Richard Wagner in the Light of
by R u d o l f S t e i n e r
March 28. 1905
Lohengrin and the Ring
of the Nibelungs.
Myths are stories
containing great truths, which great initiates have related to men.
The Trojan War, for instance, is the narrative of the battle waged
between the third and the fourth sub-race of the fifth
root-race. The representative of the former is Laocoon, priest of an
ancient priest-kingdom, who was at the same time a king.
[Laocoon's struggle with the Serpent, the symbol of
The representative of the latter is Odysseus, the
personification of cunning and of the force of thinking which
developed within the fourth subrace.
We find that
initiates lead the course of evolution also in the North. In Wales we come
across a brotherhood of initiates of the pagan period, a priesthood and
knighthood culminating in King Arthur and his Round Table. They are
faced by the brotherhood of the Holy Grail and its knights, working
on behalf of the spreading of Christianity. Art and the
development of politics are all connected with great initiates
belonging to these two brotherhoods, representing a pagan and a
Christian civilisation. The influence of the Holy Grail gradually
begins to increase toward the end of the thirteenth century. This is
a special turning-point in the civilisation of Europe: cities
begin to be founded. The ancient rural civilisation, based on the
possession of landed property, is replaced by a city-civilisation, a
bourgeois civilisation. This implies a radical change in the
whole life and thinking of men.
It is therefore
not devoid of meaning if just at the time of the meister-singers' contest
on the Wartburg a legend from Bavaria should have come to the fore —
the legend of Lohengrin. What was the significance of this
legend during the Middle Ages?
At the present
time we no longer have the slightest idea of how a medieval soul was
constituted; it was particularly receptive for spiritual currents
flowing below the surface of things. We find to-day that the
Lohengrin legend specially emphasizes the Catholic standpoint. But
this element which may disturb us today should make us consider the
fact that during the Middle Ages this legend could only have
influenced men if clothed in something which was really able to stir
human souls. This garment had to be supplied by the ardent
religious feeling of that period, so that the legend contained
something of what lived within the human hearts. What was the
significance of the legend?
— the initiation of a disciple who advances to the degree of a
Such a disciple
must first of all become a man who has no country and no home; that is to
say, he fulfils his duties just like other men, but he must strive to look
beyond his own Self and develop his higher Ego.
What are the
characteristics of a disciple?
overcome everything that is personal and develop the God within him.
be free from every doubt. The things pertaining to the spiritual world
stand before his soul as true facts.
also be free from every superstition since he himself is able to
control everything he can no longer fall a prey to illusions.
still higher stage the key of knowledge will be delivered to him.
He is then said to have acquired the power of speech and becomes a
messenger of the super-sensible world. The depths of the spiritual
world are then revealed to him. This is the second stage.
stage is reached when he says “I” to every being in the
world, just as he says “I” to himself. At this stage he
has risen to the capacity of encompassing the universe. In mysticism
a disciple who has reached the third stage is designated as a
Swan, he is then a mediator between the Teacher and human
therefore appears to us as an emissary of the great White Brotherhood.
Thus Lohengrin is the messenger of the Holy Grail. A new
impulse, a new influence was destined to enter human
civilisation. You already know that in mysticism the human soul, or
human consciousness, always appears as a woman. Also in this legend
of Lohengrin the new form of consciousness, the civilisation of the
middle classes, the progress made by the human soul, appears in the
vestige of a woman. The new civilisation which had arisen was looked
upon as a new and higher stage of consciousness. Elsa of Brabant
personifies the medieval soul. Lohengrin, the great initiate, the
Swan of the third degree of discipleship, brings with him a new
civilisation inspired by the community of the Holy Grail. He must not
be asked any questions, for it is a profanation and a
misunderstanding to place questions to an initiate concerning things
which must remain occult.
The influence of
great initiates always brings about the promotion to new stages of
consciousness. As an example illustrating how these initiates work,
I will remind you of Jacob Böhme. You already know that Jacob
Böhme proclaimed great, profound truths. Whence did he obtain
his wisdom? He relates that when he was still an apprentice, he was
one day sitting alone in his master's shop. A stranger entered and
asked for a pair of shoes. Jacob, however, was not allowed to sell
shoes during his master's absence. The stranger spoke a few words
with him and then he went away. After a while, however, he called the
boy Böhme out of the shop and told him: “Jacob, now you
are still small and humble, but one day you will be quite another
person, and the world will marvel at you!” What is implied in
It is an
initiation, the description of a moment of initiation. At first, the boy
does not realize what has happened to him, but he has received an impulse.
Also in the
legend of Lohengrin we come across such a moment of initiation. These legends
are important indications, which can only be understood by those who
possess an Insight into the connections of things.
legend (as explained, it is connected with the legend of the meister-singers)
has a decidedly Catholic character. Richard Wagner used it for his
Lohengrin poem. This reveals Richard Wagner's high inner calling.
another ancient legend-theme in his Ring of the Nibelungs. These ancient
Germanic legends set forth the destiny of the Aryan tribe. We must seek
the origin of the Ring legends in a period which followed
the great Atlantean flood, when the surviving peoples began to
migrate over Europe and Asia. These legends are a reminiscence of the
great initiate Wotan, the god of the Aesir. Wotan is an initiate of
the Atlantean period, and all the other Aryan gods are only great
We can clearly
distinguish three stages in Wagner's treatment of the Siegfried legend.
The first stage
is a description of modern civilisation. In Richard Wagner's eyes
modern men have become mere day-labourers of civilisation. He
sees the great difference between modern human beings and those of
the Middle Ages. Modern achievements are in part produced by
machines, whereas during the civilisation of the Middle Ages
everything was still an expression of the soul. The house, the
village, the city, and everything it contained, was full of
significance and men rejoiced in it. What do our storehouses,
warehouses and cities mean to us to-day? In the medieval period
the house was the expression of an artistic idea; the whole
street-picture, with the market and the church in the middle, was the
expression of the soul.
Wagner felt this
contrast, and what he wished to achieve through his art was to place
before man something which would make him appear complete and perfect
at least in one sphere. In his Siegfried he wished to portray a
perfectly harmonious human being in contrast to the labourers of
industry. Our great men have always felt this: Goethe had the same
feeling, and also Hölderlin, who said: “There are
labourers in this world, but no men”, and so forth. Every great
man has longed after truly great human beings.
A change could
not take place in an external form, for the course of evolution cannot
be turned backward. A temple was therefore to arise in which art in a
complete and perfect form was to raise human beings above the
ordinary level of life. The modern period of civilisation
needed this temple, just because modern life is so torn and
splintered. This was the first idea in Wagner's mind in
connection with the Siegfried-poem.
But a second
idea rose up before Wagner's soul as he descended into still more profound
depths of the soul.
At the beginning
of the Middle Ages an ancient legend found its way into German poetry
— the legend of the Nibelungs. This kind of legend
contained the deepest feelings of the folk-soul. Only those who
really study the folk-soul can conceive what lived at that time
within the heart of the German nation. These legends were the
expression of deep inner truths, of great truths; for instance, the
legends of Charlemagne. These tales were not related as they
are related today, they were not connected with the historical
Charlemagne, for people possessed a deeper insight into the
historical connections. The Frankish kings took on the aspect of
ancient Aryan ancestors; the Nibelungs were priest-kings who ruled
over their kingdoms and provided at the same time the spiritual
impulses. These legends were the reminiscence of a great time which
had past. In this light Charlemagne's coronation in Rome was
looked upon as something special. The Nibelungs were consecrated
priest and kings during a remote past of the Aryan sub-race,
and their memory was handed down in the legends of the German
emperors. Wagner's attention was attracted by these legends and a
character appeared to him which seemed to represent the contrast
between the modern period of material possession and the medieval
period which was still connected with the ancient spiritual culture.
Wagner occupied himself with the legend of Barbarossa. Also in
Barbarossa we find a great initiate. We are told of his journeys to
the Orient; from there he brings back from the holy initiates a
higher wisdom — knowledge, or the Holy Grail.
According to the
myth of the 12th and 13th century the emperor is under a spell and dwells
in the interior of a mountain; his ravens are the messengers
informing him of what takes place in the world. The ravens are
an ancient symbol of the Mysteries; in the Persian Mystery-language
they symbolize the lowest stage of initiation. Hence they are the
messengers of the higher initiates. What was this initiate
(Barbarossa) supposed to bring? Richard Wagner wished to set
forth how an ancient period is replaced by a new one, with its
changed conditions of property. What once existed has withdrawn like
Barbarossa. The influence of the initiates becomes crystallized for
Wagner in Barbarossa.
transpires in the Nibelungs. Taken at first from a more external aspect,
but now upon a deeper foundation, it becomes the expression of the
profound views of the Middle Ages, setting forth the dawn of a new
civilisation. Once more Wagner seeks a still more profound
description of this thought. Guided by an infinitely deep and
intuitive comprehension of the Germanic sagas, he finally chooses the
figure of Wotan, instead of Barbarossa. These sagas describe the
setting of the Atlantean period and the rise of the fifth root-race
out of the fourth. This is, at the same time, the development of the
intellect. The human intellect, or self-consciousness, did not exist
among the Atlanteans. They lived in a kind of clairvoyant
condition. We find the first traces of a combining intellect in
the fifth sub-race of the Atlanteans, the primordial Semitic race,
and this intellect continued to develop within the fifth root-race.
Self-consciousness arises in this way. The Atlantean did not say
“I” to himself as forcefully as a human being belonging
to the Aryan race. After the fall of Atlantis this ancient
civilisation was brought over into the new one; the Europeans
are a surviving branch of Atlantis. A contrast now arises between the
Germanic spiritual civilisation and the initiates who work in an
occult way and inspire the intellect in its external form.
of Nifelheim are the bearers of the Ego consciousness. Richard
Wagner makes Wotan, the ancient Atlantean initiate, oppose Alberich,
the bearer of egoism, who belongs to the dwarf-race of the Nibelungs
and is an initiate of the Aryan period. When similar new impulses
arise something entirely new is born. The bearer of intellectual
wisdom is gold. Gold is deeply significant in mysticism, for gold is
light, and out-streaming light becomes wisdom. Alberich brings the
gold, the wisdom which has become hardened, out of the waters of the
Rhine. Water always symbolizes the soul-element, the astral element.
The Ego, gold, wisdom, come forth out of the soul. The Rhine is the
soul of the new root-race out of which arises the understanding, the
possession of the gold, he captures it from the Daughters of the Rhine,
the female element characterising the original state of consciousness.
lived in the profound depths of Wagner's soul. He deeply felt what was
connected with the rise of the new root-race, of the
Ego-consciousness, and he characterised it profoundly in the first
E flat major chords of Rhinegold. This streams and weaves
musically throughout Wagner's Rhinegold. Wagner's themes were
poems originating from ancient myths. In these legends lived
something which, filled with force and life, is able to permeate the
soul with a spiritual rhythm. What we experience and what we
ourselves are, this comes to life and resounds through us in these