The Mountain of Venus

Sabine Baring-Gould

Ragged, bald and desolate, as though a curse had rested upon it, rises the Hürselberg out of the rich and populous land between Eisenach and Gotha, looking from a distance like a huge Stone sarcophagus -- a sarcophagus in which rests, in magical slumber, till the end of all things, a mysterious world of wonders. Highup on the north-west flank of the mountain, in a precipitous fall of rock, opens a cavern called the Hürselloch, from the depths of which issues a muffled roar of water, as though a subterranean stream were rushing over rapidly-whirling mill-wheels. In ancient days, according to the Thuringian Chronicles, bitter cries and long-drawn moans were heard issuing from this cavern; and at night wild shrieks and the burst of diabolical laughter would ring out from it over the vale, and fill the inhabitants with terror. It was supposed that this hole gave admittance to Purgatory and from it you could hear the cries of lost souls.

But another popular belief respecting this mountain was that in it Venus, the pagan goddess of love, held her court in all the pomp and revelry of heathendom; and there were not a few who declared that they had seen fair forms of female beauty beckoning them from the mouth of the chasm, and that they had heard dulcet strains of music well up from the abyss above the thunder of the falling, unseen torrent. Charmed by the music, and allured by the spectral forms, various individuals had entered the cave, and none had returned from this Venusberg except the Tannhäuser.

Tannhäuser, a French knight, was riding over the meadows in the Hürsel vale on his way to the Wartburg, where the Landgrave Hermann was holding a gathering of minstrels who were to contend in song for a prize. Tannhäuser was a famous minnesinger, and all his lays were of love and of women, for his heart was full of passion, and that not of the purest and noblest description.

It was towards dusk that he passed the cliff in which is the Hürselloch, and as he rode by he saw a white glimmering figure of matchless beauty standing before him and beckoning him to her. He knew her at once, by her attributes and by her superhuman perfection, to be none other than Venus. As she spoke to him the sweetest strains of music floated in the air, a soft roseate light glowed around her, and nymphs of exquisite loveliness scattered roses at her feet. A thrill of passion ran through the veins of the minnesinger, and, leaving his horse, he followed the apparition. It led him up the mountain to the cave, and as it went flowers bloomed upon the soil and a radiant track was left for Tannhauser to follow. He entered the cavern and descended to the palace of Venus in the heart of the mountain.

Seven years of revelry and debauch were passed, and the minstrel's heart began to feel a strange void. The beauty, the magnificence, the variety of the scenes in the pagan goddess's home, and all its heathenish pleasures palled on him. He yearned for the pure, fresh breezes of earth, one look up at the dark sky spangled with stars, one glimpse of simple mountain flowers, one tinkle of sheep-bells. At the same time his conscience began to reproach him, and he longed to make his peace with God. In vain did he entreat Venus to permit him to depart, and it was only when in the bitterness of his grief he called upon the Virgin Mother that a rift in the mountain-side appeared to him, and he stood again above ground.

How sweet was the morning, balmy with the scent of hay, as it rolled up the mountain to him and fanned his haggard cheek! How delightful to him was the cushion of moss and scanty grass after the downy couches of the palace of revelry below! He plucked the little heather-bells and held them before him. The tears rolled from his eyes and moistened his thin and wasted hands. He looked up at the soft blue sky and the newly-risen sun, and his heart overflowed. What were the golden jewel-incrusted, lamplit vaults beneath compared to that pure dome of God's building!

The chime of the village church struck sweetly on his ear, satiated with Bacchanalian songs. He hurried down to the valley church which had called him. There he made his confession, but the priest, horror-struck at his recital, dared not give him absolution but passed him on to another. And so he went on from one to another till at last he was referred to the Pope himself. To the Pope he went. Urban IV then occupied the chair of St Peter. To him Tannhäuser related the sickening story of his guilt, and prayed for absolution. Urban was a hard and stern man, and, shocked at the immensity of the sin, he thrust the penitent indignantly from him, exclaiming 'Guilt such as thine can never, never be remitted. Sooner shall this staff in my hand grow green and blossom, than that God should pardon thee!'

Then Tannhäuser, full of despair and with his soul darkened, went away and returned to the only asylum open to him, the Venusberg. But lo! three days after he had gone, Urban discovered that his pastoral staff had put forth buds and had burst into flower. Then he sent messengers after Tannhäuser, and they reached the Hürsel vale to hear that a wayworn man, with haggard brow and bowed head, had just entered the Hürselloch. Since then the Tannhäuser has not been seen.

The story of Tannhäuser is a very ancient myth Christianized, a widespread tradition localized, existing in various forms scattered over Europe -- and indeed there are at least three other Venusbergs in Germany. The root of all forms of the story is this:

The underground folk seek union with human beings. (1) A man is enticed into their abode, where he unites with a woman of the underground race. (2) He desires to revisit the earth, and escapes. (3) He returns to the region below.

There is scarcely a collection of folk-lore which does not contain a story founded on this root. It appears in every branch of the Aryan family, and examples could be quoted from Modern Greek, Albanian, Neapolitan, French, German, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, Icelandic, Scots, Welsh and other collections of popular tales.

The Scots story is of Thomas of Ercildoune, who met a strange lady of elfin race beneath Eildon Tree. She led him into the underground land, where he remained with her for seven years. He then returned to earth, still, however, bound to come to his royal mistress whenever she should summon him. Accordingly, while Thomas was making merry with his friends in the Tower of Ercildoune, a person came running in and told with marks of fear and astonishment that a hart and a hind had left the neighbouring forest and were parading in the street of the village. Thomas instantly arose, left his house, and followed the animals into the forest, from which he never returned. According to popular belief he still 'drees his weird' in Fairy Land, and is one day expected to revisit earth. (Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.)

Unquestionably the Venus of the Hürselberg, of the Eildon Hill and of so many other locations all over Europe is the ancient goddess Holda, or Thorgerda. But the legend as it shaped itself in the Middle Ages is indicative of the struggle between the new and the old faith. We see thinly veiled in Tannhäuser the story of a man, Christian in name but heathen at heart, allured by the attractions of Paganism, which seems to satisfy his poetic instincts and gives full rein to his passions. But these excesses pall on him after a while, and the religion of sensuality leaves a great void in his breast.

He turns to Christianity, and at first it seems to promise all that he requires. But alas! he is repelled by its ministers. On all sides he is met by practice widely at variance with profession. Pride, worldliness, want of sympathy, exist among those who should be the foremost to guide, sustain and receive him. All the warm springs which gushed up into his broken heart are choked, his softened spirit is hardened again, and he returns in despair to bury his sorrows and drown his anxieties in the debauchery of his former creed.

A sad picture, but doubtless one very true.

Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1866)


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