Teutonic Mythology and Wagner's
*All information about the Ring excerpted from Alan Blyth's
book Wagner's Ring: An Introduction, 7-15.
*All descriptions of Teutonic gods from the glossary of Kevin
Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths.
C. Dwarves vs. The
E. Other Elements of the Teutonic
cosmos in the Ring
(In the organization below, on the whole, the elements and
beings from Teutonic mythology are described first, then those from
A. The Gods
There are two families of gods in Teutonic mythology: the Vanir, the
fertility gods whose chief god is Freyr, and the Aesir, the warrior
gods whose ruler is also the omnipotent All-Father, Odin. Including
both the Vanir and the Aesir, there are over 25 gods and goddesses in
Richard Wagner chose to use only a handful of these gods. In the
Ring, the gods are "the highest order of beings in the
universe. In Siegfried, Wotan describes his race as
'light-spirits who inhabit the cloudy heights'"(Blyth, 7). These
beings correspond directly to Teutonic gods, although for some Wagner
combines more than one god into the same character.
1. Odin vs. Wotan
- Odin: "Thor's father and first and
foremost of the Aesir. God of Poetry, Battle and Death. He has
many names amongst which are Allfather, the Terrible One,
One-eyed, Father of Battle." Odin is a seer, shaman, the begetter
of the race of gods. He is one-eyed and wears a cloak half over
his face, having given up his eye to gain wisdom. His symbol is
the spear. He rides Sleipnir, an eight-legged horse.
- Wotan: "Although he is the chief of
the gods, his power is not absolute, nor is he the perfect being.
As a young man he was mainly interested in love. That has now been
replaced by ambition, and as The Ring begins he is seeking
with every means possible to extend his power by subjecting others
to his will. He embodies the temptation in all to become
tyrannical, while realizing the danger of such all-embracing
power. He becomes oppressed by the fear of losing his ill-gotten
gains. By listening to the warning of Erda (see Earth), he escapes
at the eleventh hour from his folly and from the danger of
possessing the Ring.
"In his fear of being annihilated he resorts to other means to
achieve his will: he sets aside customary morality and tries to
escape from natural laws through Siegmund and Sieglinde. But,
outmanoeuvred by his wife Fricka, he is forced to submit to the
inevitable, abandon his plans, and renounce his ambitions.
Heart-broken and weary, he resigns himself to his fate and becomes
merely a passive spectator of events. Just once more he tries to
influence them, to stop Siegfried from fulfilling his destiny, but
the last vestige of his power is destroyed and he calmly awaits
the approach of his doom, the extinction of his glory."
2. Thor vs. Donner
- Thor: "Son of Odin and Earth
(Fjorgyn), and husband of Sif [for more on Sif, see the symbol of
Hair]. Second in the hierarchy
of the gods and their guardian. God of the sky and thunder and so
of fertility but equally aassociated with maintenace of law and
order in Midgard. The most common of his many names are Thunder
God and Charioteer."
- Donner: "The god of Thunder, and
as such a blustering figure, perhaps the aggressive extension of
Wotan. He is always intent on achieving things unthinkingly, by
violence. At the same time, he can exercise his power positively
as when he helps the gods enter Valhalla."
Donner only appears in Das Rheingold.
3. Loki vs. Loge
- Loki: "Attractive, ambivalent,
mischief-making god (the son of two giants). Often called the Sly
One, the Trickster, the Shape Changer, the Sky Traveller. He grows
progressively more evil, causes the death of Balder, and is bound
until the coming of Ragnarok, the end of the world."
- Loge: "The Fire god is the
representative of intrigue and irresponsibility. His nature is
roving and restless, and he possesses a ready and sarcastic wit.
He stands apart from, and criticizes, the actions of the gods. His
cunning is indispensable to the higher powers he serves, and his
cleverness gets others out of tricky situations. In particular,
his crafty advice is made use of by Wotan; but in doing so Loge
abets his own ends. He has often been described as the cycle's
4. Frigg vs. Fricka
- Frigg: "Odin's wife and first
amongst the goddesses. Mother of Balder."
- Fricka: Wotan's wife, goddess of
Marriage. "The representative of orthodox morality. Her
fundamentally conservative cast of mind cannot grasp the radical
intentions of her husband. If the creation of a new race flies in
the face of the conventional bonds of marriage, it is not for her.
Stern and inexorable, she forces wotan to abandon his new ideas
and to uphold the cause of right as she, with her narrow outlook,
view it. Righteous indignation is the victor."
5. Freya and Idun vs. Freia
- Freya: "Daughter of Njord. Foremost
of the female Vanir or fertility goddesses." Her brother is Freyr.
- Idun: "Goddess married to Bragi, the god of poetry. The
golden apples of youth are in her keeping."
- Freia: "The goddess of Youthful
Love. Her gift of the golden apples is essential to the gods'
immortality. She is temporarily sacrificed to Wotan's and Fricka's
lust for money and power."
6. Freyr vs. Froh
- Freyr: "Son of Njord. Foremost of
the Vanir fertility gods."
- Froh: "The god of Joy, most anxious
to retain Freia, his twin sister. He is a more poetic and
sensitive figure than his brother Donner."
7. Fjorgyn vs. Erda
- Fjorgyn: "Mother of Thor by Odin
and probably an earth goddess. (Also referred to as Joro or
- Erda: "The primeval earth-mother,
who knows all the secrets of nature and destiny. Wagner describes
her as 'the eternal woman possessed of all the world's wisdom'.
She appears in The Ring only at moments of uncertainty in
order to resolve them, but she gives her advice, imparts her
instinctive wisdom, in riddles. At Wotan's bidding, she returns to
her eternal sleep."
8. Other Divine Beings in Wagner's
a. Nixies and Elves vs. The
Although the Teutonic myths did not contain the Rhinemaidens exactly
named as Wagner created them (Flosshilde, Wellgunde and Woglinde),
they are nonetheless "a dramatic synthesis of a group of beings that
was prominent in the early Germanic cultural thought"(Cord, III:2,
366). Wagner imaged the Rhinemaidens after nixies, which "one
time...were known generically as elves" but are more
accurately described as "beings that inhabited rivers, and on
occasion lakes and streams"(Ibid, 367).
Like nixies, elves were associated with
nature. There were two elven races: the light elves, who inhabited
Alfheim in the cosmic level of Asgard,
and the dark elves of Svartalheim
in Midgard. However, in Teutonic mythology, "no valid distinction can
be drawn between the dwarves and the dark elves; they appear to have
been interchangeable," unlike Wagner's definite distinguishment
between the Rhinemaidens and dwarves such as Alberich
- The Rhinemaidens: "The
original guardians of the gold. They also represent the
unattainable, untainted image of female beauty as characterized
bythe mermaid. All unbeknown, they give away to Alberich, the
personification of evil, the secret of their gold [Das
Rheingold], and pay the consequences when it is rudely stolen
from them. Brunnhilde, having expiated the crimes committed in its
name, eventually returns it to them [Gotterdammerung], and
they drown Hagen, who would steal the gold and, thereby, start the
process all over again."
b. The Valkyries:
In Teutonic mythology, the "Choosers of the Slain" are "beautiful
young women who chose men doomed to die in battle and brought them
back to Valhalla."
In Wagner, the Valkyries are "warlike yet compassionate, Wotan's
daughters mothered by Erda."
- Brunnhilde: "The
representative of elevated, as distinct from carnal, love,
humanity at its closest to the divine. From her father (Wotan) she
has inherited courage and strength, from her mother (Erda) wisdom
and foresight. She becomes an active expression of Wotan's will,
but a split in that will causes the first conflict in her being
[Die Walkure]. Compassion for the sorrow of Siegmund and
Sieglinde resolves the conflict. She thereby frees herself from
the gods and escapes their forthcoming annihilation. Having lost
the protection of the gods, she has to submit to mortal love
[Siegfried]. After hesitiaton she capitulates to human
passion, as personified in Siegfried. But inthe union she foresses
their death and destruction because they will fall victim to evil
forces. Only after long anguish and despair does she become
enlightened as to their cause. The love in her heart triumphs over
care and sorrow, and becomes a divine compassion for suffering
humanity. By her self-sacrifice, she redeems the world
Teutonic giants "largely represent the forces of chaos, attempting
through physical force, trickery and magic to upset the order of the
universe. They range from the blunt and brutal Geirrod and Hrungnir,
both disposed of by Thor, to the wily and evil Utgard-Loki, who sees
Thor off the premises(Crossley-Holland, xxxii).
"But the distinction between gods and giants is far from absolute.
Some gods have bad qualities, some giants have good; and the gods and
giants do not only fight one another, but form friendships and embark
on love relationships. Perhaps it is legitimate, indeed, to see the
gods and giants not as polarised opposites but rather as opposing
aspects of one character--warring, making peace, warring again and,
in the end, mutually destructive"(Ibid).
In Wagner's Ring, the giants are large, strong beings who
are not very clever. See giant.
- Fafner: under the influence of the
cursed ring, Fafner kills his brother, Fasolt, and flees to a cave
where he keeps a treasure-hoard. Siegfried kills him in
Siegfried. For more detail on his character, see
- Fasolt: "The more gentle of the
giants, less avaricious than Fafner, more susceptible to the
charms of Freia, and reluctant to sacrifice her for the sake of
the gold [Das Rheingold], and therefore for power. He
becomes the first victim of the Ring's curse."
C. Dwarves vs. The
The Teutonic dwarfs were "ugly, misshapen" and
were seen to "represent greed," for "they do nothing that is not in
their own interests. Master-smiths and magicians, quick to show
malice, they lust after fair women, after power and, above all, after
Like dwarves, Wagner's Nibelungs are beings
who live in underground caves and
"who are full of envy, cunning and ambition, and bitterly hostile to
the gods"(Blyth, 8).
"The name Nibelung...began to appear in the early Germanic
writings...used as a name, but in a manner whose associations were
quite different from the historical past. If indeed there had been
living beings that bore that name, it is also fact tha from an early
date Teutonic beliefs held that there was a body of beings with that
name, and it is possible that these same beliefs considered this race
to be supernatural, either giants or dwarfs"(Cord, III:1, 297).
1. Andvari vs. Alberich
2. Other Nibelungs and their
equivalents: Wagner fashioned Mime after Regin, a dwarf who was
"son of the farmer-magician Hreidmar and brother of Otter and
Fafnir"(Crossley-Holland, 249). Hagen, on the other hand, came
directly from the Teutonic myths as they were related in the
- Mime: Alberich's brother. In
"Another member of the shadow world, avaricious and treacherous.
He is also weak and cowardly, and so falls under the baleful
control of Alberich [Das Rheingold]. When Alberich loses
his power, Mime becomes a free agent. For his own purposes he is
benevolent to Siegfried, keeping the boy ignorant of his origin.
His underhand behaviour and attempts at deception bring him
deservedly to his death [Siegfried]."
- Hagen: Alberich's son by a human,
Grimhilde. His character appears only in Gotterdammerung.
"The personification of hate, he has been brought up by his
father, Alberich, to seek revenge. From Alberich he has inherited
a hatred of all that is good. He tends to be gloomy, morose and
cold; all his energy is spent on regaining the Ring for which
purpose he insinuates himself into the confidence of others,
making their desires serve his own ends and sacrificing their
happiness in his cause. In contrast to his half-brother and
half-sister," Gunther and Gutrune, the Gibichungs, Hagen is "a
harsh, sinister figure, a dark shadow in the Gibichung Hall. In
the end, he is unable to frustrate the power of love, and meets a
Teutonic culture placed mortals as the inhabitants of the middle
level of the world, called Midgard.
In Wagner, mortals are heroes and other various women and men.
and Sieglinde: twin children
of Wotan by a Walsung. They appear only in Die Walkure. "By
virtue of their divine origin as Wotan's children, they have a
different nature from other mortals. That causes them to be
misunderstood and persecuted. Siegmund, in particular, becomes an
'outsider'. Separated as chldren, each has become isolated. Once
brought together again, a mutual sympathy is inevitable. In
consummating their incestuous love they break the laws of human
morality and are condemned as outcasts. Their separation and death
is bound to follow, yet now before they have shown the intensity
of love's power."
- Siegfried: son of Siegmund and
Sieglinde. He is the hero of Siegfried and also a
protagonist in Gotterdammerung. "The image of a hero, a
true child of nature, without malice, above fear, coursing with
untold vitality. He might be an unsympathetic hero were it not for
his moments of introspection. At first he is all youthful
impetuousity, unaware of his destiny. Having forged the sword, he
clears all obstacles in his path by his undaunted fearlessness and
becomes master of the gold, and so of untold wealth. He wins the
love of the noblest woman in the world (Brunnhilde)
[Siegfried]. However, through the agency of a draught that
make him forget the past, he becomes the unwitting accomplice in a
plot that will destroy him [Gotterdammerung]."
- Hunding: Sieglinde's husband. In
Die Walkure, Hunding is Siegmund's rival and challenger
both in battle and in love. Hunding prays to the goddess Fricka
and hence she becomes obliged to see that Siegmund is destroyed.
Despite Brunnhilde's protestations on the behalf of the lovers,
Siegmund and Sieglinde, Hunding successfully kills Siegmund,
though after committing the deed he is immediately struck dead by
- Gutrune: a Gibichung. She is
Hagen's half-sister. Appears only in Gotterdammerung. "The
representative of feminine frailty, she is, above all, vulnerable.
Like her brother Gunther she is capable of coping with normal
human situations but not with the tremendous events with which she
becomes involved. Although she wittingly sacrifices another
woman's happiness to her own desires, and is even jealous of
Brunnhilde, she enjoys her brief period of happiness by forgetting
her guilt. Only when the consequences of her evil-doing become
clear to her does she have any remorse and realize the effects of
her own action. Eventually her weak personality is subsumed in the
grandeur of her rival's."
- Gunther: a Gibichung like his
sister, Gutrune, and also Hagen's half-brother. Like Guture,
Gunther's only scenes are in the last of the four operas,
Gotterdammerung. "A moral weakling, a man who gets on well
enough in life provided too much pressure is not put on him, in
which case he is likely to prove inadequate. He is anxious to
improve his worldy position, and to do so enlists the aid of his
stronger, but more evil half-brother. To satisfy his own desires,
he condones wrong-doing, and through that brings about his own
downfall and death."
E. Other Elements
of the Teutonic Cosmos in the Ring
Valhalla: "This castle of the gods
is the symbol of power, whose price is the loss of love and youth.
Paid for by the gold, it comes under that symbol's evil curse. It
also represents the old order that is passing away. Eventually,
without the presence of Brunnhilde, its noblest inhabitant, it
becomes a loveless, careworn place where Wotan awaits his doom. Its
false glory is eventually destroyed, and with it the existing order
of things, through Brunnhilde's new power of love"(Blyth, 16). To
compare Wagner's palace of the gods with the Teutonic Hall of the
Dead Warriors, see Valhalla.
Wagner and the Cosmos: Of the nine
world housed within the roots of
Yggdrasill, Wagner uses only four
in The Ring. One of his worlds is Nibelheim, which he created
but borrowed from Niflheim; this he made the land of the dwarves. A
second world is Riesenheim, the Ring's land of giants (corresponding
to Jotunheim). A third world is the land of the gods, not named but
which seems to refer to Asgard not Vanaheim. The fourth world, that
of mankind, is also not named, though it would be equivalent to
Midgard (Blyth, 17, 99, 163, 278, 290, 305, 322, 535).
Go back to map of Teutonic Cosmos.
Well of Urd in Wagner: In Wagner,
the three Norns weave the fate of human lives onto their cord of
destiny. In Scene 1 of the "Prologue" to Gotterdammerung,
Wagner's Norns gather at the base of the Tree of Life to tell of a
well that flows at the foot of the Ash Tree (Blyth, 86-7; Cord, 17).
For more on the Well of Urd in Teutonic mythology, see
Well of Urd.
Go back to Index
of Teutonic Mythology and Wagner's Ring
This site created by Jessica K.
McShan on December 17, 1997.