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Parsifal

The Wounding and Healing Holy Spear


  1. The Bleeding Lance of the Grail Romances
  2. Wagner and the Spear
  3. The Meaning of the Spear
  4. The Sceptre and the Bell
O wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer! 
Ich sah dich schwingen von umheiligster Hand!
O wounding, wondrous holy Spear! 
I saw you wielded by unhallowed hand!

Parsifal with the Spear of Destiny

The Bleeding Lance of the Grail Romances

The mysteriously bleeding lance appeared in some of Wagner's medieval sources. These are the many and varied Grail romances, including those written by Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

In Chrétien's Perceval a single drop of blood is seen to fall from the lance, as it is carried in the Grail procession, and runs down the hand of the bearer. In Wolfram's epic poem Parzival this becomes a stream of blood. In the Prose Perceval there are three drops of blood that fall from the lance. A variant of the story that might have either inspired or been inspired by Chrétien was preserved in the books of the Welsh Mabinogi and also appeared, in French translation, in the Comte de Villemarque's collection Contes populaires des anciens Bretons: this story has the title, Peredur son of Evrawc. In Peredur there are three streams of blood. In none of these romances does the blood fall into a vessel, as Wagner describes it doing when the relics are united at the end of the opera. But in the Perlesvaus Gawain, at the Grail Castle, sees the blood running into the Grail, which he sees as a chalice (although in this poem the Grail appears in several different forms).

The healing of the fisher king

The account of events at the Grail Castle in Peredur is recognisably another version of the visit described in Chrétien's unfinished romance; which contributed to Wolfram's tale of Parzival. The relationships between Perceval and its so-called Continuations, Peredur, Parzival, Perlesvaus and other medieval romances has been discussed at length by Jessie L. Weston and other authors (see the bibliography for references. These medieval poems and other sources were used by Richard Wagner to make a new synthesis, in which (eventually) the hero was renamed as Parsifal. Unlike the medieval questers Wagner's hero first has to recover the spear (although he does not know the nature of this mission, or even that he has one, until he experiences Kundry's kiss) and then to return it to Monsalvat; so that it can be used to heal Amfortas, after which it is reunited with the Grail. By doing so, Parsifal achieves the twofold resolution of the drama: Amfortas is healed and relieved of his duties and the mystic union of the two relics enables the regeneration of the community.

Holy Lance discovered in Antioch Cathedral
Above right: the healing of the fisher king.
Left: a holy lance was discovered in Antioch cathedral during the First Crusade.

Wagner and the Spear

This new synthesis was not arrived at overnight. Between Wagner's first encounter with Wolfram's poem in 1845 and the completion of his own poem, there elapsed three decades. According to his autobiography Mein Leben the inspiration for Parsifal arrived on Good Friday1 in 1857, when Wagner made a sketch or scenario that has been lost. At this stage it is unlikely that either the Grail or the spear (as I have discussed elsewhere) played an important role in the story. At the end of August 1865 Wagner developed his scenario into a detailed Prose Draft. It is clear that Wagner struggled with the incorporation of the spear. As with the Grail, there were alternatives to choose between, or to combine from, different traditions. There was the bleeding spear of the Celtic legends; also the spear of Longinus which had pierced the side of the Saviour on the Cross and the spear of Achilles that had both wounded and healed Telephus.

The so-called Spear of Destiny

Right: the Spear of Destiny, to be seen in the Hofberg museum in Vienna. This is one of several spearheads that have been claimed as the spear of Longinus.

As  the pagan Grail had been made into a Christian symbol by medieval writers, Wagner realised that he could make the pagan, bleeding spear into a Christian symbol, drawing a parallel between the wound suffered by Christ and the wound of Anfortas. This identification also led Wagner to think about the pure blood of Christ and the impure blood of Anfortas (later Amfortas). At least some of these ideas occurred to Wagner while he was working on his first Prose Draft; where however there is no suggestion that the spear that belongs with the Grail is the same spear that pierced the side of Christ. But a couple of days later, Wagner noted in his diary: As a relic, the spear goes with the cup; in this is preserved the blood that the spear made to flow from the Redeemer's thigh. The two are complementary.2

Wagner considered two alternatives: in the first, the spear is carried by Anfortas in his ill-fated assault on Klingsor, and won from him. In the second, the Grail Knights had not yet gained the spear; Klingsor had found it first. In either case it is a holy relic that belongs with the Grail, and which is used by Klingsor to wound Anfortas (or so it seems, at least; we are not told explicitly that Klingsor struck the blow). As we know, it was the first of these alternatives that Wagner chose, at some time between 1865 and 1877. The recovery of the spear became an important element of the story, replacing the Question motif of the medieval romances and linking together all three acts of Wagner's drama. Finally (perhaps as late as February 1877) Wagner made the identification of the spear wielded by Klingsor with the magic weapon of Mára and his story was complete. 


Soundbytes Titurel the pious hero, Ivar Andrésen, bass; Orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Leo Blech, recorded in 1927. Ogg format, mono, duration 4 min.)

Image: The Holy Spear carried into battle.

Left: The Holy Spear of Antioch carried by bishop Adhemar of Le Puy into battle against the Saracens.

It should be noted that Wagner deviates from his medieval sources by deliberately locating the wound in the side of Amfortas, not (as in Wolfram's Parzival) in the genitals. Clearly he made this change in order to emphasise the similarity between the two wounds made by the same spear. This choice does not suit Marc Weiner (whose Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination is even more confused about Parsifal than it is about some of Wagner's earlier works), who writes: Amfortas suffers from a wound in the body that, in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (sic), the literary source for the music drama, is explicitly portrayed as a wound to the loins. Maybe in Wolfram but not in Wagner. This does not prevent Weiner, who never lets the facts (or the libretto) get in the way of his theories, from regarding Amfortas' wound as sexual in nature. He also accepts without question the interpretation of Robert Gutman, in which Amfortas' blood became sinful through sexual contact with Kundry, whom Gutman believed was a depiction of someone racially inferior. Weiner adds, Wagner's works time and again return to the image of a pure race threatened by pollution from breeding with a genetically inferior foreigner. Like Lohengrin, perhaps, son of Parzival? Or the flying Dutchman? It is unfortunate that half-baked ideas like these have come to dominate the academic domain of so-called Wagner scholarship.

Aage Haugland as Klingsor

The Meaning of the Spear

There has been much speculation about the symbolism of the spear (as there has been about that other relic, the Grail) in Wagner's drama. For Klaus Stichweh (Wissendes Mitleid, in the Bayreuth Festival programme for 1977) the spear symbolises (only) the sin of Amfortas; this overlooks Wagner's explicit connection of the spear with the suffering of Christ. For Carl Dahlhaus (in Richard Wagner's Music Dramas) the spear was to be interpreted as a symbol of compassion, "the reversal of the will" as Schopenhauer understood it. It might be objected that these interpretations are unsatisfactory because they fail to account for the dual nature of the spear. Like the spear of Achilles in the Greek myth of Telephus the holy spear is able both to wound (even to destroy) and to heal the wound that it made. The intention of the person who wields the spear would seem to be important here.

The question naturally arises of whether the spear is an active or passive element. In particular, at the end of the second act. Does the destruction of Klingsor's domain (that of world-spanning illusion, Weltenwahn) result from Klingsor's use of the spear in an attempt to destroy Parsifal, rather than from an action of his intended victim? If so, why then did the relic not destroy Klingsor when he used it to wound Amfortas? Was that wound caused, not by Klingsor, but by the spear itself when Amfortas tried to use it as a weapon? If so, it is consistent that another attack with the spear backfires on Klingsor. Wagner's stage directions suggest that Parsifal, in another flash of insight, realises the power of the spear and it is by his action (in making the sign of the Cross) that Klingsor's domain (and not just the sorcerer himself) is destroyed.

Ulrike Kienzle (in her book Das Weltüberwindungswerk) identifies the spear with Schopenhauer's concept of "eternal justice" (der ewigen Gerechtigkeit). It is as an instrument of eternal justice that the spear wounds Amfortas when he tries to use it as a weapon, rather than guarding it as a relic. In Schopenhauerian terms, his attempt to injure another, while deluded by the veil of Maya, results only in an increase in his own suffering. The aggressor bites only his own flesh; tormentor and tormented are one. When Klingsor becomes the aggressor, in this interpretation, then his aggression turns back on himself. As a result then, for Parsifal at least, the veil of Maya (the Weltenwahn of the Upanishads) is rent from top to bottom.

The Sceptre and the Bell

As  noted above, Wagner wrote that the Grail and the spear were "complementary". Not only in Parsifal but in other treatments of the legend, it was suggested by J.L. Weston, these relics are sexual symbols. She argued that the spear was a masculine element and the cup was a feminine element. Sometimes, of course, a cigar is just a cigar, but in the case of Parsifal there does seem to be a sexual sub-text (although whether it is the sexual sub-text proposed by Marc Weiner is less certain). At one level we see a community that is exclusively male and which, until the final scene in which an exception is made for Kundry, excludes women from its holy place, the Grail Temple. This parallels the situation of Prakriti in Die Sieger who is finally admitted into the monastic community by the Buddha, the Victoriously Perfect, whose compassion for the Chandala girl opens the gate to the final stage of his enlightenment.

These subtexts come together in the final scene of Parsifal when the spiritual hero, whose compassion for the penitent Kundry has opened the gate to the final stage of his enlightenment, brings together the Grail and the spear. Shortly before he died Richard Wagner told Cosima that he did not need to write Die Sieger (it was now too late, in any case) because in Parsifal he had expressed his idea of community. This has led some to suggest that Parsifal is fundamentally misogynistic. Yet, in the last paragraph that Wagner wrote, he returned to the subject of the Buddha's admission of women into his community and called it a beautiful feature of the legend. So perhaps, just as Prakriti was the first of many sisters to become a Buddhist nun, so is Kundry the first of many women who will be called to the service of the Grail, thus bringing a healthy balance to Monsalvat.

A second meaning that can be assigned to the reunification of the two relics and symbols relates to Wagner's aesthetic theories. The spear can be interpreted as the masculine element of poetry and the Grail as the feminine element of music. The blood that (in the final text although not in the 1865 draft) flows from the tip of the spear and falls into the cup represents the insemination of music by poetry in order to create the artwork. This metaphor was employed by Wagner in his treatise Opera and Drama of 1851:

open quotes ... that in which understanding is akin to feeling is the purely human, that which constitutes the essence of the human species as such. In this purely human are nurtured both the manly and the womanly, which become the human being for the first time when united through love. The necessary impetus of the poetic understanding in writing poetry is therefore love, -- and specifically the love of man for woman; yet not the frivolous, carnal love in which man only seeks to satisfy his appetite, but the deep yearning to know himself redeemed from his egoism through his sharing in the rapture of the loving woman; and this yearning is the creative moment of understanding. The necessary donation, the poetic seed that only in the most ardent transports of love can be produced by his noblest forces -- this procreative seed is the poetic intent (die dichterische Absicht) which brings to the glorious, loving woman, music, the matter that she must bear. close quotes

This metaphor can be found in several of Wagner's works. In the conclusion of Parsifal it can be considered as one of the meanings that are carried by the reunion of the two relics. Wagner's last music-drama is not only about sex, however, nor is it only about the union of poetry and music in the artwork. It is also, or so many commentators have claimed, about religion. On the religious or spiritual plane the central theme of the drama is Parsifal's progress towards total enlightenment. The reunion of the two holy relics after one of them is returned to the desecrated sanctuary by Parsifal can be seen as a metaphor for this final enlightenment, in the following way.

Vajra and bell

As  discussed in a separate article, Wagner was interested in Buddhism. One of the three major branches of Buddhism and the last of the three to emerge is the form with highly developed rituals, which is known both as Tantráyána and Vajráyána3. The second of these names indicates the importance of a ritual object called (in Sanskrit) a vajra. In Tibet, where this became the dominant form of Buddhism, it is called rdo rje. It is a sceptre with five closed prongs at each end. In Buddhist legend, the origin of the sceptre was the thunderbolt wielded by the Vedic god Indra (which parallels the weapon of the thunder-god in other pantheons, such as Thor, Wagner's Donner). The legend tells of how the Buddha took a thunderbolt from Indra (presumably a metal statue) and bent the prongs until they were closed. The sceptre is symmetric and the two ends respectively symbolise the virtues of wisdom and compassion (which are prominent in Vajráyána as they were in Maháyána Buddhism, from which Vajráyána developed). Thus the sceptre, in isolation, symbolises the indissoluble union of wisdom and compassion. In its entirety it symbolises the active, masculine aspect of enlightenment often equated with skillful means, great compassion, or bliss. The complement to the ritual sceptre is the bell (ghanta in Sanskrit, dril bu in Tibetan), which is regarded as a feminine symbol and which represents the perfection of wisdom. In Buddhist Tantric rituals the masculine sceptre and the feminine bell are used together. The sceptre is associated with the right side of the body and it is held in the right hand. The bell is associated with the left side of the body and it is held in the left hand. When united these ritual objects symbolise enlightenment; which might be another meaning of the ritual objects that are brought together in the temple at Monsalvat.

open quotes The bell stands for transcendental wisdom, prajña [in Sanskrit], which sees the true nature of all phenomena. That this nature is no-nature -- an open dimension, ungraspable, and devoid of any fixed, inherent existence -- is symbolised by the empty space enclosed by the bell... The vajra stands for compassion, which is expressed as skilful means (Sanskrit, upaya). This is the activity of wisdom. Seeing that living beings suffer unnecessarily because of their deluded perceptions of life, and recognising that those 'living beings' are not ultimately separate from himself or herself, the Bodhisattva4 endowed with transcendental wisdom is impelled to act to help the suffering world. The Bodhisattva does this by practising the perfections. Thus the vajra stands for the practice of generosity, ethics, patience, effort and meditation; the bell represents the wisdom with which these first five perfections are imbued.close quotes
Vessantara, The Vajra and the Bell, 2001, page 36
Footnote 1: Although, as Wagner later admitted, it was not on Good Friday that his inspiration arrived; but a spring morning soon after Richard and Minna moved into the Asyl, the cottage beside the Wesendonck Villa, on 28 April 1857. It was only the stillness of the Asyl garden which felt in his memory like a Good Friday, it had not been Good Friday in fact. [Cosima's Diaries, entry for 13 January 1878.]

Footnote 2: Wagner must have known that in some of the Grail romances, the spear was identified with the lance that the Roman soldier Longinus has used to pierce the side of Jesus. Therefore the blood on the spear became identified with the blood of the Saviour. This association first appears in the First Continuation (by another writer) to Chrétien's romance Perceval. By the time of late romances such as Sone de Nansai, the identification of the bleeding spear with the lance of Longinus was a fixed element of the story.

Footnote 3: We know of at least one source in which Wagner read about this branch of Buddhism, as it was practised in Tibet and Mongolia. In October 1858 he read Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung by Carl Friedrich Koeppen. The book can be seen in Wagner's library at Haus Wahnfried.

Footnote 4:The title Bodhisattva means literally "one whose body is bodhi", where the Buddhist term bodhi can be translated either as enlightenment or awakening. (Burnouf explained Bodhisattva as follows: celui qui possède l'essence de la bodhi. Koeppen gave the definition: Derjenige, dessen Wesenheit die höchste Weisheit (bodhi) geworden.) A Bodhisattva is one who follows the path of enlightenment (from life to life and from world to world) that passes through ten stages of progressive awakening. In the final stages the Bodhisattva is in the world, where he chooses to remain for the sake of all sentient beings, but no longer of the world. On passing beyond the tenth stage the Bodhisattva becomes a Buddha.

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