The Waste Land – Sources

t s eliot

1. Frazer – The Golden Bough

golden bough

The spiritual and psychological needs that a complex of ancient fertility cults had once fulfilled:


The fertility cults of ancient cultures invariably consist of a mortal but divine lover (Adonis / Attis / Osiris) of the Mother Goddess (Ishar / Cybele / Isis) which between them personify the potency / fertility of nature: the union of the goddess and her lover ensuring the fertility of the land. It was the death and/ore sexual maiming (e.g. gored by a wild boar) of the God and the subsequent search for him by the Mother Goddess in the underworld – her withdrawal form the world – that were the origins of winter and infertility: the Gods departed and the world was Waste Land. It was the belief of all their worshippers that by simulating the death and resurrection of the male (often by drowning) they could ensure the return of the goddess and hence the return of life to their land. Osiris was also a vegetation god; he was buried during seedtime so that he would rise again with the corn: when the corn was cut it was the custom of the reapers to beat their breasts and lament over the first sheaf while calling on Isis and seeking his resurrection – Osiris was the guarantor that the Waste Land of harvest will be redeemed. These cults began to take on a metaphysical dimension which concerned not simply the sexual regeneration of life but also the spiritual rebirth of believers.


There was a direct connection, very much to the fore of Eliot’s mind, between the redemption of the parched Waste Land, and the restoration of potency to animals and of eternal life to man.

2.    Jessie L Weston – From Ritual to Romance

ritual to romance


A knight, Gawain, turned up at King Arthur’s court and tell him of the Fisher King, who, with his knights, outraged one of the maidens living in the secret hills, putative priestesses of the vegetation cults, and stole the golden cups of these maidens, which they used to offer hospitality to weary travellers; this crime led to the springs drying up, the collapse of the Fisher King’s court and the land being laid waste for a 1,000 years. Only a virgin male could hope to know the Grail’s secrets and surpass the terror that veils its ultimate spiritual truth, and only after passing through a Waste Land similar to the Valley of Death, eventually approaching Chapel Perilous – the scene of the initiation tests connected to the mystery rituals. The main object of the quest was to restore the health of the king who was the guardian of the Grail, whose sickness had reduced his kingdom to the desolation of drought and death: to a Waste Land. This is the long and eventually Christianised tradition of wisdom which recognised sterility, knew how it could be overcome, but which was now exhausted and all but forgotten. The rituals of the vegetation cults, Eliot believed, had long since been brought to England and served as the origins of such a story.

3.    Tarot Cards


Jessie L Weston thought the original use of the Tarot would have been not to predict the future in general but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land. Weston’s interpretation of the Tarot related the cards to the chief theme and image of The Waste Land: the idea of infertility in all of its forms and the water which, were men in harmony with nature, would return prosperity and growth. However, in Madame Sosostris’s hands the Tarot cards are nothing of the sort: her wisdom is blind and fraudulent. She debases what she sees and she also sees imperfectly. She does not find the Hanged Man and tells her querent to fear the death by water – which in Eliot’s mind was a pointer back to the revitalising fertility of the fertility cults. The consultation with Madame Sosostris is an example of how the present has debased its inheritance and devalued what were once the forces of life.

4.    Tiresias



Tiresias emerges at the mid-point of the poem as a suffering, ambiguous, timeless presence. But he has not come to stand in the middle of the Waste Land to cure it through revelation and tragedy – as he does for Oedipus – revealing to him that he had killed his own father and married his own mother, thereby bringing the plague down upon Thebes, and so revealing that Oedipus is himself the source of the curse that must be removed if Thebes is no longer to be a Waste Land. But there can be no redemption in Eliot’s the Waste Land: Tiresias is the blind and sexually ambiguous epitome of unredeemed human existence; his knowledge and intuition are of futility. Through Tiresias we see how the Waste Land of Thebes, its sterility and sexual sin, is at one with the Waste Land of modern London: all blighted sexuality is one, timeless and omnipresent.

5.    Dante – The Divine Comedy

divine comedy

At the start of the poem Dante is lost in the dark wood of human sin and ignorance. In order to leave it nothing short of a full knowledge of the Christian afterlife, or the state of man’s soul from torpor to beatitude is sufficient. However, in The Waste Land Eliot only uses the first two books of the poem: the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Paradiso is closed to him. It is Virgil, the pagan Latin poet who is Dante’s guide in the first two books: the voice of reason and conscience, man’s best supports in a world unredeemed by divine illumination. In the spiritual sterility which he describes there is as yet no place for faith in the redeeming Christ, for beatitude or the rituals of salvation. Eliot’s subject is suffering. By describing the modern world through the language and associations of a past time rich in spiritual insight, Eliot shows his technique of analysing the present through contact with tradition. However, for Eliot, God and Heaven do not define the Hell of the Waste Land. It is a wholly secular place and it is the sterility of the secular which accounts for its anguish. Such suffering as this is not a prelude to any religious certainties. It bears no relation to divine justice.

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