballad:
The pope was leaning on a staff
and it was dry and dead.
“This shall have leaves ere you receive
the grace of God,” he said.
In the opera, after Tannhäuser declares his intention of returning to the realm of the goddess, Elisabeth’s corpse is carried onstage, and Tannhäuser dies before it. A triumphant hymn concludes the work.

Pope Urban IV
Wagner has radically changed the ending of the medieval legend. In the original, Tannhäuser does indeed return to the Venusberg from Rome and is welcomed back by Venus. Messengers from the pope do seek Tannhäuser throughout every land to proclaim the miracle of the budding staff. However, Tannhäuser definitely does not fall down at the feet of a dead maiden and experience salvation.

Rather, the final verse of the poem is as irreverently humorous as the works of the young historical Tannhäuser himself:
But he was in the mountain there
with Venus as before,
and so the pope, Urban the Fourth,
was lost forevermore.
The original ballad shows German disdain for the power of the Vatican two and a half centuries before Martin Luther nailed his theses do the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Interestingly, the ballad of oral tradition first appeared in print in a broadside of 1515; the 13th-century tale ridiculing the pope found a new audience in the age of the Reformation. The punchline of the poem damns the pope for failing in his duty as father confessor, for denying the limitlessness of God’s capacity for forgiveness, and for placing himself as a judge of men higher than the Heavenly Father Himself.

German anger at Urban IV in particular grew from the pope’s continuation of Vatican action against the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Urban used his ecclesiastical powers to manipulate German politics, at one point excommunicating the son of Emperor Friedrich II and giving his kingdom to a French count. The poems of the historical Tannhäuser, while not delving too often into politics, make clear his sympathy for the Hohenstaufens – a sympathy which may have influenced his choice as hero of the ballad.

Richard Wagner in Lucerne (1868)
Wagner explains his Wagnerian ending in Wagnerian terms:
When he returns from Rome, he is nothing but embodied wrath against a world that refuses him the right of Being for simple reason of the wholeness of his feelings; and not from any thirst for joy or pleasure, seeks he once more the Venusberg; but despair and hatred of this world he needs must flout now drive him thither, to hide him from his “angel’s” look, whose “tears to sweeten” the wide world could not afford to him the balm. 
Thus does he love Elisabeth; and this love it is that she returns. What the whole moral world could not, that could she when, defying all the world, she clothed her lover in her prayer, and in hallowed knowledge of the puissance of her death she dying set the culprit free. And Tannhäuser's last breath goes up to her, in thanks for this supernal gift of Love. Beside his lifeless body stands no man but must envy him; the whole world, and God Himself – must call him blessed.
Elisabeth’s self-sacrifice on the altar of pure love releases Tannhäuser to become free through his own death. Of course, this idea of freedom through “love-death” continued to fascinate Wagner in his later works. In light of Wagner’s own philosophy, it is interesting that the historical Tannhäuser yearns for a pure death in one of his poems: “Give me, I pray, a happy end, and let my soul in rapture dwell, a gentle death afford me. May I be saved by purity, that hell may be no danger.”

According to Wagner’s autobiography, his radical rewrite of the ballad’s conclusion – from (1) Tannhäuser returning to the pleasures of Venus as the pope goes to hell to (2) Tannhäuser’s salvation through the intercession of Saint Elisabeth – drew the ire of Protestant Germany. A rumor made the rounds that Wagner had been bribed by the Catholics to glorify their side in the latest struggles between Germany and the Church. J.G. Theodor Grasse, head librarian in Dresden while Wagner lived there, wrote about the changed ending in terms that make it sound like a criminal act, calling it “the sanctimonious emendation of the sublime and highly poetic return of Tannhäuser to Frau Venus (as we have it in the German folk-ballad) perpetrated by Wagner in the text of his well-known opera.”

The architect Gottfried Semper attacked Wagner as “the representative of medieval Catholicism” until the composer, who had been baptized a Lutheran, had a chance to explain his position. Wagner writes:
I eventually succeeded in persuading him that my studies and inclinations had always led me to German antiquity, and to the discovery of ideals in the early Teutonic myths. When we came to paganism, and I expressed my enthusiasm for the genuine heathen legends, he became quite a different being, and a deep and growing interest now began to unite us in such a way that it quite isolated us from the rest of the company.
Wagner in London (May 24, 1877)
In A Communication to My Friends, Wagner makes absolutely clear that his opera is no tale of Christian salvation:
How absurd, then, must those critics seem to me, who, drawing all their wit from modern wantonness, insist on reading into my “Tannhäuser” a specifically Christian and impotently pietistic drift! They recognize nothing but the fable of their own incompetence, in the story of a man whom they are utterly unable to comprehend.
Tannhäuser’s motivation for his self-imposed sufferings during his pilgrimage to Rome comes not from worry about his eternal soul, but from his deep love for Elisabeth. In an 1842 letter, Wagner writes:
In the parish church at Aussig I asked to be shown the Madonna of Carlo Dolci: it is a quite extraordinarily affecting picture, and if Tannhäuser had seen it, I could readily understand how it was that he turned away from Venus to Mary without necessarily having been inspired by any great sense of piety.
Lest there be any doubt about the supposedly Christian nature of the work, Wagner explains his use of religious symbols in a remarkable passage from A Communication to My Friends:
Tannhäuser runs through March 6 at Lyric Opera
[I]t is a fundamental error of our modern superficialism, to consider the specific Christian legends as by any means original creations. Not one of the most affecting, not one of the most distinctive Christian myths belongs by right of generation to the Christian spirit, such as we commonly understand it: it has inherited them all from the purely human intuitions of earlier times, and merely molded them to fit its own peculiar tenets. 
To purge them of this heterogeneous influence, and thus enable us to look straight into the pure humanity of the eternal poem: such was the task of the more recent inquirer, a task which it must necessarily remain for the poet to complete.
In other words, Wagner uses Christian myth like he uses Germanic myth; not for religious meaning, but for his own philosophical ends. He viewed his source materials as just that – materials to be re-forged into new forms as he saw fit. To Wagner, medieval literature was merely a dream of yesterday that led to what he saw as the true reality – his artwork of the future.


Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Newman, Ernest. The Wagner Operas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Spencer, Stewart and Barry Millington, trans. and ed. Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Thomas, J.W. Tannhäuser: Poet and Legend, with Texts and Translations of his Works. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Wagner, Richard. Tannhäuser. London: Overture Publishing, 2011.

_________. A Communication to My Friends. 1851. Available online.

_________. My Life. 1870. Available online.

_________. On the Performing of Tannhäuser. 1852. Available online.

_________. Overture to Tannhäuser. 1853. Available online.

Watson, Derek. Richard Wagner: A Biography. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.

Weston, Jessie L. The Legends of Wagner Drama: Studies in Mythology and Romance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Click here to read Part One of the series.

Tannhäuser & Venus by Willy Pogany (1911)
The concept of a man being seduced by a supernatural creature – whether goddess, elf or fairy – and spending time in her mystic realm before (in some cases) returning in a somehow transformed state to the everyday world is one that seems to be have been quite widespread. Thomas the Rhymer of Scotland has his Queen of Elfland, Lord Nann of Celtic Brittany has his Corrigan, and Oisin of Ireland has his Niamh. Sigurd’s visit to the mountain of Brynhild can also be seen as a variation on this theme.

Likewise, the Tannhäuser ballad is but one version of the ancient idea that a man who stays with a beautiful woman of the Other World is taken out of the normal flow of time’s passing. Either nine years in Elfland takes place in then space of one of our nights, or a single night in Elfland lasts through one of our decades. The Tannhäuser of the opera laments, “The time I have sojourned here, I cannot measure. Days, moons mean nothing to me any more.”

Throughout the Venusberg scene, the words of Wagner’s Venus seem directly inspired by the goddess of the Tannhäuser ballad. In the opera, her invitation to Tannhäuser to join her for some lovemaking in a comfortable grotto echoes a verse from the medieval ballad:
Tannhäuser, do not babble so,
what are you thinking of?
Let’s go into my chamber now
and play the game of love.
Wagner in Paris for the 1861 Tannhäuser performances
Venus’s cry “Begone, madman, begone!” signals the beginning of the new material Wagner wrote for the Paris performance in order to strengthen his characterization of the spurned goddess. As she angrily mocks Tannhäuser’s dream of the world above, the music shows her anarchic nature.

When Wagner gives Venus the words “Fly hence to frigid men, before whose timid, cheerless fancy we gods of delight have escaped deep into the warm womb of earth,” he is tapping into the folk traditions mentioned earlier. Venus – like the other holdovers from the heathen age – has fled from the encroachment of Christianity and sought refuge in the hidden places of the world.

Tannhäuser escapes Venus – physically, at least – by calling upon the Virgin Mary. This idea goes back to the historical Minnesinger, who calls upon the Mother of God in verses two, three and four of his “penitent song.” In the old Tannhäuser ballad, it is exactly this naming of the Virgin that finally convinces Venus to release the knight:
Dame Venus, that I shall not do;
I’ll never stay in here.
Maria, mother, Holy Maid,
In my distress be near!
With Tannhäuser’s naming of the Virgin in the opera, the orchestra evaporates into the upper musical range as the magical world of the Venusberg fades. In the absence of the ensemble, all we hear is the sound coming from the stage itself: sheep bells and the medieval shawm played by the young shepherd (or at least the backstage English horn representing it). Maybe it was the sound of these tinkly bells that drifted into Tannhäuser’s dream in the Venusberg. The simple and folkish instrumental tune leads to the starkly unaccompanied song of the shepherd, which includes the words “der Mai” (the month of May) echoing back from the sides of the valley.

"The Northland Goddess of the Earth"
by Willy Pogany (1911)
It is significant that the first sound Tannhäuser hears after leaving the Venusberg is the Shepherd Boy’s song to Lady Holda. The song of the shepherd outside the mountain parallels the songs of Tannhäuser within, as the boy sings of longing, of the mixture of dream and reality, and of the coming of the warmer season

Jacob Grimm directly connects Holda to springtime celebrations in Christian times:
To Christian zealots all dancing appeared as sinful and heathenish, and sure enough it often was derived from pagan rites, like other harmless pleasures and customs of the common people, who would not easily part with their diversion at great festivals. Hence the old dancings at Shrovetide, at the Easter fire and May fire, at the solstices, at harvest and Christmas.
Grimm also directly addresses the connection of shepherd boys and Holda:
But as Holda is spell-bound in the mountain, so it is preeminently to white women, white-robed maidens, that this notion of mountain banishment becomes applicable: divine or semi-divine beings of heathenism, who still at appointed times grow visible to mortal sight; they love best to appear in warm sunlight to poor shepherds and herd-boys. German legend everywhere is full of graceful stories on the subject, which are all substantially alike, and betray great depth of root.
After this innocent outpouring of folk belief, Wagner gives us the entrance of the Elder Pilgrims. The orchestra remains silent as the pilgrims slowly enter, singing in church-like four-part harmony. The shepherd answers the earnest seriousness of their phrases with his jaunty piping. When the pilgrims sing “Alas, the burden of my sins weigh me down,” their melody is that of “remorse and penitence” from the opera's overture. Even the shepherd boy feels the weightiness of this music, and he ceases his interjected tootling.

Robert Gambill as Tannhäuser – San Diego Opera 2008
After the departure of the Pilgrims, Tannhäuser is discovered by the Landgrave and his Minnesingers. Following many exclamations, declarations and interrogations from the assembled men, Tannhäuser begs that they let him travel on: “My way bids me only… hasten onward.” He is firm in his resolution to keep away from the Wartburg, from the courtly world he left to enter the Venusberg – until the Minnesinger Wolfram calls out, “Stay by Elisabeth!” As Venus’s will to hold Tannhäuser was broken by naming the Virgin Mary, his own will to travel on is broken by naming Elisabeth.

To convince Tannhäuser to stay, Wolfram explains that Tannhäuser’s songs, performed before he left the court, have wrought great changes upon the maiden. This performance by Wolfram foreshadows his later songs – his entry in the Wartburg contest and his ode to the “Evening Star.” All three focus on the Minnesinger ideal of the unattainable maiden of virtue, all use the same star-metaphor for Elisabeth, and all exhibit restrained melodies that stand in stark relief to the intense passion of Tannhäuser.

Gazing at the Wartburg by Willy Pogany (1911)
With Tannhäuser’s decision to return to the Wartburg, we reach a decisive moment in his tragic downfall. Here in the valley between the Venusberg and the Wartburg is the only place where Tannhäuser may be able to find something approaching happiness. The valley is a place of balance. On one side is the Venusberg – a feminine and heathen place. On the other side is the Wartburg – a masculine and Christian place.

Venus – the pagan goddess of love – rules in a cave beneath a mountain. More than half a century before the publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Wagner was well aware of the sexual connotations of the setting. In 1845, his agent – the music publisher appointed to the court of Dresden – warned Wagner about against using his original title for the opera. Wagner writes:
The only thing that Meser was absolutely opposed to was the title of my new opera, which I had just named Der Venusberg; he maintained that, as I did not mix with the public, I had no idea what horrible jokes were made about this title. 
He said the students and professors of the medical school in Dresden would be the first to make fun of it, as they had a predilection for that kind of obscene joke. I was sufficiently disgusted by these details to consent to the change.
On the other side of the valley from the mons veneris is the Wartburg – the castle with its prominent tower – from which Hermann the Landgrave, ruler of the land, issues forth with his knights to hunt. Venus sings of “the downiest of cushions” in the “abode of sweetest delight”; the Landgrave sings of swords raised in “battles grim and bloody… for the majesty of the German realm.” Wagner isn’t exactly subtle in his presentation of the gendered duality.

Elisabeth Schumann as the Shepherd Boy (1909)
Between the grotto and the tower is the valley, a place where neither side rules supreme. Everyone passes through on their way to another location – to the Venusberg, to the Wartburg or to Rome. Only one character inhabits the valley – the Shepherd Boy, who is neither wholly pagan nor fully Christian. After singing his song to the goddess Holda, he calls out to the Pilgrims, “Pray for my poor soul!” This blending of heathen and Christian belief among the country folk of northern Europe was a historical reality, one documented by Grimm and many others.

Wagner places the shrine to the Virgin in the valley, reflecting the common Christian reassignment to Mary of heathen sites sacred to goddesses. In addition, the Shepherd Boy is neither completely female nor solely male. In both the Dresden and Paris premieres, the young boy was played by a young woman. This is a liminal character in every way, one who fully partakes of neither of the opposing worlds that border the valley.

Here, too, is the natural place for Tannhäuser, the “forest-dweller” who cannot be fully himself in either the Venusberg or the Wartburg. In protesting to the men of the castle that he can never look backward, but must press ever onward, he is rejecting the extremes of both worlds. When the name of Elisabeth is invoked, however, he is pulled back to the Christian world with its ruler, its knights, and its moral codes.

In A Communication to My Friends, Wagner explains the personal meaning that he invested into the character of Elisabeth, in terms of his struggle to turn from the pleasures of worldly life:
If at last I turned impatiently away, and owed the strength of my repugnance to the independence already developed in my nature, both as artist and as man: so did that double revolt, of man and artist, inevitably take on the form of a yearning for appeasement in a higher, nobler element; an element which, in its contrast to the only pleasures that the material Present spreads in modern Life and modern Art, could but appear to me in the guise of a pure, chaste, virginal, unseizable and unapproachable ideal of Love. 
What, in fine, could this love-yearning, the noblest thing my heart could feel – what other could it be than a longing for release from the Present, for absorption into an element of endless Love, a love denied to earth and reachable through the gates of Death alone?
Wagner would explore this concept further in his later operas, yet he here creates a woman with a soul as divided as that of the Minnesinger she loves. For much of the second act, she is torn between her desire to be with Tannhäuser and her concern for his immortal soul.

Nadja Michael as Elisabeth – Deutsche Oper Berlin (2008)
In her first appearance, Wagner portrays the first half of Elisabeth’s divided character. Not yet a suffering saint, “Dich , teure Halle” shows her as a young woman feeling the first joyful pangs of innocent love. As with the first words we heard from both Tannhäuser in the Venusberg and the Shepherd Boy in the valley, Elisabeth in the Wartburg first sings of being awakened from a dream – reminding us yet again that Wagner intends us to understand this as more than a simple love story.

The climax of Elisabeth’s duet with Tannhäuser is the most conventional theatrical moment in the opera; Wagner later denounced its excessively “operatic” character. Wolfram joins in to lament his lot as the third wheel. Even for those coming to the opera for the first time, it’s fairly obvious that the man who was unsatisfied with the attention of the goddess of love herself will not be content with this kind of chaste lovemaking.

Later in the Hall of Song, after the knights, nobles, pages and ladies have been assembled, Wagner presents his major philosophical themes in one neat package. The Landgrave sings of the power of the theater, militant nationalism, the importance of the creative artist, and love as the highest goal. The musical high point occurs when the Landgrave – channeling Wagner’s own beliefs – sings of the great value and indispensable social role the artist.

None of what has transpired in the opera since Tannhäuser left the Venusberg has any root in the poetry or legend of the historical Minnesinger. In the ballad, Tannhäuser goes straight from the Venusberg to Rome. So what is this contest of song, why are we in the Wartburg, who is Elisabeth and why does everyone keep calling Tannhäuser by the name Heinrich?

The song contest at the Wartburg
from the Codex Manesse (early 14th century)
The origin of the song contest is in the early-13th-century collection of poetic fragments known as the Wartburgkrieg, which places actual and imaginary Minnesingers in a competition at the court of the historical Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia at the Wartburg in 1207. The real Minnesingers Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach vie with the fictional Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Hermann was greatly respected as a patron of the literary arts, and it was this reputation that no doubt led to the tale being set at his court.

To be absolutely clear, there is nothing in the poems of the song contest that connects Heinrich von Ofterdingen to either the historical Tannhäuser or the legendary Tannhäuser. In any case, the timeline simply doesn’t work; the historical Tannhäuser belongs to a later generation of Minnesingers.

Wolfram von Eschenbach from the Codex Manesse
Early 14th century
The subject of the contest has nothing to do with the nature of love, as it does in the opera. In the original, each poet must defend his choice of prince as the ruler superior to all others. Walther von der Vogelweide and his companions champion Hermann; Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the outsider, sings of the Duke of Austria. Biterolf, Reinmar von Zweter and Heinrich der Schreiber also take part in the contest. Wolfram von Eschenbach – the author of Parzival and one of the earliest to write on the Lohengrin legend– serves as umpire.

As in Wotan’s contest of wits with Mime, Heinrich von Ofterdingen stakes his head on the issue; such a bet was placed in Germanic wisdom-contests as far back as the Old Norse myths of Odin. Also following the tropes of mythic contests, Heinrich is defeated by trickery. He then calls upon the magician Klingsor for help – you may know him from Wagner’s Parsifal. The wizard engages in a riddle contest with Wolfram and – interesting in light of Wagner’s own mash-up of separate legends – announces the birth of Saint Elisabeth.

Ultimately, the heroic Minnesinger’s Christian faith overcomes the dark arts of the Hungarian magician. Heinrich von Ofterdingen disappears from the narrative as the fragments of the poem move on to other subjects.

Although Wagner’s autobiography mentions that the first inspiration for his Tannhäuser opera was a 16th-century “Volksbuch” he stumbled across in Paris, the book seems to have actually been Ludwig Bechstein’s Die Sagen von Eisenach und der Wartburg, dem Hörseelberg und Reinhardsbrunn of 1835.

Tannhäuser illustration by Willy Pogany (1911)
Bechstein appears to have been quite a bold fellow who freely filled in details as fit his fancy. He conflated the Venusberg of the Tannhäuser legend with the Hörselberg – according to folklore, the home of Frau Holle (Lady Holda of Wagner’s Shepherd Boy song) – and suggested that Tannhäuser basically bumped into Venus on his way to the Wartburg competition. The fact that the setting of the song contest was a half-century before the historical Tannhäuser’s heyday as a Minnesinger did not seem to bother Bechstein a bit.

Wagner’s wholehearted adoption of this hamfisted admixture of two unrelated legends is made clear by the opera’s unwieldy final title: Tannhäuser and the Contest of Song on the Wartburg. His manipulation of mismatched myth drew down the wrath of scholarly celebrities including the noted German mythologist Karl Simrock.

The idea of focusing on an outsider entering a song contest was clearly something that appealed to Wagner. In addition to this opera on a 13th-century contest, you may also be familiar with a piece he wrote based on a 16th-century contest of Mastersingers in Nuremberg. What made the Wartburg contest especially attractive to him was its location.

To be concluded in Part Three.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Tannhaäuser runs through March 6 at Lyric Opera of Chicago
This series of posts presents an abbreviated version of lectures that I gave on Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (August 7, 2014) and the Wagner Society of America (January 28, 2015). I have removed all discussion of musical elements, as it makes little sense without audio excerpts. Instead, this series focuses on the roots of Wagner’s Tannhäuser libretto in myth, legend, literature and history.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently presenting a production of the opera that runs February 9 through March 15. If you can’t make it to Chicago but would like to hear the music, I recommend the 1971 recording by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic. The final installment of this series at The Norse Mythology Blog will include a bibliography of sources used – a list which can also serve as a guide for further reading.

1844 daguerreotype of Richard Wagner
In order to understand the nature of Wagner’s magic mountain, we must turn to the scholarship of his time. Wagner writes in his autobiography that, in 1843 – the year he finished the poem then titled Der Venusberg – he was inseparable from his copy of Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology. First published in 1835, Grimm’s attempt to bring the scattered bits of Germanic heathen lore together into a coherent system had an outsized impact on Wagner, who wrote:
Formed from the scanty fragments of a perished world, of which scarcely any monuments remained recognizable and intact, I here found a heterogeneous building, which at first glance seemed but a rugged rock clothed in straggling brambles. Nothing was finished, only here and there could the slightest resemblance to an architectonic line be traced, so that I often felt tempted to relinquish the thankless task of trying to build from such materials. And yet I was enchained by a wondrous magic. 
The baldest legend spoke to me of its ancient home, and soon my whole imagination thrilled with images; long-lost forms for which I had sought so eagerly shaped themselves ever more and more clearly into realities that lived again. There rose up soon before my mind a whole world of figures, which revealed themselves as so strangely plastic and primitive, that, when I saw them clearly before me and heard their voices in my heart, I could not account for the almost tangible familiarity and assurance of their demeanor. 
The effect they produced upon the inner state of my soul I can only describe as an entire rebirth. Just as we feel a tender joy over a child's first bright smile of recognition, so now my own eyes flashed with rapture as I saw a world, revealed, as it were, by miracle, in which I had hitherto moved blindly as the babe in its mother's womb.
Wagner relied heavily on Grimm while writing The Ring of the Nibelung, and Grimm’s idiosyncratic combination of philology, folklore, literature and legend can help to explain the mythological elements of Tannhäuser, as well.

The Hörselberg in Germany
Grimm writes that the Hörselberg of Thuringia was still considered in the 10th through 14th centuries to be the residence of the German goddess Holda and her host. He cites legends of “night-women in the service of dame Holda” who “rove through the air on appointed nights, mounted on beasts,” and asserts that they “were originally dæmonic elvish beings, who appeared in woman’s shape and did men kindnesses.”

During the orgiastic Bacchanale that follows the overture, Wagner presents us with naiads, nymphs, satyrs, fauns and other creatures of Greco-Roman mythology. Why would a composer as nationalistic as Wagner have replaced the native figures of German legend with their southern counterparts? The answer lies in the two characters portrayed in the opera’s first scene.

"Der Tanhuser" from the Codex Manesse
Early 14th century
The historical Tannhäuser was a Minnesinger – a composer and performer of songs dealing with courtly love. There are many conflicting theories about his life, some of them quite fanciful. However, in the words of J.W. Thomas, “Nothing is known of the life of the thirteenth-century poet and composer Tannhäuser except for what can be learned from the relatively few lines of verse which have been ascribed to him by medieval anthologists.”

Seventeen poems survive. In four of them, the poet calls himself “tanhusere.” The name may mean “the one from Tannhausen,” and there are several places with this name. It may also mean “the backwoodsman” or “forest-dweller,” an apt nickname for a poet whose works are marked by ironic humor that pokes fun at the conventions of courtly society. The language used in the poems suggests that Tannhäuser was originally from Austria or Southern Germany, but attempts to place him more specifically are mostly speculative. He probably died sometime shortly after 1266.

What makes the poems by Tannhäuser so interesting is their irreverence for the accepted mores of Minnesong. Everything expected is set on its head. Other Minnesingers compose odes to unattainable courtly ladies; Tannhäuser writes celebrations of successfully bedding rustic women. Not bedding, exactly, since his conquests take place out-of-doors. Where other poets sing of the delicate features of their beloved and steer well clear of impropriety, Tannhäuser famously sings the praises of every part of his beloved-of-the-moment – including the bits under her skirt. His work is not pornographic or leering; everything is done with a knowing wink and an obvious delight in subverting the expectations of his listeners. It is this “joyous challenge” that Wagner portrays in his overture.

Nadja Michael as Venus
Deutsche Oper Berlin's Tannhäuser (2008)
Like the figures of the Bacchanale, Venus is imported from Greco-Roman mythology into a German setting. This is not a new idea of Wagner’s. As far back as the writings of Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, Romans were making the interpretatio romana – interpreting the native gods of the Germanic tribes they encountered in terms of their own pantheon. In the first century CE, the Roman writer Tacitus famously wrote that Germans worshiped Mercury, Hercules and Mars – figures that later scholars consider to be equivalent to Odin, Thor and Tyr.

The northern tribes made their own interpretatio germanica – relating the foreign gods of the invading Romans to their own deities. The most famous example of this – and one that survives in modern English – is the Germanization of the Roman weekday names. Mars’ day became Tyr’s day (Tuesday), Mercury’s day became Woden’s day (Wednesday), Jupiter’s day became Thor’s day (Thursday), and Venus’s day became Frigg’s day (Friday).

Wagnerians know Frigg as Fricka, the consort of Wotan. However, the attributes of Venus line up more clearly with the goddess Freya than they do with Frigg. Since at least the early 1900s, scholars have argued for an original identity for Frigg and Freya that – at some unknown point – split a complex female goddess into a mother figure and a maiden figure, into a goddess whose domain includes marriage and another associated with sexual love.

It is Freya’s characteristics that most closely conform to Wagner’s Venus. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson tells us in his 13th-century Edda that Freya “was very fond of love songs. It is good to pray to her concerning love affairs.” Indeed, it is Tannhäuser’s song in the overture that summons her. In the second scene, her first attempt at holding onto Tannhäuser is to tell him: “Come, my minstrel, up and grasp your lyre! Celebrate love, which you extol so marvelously in song, that you won the goddess of love herself for yours! Celebrate love, for its highest prize has become yours!”

Wagner's Freia by Arthur Rackham
In a discussion of the Venusberg legend, Grimm asserts that the identity of Venus with the German goddess Holda in these tales “is placed beyond question.” Wagnerians with a good ear for detail will remember that, in Das Rheingold, Freia is also referred to as Holde. By the transitive property, if Venus equals Holde and Holde equals Freya, Venus equals Freya.

If you are familiar with Norse mythology and are unhappy with the portrayal of Freya as a weepy teenager in The Ring – a characterization that owes more to Wagner’s impression of the fifteen-year-old Marie von Sayn-Wittgenstein than it does to the myths – here in Tannhäuser you can have a more powerful Wagnerian image of the northern goddess.

The direct lineal ancestor of the Venusberg legend is most likely the Italian folk legend, recorded by the French Antoine de la Sale around 1440, of an anonymous German knight who enters the Monte della Sibina (the Mountain of the Sibyl) in the Apennines and finds a sensual paradise within. After three hundred and thirty days of debauchery with the Sibyl and her retinue, he departs for Rome to confess his sins. The pope is sympathetic but publicly admonishes him and casts him out as an example to others. When the pontiff regrets his actions and sends for the knight, he finds that the German has decided to go back into the mountain.

For a story like this to have moved up from Italy to Germany, there were necessarily elements in the legend that struck a sympathetic chord for the new audience. The papal issue will be addressed later; the identification by the Germans of Venus with their own native goddesses should already be clear.

In his essay on the overture, Wagner describes the “drunken glee” of the Bacchantes: “a scurry, like the sound of the Wild Hunt, and speedily the storm is laid.” He thus links the orgy inspired by the Roman Bacchus to the tradition of spirits following Holda or Wotan’s flight through winter skies – a legend he returns to in The Ring of the Nibelungen.

The Bacchanale by Willy Pogany
After the overture and Baccahanale have run their course, Wagner gives us a hint that what we see is not what he is truly giving us – that we are not really watching an opera about nymphs and Nereids, but one about psychology and philosophy. The stage directions tell us that Tannhäuser lifts his head, “as if starting from a dream.” When Venus asks after his thoughts, he laments, “O, that I might now awake!” In Act 2, he will speak of his sojourn in the Venusberg in terms reminiscent of dreams: “Deep forgetfulness has descended betwixt today and yesterday. All my remembrance has vanished in a trice” – the time spent inside the mountain is the dream between his past and present life in the world. What is this dream – this illusion – within which Tannhäuser is trapped?

In A Communication to My Friends (1851), Wagner explains that behind his writing of Tannhäuser was his personal experience of “a conflict peculiar to our modern evolution.” The financial security and relative comfort of his appointment as Royal Kapellmeister in Dresden had led him away from his artistic ideals and goals. He writes:
Through the happy change in the aspect of my outward lot; through the hopes I cherished, of its even still more favorable development in the future; and finally through my personal and, in a sense, intoxicating contact with a new and well-inclined surrounding, a passion for enjoyment had sprung up within me, that led my inner nature, formed amid the struggles and impressions of a painful past, astray from its own peculiar path. 
A general instinct that urges every man to take life as he finds it, now pointed me, in my particular relations as Artist, to a path which, on the other hand, must soon and bitterly disgust me. This instinct could only have been appeased in Life on condition of my seeking, as artist, to wrest myself renown and pleasure by a complete subordination of my true nature to the demands of the public taste in Art.
Vintage postcard of Wagner's Wahnfried at Bayreuth
This internal conflict between worldly pleasure and intellectual striving continued throughout Wagner’s life. In 1874, he named his Bayreuth villa Wahnfried (“peace from illusion”), a name that was, according to Derek Watson, “intended to symbolize his having at last found refuge from the outer world.” The illusion from which Wagner sought respite late in life is the “passion for enjoyment,” the waking dream of pleasure in which we first find Tannhäuser. The Venusberg, Wagner later wrote, is the “realm of non-being.” We’ll leave aside for the moment that “non-being” is exactly the goal of Wagner’s later version of Schopenhauerian Buddhism.

Watching the opera, we witness a dream within a dream. Wagner’s philosophical ideas are presented to us in the guise of history and legend. In his Communication, he writes of the power of folk poetry and myth to present truths that history cannot. He asserts that the folk poem
ever seizes on the kernel of the matter, and brings it again to show in simple plastic outlines; whilst there, in the history – i.e. the event not such as it was, but such alone as it comes within our ken – this matter shows itself in endless trickery of outer facings, and never attains that fine plasticity of form until the eye of the Folk has plunged into its inner soul, and given it the artistic mold of Myth.
Wagner’s interweaving of mythologies with his own philosophies can be found throughout the opera. Tannhäuser, wakened (or not) from his dream of the Venusberg, says: “In dreams, it was as if I heard – a sound long stranger to my ears – as if I heard the joyful peal of bells!” Tannhäuser’s determination to leave the Venusberg begins with this dream-sound, leading Ernest Newman to write of the disastrous Paris performances: “The average Parisian could not understand how the mere sound of a bell could tear Tannhäuser out of the arms of Venus.”

Jacob Grimm
To understand the significance of the bell, we must again turn to the work of Jacob Grimm. He writes in Teutonic Mythology that, according to Germanic folklore, the heathen beings that survive into the Christian age have a great dislike of bell-ringing. Elves, dwarves, giants and witches hate to see churches built, because the sound of bells “disturbs their ancient privacy.” In his imagination, Tannhäuser hears a sound inimical to heathen beings. It is entirely fitting that this is what first sets him on the path out of the Venusberg. As a Minnesinger – a singer of songs – it also makes complete sense that a sound would resonate so deeply and meaningfully within his spirit.

Wagner again hints at the illusory nature of what we – through the mediation of Tannhäuser himself – are seeing and hearing. In the Bacchanale music, there is a striking passage for tambourine, triangle and cymbals. Was this what Tannhäuser heard in his dream-state and mistook for the sound of church bells? Throughout the opera, we watch Tannhäuser vacillate between desires for physical pleasure and spiritual love. The idea that the mishearing of heathen percussion as Christian bell would be the impetus for the drama fits well within Wagner’s schemata.

Given Tannhäuser’s confusion, it is noteworthy that most of what he longs for in this first dialogue is not overtly Christian. Between the imagined bells at the beginning of the scene and the naming of the Virgin Mary at the end, Tannhäuser yearns for sun, stars, grass, birds, spring, summer, woodlands, skies, meadows, pain and death. Everything he lists is part of the natural world, not Christian civilization.

Robert Gambill & Petra Lang as Tannhäuser & Venus
San Diego Opera's 2008 production
While we may understand how the opera reflects Wagner’s own internal conflicts, we have yet to address the source for the debate between the poet and the goddess of the opera. The roots of the scene can be traced back to a four-stanza poem that appears under the name “Der tanuser” in the surviving medieval manuscript – a poem that is strikingly different in subject and tone from the other works attributed to the historical Minnesinger.

Here, instead of addressing a courtly audience and extolling the pleasures of country girls, he addresses God in the form of the “penitent song” and begs forgiveness for the sins of his youth: “I’ve spent my life in sinfulness and never been repentant, as I should. Thy suffering and divinity will surely give me aid that I may break my bonds and leave this life of sin, and make amends for all at last.”

Other late poems suggest that Tannhäuser experienced financial hardship after his jubilant youth due to his inability to secure a wealthy patron after the death of his original sponsor. It is most likely the contrast between the celebration of pleasure in Tannhäuser’s earlier works and the solemn penitence in this later poem that inspired the medieval legend of Tannhäuser in the Venusberg.

"Das Lied von dem Daneüser"
Title page of 1850 edition
J.W. Thomas presents a convincing argument that the original ballad of the Tannhäuser-in-the-Venusberg legend was composed in the decade after the death of the historical Minnesinger and survived in various versions until the appearance in 1515 of “Das Lied von dem Danheüser,” the earliest printed version of the story. After an introductory stanza, the narrator of the Lied tells us that
Tannhäuser was a knight who sought
adventure everywhere,
he entered Venusberg to see
the lovely women there.
The next thirteen stanzas comprise a dialogue between Tannhäuser and Venus in which the goddess makes varied attempts to convince the hero not to leave. The ballad is not unique in its placement of a historical Minnesinger in a fantastic situation; similar medieval compositions were written of other popular poets.

There are a myriad of theories regarding the connection between the historical poet and the subject of the ballad. For Wagnerians, the most enjoyable (if intellectually unsustainable) theory is surely the one proposed by Adalbert Rudolf in 1882. According to Herr Rudolf, Tannhäuser was originally Wotanhäuser, a knight who abandoned Christianity, returned to heathenry, and was named for the Holy Mountain of Wotan – in which the god lived with his wife Freya, of course.

A less fantastic theory suggests that Tannhäuser was attached to the legend because of the nature of his poetic work. J.W. Thomas writes that the poems “portray a man who demands a joyous affirmation of life, who describes merry dances, who tells of his enjoyment of love’s delights, and all in all reveals a livelier sensuousness than do his contemporaries – who, however, in later songs, laments his fate and blames himself for his grievous situation.” The character of the historical Tannhäuser – at least as presented in his poems, which are all we truly have – made him a prime candidate to be slotted into a medieval Christian version of the traditional “into the mountain” narrative.

Barbarossa with beard & ravens inside the mountain
Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology has a long section on the Germanic idea of a mystic dweller inside a mountain. Notable in the list of heroes who were believed to live on inside rocky cliffs were Frederick Barbarossa and Siegfried; Wagner began an opera about the first and completed several about the second. Grimm suggests that, according to folk belief, the ancient heathen divinities lived on in wild places: “the pagan deities are represented as still beautiful, rich, powerful and benevolent, but as outcast and unblest, and only on the hardest terms can they be released from the doom pronounced upon them.” In the Tannhäuser ballad, Venus maybe be beautiful, but she is not quite benevolent. The Christian doom that damns her also extends to the knight in her service.

The German writer Heinrich Heine addresses these issues in Elementargeister (“Elemental Spirits”). This 1837 essay deals with the Tannhäuser legend and focuses on folklore ideas of pagan gods retreating from the onslaught of Christianity to resist medieval mores of guilt and self-denial from their underground fastnesses. This was clearly a concept that appealed to Wagner, whether he would admit to being influenced by the ideas of a Jewish author or not.

To be continued in Part Two.
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