Magazine article Musical Times

The Ring's Rhinemaidens: Singing Seductresses or Women of Wisdom?

Magazine article Musical Times

The Ring's Rhinemaidens: Singing Seductresses or Women of Wisdom?

Article excerpt

Das Wasser rauscht', das Wasser schwoll,

Netzt' ihm den nackten Fuß;

Sein Herz wuchs ihm so sehnsuchtsvoll,

Wie bei der Liebsten Gruß.

Sie sprach zu ihm, sie sang zu ihm;

Da wars um ihn geschehn:

Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin,

Und ward nicht mehr gesehn.

(The water roared, the water swelled,

moistened his naked foot;

his heart grew full of that longing

he felt at his beloved's greeting.

She spoke to him, she sang to him;

that surely was his doom;

Half pulled by her, half sinking,

he went under and was never seen again.1)

JW von Goethe

WAGNER'S WOMEN - both operatic and non-operatic - and, more specifically, The ring's women, have received much scholarly attention, but there are some female characters of the Ring cycle who have been largely left to the realm of the unknowable dimensions of myth and nature. Besides Erda and the Norns, the three Rhinemaidens are such female characters:2 even though it is they who, in the first scene of act ? of Das Rheingold, set the action in motion that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the world as Wotan and his fellow corrupt gods know it, they do not appear again until act 3 of Götterdämmerung, giving them a seemingly minor role in the grand scheme of the tetralogy. The world Wagner presents here begins and ends with these apparently playful nixies. It is made up of various mythical elements, which always have to be considered in the historical context in which they are employed. In what follows, these curious water creatures will be investigated more closely, considered, among other things, in the context of a particular 19th-century gendered discourse.

Taking stock: what we actually know about the Rhinemaidens

The Rhinemaidens dwell in water, and their nature is as ambivalent as the element in which they live. Although water is the 'prima materia, from which all life proceeds', and is instrumental in concepts of 'spiritual birth and regeneration',3 it can also be a powerfully destructive force, thus negating or replacing all of its life-affirming qualities. It is 'a. the fluid element between the ethereal (fire and air) and the solid (earth); b. between life and death' (de Vries, p.493), and it forms a powerful 'symbol of the unconscious, that is, of the non-formal, dynamic, motivating, female side of the personality'.4 Water can also symbolise 'knowledge and memory, stored in the unconscious' (de Vries, p.493), and it has been identified with intuitive wisdom (Cirlot, p.365) - important aspects in the consideration of the Rhinemaidens. The symbolic meaning of water is rich and manifold, but what is most interesting in the context of an examination of Wagner's water creatures is its ambivalence: it symbolises at the same time one thing and its binary opposite, while also being the (mediating) element between them. Creatures who can, and do, live in this element must have certain characteristics that reflect the unique nature of their relationship with it, and the Rhinemaidens, whose composite nature - part woman, part fish - echoes the ambivalence of water, exemplify this perfectly, as we shall see.

In the libretto's stage directions they are referred to both as 'Rheintöchter',5 the daughters of the river Rhine, and 'Wassermädchen' (Porter, p. 5), water girls, and as far as we know, they never leave their watery home.6 When Alberich first addresses the water girls, he calls them 'Nicker', a word most present-day German speakers would not likely recognise.7 One must not confuse them with other mythological female water creatures, such as the 'Wasserfrau', water woman, or the 'Meerjungfrau', the mermaid. Water women are said to have life-giving, protective, and maternal qualities, and are friends to humans; mermaids are usually in need of salvation, as they are without a soul, which they can obtain by marrying a mortal. …

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