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Das Rheingold

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This supreme god will do anything for what he covets most fiercely: omnipotence. Once, when the Earth was still lingering in its original state, free from any domination, he sacrificed one of his eyes to drink from the well of wisdom at the foot of the Yggdrasil, the sacred ash tree in Norse cosmology. He then broke a branch from the tree, made it into a spear and carved into it in runic script the laws by which he would rule over the gods, dwarves, giants and human beings. Wotan wants to consolidate his power by building a new castle of the gods, for which he has put the giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner to work. On Loge’s advice, he has promised them his sister-in-law Freia as payment, a frivolous promise he thinks he can get out of. When his wife makes it clear to him that, of all the gods, he especially cannot break the law, he must work with the demigod of fire to find an alternative compensation … Wotan’s character is based on the Nordic supreme god Odin and his Germanic counterpart Wodan.
Erda is the primordial goddess of the Earth. The source of all wisdom, she has a profound understanding of the world: not only does she know the past, she also has a prophetic view of the future, right up to the end of the world. In Das Rheingold, Erda appears as a mysterious dea ex machina at the moment Wotan refuses to give the Ring to the giants. She exhorts him to renounce the cursed jewel and warns, ‘All that is – ends! A day of darkness dawns for the gods’. ‘Erda’ is the Old High German word for ‘Earth’ and is associated with the Nordic Earth goddess Jörd. Wagner derived his material for this character from the Edda songs and from Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, among others.
As the goddess of marriage, Fricka reminds her own husband of his duties. When Wotan manifests his joy about his new castle, she reminds him that he gave her sister Freia as collateral and, worse, that he will have to honour his disastrous promise. Driven by an instinctive jealousy that will not prove entirely unjustified, she also tries to curb his excessive interest in the secrets of the goddess Erda. Fricka’s counterpart in Nordic mythology is Odin’s wife, Frigg, a goddess mentioned in the same breath with marriage and motherhood. She is at the root of our word for ‘Friday’.
Freia, the goddess of youth and fertility, grows golden apples that keep the gods immortal and eternally young. When the giants take her as collateral for the construction of Valhalla, the impact of her absence makes itself felt immediately: the gods too now know what it is to age … Freia combines traits of two deities from Nordic mythology: Freyja, the goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, sex, war, seiðr (a form of divinatory magic) and gold; and Idunn, the goddess of eternal youth.
Froh (which literally means ‘cheerful’ in German) is the god of light and joy. He makes his heroic entrance in the second scene, when, together with Donner, he tries to protect Freia from the giants. After his brother has cleared the heavens at the end of Das Rheingold, he makes a rainbow appear over which the gods ride triumphantly into the new Valhalla. Froh goes back to the Old High German ‘fro’, a Germanic name for the Old Norse god Freyr, who is associated with peace, fertility, and pleasure.
Donner, the god of thunder, is the embodiment of brute force. Armed with his hammer, he wouldn’t hesitate for a second to violently free his sister Freia from the hands of the giants, but he too has to watch in vain as they carry her off. After her liberation, Donner conjures up a storm to clear the sky. The character is Wagner’s version of Donar (or Thor), one of the main gods in the Germanic-Nordic pantheon, always accompanied by his hammer, Mjölnir.
Loge, one of the central characters in Das Rheingold, is as elusive as fire, the natural element he embodies. As a demigod, he remains an outsider. He is a cunning manipulator who keeps his cards close to his chest and always has an ace up his sleeve. Wotan trusts his advice, but that often puts the gods in thorny situations – something that tickles Loge, for that matter. When the gods march triumphantly into Valhalla, he decides not to follow them. He foresees their downfall and secretly thinks about hastening it ... Loge combines traits of two figures from Germanic mythology: the fire giant Logi and the god Loki, a chaotic troublemaker and deceitful shapeshifter.
The Nibelung Mime is a cunning and skilful blacksmith. Once in possession of the Ring, his brother Alberich is only too happy to abuse it. Like all the other dwarves, Mime is forced into slavery and has to forge the magical Tarnhelm (which can make its owner invisible) for his brother out of the Rhinegold. When Mime finally succeeds, he plots to keep the helmet for himself in order to steal Alberich’s Ring. His plan fails and Mime has to pay dearly for this. But later in the Ring, he gets another chance … The character of Mime appears in the Old Norse Thidrekssage, where he is not a dwarf, but a human.
Alberich may well be rejected mockingly by the Rhinemaidens, but he does get to learn the secret behind their treasure. The dwarf then takes possession of the gold, forges a Ring from it and renounces love. Back in Nibelheim, he conducts a reign of terror as an all-powerful tyrant over his people, who must satisfy his endless greed by mining ever more gold. When Wotan and Loge cunningly capture him, he finds himself obliged to buy back his freedom with the Ring. But not without first casting a terrible curse on it … Etymologically, Alberich means ‘ruler of the elves’ and as such is equivalent to the French ‘Auberon’ and English ‘Oberon’. The character appears mainly in the medieval German epics Ortnit and Nibelungenlied.
Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde are three daughters of Father Rhine. Like playful, seductive water nymphs, they guard the gold that lies at the bottom of this river and the secret that rests on it: whoever renounces love can rob the gold and gain world domination. When Alberich tries to woo the three virgins, they make fun of his advances mercilessly. Convinced that no one will ever be willing to give up love, they recklessly harass the dwarf further until, frustrated, he does the impossible. The Rhinemaidens mourn their loss deeply and won’t rest until the gold sinks back to the bottom of the Rhine. They are the only characters in the Ring that do not have a direct counterpart in Germanic mythology. Wagner is said to have drawn inspiration for them from female water spirits in the Nibelungenlied and other nymphs from European folklore, among others.
The gentler, more sentimental of the giant brothers. Under the spell of her beauty, he can’t imagine a better reward for building Wotan’s Valhalla than the beautiful goddess Freia. This is why he hesitates to accept the proposal to exchange her for the Rhinegold. Rightly so, it turns out. Indeed, when dividing up the gold, the giants clash and Fasolt becomes the first fatal victim of the Ring’s curse. The figure of ‘Fasolt’, also spelt ‘Fasold’, appears as a knight or giant in several Germanic epics and legends. The name probably derives from the Old High German ‘faso’, meaning thread, possibly in reference to the braids used to characterize the figure in, for example, the Eckenlied.
A good deal more pragmatic and calculating than his giant brother. He too initially demands Freia as a reward for his hard work on Valhalla, but rather for strategic reasons, most likely. When he hears of the power of the Nibelungen gold, his interest is immediately piqued and he manages to convince Fasolt to exchange Freia for the treasure. Blinded by greed, he ends up killing his brother to get the Ring and all the gold. Fafner is inspired by the dwarf Fáfnir from the Germanic Sigurd legends. After murdering his father, Fáfnir took the form of a giant snake or dragon to guard his cursed treasure.