Saturday, August 20, 2016

Heathen Elements in Wagner's Lohengrin

The tension between xtianity and the old Germanic heathen faith is present in all of us of Germanic ancestry and this is the consequence of the forced conversion of the Germanic peoples to this alien desert religion, often the result of the lack of faithfulness and downright treason of their kings and chieftains. Those of us who have children and raise them in the spirituality of our ancient Gods will thankfully not transmit this inner tension onto our sons and daughters who will grow to become genuinely free heathens, not exposed to the direct or indirect xtian indoctrination that more often than not occurs in schools. By home schooling children or failing that, taking them out of worship assemblies and Religious Education classes we protect them from the tyranny of monotheism.

This inner tension as I term it may be found in the operas, or more correctly, the music dramas of Richard Wagner. Whether this tension between the two religions was consciously or unconsciously woven into the fabric of these works, I am unsure. One particular work that has occupied my attention and meditation the last few days is Lohengrin. This is one of his earlier works, first performed in 1850. This was during Wagner's revolutionary phase; revolutionary in the political sense of the term.  Of course we know that Wagner was a music revolutionary as well!

Lohengrin unlike some of his other works was grounded in history. It was a skilful blend of German history and elements of Germanic mythology although one must look beneath the surface a little bit to understand this. In Act 2 Scene 2 we have a scene which focuses on a confrontation between the heroine of the work, the obviously xtian Elsa who was to marry the swan knight Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal. Ortrud is portrayed by Wagner as the scheming wife of  Friedrich von Telramund, Count of Brabant. In essence in this scene we have the conflict between the new and alien religion of xtianity and the heathenism of the pre-xtian Germanic peoples as Ortrud calls upon the ancient Gods:

"Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!
Bestraft die Schmach, die hier euch angetan!
Stärkt mich im Dienste eurer heil'gen Sache!
Vernichtet der Abtrünn'gen schnöden Wahn!
Wodan! Dich Starken rufe ich!
Freia! Erhabne, höre mich!
Segnet mir Trug und Heuchelei,
dass glücklich meine Rache sei!"

Ortrud invokes the Gods Wodan and Freia. It should be noted that Wagner chose the Wodan form of Wotan, quite possibly because the Duchy of Brabant is situated in modern day Belgium and is mainly Flemish. It was part of the First Reich or the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The First Reich included within its borders all of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, parts of Eastern France, northern Italy, Slovenia and western Poland so much of this empire was genuinely Germanic. Wodan was predominately used by Dutch, Flemish and Platt Deutsch (Lower Saxon) speakers. Freia amongst the continental Germanic tribes embodied the attributes of the Norse Frigga and Freyja as it is believed by many scholars that this deity was once regarded as a single unified Goddess and I am inclined to agree.

The concept of the swan knight is rooted in both Germanic and Celtic mythology and it is interesting how this theme is melded with the concept of the Grail which is rooted in Celtic mythology and ultimately Proto-Indo-European.

"Its manifestly prominent role in the solar cults of Bronze Age Europe, for example, doubtless helped to establish its permament position in the mythology and in the literary legends of later Europe."(Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, Anne Ross).

In Germanic mythology we may recall the stories of swan maidens such as in the legend of Wayland the Smith. It would appear to be an inheritance that is common to both the Germanic and Celtic peoples and thus probably signifies a joint inheritance from Proto-Indo-European times.

"The impressive weight of evidence for the perpetuation of the motif of the chain-bearing, music making, boat-or chariot-pulling swans of Urnfield and Hallstatt Europe in verbal form in some of the stories current in mediaeval Ireland and in Germanic literature, is one of the most satisfactory illustrations of the extraordinary longevity of cult legends which had their origin in pre-Celtic Europe. The persistence and frequency with which motifs, clearly derived from earlier cult practice, are found in the literatures of the early Celtic world is noteworthy. The Germanic 'Swan Knight' legends, having obvious affinities with the Celtic material, probably stem independently from the same cult source, although in all probability reinforced and given a fresh stimulus by contact with the Irish Church during its missions to Europe." (Ross)

 The swan solar motif is not confined to the Celto-Germanic cultural area but can be found in other lands settled by Aryans such as India:

"The Irish gods and the Celestial Rishis of India take the form of swans, like the swan-maidens when they visit mankind."(Indian Myth and Legend, 1913, Donald A. Mackenzie)

Some scholars seek the origins of Lohengrin in the Anglo-Saxon myth of Skeaf, the culture-bringing hero of the Anglo-Saxons.

"Scholars are now universally agreed that the origin of the Swan-Knight story is to be found in the myth of Skeaf, the reputed ancestor of the Anglo-Saxons. This legend relates how to the shores of these, our own ancestors, there drifted a rudderless boat, in which, cradled on a sheaf of corn, and surrounded by arms and treasure, there lay a sleeping child. To the child the Angles gave the name of Skeaf, from the sheaf of corn on which he lay. Grown to manhood he became their king, and from him they learned the arts of peace and of war. At length the king died, and obedient to his will they bare the body to the seashore, laid it again in the ship which had brought him hither, and the vessel and its burden drifted away into the unknown distance. From Skeaf sprang a mighty race of kings, and the folk were fain to believe that this mysterious ancestor of their rulers had been in truth a god." (Legends of the Wagner Drama, 1900, Jessie L. Weston)

Recently on rereading an article by Wulf Ingesunnu's in the newly published Sword of Wayland (Black Front Press, 2016) I saw a reference by Wulf which linked the God Hoenir to the stork who in fairytales is responsible for delivering new born babies to their parents. Jessie Weston also links Hoenir to a bird but this time both the stork and the swan:

"Some scholars hold that Hoenir himself may have been a personification of the swan, or stork, the white water-bird, and translate aurkonungr as 'lord of the ooze.' Cf. Corpus Poeticum Boreale, Introduction, p. cii. The origin of the myth is certainly extremely ancient, and involved in great obscurity." (Legends of the Wagner Drama)

She relates a tale from the Faroe Islands in which a peasant, playing a game of skill with a giant has to forfeit the life of his son if he is unable to hide the child. He calls upon the aid of Odin, Hoenir and Loki. It is Hoenir who is successful in hiding the child by transforming him into a piece of down and concealing him in the neck of a swan. she consider that Hoenir is a spring or light God.

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