So what's all this about the RING anyway?, a new member asked me recently. Good question! Here's my attempt at an answer:
In myth and the Nibelungsaga, Andvari the Dwarf forged the Ring and called it Andvaranaut. The Ring had a magical ability to seek out gold. The dwarf lived underneath a waterfall and used Andavaranaut to amass a great fortune.
Loki, the trickster god, decided he wanted the Ring. Knowing that Andvari could shapeshift into the form of a fish, Loki borrowed a magic net from Ran, the ocean goddess. Loki caught Andvari and forced him to give up all of his wealth. The dwarf tried to withhold his Ring so that he could rebuild his fortune. Loki made him give up the Ring as well and the dwarf cursed the stolen gold, which would from then on bring disaster to all who owned it.
The misfortune curse soon made Loki regret stealing the Ring. He used it to pay a weirgelt, by giving it to King Hreidmar of the dwarves, as reparation for the murder of Otter, Hreidmarís son. When the giant/dragon Fafnir killed Hreidmar, he took the Ring. In turn, Sigurd (in German, Siegfried) obtains the Ring when he kills Fafnir.
In the Nibelungenlied, the Ring is used as a plot device to show Siegfried's trickery of the Queens Brunnhilde and Gudrun, leading to several tragedies and murders.
OK, now in the OPERA:
Rhinemaidens, lovely mermaids who live in the River Rhine have magic gold called (imagine this) Rhinegold (Rhinegelt). The gold isn't much but a plaything to them. However, if it were to be made into a ring by someone who had completely given up on love, then he would have the power to rule the world.
Alberich (Andvari) the Niebelung (dwarf) steals the Rhinegold because the maidens won't fall in love with him. He curses love, takes the gold, and makes the Ring. This makes him lord of the Nibelung race.
Meanwhile, the Gods led by Wotan (Odin) have had a castle built for them by the giants Fasolt and Fafnir. In this version, the gods decide they will pay the giants by stealing the ring from Alberich. They steal it, Alberich curses it, and the gods give it to the giants. The curse kicks in, Fafnir immediately kills Fasolt so he won't have to share its power, and goes into hiding in a cave in the form of a dragon to guard it.
Siegmund is a man whose mother was a mortal and whose father was Wotan. His twin sister is Sieglinde. They are separated at birth, and when they meet as adults they fall in love. They know they are brother and sister, but they don't care. They call to Wotan to help them, he does, and they run away together. Fricka (Frigga) goddess of marriage (in a very Hera-like turn) finds out and is furious on behalf of Sieglinde's betrayed husband. She forces Wotan to say he will not protect Siegmund. Stuck, Wotan is forced to tell his warrior daughter Brunnhilde to stop protecting them. She defies him because she is so impressed with Siegmund and Sieglinde's devotion. Siegmund loses the fight with the cuckholded husband anyhow, and Brunhilde hides Sieglinde (now pregnant with Siegfried). Wotan is forced to punish Brunnhilde by imprisoning her, asleep on a rock, surrounded by sacred fire. This makes Odin miserable, because even if a hero managed to awaken her, she would become mortal.
Meanwhile, Prince Siegfried has been growing up in the care of a Nibelung named Mime (pronounced "mee-meh"). Mime was one of the Nibelungs who had had to bow down to Alberich's every wish, and now he's out for revenge. Siegfried's mother Sieglinde had managed to make her way to Mime's cave in the forest where she died giving birth to Siegfried. Mime then raised the baby for the sole purpose of having him grow up to be a hero who would steal back the Ring from Fafnir and give it to him! Wotan comes to Mime, though, and, after a game of twenty questions, prophetically informs him that the "one who knows no fear" will kill him. This, of course, is Siegfried.
Mime takes Siegfried out to Fafnir's cave in the hope that he would kill the dragon. Siegfried does so, gets the Ring, but then luckily gets some dragon blood on his fingers, which he sucks off. He can then understand the language of the birds, who tell him that Mime is planning to kill him for the Ring. Siegfried takes the Ring, knowing nothing of its power, and then the birds leads him to Brunnhilde, still on her rock. Siegfried sees her in her armor on the rock, completely forgets why he's there, mistakes her for a man, then realizes she's actually the first woman he's ever seen. He then feels what fear feels like. (on seeing a woman for the first time -- he definitely knows how to pick what to be truly afraid of!) Siegfried wakes her up, gives her the Ring, and they fall in love.
However Hagen, Alberich's son, wants the Ring for himself. He convinces his half-brother Gunther to become friends with Siegfried so he can give Siegfried a magic potion that will make him forget about Brunnhilde. Then Gunther will be able to marry Brunnhilde, after they kill Siegfried, and the Nibelungs will have everything back. They succeed, and kill poor Siegfried. The only problem is, Brunnhilde sees through the whole thing at the last minute, and understands that the only way the curse of the Ring will ever be ended is by returning it to the Rhinemaidens and reaffirming the power of love to all the world.
Brunnhilde has been the only one in the whole Ring cycle who is completely motivated by love in everything she does, and, since the renunciation of love was what it took to give the Ring its power in the first place, she's the one (as the personification of pure love) who will have to be sacrificed in order to restore balance to the world and save everyone. During Siegfried's funeral, she rides her horse triumphantly into the huge fire where his body is, and the redemption begins. The Rhine river floods the whole stage, the Rhinemaidens get their Ring back, all the bad guys die, and the gods' castle burns to the ground. The curse of the Ring is over, and love has saved the world.
FINALLY in UBERHEIM:
Most of the above applies, but there are now 2 Rings. You see, Alberich kept stealing the Ring back from Siegfried. They cut a deal. Alberich got to keep the original Ring, and promised the make a new one for Siegfried. The conditions are that Alberich can not use his Ring to harm Siegfried. Also, Siegfried's Ring is all-powerful and overrules all other powers and magics in the realm. This is why even Asgard bows before Siegfried.
In addition, the new Ring that Siegfried carries will automatically return to him should someone manage to steal it (once he notices that it's gone, that is).
To make issues more complex, Alberich, as a Squire to the King, gave the his Ring (as a sign of loyalty) to the Goddess Syn for keeping until he becomes a Knight.
See also "The Lay of Uberheim"
Opera information adapted from Dan McGlaun at http://www.mcglaun.com/ringstory.htm
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