The Wandering Jew
Left: Sue, engraving by Fuhr.
his (masculine) archetype has been found in poems and stories since the
thirteenth century. The first literary record of such a doomed wanderer is found in the
Flores Historiarum, a chronicle of Roger of Wendover, a monk of St.
Albans (d. 1237). The account there given was incorporated with some slight amplifications into the
Historia Major of Matthew Paris (d. 1259). The legend
owes its fame and popularity to an anonymous German chap-book which appeared in 1602 under the title: Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit
Namen Ahasverus, etc. There the story is related on the authority of a Lutheran clergyman, Paulus von Eitzen (d. 1598), who claimed to have met the Jew in
Le Juif Errant
his legend was taken up by Eugène Sue in his novel, Le juif errant
(1844). The novel is mainly concerned with the crimes of a group of secretive, scheming Jesuits. Ahasuerus is a peripheral character. The wanderer is accompanied
through history by Herodias, who like Ahasuerus seeks her redemption:
Suddenly, through the shadow thrown by the
overhanging wood, which stretches far into endless depths, a human form appears. It is a woman. She advances slowly towards the ruins. She has reached them. She
treads the once sacred ground. This woman is pale, her look sad, her long robe floats on the wind, her feet covered with dust. She walks with difficulty and
pain. A block of stone is placed near the stream, almost at the foot of the statue of John the Baptist. Upon this stone she sinks breathless and exhausted, worn
out with fatigue. And yet, for many days, many years, many centuries, she has walked on unwearied.
For the first time, she feels an unconquerable
sense of lassitude. For the first time, her feet begin to fail her. For the first time, she, who traversed, with firm and equal footsteps, the moving lava of
torrid deserts, while whole caravans were buried in drifts of fiery sand -- who passed, with steady and disdainful tread, over the eternal snows of Arctic
regions, over icy solitudes, in which no other human being could live -- who had been spared by the devouring flames of conflagrations, and by the impetuous
waters of torrents -- she, in brief, who for centuries had had nothing in common with humanity -- for the first time suffers mortal pain.
Her feet bleed, her limbs ache with fatigue, she
is devoured by burning thirst. She feels these infirmities, yet scarcely dares to believe them real. Her joy would be too immense! But now, her throat becomes
dry, contracted, all on fire. She sees the stream, and throws herself on her knees, to quench her thirst in that crystal current, transparent as a mirror. What
happens then? Hardly have her fevered lips touched the fresh, pure water, than, still kneeling, supported on her hands, she suddenly ceases to drink, and gazes
eagerly on the limpid stream. Forgetting the thirst which devours her, she utters a loud cry -- a cry of deep, earnest, religious joy, like a note of praise and
infinite gratitude to heaven. In that deep mirror, she perceives that she has grown older.
In a few days, a few hours, a few minutes, perhaps
in a single second, she has attained the maturity of age. She, who for more than eighteen centuries has been as a woman of twenty, carrying through successive
generations the load of her imperishable youth -- she has grown old, and may, perhaps, at length, hope to die. Every minute of her life may now bring her nearer
to the last home! Transported by that ineffable hope, she rises, and lifts her eyes to heaven, clasping her hands in an attitude of fervent prayer. Then her eyes
rest on the tall statue of stone, representing St. John. The head, which the martyr carries in his hand, seems, from beneath its half-closed granite eyelid, to
cast upon the Wandering Jewess a glance of commiseration and pity. And it was she, Herodias who, in the cruel intoxication of a pagan festival, demanded the
murder of the saint! And it is at the foot of the martyr's image, that, for the first time, the immortality, which weighed on her for so many centuries, seems
likely to find a term!
O, impenetrable mystery! oh, divine hope!" she
cries. "The wrath of heaven is at length appeased. The hand of the Lord brings me to the feet of the blessed martyr, and I begin once more to feel myself a human
creature. And yet it was to avenge his death, that the same heaven condemned me to eternal wanderings!
Eugène Sue, Le Juif Errant, Chapter 50.
"Herodias warst du"
n the second act of Wagner's music-drama, Klingsor reminds Kundry that she was, in a former life, Herodias. Just as
Ahasuerus had turned away the suffering Jesus from his door, so (we can infer) did Herodias laugh at Christ bearing his Cross. As
a result, she is forced to repeat her
he philosopher Schopenhauer called Schadenfreude (malicious joy, taking pleasure in the sufferings of others), the worst trait in human nature. It is the exact opposite of
But the worst trait in human nature is always that
malicious joy at the misfortune of others, for it is closely akin to cruelty and in fact really differs from it only as theory from practice. It appears
generally where sympathy should find a place, for this, as its opposite, is the true source of all genuine righteousness and loving kindness. In another sense,
envy is opposed to sympathy, in so far as it is called forth by the opposite occasion; and so its opposition to sympathy is due primarily to the occasion and
only in consequence thereof does it appear in the feeling itself. Therefore, although reprehensible, envy is nevertheless excusable and generally human, whereas
that malicious joy is devilish and its mockery the laughter of hell.
Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena, volume 2, chapter 8, section 114.
n addition to Sue's novel, there can be no doubt that Wagner was inspired by
Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll of 1841, in which the character of Herodias corresponds to Wilde's Salome (1893). In contrast to earlier
treatments of the story by Heine, Flaubert and others, Wilde shifted its focus from mother to daughter. Heine described his Flying Dutchman as
Wandering Jew of the sea and as such, the Dutchman can be seen as a parallel to Kundry.
t should be noted that Wagner's association of the Dutchman and Kundry with the archetype of the Wandering Jew does not mean that he thought of these characters as Jewish, nor that he intended his audience to
think of them in that way. Nowhere in the libretto of Parsifal, nor in Wagner's writings, nor in any recorded statement by
Wagner, does he refer to Kundry as belonging to the Jewish race or religion, or indeed to any race or religion. She is a heathen, beyond
doubt, not sharing the faith of the Grail community, but we are not told about her religious beliefs, if any. Klingsor calls her,
in the same sentence, both Herodias and Gundryggia, names that suggest a Semitic and a Nordic existence respectively. Therefore
Kundry belongs to no specific race; in her various lifetimes she has belonged to many different races.
s Kundry the biblical Herodias (ca. 15 BC to after 39
AD), perhaps? We are not told, although it is a reasonable assumption. Her account of laughter at the suffering of one whom we can assume to have been Jesus (his
name is never mentioned) suggests that Kundry remembers an existence from that time, when she lived in Judea. Perhaps she was the biblical
Herodias, the Hasmonean princess of Judea (wife of Philip son of Herod the Great, then of his half-brother Herod Antipas). In summary, everything about Kundry is ambiguous.
ince writing the notes above, I have found in Jessie L. Weston's Legends of
the Wagner Drama an account of a tradition -- Weston called it
a weird story -- behind Heinrich Heine's Atta Troll with a reference to Herodias that might have been known both to Heine and to Wagner.
ne of Wagner's sources of information about the historical Herodias was Ernest
Renan's Life of Jesus (1863):
One of the most strongly marked characters of this tragical family of the Herods was Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the
Great. Violent, ambitious and passionate, she detested Judaism and despised its laws. [Life of Jesus, pages 74-75]
© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (changed body tag; updated an external link) --- Sat 24 February 2018 20:30:00 ---