Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition
Part 5: The One-Eyed God

pagan [1]2,522 words

Part 5 of 8

The story of the Ring involves four ages, similar to those taught in Tradition.

The Age of Titans is the period represented by figures somehow more primordial than the gods: Erda, the Norns, and possibly the Rhine daughters. Events in this age are not depicted in the Ring; they are merely referred to (primarily in Götterdämmerung).

The Age of Gods is the time dominated by Wotan and the other divinities (who, aside from Fricka, have little to do in the Ring). It is depicted in Das Rheingold, and the stage is set for its passing away in Die Walküre.

The Age of Heroes is portrayed in Siegfried, and the Prologue to Götterdämmerung. However, it is really only truly inaugurated in Act Three of Siegfried, at the moment when the hero shatters Wotan’s spear. Of all the ages, its duration in the Ring is the briefest.

The Age of Men – the decadent “wolf age,” equivalent to the Indian Kali Yuga – is depicted in Götterdämmerung, and really comes into its own when Siegfried is duped into drinking the potion of forgetfulness. The archetypal “men” of this age are Gunther and Hagen. All is lost when Siegfried is murdered, and the age shifts into its final, cataclysmic form: ragnarök (which Wagner understood to mean Götterdämmerung, or “twilight of the gods”).[1]

As Lee notes, Wagner wrote to Liszt that the opening music of Das Rheingold represented “the beginning of the world.”[2] And certainly what the opening scene of that opera depicts is a kind of primordial or original crime: Alberich’s theft of the Rhinegold. The Titanic Age is really the time of pre-human, preconscious nature, personified by “the Titans” (to borrow a term, of course, from Greek mythology). These are relatively unconscious beings, almost devoid of personality, who represent the dull, cyclical, pre-determined patterns of the universe that existed for eons prior to the origin of volitional, self-aware human consciousness. For Lee, Alberich’s theft represents man’s separating himself from – and violating – nature, represented by the Rhinegold and the spirits of nature, the Rhine daughters, who guard it. This is certainly part of Wagner’s intention, but Lee overemphasizes it. For it is truly Wotan who represents human – more narrowly, as I shall argue, Western – consciousness. Wagner’s attitude toward this consciousness is critical, but Alberich represents a degraded aspect of it.

In fact, the real “beginning of time” involves Wotan’s encounter with the Norns, which is recalled (not depicted) in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung. The “First Norn” states:

At the world-ash [Yggdrasil]
once I wove
when, tall and strong,
a forest of sacred branches
blossomed from its bole;
in its cooling shade
there splashed a spring [Mimir’s well],
whispering wisdom,
its ripples ran:
I sang then of sacred things. –

A dauntless god
came to drink at the spring;
one of his eyes
he paid as toll for all time:
from the world-ash
Wotan broke off a branch;
the shaft of a spear
the mighty god cut from its trunk.[3]

With this act, the Age of Titans ends and the Age of the Gods, of Wotan, begins. Human consciousness arises and separates itself from nature.

Cooke writes, “Before this event, there were no events, but only the unconscious word of nature, in which Erda slumbered, the Norns guarded the Well and the Tree, and the Rhinemaidens guarded the Gold; after that event, conscious life began.”[4] Indeed, as Cooke has demonstrated in his analysis of Wagner’s music, all the Leitmotiven of the Ring are developments of more basic motives, some of which are associated with “unconscious nature,” and others with man. But let us let Wagner speak for himself. Here is what he writes in the essay Artwork of the Future (1849):

From the moment when man perceived the difference between himself and nature, and thus commenced his own development as man, by breaking loose from the unconsciousness of natural animal life, — when he thus looked nature in the face and from the first feelings of his dependence on her, thereby aroused, evolved the faculty of thought, — from that moment did error begin, as the earliest utterance of consciousness. But error is the mother of knowledge; and the history of the birth of knowledge out of error is the history of the human race, from the myths of primal ages down to the present day.[5]

So, Wotan’s drinking from Mimir’s well and ripping the branch from the ash tree represents a kind of primordial fall.

And let us now consider what Wotan gives up in order to gain knowledge: he sacrifices an eye, or half his vision. Cooke argues that this represents Wotan’s loss of “half of his instinctual being – the half which is the instinct for mutual love and fellowship.”[6] And Bryan Magee notes that after the loss of the eye “Never again does [Wotan] see anything straight.”[7] In the Ring, Wotan is again and again shown to lack insight into himself. He fails to foresee the consequences of his actions, or to perceive his own true feelings. He has repressed his capacity for love, and sought only knowledge and power.

Wotan is blind to love, and to the harm he has done to the world. The branch he tears from the world ash tree becomes his spear, symbol of his power. On it he carves runes which express the laws he has decreed and the contracts he has made that bind him and others. (This element in the characterization of Wotan/Odin is largely Wagner’s own invention.) But as Wagner notes in his “Sketch,” “the peace by which [the gods] have arrived at mastery does not repose on reconcilement: by violence and cunning was it wrought.” And then comes this strange statement: “The object [Absicht] of their higher ordering of the world is moral consciousness [sittliches Bewusstsein]: but the wrong they fight attaches to themselves.”[8] This is a tantalizing but vague comment, almost seeming to suggest a kind of Fichtean conception of Wotan. Through his pursuit of mastery, he sought to bring the real into accord with the ideal, but his efforts in that direction were compromised by his own transgressions, his exploitation of nature, and of other beings (Freia, the giants, Siegmund, etc.). (This understanding of Wotan is certainly supported by the Eddas, in which Odin creates an entirely new world through the transformation of the body of the Titanic Ymir, who dominated the preceding age.)

In all of this, Wagner establishes in Das Rheingold that Wotan has, in fact, been aided and encouraged by Loge. Just what does Loge represent? Cooke argues that he represents the intellect, and this interpretation certainly seems to be on the right track. Cooke writes that Loge embodies the “elemental power of thought, which, though available to all, will serve only the individual with the determination to harness and use it – and Wotan has harnessed and is using Loge.” Cooke writes, further, that intellect (like Loge) is “not always easy to summon, it is difficult to control, often at odds with a man’s ideals, instincts, and emotions, and impossible to coerce into producing the answers [the gods] demand.”[9]

Loge/Intellect is crafty and cunning, leading Wotan astray and entangling him in making false promises. Cooke refers to Loge as “demonic,” and as intellect in its “demonic aspect – as a source of ideas and inspirations.”[10] Indeed, the Wotan-Loge relationship bears a strong resemblance to the Faust-Mephistopheles relationship, as depicted by Goethe. Cooke does not make this observation, but he does claim that one minor source for the Ring was “a popular Faust play” (though he clearly does not mean Goethe’s Faust, Cooke never says anything else about it[11]). Wagner, of course, was a great reader of Goethe, and in 1839 planned a symphony based on Faust (only the first movement survives as The Faust Overture). And it can be argued there is something “Faustian” about quite a few characters in Wagner, including the Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser. In Act Two of Das Rheingold, Wotan tells Brünnhilde

When youthful love’s
delights had faded,
I longed in my heart for power:
impelled by the rage
of impulsive desires,
I won for myself the world.
Unwittingly false
I acted unfairly,
binding by treaties
what boded ill:
cunningly Loge led me on
but vanished while roaming the world.[12]

Here we cannot help but be reminded of Mephistopheles egging Faust on in his restless search for satisfaction.

And just like Mephistopheles does with Faust, Loge also manages to confront Wotan with certain truths. Indeed, he is one of the agents of Wotan’s increasing self-awareness throughout the Ring (in addition to Fricka, Brünnhilde, Erda, and others). In Das Rheingold, Loge effectively confronts Wotan with the fact that he cannot both dominate the world, and seek love. He also speaks about love as the great creative element in life – something Wotan will not recognize until much later in the Ring.

Loge’s character suggests the dual nature of intellect: it has the potential both to reveal truth, and to manipulate and distort. It is almost irresistible to read “Loge” as logos. But there is also a close kinship between Loge and technē. As noted earlier, Wagner makes Loge the god of fire, and if Cooke is right about Loge representing intellect, it is surely the promethean fire that is meant here. Loge says the following to Alberich in Scene Three of Das Rheingold:

You know me well,
you childish elf?
Then say who I am
that you yelp like that.
In a frozen hole,
where you coweringly lay,
who’d have given you light
and warming fire
if Loge hadn’t smiled upon you?
What use would your forgework
have been
if I hadn’t heated your forge?
I am your kinsman
and once was your friend:
so your thanks seem far from fitting![13]

As Cooke puts it, Loge helps the dwarfs “with their technical labour.”[14] And we may also note that Wagner uses the same musical motive to represent both Loge’s craftiness (as displayed in Das Rheingold) and the “magic fire” that appears in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

Though Loge is never seen again (in anthropomorphic form) after Das Rheingold, he does appear twice more, in his elemental form, as fire. First, Loge appears in Die Walküre, just after Wotan has the inspiration to draw together Siegfried with Brünnhilde, by surrounding her with a ring of fire only the hero can penetrate. (Cooke points out, correctly, that this is actually Brünnhilde’s idea, though here she is surely speaking once more as Wotan’s will.) Second, and most significantly, Loge appears as the cataclysmic fire that destroys Walhalla and the world at the climax of Götterdämmerung.

In light of the foregoing remarks on the nature of Loge, it is irresistible to conclude that at the end of the Ring, intellect consumes all. The Ring, of course, is really the story of Wotan’s attainment of self-awareness, as an indirect result of his almost entirely “extroverted” search for knowledge and power. In this, as I have noted, he is aided by several figures who confront him with the truth about himself, and who act as extensions or personifications of his being (including Loge and Brünnhilde). In the end, Wotan’s “intellect,” his quest for knowledge, comes full circle: he achieves consciousness of himself and, in true Schopenhaurean fashion, wills “the end” (das Ende), through the agent of his will, Brünnhilde, who uses Loge/fire/intellect to engulf the world in flames.

But we must at all times keep right before us the fact that Wotan is the symbol of Western man. If we read the whole story of Wotan’s quest and its fiery climax with this in mind, it is impossible not to think of the present predicament of modern, Western man. Like Wotan, he has sought limitless knowledge and power. He has conquered almost the entire earth, and most of its peoples, then sailed off to the stars in search of more. At all times he has been moved both by a desire for adventure, and by ideals of aesthetic and moral perfection. But now, just when Western man has reached the height of scientific and technological achievement, when he has finally created a world of plenty almost entirely free of hardship and disease, like Faust he feels satisfied, and has seemingly lost the will to go on.[15] Worse yet, he has damned himself according to ideals that were, in fact, his own creation – and, like Wotan, he has willed his own death and displacement.

Inspired by the Germanic mythological material, Wagner has done much more than offer a commentary on modernity (as he had originally envisioned). The Ring, in fact is a work of prophecy: Wagner gives us Western man’s past, present, and – so it would seem – future. But does the Ring offer us, in the end, nothing more than a tragic picture of the West, culminating in its self-immolation? I believe that it does, but to see this we must delve deeper. There is still much more to be said about the Ring. Let’s consider Wotan’s character in greater detail, taking each of the four operas in turn.


[1] Please note that Wagner never refers to any of these “ages.” This is my interpretation.

[2] Lee, 35.

[3] Spencer, 281.

[4] Cooke, 248.

[5] Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 70. (Henceforth “Ellis.”)

[6] Cooke, 261.

[7] Magee, The Tristan Chord, 112.

[8] Sketch, 302.

[9] Cooke, 169.

[10] Cooke, 173.

[11] Cooke, 131. Cooke died before he could complete his study of the Ring, and only the first volume was ever published.

[12] Spencer, 149.

[13] Spencer, 95.

[14] Cooke, 210.

[15] In Act Five Goethe’s Faust, Part II, Faust announces an ambitious public works program to better the lives of the people:

A swamp lies there below the hill,
Infecting everything I’ve done:
My last and greatest act of will
Succeeds when that foul pool is gone.
Let me make room for many a million,
Not wholly secure, but free to work on.
Green fertile fields, where men and herds
May gain swift comfort from the new-made earth.
Quickly settled in those hills’ embrace,
Piled high by a brave, industrious race.
And in the centre here, a Paradise,
Whose boundaries hold back the raging tide,
And though it gnaws to enter in by force,
The common urge unites to halt its course.
Yes, I’ve surrendered to this thought’s insistence,
The last word Wisdom ever has to say:
He only earns his Freedom and Existence,
Who’s forced to win them freshly every day.
Childhood, manhood, age’s vigorous years,
Surrounded by dangers, they’ll spend here.
I wish to gaze again on such a land,
Free earth: where a free race, in freedom, stand.
Then, to the Moment I’d dare say:
‘Stay a while! You are so lovely!’
Through aeons, then, never to fade away
This path of mine through all that’s earthly. –
Anticipating, here, its deep enjoyment,
Now I savour it, that highest moment.

Having now experienced this rather American vision of the “Promised Land,” Faust promptly keels over dead. (Translation by A.S. Kline, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIIActV.htm [2])