“Love’s Magic Realm”: The Venusberg of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and European Witch Lore

Und dunket mich, wie si gê zuo mir dur ganze mûren, ir trôst und ir helfe lâzent mich niht trûren; swenne si wil, so so vüeretvsie mich hinnen mit ir wîzen hand hôhe über die zinnen. Ich waene sie ist ein Vênus hêre.

Methinks she comes to me through solid walls, her help, her comfort lets me nothing fear; and when she will, she wafteth me from here with her white hand high o’er the pinnacles. I ween she is a Venus high.

–Heinrich von Morunge, quoted in Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. II. (1844)

This past Saturday night, my bodacious beau and I experienced an unforgettable Valentine’s Day at the Lyric Opera production of Wagner’s Tannhäusera three-act opera, first performed in 1845, based on a medieval German legend that Wagner treats with a bombastic Romantic libretto, some of the best choral singing in any opera ever (the famed “Pilgrims’ Chorus” in Act II), and the thematic treatment of the human inner struggle as Wagner understood it (in a Christian schema) between the lure of carnal desire and the quest for spiritual redemption (the Id vs. the Superego, if you want to page Dr. Freud about it). This theme would find greater development in Wagner’s later operas of Lohengrin (1848), Tristran und Isolde (1859), and especially Parsifal (1882), works that are also steeped in medieval lore that commingles Pagan and Christian characters and sensibilities.

Experiencing Tannhäuser as our epic date night seemed all the more appropriate considering that the goddess Venus (sung in this production by the stunning German mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster) is not just a principal character, but Tannhäuser’s lover. This is made unequivocally clear before any singing takes place at all; it’s during the dizzying Prelude that the audience is treated to the stunningly hypnotic, stupendously athletic, and sexually explicit Bacchanalian dance choreography (brava to choreographer Jasmin Vardimon!) that introduces the concept of a loving and lavish Venus doting on her mortal amour, the wandering singer Tannhäuser (sung by acclaimed South African tenor Johan Botha). Who better to see and hear on stage on Valentine’s Day than the sea foam-born Roman Goddess of Love? However, it didn’t take long for my Pagan Priestess PowersTM to discern that Dark Goddess currents were swirling about, ones that would contextualize Tannhäuser’s fall from grace amidst his peers and society squarely within European witch lore. Would Tannhäuser have been shunned the way that he was–especially by the pope during his pilgrimage to Rome–if his “sin” was merely sexual congress with the Goddess of Love?  Of course not. He is shunned by his peers because they know–in a feat of dramatic irony audience members might know not if they’re not versed in Teutonic mythology–who the Goddess Under the Mountain really is. She is none other than Frau Holda (or Holle or Hulda), the Chthonic Goddess to whom German witches were said to journey to during their Sabbat rites (Ginzburg, The Night Battles 55); the Goddess who leads the Wild Hunt or the Furious Horde, die wütende heer (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. II, 268)Hence by having stayed with Her in Her Underworld for several years before returning to, as Venus in Act I scene ii calls it, “the cold world of men,” Tannhäuser returns from the Land of the Dead, a feat that would have been unthinkable outside the pale of Christian Grace.

The Great Queen Under the Mountain

In Act I, Tannhäuser complains to the goddess that as much as he enjoys her company (wink, wink!), he yearns to return to the world of mortals. It’s clear he’s in a subterranean realm, one where the simple joys of even seeing the daytime sky and blades of grass are forbidden to him. As the translated libretti states:

The time I have sojourned here
I cannot measure.
Days, moons–mean nothing to me any more,
for I no longer see the sun,
nor the friendly stars of heaven;
I see no more the blades of grass, which, turning freshly green,
bring the new summer in;
the nightingale that foretells me the spring,
I hear no more.
Shall I never hear it, never behold it more?

The goddess isn’t moved by his whining; she sees him as ungrateful:

Ha! What do I hear? What foolish complaining?
Are you so soon wearied of the sweet wonder
my love devises for you?
Or what? Can you so greatly regret being a god?
Have you so soon forgot how once
you suffered, whilst now you delight in pleasure here?

She encourages him to take up his lyre and serenade her; after all, it was his skills as a minstrel that first made her take notice of him. So besides her chthonic dwelling place, which is clue number one that we’re dealing with a Deity who isn’t Venus as interpreted by Classical writers, this goddess is known for music and revelry beneath the mountain. In other words, as with the Sidhe of Ireland or the Twyleth Teg (the “Fair Family”) of Wales, this Goddess Under the Hill is the Queen of Elphame, the Realm of the Elves or the Fae. As Jacob Grimm informs us:

“All elves have an irresistible fondness for music and dancing. By night you see them tread their round on the moonlit meadows, and at dawn perceive their track in the dew: Dan. älledands, Swed. älfdands, Engl. fairy rings, fairy green. The signs of mountain-spirits dancing on the meadows betokens to men a fruitful year…in Venus’s mountain, there murmurs a gay seductive music, dances are trod in them. Songs of elfins allure young men up the mountain, and all is over with them. … This fondness of elves for melody and dance links them with higher beings, notably with goddesses. In Dame Holda’s dwelling, in Dame Venus’s mountain, are the song and the dance. Celtic traditions picture the fays as dancing” (Grimm, Vol. II, 470).

Tannhäuser’s Otherworld journey Beneath the Hollow Hill/into the Venusberg, a mountain which, according to Grimm, correlates with either the Hoselberg or Horselberg near Eisenach (Teutonic Mythology, Vol. III, 935) has many parallels in Teutonic and Celtic lore. His abduction by “Venus” can be seen as a type of shamanic initiatory experience, remembered well in medieval and early modern times. One fine (and brief) literary work that also features a hero being lured away by the Queen of Fairies is the anonymously composed 17th-century ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer.” Thomas, asleep beneath a fairy tree, is accosted by the Queen of Fairies when she goes riding into the world of mortals for sport. She carries Thomas away to the Otherworld for a span of seven years, just like Tannhäuser or like many travelers to the Otherworld in old Irish epics.

TRUE Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
  A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
  Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.
Her skirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
  Her mantle o’ the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett o’ her horse’s mane,
  Hung fifty siller bells and nine.
True Thomas he pu’d aff his cap,
  And louted low down on his knee
‘Hail to thee Mary, Queen of Heaven!
  For thy peer on earth could never be.’
‘O no, O no, Thomas’ she said,
  ‘That name does not belang to me;
I’m but the Queen o’ fair Elfland,
  That am hither come to visit thee.
‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said;
  ‘Harp and carp along wi’ me;
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
  Sure of your bodie I will be.’
‘Betide me weal; betide me woe,
  That weird shall never daunten me.’
Syne he has kiss’d her rosy lips,
  All underneath the Eildon Tree.
‘Now ye maun go wi’ me,’ she said,
  ‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi’ me;
And ye maun serve me seven years,
  Thro’ weal or woe as may chance to be.’


Interestingly, Thomas compares the Otherworldly beauty of the Faery Queen to the Virgin Mary. In the opera Tannhäuser, when the protagonist’s plea for release from the Venusberg continue to fall on deaf ears in Act I, it’s by invoking the Virgin Mary that the enraged “Venus” instantly kicks him out of her subterranean paradise. And what is the first thing that the minstrel sees upon being teleported to the threshold of his German village? A young shepherd boy, who, in Act I scene iii, dreamily announces:

 Dame Holda’s come out of the mountain
to roam through field and meadow;
my ear caught a sound there so sweet,
my eye longed to behold.

There I dreamt many a sweet dream,
and my eyes had scarcely opened when
there the sun shone warm.
May, May had come!
Now I gaily play my pipe.
May is here, the lovely May!


Frau Holda and the Witch Trials

The Witches' Sabbat by L. Ricardo Falero

The Witches’ Sabbat by L. Ricardo Falero

Thus the Goddess’s true name is revealed: She isn’t Venus; She’s the Teutonic goddess, Frau Holda. But why conflate Her with a Mediterranean Deity? Is this interpretatio romana redux? In other words, since the Germanic clergy had a Latin education, the theory goes, it seems probable that they’d use the Greco-Roman names of deities (Venus, Diana, etc.) as substitutes for the local ones country people still revered/tried to placate through folk observances. Another theory is that the Greco-Roman tradition of worshiping Venus-Diana-Hecate was preserved in the Balkans after the official adoption of Byzantine Christianity and spread throughout the Germanic world by the Baiuwarii (Bavarians) after the seventh century (Ginzburg 187).

As far as source material for the opera, Wagner could very well have been familiar with the history of the witch trials and associated lore in Germany, not to mention the work of the brothers Grimm in recording substantial amounts of national folklore. While many people associate the cruel and shameful European history of “the Burning Times” with the Roman Catholic Inquisition, the worst of the witch craze took place in Protestant Europe during the birth of the Enlightenment period (Ginzburg 119)! Women were still being accused, tortured, and hung as witches as late as the 1740s in parts of Germany and Switzerland–a mere century before the debut of Tannhäuser the opera. The Venusberg itself appeared in records of the witch trials:

“In 1630, a native of Hesse in Germany confessed that for several years he had been traveling in spirit to a mountain called the Venusberg during Ember Days. Here ‘fraw Holt’ (i.e. the goddess Holda or Holle) had caused him to gaze into a basin of water, where he had seen splendid horses as well as the dead, in the form of men sitting at feast or in the flames. A century earlier, in the early 1500s, an Italian peasant named Zuan delle Piatte had also confessed to visiting ‘the mount of Venus where lived Donna Herodias.’ He had traveled until he reached a lake, where a dark figure in a friar’s habit prevailed upon him to renounce Christianity. The door to the mountain itself had been guarded by a serpent and by an old man  called Ekhart who warned him that if he remained within for longer than a year he would never return. There were people inside the mountain, including ‘the Tonhauser and Donna Venus.’ It was a Thursday evening during the Ember Days of Christmas, and Venus had taken Zuan dell Piatte to the Sabbath; they rode black horses through the air and in five hours had circled the whole world” (Johnson 31).


Frau Holda, Leader of the Furious Horde–Die Wütende Heer

Frau Holda, Leader of the Wild Hunt

Frau Holda, Leader of the Wild Hunt

It was during the Ember Season, that liminal period that followed the Winter Solstice and ran through the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Wild Hunt or the Furious Horde was thought to hold sway on wind-haunted winter nights (Grimm, Vol. III, 934-35). The spectral retinue could just as likely have been led by a goddess like Holda as a god like Wotan (Odin) mounted on Sleipnir. But instead of a spectral march of the heroic dead and the visitation of one’s ancestors, the Hunt coursing through the deadened winter night skies took on a sinister character–thanks to Christianization. As Grimm informs us:

“Her annual progress, which, like those of Herke and Berhta, is made to fall between Christmas and Twelfth-day, when the supernatural has sway, and wild beasts like the wolf are not mentioned by their names, brings fertility to the land. …At the same time Holda, like Wuotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wütende heer.’ From this arose the fancy, that witches ride in Holla’s company…it was already known…in Upper Hesse and the Westerwald, Holle-riding, to ride with Holle, is equivalent to the witches’ ride. Into the same ‘furious host,’ according to a wide-spread popular belief, were adopted the souls of infants dying unbaptized; not having been christian’d, they remained heathen, and fell to heathen gods, to Wuotan or to Hulda” (Grimm, Vol. I, 268-269).

And the birth of the “Venusberg” legend makes sense with the patriarchal, Christian-inspired demonization of sexuality:

“With the coming of Christianity the fable could not but undergo a change. For the solemn march of gods, there now appeared a pack of horrid specters, dashed with dark and devilish ingredients. Very likely the heathen themselves had believed that spirits of departed heroes took part in the divine procession; the christians put into the host the unchristened dead, the drunkard, the suicide, who come before us in frightful forms of mutilation. The ‘holde’ goddess turns into an ‘unholde,’ still beautiful in front, but with a tail behind. So much of her ancient charms as could not be stript off was held to be seductive and sinful: and thus was forged the legend of the Venus-mount.” (Grimm, Vol. III, 947)


By the Light of the Evening Star: The Triumph of Venus

A wonderful feat of irony occurs in the third act of Tannhäuser. Wolfram, an old associate of Tannhäuser’s who is distressed at the latter’s revelation of having been in the Venusberg for several years and having thus fallen beyond the pale of Christian redemption, turns his eyes upwards to the heavens and starts to pray–not to the Virgin Mary, nor to Jesus…but to the Evening Star! Yes, Classical Venus raises Her visage once again, this time in the form of the planet recognized by the ancients, the rising of which was always seen as a sign of hope. It’s thus easy to see why, in the final analysis, according to Grimm, the story of Tannhäuser works because in it one finds “the hankering after old heathenism, and the harshness of the Christian clergy…movingly portrayed” (Grimm, Vol. III, 935-936). Wolfram sings:

Like a presentiment of death, twilight covers the land
and shrouds the valley in sombre raiment;
the soul that yearns for heaven’s heights
is fearful before its flight through night and horror.
There thou shinest, oh loveliest of stars!
Thy sweet light thou dost send into the far-off distance,
thy dear beam pierces the evening twilight,
and, in friendly fashion, thou dost point the way out of the valley.
Oh thou, my gracious evening star,
how gladly have I always greeted thee;
from a heart that she never betrayed
salute her as she passes by thee,
as she soars from this earthly vale,
to become a blessed angel yonder.

Wolfram is also lamenting the death of the pure Elisabeth, the patient girl who always sought to win Tannhäuser’s heart but knew she could never compete with Venus! She dies praying for the expiation of Tannhäuser’s “sins,” especially after learning that the pope in Rome himself said Tannhäuser’s damnation was assured, and in so doing becomes part of the spectral train of the celestial Venus (Aphrodite Ourania to the Greeks, patroness of Platonic love), not the terrestrial one who holds sway as Dame Holle under the Venusberg.

Wolfram opens his heart to the possibility of seeing the miraculous in the everyday–that enchantment is everywhere. In that sense, he ends the opera by affirming the Teutonic / Celtic worldview that the Realm of the Fae overlaps with our own, that we can slip into its topography without even knowing it.

“Fairyland is a state or condition, realm or place, very much like, if not the same as, that wherein civilized and uncivilized men alike place the souls of the dead, in company with other invisible beings such as gods, daemons, and all sorts of good and bad spirits. Not only do both educated and uneducated Celtic seers so conceive Fairyland, but they go much further, and say that Fairyland actually exists as an invisible world within which the visible world is immersed like an island in an unexplored ocean, and that it is peopled by more species of living beings than this world, because incomparably more vast and varied in its possibilities.” (Evans-Wentz 18)

But surely, there will be sensory clues that we have crossed an invisible threshold into a grand realm, one where, as Tannhäuser discovered, Otherworldly song informs us that we have entered “love’s magic realm.”


Works Cited / Recommended Reading:

Anonymous. “Thomas the Rhymer.” (17th Century.) Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/101/367.html. Accessed February 16, 2015.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. (1911) Available at: www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ffcc/ffcc120.htm. Accessed February 16, 2015.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. (1966) Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, Volumes I-IV. (1844) Trans. James Steven Stallybrass. (1966) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.: 2004 (reprint).

Johnson, Kenneth. North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft & the Otherworld Journey. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1996.

One thought on ““Love’s Magic Realm”: The Venusberg of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and European Witch Lore

  1. Pingback: Walpurgisnacht Chant | amor et mortem

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