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Sources Used by Wagner for the Opera “Parsifal”

Introduction

“Parsifal” is the last of Richard Wagner’s operas, which is considered the most beautiful and, at the same time, the most enigmatic of his works. Its creation occurred during almost all of the composer’s conscious life. While working on Lohengrin in the late 1840s, learning the legend of Parsifal and Titurel from the medieval poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, Wagner had the idea of writing an opera about Christ. Wagner’s Parsifal is a unique opera that fascinates with its mythos-religious themes and spiritual-musical content. Naturally, its philosophical and religious quests and their transformation throughout the composer’s life are reflected in it.

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There is still a discussion to this day about the meaning hidden in the symbolism of Wagner’s operas. Certain scholars insist that Richard Wagner preached an ancient Germanic pagan religion, while others see him as a latent unorthodox Christian. Others believe that his worldview was close to Buddhism and coincided with Schopenhauer, and for the fourth, he is a prophet of the new religion of a united humanity. However, there is no doubt that the composer was a faithful socio-religious preacher. He often emphasized that his music should change society, remake modern man’s thinking style, and instill in people a new religious faith. The foundations of his faith, which he laid down in his operas, most likely combined ideas drawn from many religions. At least a number of the ideas expressed by the composer in his philosophical texts suggest that he was a religious syncretist of the Schellingian type. Therefore, the opera Parsifal is the apotheosis of Richard Wagner’s philosophical and spiritual views, his religious testament to all humanity.

The Spear as a Christian Symbol

The bleeding lance is also one of the Christian symbols Wagner used in his piece. It first appeared in the novel “Li Contes del Graal” by Chretien de Troyes. In the story of Chrétien de Troyes, the knight Perceval observed an extraordinary procession: a young man carrying a spear with blood dripping from it, followed by two more lads with candles and a beautiful girl with the Grail. The Grail stories vary in their subject matter, but they almost all have one thing in common: the Grail appeared accompanied by the spear. They represent a mysterious unity that has a significant meaning. Some descriptions of the Grail procession were said to be accompanied by “great relics” (Wagner 2018). In this way, it was emphasized that the Grail and the lance were an object of worship.

As the Grail novels evolved, the bleeding spear was increasingly associated with the Holy Spear, with which the Roman warrior Longinus pierced the side of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross. The bleeding spear (Longinus’ spear) accompanied the Holy Grail because Longinus used it to inflict the wound from which blood flowed into the Grail cup. The two objects were connected by one action, which implied that the blood which flowed from the lance’s tip was the blood of Christ. The fact that the lance is carried first in the procession confirms this version: Jesus was wounded with it, and it must reveal the symbolism of the two holy relics. Some authors have suggested that the Grail symbolizes the sacred feminine (Wagner 2018). If the Grail is taken as a symbol of female sexuality or the womb, the bleeding lance must represent male potency.

Much has been written about the phallic image of the Bleeding Lance and the moral damage caused by such publications. In Arthurian legends, the Bleeding Lance is directly associated with the Fisher King, wounded in the thigh or both thighs, which could signify an ossification. The German epic poem “Parzival” explicitly pierced the Fisher King’s genitals. Wagner also used this interpretation where the spear symbolizes masculinity and the bowl is a symbol of femininity. In their union lies healing; in their separation, fibs spoilage. Their alliance means love, while their break leads to the collapse of the world into two opposing parts. On the one hand, the world of the spear, where naked sensuality reigns and transcendence as a super sensual, disappears (Lee 2019). On the other hand, the globe of the cup, which bears the stamp of ascesis, for the phallic element is repressed, and the transcendent as super-sensible acts only as a frozen force.

The Symbol of the Grail as the Main Element of the Works of Parzival

The Holy Grail is a prominent Christian symbol found in some sources that inspired Wagner. Every writer has interpreted it in their way, and he was no exception. The Grail is a large golden plate encrusted with precious stones and pearls. It is the dish from which Jesus Christ ate the lamb at the Last Supper and the cup into which Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood of the crucified Jesus. It appears in various forms; it could be the magical stone that sustains life and provides food and drink, the legendary Ark of the Covenant, the Shroud of Turin or the emerald from Lucifer’s crown (Lee 2019). The Grail is also sometimes referred to as the cup of the Eucharist, the stone that fell from heaven, the holy city of Jerusalem, the womb of Mary Magdalene.

The most detailed description of this symbol is found in the source by Chretien de Troyes, “Perceval, ou le Conte du grail”. A young knight named Perceval saw a fisherman sitting in a boat with a fishing rod in his hands on a river. The stranger sent the young man to a mysterious castle, where the knight stayed the night and dined with the hospitable host. He sat on a couch, and between him and the blazing hearth, the Grail procession marched. First, a young man with a white lance entered the hall, followed by a girl who carried the Grail (Wagner 2018). When she entered the hall, the candles faded like the stars at sunrise. The Grail itself was made of the purest gold and adorned with the most marvelous and expensive gems and pearls found on earth or in the sea.

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After this mention, the story of the Holy Grail gradually transformed. Each poet or writer contributed their ideas, motifs, and plots. For example, the Old French novel Perlesvaux, also known as the “Tall Tale of the Holy Grail,” appears in five versions. Still, no one can discover their mystery except “whom God graces with his good pleasure.” The fifth and final image of the Grail is depicted there as a sacred cup. This symbol also appears in the Welsh novel “Peredur son of Evrauc,” the earliest version of the Parzival legend. There, two young men brought into the hall “a spear of extraordinary size, from the tip of which three trickles of blood run down to the floor” (Lee 2019). Behind them followed two girls with a tray, and on it lay “head in a pool of blood.” The blood-stained head on the grail tray has led scholars to associate this motif with Celtic cults of severed heads.

There is, however, a simpler explanation of such a phenomenon. Two girls entered the Grail Chapel: one held the Grail, and the other had “a spear with a blood-stained tip.” The blood-stained tip of the spear could have turned into the head on the tray due to an error or deliberate distortion of the plot by the author of “Peredur” (Wagner 2018). However, this is only an interpretation despite the fact that all the fantastic characters, objects, and events that form a kind of exposition for the appearance of this mysterious treasure on the stage are inherent. Still, there is no direct mention of the Grail, and the plot is reduced to the story of how the protagonist avenged his murdered relative.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s novel “Parzival,” the Grail is neither a cup nor a dish but a mystical stone that fell from heaven. It was guarded in the castle of Munsalvesh by the Knights Templar Order. When Lucifer waged war in heaven, some noble and respected angels did not take sides. God sent them to earth in order to guard the Grail. Wolfram does not comprehend whether God forgave or destroyed these angels; all that is known is that the Grail came under the protection of mere mortals chosen by God. Wolfram said that the story of the Grail created by Chretien de Troyes is wrong. In his opinion, a pagan named Phlegethanis, who was of King Solomon’s lineage and “worshipped the calf as his God,” described the miracles of the Grail.

The story of the Grail told by the Phlegethanis lay forgotten for a long time in the Spanish city of Toledo until the “great master discovered it.” Master Kiot had to study the writings of the pagans to read Phlegethanis’ work, and it was he who told Wolfram the real story of the Grail that was brought to earth by angels (Wagner 2018). He wrote that the Grail stone provided any number of viands and drinks, like the magical cornucopia or the magical Celtic cauldrons. Hot and cold, ancient and modern dishes, the meat of wild and domestic animals – anything the Grail could make and fill the glasses with any wine: both dark red, red, and white. At the will of the Grail Stone, the Phoenix bird burned to the ground and was reborn from the ashes. It changed its plumage, which became blindingly bright. Whoever looked upon the stone would live in the prime of life for two hundred years and would not grow old. Moreover, his bones and flesh would be preserved as in his youth, thanks to the magical energy of the Grail.

Wulfram calls the Grail lapsit exiles, and there is considerable controversy among medievalists over these two words. Lapsit removals in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s “Parzival” can be understood both as a “small, trifling stone” and as a “stone which came from the stars.” It has been suggested that Wolfram’s stone is a meteorite, a stone that fell from the sky. Researchers believe small black stones are meteorite fragments and have been found in Languedoc in southern France. They begin to “bleed” with a red light if they are moistened and placed together.

Thus, for more than a hundred years, medievalists have argued over the origin of the Grail legends. When Wagner conceived the Grail saga, he had to make several decisions about its content because some elements of Arthurian fiction are unclear as to its origin and conception. For example, whether the Grail was a vessel or a stone or where the castle of Monsalvat was and what it was called was unclear. Therefore, Wagner borrowed some symbols and used them in his piece. Moreover, he added his ideas, the most significant of which is the Kundry he created, which was probably the result of Buddhist reincarnation mysticism.

Buddhist and Hindu Symbolism

Buddhism was deeply fascinating to Wagner, as it was to many who reflected on the foundations of human ethics at the time. For scholars, Buddhism assists in rescuing “Parsifal” from “Aryan” and, in general, any Christ through the use of standard terms such as “nirvana,” “metempsychosis,” and the course of thought, in which nothing exotic for Europeans has long been available, understandably elucidates the entire mystery. In turn, presenting the facts of Wagner’s Kabbalistic sympathies, also understood through the dissemination of popular surrogates, effectively splits the notion of Wagnerian anti-Semitism.

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In addressing Christian legend, Wagner did not intend to conceal his acquaintance with Eastern mythology and his acceptance of Buddhist ethics. The image of Kundry in Parsifal is the only thing that gives ground for the development of this theme. In a series of previous incarnations, she has been many “evil wives,” including Herodias, but she did not die-begotten but followed the path of the Eternal Jew and craved peace. In the finale, she washes Parsifal’s feet, and then Mary Magdalene is recognized in her by the first audience. The idea of the archetypal image has been posited by philologists as a tenet of the philosophy of reincarnation, and Wagner, on this basis, is an orthodox Buddhist (Wagner 2018). Further, the protagonist bears redemption, having passed from compassion to knowledge, which is also a systematically Buddhist set of virtues.

In Wolfram, the Grail procession has become a rite of sun worship similar to that of Buddhism or Mazdaism, and this is not the only instance where eastern motifs are present in the text. If the Fisher King represents the setting Sun in its last sunset rays, then Parzival can be thought of as the new Sun about to rise and give new strength to the light. The Fisher King himself may correspond to some character of Indo-Iranian mythology. Thus, the golden fish becomes the first manifestation of the embodied Vishnu as creator; it is a symbol that easily coincides with the image of the first Christians, the idea of the God-man Jesus.

According to Tibetan Buddhism, a golden fish symbolizes the creatures immersed in the ocean of samsara, the hellish cycle of reincarnations, which should lead the Fisherman to the light of Liberation. It is no longer Alan who catches the fish and multiplies its parts to feed all the fellow creatures with the food of the Grail, but a compassionate deity catches the souls in order to save them. However, this does not at all contradict the Gospel teaching because the apostles – who are fishermen, among other things – must catch souls to open to them the way leading to Paradise and eternal life (Begg 2017). Thus, all traditions have the same goal: to free all living beings, human or animal, from the burden of reincarnation. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that Wolfram’s formulation is much closer to Indo-Iranian mythology than to the Gospel message.

There are quite a few other immersions into the world of the East. Thus Wolfram brings to the fore the character of Klingsohr, who plays a vital role in Wagner’s opera. He is a black magician, a connoisseur of witchcraft and illusion, who seeks to lead those searching for the Grail astray and lure them into his heretical traps. He is not the only “wizard” to appear in various versions of the Grail quest story (Begg 2017). Still, he is especially remarkable: his fairy-tale possessions are a kind of inverted paradise, where all the beauties turn out to be mirages. Meanwhile, the witch’s palace of Klingsoor, described in great detail by Wolfram, is remarkably similar to the description of some Buddhist monastery in Kabulistan (Kabul). Especially also the palace at Kapisa, with its throne on strange wheels, reminiscent of the “magic bed” of which Gawain was a victim.

Following Schopenhauer, Wagner saw Christianity’s natural origins not in Judaism but in Hinduism, which means that in Parsifal, he portrayed an “Aryan Christ” redeeming the world from “Jewry.” The protagonist takes a long road to his truth by denying his own self and compassion for his neighbor (Begg 2017). In terms of the libretto, “Parsifal” is very ambiguous and contradictory. The legend was composed by Wagner himself, who was very interested in Hinduism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and other rare inferences. The words “morning in the East” suggest that the truth was born in the East in ancient times. That is, again, a hint of India; Wagner himself believed that Christianity was a type of Hinduism and that the weapon was the “spear” of Christ’s passions. Concerning the Legend of Herodias, Wagner uses the motif of Hindu reincarnation to give Kundra additional meaning. She is a reincarnation of the legendary Herodias, who, having laughed at Christ bearing His cross, was condemned to wander the earth until His return.

In the creation “Jesus von Nazareth,” Wagner depicted Jesus as a revolutionary, which reflected his political and social views of the time under the influence of theories of socialism and anarchy. Among these ideas was the denunciation of property and all social contracts, including love, to release the natural state of humanity based on love. Thus, in Wagner’s eyes, the death of Jesus is a “self-sacrifice” in protest against an uncaring, materialistic world of greed and blindness to suffering (Bell 2017). Even though Wagner had already abandoned this idea of an opera about Jesus, a remote version of this figure is now on stage in Parsifal. It now mingled with the Buddhist figures of the bodhisattva and the avatars of Hinduism, the saints who are mercifully kept from entering the nirvana in order to shake others.

Conclusion

Thus, it can be confirmed that most literary works are retellings of events that took place a long time ago. Mythical characters are transformed into ancient knights, distant ancestors, and pagan gods into prehistoric rulers, mighty sorcerers, and evil tricksters. Wagner’s opera is no exception, based on numerous sources from different eras, which are grounded on the legend of Parsifal. Wagner’s religious and philosophical ideas represent and integrate ideas drawn from many religions, particularly Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, while the symbolism he uses has even deeper roots. The author uses well-known signs, such as the Blood Spear, the Grail, and the Kundra. Still, at the same time, he introduces his interpretation and context, which results in a unique and precious work with a profound meaning.

References

Begg, Ean. 2017. The Cult of the Black Virgin. Chiron Publications.

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Bell, Richard. 2017.“Richard Wagner’s Prose Sketches for Jesus of Nazareth: Historical and Theological Reflections on an Uncompleted Opera.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (3): 260-290.

Lee, Owen. 2019. Athena Sings. University of Toronto Press.

Wagner, Richard. 2018. Parsifal. Alma Books.

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