Parsifal and Greek Myth
[Cosima Wagner's diary entry for 29 October 1872]
agner was fascinated by classical Greece. In particular, he was interested in two aspects of the ancient Greek culture: first in
the social and religious role of the Greek theatre, and secondly in the myths that had provided the content of Greek poetry and drama. Myths were, as Wagner expressed it in Oper und Drama,
n 1849 Wagner sketched his own drama on the subject of Achilles (WWV 81). It was probably while reading about this hero of the Trojan War, that Wagner encountered the story of Achilles and Telephus (Τελεϕος).
elephus, son of Heracles and Auge, was a king in Asia Minor. After nearly making the same mistake as Oedipus, of marrying his own mother, Telephus married a daughter of King Priam. As an ally of the Trojans, his kingdom was attacked by the Greeks (or Achaeans) and in the fighting, Telephus was wounded in the thigh by the spear of Achilles. After the Greeks had withdrawn, Telephus' wound would not heal.
A marble relief from Herculaneum. Achilles scrapes rust from his spear into the wound of Telephus.
razer notes that the spear was the famous one which Chiron the Centaur had bestowed on Peleus, the father of Achilles. The shaft was cut from an ash-tree on Mount Pelion, and none of the Greeks at Troy, except Achilles, could wield it. The healing of Telephus's wound by Achilles was the subject of a play by Sophocles, called The Assembly of the Achaeans (of which only a tiny fragment survives), and one by Euripides (also lost) called Telephus (438 BC).
he cure of a wound by rust from the weapon which inflicted the hurt is not to be explained, as Pliny supposed, by any medicinal property inherent in rust as such, else the rust from any weapon would serve; it is more likely a folklore remedy based on sympathetic magic. It is almost certainly the myth of Achilles and Telephus to which Goethe refers in his poem Torquato Tasso:
his myth provided an important element in Wagner's Parsifal. When reading the medieval Grail romances, in which a number of different spears appeared, it would seem that Wagner recalled the wound of Telephus. He might even have seen the reference to a spear that relieved the pain of Anfortas, although it did not heal him, in Wolfram's Parzival, as a remnant of the almost forgotten myth. By the time he wrote his Prose Draft in August 1865, Wagner had decided to make the spear that caused the wound into the instrument with which the enlightened fool would heal the wound. He was still uncertain, however, about how to deal with the magic weapon. Had it been given to Titurel at the same time as the Grail, or had Klingsor found it for himself?
[Diary entry in the Brown Book, following the 1865 Prose Draft]
The Theft of Fire, by Christian Griepenkerl. Prometheus steals fire from Zeus.
n 28 February 1877, Richard gave Cosima to read the second Prose Draft of Parsifal, which he had just completed. She recorded her reactions in her
rometheus, like Amfortas and Telephus, had a wound that would not heal. As punishment for Prometheus giving fire to man, Zeus had him chained up in the Caucasian mountains. Every day, an eagle came to Prometheus and bit him in the liver, which grew again every night. In his Prometheus trilogy, of which only Prometheus Bound has survived, Aeschylus developed him into the creator and saviour of mankind. Although he gave them fire, Prometheus took away their knowledge of the future. In the next part of the trilogy, Prometheus Unbound, Zeus allowed Prometheus to be freed. Heracles shot the eagle and freed the titan from his chains.
[Cosima Wagner's diary entry for 29 November 1871]
Right: Prometheus and the Eagle, by Rubens.
rometheus, unbound, appeared on the title page of the first edition of Friedrich Nietzsche's first book. The ideas presented in that book, The Birth of Tragedy, were either ideas that originated with Wagner, or which Nietzsche developed during and after conversations with Wagner. Nietzsche contrasted the myth of Prometheus with the Biblical myth of the Fall. Prometheus, a male character, committed sacrilege by stealing from divine nature. His was an active sin. Eve, a female character, allowed herself to be deceived. Hers was a passive sin. To Nietzsche's observations might be added, that through Eve's fault mankind gained the knowledge of good and evil, whereas through Prometheus' actions mankind lost the knowledge of the future.
n Wagner's letter to King Ludwig of 7 September 1865, he suggests (