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The Green Man, Venus and Their Place in Modern Life
Tannhäuser and Venus – Still Exhibitors
The recent revival of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, broke all records, but it is a production we will remember. Was it the 40 medical beds that were on the stage for the tired travelers returning, or the 20 weapons that were loaded and unloaded randomly, in the whole three hours – sometimes they were replaced by demons? Silly plays can be very powerful!
During the destruction, Tannhäuser, (played by a stuntman) is dropped 50 meters from the top of the stage, swinging his arms and legs. It takes several minutes for him to descend into the sea of female flesh, even with artificial breasts. I think, there can be no female choir, so well endowed, so unshakable. I wondered what women would do with all of Tannhäuser’s armor sitting under a sea of legs. I was not disappointed. In the middle of the bronze, the weapons were thrown up from the ground and appeared the real Tannhäuser, tired, ready for the house and Venus.
Why is Venus important to us in 2017, or why was it important in 12th century Christian Germany, or 19th century Paris? Why is he important in Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser? I believe it’s because it’s a great way for an artist to show creativity and challenge popular opinion. That is the artist’s job.
Gentiles helped us to Christianity
We can understand why Wagner uses Venus as a dramatic vehicle, but why does the Church of St. Chad at Harpswell contains William Harrington, (rector, died 1350), resting on a high Green Man? The cathedral in Würzburg has a Green Man looking at God. The churches of Nicosia have many Green Men. Musicians of the 13th century were fascinated by Venus.
Is there a connection? Is there an explanation?
Waldemar Januszczak has an offer I want to try. In his fascinating BBC4 program on the Dark Ages, he pointed out that early depictions of Christ gave him a female form, or a childlike form. Only later, with the cult of Mary well established in Christianity, do the images of Jesus move to the face of Jupiter’s hero. Waldemar explains. Early Christianity had an image problem – how to love 50% of the people, who were women. To get around this, artists often go for an androgynous Jesus. Later, the Mary-Cult history of Jesus with the face of Jupiter, was designed to bring the pagans, without taking them away from their old religion.
When one begins to look, Waldemar’s argument stops in many cases.
The female side of St. George is beautifully depicted in each of the early 15th century paintings by Bernd Notke. Katherine’s Church in Lübeck has plaster copies. One of them can’t be wrong. George is more feminine than a queen waiting to be rescued from a dragon. Is the female George another example of the young Jesus?
It didn’t happen in one day.
In the early Christian era, there were no pagan pockets of mercy, and belief in gods such as Venus was a common ground between pagans and pure Christians. Venus helped keep the new Christians in their old comfort zones. Musicians and poets used him to express aspects of their characters, which were not acceptable as the subject of a Christian dinner. Does St. George was helpful to men and women? Why did Venus reappear years after her death as a Roman goddess?
The idea is, the middle ages were not as Christian as our history studies suggest. For example, the king of the Slavs, named Jaczo, ruled the region that we now call Berlin Brandenburg. He converted to Christianity in 1154. That’s when, with his horse drowning in Havel, he made several trial prayers to different gods. Things went well after Christ called and his horse was helped by the river. He decided to become a follower, but did he leave his three-headed pagan god Triglav, right away? Maybe not. We all need islands of safety within our vision, before we jump.
Wagner and Venus
Time to apply Waldemar’s theory to Wagner’s Tannäuser. Wagner combined two old sagas for his opera. Other than that, he stayed (almost) faithful to the original thread.
Venus lived in Venusberg, somewhere in what is now known as Thuringia. Tannhäuser told Venus that he wanted to leave her, because he missed the sky and the birds. Venusberg was underground, in a mountain, not above it, and hidden from people. Hold that thought. The protruding bone, which supports the female genital hair is called Veneris in anatomy – Latin for the Mount of Venus. In the saga, the men who entered the Venusberg accepted the destruction.
Suppose Venus and Tannhäuser were in a large cave, waiting with as much flesh as one could wish to look at and try. You can have a great product – apparently. Tannhäuser, after an hour of surgical cries, shouts and accusations, leaves Venus, and returns to the Wartburg. The house is on a hill in Thuringia, and that’s where all the other work takes place. The hall can still go. At the Wartburg, he rediscovered his love for Elizabeth, a symbol of the purity of Christian women. He is waiting to be picked up and commanded by a noble soldier. Tannhäuser, an artist and musician, was the man of his dreams, before he sampled without record in Venusberg.
Tannhäuser enters a singing competition on the theme of true love. Elizabeth’s hand is the winner’s prize. Tannhäuser’s friend, Wolfram, romantically sings of true love – no passion. Tannhäuser blows the gasket and tells them that a little envy of the body no one. Elizabeth is happy with the idea. Tannhäuser gets carried away and agrees to be a guest at Venusberg. He was taken out of the palace and told to join the pilgrims to Rome to see if the sin could be forgiven.
Elizabeth’s Libido, in her Dreams
Today the same soprano sings Venus and Elizabeth, in the same clothes and makeup. We have to ask – was Venusberg a fictional version of Tannhäuser? Was he just thinking about Elizabeth’s libido? Is Elizabeth ready to show the desirable side of her femininity? Was this made in Venusberg, not heaven? We never got it. Tannhäuser leaves a distraught Elizabeth to wonder what could have been. She agrees that her husband must be handsome and agrees that he must go to Rome. He is praying for the Pope’s forgiveness.
Tannhäuser returns from Rome and quotes the words of Pope Urban IV. He can be forgiven for such a heinous sin, as Urban’s staff does, sprouting leaves. Elizabeth is drowning in exhaustion. Wolfram covers him with a cloth. Tannhäuser wants to return to Venusberg, Elizabeth climbs up from under the curtain. Now she is Venus and he tries to seduce her. Wolfram grabs Tannhäuser from behind, preventing him from approaching Venus. Tannhäuser dies, as the pilgrims enter to announce that the staff has sprouted leaves – Tannhäuser is forgiven and can join Elizabeth in heaven.
In 1800s Europe, many men believed that if women had sexual desire, they were prostitutes. No one asked the question, was Tannhäuser innocent, while Venus and he committed the so-called, sins of the flesh. Did the rod grow because there was no sin to be forgiven? In the old era of the saga, Tannhäuser he does back to Venusberg, with a stick on it’s growing. Were those poets and singers trying to tell us that sexual desire is not a sin? Is that why we still love those old stories?
We know what Wagner was thinking. He celebrated female drives on the stage, especially in Tristan and Isolde, although he allowed love medicine to take the blame for Isolde’s actions. No one is fooled, these days. We know that Tristan and Isolde have a crush on each other, long before the love potion is administered.
Why did Wagner go for a soft ending in his version of Tannhäuser? These plays divided people. The Paris premiere of Tannhäuser, (1861) was a disaster and was confused by the protests of the audience, because the dance was in the wrong place and disturbed the eating habits. Perhaps, with such an audience, the middle ending was impossible. Lovers should go to heaven, not Venusberg!
Jean Shinoda Bolen, in his Jungian analysis of the role of the Gods in our lives, defines Venus as a woman with a serious sexual problem. I left my book ‘Goddess in Everywoman’ by Bolen, in a prominent place in my house. No visitor has been able to pass this book without stopping and looking. We all need a little heathen!
Venus goes to another place
The story of Tannhäuser has inspired many works of art, literature and the occasional film (Blade Runner). Aubrey Beardsley added to the genre in the 1890s, with his thin volume, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. It wasn’t published in full until the 1960s, because no one dared. Beardsley died before finishing. He explains how Tannhäuser got into the Venusberg and the high jinks that followed. It’s pure smut and a lot of fun. Another reason we need Venus – to remind us that life is meant to be enjoyed and you never know what you’ll like until you try.
I couldn’t resist Venus and Tannhäuser either. Lovers, in my book gods, Beardsley’s thought drama. The whole book should be published this year, giving my courage will not leave me.
The gods set us free
God and Gods, are there to let us down. They allow us to do a little bit about our culture, which could not find a way. They appeal to non-Christians today, just as they did to the first Christians 1,000 years ago. Waldemar is right. He let us off the hook, but in doing so, kept the hook. Letting off steam sometimes, is a message. A little bit of what you like, does you good.
Bolen defines women as moral types, using goddesses. If that sounds difficult, read his book.
What about the Green Man?
We all love a secret and the Green Man remains one. We do not know its symbolic meaning in pre-Christian society. Why was he so popular with Gothic church builders? The most surprising thing is its enduring popularity as a flower decoration. What role does it play in our behavior? We don’t know, but we all like to be mysterious. That is also a quality.
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