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The Flying Dutchman

Remains of the American Star ship, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, Spain

Remains of the 'American Star' in Fuerteventura (Canary Islands, Spain). [Photo: A. Alvarez/LPDS]

The legend of the Eldorado, that is to say that of the man of gold and his extremely rich empire, is closely related to the discovery of America and to the hopes, often excessive, that he himself had fostered. But the West Indies route, as the Atlantic was then called, was not the only direction in which the efforts of audacious navigators were exerted: Alvise Cadamosto, Antoniotto Usodimare, Diego Cão and Bartolomeu Dias, among others, had tried or were trying to trace the route that was to lead to Asia by sea, through the circumnavigation of Africa, and that Vasco da Gama would definitively establish.

Christopher Columbus had set the course of the Atlantic Ocean practically at the first attempt and, apart from a few sporadic incidents, they had not subsequently cost great efforts or serious loss of human life. On the other hand, the one that tried to surround Africa was a cursed route and resisted for more than a century the risky and often bad attempts of the navigators. Even when the route was recorded on nautical charts and Europeans, especially the Dutch, ventured along it, the voyage of the African continent was long considered a very difficult feat. Mainly the cape of Good Hope, which Dias called of the Storms, aroused the fear of the sailors. His stories implied that furious storms raged in the area where the waters of the Atlantic mix with those of the Indian Ocean.

The sad fame of that course, the frightened idea that people had of solitary navigations in unknown seas and a certain dose of superstition, which branded the desire to look beyond the known as sacrilegious, fostered legends, the best known of which which, and of which there are different literary versions, is that of The Flying Dutchman.

Nordic Story Inspired by the Legend of The Flying Jew

It is a fifteenth-century Nordic story in which some classical reminiscences are recognizable, such as the journey and death of Ulysses beyond the "forbidden" limit of the Pillars of Hercules, a clear derivation of the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew.

Starting from a passage in the Gospel of Saint John, the latter was about a certain Ahasvero who had insulted Jesus Christ or, according to another version, prevented him from resting in front of his tent during the painful transition from the Redeemer to Calvary.

-I have traveled almost all my way, but you will walk yours until Judgment Day- It's told that Jesus said to Ahasvero on such an occasion.

From then on, century after century, the Jew wandered from nation to nation, under the weight of divine anathema, and pleaded in vain for death to come and put an end to his suffering.

The Dutch legend, perhaps the first in the long series on the figure of the cursed navigator, refers to Captain Vanderdecken, obstinate in rounding the Cape of Good Hope despite a clear supernatural prohibition. Repulsed many times by the fury of storms, he sacrilegiously swore that he would insist on the undertaking despite all divine orders contrary to his purpose. God heard his blasphemous words and pronounced doom on him: the Dutchman would wander the seas until Judgment Day.

In a German version, the captain, called Von Falkenberg, deserved an even worse condemnation, because, in addition to having to sail perpetually in a rudderless ship, he had to engage in an endless game of dice -or chess- with the devil, risking his life. soul for bet

The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) picked up the story of the popular living fountain and made it the subject of a ballad. It was then often used in literature, but with arrangements and the addition of novelistic details that undermined its spontaneity and vigor. Walter Scott (1771-1832), among others, imagined in his work Rokeby that the ship was loaded with gold and that a murder was committed on board out of greed. The plague, divine punishment, was declared among the cursed crew, to which for this reason, all ports were always closed.

Pleading for Death to Achieve Peace

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Hear The Rime of the Ancient Mariner...

A fate as dark and gruesome as that of the Flying Dutchman must have appealed to the romantics, and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used it in his lyrical opera The Ghost Ship, whose libretto and music he composed around 1843. The dominant motif, however, is not that of the curse, but the truly romantic one of the redeeming power of love. The Dutchman has a chance to save himself: he has been authorized to land every seven years and look for a woman who, out of love for him, is willing to sacrifice herself to save him.

The opera begins when a raging storm forces Norwegian Daland, who returns to his homeland, to take refuge in a sheltered place on the coast. Another ship appears, spectral and with a bloody red sail, which arrives silently, as if the waters were lifting it into the air. His crew of human larvae, chained and without hope of redemption, ask for death to achieve peace.

In the face of his captain, the Dutchman, you can see the desperation of an extremely long sentence.

Taking pity on the appearance of suffering of the revenants, and stimulated by the treasures that the stranger transports in his ship, Daland offers to go with him to his city to give him his daughter Senta in marriage. The Dutch accepts, attracted by that possibility of salvation.

He sits wandering in her house, surrounded by the maids, but she doesn't pay attention to her casual conversation. She is absorbed in the contemplation of a pale and gloomy man, the Flying Dutchman, who exerts a strange fascination on her. It is an old portrait that she has always seen in her father's home, but when she looks at it then she is particularly disturbed, and she feels drawn to sing the ballad of the damned navigator. Little by little, her singing exalts her, until she vows to dedicate herself to the redemption of the condemned, despite the terrified pleas of Erik, her fiancé.

Sacrificing One's Life for Love

When the Dutchman enters the house with Daland, Senta immediately recognizes him and welcomes him with a promise that she will be faithful to him until death. That night, as the ominous song of the Dutch fades in the harbor, as the waves and wind continue to swirl tumultuously around the cursed ship, Erik reminds Senta of the promise she made to him at the time of her betrothal. The Dutchman, who is close to them, hears them. To save the girl from the doom that will destroy her if she breaks her oath, he finds no recourse but to rebel against the terrified bystanders. He then jumps into his ship and sails to his destination. Senta yells at her that she will be faithful to him and she jumps off a cliff into the sea. The girl's love has even come to the supreme sacrifice of her life. At that precise moment the ship sinks far from the coast, and from the waves, finally calm, rise the spirits of Senta and the Dutchman, transfigured and saved.

The tragic simplicity of the primitive legend has been lost in Wagner's opera. The mythical transposition of the daily sacrifice of the man of the sea is not recognized in it, constantly forced to sail far from his family and from his homeland, between fatigue and the latent dangers in natural forces, a life that must have seemed to many a curse. . Another spirit appears in her: that of the restless and anguished romantic mentality ready to seek the overcoming of its own contradictions in a superior, ideal love, constantly longed for.

Dangerous beauty...

Much closer to us, the legend has served as the plot for quite successful films at the time, such as Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, starring James Mason and Ava Gardner.


[Source: Va.Aa. (1978). The Flying Dutchman. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 151-155). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]