The Waste Land
|Eliot, Wagner and the Magical Rites of Adonis
In course of time, the slow advance of knowledge,
which has dispelled so many cherished illusions, convinced at least the more thoughtful portion of mankind that the alternations of summer and winter, of spring
and autumn, were not merely the result of their own magical rites, but that some deeper cause, some mightier power, was at work behind the shifting scenes of
nature. They now pictured to themselves the growth and decay of vegetation, the birth and death of living creatures, as effects of the waxing or waning strength of
divine beings, of gods and goddesses, who were born and died, who married and begot children, on the pattern of human life. Thus the old magical theory of the
seasons was displaced, or rather supplemented, by a religious theory. For although men now attributed the annual cycle of change primarily to corresponding changes
in their deities, they still thought that by performing certain magical rites they could aid the god, who was the principle of life, in his struggle with the
opposing principle of death.
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
miracle play, which makes use of Christian symbols, although it has long been recognized that Wagner also
used legends from the Buddhist tradition.
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 L. 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 L. 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:
The king's life or spirit is so sympathetically
bound up with the prosperity of the whole country, that if he fell ill or grew senile the cattle would sicken or cease to multiply, the crops would rot in the
fields, and men would perish of widespread disease.
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.
I almost agree with Frederick the Great who, on being presented with a copy of Wolfram, told the publisher not to bother him with such
stuff! So Wagner read around the subject of the Grail and in much other literature of the same period. From the Grail romances he selected certain elements that he thought might be combined to make a story. One such element is that of an extremely old king, a
character who is mentioned in several of the Grail romances, in which this old (and usually unseen) king is served by the Grail. There is also a Grail king, one who serves the Grail rather than being served by it. In
Chrétien's story, the old king is the father of the Grail king; in Wolfram's account,
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 Weston distinguished between the Maimed King and
the Fisher King, in her analysis of the Grail legend and its possible ritual origin:
Students of the Grail
cycle will hardly need to be reminded that the identity of the Maimed King is a hopeless puzzle. He may be the Fisher King, or the
Fisher King's father, or have no connection with either, as in the Evalach-Mordrains story. He may have been wounded in battle, or
accidentally, or wilfully, or by supernatural means, as the punishment of too close an approach to the spiritual mysteries... Probably the characters of the
Maimed King and the Fisher King were originally distinct, the Maimed King representing, as we have suggested, the god, in whose honour
the rites were performed; the Fisher King, who, whether maimed or not, invariably acts as host, representing the Priest.
[J.L.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.
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
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
-- Yet when we came back, late,
from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looked into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.
[T.S.Eliot, The Burial of the Dead from The Waste Land, 1922. The work
quoted is Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.]
essie Weston identified three stages of development in
the medieval Grail romances. In the first of them, the hero was Gawain (or the Welsh Gwalchmai) 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.
The most curious instance of the persistence of
this part of the original tradition is to be found in Gawain's visit to Corbenic, in the prose Lancelot, where he sees no
one, but twelve maidens kneeling at the closed door of the Grail chamber, weeping bitterly and praying to be delivered from their
torment. But the dwellers in Castle Corbenic, so far from being in torment, have all that heart can desire, and, moreover, the honour of being guardians of the
(here) sacred and most Christian relic, the Holy Grail.
[J.L.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. J.L. 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
This wasting of the land is found in three
Gawain Grail stories: [that] by Bleheris, the version of Chastel Merveilleus, and Diu Crône; it is found in one Perceval text, the Gerbert continuation. Thus, briefly, the object of
the Rites is the restoration of Vegetation, connected with the revival of the god; the object of the Quest is the same, but connected with the restoration to
health of the king.
[J.L.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:
As we review some of the findings of the
previous chapters, we perceive that there were not only two main themes which tended to combine in bewildering associations, but several subordinate disharmonies
contributed to the mystification of both the authors and their readers. There was a wounded king for the hero to cure; there was a slain king for him to avenge.
Yet they seemed to bear somewhat the same name. The king's infirmity or death caused his land to be sterile and waste; yet, strange to say, he possessed a
talisman of inexhaustible abundance. There were two damsels in the king's household, one whose function was to serve his guests with the talismanic vessel, to
assume a monstrous shape when the hero failed in his task of healing the king, and violently to rebuke him; the other whose function was to spur the hero on to
avenge a kinsman's death. The task of healing required the hero to ask a spell-breaking Question; the task of vengeance required him
to unite the fragments of a broken sword.
[R.S.Loomis, The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, 1963]
The Attainment of the Holy Grail by Sir Galahad (1898-99), a tapestry after a design by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). ©Christie's Images, London.
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.
Right: Sir Galahad, by G.F. Watts (1817-1904).
Let us note first, that whatever else
changes in the story, the essential framework remains the same. Always the castle is found by chance; always the hero beholds
marvels he does not comprehend; always he fails to fulfil the test which would have qualified him to receive the explanation of those marvels; always he
recognises his fault too late, when the opportunity has passed beyond recall; and only after long trial is it again granted to him. Let us clear our minds
once and for all from the delusion that the Grail story is primarily the story of a quest; it is that secondarily. In its primary
form it is the romance of a lost opportunity; for always, and in every instance, the first visit connotes failure; it is to redress that failure that the
quest is undertaken. So essential is this part of the story that it survives even in the Galahad version; that immaculate and uninteresting hero does not
fail, of course; but neither does he come to the Grail castle for the first time when he presides at the solemn and symbolic
feast; he was brought up there, but has left it before the Quest begins; like his predecessors, Gawain and Perceval, he goes forth from the castle in order to return.
[J.L.Weston, The Grail and the Rites of Adonis.]
n his notes on The Waste Land Eliot informs us:
Not only the title,
but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend:
From Ritual to Romance ... To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will
immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.
he cult of the 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 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:
The annual death and revival of vegetation is a
conception which readily presents itself to men in every stage of savagery and civilisation: and the vastness of the scale on which this ever-recurring decay and
regeneration takes place, together with man's most intimate dependence on it for subsistence, combine to render it the most impressive annual occurrence in
nature, at least within the temperate zones. It is no wonder that a phenomenon so important, so striking, and so universal should, by suggesting similar ideas,
have given rise to similar rites in many lands.
he death and resurrection of Attis were annually mourned and rejoiced over at a
festival in spring, usually at the vernal equinox. Attis was said to have been a fair young shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele, the Mother of the Gods. 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 during the spring festival.
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome
and tall as you.
I weep for Adonais -- he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost that binds so dear a head!
[P.B.Shelley, Adonais, 1821.]
he cult of Adonis (according to Frazer, another god of vegetation) seems to have
originated in Phoenicia and spread first to Cyprus and then throughout the Greek world by about the 7th century B.C. 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:
In the middle of this month is
the festival of el-Bûgât, that is, of the weeping women, and this is the Tâ-uz festival, which is celebrated in honour of the god Tâ-uz. The women bewail him,
because his lord slew him so cruelly, ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind.[The Golden
Bough]. This propitiation of the corn-god (who might be called Tammuz, Attis, Adonis or Osiris) may be ultimately derived from an older, primitive
belief that the spirits of animals and vegetation had to be appeased by those who ate them.
essie Weston identified the following points of contact
between the Adonis ritual and the Gawain form of the story of the Grail castle:
the waste land; the
slain king (or knight); the mourning, with special insistence on the part played by women; and the restoration of fertility. Another point is worth noting: the
dove was sacred to Adonis and doves were sacrificed during his rites.
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.
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 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 J.L. 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:
Said the boys, "What do
you want, Sibyl?"; she answered, "I want to die".
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
the same wound as the Redeemer received upon the Cross.
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). In isolation, this was valid although not very illuminating as far as Wagner's text was concerned. 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. It would be nice, once in a while, to see these scenes on stage
© Derrick Everett 1996-2018. This page last updated (changed body tag) --- Sun 25 February 2018 23:30:00 ---