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Tarot Archetypes in Wagner’s Parsifal

A few weeks ago, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of their stunning new production of Parsifal. The name means “Pure Fool,” and the story takes us on a fool’s journey from ignorance to transcendence. I couldn’t resist looking for other tarot archetypes in the opera, and I wasn’t disappointed. Every major character reminded me of a tarot trump.

Gurnemanz, the wise, mature knight, is a positive Emperor. The younger knights look up to him as a leader and father figure and address him as “wise father.”

The actual leader of the Grail Knights, Amfortas, is in agony from a stab wound to his side that never heals. I see him as the Hanged Man, suspended in perpetual torment as punishment for his sins, unable to heal and unable to die.

The only female role in this opera is Kundry, a complex High Priestess character. Another character says “she brings messages from afar and never lies.” At various times she is a witch, a servant, a temptress, and a female fool who, like Parsifal, wanders the earth suffering for her sins, unable to die.

Klingsor is a very nasty Devil who uses Kundry as a sexual weapon in his attempt to corrupt the Grail Knights and bring an end to their order.

We don’t see Parsifal’s mother, but she’s described in the back-story as a negative, controlling Empress who clutches her son fearfully. She shields him from reality and tries to keep him a perpetually immature youth.

JudgmentNear the end of the opera, Amfortas sits in his father’s grave begging for death, visible only from the waist up. The scene reminded me of a Judgment card, but I couldn’t remember which one until I searched my deck collection and found it in Robert Place’s re-drawing of the Metropolitan Sheet from about 1500.

In the first act, Gurnemanz tells Parsifal that he has come to a land where “time becomes space.” This seems just like a tarot spread, where past, present and future are delineated spatially.

Met Opera live broadcasts often come out on DVD and are sometimes shown on PBS. If you get the chance, I highly recommend viewing this stunningly surreal production.


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