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photos by Lara Shipley

Incest by Proxy

April 12th, 2005 · 4 Comments

Rheingold pregame yesterday included a lecture by the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger on the mythological sources of the Ring cycle. Among other things, Doniger discussed a recurring theme in the source Eddas and Sagas that Wagner omits mentioning (explicitly) in his version: Brunnhilde loses her supernatural strength (something that’s necessary if Gunter is to force her to wed him) only after her maidenhead is broken. She went on a bit about how the different source texts handle this.

What occurred to me, though, was that the first hint of this enervation through sexuality is not the end of Siegfried or the start of Götterdämerung, but rather at the end of Die Walküre, when Wotan “kisses away” Brunnhilde’s godhood and puts her to sleep to be “taken” by the first man to find her. Note here that, first, Wotan has just recently delivered an impassioned defense of the true love of siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde. arguing for a pretty robustly Kinseyan tolerance of an incestuous relationship. Note also that it seems clearly to be the intention of Brunnhilde, and possibly also that of Wotan (who at her request surrounds the sleeping Valkyrie with a ring of fire that only a “hero” will broach) that the man who comes to take her be Siegfried (currently in utero), child of the incestuous pairing and Wotan’s grandson.

Now, the Volsungs were created initially by Wotan in order to reclaim the Ring he’d had to trade away to the giant Fafner. Since he gave it away by contract—and contracts and law are the source of Wotan’s power—he can’t just take it back himself. The function of the Volsungs, in other words, is to fulfill the desires that Wotan dare not act on himself.

In theory, at least, Volsung 2.0, Siegfried, has gone rogue. The symbol of this, of his freedom from the control of the gods, comes when he goes looking for Brunnhilde, encounters Wotan disguised as the Wanderer, and shatters the spear that represents Wotan’s power—the spear carved with contracts and laws in sacred runes—before rushing up the mountain to get busy with his aunt.

So has Siegfried really gone rogue? Or is this yet another way the idea of Wotan as an anti-matter Alberich shows up? The dwarf renounces love to gain power; Wotan (maybe) permits the sacrifice of his power (as represented by the law-encrusted spear) in order to gain, if only by proxy, the satisfaction of his forbidden desire for his own daughter. Just a possiblity…

Tags: Art & Culture



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mom // Apr 14, 2005 at 11:29 am

    I bet you didn’t know that Wendy Doniger was a classmate of my sister Ellen, in high school in Great Neck.

  • 2 David T // Apr 15, 2005 at 12:54 am

    I still love Anna Russell’s remark about Siegfried awakening Brunnhilde:

    “She’s his aunt, by the way.”

    And I suppose “Das ist kein Mann” has gotten more laughter than any other line in a non-comic opera…

  • 3 Julian // Apr 15, 2005 at 1:23 am

    Interestingly, you’ll notice if you attend most modern productions of Siegfried, they don’t translate “Das ist kein Mann” in the supertitles (or, if yr at the Met, on the back of the chair). But it still invariably gets a laugh.

  • 4 Julie // Apr 16, 2005 at 12:13 am

    What is it they say…love is fine but incest is best?