The Magical Pantheon of Richard Wagner's Ring:
©1995-2000 J.C. Kaelin
Qabalistic Initiation through the Ring Cycle of Operas
Lord Bulwer-Lytton's literary works inspired more than one distinguished occultist in his career. From the 1830's to 1880's, his works were read by several generations of aspiring occultists. The most famous of these (among modern occultists) was S. L. MacGregor Mathers, whose reading of Lytton's Zanoni sparked his career in esoteric and occult literature, and resulted in his being nicknamed Zan.
Mather's work, particularly with the Golden Dawn, set a standard we still look upon with awe. His rituals have become the most practiced of all occult ceremonies, particularly the Lesser and Greater Rituals of both the Pentagram and the Hexagram. To literate occultists the world over, this one individual appears to be the most famous occultist Lord Lytton inspired.
But in 1837, after sailing wicked tempests to an uncertain fate, Richard Wagner read Lytton's Rienzi, and immediately resolved to make it an opera. It became Wagner's first musical success, confirming him in a career that eventually produced what some consider the greatest mystery play ever written - his monumental, four-part operatic masterpiece, The Ring of the Niblung , based on his deep esoteric understanding of the myth of the Niblungenlied - which, along with his other esoteric operas, claim him as the most famous occultist inspired of Lord Lytton.
This article is not directed to operatic audience; it is directed at practical occultists, both mystics and magicians alike - for although Wagner wrote Operas, his operas are metaphysical psycho-drama.
My reason for writing this piece are compelling. Much has been written about the Ring cycle of operas, many of them concentrating on Wagner's anti-Semitism and upon the Nazis. I hope many will feel a wry sense of humor in the fact that Wagner considered himself Jewish. He believed he was the son of Ludwig Geyer, a Jewish painter and actor, who married his mother nine months after the death of Friedrich Wagner, Joanna's first husband and Richard's namesake. Indeed, this may be why Wagner waited until restrictions against non-Christian members were lifted by the Bayreuth Masonic Lodge before applying there for membership.
This would be poetic justice, for Masonry, and indeed the heart of Western Esoteric Tradition, is based on the Hebrew Qabala; and it is the purpose of this article both to illustrate the symbolism of Wagner's Ring Qabalistically, as well as to extricate it and its Pantheon from association with racists, bigots and criminals. That a celebrated anti-Semite (as he certainly was, especially later in life) should use a Jewish mystical system to order a Nordic opera is as potent a riposte against so-called Aryan racism and bigotry as one might wish to have.
I must with strength and vigor here separate myself from a growing number of neo-nazi occultists on the esoteric scene. I've been a devoted Qabalist for more than half my earthly life, and my especial disposition towards the Nordic Pantheon is due to a Qabalistic appreciation of the same. Surely, the God Wotan (or Wodin, Woden, Odin, etc.) through which I worship The Divine would not countenance for a moment the ill treatment the Nazis inflicted upon those they labelled strangers (as though people living in and contributing to a country for hundreds of years could ever be called strangers!). The Wotan I know deeply despises the orgy of hatred and violence directed at the Jews by the Third Reich; in fact, that they did so in his Name is the greatest crime committed against him. This is well evinced by the relative calm of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany, from the time of the arrival of the Jews there in the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the reign of National Socialism. In other European countries of the time, particularly France and Britain, the Jewish people unfortunately fared much worse. The development of Yiddish, with its heavy German influence, is eloquent example of just how deep their roots went into the life of Germany.
Truly, the Wotan I know has cried bitterly for the enormity of the crimes of Nazi Germany. A lover of wisdom, champion of the oppressed, and propagator of universal understanding and brotherhood, whose Name was and is taken in vain by the enemies of all he holds dear (enemies which are characterized in the Ring) - in short, a Being whose nature calls out for the redemption of his memory - all this and more, Wotan is - and my hope is that I can make this point clear in the course of this piece.
A Qabalistic Key to the Nordic Pantheon
It shouldn't be surprising that Nordic Adepts employed Qabala, strange as this may at first seem. Guido von List, whose esoteric writings were concurrent with Bulwer-Lytton's, has been reputed by Dr. Stephen Flowers to have been working on his magnum opus, a book on the Qabala, just prior to his death. It should furthermore not raise an eyebrow that Qabalistic Adepts used Nordic images in the communication of their knowledge - the Tarot Trumps of A. E. Waite, Paul Foster Case and others are replete with such Northern European symbolism. One of the true wonders of the Qabala is its ability to incorporate different religious systems within its own, assigning each god or goddess their appropriate place upon the Tree with clarity and precision. Whereas Guido von List used Runes Qabalistically, and Waite and Case put Nordic Images upon their Qabalistic Tarot Trumps, so Wagner in his rendition of great Nordic mystery play utilized the Qabala to order it - a perfectly natural thing for a Qabalist to do. Unlike these others, Wagner used music as his medium, in many ways better suited than other media for both the propagation of mysteries and the alteration of conciousness.
It is particularly upon Wagner's Masonic associations that the claim of a Qabalistic Ring theme may be justified; Qabala being the key by which Masonic mysteries are decoded, and it being a source from which Wagner could have conceivably drawn Qabalistic knowledge. Such association is well established, for besides his good friend, the composer Franz List's membership, his brother-in-law, Prof. Oswald Marbach, was one of the most important Freemasons in the world - and his good friend, the banker Feustel, was Master of the famous Zur Sonne or Lodge of the Sun of Bayreuth (which some claim may have been the source of lineage for the Golden Dawn, though this is debatable), a Lodge which produced such ritual examples as this, written some time after 1874:
(Music or Song.)
Thou Wanderer, wholly divested
of all vain ornaments,
Hast thou sufficient inner dignity,
And personal worth?
Pomp and empty appearance mean nothing here;
Thine heart should be our brother.
As will become apparent in the course of the Ring, this quote evinces Wagner's influence on Masonry, for it is a statement of the heart of the drama of the Ring crystallized.
It is almost a cliché that Wagner's Operas are filled with esoteric and Masonic content. Of these, Parsifal has received the most attention for its Masonic symbolism. Aleister Crowley insisted that students of his Masonic O.T.O. order attend its performance, and many authors have analyzed this opera both Masonically and Qabalistically. Largely, this is due to its subject matter being more apparently associated with Qabalistic tradition - the Templars, the Holy Grail, the Masonic and Rosicrucian references are replete, and Masons have gone to great lengths to recognize their arcana is this opera, as they have in his others.
For these reasons, many Masons believe him a member of their fraternity, but this is incorrect. He wanted to be initiated, but was asked not to apply by Feustel, to prevent upsetting some members of the fraternity and members of the Bavarian clerical opposition. Although not a member Mason, his work demonstrates that he thought of himself as one at heart.
So we see that Wagner was as much a child of 19th century occultism phenomenon as any, and that his association with Qabala through Masonry is a matter of historical record. We see also that other Qabalistic authorities of that century and this drew a great deal from the Nordic pantheon in their Tarot designs and Qabalistic teachings. What follows then is an esoteric journey into the heart of the Ring of Life, made intelligible by the light Qabala shines upon it.