The Seduction of St. Josaphat
he tale of the hermit St. Barlaam and his convert St. Josaphat is a curious link between
Christianity and Buddhism, since part of the story is unmistakably (now that Buddhist sources are available in the western world) an account of the early life of
the Buddha. Although this would not have been obvious when this tale of two saints was circulating, in Greek and Latin versions, in the
Middle Ages. The story is thought to have been composed by John of Damascus in the 6th century AD. It also appears, in abridged form, in the Golden Legend
of Jacobus de Voragine. The attempted seduction of St. Josaphat by the beautiful maiden seems to be a Christian reworking of part of the conflict between the
future Buddha and the dark lord, Mára.
What does this have to do with Richard Wagner?, the reader might well ask. Wagner had a
version of the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, in one of the books that he left behind him when he had to leave Saxony in haste in 1849. This was a German
translation made by Rudolf von Ems about 1325.
Barlaam and Josaphat
he story of Barlaam and Josaphat closely follows, with additions, the story of the youth of
Gautama Shakyamuni, the future Buddha. The details of his life-story are slightly different, but in broad terms similar, in Indian,
Ceylonese and Tibetan texts. The main difference here is that, in a prologue to the story, an astrologer predicts that the newly-born Josaphat, son of King
Avennir, will be a follower of the Christian religion, which at that time was being persecuted by Avennir. Obviously the events of the Buddhist scriptures have
been brought forward by about 900 years, so that in this version they take place after Christian missionary activity has begun in India. The young prince is
brought up in ignorance of old age, sickness and death; but eventually finds out about their existence during excursions from the palace. In the Buddhist versions,
his father finds a wife for him at this point, but the Christian version leaves the prince unmarried.
Left: Josaphat sees a cripple while returning to the palace. King Avennir and his sorcerer Theodas watch from the battlements. Illustration from a 1477 edition
of Barlaam und Josaphat.
rince Josaphat then meets the hermit Barlaam, a Christian missionary, who preaches in
parables. The young prince becomes a convert to Christianity. After unsuccessfully attempting to dislodge him from the new faith by various stratagems, his father
King Avennir receives a visit from the sorcerer Theodas, who offers to help him. On the sorcerer's advice, the king replaces the prince's male attendants with
beautiful women (as Shakyamuni's father also does in the Buddhist version). Theodas sends an evil spirit into Josaphat's heart to inflame him with lust. The women
flirt with Josaphat but fail to seduce him.
he king then sends to Josaphat the orphan daughter of a king, a beautiful maiden. The young
prince attempts to convert her to his new religion, to which she responds that she will only convert if Josaphat will marry her. Josaphat tells her that he has
taken a vow of chastity. The nameless maiden tells him,
if you want to save my soul, grant me one little request: sleep with
me tonight, just once is all I ask, and I promise you I will become a Christian first thing tomorrow morning... just do as I ask this once and you will win my
salvation. Josaphat prays and receives a vision of heaven. He rejects the temptress, and is attacked by evil spirits. Josaphat destroys them by making the sign
of the cross.
Parsifal and Kundry
nd so the Buddha became a Christian saint, and even received a
feast-day, 27 November. The name Josaphat has been derived from Bodhisattva, one whose being is illumination. It seems entirely possible that Wagner had
this story in mind when he made his first sketch for Parsifal. The sorcerer Theodas became Klingsor,
Josaphat became the act 2 Parsifal and the beautiful maiden the act 2 Kundry. It could be argued
that Wagner based his scene directly on a Buddhist version of the story, perhaps never having read the Christian version. Two elements weigh against this
hypothesis. One is the common emphasis on chastity, typical of medieval Christian literature, but less important in the
Buddhist versions. The other is that Josaphat concludes the struggle with the agents of Theodas by making the sign of the cross. It would have been typical of
Wagner to go beneath the surface of the sources he first encountered, and by 1865 he had almost certainly read several versions of the life of the Buddha. In none of these, however, does the Buddha make the sign of the cross!
fter the apparently Buddhist detour of the second act of Parsifal, an act that
might have been based on the struggle between the future Buddha and the dark lord, Mára, we suddenly encounter a Christian symbol. It seems so out of place that most "modern" productions simply (but unwisely) ignore Wagner's stage directions at the end of
Er hat den Speer im Zeichen des Kreuzes geschwangen; wie durch ein Erdbeben
versinkt das Schloss. Der Garten ist schnell zur Einöde verdorrt; verwelkte Blumen verstreuen sich auf dem Boden. Kundry ist schreiend zusammengesunken.
(He has swung the Spear in the sign of the Cross; the castle collapses as in an
earthquake. The garden withers to a desert; the ground is strewn with faded flowers. Kundry collapses with a scream.)
- English translation of Barlaam and Josaphat from the Greek text.
- German version of Barlaam and Josaphat by Rudolf von Ems, in the edition
of Franz Pfeiffer, published in Leipzig in 1843. Wagner's Dresden Library (now at Haus Wahnfried) contains an example of the same 1843 edition (number 8 in
© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (applied new styles, added a tooltip) --- Sun 14 Oct 2018 17:00 CET ---