The Scars of Yggdrasill: Conflict, Power & Family In The Ring

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 27 June 2014 | 10:57:00 pm

A surprisingly well written and "easy to read" Doctoral thesis from Dr David Bret Smithey. Introduction is reprinted here while the full 58 pages can be downloaded or read by following the link below.

The Scars of Yggdrasill: A comparative Study of the Conflict Between Selected Familial Relationships and the Will to Power in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

David Bret Smithey Florida State University.


The purpose of this paper is to explore the conflict between power, politics and family relationships in Richard Wagner's Der RingdesNibelungen. Selected familial relationships between characters will be analyzed using various methods, including Jungian analysis, comparative mythology and musical analysis. The project will attempt to show that interpretations of the Ring have not given enough attention to the tension and paradoxes inherent in family relationships in Wagner's tetralogy and will provide for a more human understanding of the cycle.


"Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls."

This quote from the Icelandic Edda, the source poetry for much of Teutonic myth, describes accurately the aura of great events that surround Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Richard Wagner had a great belief in the power of myth. He believed that myth was timeless and the conflicts that myth highlighted would be applicable to any age or situation. Part of what makes myth attractive to those who wish to interpret their own times is in the inherent flexibility of myth.

The most obvious difficulty in pursuing research about Der Ring des Nibelungen is the sheer size of the work itself. The four operas span sixteen to seventeen hours of stage time, and historically the writing of the work took up the larger part of Wagner's professional life. To facilitate understanding I suggest reading one of the published synopses of the Ring. Wagner wrote the poem Siegfried's Tod (what we now think of as Gotterddmmerung) first and expanded the poem backwards to create the other three operas. The music, in contrast, was written in performance order. This fact makes the identification of style and period more difficult than in other composers' works.

Although it is difficult to take on such a large subject in such a short format, it is necessary. Richard Wagner believed in changing the world of art by incorporating all of the art forms into the music drama equally. This combining all of the art forms is called Gesamtkunstwerk.

To discuss Wagner's work requires a breadth of inquiry from art to politics, and from myth to philosophy. He sought to create a new myth for the modern man.

Much of the scholarship devoted to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen has focused on political interpretations. It is easy to see why socio-political criticism has taken center stage in our attempts to understand Wagner's epic. Wagner himself was very active politically, both by means of the pen and in person, as in the aborted Dresden revolution. In Saxony in the year 1849 there was a violent uprising against the government that called for greater personal freedoms and a unified German state. Wagner played an active role, and after the rebellion was crushed, he had to flee to Switzerland.

The first and perhaps most important large scale critique of Der Ring des Nibelungen to appear in English was George Bernard Shaw's Marxist interpretation, "The Perfect Wagnerite". Shaw sees Alberich, for example, as driving his brother Mime into slavery, like a robber baron. Other famous critiques, from post-modernist, feminist, and Jungian perspectives, are worthy of study and will be cited in this work.

"they never see him, any more than the victims of our 'dangerous trades' ever see the share holders whose power is nevertheless everywhere.. ." So Shaw wrote of Alberich, as he used the Nibelungs to wrest the gold from the mines of Nibelheim. It is not the purpose of this paper to prove Shaw or any other critique right or wrong, but to use their work as a springboard to a slightly different point of view.

Richard Wagner used the 13th-century Nibelungen Lied as the basis for his epic work. This study, however, will refer most often to the older sources for the Nibelung story, the 11th-century Edda from Iceland. The stories that make up the Edda are much older than the 11th century, when they were compiled by a Christian convert named Snorri Sturleson. Using the Edda for comparative purposes will help show the timeless nature of myth. Also, the blunt, crisp text of the Edda is a contrast to the turgid prose of Wagner.

Other interpretations will be used in this comparative study. Jungian archetypes, postmodernism and comparative mythologies such as in the works of Robert Donington, Joseph Campbell, Mary Cicora and Jean Shinoda Bolen are central to the comparative analysis in this paper, which will focus on the family relationships in Wagner's music drama. The purpose of this project is to investigate the conflict and confluence of family and power within specific relationships in Wagner's Ring. The familial conflict nature of Der Ring des Nibelungen has not been explored in quite this manner. By focusing on family relationships, we can better understand the deconstruction of the cycle as it takes place.

The father/daughter relationship, as seen in Wotan/Brunnhilde, has the contrasts of Love and Control, Pride and Envy, Earnestness and Rebellion. The father/son relationship type has three examples in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Wotan/Siegfried and Alberich/Hagen relationships are two sides of the same coin, as is explicit in the text of the operas. The Wotan/Siegmund relationship is more complex and deserves closer attention than it has received. The symbolic nature of the roles that the characters play will be explored, as well as musical and philosophical meaning in the family relationships. It is evident that there will be some overlap of material and analysis as the relationships and the narrative intertwine. Although every attempt to maintain chronological order will be made, in a work as self-referential as Der Ring des Nibelungen it is not always possible.

It is important to use psychoanalytic tools to study the creations of Wagner in order to understand the deeper meanings. It might seem that we are taking a twentieth-century approach to a nineteenth-century work, but that is only partially true. We must remember that Wagner was deeply interested in philosophy, both its history and its modern advancements. One can make a case that nineteenth-century philosophy and early psychiatric models have the same roots.

The methodology of this project will be to examine a number of the important relationships in Der Ring des Nibelungen using a variety of approaches to understand the impact of power on family ties. Each selected relationship will undergo the same steps of analysis to facilitate clarity in the project. The relationships outlined above will be explored from the perspective of comparative mythology, psychoanalytic theory, musical setting and textual relationship to the original Icelandic poems that were the source for the Nibelungen Lied, the Edda.

One of the difficult things to follow in this epic is the amount of important information that is not acted out on stage, but merely explained by a third party at a later date. The most important of these left hand events is Wotan's cutting a branch of the world tree, Yggrasill to create his symbol of power, the spear sometimes called Gungnir. Wotan used the spear to bind contracts by carving the runes he learned at the well of wisdom on the weapon. These runes cemented his power by binding others into treaties with him by force of law. When Wotan took the branch from the world tree, it left a wound that would not heal. The tree began to fade and the water in the well began to run dry. All this takes place long before Das Rheingold, yet is only explained by the Norns in the prologue of Gotterddmmerung, the final installment of Wagner's epic work. The theme of nature being distorted by political action is present throughout the entire work. But it is the premise of this project that the conflict within familial relationships is as important a mover of events as the political action.

The original sin of Wotan's cutting of the world tree Yggdrasill for his spear before Das Rheingold begins is the black root of corruption that runs through the entire work. The world tree connects all of creation in one family. This sin is partially hidden in the Ring, and like many of the true problems any family has it is not spoken of. All of the family conflict one can see in the Ring (Father against Daughter, Husband against Wife, Father against Son) can be seen in the context of Wotan's symbol of worldly power ripped out of the tree of life. The stress between the individuals' power role and their familial role is in the forefront throughout Der Ring des Nibelungen for the viewer who is looking for it. The pathologies created by poor decisions are carried down from generation to generation, like the abused son who becomes the abusive father. The destruction of the world and Valhalla at the end of the cycle can be seen in context of that very tension. The hermeneutics of Der Ring des Nibelungen are a study of the family and its failures.


In this chapter we will explore the Great Idea, the plan Wotan conceives of at the end of Das Rheingold to retake the ring without breaking his own oaths. We will also investigate Wotan's mindset and actions in carrying out his plan.

"To Kurnugi land of no return, Ishtar daughter of Sin was to go, To the dark house, to the house which those who enter cannot leave.

This passage from Mesopotamian myth, describing Ishtar (or Innana) descending into the underworld, has universal resonance. The idea of going down into peril or death to gain wisdom, often in the form of a resurrection, is a common one in mythology. The person or god making the descent is searching for something outside the ordinary consciousness, necessitating a walk into the dark side of the ego. To leave the maya, the illusory outer world, and try to find something new and greater is dangerous indeed. Often this is portrayed as a feminine event, either the searcher or what is being searched for. Near the end of Das Rheingold, Wotan prepares to go down into the earth to seek out the ancient earth goddess Erda.

"Wagner's Erda is an omniscient goddess slumbering in the earth,.. .however the theme of the sleeping earth mother goes back to even older sources."

Following the prophecy of Erda and the murder of Fasolt, Wotan stands at a crossroads. Erda had told Wotan shortly before this moment in Das Rheingold that to keep the magic ring was to bring the end of all things. He has reached a moment of triumph, but the future looks dim for those who understand. Wotan's great fortress, Valhall, is his and the goddess of youth Freia has been freed of her bondage to the giants. The destructive ring is in the hands of the giant Fafner, who does not intend world domination.3 It would seem, here at the end of Das Rheingold,that the sky-god has come through as the winner of the narrative. However, as the one who carves the runes, Wotan understands what the other gods, particularly Fricka, do not. Wotan understands that he is trapped. What he has given, the ring, he cannot take back. Yet to leave the ultimate weapon in the hands of the murderous but stupid Fafner creates the risk of having the ring come back to Alberich. Therefore, Wotan needs a plan that goes outside of his binding promises. It is the shocking appearance of Erda, with her dire prophecies that has started Wotan down this road. Her warning of the end of all things, "das Ende", if Wotan keeps the ring forces Wotan to plot further.

Why would Wotan choose to recount the activity of the day leading up to the great idea? It is to reeducate the audience in the necessity of his actions. Without the impetus of an external threat the gods can merely cross the rainbow bridge and rule happily ever after. The retelling of the story of Das Rheingold in this short allegory cements Wotan in his role of leader and confronter of problems. Dramatically, the recapitulation of events clears the tension, and allows for focus on the real problem that will be highlighted soon by the cries of the Rhine maidens.

".Wotan receives a sudden inspiration. In the stage directions, Wagner describes the god as struck by a "great idea". At that precise moment, the sword motif is heard for the first time.. ."4 (See musical example 1 in Appendix B.)

Consider for a moment that the "Great Idea" is perhaps the happiest moment of the entire Ring for Wotan. He has come through the trials of Nibelheim and dealt with the giants. Wotan's castle stands gleaming before him and what do his thoughts turn to? He plots to gain more power by breeding heroes. Wotan is at his best when plotting manipulation of others in the abstract, rather than dealing with them face to face. It is an interesting look into the thought processes of Wotan.

"Psychologically, 'Loge' is no longer an outside influence but is instead a devious way of thinking Wotan does himself."

Like a crooked lawyer Wotan tries to find a loophole in the laws cut into his own symbol of power. It is admirable however, that Wotan constantly rejects what Herz calls the "Donner approach": just smash what is bothering you with your hammer. Twice during Das Rheingold Wotan restrains Donner from bloodshed, trying to find a way out with words rather than blows. This diplomatic approach is in direct opposition to the old stories, where Donner's hammer falls, and giants die without a word from the all-father.

Wotan needs a way around his "original sin," the cutting of the world tree, Yggdrasil, for his spear. The forging of the ring and the crimes committed for it can be seen as extensions of the first felony. The treaties written on the spear he illegally cut from the tree, binds Wotan to the world in an unhealthy manner. Today we would call Wotan's relationship with the world he says he rules a codependent one.

To go on a wisdom-seeking journey is an accepted part of occult lore. Sometimes called a walk-about, the journey is supposed to result in a deepening of self-awareness. The transformed person then comes back to his original place and shares the new wisdom.

"There is the figure, furthermore, of Othin (Woden, Wotan), self-crucified on the World Ash as an offering to himself, to gain the occult wisdom of those runes."

One of Wotan's incarnations is that of the wise hermit. He plays this part in the land of men frequently, traveling as an old man, the Wanderer. This is Wotan's objective, "scientific" pose, but it is still a pose. Wotan merely uses the guise to get what he wants. The wise man archetype is easily recognizable in Jung, a seeker of hidden knowledge, with a dark shadow, usually magic, around him. When Wotan wants to descend to Erda, to gain that Wala's knowledge, he is thinking in that incarnation, ruthless and single-minded. Erda, the earth mother, represents ancient wisdom. Her daughters, the three Norns who spin out the thread of fate, tell the unknown things the audience needs to understand in Gotterddmmerung.

".. .and this primeval force of creation links her with Gaia from the Greek mythology, with which WWagner was very familiar."

Wotan, who hung himself on the world tree and gave up one of his eyes for wisdom, wants to descend to earth and learn from Erda. Wotan wishes to transform that with which he comes in contact, resulting in the Valkyries. By intending to make the encounter with Erda a sexual one, which results in the birth of the shield maidens, as well as a mystical one, Wotan wishes to regain control over what has gone out of control.

In the third act of Siegfried Wotan calls up Erda from the earth to question her.9 His song and spell are one in the same. The cry of "wake, wake you witch, awaken" three times foreshadows the triple "schlafts du mein Sohn?" of Alberich to Hagen. The spell song works, and Erda rises from sleep but does not understand what is happening. The world has changed, her child Brunnhilde has been cast out of divinity and she does not recognize the Wanderer as Wotan. That Erda cannot see the sky god, her former lover, for what he is suggests that he is not what he was. Wotan's power and authority seem to have deserted him. Erda cannot answer Wotan's questions so he sends her back to sleep in the earth, the "endless sleep" of death.

"What happened to master of the universe?...In fact, one might argue that the Nibelungs curse always works a lot better than the power of the ring ever does."

Does the ring actually work as advertised, or has Wotan endangered the whole world for a hoax? In Das Rheingold Alberich the Nibelung renounces love to gain the power to forge a world dominating ring. Later in the same opera, Alberich curses the ring itself after Wotan forcibly takes it from him. The act of rejecting love that Alberich makes in forging the ring seems like alchemy, a striving for a philosopher's stone that is always out of reach. Wotan, though he believes in both the ring and its curse, decides to go outside the rules to try to win. This circumvention recalls the apocryphal story of the Gordian knot. In ancient times in the near east it was a knot that no man could untie. Alexander the great was passing through this unnamed area on his way to conquest and a wise man presented him the knot for challenge. Alexander looked at the knot, drew his sword and cut it in half. This linear thinking worked for Alexander, but brought tragedy for Wotan.

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