The transformation of homosexual Liebestod in sagas translated from Latin

The transformation of homosexual Liebestod in sagas translated from Latin

Ashurst, David

Saga-Book (2002)


The focus of this article will be on a series of texts in which one warrior dies clasping the body of a fallen comrade; but before concentrating on that theme I must explain the term liebestod, ëlove- deathí, and its currency in relation to the Tristan legend. Lovers of classical music will recognise the term as the name usually given to an extraordinary passage, at once orgasmic and transcendental, which concludes Wagnerís opera Tristan und Isolde. This opera, for which Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music as was his custom, and which he finished in 1859, was one of the most influential art-works of the nineteenth century. Wagner himself, oddly enough, originally used the term liebestod to designate the Prelude of the opera; and he habitually referred to the closing scene as Isoldes Verklarung, ëIsoldeís Transfigurationí, emphasising its erotic mysticism rather than its pathos (Wagner 1987, 489 and 548ñ59). It was Liszt who borrowed the term liebestod for the title of his 1867 piano transcription of Isoldes Verklarung; but it is Lisztís title, not Wagnerís, which has stuck to the final scene of the opera itself, and so has passed into common usage.

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