The Waste Land: Eliot, Wagner and the Magical Rites of Adonis
[J.G.Frazer, The Myth of Adonis from The Golden Bough, revised 1922.]
f Wagner's Parsifal is, as the composer would have us believe, a profoundly Christian work, then as such it does not
seem to fit into any Christian dramatic or musical sacred tradition. It has often been regarded as a kind of
his article will consider the evidence for regarding Wagner's Parsifal as neither Christian nor Buddhist, but as a sacred drama in an Indo-European tradition that began thousands of years before either of those religions had been established. The article draws on ideas about primitive religion and kingship developed by Sir James Frazer, a pioneer of anthrolopogy, and Jessie Laidlay Weston, a scholar who was greatly influenced by Frazer, and also the first translator of Wolfram's poem Parzival into English.
he article will also consider how some of the themes discussed by Frazer and Weston in relation to the Grail romances relate to Wagner's Grail opera. In particular, that of the relationship between the king of the Grail and the community and lands over which he rules. On the way, this article will summarise the development of the Grail romances in the analysis made by Jessie Laidlay Weston. It will also be considered what if any is the relationship between Wagner's opera and a poem that quotes another poem about it: T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
common feature of kingship in primitive societies is the intimate association of the king with the land. The king is often regarded as the temporary incarnation of a god whose youth, vigour and virility are essential to the kingdom:
[J.G.Frazer, The Golden Bough.]
herefore, in such societies, the king is only allowed to rule for a fixed term, after which he is killed (usually by his successor) and replaced. In the most extreme cases, the term is one year, so that the death of the old king coincides with the passing of the old year. J.G.Frazer noted that such annual regicide seems to have been common in Western Asia and particularly in Phrygia, where the king-priest was slain in the character of Attis, a god of vegetation.
o what does this have to do with Wagner's drama? It is widely recognized that the composer's starting point for his last opera was Wolfram's Parzival. But, as he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner thought that Wolfram's poem was confused and of no use to him as the basis of the opera that he had in mind to create.
agner found that it suited his purpose to use the "two kings" element of the Grail romances. The extremely old king became Titurel, who lies in a tomb and is kept alive by an occasional glimpse of the Grail. He is the unseen king who is served by the Grail. The more visible king is variously known to students of literature as the Maimed King or the Fisher King.
essie Laidlay Weston distinguished between the Maimed King, who is sick or injured, and the priest-king, the Fisher King, in her analysis of the Grail legend and its possible ritual origin. The Fisher King is not always sick or injured but he is always the host who welcomes the quester:
[Jessie Laidlay Weston, The Grail and the Rites of Adonis.]
n the earliest (Gawain) form of the Grail romances, according to Weston, the lord of the Grail castle was neither old nor infirm, but dead. It was on account of the death of this knight that misfortune had fallen upon the land. In all of the Perceval versions, however, it was the king who had been wounded (or, in the case of the Didot Perceval only, grown old) and this was the cause of the wasting of the land. To achieve the quest and revive the land, either the king had to be healed, or restored to youth and vigour, or a young and vigorous successor had to undertake the burden of kingship.
agner seems to have distilled the essence of the story. He tells us that he rejected Wolfram's account and recognised that, even in Chrétien's (earlier) version, the healing Question was an unnecessary complication. In his Parsifal, the collapse of the Grail community is a result of Amfortas' wound, which is both physical and spiritual. In place of asking a Question, the destined successor has to fulfil a quest through which the symbols of cup and lance are reunited, and the Maimed King is both healed and succeeded. Like Weston, Wagner realised that the king who serves the Grail also has a priestly role and he replaced the hidden castle with a hidden temple, in which his Amfortas serves both as king and as priest.
The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.
[T.S.Eliot, Notes on The Waste Land]
n Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie (one of the oldest surviving romances), the brother of Joseph is called Bron. When the company of the Grail are starving, Bron is told to catch a fish, which feeds them in a ritual meal. After this, Bron is known as the Rich Fisher. Joseph, the original Winner of the Grail, and his brother Bron can be regarded as one form of the double-king element found in later versions of the story. The fisherman element is found in all of the Perceval romances. In Chrétien's Perceval, for example, the hero meets the Grail king when he is fishing from a boat. It may be significant that the Grail castle is always located close to water (and in at least two cases, on an island). The fish is a traditional fertility symbol, perhaps as a result of its fecundity, a characteristic that it shares with another Grail symbol, the dove. This has been seen as evidence that fertility is an underlying theme of the myth.
essie Laidlay Weston identified three stages of development in the medieval Grail romances. In the first of them, the hero was Gawain (or the Welsh Gwalchmei) and the land had been wasted as a consequence of the mysterious death of an unnamed knight. In this form of the legend, the body of the dead knight lies on a scarlet cloth upon a bier in the Grail castle. Another feature specific to the Gawain version is that the Grail- bearer weeps piteously.
[Jessie Laidlay Weston, The Grail and the Rites of Adonis]
he best- known version of this form is known as the First Continuation to Perceval; which is not consistent with Chrétien's unfinished poem. It appears to be based on an independent story, added to the poem by an unknown editor in order to make an ending. Gawain fails to ask about the Grail (by which he would have restored the Waste Land) but he does ask about the spear, which brings about a partial restoration. We should note, incidentally, that in this and other romances, the spear is seen at the Grail castle, where it is one of the objects (hallows) of the ritual. The variation on the story in which the spear has been lost, together with the idea that it caused the wound of the Maimed King, is entirely Wagner's invention.
n the later German text Diu Crône (The Crown), from about 1230, the lord of the Grail castle is old and weak. After Gawain has asked the Question, removing the enchantment from the Waste Land, we are told that the king and his attendants were in fact dead, but held in semblance of life until the task was completed.
Right: The Achievement of Sangreal by Sir Galahad, William Hatherell (1855- 1928). © King Arthur's Hall.
n the second stage of development, the Widow's Son displaced Gawain as the primary hero. Jessie Laidlay Weston pointed to a distinctive feature common to the otherwise differing Perceval versions: the sickness and disability of the ruler of the Waste Land, who is called the Fisher King. According to Weston, the element of the Waste Land declined in importance during the development of this form until, in Wolfram's Parzival, the healing of the Fisher King appears to be an end in itself.
[Jessie Laidlay Weston, The Grail and the Rites of Adonis]
riginally, the distress of the land was a direct result of the death of the king, or the injury or aging of the king; but in Chrétien's account, the disaster only develops after the failure of Perceval to ask the Question on his first visit to the Grail castle and in the Perlesvaus, the wasting is a direct consequence of Perceval's failure. The Welsh version, Peredur son of Evrawg, is a confused tale, possibly based upon an imperfect recollection either of Chrétien's poem or an earlier version of the same form, perhaps the prose original referred to by Chrétien, and also possibly the Third Continuation. Like Perlesvaus, it is a revenge story.
he Grail romances are characterised by a tension between the theme of revenge and the theme of healing. This tension points to at least two distinct, original sources:
[R.S.Loomis, The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 1963]
Above: The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval. Also known as, The Achievement of the Grail. A tapestry woven by William Morris after a design by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. ©Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
n the final stage, the themes of vengeance and healing, together with such elements as the wasting of the land and the Question, have disappeared and what remains is a spiritual quest. As in Perlesvaus, the story is dominated by moralising and Christian allegory. The hero is now Galahad, son of Lancelot. In The Quest of the Holy Grail, there are two wounded kings at the Grail castle, and the title of Fisher King is variously applied to both of them. The virgin Galahad, who was born at the Grail castle, has never failed and achieves the quest in fulfilment of his destiny.
n his notes on The Waste Land Eliot informs us:
he cult of the Babylonian fertility god known to the Sumerians and Akkadians as Dumuzi-abzu, but better known under his Syrian name of Tammuz, may be traced back to about 3000 B.C. Dumuzi is a Sumerian deity of the marshes. His name means "quickener of the young in the mother womb of the deep". His sister, Geshtinanna, is the power in the grape, and his female consort is Inanna, who in the earliest period symbolizes the "storehouse of dates." Dumuzi, Inanna and Geshtinanna, as well as Duttura, the mother of Dumuzi, and Ereshkigal, the sister of Inanna and goddess of the underworld, are prominent in several mythological cycles and mythical dramas. In a pantheon containing thousands of deities, these serve as examples of the reigning symbolism of fertility. As the god of the harvest, Dumuzi was required, like Osiris of Egypt, to conquer death by emerging from the Underworld. The surviving Sumerian and Akkadian texts contain many lamentations for Dumuzi, who left the surface of the earth once a year, with disastrous consequences for animal and vegetable life. Dumuzi-Tammuz appears to have been more than a seasonal god, however; he was believed to participate in the reproductive activities of all forms of life.
he Phrygian cult of the resurrected Attis may be as old as that of Dumuzi-Tammuz and both may have derived from the worship of a common predecessor. Or, despite their common features, they may have developed independently:
[J.G.Frazer, The Golden Bough.]
he death and rebirth of Attis were annually mourned and rejoiced over by devotees at a festival in spring, usually at the vernal equinox. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by the mother goddess Cybele. There are two different accounts of his death: in one he castrated himself under a pine-tree and bled to death. This version may have been invented to explain the self-castration of his priests. In the other, he was, like Adonis, killed by a wild boar, and hence his followers abstained from pork. He was subsequently changed into a pine-tree and therefore such a tree, decorated with violets, was venerated by worshippers during the spring festival.
he cult of Adonis (according to Frazer, another divinity of vegetation) seems to have originated in Phoenicia and spread first to Cyprus. By the 7th century B.C. he was being worshiped throughout the Greek world. The name or title Adonis was also applied to Tammuz, Adon being the Syrian word meaning Lord.
riginally, Adonis was the lover of the goddess Astarte, who would become identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. He was said to have been a mortal who was killed by a wild boar, who may have been Aphrodite's jealous husband, Ares. The intercession of Aphrodite persuaded Zeus to allow Adonis to return from the underworld for a portion of the year. The dispute between Aphrodite and Persephone for possession of Adonis is a curious parallel to that between Ishtar and Ereshkigal for Tammuz. It is possible that the Phrygian Adonis was originally a river-god; the river Nahr Ibrahim, which reaches the sea just south of Byblus, bore in antiquity the name Adonis and there is a complex of temples to Astarte around the gorge of the river. The spring rain colours the river red with clay washed from the hills; this is still referred to as the blood of Adonis. His rites usually ended with the effigy of the god being cast into the sea or a river; this is still echoed in vernal folk-customs in many lands.
raser records that the worship of Adonis as a corn-spirit, i.e. a spirit of harvest, in the month of Tammuz (July) persisted in Syria into the Middle
Ages. An Arabic writer of the tenth century recorded:
essie Laidlay Weston identified the following points of contact between the Adonis ritual and the Gawain form of the story of the Grail castle:
lthough Adonis is never mentioned in Eliot's poem, it is clear from the poet's notes that the myth of Adonis is at its core. Like Tammuz and Attis, Adonis goes down into the underworld but returns each year. The women weep for Adonis so that he can be reborn.
Above: Detail from the painting by J.M.W. Turner which he entitled, The Golden Bough.
he Cumaean Sibyl was the most famous of the Sibyls, the prophetic old women of Greek mythology; she guided Aeneas through Hades in the Aeneid with the help of a golden bough. In Roman classical times the same term was applied to a bough of the tree in a grove at Nemi, sacred to Diana. In a ritual that had been practised for at least 500 years, only a runaway slave could cut a branch from the tree at the centre of the sacred grove; but first he had to challenge and then defeat the guardian of the grove, the Rex Nemorensis or King of the Wood. A challenger who was able to kill the king then took his place as guardian of the sacred grove and, it was implied, as consort of the goddess to whom it was dedicated. His attempts to explain this ritual led Frazer to study kingship in the ancient world and in primitive cultures. He found that kingship was, in its earliest forms, primarily a religious or priestly institution. Even after the Romans abolished their monarchy, they retained a "king" who had only a priestly role, the Rex Sacrorum, to perform the sacrifices that in former times had been made by the king.
Above right: John Collier: Priestess of Delphi
t can be noted, incidentally, that this tradition of the sacred grove was known to Wolfram , who incorporated it into a (Gawain) chapter of his poem Parzival. In this chapter, the hero is sent by Orgeluse to challenge the guardian of the sacred wood.
iterature and myth are full of quests for special objects, such as the golden bough, that can only be obtained by overcoming obstacles and opposition. In opera too: consider Meyerbeer's Robert, who must resist the charms of a host of zombie nuns, to win the cypress branch. At first appearance, Parsifal act 2 is a story of this type; like Robert, Wagner's youth must resist erotic temptations, to win the holy spear, which will enable him to become king of a sacred grove. In this case the forest of Monsalvat and the community that it conceals.
ut a careful reading of Wagner's poem shows no evidence that the youth is on a quest for the spear. Wagner does not tell us why he wanders into Klingsor's magic garden. Even when he begins to realise that he has a (forgotten) mission, Parsifal does not know what it is about (in fact, he does not know much about anything; he is not even certain of his own name; and it is the function of Kundry to give him information (Kunde)). His quest (if we can call it a quest) is not for the spear, neither is it for the Grail. Kundry's kiss reveals to Parsifal that his mission concerns Amfortas; and from that moment onwards, the youth is dedicated to relieving the suffering of the Grail King. He knows nothing of the spear until it is suddenly and unexpectedly in his hand; and in that moment he realises not only that this is the weapon that injured Amfortas but also that it is the only cure for the king's wound. Therefore for Parsifal the spear is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
essie Laidlay Weston traced the possible origins of the medieval Grail romances through Gnostic mystery religions back to the fertility rites and initiation ceremonies of ancient vegetation cults. Independently, evidence for the oriental origin of elements of the Grail legends was gathered by L.E. Iselin (Der morgenländische Ursprung der Grallegende, 1909). Since Wagner's text draws upon these Grail romances and because he selected elements that connect these romances with the rituals of Indo-European mystery religions, then it is justifiable to regard his Parsifal (and by the same token, Eliot's The Waste Land), as belonging to a religious tradition that is at least five thousand years old.
n Weston's perspective, Parsifal is the story of a failed initiation into a mystery religion. It tells of an infirm king who is, at first, neither healed nor replaced by a vigorous successor and how, as a result, his kingdom falls into distress and decay. The old king, his father, dies before the quest has been completed. The Grail-bearer, who is also the messenger of the Grail, weeps bitterly on a spring morning. The symbols of cup and spear are reunited to assure the renewed fertility of land and people.
Above: Act 1 of Parsifal in the recent production from Opéra de Lyon, soon to be restaged at the Met.
learly Eliot was influenced by Frazer's anthropological writings both directly and through the Wagnerian Jessie
Laidlay Weston. Similarly his relationship to Wagner is both direct (the poem quotes Tristan und Isolde and Das Rheingold; it also quotes Verlaine's
poem about Parsifal) and through Weston. Furthermore, Eliot's poem is connected to Wagner's last music-drama by drawing on a common myth, the
Grail legend. It might be fortuitous that the quotation from Petronius with which Eliot prefaced his poem is singularly appropriate to Kundry:
o there are threads connecting Eliot's Grail poem and Wagner's Grail drama. Unfortunately those threads
have led some to believe (and recent stagings of the opera have reinforced their belief), that Wagner had built his Parsifal upon the myth of the Waste Land, i.e. the variant of the Grail legend in which the land (and the vegetable and animal life of that land), suffers as a result of the king's sickness or injury. In some versions of the myth (for example, in the
poems by Chrétien and Wolfram) it is specifically the infertility of the king that causes the
infertility of the crops and livestock of the kingdom and it is the healing of the king that restores the land. Wagner's reworking of the Grail legend is not, however, based on
the Waste Land variant and, unlike many of the romances, it is not concerned with fertility. If Wagner had wanted to stress the sexual aspect of the king's injury, then he would have made the wound one
through the genitals and not through the side, which is where the Prose Draft locates the (physical) wound. It is
Left: The "holy rail", in Lehnhoff's original staging for ENO
herefore the implication in Harry Kupfer's Berlin production that Amfortas' problem is one of sexual dysfunction is an idea that Kupfer has added himself, rather than his interpretation of Wagner's text. The problem that must be solved, or the need that must be addressed, is not infertility. It is the king's realisation of his own inadequacy that leaves the knights leaderless. No longer, we are told by Gurnemanz, are knights sent out into the world to help people. The community has closed in on itself, as an introspective circle of men without any vision. In the opera, the distress of Monsalvat is not relieved by the healing of Amfortas but rather by a young, vigorous and enlightened hero taking upon himself the kingship. There is no hint, in Wagner's Prose Drafts or Poem, that the domain of the Grail becomes a wasteland when Amfortas becomes sick or that the fertility of the land is restored by the return of Parsifal with the spear. It is the Maimed King who is healed -- whether this heals the land we are not told -- and the brotherhood, if not the land, is restored under a new leader with a new vision.
et it has become a tiresome cliché of modern stagings that the third act (and in some productions also the first act) of Parsifal is set in a bleak wasteland. This contradicts not only Wagner's stage directions but also his poem (libretto). Emphasis on the Eliot connection reached its apogee in the Niklaus Lehnhoff production (which has been staged at ENO and Chicago). It would be unfortunate if this production misled other producers into believing that Wagner's opera is a story of the Waste Land because it is not. That variant of the Grail myth was not used by Wagner, whose poem indicates that the first act takes place in a green forest, the second act in a garden filled with unnatural flowers, and the first part of the third act in a flowery meadow.