Teutonic Mythology and Wagner's Ring

*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.

A. The Gods
B. The Giants
C. Dwarves vs. The Nibelungs
D. Mortals
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 Wagner's operas).

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 this pantheon.

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

2. Thor vs. Donner

3. Loki vs. Loge

4. Frigg vs. Fricka

5. Freya and Idun vs. Freia

6. Freyr vs. Froh

7. Fjorgyn vs. Erda

8. Other Divine Beings in Wagner's Ring

a. Nixies and Elves vs. The Rhinemaidens:
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 (Crossley-Holland, xxi).

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."

B. The Giants
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.

C. Dwarves vs. The Nibelungs
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 gold"(Crossley-Holland, xxxi).

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 Nibelungenlied.

D. Mortals
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.

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

Map of the Teutonic Cosmos

Table of Contents

Wagner and The Ring

Teutonic Mythology
and Wagner's Ring

Symbols in
Wagner's Ring

Symbols in
Teutonic Mythology

Bibliography of Books and Links

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This site created by Jessica K. McShan on December 17, 1997.