The characters in the Ring Cycle are primarily inspired from Medieval transcriptions of Norse and Germanic mythology, and more particularly from the 13th century German saga The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). As he developed the librettos of the four operas which make up The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner brought those legends and their variations closer to his other sources of inspiration—namely Greek tragedy and Shakespearian drama—and added his own interpretations.
Wagner retained seven gods from the pantheon of Norse
mythology. These gods represent the highest order of beings in the
universe. In Siegfried, where he
appears as the Wanderer, Wotan describes his
fellow deities as "light spirits who inhabit the cloudy heights ".
Their mad quest for absolute power, represented by gold forged into a ring will
lead them to their own destruction.
The god of the gods—Odin or Wotan, depending on Norse or Germanic mythology—is the god of the dead, victory and knowledge. Left blind in his left eye after he sacrificed it in exchange for knowledge, he can be identified by his spear and the presence of two crows at his side—Huginn and Muninn (who respectively embody “thought” and “memory”). These attributes are replicated in the character created by Wagner. Wotan appears as the archetypal man of power: insatiable, unscrupulous and hypocritical. He is the master of Valhalla, a castle fortress perched on top of the mountains; a dazzling manifestation of his power. His power over the world is based on laws and covenants which will progressively be undermined and erased. Throughout the libretto, his authoritarianism gives way to growing insecurity. The husband of Fricka, he is also the father of the Valkyries as well as of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Loge, the demigod of fire, is an amalgam of two
mythological figures: Logi and Loki. While both embody fire, the latter also
personifies cunning and trickery. In the Ring cycle, Loge retains this duality:
he appears as both the god of fire and Wotan’s masterly advisor ultimately
enabling Wotan to take possession of the ring. He is also one of the rare
characters who is truly free. He alone will be able to distance himself from
the system that Wotan has created, and he alone will resist the lure of the
ring. A calculating character, Loge takes pleasure in playing with the gods and
he possesses a perceptiveness that his peers lack. Throughout the Ring cycle,
he forsakes his human persona to appear in his elemental form: fire.
Fricka, the wife of Wotan and sister of Freia, Donner and Froh, is a divinity inspired by the goddess Frigg (or Frigga) from Norse mythology. In the Ring cycle she is the personification of lawfulness and fidelity. Tired of her husband’s infidelities, Fricka trys to make Wotan settle down and urges him to build Valhalla, a divine abode for them to live in. While Fricka is eager to defend the institution of marriage, she seeks above all to preserve the original values of divine society: respect for law and morality. In Die Walküre, she confronts Wotan with his own contradictions by reminding him that the guarantor of laws should not support Siegmund.
Freyja is a key divinity of Norse and Germanic mythology. A creature of incredible beauty, she is the goddess of love and fertility. In the Ring cycle, Freia is the sister of Fricka. In Valhalla, the gods are blessed with eternal youth thanks to her cultivation of golden apples. Coveted by Fafner and Fasolt in Das Rheingold, Freia serves as a bargaining chip for Wotan who promises her to two giants in exchange for the construction of Valhalla. Without Freia, the gods find themselves deprived of their source of eternal youth and begin to waste away.
The personification of Strength and power, Thor (also known as Donner) is one of the most popular gods in Germanic mythology. His hallmark is his hammer which is the source of thunder and lightning. Present only in Das Rheingold, Donner nevertheless occupies a strategic place among the other characters. He embodies the figure of a military leader who thinks in warlike terms to counter the threat posed by Alberich. His hammer, evocative of violence, is a symbolic counterforce to the inherent lawfulness represented by Wotan's spear.
Along with Odin and Thor, Freyr is one of the three major gods in Germanic mythology. The personification of fertility he is also the brother of Freyja. Known as Froh in the Ring cycle, he only appears in Das Rheingold. His perseverance in defending Freia and the words he has for her reflects the closeness of the two characters.