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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Christian Mystery
GA 97

XXIV. The Secret of the Grail in the Works of Richard Wagner

29 July 1906, Landin

There are some occult and spiritual-scientific truths I want to consider in connection with Richard Wagner's Parsifal.185See Rudolf Steiner's lectures given in Berlin on Richard Wagner and mysticism (in German, in GA 55) and on 22 and 19 March 1906 (in German, in GA 54).A strange, deep link exists between the phenomenon of the great artist Richard Wagner and the spiritual movement called Theosophy today. People are gradually beginning to realize that Richard Wagner and his works represent a great sum of occult power. But something else will also emerge in future, and that is that there is much more to the Richard Wagner phenomenon than he himself could possibly know. It is a mystery connected with many important figures, particularly artists, that a power lives in them of which they themselves have no knowledge.

If on the one hand we understand that there was much more to Richard Wagner than he himself was aware of, we must not forget, on the other hand, that he was not able to reach the ultimate level of wisdom, and that Richard Wagner's art therefore shows itself in quite a peculiar light to the occultist. When it comes to his works, one has to say to oneself that there is much more to them, something mysterious which lies behind it all.

It is indeed interesting to see the deeper currents in the background. Richard Strauss186Strauss, Richard (1864–1949). See Thomas, W. Richard Strauss und seine Zeitgenossen S. 46, 72, 75; München 1964. said on one occasion that it was possible to see much more in Richard Wagner than people usually do. He put it more or less like this: ‘People who insist one should not look beyond Richard Wagner's work seem to me to be like people who also do not want to go beyond the flower they see. They will never know the secret of the flower. And is much the same with people who cannot think of anything further in the case of a great artist.’

Richard Wagner tackled subjects of tremendous significance. You keep finding names in his works that relate to very ancient sacred traditions. In Parsifal he achieved something that is closely bound up with the power that had such a strange influence in the last third of the 19th century.

To understand his figures and themes we must first cast an eye on profound secrets of human evolution, going back a few thousand years in history. All his life Richard Wagner made profound studies of human affairs and the secret of the human soul. In his youth he sought to explore the secret of reincarnation. The draft of a play he was working on in 1856 shows this. It was called The Victors.187Die Sieger. Entwurf, Zurich, Mai 1956, in Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen Band 11, Leipzig 1911. Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk from Paris in early August 1960: 'Only deep-thinking assumption of the transmigration of souls showed me the comforting point where everything finally comes together at one level of redemption, when the different lives lived, running separately but side by side in time have touched one another in understanding. According to the beautiful Buddhist belief the simple explanation of the absolute purity of Lohengrin is that he is a continuation of Parsifal who fought to gain his purity. In the same way Elsa would be at Lohengrin's level when reborn. The scheme for my Sieger has just presented itself to my mind as the final conclusion of Lohengrin. Here Savitri (Elsa) is wholly at Ananda's level. All the terrible tragedy of life would thus lie merely in the separateness of time and space. These, however, live only in our minds and have no reality beyond them. Someone with perfect clairvoyance would thus be able to explain even the greatest most tragic pain as mere error on the part of the individual. I believe this to be so. And in all truth it is wholly a matter of the pure and noble, which in itself is painless? Richard Wagner an Mathilde Wesendonk. Tagebuchblätter und Briefe 1853–1871. 36. Auflage S. 242. Berlin 1909. Wagner stopped work on it later on, for he could not find a musical solution to the problem of the ‘victors’. A dramatic solution would have been perfectly possible. The story of the play was as follows. A young man in far distance India, Ananda by name, a Brahmin by caste, was loved by a girl called Prakriti who belonged to the lowest caste. Ananda became a pupil of the Buddha. He did not return Prakriti's love, which cast her into deep sorrow. Ananda withdrew from the world to dedicate himself to the religious life. A Brahman then told the girl why her fate was the way it was. In an earlier life she, a member of the Brahman caste, had rejected the love of this same young man, who was then of the lowest caste. Hearing this she, too, turned to the Buddha, and both of them were then pupils of the same teacher.

Wagner had intended to work on this theme in 1856. A year later the subject he had failed to deal with came to him in another way. He conceived the great idea of his Parsifal in 1857. It is a strange story of how the whole mystery of Parsifal came to Richard Wagner at one particular moment.188‘Lovely spring weather came; on Good Friday I woke up for the first time in this house to full sunshine. The small garden had grown green, the birds were singing, and I was finally able to sit on the parapet of the little house and enjoy the much longed-for quiet that held such promise. With my heart full of this, I suddenly said to myself that it was Good Friday and recalled the significance this reminder had held for me once before, in Wolfram's Parsifal. I had never taken the poem up again since that time in Marienbad when I developed the ideas for Meistersinger and Lohengrin. Now its ideal content came to me overwhelmingly, and with the Good Friday idea in mind I rapidly produced the outline for a whole dramatic piece, in three acts, and immediately made a few quick notes of it.' Wagner R. Mein Leben III. Band S. 133f Miünchen 1915. It was on Good Friday 1857 in the Wesendonk Villa on the Lake of Zurich. He saw nature outside growing, shooting and sprouting. And at that moment he understood the connection between nature coming to new life and Christ's death on the cross. That is the secret of the holy grail. From that moment, Richard Wagner lived with the idea of presenting the secret of the holy grail to the world in music.

To understand this unusual experience we must go back a few thousand years in history. Richard Wagner put down his beautiful thoughts on human evolution in writing under the title ‘Heroism and Christianity’.189Wagner R. Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen in 10 Banden, hersg. W. Golther. 10. Bd S. 275ff: ‘Ausfiihrungen zu Religion und Kunsf, 2. 'Heldentum und Christentum’. Leipzig o. J. Let us first of all consider the kind of teaching given in occult societies in the 16th or 17th century. There have been mystery centres at all times. The knowledge taught there was at the same time religion, a religion that was also wisdom. It is not possible to really understand the mysteries unless one understands that there is a world of the spirit.

The different realms of nature lie spread out around us—minerals, plants, animals and human beings. We consider the human realm to be the highest of the four. Just as there are realms around man that are lower than he is, so there are higher spirits above him, at many levels. The different levels of spirits that are above man have always been called ‘gods’. Wisdom was taught in the mystery centres in a way that made human beings able to commune with the gods at a conscious level. Such people would always and wherever mystery centres existed be called ‘initiates’. They were not merely given words of wisdom but experienced realities within those mysteries. Today's mystery centres are of a different kind than those of antiquity and medieval times.

An important mystery centre existed in a region of northern Spain at the time when the crusades began and a little before that. The mysteries of those times were called ‘late Gothic mysteries’. Their initiates were called Tempelisen or Tempeleisen or Knights of the Holy Grail. Lohengrin was one of them. The community of these Knights of the Grail was rather different from another knightly community. This had its seat in Britain, in Wales. All the stories of King Arthur and his Round Table have to do with this other initiate community.

In very early times, long before Christianity, a large population moved from west to east on this earth. This was a very long time ago. There was a time when Atlantis existed in a region that is now part of the Atlantic Ocean. Our far distant ancestors, the Atlanteans, lived there. The whole population of Europe and Asia, all the way to India, were descendants of the Atlanteans. Conditions of life on Atlantis were very different from those in which people lived later on. Atlanteans lived in a completely hierarchic system guided by such initiates. All government and rule came from the initiates in those times. One famous initiate school was in the north of present-day Russia. Its initiates were called trotts. Other schools were in western Europe, their initiates known as druids. All social institutions to control the masses of humanity came from these initiates.

Let us take a look at those very early schools. What kind of secret was taught in them? It is only the form of the teaching that changes with time. It is truly remarkable that the mystery which Richard Wagner experienced inwardly was taken to its highest development in those schools. It is the connection between nature coming alive in spring and the mystery of the cross.

The first thing pupils had to understand was that all power of bringing forth that lies outside the animal and human realms may also be seen in the plant world. In spring, the divine power of creation sprouts forth from Mother Earth. It had to be understood that there is a connection between the power that comes forth when the earth covers itself with a green carpet and the power of divine creation. The pupils would be told: ‘Out there you see a power in the flowers as they open that condenses in the seed. Countless seeds will come from the chalice of the flower, and put in the soil they will bring forth something new. One can now feel with the whole of one's being that the events that happen out there in nature are nothing else but the processes that also happen in the human and animal worlds, but in the plant this happens without desire and is wholly chaste.’

The infinite innocence and chastity slumbering in the flower chalices of plants had to live in the hearts of the pupils. They were then told: ‘The sunbeam opens the flowers. It brings forth the power from those flowers. Two things come together—the opening flower and the sunbeam. Other realms—the animal and human worlds—are between the plant world and the divine realm. All these realms are only the transition from the plant world to the divine realm. In the divine realm we see once again a realm of innocence and chastity, as in the plant world. In the animal and human worlds we see a realm of desire.’

And then the teachers would speak of the future: ‘The time will come when all lusts and desires shall vanish. Then the chalice will open from up above, just as the chalice of a flower opens, and it will look down on the human being. Just as the sunbeam enters into the plant, so will man's own purified power unite with this divine chalice.’

We can invert the flower chalice in our minds, letting it bend down from above, from heaven, and we can invert the sunbeam, so that it rises from the human being to the heavens. This inverted flower chalice was shown to be a reality in the mysteries and called the holy grail. The real chalice of a plant is the inverted holy grail. Everyone who gains occult knowledge comes to know that the sunbeam represents something known as the ‘magic wand’. The magic wand is a superstitious version of a symbol that represents a spiritual reality. In the mysteries this magic wand was known as the bloodstained lance. We are shown the origin of the grail on the one hand and of the blood-stained lance on the other, the original magic wand known to true occultists.

I am just touching on things of great profundity, significant truths that took place in that belt in northern and western Europe. Richard Wagner sensed a great deal of all this, as did his friend the Comte de Gobineau,190Gobineau, Joseph Arthur, Comte de (1816–82), considered the 'intellectual father, of Nietzsche and the actual inventor of ‘super-man’ and ‘supermorality’. His Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines, 4 vols, was published in 1853–55; translated in 1915 and published in English as The Inequality of Human Races. a deep thinker.

To say what lies at the base of the mysteries of which I have been speaking, it was knowledge of the fluid that streams in animal and human veins. Quite rightly, Goethe wrote ‘Blood is a sap of very special kind’ in his Faust.191Faust 1, verse 1740. Many things are connected with the blood. We shall understand what blood signifies if we grasp and understand the tremendous revolution that has occurred in the mysteries. In earlier times, it was known among the European people that important things depend on the way people are related by blood. Because of this, progress and development was never left to chance in those times. All these things were arranged out of occult wisdom. It was known that if the development of small tribal communities was limited to that community, with no one coming in from outside, individuals born within that community would have special powers. The consequences of letting different kinds of blood come together were known in the mysteries. They also knew exactly which tribe was right for a particular area. They knew that common blood was the source of specific human powers.

When the ancient bonds of blood relationship were broken, something also happened in the mysteries. Purposes which before had been achieved by means of blood relationship were now replaced with two specific spiritual preparations in the great mysteries. The lesser mysteries had the outward symbols of these—bread and wine. The two preparations were substances which had an effect in the spirit that was similar to the physical effect of the blood in our veins. When the ancient clairvoyance had gone, these two preparations took its place. Having learned all of theosophical wisdom, initiates would then be given these symbols from the chalice of Ceridwen.192Ch. W. Heckethom wrote in Geheime Gesellschqften, Geheimbilnde und Geheimlehren S. 60 (Leipzig 1900): Druid culture encompassed all religious and philosophical study known in those lands at the time. The principal deities may be said to have been male and female, the great father and the great mother Hu and Ceridwen, in every respect the same as Osiris and Isis or Bacchus and Ceres, etc. See Rudolf Steiner's public lecture given in Berlin on 6 May 1909, ‘The European mysteries and their initiates’ (GA 57) (Anthroposophical Quarterly 1964: 9:1). The purified blood could then be given to human beings from the chalice opening up from above. This is the true mystery, which at the time remained with a very small body of people.

In other parts of Europe the mysteries fell into decline and were then made profane in a disgusting, repulsive manner. Their symbol of the offering was a dish in which a bleeding head was placed. It was thought that something might be aroused in a human being on seeing this head. It was black magic that was being performed, the opposite of the mystery of the holy grail.

It was known at that time that the element which streams upwards in the chalice of the flower also lived in the human blood. It had to become pure and chaste again, like the sap of a flower. In the degenerate mysteries this was given a crude, materialistic form. In the north, people needed the sublimated blood as a symbol, and in the Eleusinian Mysteries the wine of Dionysus and the bread of Demeter. The cup of the grail made into something abhorrent, with the bleeding head, may be found again in the story of Herodias and the head of John. She was laughing at the mystery made profane.

The true secret of the great mysteries went to the Tempeleisen in northern Spain, guardians of the Grail. King Arthur's knights were more concerned with worldly affairs, but it was possible to prepare the Tempeleisen to receive an even more sublime secret, the great secret of Golgotha, the mystery of world history.

Christianity had its origin in the most mixed of nations, the Galileans, who were wholly alien to and outside all blood community. The redeemer founded his kingdom entirely outside the old blood community, beyond all blood bonds. The sublimated blood, purified blood, sprouts from the sacrificial death, the purification process. The blood that gives rise to wishes and desires must flow, it has to be sacrificed, it must run.

The sacred vessel with the purified blood was taken to Spain, to the Tempeleisen on Montsalvatch. Titurel, the ancestor, received the grail; before, it had been longed for. Now the overcoming of the blood had happened. The purely physical nature of the blood had been overcome by the spirit.

You can only understand what happened on Golgotha if, unlike a materialist, you know blood to be composed not only of material elements. It is indeed highly remarkable that Richard Wagner was only able to find the sacred mood for his Parsifal because he knew that it was not only a matter of the Redeemer's death but of the blood which had been purified and was a little bit different from ordinary blood. He himself spoke of the connection between the Redeemer's blood and the whole of humanity: ‘Having seen that the blood of what is known as the “white race” had a special capacity for conscious suffering and pain, we must now recognize the saviour's blood as the essence of suffering consciously willed, divine compassion that flows for the whole human race as its source and origin.’193See ref. 189, 10. Bd S. 282.

Richard Wagner also wrote: ‘The blood in the redeemer's veins must thus have flowed forth as the result of the utmost endeavour of the will, a divine sublimate of the human race itself to save that race which in its noblest parts was falling into decline.’

It was because the redeemer had come from the greatest mix of nations that his blood was the sublimate of all human blood, human blood in its purified form.

Richard Wagner approached the great original mystery in a way hardly anyone else had dared to do. It is the very vigour he brought to this that made him a great artist. He should not be taken for an ordinary musician but someone with profound insight who sought to recreate the deep secrets of the holy grail for modern humanity. Before Richard Wagner wrote his Parsifal, people in Germany knew little about the mysteries and the figures which Richard Wagner then presented.

The initiation into the mysteries was in three stages, through which the individual had to go. The first stage was known as ‘dumbness’, the second ‘doubt’, the third ‘godliness’. In the first stage the human being would be taken away from all prejudice in the world, and told of the power in his own soul, his own power of love, so that he might see the inner light shine out. The second stage was that of doubt. This state of doubting everything came at the second stage of initiation. At a higher level it was then elevated to become inner godliness. In this third stage the initiand was guided to be consciously with the gods.

Perceval—pass through the vale—that was the name given to such initiands in medieval times.194Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170–1220) interpreted the name he gave to the hero of his epic poem V. 140.16 f. in this way. Parsifal had to learn all this from experience. Richard Wagner's strange genius made him feel this on that Good Friday in 1857, feel the thread that had to run through the whole of Parsifal's development.

The Tempeleisen represented the inner, the true Christianity as against the Christianity of the Churches. It is evident everywhere in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal that he wanted to show the spirit of that inner Christianity side by side with the Christianity of the Churches.

Remnants of the old profaned mysteries still existed in the Middle Ages. Everything that comes under this heading was epitomized in the name Klingsor. He was the black magician, in opposition to the white magic of the holy grail. Richard Wagner also showed him in opposition to the Tempeleisen.

Kundry is Herodias brought back to life. She symbolizes the power that brings forth nature, a power that can be both chaste and unchaste, but without direction. Chastity and lack of chastity have the same root, and it is a matter of ‘as the question, so the answer’. The productive power that shows itself in the flower chalice of the plant, going up through the other realms, is the same as in the Holy Grail. It merely has to go through purification in the purest, noblest form of Christianity, as we see it in Parsifal.

Kundry had to remain a black magician until Parsifal redeemed her. The whole confrontation between Parsifal and Kundry has the odour of the most profound wisdom. More than anyone else, Richard Wagner made it possible for people to take this in without knowing it. Richard Wagner was a missionary whose mission it was to give something full of significance to the world, without humanity being aware of this truth.

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his Parzifal as a plain and simple epic. That was sufficient in his day. People who had some degree of clairvoyance at that time understood Wolfram von Eschenbach. In the 19th century it was not possible to show the profound significance of the process in dramatic form. But there is a way of helping people's understanding without words, without concepts or ideas. This is through music. Wagner's music holds all the truths contained in Parsifal. The strange music written by Wagner would create quite specific vibrations in the ether bodies of those who listened to it. The ether body is connected with all the profound motions of the blood. Richard Wagner understood the secret of the purified blood. His melodies hold the vibrations that have to be in the human ether body when it becomes purified in the way that is necessary so that the secret of the grail may be received.

The strange way in which Richard Wagner was writing his books can only be understood if one goes into the realities that were behind Wagner. He knew very well that the human will receives a very special illumination from the spirit. He wrote that initially the will was a crude, instinctive element, but it gradually came to be refined. The intellect casts its light on the will and the human being becomes aware of pain and suffering, and this leads to purification. Referring to the ideas of his friend the Comte de Gobineau he wrote: "One cannot fail but realize the unity of the human race when reviewing its parts, and we are justified in saying that at its noblest it is the capacity of bearing pain and suffering in full awareness. In the light of this we ask where the outstanding nature of the white race lies, since we certainly must put it high above the others. With beautiful certainty, Gobineau perceives it to lie not in any exceptional development of its moral quality as such, but in a greater store of the fundamental characteristics from which those qualities arise. It would have to be sought in the fiercer yet also more delicate sensitivity of the will which reveals itself in a rich organization, in conjunction with the more astute intellect this requires; it will then be a matter of whether the intellect, under the impulses of a will that has great need, advances to clairvoyance, casting its own light back on to the will, and in this case subjugate it to become moral drive?

Richard Wagner was here speaking of the actual process in which the intellect casts its reflection on the will, and the human being become clairvoyant in the process.

Richard Wagner's work was to give religious depth to art and ultimately profound understanding of Christianity. He knew that Christianity was best presented through music. By rising to the inmost secrets of the world order we will on the one hand gain knowledge, but on the other also true godliness. There is a way of human development that teaches us the significance of this fact relating to Christianity.