Sources of The Waste Land

Sir James Frazer: The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris

Published early in the 20's, this book deals with magic and ritual in pagan religion. Eliot uses the pagan ideas of death and resurrection widely in the poem, referring particularly to three particular cults which were practised in the eastern Mediterranean. The god Adonis was Babylonian/Syrian, Attis was Phrygian (later adopted widely in the Roman Empire) and Osiris was Egyptian.

All three figures are similar in that according to legend they were divine mortal lovers of the Goddess (Ishtar, Cybele or Isis). Each was maimed and killed and was searched for by the Goddess in the underworld, leaving the earth barren and infertile during her absence; a "waste land" in fact. Their worshippers believed that by simulating the death and resurrection of the male they could recall the Goddess and ensure the return of life to their land.



Worshipped in Byblus, the holy city of the Phoenicians (cf. Phlebas and Mr Eugenides) one of the rites was to make an image of the god and throw it into the sea , believing that it would rise again next day and restore the fertility of the land. There are obvious parallels to section 4 here as well as the warning of Mme Sosostris to "fear death by water". Eliot 's characters, though, are unable to ensure the return of potency since in his waste land the ritual has become meaningless and sterile. His Phoenician merchant is the seedy Mr Eugenides, offering trinkets in return for casual sex.



Widespread worship throughout the Roman Empire for at least 400 years. (St Augustine observed the rites in Carthage in the 4th century) An effigy of the god was tied to a decorated pine tree and the high priest and minor clergy mutilated themselves. presenting their blood as an offering. It is also possible that male novices castrated themselves at this time in the frenzy of worship. In the early days of the ritual the high priest would have taken the place of the effigy. Initiates would also partake of a secret meal and a blood baptism, seeking a closer union with the god, who was known as the Lord of the Gallows or God of the Hanged. There are obvious links here to the poem, with the ideas of sexual impotence and mutilation



A vegetation god, worshipped in Egypt, and buried as an effigy at seed time to ensure a good harvest. This god links the pagan rituals with the idea of a resurrected human figure, as images of Osiris were also found buried with the dead to ensure resurrection to the afterlife.



Links with Christianity

It is clear that the Christian ritual embodies some of the pagan ideas and rites. The Attic cult in particular laid emphasis on the sacrifice of blood and communion with the god through this. The ceremonies also were practised in March, the time of the Christian Easter, and when St Peter's basilica was being enlarged in the 7th century inscriptions were found which proved that the basilica of the Popes had been the sanctuary of the goddess Cybele. Eliot was convinced that the ancient cults had fulfilled spiritual and psychological needs in early civilisations and was concerned to preserve the links between the past and the present. His own conversion to Christianity was still years away when he wrote the Waste Land but he makes central to the poem the suggestion that mankind is still in need of spiritual salvation and the search for this is the metaphorical quest undertaken in the poem.


Jessie Weston: From Ritual to Romance

A contemporary volume to Frazer's which links the imagery of the medieval legends concerning the search for the Holy Grail to the pagan fertility rites of ancient civilisations. The Grail is the legendary vessel used by Christ at the last supper, supposedly hidden from man and only able to be found and seen by a virgin knight after an arduous quest and many trials and sufferings. To be worthy of receiving the grail the hero must have travelled through a waste land similar to the Valley of Death.

The grail has a guardian - a King called the Fisher King, who falls sick and whose lands are laid waste. The knight must find the grail and thus restore the King to health and the land to fertility again. The fish was an ancient symbol of fertility and of course in Christian mythology the fish was used as a secret sign and acrostic for Christ's name among believers.

Weston also links the Fisher King in her book with the figures of Attis and Adonis. The King is often portrayed as genitally mutilated or impotent and the kingdom is sterile until the grail is found. He is often surrounded by lamenting women, like those who would weep for the dead pagan gods.

Weston suggests that the pagan rituals were probably brought to England by Phoenician merchants, Asiatic slaves of the Roman conquerors and the legionaries themselves and eventually absorbed into Christian ritual and mythology when it became the "official" religion of the Empire, passing from there into literary legend and medieval romances.

The central idea is the same - salvation, potency, well-being, fertility can only be achieved after sacrifice, deprivation and close contact with fear and death. In Eliot's modern waste land though, the secrets of the ritual are lost and mankind is condemned to an eternal search for them with no hope of success, perhaps because mankind is "unworthy". It is not only the land which is barren and sick, but man's soul also. As the narrator of the poem sees a procession of "broken images" he is one with the Fisher King, the maimed guardian of the grail, his suffering is unredeemable and pointless and he has inherited a kingdom which is bankrupt and doomed.



A central character in the poem is the blind prophet Tiresias. He is an observer who "sees" the casual, loveless sexual coupling of the typist and the clerk, unable to change the outcome or prophesy the future, he represents the futility of mankind's godless, doomed existence.

In Classical literature, Tiresias is the character who tells Oedipus that he is responsible for the destruction of Thebes.

(The story - Oedipus, a Theban prince, is abandoned as a baby by his father, who believed that he would be murdered by his son. Oedipus grows up in Corinth, unaware of his ancestry and later returns to Thebes, killing his father without knowing him and marrying Jocasta, his mother. A plague descends on Thebes as a result of the incest and it becomes a waste land. Tiresias is the figure who tells Oedipus what he has done.)

Tiresias himself is the subject of another legend, which tells that he was blinded by Juno for agreeing with Jupiter that women enjoy love more than men.. Jupiter gave him the gift of prophecy to make up for Juno's cruelty. He was asked to judge because he had experienced love as a man and a woman, having been magically turned into a woman for seven years by hitting two copulating snakes, then back to a man again. (The Greeks have a word for it, too!)

Eliot uses the ideas of impotence, sexual ambiguity, cruelty and blighted sexuality in the figure of Tiresias.


Charles Baudelaire

Late 19th century French poet. His life work a collection of poems called "Les Fleurs du Mal" (the flowers of evil). A very profound influence on Eliot, who uses ideas and images from Baudelaire's poetry in much of his early work. The "unreal city" is one of the images, as is the direct quotation "You! hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere" (you, hypocrite reader, my fellow man, my brother)

Baudelaire's idea is that mankind is warped by stupidity, mistakes, sin and small mindedness. We are all spiritual cowards, not even aware that we are being destroyed by our own triviality. The end of sex is disgust, the end of love disillusion and life is a yawn. He includes all mankind (my fellow man, my brother) in his assertions. Eliot imitates this in the meeting with Stetson, taunting him with images of death and resurrection and insisting that he faces up to the metaphorical blindness which is the waste land of the modern world.


Dante and the Divine Comedy

Dante was a medieval Italian poet who wrote the massive three volumes of his Divine Comedy in 1302. The narrative tells of Dantes spiritual journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise where he meets his lover, Beatrice. Eliot uses only the first two books as sources, (significantly there is no allusion to Heaven in the Waste Land)

In the first volume, Dante in company with the Latin poet Virgil, journeys into Hell where he sees hordes of people lamenting. They are the morally neutral, who lived without blame or praise and were only half alive. They have no hope of death and Dante says "I had not thought that death had undone so many". This is the image Eliot uses of the vast crowds on London bridge, sighing and trudging in their commuter waste land.

At the end of the Waste Land Eliot uses another image from Dante's Hell, the figure of Count Ugolino, walled up with his four children to starve to death for treachery. Eliot uses the idea of solitary confinement and death as a metaphor for sterile selfishness.

Finally the reference to Arnaut Daniel gives a glimpse of the refining fires of Purgatory and the hope of future deliverance. Those who burn in the fires of purgatory can at least hope for some deliverance in due time.



The Buddha was a prince who became a prophet and holy man, achieving enlightenment and teaching his philosophy to his disciples and followers. The essence of the belief is that suffering is caused by selfish desire. The centre of man is his self and his dealing with his self is his pathway or karma. Suffering is caused by the constant changing needs of the self. Circumstances cause desire and only by rising above circumstances can man achieve freedom from suffering Right actions, meditation and thought can enable man to pass beyond karma and enter into communion with the whole spirit of the universe. This state is called "nirvana".

The Fire Sermon was actually preached by the Buddha to a group of Indian fire worshippers. He describes in it how burning desire binds men to the world and thus to illusion and suffering. Freedom from these should be the goal of the wise man.

In the Waste Land, Eliot uses the idea of asceticism (freedom from desires of the flesh) as a way out of the waste land, linking it to the refining images of Buddhist and Christian fires of purification.. In particular, he seems to equate desire with specific sexual lust, using a series of sordid and loveless sexual encounters throughout the section and ending with a combination of the ideas of Buddha and St Augustine. Only by "burning" can the protagonist rise above the lust of the flesh and achieve nirvana/salvation.


St Augustine

One of the major figures of early Christianity. In his autobiographical "Confessions" he details his struggle against lust and his search for the salvation of Christ, while he was studying at Carthage a city notorious for its vice. He represents the western ideal of asceticism, placed alongside the Buddha's eastern philosophy at the end of the Fire Sermon. Augustine's metaphorical burning in the fires of lust and restlessness - his search for God and pure unselfish love help to reinforce the central theme of the poem - the deep seated sexual unhappiness of a civilisation collapsing through its lack of spiritual resources.


The Upanishads

Sanskrit gospels dating from about 600BC. The holy books of the Hindu religion. Central to them is the idea that the goal of man's religious quest lies in identifying his self or "attman" with the creator or "brahman" thus joining the individual to the essence of the universe (similar to but not the same as the Buddhist teaching)

If man gives himself to selfish pursuits he condemns himself to suffering and endless cycles of re-birth. To behave correctly or to have "right action" is therefore the goal of man. Eliot uses the parable of Pragapati's message to the gods, mankind and the devils to illustrate this at the end of "What the Thunder Said"

At the end of their studies with Pragapati, the Creator, the gods, man and the devils asked for final words of wisdom from Him. To each he said one syllable only - "DA". Each interpreted the syllable as something different - the gods took it as meaning DAMYATA "to be subdued or self controlled" - the men though it was DATTA, "give" and the devils heard DAYADHVAN "be merciful". This then , is the threefold way SUBDUING, GIVING and MERCY.

The message is given with the Creator in the form of INDRA, the rain and fertility god (Hindus believe that God can take many different guises, but He remains the same spiritual creator)

Thus Eliot brings finally the fertility vegetation figures, and the deities of east and west together in a set of instructions to mankind. which could then, if followed bring the solace and redemption which mankind desperately craves. He is thus able to end the poem with the three repeated Sanskrit words which mean "peace" in a Christian translation "the peace which passes all understanding".



Eliot uses several references to the operas of Wagner, especially "Tristan und Isolde" and the Ring Cycle.

Tristan is a story of passionate love which is doomed and results in the death of the lovers. Tristan loves Isolde, who is betrothed to Tristan's uncle. They are betrayed, Tristan is mortally wounded in combat and Isolde fails to reach him to cure his wounds before he dies. Heartbroken, she dies, too. Wagner uses the sea as a powerful image of passion, as does Eliot. The first quotation

"The wind so wild blows homeward now

My Irish child, where tarriest thou?"

suggests the anguish of Isolde at the beginning of the opera and the second:

"'oed und leer das meer" (open and desolate, the sea) comes as the dying Tristan waits for his lover to come to save him. Both fragments suggest love, longing, loss and desolation - recurrent themes in the poem, as we have seen.

In the Fire Sermon Eliot turns to another vast four-opera work of Wagner, the Ring Cycle, using images of a polluted river (the Rhine in the opera, because of the theft of the mystical gold of the Rhinemaidens) and also snatches of the song which the maidens sing lamenting its loss. The "voices" of the women in this section are the "Thames maidens" and the loss they lament is of their sexual innocence.


The Rape of Philomel

The picture in the boudoir in the opening of "A Game of Chess" depicts the rape of Philomel. A Greek myth which tells of how a King, Tereus, married a girl called Procne and then fell in love with her sister, Philomela. He locked Procne away, pretending she was dead, and then raped Philomela on her way to be married, cutting out her tongue so that she could not tell anyone. Procne heard about this and boiled her and Tereus's son , giving the King the child to eat.Tereus ate the baby, realised what he was doing and pursued the two women out of the kingdom. As he was about to catch htem, the gods transformed Procne into a swallow, Philomel into a nightingale and Tereus into a hoopoe. Ironically the nightingale in pastoral verse is symbolic of romantic love, but "Jug, jug" is Elizabethan slang for sexual intercourse. Again, Eliot combines images which suggest the debasement and violence of love.




The Bible

Eliot draws heavily on both the old and new testaments of the Bible in the Waste Land. The old testament books of Ecclesiastes, Isiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide him with the images of a suffering people and dry deserts laid waste. The Jews awaiting the coming of the Messiah and condemned to suffering for turning away from God are obvious images for this poem. There is also the association of destruction and infertility with sin. The Promised Land will be a place of water and fertility, once the Covenant has been fulfilled. Meanwhile, man is commanded to "enter into the rock and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the Lord" (Isaiah). Mountains are also seen as places of contrition and spiritual failure, and the prophet Jeremiah sees the the absence of God as a time of burning and lust, a time of broken cisterns and empty wells.

Eliot's use of the Bible gives an immediate reference point to 20th century man with a ready made set of responses: sinfulness, turning away from God, penance and the drama of spiritual doom. The old testamen is a world without a Redeemer, and the new is the fulfilment in Christian theology. Christ comes to triumph over sin and win God's forgiveness for mankind. He is the sacrificed god who resurrects and whose blood redeems mankind, bringing back hope and life. The opening part of "What the Thunder Said" has specific images of Christ's arrest, the Garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers and the imprisonment before the trial. There is also a clear reference to the appearance of the risen Christ to the men on the road to Emmaus. In St Luke's account the disciples do not recognize their Lord but take him for a stranger. Eliot seems to be suggesting here that even though the deity can be resurredted, man is blind to the spiritual and cannot recognise the redeemer. The world of the Waste Land is such that revelation, when it comes, cannot be fully recognised for what it is.


Shakespeare and English Renaissance poets.

Thomas Middleton "Women Beware Women"

A Jacobean playwright who uses the chess game in the above play to distract the mother of a girl who is being seduced. Sexual intrigue in a world lacking moral values is the theme of the play. Middleton's use of chess is to symbolise the battle between vice and virtue and the way games are played with people's emotions. Eliot picks up this idea in "A Game of Chess". The violence is, however, not rape and distraction, but mental cruelty and incoherence, the modern world of vicious private neurosis.


Andrew Marvell "To His Coy MIstress"

Eliot uses images and quotations from the above love poem in "The Fire Sermon". As the narrator sits on the bank of the "dull canal" he hears not "times winged chariot" but Sweeney (a character from other Eliot poems - a vicious brute of a man) going to a brothel kept by Mrs Porter. These two characters then transform into Diana and Actaeon , from Greek mythology. Diana, moon goddess of virginity and Actaeon, the hunter who sees her bathing naked and is turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs as a punishment.Again the myth is demeaned and we are reminded of sexual violence.


Edmund Spenser "Prothalamion"

This poem was written to celebrate the double wedding of the daughters of the Earl of Worcester. Its subjects are love, happy marriage and the power and beauty of London. In Eliot's poem again the images are corrupted and sordid. Spenser's nymphs are Eliot's typists and secretaries out for a good time; the river is dirty and natural love and sexual joy are transformed into squalid sexual encounters.


Shakespeare's" Antony & Cleopatra"

The opening sequence of "A Game of Chess" parodies the speech of Enobarbus refering to Cleopatra's barge on the Nile. Once more the splendour of the original is devalued so that instead of a powerful and earth shattering love between two people, we have a meaningless, threatening existence where the woman is presented as a neurotic shrew, and the man as a helpless victim of circumstance.



At the end of "Chess" there is a brief reference to Ophelia, Hamlet's fiancee who drowns herself after Hamlet has killed her father and renounced her. The words "goodnight, sweet ladies" are spoken as she descends into madness. Many of the themes of the play deal with disillusionment in a world where values have become debased and things are not as they should be. The image of a "rank unweeded garden" suggests a waste the play. Again this is Eliot assuming a tremendous amount of knowledge from his audience.


"The Tempest"

One of the last of Shakespeare's plays and one to which which Eliot alludes most frequently in the poem.The story concerns love and change in a fantastic setting and by magical means. The young prince Ferdinand believes his father, the King, to be drowned and hears the music of Ariel, the servant of the magician Prospero drifting over the water as he searches for survivors of the shipwreck which has stranded him onto the magical island. He is about to meet Prospero's daughter, Miranda with whom he falls madly in love. The music creeps by him on the waters as he sits "weeping again the King, my father's wreck". Eliot's Narrator, fishes in the "dull canal" and hears no sweet song followed by love, but merely the music of the newly seduced typist.

The drowned Phoenician sailor in "Death by Water" echoes another song in the play, sung by Ariel, about the supposed drowned King being "Sea-changed" into "something rich and strange". In the play all the characters emerge from their symbolic drowning resurrected into a world of love and harmony, not so of course for the characters in the Waste Land, where drowning ends only in death.

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope