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Culture

Bayreuth Exhibition Traces Myths of Parsifal's Grail

Parsifal's search for the mythical Grail is not just a topic for Wagner operas. The legend has inspired artists and musicians in many cultures, as a Bayreuth exhibit explores.

Detail of 'The Last Supper' by Leonardo da Vinci

The cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper is said to hold special power

When Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Khan raised the German Soccer Cup trophy recently, he also celebrated an ancient myth. The trophy, formed like a golden chalice, reflects the legendary Holy Grail and the triumph of the young hero Parsifal.

"The Holy Grail is sort of a universal symbol in European history," said curator Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum where the grail exhibit is currently on display. "The chalice is an archetypical symbol of longing and redemption that is still triggering people's imagination."

Bayern Munich soccer keeper Oliver Kahn lifting trophy

A modern Parsifal in the sports arena

The most famous version of the Parsifal story is probably Richard Wagner’s opera which premiered in Bayreuth in 1882. In the story, the grail gives life and sustenance to the brotherhood of grail knights.

Wagner based his version on a 12th century story by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival" written in 1210. Wagner's opera became so successful that it gave rise to a worldwide boom in grail symbols.

The magic chalice

The Bayreuth exhibition traces the many different versions and sources of the grail myth. The mythical chalice -- in some versions it takes the form of the stone of the Wise Men that can work miracles -- can be found in many cultures, including Indian, Arabic or Celtic legends. In the Celtic Artus saga, the knight Parsifal sets out to search for the grail to find redemption.

Foto of gold chalice with red top

Grail opera requisite from Bayreuth

In Christianity, the grail is seen as the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. During the crucifixion, it was used to store his blood, hence the idea that the Holy Grail bestows magical forces and eternal life to those who drink from it.

Young Parsifal in Richard Wagner's opera is rather naive. "He has a long way to go in his quest for wisdom, reflecting a deep human need," said Sven Friedrich. In different times, this quest has been interpreted in a variety of contexts.

Of course, the show also features a section on Wagner and Wagnerism, with the composer seen as a modern prophet and festival visitors on a sort of pilgrimage.

Nazis employ Wagner saga

Picture of Adolf Hitler at balcony of the Festspielhaus

Hitler was a frequent visitor to Bayreuth

The National Socialists used the ancient myth for political purposes. To the Nazis, the grail legend symbolized the idea of a pure Germanic identity and redemption by means of racial exclusion.

Model plans for a "grail temple" planned by the Nazis at Wewelsburg, which are on display in the exhibit, reveal how the Nazi ideology perverted the symbol of the grail.

"Mankind hasn't changed much in the very basic facts," said Friedrich, "and of course, even if we don’t know, we are looking for the grail in our times too."

Indiana Jones as Modern Parsifal

Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones looking at a white light in front of him

Harrison Ford searches for grails and other magic gadgets in the Indiana Jones Filmes

George Lucas' Indiana Jones films present just one version of a modern Parsifal. And the many books, films and computer games where the grail is a subject show that the legend is very much alive today.

Friedrich said he thinks the saga answers a human need. "In this time of secularism, everyone seems to be looking for an individual, personal religion," Friedrich said. "Every individual puts together various symbols and myths to form a very special, individual sort of religiosity."

"Who is the grail?" is the question asked by the young hero Parsifal in the Wagner opera before he sets out on his long journey. That is also the title of the exhibition.

One universal answer is offered at the end of the exhibit: the visitor peers over a stone wall into a well, and sees -- his own reflection. Clearly, a symbol like the golden chalice can be an aid in the quest for the inner self.

The exhibition at Bayreuth's Margrave Opera House is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm and runs through Aug. 31. For more information, click on the link below.

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