Wotan’s Eye: Was it Right, and What is Left?


The current issue of the invaluable Wagner Journal includes an article by Michael Trimble, Dale C. Hesdorffer and Robert Letellier on “The Mystery of Wotan’s Missing Eye.”  It reports on a study of production photographs concluding that, though the author never provided for instructions, nearly all actors playing Wotan portrayed a damaged left eye rather than right.  They include an extensive explanation offered by Sir John Tomlinson, reporting a “feeling” that the left eye represents the unconscious or intuitive, while the right denotes intellect and reason.

The authors’ most telling observations extrapolate on Tomlinson’s and speculate on the moral consequences of Wotan’s sacrificial act.  In order to gain the runes that are imbued with order, politics, power and civilization, Wotan gave up inner vision and self-comprehension, intuition and even love.

Accepting this analytical structure, the progress of the play is remarkably poignant.  Wotan acknowledges to Brünnhilde in his Act II monologue in Walküre that her capacity as his will provides to him “that other self for which I yearn, that other self I never see.”  Her act of disobedience is in the realm of compassion, intuition, and self-development, all of which are denied Wotan.  He can enforce but cannot engage.  Going further, Siegfried is a necessary historic event not because he is anarchic but because he can learn, change, and understand himself – none of which Wotan can do, given the loss of his own self-insight.  That postulate, in turn, lends coherence to one of the most obscure lines of the text:  the Wanderer’s telling Siegfried that the eye Wotan is missing is now being used by Siegfried to see the one that Wotan retains.  That is to say, Siegfried possesses the very capability that Wotan sacrificed in order to gain power.

As a child I once asked my professor-father whether he was an “expert” in his field, and he said that if you devote yourself to studying the extramarital behavior of the left-handed pitchers for the Chicago Cubs in the 1927 baseball season, you don’t need to do much in order to become recognized as an expert in the topic.  Some of my friends might shudder at the prospect of my enjoying so much a study of whether Wotan sacrificed his right or his left eye, offstage, in an event that happened before even the prologue to the play began.  Ah, well.  I think the topic’s just peachy.


  • Subscriber Edward Roesner writes:

    A few disjointed but not entirely unrelated
    thoughts sparked by your interesting musing on Wotan’s eye. Interesting, and a bit curious that the consensus should have the left eye be the missing one. In Western civilization, at least, the left parts of the body have always been viewed with suspicion, as the pars sinistra, or, less ominously, the parte gauche. A clasp with the left hand is insincere, hypocritical, or a mark of betrayal; in early wedding paintings, when one of the parties takes the other’s left hand, it is a telling indication of betrayal. There is the anti-Catholic slur, ‘left footer’ (heard even in Downton Abbey, uttered by Lord Grantham). And so on. It would be interesting to see what Aristotle has to say about the left and right eyes (I’’m sure he says something), and, following him, writers such as Galen and Hippocrates. Wagner the Classicist would certainly have known it. In any case, all of this subtext would have been in the background of Wagner’s thought as he laid out the Ring drama, even if unstated.

    When Wotan sacrifices his eye, in effect
    blindsided himself, he would seem to be
    performing an act not dissimilar in its
    implications to Alberich’’s forswearing of love, physical but also otherwise. (By the same token, Alberich’’s rape of the god is parallel to, and perhaps contemporaneous with Wotan’s mutilation of the ash tree: both seize power through a desecration of primal nature, each having prepared the way for the power grab with an unnatural act..) In the case of Wotan, the god gained not only the runes inscribed on his spear, but also their embodiment in Fricka (we recall that Wotan gave up an eye in order to win Fricka).

    Putting the right/left issue aside, I think it interesting that the ‘stuff’ as it were of the lost eye should appear in Brünnhilde, the daughter of Erda, the personalized manifestation of the earth from which the spring where Wotan drank and the ash tree both grow.

    Wotan’’s eye stuff reappears not only in
    Brünnhilde, but also in Siegfried, as the Wanderer affirms. But the stuff is also the essence of the ‘Auge’ thread that plays so prominent a role in Walküre and again in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, both as a verbal leitmotif and as a dramatic symbol in its own right. This is foreshadowed already in Rheingold scene 4, in Wotan’’s big concluding speech (‘der Sonne Auge’), and set up at the very beginning of Walküre Act I, when Sieglinde observes of the unconscious Siegmund that his eyes are ‘only closed’ and that he strikes her as ‘mutig’. This is followed by a host of allusions, direct and indirect­, e.g., Hunding’’s observation that out of both their eyes gleams the slithering serpent; later, Siegmund imagines Sieglinda ‘Blick’ in the glint of the sword (Wotan’s sword!) in the tree; and, later still, when Sieglinde struggles with what she already knows implicitly, she says’ deine Auges Glut erglänzte mir schon’. There are more in Act I, of course, and they continue to appear later in the opera: think of Wotan’’s reference to Brünnhilde’’s ‘pair of radiant eyes’, just before he takes away her godhood. There are more in Siegfried, and, tellingly, in Götterdämmerung, when the dying Siegfried exhorts Brünnhilde to ‘awaken, open your eyes’. These are all indirect allusions to the stuff of Wotan’s sacrificed eye, and they interlock with each other and with the implications of his action in all sorts of ways.

    Methinks Wotan’s missing eye is in need of a much larger exploration.

  • Interesting, perhaps, is also the figure of the Antichrist. In the writings of Mohammed, Dajjij (the artificial Isa ) is a bogus Jesus (isa) to be recognized by his one eye. In this case the right eye is missing. There again the real Isa has both eyes…

By PeterP

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The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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