Atta Troll (Heinrich Heine)
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Dieter Borchmeyer has pointed out¹ throughout the nineteenth century (and indeed since the early middle ages), the biblical Herodias was often conflated with the figure of her daughter Salome. Borchmeyer suggested that Heinrich Heine was an important influence on Wagner when he developed the character of Kundry. Heine's poem Atta Troll appeared serialized in the same editions of Laube's Zeitung für die elegante Welt, in February 1843, as Wagner's Autobiographical Sketch². Therefore it is probable that Wagner read the poem in that journal. In Heine's poem it was Herodias who demanded the head of John the Baptist. Until judgement day, Heine tells us, Herodias must ride, laughing, with the Wild Hunt bearing the Baptist's head, which she still kisses.
agner was more indebted to Heine than is generally realised. It is widely known that two of Wagner's dramas (Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser) drew upon a short story and a poem respectively by Heine. It is possible -- although far from certain -- that Wagner first encountered the myth of the Dutchman, in 1837-8, in Heine's story about a visit to a theatre3. In each case Heine's treatment of the respective myth is a parody, which Wagner proceeded to develop in a more serious treatment. It is less obvious that both Tannhäuser and the earliest sketches for Der Ring des Nibelungen show traces of the possible influence of Heine's 1837 poem Elementargeister. Finally, there are tantalizing echoes of Atta Troll, from which an extract is reproduced below, in the second act of Wagner's Parsifal4.
agner's failure to acknowledge his literary debt to Heine seems odd when we consider that Wagner had openly defended the poet at the time of his exile from Germany. Part of the explanation might be found in the remarks about Heine in Wagner's ill-tempered, anti-Semitic essay Judaism in Music, which was addressed not only to Jewish musicians but also to Jewish poets. Wagner's failure to credit Heine as a source of inspiration is consistent, however, with his attempts to play down the influence of his contemporaries on his works and to emphasise that he had found his material in older literature and in folk-tales. In the case of Parsifal Wagner was even more reserved in acknowledging any influences or sources; he was even dismissive about Wolfram's poem Parzival.
ince adding the extract from Heine's poem to this web site, I have found in Jessie L.
Weston's Legends of the Wagner Drama an account of a
tradition -- Weston called it
rimm's Deutsche Mythologie, a book that Wagner knew well, contains a number of
references to the folk-tales about Herodias or Herodes (who were originally, it is almost
certain, distinct). Including the following:
The story of Herod's daughter, whose dancing brought about the beheading of John the Baptist, must have produced a peculiarly deep impression in the early part of the Middle Ages, and in more than one way got mixed up with fables. Religious poets treat the subject in full, and with relish... It was imagined, that on account of her thoughtless rather than malicious act (for the proposal came from her revengeful mother), Herodias (the daughter) was condemned to roam about in company with evil and devilish spirits. She is placed at the head of the 'furious host' or of witches' nightly expeditions, together with Diana, with Holda and Perahta, or in their stead. ... She was inflamed by love for John, which he did not return; when his head is brought in on a charger, she would fain have covered it with tears and kisses, but it draws back, and begins to blow hard at her; the hapless maid is whirled into empty space, and there she hangs for ever... There is no doubt whatever, that quite early in the Middle Ages the Christian mythus of Herodias got mixed up with our native heathen fables: those notions about dame Holda and the 'furious host' and the nightly jaunts of sorceresses were grafted on it, the Jewish king's daughter had the part of a heathen goddess assigned her (Ratherius says expressly: "into dea"), and her worship found numerous adherents. In the same circle moves Diana, the lunar deity of night, the Wild Huntress; Diana, Herodias and Holde stand for one another, or side by side. [Deutsche Mythologie, "Diana - Abundia", page 263]
ere the association of Diana and Herodias is interesting because both names appear in Heine's poem, as quoted above. Also Diana or dame Holda or dame Perahta as the leader of the Wild Hunt, which in other versions is led by a god, who is in the Nordic tradition identified as Odin (=Wotan). Hence Wagner's remark that Kundry was like Wotan. Further because Holda (in praise of whom Wagner's shepherd-boy sings in the first act of Tannhäuser) was identified with Venus, who led the revellers of the furious host into the Venusberg. Therefore Herodias, when identified with dame Holda as the Wild Huntress, provides a link between Kundry and Venus. Herodias is also sometimes identified with the goddess Freia (see, for example, Simrock's Handbuch der deutschen Mythologie mit Einschluss der Nordischen of 1855, page 248). Interestingly, Simrock mentions these traditions in relation to the Grail legend in an appendix (12. Deutung des Gralsmythus) to his 1842 translation of Parzival, which Wagner first read in 1845.
The strangest tale of all those told by the German people is the romantic legend of the goddess Venus, who, when her temples were torn down, fled to a secret mountain where she now leads the most fantastical life of pleasure in the company of carefree spirits of the air, together with fair nymphs of woodland and water, and many a famous hero who has suddenly vanished from the face of the earth.[Heinrich Heine, Elementargeister, 1837. An essay that might have influenced not only Wagner's Tannhäuser (which is more obviously indebted to Heine's parody) but also his Ring.]
The ancient Germanic goddess Holda, benign, gentle and merciful, whose yearly progress through the countryside brought prosperity and fruitfulness to the fields, was forced, at the advent of Christianity, to suffer a similar fate to that of Wodan and all the other gods whose existence and miraculous powers, being so deeply rooted in popular faith, could not be wholly gainsaid, but whose erstwhile beneficient influence was seen as suspect and reinterpreted as something evil. Holda was banished to subterranean caverns and mountain interiors; her emergence into the world was thought to herald disaster, her retinue likened to that of the Wild Hunt. Later (while the common folk continued to believe unconsciously in her gentle influence animating nature), her name became merged with that of Venus ...[Richard Wagner, Introduction to the libretto of Tannhäuser, 1845. In SSD vol. XVI, page 186. See also WWV 70, Text IV.]
Footnote 1: Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre by Dieter Borchmeyer, tr. Stewart Spencer, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1991. Translated from Das Theater Richard Wagners. See in particular pages 201-3.
Footnote 2: Drama and the World of Richard Wagner by Dieter Borchmeyer, tr. Daphne Ellis, Princeton Univ. Press, 2003. Translated from Richard Wagner: Ahasvers Wandlungen. See page 80.
Footnote 3: Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, page 192.
Footnote 4: First discussed by Borchmeyer in Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre on pages 201-204. A revised version of the essay, in which several factual errors have been corrected and some judgements reconsidered, contains a later version of the same discussion: this appeared in Drama and the World of Richard Wagner on pages 89-93.
© Derrick Everett 1996-2011. This page last updated (new layout, added references) ---24/07/08 17:22:45---.