The Eagle, the Phoenix and the Divine Blood
Religion, Myth and Poetry
[Wagner, Opera and Drama, 1851]
n the early nineteenth century the desire for a German identity led scholars to seek for cultural origins. The humiliating defeats of the disunited German states by Napoleon's armies were still fresh in German memories. In its quest for national identity Germany turned to the literature of the Middle Ages (such as the Nibelungenlied), to legends of heroes such as Barbarossa and in search of whatever might remain of the culture of the old Germanic or Teutonic tribes. Scholars devoted themselves to finding and translating old manuscripts relevant to German history, not just old German sagas but the medieval literature of Scandinavia, such as the writings of Saxo and Snorri. Although Christianisation had effectively destroyed all traces of the old Germanic religious beliefs, except for accounts preserved in the writings of Roman authors such as Tacitus, it was believed that something could be reconstructed from Scandinavian sources. The Grimm brothers discovered in German folklore (Märchen) the diluted remains of tales that earlier had appeared in the sagas and poems of northern Europe.
ven in Scandinavia, which had been converted to Christianity in and around the 11th century, the priests and monks had managed to destroy most traces of paganism. Some poems, either heroic or religious, survived; but even the best manuscript (the Codex Regius) of the collection of ON poems known as the Poetic Edda is incomplete. In addition to the heroic poems there are mythological poems that provide some tantalising glimpses of the old Scandinavian religious beliefs and by doing so shed some light on the beliefs of the Germanic tribes. Around 1200 AD the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturlason wrote a manual for poets which has become known as Snorri's Edda or the Prose Edda. This book gives a more extensive description of the mythology of pre-Christian Scandinavia, the subject matter of the poetic tradition that Snorri was attempting to salvage from oblivion. Unfortunately it is evident that Snorri's knowledge was partial and some of the book seems to be no more than guesswork; in others words some of the mythological tradition had already been lost. At that time, however, it is likely that many of the myths still survived in the form of poems, some already written down. Although Snorri, who was not primarily concerned with preserving the myths in prose, sometimes contradicts himself and although his accounts often diverge from the poems, the Prose Edda gives a much more complete picture than could be obtained from the few surviving poems and sagas alone. Other writers such as Saxo Grammaticus provide some corroborating evidence about the heros, deities and creation myths of Norse mythology.
Horsemen of the Steppes
ultures based on agriculture and cities first appeared in the Bronze Age and these ideas spread from Mesopotamia westward to the lands around the Mediterranean and eastward to India and China. These urban-agricultural cultures had been established for centuries while further north, on the Steppes of central Asia, nomadic horsemen still migrated with their livestock. Even as late as 1206 AD (at about the same time Snorri was writing his Edda and Wolfram his Parzival) it was possible for warlike horsemen (the Mongols) to appear as if from nowhere across the Steppes, killing and conquering where they wished. Nearly three millenia earlier other tribes of horsemen had descended from the Steppes into Persia and India, conquering the city states and subjugating the indigenous peoples.
he tribe that conquered Persia were called the Iranians and that which invaded northwest India (in about 1600 BC) became known as the Aryans. It is possible that their cultures were very similar if not identical. Unfortunately there is insufficient archeological evidence to establish exactly what the original Aryan culture was like. (Although Indian nationalists dispute that there was an Aryan invasion, there are few non-Indian historians who doubt that it happened). What has survived from this period is sacred literature, primarily four collections of religious books called the Vedas, including the Rig Veda, written down in about 1500 BC or soon after, but which according to Indian tradition is much older. This Vedic literature depicts the Aryans as warriors driving horse-drawn chariots, who subdued the darker-skinned Dasas. The Aryans venerated the cow, since they lived on milk, butter and beef, and the horse, which drew the chariots of warriors and gods. Gradually the culture of the conquerors merged into that of the conquered; the Aryans spread eastwards, established petty kingdoms across northern India and developed a literature which included the great epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both their sacred literature and their secular epics were written in the Aryan language, Sanskrit. In the late 18th century it was established that Sanskrit was related to both Latin and Greek. Scholars were surprised to discover many connections between European languages and mythologies, and what survives of Aryan language and mythology. Naturally the belief arose that an Indo-Germanic (or Indo european) culture had originated somewhere in Asia, perhaps in the Caucasus, whence it had spread westward into Europe (with the Teutons), southward into Persia (with the Iranians) and eastward to India (with the Aryans).
Æsir and Vanir
rom Old Norse poems and from Snorri, Saxo and other medieval writers it is possible to establish not only some of the ideas of the old Scandinavian religion as it had developed before the arrival of Christianity, but also some aspects of its development during the Viking age. It is evident that there had been two pantheons of Gods who had been merged together; this fusion was represented in mythological terms as a war between the Æsir and the Vanir which ended in a truce and a union of the two pantheons. The Æsir were the kind of gods and goddesses that one might expect to be worshipped by warlike horsemen; while the Vanir were the fertility gods of farmers and fishermen. Although Oðin was the leader of the Æsir (and identified with the German god Wotan), archeological evidence suggests that Oðin was less widely worshipped than his son Thor (identified with the German god Donner) or the fertility gods Frey (=Froh) and his sister Freyja (=Freia). It is likely that Oðin and Thor arrived in northern Europe with the Teutons and were grafted onto the existing pantheon of fertility gods. It is possible that Frey and Freyja arrived in Scandinavia at about the same time but it is also possible that they were a later development, replacing an earlier pair one of whom was Njord.
A picture-stone depicting a woman (Gunnlöð?) offering a drink to an eagle (the disguised Oðin?).
Mead and Soma
Oðin, Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry
evertheless many of the surviving myths feature Oðin. One of them, related by Snorri in the part of his Prose Edda called Skáldskarpamál tells of how Oðin stole the dwarfs' mead of poetry from the giant Suttung. Another character in this myth is Kvasir, an individual known only from Snorri's Edda and his Heimskringla. Snorri inconsistently refers to Kvasir variously as the wisest of the Æsir (possibly confusing him with Mimir) given as hostage to the Vanir, as the wisest of the Vanir, and as a creature created out of the fermented spittle with which the two parties sealed their alliance. The name Kvasir is related to words in the Scandinavian languages and in Russian that mean "fermented juice" although this might be no more than a reference to the myth.
he story of the mead of poetry begins with the murder of the sage Kvasir.
According to Snorri:
o begins the story of the mead of poetry. We should keep in mind that the purpose of Snorri's Edda was not to reawaken a dead religious tradition, but to preserve the northern European tradition of skaldic poetry, which found its traditional subject matter in mythology. In those poems there is an allusive device known as kennings. A kenning is a form of periphrasis in which a metaphor is substituted for a simple term. For example, "otter's ransom" is a kenning for "gold", in which the meaning is clear to a listener familiar with the tale of the Otter (Otr) and Andvari's hoard of gold (which became the Nibelung hoard). Kennings were an important part of the poet's trade. With the story of the mead of poetry Snorri was attempting to explain to the apprentice poet why the kennings for poetry (his main subject) included "Kvasir's blood", "dwarf's ale", "Suttung's drink", "Odin's mead", "sea of Hnitbjörg" and "liquid of Oðrerir, Boðn and Son".
he story continues with the murder of Gilling and his wife by the dwarfs, followed by the revenge of their son
Suttung, who spares their lives in exchange for the mead. Suttung retreats into the mountain Hnitbjörg with his daughter Gunnlöð. In quest of the mead Oðin, the
shapechanger, arrives in the guise of Bölverk. He drills a hole into the mountain, then changing himself into a snake slides down the hole into Gunnlöð's
bedroom. The stranger sleeps with her for three successive nights and each time she gives him mead to drink from a different one of the vessels. Then Oðin turns
himself into an eagle and flies back to the Æsir, for whom he regurgitates the liquid, which has been blended in his stomach, into waiting pots. Subsequently
Oðin's valkyries use the mead to revive the dead heroes on their arrival in Valhall. So this is not just the mead of poetry
(although that is the extent of Snorri's interest), it is also a drink of regeneration. Wagner referred to the reviving mead served by the wish-maiden in Valhall
when he wrote his Nibelung Mythus -- in which the dying Siegfried greets
n the Eddic poem Havamál, a compilation of sayings and narratives, Oðin relates part of the story of the mead of poetry:
** Possibly Gunnlöð's wedding ring; one interpretation of the poem is that Oðin took the form of her betrothed and that the feast was their wedding feast.
Indra and the Soma
urning from the Scandinavian tradition to the Aryan tradition of the Indus valley, we find another story about a magic drink. This is Soma (Sanskrit: सोम): an exhilarating and intoxicating drink, sometimes described as a drink of immortality, extracted from a plant of some kind. It is personified in the being Soma, who descended from heaven. It is often referred to as "honey" but also as "fiery juice". The Rig Veda describes Soma as follows:
he Rig Veda also describes how the god Indra stole the drink of immortality. Riding on an eagle, he took it from heaven. Intoxicated with the Soma, the god destroyed the fortresses of the demons and released the waters. Then he gave the divine "fiery juice" to the ancestor of mankind, Manu.
in the tale of the mead of poetry it is an eagle that carries the divine drink. In this case, however, the eagle brings the plant that must be pressed (perhaps with mortar and pestle), filtered and fermented to produce the drink. This fits better with the (10th century AD) Old Norse kenning for poetry as "the seed of the eagle's beak"; a kenning that Snorri did not explain. Another aspect of the Vedic tradition that can be related to the tale of the mead of poetry is the three-day feast. The Rig Veda describes the Soma ceremony as taking three days. The Soma was poured into three bowls and the participants, like Oðin, drank of a different bowl on each of the three days.
t might be tempting to conclude from the above that the Norse god Oðin (among the Teutons called Wotan) is equivalent to the Vedic god Indra. It is more likely, however, from other correspondences that Oðin is the equivalent of the Vedic wind-god Vata. The theft of the divine drink was at some stage transferred from Indra (or an earlier god who became Indra) to Oðin/Vata. The common motives of the eagle and the three-day feast strongly suggest that the story of the mead of poetry as related by the Norse skalds was a later version of the myth of the theft of Soma from heaven, written down about 2500 years earlier in the Indus valley.
Fire and Flood
hen Indra brought the "fiery juice" from heaven he gave it to Manu, the ancestor of mankind. It is difficult to avoid drawing the parallel with Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and gave it to man (or that of Tantalus, who stole the food of the gods). Unlike Indra, who rode on the eagle, Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who commanded the eagle to eat the offender's liver, which was renewed each night to be chewed again.
anu was the ancestor of mankind as the only human survivor of the Great Flood. Therefore he is the same mythical character whom the Sumerians called Utnapishtim and whom the Hebrews would call Noah (although he is also equivalent to the Biblical Adam). Manu caught a little fish that warned him about the coming deluge. So Manu was able to save himself and many other creatures. Then lacking a wife he offered to the gods, who turned his offerings into a woman. This couple generated the human race. In the Mahabharata, the fish is identified with the god Brahma, while in the Puranas it is Matsya, the fish incarnation of the lord Vishnu.
he Indo-Germanic universe was cyclic: after periodic destruction the world begins anew. What is common to these and other myths is that the world is destroyed (whether by war, fire, flood, ice or pestilence) and with it the gods. Thus the purifying Ragnarök is also Götterdämmerung. In the Norse myth, gods, giants and most other creatures are destroyed; then (according to the poem Völuspá) a new Earth rises from the waters, some of the gods return and (according to the poem Vafthrúdnismál) from somewhere called Hodd-Mimir's grove there appear Leifthrasir and Lif, the only surviving human couple. Whether they are to be identified with the first couple Ask and Embla (in the poem Völuspá) is not clear; it is possible to see in this pair a later tradition -- because it is unlikely to be coincidental that the first letters of their names are also those of the Biblical Adam and Eve. Like Manu and his unnamed wife, each of these couples represent the mythical ancestors of mankind. After Ragnarok, on the new Earth, from some hidden sanctuary in which they have been preserved in life by some divinely potent sustenance, a human pair appear, to regenerate mankind.
The Content of the Grail
n 1842 Richard Wagner, after spending several years of hardship and misery in Paris, returned to Germany, taking
up a post as assistant Kapellmeister in Dresden. In the summer of the following year he spent a vacation at Teplitz, where he read the Grimm brothers'
Deutsche Sagen and Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, which revealed to the young composer
well as providing the material directly incorporated in Wagner's subsequent dramatic works, this program
of reading fuelled his imagination. Not least in a remarkable essay that he wrote in the summer of 1848, The Wibelungen: World History as Told in Saga. The essay begins with a statement
of a belief in the origins of the Teutonic or Germanic tribes:
agner continues with a sweeping and somewhat muddled summary of European history. Soon
he finds it necessary to point out that truth is not to be found in history but in legend and myth: bare history hardly ever offers us, and always
incompletely, the material for a judgement of the inmost (and so to say, instinctive) motives of the ceaseless struggles of whole peoples and races; that we must
seek in religion and saga ... We may conclude that Wagner was interested in history as long as it suited his purpose, but that in the end he always turned
to myth, legend, folklore and saga.
he hero Siegfried (the Norse hero Sigurd the dragon slayer) was, he tells us, a sun-god; this implies an
identification with Balder, son of Oðin. The sun-god was, he believed, older than either Zeus or Wotan, despite the fact that the latter was regarded as the
highest god and All-father. Furthermore, Wagner makes an identification between Siegfried and Christ (it is possible that he was thinking of Balder, who died and
rose again). Siegfried is the winner of the Nibelung's Hoard; it is
he essay also relates to another project of Wagner's at this time: a drama about Friedrich Barbarossa,
the once and future king who sleeps under a mountain. According to Wagner, Barbarossa's claim to world-rule derived from his descent from
agner then introduces another subject, one that unlike Barbarossa he was to succeed in
making into an opera, the legend of Lohengrin. A knight of the Grail once had appeared in the Netherlands, only to return to the
Orient, where the Grail was preserved
ccentric as it is, this essay is of interest because it ties together several of Wagner's projects at a time when they were still forming in his head; where the stories of Barbarossa, Siegfried, Lohengrin and the myth of the Grail were all interrelated. It is also clear from this essay how myth and legend were for Wagner inseparable from (often radical) political and religious ideas.
n 1190 Barbarossa died, like Parzival's father Gahmuret,
he poem was based on the unfinished Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes. Like this
source, Wolfram describes a mysterious object called the Grail. Unlike Chrétien's
Grail, however, Wolfram's Grail is a stone that was brought from heaven. It is guarded by
a community of Templars in their sanctuary at Munsalvæsche. When Parzival meets the old hermit on Good Friday he is told about the stone:
n re-reading the poem in 1859, Richard Wagner realised that Wolfram's stone had been
inspired by tales of Mecca. Further, he believed that this was an earlier form of the Grail myth which had been brought back from the east
and adapted for a Christian audience. He wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk:
ccording to Wolfram's old hermit, however, the Grail's ability to
provide sustenance depended on a bird that descended from heaven to the Grail with a wafer in its beak. Not an eagle as in the Indian
legend of the Soma, but a dove, brought to the Grail
n the 1857 conception of Wagner's drama later to be called Parsifal, as I have described elsewhere, it is
likely that the pious hero Titurel, like the swan, was just a symbol although an important one.
By 1865 Wagner had developed the story in detail. He considered the possibility of having the dead Titurel revived to life by the
power of the Grail during the final scene of the drama but later discarded the idea. Titurel appears in two poems by Wolfram (Titurel and Parzival). He is the first king of the
Grail and stem-father or patriarch of the Grail family, which includes Anfortas (=Amfortas), Parzival (=Parsifal), Herzeloyde
(=Herzeleide), Gurnemanz (=Wagner's act 1 Gurnemanz), Sigune (who also appears in both poems; one of the characters who became Kundry) and Parzival's son
Loherangrin (=Lohengrin). According to Wolfram (and following him, Wagner) the Grail was sent into Titurel's keeping by God; in the same way as the god Indra gave the Soma into the keeping
of Manu. In a time of adversity, according to Wagner's Prose Draft, Titurel
nother element of the story with which Wagner had difficulty was the healing and wounding spear. He had used it to connect the three acts of his drama, which in the autumn of 1865 existed only as a Prose Draft. Taking a hint from Wolfram's poem Wagner had made use of the myth of Telephus, which he now tried to combine with the bleeding lance of Celtic myth. Like the pestle and mortar that were used to extract the Soma, the spear and the Grail have been seen as sexual symbols. At the end of his 1877 poem/libretto Wagner wrote the following lines for his spiritual hero:
he spear bleeds and the blood drips into the Grail, which like
Oðrerir is both a drinking vessel and a fountain or source or well. The allusion to the Norse myth of the mead of poetry is as
strong as, perhaps even stronger than, the one to the Celtic myth of the spear that stood in a cauldron. If the two symbols that Parsifal has reunited separately represent music and poetry, then united they represent the total
work of art. The moment of yearning of male for female, wrote Wagner in his 1851 essay Opera and Drama, is the creative moment of the understanding
hree decades later, in parallel with the long-delayed composition of his Parsifal, Richard Wagner became
preoccupied with the possibility of a regeneration of the human race. Like many of his educated and intellectual contemporaries Wagner was affected by the
ideas of that age; he saw the advance of science -- in particular Darwinism -- and the retreat of religion as the Bible became one compilation of ancient texts
among many others, some, like the Rig Veda 1, far more ancient. Above all, Wagner's imagination was fired by a book by Jean
Antoine Gleizès: Thalysia oder Das Heil der Menschheit (which title Ellis translated as Thalysia or the Healing of Mankind). This book promoted
vegetarianism, in other words abstinence from meat. By 1880 Wagner's revised view of world history included the progressive
degeneration of mankind, perhaps partly (following Gobineau) the result of miscegenation but primarily (following Gleizès2) as a
result of changes in diet,
Footnote 1: It is interesting to note that Wagner's library at Haus Wahnfried includes a translation (into French) of the Rig Veda, published in 1872. It is possible that this book was obtained after the Wagners had been interested in the essay on the Vedas by H.T. Colebrooke, which is also in the salon at Haus Wahnfried.
Footnote 2: As Ulrike Kienzle has noted (in Das Weltüberwindungswerk — Wagners 'Parsifal') there is no evidence that Wagner had read anything by Gleizès before 1880. Therefore his writings cannot have influenced the libretto (poem) of Parsifal, which was completed in 1877. Similarly there is no evidence of Wagner having read anything by Gobineau before 1881. In view of these facts, the connections between Parsifal and the so-called regeneration essays of 1880-1881 have been exaggerated by some commentators. When Wagner refers to Parsifal in these essays he is looking back upon, and to some extent reinterpreting, the text that he had completed in 1877. It remains possible that Wagner was already thinking about the regeneration of mankind some years earlier, after reading Darwin's Origin of Species in 1872.
The debate about the botanical identify of Soma or Haoma (Wikipedia)