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Tannhäuser, from the Codex Manesse (about 1300).

Tannhäuser (German: [ˈtanhɔʏ̯zɐ]; Middle High German: Tanhûser) was a German Minnesinger and poet. Historically, his biography is obscure beyond the poetry, which dates between 1245 and 1265.

Life and work[edit]

Tradition has it, that he presumed familial lineage with the old Swabian nobles, the Lords of Thannhausen, residents in their castle at Tannhausen near Ellwangen and ministeriales of the Counts of Oettingen. More likely, however, is a descent from the Tanhusen family of Imperial ministeriales, documented in various 13th century sources, with their residence in the area of Neumarkt in the Bavarian Nordgau.

The illustrated Codex Manesse mansucript (about 1300–1340) depicts him clad in the Teutonic Order habit, suggesting he might have fought in the Sixth Crusade led by Emperor Frederick II in 1228/29. For a while, Tannhäuser was an active courtier at the court of the Austrian duke Frederick the Warlike, who ruled from 1230 to 1246. Frederick was the last of the Babenberg dukes; upon his death in the Battle of the Leitha River, Tannhäuser left the Vienna court.

Tannhäuser was a proponent of the leich (lai) style of minnesang and dance-song poetry, as literature, his poems parody the traditional genre with irony and hyperbole, somewhat similar to later commercium songs. However, his Bußlied (Poem on Atonement) is unusual, given the eroticism of the remaining Codex Manesse.

Tannhauser legend[edit]

In the Venusberg by John Collier, 1901: a gilded setting that is distinctly Italian quattrocento.

Based on his Bußlied, Tannhäuser became the subject of a legendary account, it makes Tannhäuser a knight and poet who found the Venusberg, the subterranean home of Venus, and spent a year there worshipping the goddess. After leaving the Venusberg, Tannhäuser is filled with remorse, and travels to Rome to ask Pope Urban IV (d. 1264) if it is possible to be absolved of his sins. Urban replies that forgiveness is as impossible as it would be for his papal staff to blossom. Three days after Tannhäuser's departure Urban's staff blooms with flowers; messengers are sent to retrieve the knight, but he has already returned to Venusberg, never to be seen again.[1]

The Tannhauser legend has been interpreted as a traditional folk tale which has been subjected to Christianization where the familiar story of the seduction of a human being by an elf or fairy leads to the delights of the fairy-realm but later the longing for his earthly home is overwhelming. His desire is granted, but he is not happy, and in the end returns to the fairy-land.[2]

Handed down orally, the Venusberg myth was first attested by the French writer Antoine de la Sale about 1430 and propagated in ballads from 1450, it was included in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn folksong collection by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1806 and adopted by Ludwig Tieck (Der getreue Eckart und der Tannhäuser, 1799) and Heinrich Heine (1836).

The legend was made famous in modern times through Richard Wagner's three-act opera Tannhäuser completed in 1845, referring to both the Tannhauser legend and the epic of the Sängerkrieg at Wartburg Castle. Aubrey Beardsley started to write an erotic treatment of the legend which was never to be finished due to his illness; the first parts of it were published in The Savoy and later issued in book form by Leonard Smithers with the title Under the Hill. In 1907, the original manuscript was published and entitled The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser.

The poet, John Heath-Stubbs, wrote a poem on the legend called " Tannhauser's End" (Collected Poems page 294).

Other references[edit]

Tannhäuser, painting by Gabriel von Max (c. 1878)

Aleister Crowley wrote a play called Tannhauser which follows the characters Tannhauser and Venus.

English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Laus Veneris" (In Praise of Venus) is a telling of the Tannhauser legend. Swinburne also composed the medieval French epigraph that purports to be its source.

William Morris retells the story in "The Hill of Venus," the final story of The Earthly Paradise.

Author Guy Willoughby in his seminal work Art and Christhood asserts that the blossoming staff of the eponymous Young King in Oscar Wilde's fairy tale evokes that of Tannhäuser.

H.G. Wells' Sleeper watches an adaption in The Sleeper Awakes (1910). He also references it in his short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1898).

Author Philip José Farmer references Tannhäuser and Venusberg in the 1967 sci-fi novella Riders of the Purple Wage.

The plot of Neil Gaiman's story "Neverwhere" broadly mirrors the Tannhauser myth, as does the BBC TV series Life on Mars.

In Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series of books, there is a range of volcanoes named the Tannhäusers.

In the film Blade Runner, replicant Roy Batty's 'Tears in rain' soliloquy evokes as he dies, "I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die".[3] Joanne Taylor, in an article discussing film noir and its epistemology, remarks on the relation between Wagner's opera and Batty's reference, and suggests that Batty aligns himself with Wagner's Tannhäuser, a character who has fallen from grace with men and with God. Both, she claims, are characters whose fate is beyond their own control.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ D. L. Ashliman, "Forgiveness and Redemption: folktales of Aarne-Thompson types 755 and 756"
  2. ^ "Tannhauser", Catholic Encyclopedia 1911 edition, "Literary or Profane Legends"
  3. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083658/quotes
  4. ^ Taylor, Joanne (2006), "'Here's to Plain Speaking': The Condition(s) of Knowing and Speaking in Film Noir", Florida Atlantic Comparative Studies, 48: 29–54, ISBN 9781581129618 


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