The Wandering Jew
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agner's Kundry is only in part based on Wolfram's Condrie, the High Messenger of
the Grail. As we have noted, Kundry
retains some attributes of Wolfram's character; but as
Wagner states in his Prose Draft his Kundry is a female variant of the archetypal Wandering
Left: Sue, engraving by Fuhr.
(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
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 person.
Le Juif Errant
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
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
Eugène Sue, Le Juif Errant, Chapter 50.
"Herodias warst du"
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
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 sympathy and compassion.
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,
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
the Wandering Jew of the
sea and as such, the Dutchman can be seen as a parallel to Kundry.
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.
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
a weird story -- behind Heinrich Heine's Atta
Troll with a reference to Herodias that might have been known both to Heine and
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]