Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Richard Wagner in the Light of Anthroposophy
GA 92

Lecture I

28 March 1905, Berlin

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.1Laocoon's struggle with the Serpent, the symbol of cunning. 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?

An initiation—the initiation of a disciple who advances to the degree of a Teacher.

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?

  1. He must overcome everything that is personal and develop the God within him.

  2. He must be free from every doubt. The things pertaining to the spiritual world stand before his soul as true facts.

    He must also be free from every superstition since he himself is able to control everything he can no longer fall a prey to illusions.

    Upon a 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.

  3. The third 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 beings.

The Swan-Knight 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 this?

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.

The Lohengrin 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.

Wagner used 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 initiates.

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.

This thought 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.

The dwarfs 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 Ego consciousness.

Alberich takes possession of the gold, he captures it from the Daughters of the Rhine, the female element characterising the original state of consciousness.

This connection 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 ancient sagas.