Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder lived and created during the height of eighteenth-century interest in and fascination with Egypt. The Magic Flute’s Egyptian setting would therefore evoke in their contemporaneous audience notions of a distant land with an exotic and magical culture. The numerous Egyptian elements of the work are representative of its era and are situated near the end of a continuum of European thought about ancient Egypt before the solid foundation of modern day Egyptology had been laid. To Europeans, Egypt was a murky and mysterious landscape, one that easily lent itself to imaginative speculations about the purpose of its awesome architecture, the nature of its arcane ritual ceremonies, and the knowledge contained in its intriguing, then-undeciphered language. Such European perception of ancient Egypt informed the cultural productions of the late eighteenth century, including The Magic Flute.
Ancient Egypt: Lost and Found
Over three thousand years ago, powerful officials serving under Rameses II made trips to visit their ancient past, standing in reverence before the Great Pyramids of Giza, which were already over a thousand years old. For three and a half millennia, the regular flood of the Nile had sustained one of the longest-lived and most glorious civilizations the world has known. When the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in their infancy, the rulers of Egypt were trying to recapture the splendor of their predecessors.
Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek scholar-travelers came to see for themselves the age-old wonder that was Egypt, leaving records of their journeys—writings that were often more filled with legend and imaginative rumination than with accuracy. Often the Greeks sought to tie their own traditions in with those of Egypt, hoping to add the weight of Egypt’s gravity and prestige to their own culture. Herodotus, probably the most famous of these Greek travelers, said that “more monuments which beggar description are to be found there [in Egypt] than anywhere else in the world.”1
Yet even Egypt’s persistent culture could not outlast time and its inevitable changes. Christianity brought about the demise of much of the Egyptian culture. Determined to purge themselves of all vestiges of their heathen background, Egyptian Christians programmatically shut down pagan temples and rites. Another victim of this inner cleansing was the Egyptian system of writing. Hieroglyphs, with their depictions of various gods, were unacceptable. In 394 AD, the priests at Isis’s temple in Philae, in southernmost Egypt, carved the last hieroglyph onto stone before Christian patriarchs ended the active use of hieroglyphs forever.2 The advent of Islam also hastened the disappearance of ancient Egypt’s culture. The dominant religions of Christianity and Islam turned the travelers’ focus from Egypt to Jerusalem and Mecca. A few travelers went as far as Giza and the Great Pyramids, but the vistas farther south were long forgotten. Like so many of the ancient sphinxes sunk beneath the sand, the glory of Egypt was buried by the winds of change.
During the Renaissance, a new wind blew back the sands of obscurity, revealing Egypt’s desert treasures. Europeans searching for their classical roots encountered the records of the Greeks who had written about ancient Egypt. The Greek studies received a new impetus as Constantinople fell in 1453 and voluminous, long-neglected classical works were retrieved from its libraries.3 European scholars armed with Herodotus, Strabo, Diodorus, and their own Bible found their imaginations stirred by the accounts of ancient Egypt. Curiously, few, if any, of the classical scholars, for all their vaunted thirst for knowledge, had taken the time to learn anything about the Egyptian language or writing system, with the possible exception of Pythagoras.4 Moreover, while Greek scholars had tried to grasp the intellectual riches they found, much of the record they left is less than reliable. Besides reporting hearsay and legends, the Greeks often misportrayed architecture they had actually seen for themselves, evidenced by the varied and exaggerated accounts of the labyrinth adjoining the pyramid of Amenemhet III. Still, these accounts caught the fancy and fueled the imagination of early modern thinkers questing for new knowledge of old ideas.
To accompany the classical Greek accounts of Egypt, there was soon a stream of new sources about the country. As early as 1646, John Greaves (1602–52), an Oxford scholar, published his survey of Giza in his monograph Pyramidographia, or a Discourse of the Pyramids in Aegypt. Henceforth, findings in Egypt poured into Europe. During the late eighteenth century, accurate drawings of valleys, monuments, and statues, along with realistic copies of inscriptions, were included in these publications. Notable among these were the Danish mariner Frederick Norden’s (1708–42) lavishly illustrated volume of his travels, published posthumously numerous times from 1751 to the end of the century, and Archdeacon of Dublin Richard Pococke’s (1704–65) popular book Description of the East, which was reprinted many times after its initial publication in 1743.
Accompanying this steady flow of information was a parallel stream of intellectual musing about pharaonic culture. Some of Europe’s greatest minds puzzled over the enigma of ancient Egypt. Yet, despite the increasing availability of accurate information and the application of enlightened principles of study, much of what was written on Egypt continued to be a mix of speculation and scholarship. An example of this strange mingling is the work of Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), who was considered one of the greatest scholars of his time. As he worked in Rome, where a number of genuine Egyptian artifacts and architecture had been placed by the Romans, he became increasingly interested in Egypt. Kircher put the study of Coptic—the last phase of the Egyptian language, written primarily in Greek letters—on a solid footing.5 He also correctly identified Coptic as a remnant of the language of ancient Egypt. This Jesuit priest was convinced that the ancient Egyptians knew of secret powers and motions and understood lost concepts. He came to believe, incorrectly, that he could decipher hieroglyphs and that they concealed the philosophical lore of ancient Egypt. He reconciled these beliefs with his Jesuit views by finding a godly character in Egyptian lore: he interpreted Hermes Trismegistus, a Grecified and transmogrified version of the Egyptian god Thoth, as a prophet who had invented hieroglyphs.6
The Magic and Mystery of Egypt
Kircher’s work serves as a good example of the way Enlightenment egyptological scholarship intermingled with the unscholarly impression that ancient Egypt was a land of magic and mystery. The biblical account of Egypt illustrated a country whose ruler received prophetic dreams and whose royal magicians were able to match many of God’s miracles with their own mysterious arts. Alexander the Great had been crowned by the famous Oracle of Siwa in Egypt, causing him to want to be buried there above all other places he had been. The Emperor Hadrian had reportedly traveled to Egypt, where he had met and been impressed by its magicians. Legend had it that Pythagoras summoned an eagle to himself by employing an art that he learned from Egyptian magicians. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) captured his contemporaries’ fascination with Cleopatra VII’s strange, spell-like power over Mark Antony in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Even Saint Anthony had allegedly been tempted by Egyptian magic. In the eighteenth century, this image of Egypt was kept alive by plays and tales such as Christoph Martin Wieland’s (1733–1813) folktale caricature, in Dschinnistan, of an Egyptian sorcerer who wore a pyramid-shaped hat.7
The architecture of Egypt also contributed to the aura of mystery. The Romans had been so taken by archaic Egyptian monuments that they had brought obelisks, statues, and other goods to Rome, sometimes placing them in an artificially created Nile landscape or next to locally built pyramid tombs. These antiquities were still visible during the Renaissance and ensuing periods, and the imagination they sparked was enhanced by the multitude of drawings and descriptions that became available in the eighteenth century through engravers such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) of Italy and Johann Heinrich Lips (1758–1817) of Switzerland (fig. 1). Even today, paintings such as those of Scotsman David Roberts (1796–1864), which were first published in the early nineteenth century, convey the impression of ancient Egyptian grandeur and mystery. The lack of knowledge about the purpose of such buildings as the pyramids only fueled the fires of the European imagination. Architecture such as the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx easily lent themselves to admiration and fanciful speculation. Although the descriptions and drawings paled in comparison to reality, they still managed to convey something of the reaction of eyewitnesses. Such wonder is well portrayed by Napoleon’s soldiers, who, when they arrived at the temple of Luxor in 1799, were so awed by its size and magnificence that they broke into applause, after which they “spontaneously formed ranks and presented arms.”8
Eighteenth-century European reaction to all of this aura can be seen in the notions propagated by the intellectual elite. The sense of Egypt’s might and mystery was added to by scholarly ideas of China’s culture deriving from Egypt, which had purportedly once conquered China. In the 1790s, it was speculated that the cathedral of Notre Dame had been built on the ruins of a temple of Isis. French revolutionaries were so enthralled with Egypt that they built a statue of Isis on the ruins of the Bastille and, for a while, used the ancient Egyptian calendar instead of the Roman.9
The Wisdom and Lore of Ancient Egypt
Another impression of Egypt as a land of magic and mystery was that within its ritual culture were long-lost secrets of wisdom. Again, the sources most readily available in Mozart’s eighteenth-century cultural milieu confirmed this idea: The Bible indicates that Moses was learned in the wisdom of Egypt (Acts 7:22) and demonstrates that Solomon was the wisest man on earth by saying that he was even more wise than the ancients of Egypt (1 Kgs. 4:31). Greek intellectuals, such as Solon, Pythagoras, and Plato, had supposedly studied with Egyptian priests. Herodotus continually wrote of mysteries and wisdom that the Egyptians possessed but that were not prudent to pass on. And for centuries Alexandria was famous for having the best library in all the world.10
Hieroglyphs. Although some intellectuals decried Egyptian hieroglyphs as a primitive and superstitious form of writing, much of the respect and ambience of Egyptian lore was focused on the ancient writing system. Until hieroglyphs were deciphered in the mid-nineteenth century, the symbols remained a locus of speculation and apprehension.11 The hieroglyphic form of writing lent itself to symbolism. Furthermore, the use of glyphs for graphemes was fluid enough that the Egyptians themselves were immensely fond of playing with them. We know of tables written in such a way that they convey an intended message read either in horizontal rows or vertical columns.12 Moreover, many inscriptions employed what has often been called “cryptographic writing.” Since the purpose was likely not to conceal meaning but was probably instead a manner of playing with words and symbols, the term “sportive writing” is now more commonly employed. Additionally, because the signs were actual pictures, they were often used as elements of Egyptian art to further convey meaning and symbolism. The sheer number and pictographic nature of the signs bespoke mystery to any who did not know the language.
Europeans had inherited a long tradition of viewing hieroglyphs as a method of conveying great and hidden knowledge. By 1422 they knew of the writings of Horapollo, a fifth-century Alexandrian scholar, who had written his Greek work Hieroglyphica shortly after the meridian of time. Horapollo believed that behind each Egyptian sign was a number of symbols and meanings, a few of which he elucidated.13 European intellectuals such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) were so intrigued by Egyptian lore that they had ordinary objects such as cups and plates painted with Egyptian scenes and hieroglyphs. This intense preoccupation with Egyptian writing led to attempts to collect Egyptian inscriptions in Europe. For example, Goethe gathered a great deal of genuine and reproduced artifacts for the museum in Weimar and his own private collection.14
Mummies and Artifacts. The perceived wisdom of ancient Egypt led to other fascinations. Inscriptions were not the only alluring Egyptian items that gave an impetus to amassing Egyptian antiquities. For centuries Arab physicians, once regarded as the best, had used bitumen in treating a variety of ailments. When bitumen became less available, they instead prescribed the use of mummified flesh. This practice was adopted by many crusaders, who carried it home and made it vogue.15 Hence, from the thirteenth century onward, Europeans used mummies medicinally in wound care and for internal ailments. The demand for mummies led to large-scale grave robbing and mummy exportation from northern Egypt. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the arrival of whole mummies in Europe created a new attraction. Soon a great many museums were scrambling to add a mummy to their collection to be on a par with their competitors. The need for both display and medicinal mummies gave rise to even greater digging and exportation projects in Egypt, none of which placed much emphasis on the scholarly value of the sites they destroyed.
Such extensive importation led to a frenzy of collecting other Egyptian artifacts for European museums. Various European countries had consuls in Egypt to protect their interests there; these consuls did all they could to ensure that their country procured a sizeable display of the wonders of ancient Egypt.16 The exportation of obelisks, statues, sarcophagi, inscriptions, mummies, and other artifacts proceeded in a wanton manner and at a reckless pace. During this era, the great collections of museums in England, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary were acquired.17 Competition between countries could be intense: the French consul even built a small house atop the first pylon of the Karnak temple so that he could watch over his terrain with a telescope.18
This period was a time of exploitation in excavation. Impeding stonework was often removed via dynamite, and excavators such as Antonio Lebolo garnered wealth by excavating for clients by day and for themselves by night, hiding their nocturnal finds in closets as they sought buyers. Some seekers even destroyed any artifacts similar to those they had acquired in order to escalate and protect the value of their goods. The steady stream of stone grandeur into the museums, libraries, and private households of Europe did much to heighten that continent’s interest in the ancient Egyptians and the secrets they must have possessed to be able to do so much so long ago.
Egyptian Lore within Christian Countries
As has already been noted, respect for Egyptian wisdom necessarily tangled its roots with those of Christianity. In the seventeenth century, three learned Englishmen published studies on Egyptian culture. Sir John Marsham (1602–85), who published on the problem of chronologies in the Old Testament, was among the first to consider Egyptian antiquities. John Spencer (1630–93) of Cambridge suggested a comparative study of Old Testament cultures and considered similarities between Hebrew and Egyptian rituals. He attributed the origin of the Urim and Thummim to Egypt in his Dissertatio de Urim et Thummim (1669). Generally, Egypt was credited with a superior understanding of the cosmos and with the possession of secret wisdom beyond that available in European cultures. Religious belief, the quest for knowledge, and mysticism were all mixed together.
A type of cognitive dissonance was created by looking to such a pagan country for lore surpassing that of Christian nations. This dissonance was alleviated by the creation of the concept of true Egyptian religion being closer to Christianity. Thus Ralph Cudworth (1617–88), professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, posited that the essence of Egyptian religion was monotheistic and suggested that Moses was an initiate into the secrets of Egyptian religion, which prepared him to be able to receive the various revelations of Sinai. The idea of the Egyptian elite practicing an appropriate monotheism while the general population practiced a heathen polytheism lasted into the nineteenth century and even played a part in twentieth-century scholarship.19
The concept of an orthodox Egyptian initiation caught hold in certain religious circles, finding fertile ground in the Germanic lands around Mozart’s time. Historian Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), among others, speculated on Moses’s exposure to Egyptian mysteries in Die Sendung Moses (The Mission of Moses, 1790).20
Notable among groups that sought to fathom ancient mysteries is the Fama Fraternitatis, R. C. (Rosae crucis) or Rosicrucian Brotherhood, which originated in the Germanic lands. This group’s popularity in the eighteenth century was based largely on an increasingly accepted view that Moses was an initiate into Egyptian lore, forming the basis of Old Testament religion. Although, according to the Rosicrucians, some impure elements had crept into Egyptian religious thought, Saint Mark purportedly cleansed this Egyptian lore of all heathen practices. Alchemy was also thought to be a part of the saving lore of the Egyptians, and its resurrection was attempted. Hence a Rosicrucian passed through various states of initiation, culling the secrets that he believed were still available in Egyptian temples.
Perhaps the most significant ramification of the Rosicrucian movement was its effect on another group, the Freemasons. Freemasonry would become much more widespread and influential than Rosicrucianism, yet it was heavily influenced by the Rosicrucian emphasis on Egypt. Because of Rosicrucian beliefs, Masons began believing that Moses had been initiated into appropriate arcana by a secret priestly society in Egypt. This idea was strengthened by Jean Terrasson’s novel Séthos, published in 1731, describing a young protagonist who was initiated into the Isis mysteries within the chambers of the Great Pyramid (and taken by some to be based on the life of an actual ancient Egyptian prince who experienced the mysteries of ritual initiation). The protagonist’s encounter with the four elements changed his nature sufficiently to allow him to fully partake of the Great Isis Mysteries.21 Influential intellectuals of the Enlightenment, such as the librarian of Frederick the Great, joined Freemasonry and adopted an interest in ancient Egyptian initiation rites. In 1770 a group of Freemasons published a tract that became the model for an Egyptian initiation supposedly begun by the first king of Egypt.22
The arch-swindler, the Italian Count Alessandro Cagliostro (1743–95), exploited naive notions about Egyptian influence and attempted to blend those notions with Freemasonry. This enigmatic aristocrat claimed to know priests of underground temples still existing in Egypt who could trace their origins back to the time before Moses. This supposed clandestine class of priests had allowed Cagliostro to become privy to their most esoteric initiations, which he in turn spread to any Freemason interested. These so-called Egyptian rites spread through some branches of Masonry in France, Poland, Switzerland, and Germany.
In 1791, the same year that The Magic Flute was first performed, Cagliostro was condemned by the Inquisition. Pope Pius VI (1717–99) spared his life and had him imprisoned for life instead. His manuscript was publicly burned, and he festered in a Papal prison while his ideas continued to spread. Masonry embedded within itself the idea of passing through seven stages of Egyptian initiation, in which deep mysteries were unfolded.23 Many intellectuals did not approve of such secret societies, yet this did not seem to lessen their allure or influence. In fact, Goethe, a Freemason himself, completed a play in 1791 entitled Der Gross-Cophta (The Great Cophta) aimed at excoriating and exposing Cagliostro-like frauds.
Ignaz von Born, a Master Mason and highly respected Viennese scientist, published an influential essay in 1784 entitled “Üeber die Mysterien der Aegyptier” (On the Egyptian Mysteries). Scholars agree that Mozart and Schikaneder were inspired by von Born.24 The Magic Flute also contains elements derived directly from Terrasson’s Séthos. Thus The Magic Flute is an intertextual work that drew on the European fascination with Egypt and contributed to it.
In sum, the Europe of Mozart’s day had the widespread impression that great secrets were locked within the culture of ancient Egypt, tantalizingly beyond the reach of modern civilization. Although some scholars thought that they had grasped these secrets, most felt that these mysteries had not yet, but soon would be, unfolded. While there were skeptics, the latter group held that if only the initiations could be truly recovered and understood or the deep symbols locked within hieroglyphs set free, then the wisdom of Egypt would lead mankind to a higher state.
The aura of wisdom and mystery that veiled Egypt has still not completely fallen. Just years after Mozart’s death, the first steps toward a more scholarly understanding of ancient Egypt were taken. In 1798, when Napoleon launched his invasion of Egypt, he brought with him a scientific corps, comprising 150 specialists in geography, geology, and language, who began to systematically study Egyptian history and culture. One of the treasures they plundered was the Rosetta Stone (now on display in London’s British Museum), the key that would slowly unlock the mystery of hieroglyphs (fig. 2). As the true nature of this writing system was understood, false notions as to its secrets largely slipped away, to be replaced by the vast amount of information that accurate translations yielded. Today the sands that concealed Egypt have been largely cleared away.