Stories of journeys into the underworld seem to be as old as the telling of tales itself. The idea of a lone figure who dares to endure the horrors of the underworld in order to attain some goal, or of a mortal taken into an underground realm by the ‘wee folk’, seems to transcend cultural difference to be repeated time and time again in folktales, fairy tales and sagas. There is even an apocryphal Christian tradition ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ which tells that, between the crucifixion and resurrection, Christ descends into Hell in order to save the souls of the righteous who have died since the beginning of the world.
The second half of the 19th century was not immune from stories of descents into the underworld, a phenomenon s fuelled by a revival of interest in Northern European folklore and mythologies One particularly fascinating manifestation of this was the outpouring of versions of the medieval German story of the Knight Tannhäuser and his love for the goddess Venus.
The basic story of Venus and Tannhäuser is this:
The Knight Tannhäuser is an unhappy man, and is no longer young for a medieval human (he is in his 30s!). One day, whilst wandering in a disconsolate manner, he stumbles upon the Venusberg (or Hörselberg), the subterranean home of the Goddess Venus (or the Teutonic Dame Holda in some versions) and her attendants. The once all-powerful goddess of love has been banished to this underground realm by the, seemingly, unstoppable march of Christianity. In thrall to her erotic charms, Tannhäuser loses track of time and stays in the enchanted mountain for years, enjoying countless acts of debauchery and lust. In turn, the goddess falls in love with him.
Nevertheless, after seven years he is troubled by his conscience. He believes that he has sinned during his time under the Hill of Venus, and that he must dedicate his life to the Virgin Mary. He leaves the Venusberg and, as his sins are so immense, is unable to be pardoned by any mere priest and so joins a band of pilgrims to journey to Rome where he seeks absolution from the Holy Father himself. When the Pope hears the extent of Tannhäuser’s transgressions he tells the Knight that there is no hope of redemption unless the papal staff miraculously blooms. In despair Tannhäuser makes his way back to Venus and her subterranean court. Three days after Tannhäuser leaves the city of Rome, the Papal staff bursts into flower, but it is too late, for the Knight Tannhäuser has entered the Venusberg and is never seen again.
The Tannhäuser myth dates, at least in written form, from the 13th century where it first appears in the Busslied, supposedly written by the Knight Tannhäuser himself who was a Minnesinger and who died in 1265. The story, then evolves throughout the next eight centuries to suit the various purposes of the writers, artists and composers who take it and fashion it into something new each time. However, it seems certain that the origins of the tale are much older. European folklore is littered with stories of mortal men (it is, usually, men) ‘lured’ into a faery realm, only to emerge some time later having lost track of ‘mortal’ time.
Although a number of Romantic authors created versions of the myth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was the March 1861 Parisian premiere of Ricard Wagner’s new version of his 1845 ‘Music-Drama’, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at Wartburg) that caught the imagination of European artists and writers, particularly those working in England. Wagner’s version of the tale (which was far more focused on redemption than sin) was seen to be highly immoral. It also didn’t take a genius to decipher that the Venusberg or Hill of Venus can be seen to be a not-too-subtle metaphor for the Mons Veneris, or pubic mound. If all that wasn’t enough, the aristocratic members of the Paris Jockey club started a riot at the premiere because Wagner had structured the opera in such a way that their custom of arriving for the ballet section and then leaving with their dancer mistresses was disrupted.
This controversy was further fuelled by the poet Charles Baudelaire’s spirited defence of the work in his essay ‘Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris’ (1861) which praised the perverse magnificence of the work in the face of its negative reception in Paris. Baudelaire’s reputation as the ‘godfather’ of decadence and debauchery (a reputation justly earned with his fabulous 1857 collection of poetry Les Fleurs Du Mal) only served to add to the general air of wickedness and depravity surrounding both the opera and the story of Venus and Tannhäuser. Indeed, the 1864 Fantin-Latour Tannhauser on the Venusberg (above) was, rather naughtily, based on the ballet that caused the kerfuffle with the Jockey Club! Unsurprising when you realise that the artist was a good friend of the equally irreverant artist Whistler.
1861 is a pivotal year for artistic interest in the Tannhäuser myth. Not only did the Paris premiere of Wagner’s opera and Baudelaire’s defence reach almost legendary status themselves, but in Britain artist Edward Burne-Jones and his, then, good friend the poet Algernon Swinburne were inspired to commence their own, equally brilliant, versions of the strange tale, both entitled Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus).
Swinburne’s Laus Veneris is a a fabulously rich evocation of the Knight’s adoration of the goddess; a masochistic paean to her powerful divine sensuality. The full poem is here:
Burns-Jones however, does something very different. In his own glorious Laus Veneris of the 1870s (the original watercolour of 1861 is sadly in an inaccessible private collection) the interior of the Venusberg is not the hotbed of desire depicted in Swinburne’s, or the ‘Hell Mouth’ often described in Christianised versions of the myth which depict Venus’s realm as a site of Pagan evil. Instead Burne-Jones domesticates the interior of the Venusberg, turning it into a luxurious Aesthetic interior full of jewel-like colours, with De Morgan tiles around the window, E.W.Godwin furniture, fantastical musical instruments, a peacock fan, and Venus and her attendants in gorgeous Aesthetic dress.
The embroidered hangings on the wall are depictions of two genuine tapestries by Burne-Jones for Morris & Co.: Venus and Cupid, and The Passage of Venus; both scenes from her past life when she ruled the classical world. This interior realm is not a realm of ‘evil’, instead it serves as the last, mournful, vestige of the world of happy love which the goddess ruled before she was usurped by the Virgin Mary. The Venusburg becomes a realm dominated by the force of Love, not one ruled by the ‘thou shalt not’ of mainstream Christian Victorian Society.
This fascination with the story of Venus and Tannhäuser was not confined to Swinburne and Burne-Jones. William Morris also features an anglicised version (Tannhäuser becomes Walter) in his epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), and there is also Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished, witty and highly pornographic version The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser; a far less saucy version of this was published as Under the Hill in ‘The Savoy’ in 1896. (Incidentally I believe, that Beardsley’s unexpurgated version-which was eventually published after his death in 1907- is probably the first piece of literature to offer the world the concept of ‘Uniporn’, and by ‘Uniporn’ I do, indeed, mean pornography involving a Unicorn…!)
Beardsley’s version is a topsy-turvy one. All of the other tellings of the tale merely imply the sexual acts that may or may have not occurred under the Hill of Venus; the details and extent of the debauchery are left to the imagination of the reader or viewer.
This is crucial in the second half of the nineteenth century when all manner of sexual practices were either taboo or prohibited by law. The Venusberg can, and does, become an imaginative space, indeed a ‘queer space’, where all non-normative sexual, spiritual, or social practices are acceptable. Thus in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, when our eponymous anti-hero has grown tired of other forms of music he,
‘would sit in his box at the Opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to ‘Tannhäuser’, and seeing in the prelude to that work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.’ (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, London: 1891, p. 201.)
Wilde’s reference to Wagner’s opera is precisely because of the fluidity of meaning inherent in the myth, and the potent implication that all manner of acts that were seen as illegal or immoral by conventional society might be allowed in a permissive space such as the Venusberg. For Wilde the ‘tragedy of his own soul’ was that like Tannhäuser, society would condemn his needs and desires and, ultimately, destroy him because of them.
It is also interesting that at least two leading occultists, the novelist (and probable alchemist) Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73) and the ever-notorious self-proclaimed Beast and High priest of Thelma, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), also wrote versions of the tale. Buller-Lytton and Julian Fane wrote Edward Bulwer Lytton (under the pseudonyms Neville Temple and Arthur Trevor) published ‘Tannhäuser: or the Battle of the Bards’ in that crucial year 1861 and Crowley wrote his play Tannhauser: A Story for all Time in 1907. The idea of the Venusberg as a transformative or magical space (such as the alembic in alchemy) is a most intriguing idea. Certainly the Knight and any other mortal who stumbles upon it will not emerge without undergoing some form of spiritual and/ or moral metamorphosis.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a time of great spiritual uncertainty, and a time when legal and social prescriptions destroyed lives of those that would not or could not conform to them, the Venusberg becomes so much more than a myth of a Knight frolicking with a goddess. It is becomes an imaginary space place of transformation and self-discovery; and in the restrictive world of late Victorian Britain, it a site of cultural resistance and, ultimately, a potent vision of a kinder, more permissive society.