Operas are noted for their music rather than their librettos. They are attributed to their composers rather than their librettists. Thus the perennial popularity of Mozart’s Magic Flute is attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music rather than Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto.Schikaneder’s plot revolves around the conversion and initiation of Tamino, Pamina, and Papageno into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, seen largely from Tamino’s point of view. (This can provide some confusion for those who encounter the opera for the first time as Tamino learns in the second act that what he thought was good and evil in the first act is really the other way around. )
Schikaneder and Mozart were both members of the Viennese Masonic lodge Zur wahren Eintracht, which based its ritual on the same novel, Sethos, upon which Schikaneder based the plot of The Magic Flute. The novel Sethos was written by Jean Terrasson in 1731. Terrasson was a classically trained scholar who knew his sources on Egypt and based the initiations in Sethos on the descriptions of Egyptian initiations in the writings of Apuleius, Plutarch, Iamblichus, and Eusebius. Other than the scenery, few Egyptian motifs actually appear in The Magic Flute, and at least one Egyptologist, Siegfried Morenz, has argued that the Egyptian motifs are Greek rather than Egyptian. Such a position makes some sense in that Mozart died (1791) before the Rosetta Stone was discovered (1799) and while its decipherer, Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), was just a toddler. We should, therefore, expect little if any correspondence between ancient Egypt and The Magic Flute, and that is what we find. Nevertheless, contrary to Morenz’s assertions, a few ancient Egyptian motifs survive in garbled form. A half century of research and discovery has brought new evidence to light, but the most important change has been a reorientation in thinking brought about in part by one of Morenz’s own students.
Though the Egyptian motifs have been obscured, they are present and are worth examining not only (1) in light of what Schikaneder knew second-hand from classical sources, but also (2) in light of what is now known about these same motifs from Egypt based on the Egyptian sources.
The names of most of the characters in The Magic Flute reflect an Italian background, so it comes as something of a surprise to find that the names of two of the protagonists in The Magic Flute are Egyptian in origin. Tamino, the heroic male protagonist, has an Egyptian name that means “She of Min,”while the heroine, Pamina, has an Egyptian name that means “He of Min.” Min was an Egyptian god most closely tied to the Egyptian sites of Panopolis (Akhmim), and Coptos, although he was also worshiped at Thebes. Efforts to characterize Min as a particular type of deity (for example, a fertility god) fail to do justice to his multiple roles and characteristics. We might expect that if Schikaneder had known anything about ancient Egypt directly, then the gender of his protagonists would have been correct.
The most prominent Egyptian motif in The Magic Flute is the initiation. The initiation into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris is well known from classical sources such as Herodotus,Plutarch, Apuleius, and others, the sources available to Schikaneder and Terrasson. Egyptian texts unavailable to them allow us to shed some other light on Egyptian initiation as portrayed in the classical sources. In particular, we have at least portions of three different initiation rituals from Egyptian papyri that are explicitly identified as such. We must consider each of these sources to understand the thirdhand use of Egyptian material found in The Magic Flute.
In The Magic Flute, Tamino is initiated by first being prohibited from speaking (2.4–2.6, 2.13–2.19). Papageno fails this portion of the initiation. Tamino then confronts fire, water, air, and earth with Pamina, which they overcome with the aid of the magic flute (hence the name of the opera). They then appear “in priestly clothing” (in priesterlicher Kleidung) as the entire theater changes into a representation of the sun (2.30). Aside from the magic flute, these elements are taken from the classical authors’ descriptions of Egyptian initiations.
The classical authors describe the Egyptian initiation in similar terms. Herodotus describes the mysteries of Isis and Osiris as a passion play that is staged on a lake at night.Apuleius describes the mysteries as taking place in a temple at night after purification and several days of preparation. Both Herodotus and Apuleius preserve a discrete silence on the subject, since they themselves were initiated and initiates were not supposed to discuss the initiation in explicit terms. They are, however, willing to tell some aspects of the experience, which was found in “some books written in an illegible alphabet” : “I passed the confines of death, treading the threshold of Proserpina, and returned having passed through all the elements. In the middle of the night I saw the sun flashing with bright light, and I met the gods beneath and above, and worshiped before them.” At the end of the initiation, the initiate emerged in a fine linen (byssus) garment elaborately embroidered with scenes, wearing a stole and a crown of leaves and carrying a torch or lamp representing the sun.
The descriptions of Egyptian initiation by these classical authors compare with some provided by the Egyptians themselves. A Ptolemaic period Egyptian text describes an initiation read off a secret roll described as the Book of Thoth:
He placed the scroll in my hand. I read one text from it. I encircled the heaven, the earth, and the netherworld, the mountains, and the seas. I discovered everything that the birds of heaven, the fish of the sea, and the cattle said. I read another text. I saw the sun appearing in heaven with his council of gods. I saw the moon shining with the stars of heaven and their constellations. I saw the fish of the sea although there was 21 cubits of water over them.
At first glance, Apuleius’s description and the Egyptian descriptions do seem dissimilar, but both are written on scrolls, deal with a tour of the cosmos, including the netherworld, and have a vision of the sun along with attendant deities.
Beyond similar descriptions found in Egyptian texts, there is also an Egyptian term meaning “to initiate.” The Egyptian verb “to initiate” bs(i) “always implies . . . an idea of ascension from a lower world to a higher world.”The verb is used both for the initiation into the temple and for the initiation of a priest into a higher office. The constituent elements of the Egyptian initiation are normally seen to include aspects of transition and rebirth (fig. 1). As a rebirth the initiation involves the creation or re-creation of the individual followed by his coronation. As a transition, the initiation involves the acquisition of knowledge, following the path that leads to justification through the gates where the individual is tried. The initiation also involves the seeing of secret things.
In the description of Egyptian initiation, some aspects invite closer examination. In the first stage of the initiation, the initiates, Tamino and Papageno, are enjoined not to speak to women (2.4–2.6), and then later not to speak at all (2.13–2.19). In classical terms, this is called a silentium, although the most common use of the silentium is to prevent people from talking about the initiation rites they have received to the uninitiated.
The Egyptian version of the silentium is well known from classical sources, but it also appears in the Egyptian accounts of initiation. One initiation text specifies that during the initiation the initiate is to remain silent in order that “you may remember unfailingly those things said by the great god.”The injunction to silence also appears both in chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead: “I did not raise my voice,” and twice in the demotic Book of the Dead: “I did not raise my voice.”
Raising the voice can occur in several different contexts. It occurs in the context of injustice when the eloquent peasant Khunanup “wept very much for the pain of what was done against him. Then this Nemtynakht said: Don’t raise your voice or you will join the lord of silence (that is, die)!”The Middle Kingdom monarch Djefayhapy extolled himself as “one who subdues the vainglory of the proud and one who silenced the loud voiced so that he would not speak;” and yet a few lines later called himself “loud voiced when he praises god.” These Middle Kingdom passages demonstrate that context is important when interpreting what a loud voice means in ancient Egypt.
Thutmosis III’s vizier, Weser, elucidates the context of this particular ritual requirement in a lengthy passage providing a specific context:
I acted as priest entering the temple of Amun, and I applied ointment to the god’s flesh, and I adorned Amun and Min. I carried Amun in his feast, and lifted Min onto his platform. I did not stand erect in the house of the lord of bowing. I did not raise my arm in the house of him who raises his arm [Min]. I did not raise my voice in the house of the lord of silence. I did not lie in the house of the lord of truth. I did not go astray from the purity of my god. I did not take a portion of his divine offerings.
This autobiographical account clearly points to the context of many of the items in the negative confession as being part of the priestly duties and, at least as far as a loud voice is concerned, restricts its use inside particular cultic settings. Raising his voice is one of the crimes for which Seth is condemned in the execration ritual of Abydos.Yet at other times, a loud voice was part of the ritual, as a Ptolemaic ritual roll describes part of a funerary ritual as “a recitation by his priest with his voice raised behind this god.”
One can also discern a pattern of increasing restrictions over time. If in the Middle Kingdom Djefayhapy praised god with a loud voice, Weser in the New Kingdom spoke in muted tones in Osirian temples, while by Roman times, the interdiction had become pervasive, as Papyrus Insinger demonstrates: “A temple in which there is no quiet, its gods are those who reject it.”In a similar vein, during Ptolemaic times, the temple at Esna prohibited the use of harps, tambourines, and trumpets during the festival of grasping the crook on 20 Epiphi. Practical benefits of speaking soto voce emphasized the avoidance of disease (and consequent impurity): “A loud voice always makes misery in the body like sickness.” Silence during some worship continued in the Isis cult to Roman times. The prescription of silence continued to be a constant emphasis into Christian Egypt, where it reached its greatest extreme in the monastic movement, the ideal being never to speak at all.
Schikaneder’s version of the initiation in The Magic Flute changes the silentium of the Egyptian mysteries into something other than it is in the Egyptian mysteries.
The Four Elements
The Egyptian initiations do not have a passage through the four Aristotelian elements (earth, water, fire, and air) as is present in The Magic Flute and in even the classical writers’ accounts of Egyptian initiations. Instead, the Egyptian initiations present an account of the creation, occasionally mentioning one or another of the four elements.The story of the creation centers on the creator god laughing or speaking and creating various parts of the earth or divine entities in seven discrete acts: First light, second water, third intellect, fourth procreation, fifth justice, sixth time, and seventh the soul. These creation stories parallel a recently published creation account from the Tebtunis temple archive. In this account, the creator first finds a place, then begets a son, then creates other gods. The wind separates the sky from earth, the water above from the waters below. Then the sun is created. After that there is a rebellion in heaven, which is subsequently suppressed. The gods grow old and die. Then the moon enters the sky, and the son of god is born and hidden. The breath of life is given, and then death is created, to which all living creatures are made subject. Stones and minerals are given to the serpents, and then the stars are created. Coming from various fragments whose order is uncertain, the narrative is disjointed. Nevertheless, the creation narrative is clearly present; it comes from a temple archive; and it provides an antecedent to the description by classical authors, who would associate the creation with the four elements since “the creation of the cosmos received the whole of every one of the four elements.”
The late period creation narratives have parallels with earlier creation accounts. In the Shabako Stone, which was written no earlier than the Nineteenth Dynasty,the creator, Ptah, also speaks in order to create the world and all things therein. Ptah “gave birth to the gods; he made the towns; he founded the territories; he placed the gods in their shrines; he established their offerings; he founded their shrines; he fashioned their bodies in order to pacify their hearts, so that the gods might enter into their bodies.” Mention of the rebellion in heaven is also based on a previous work, which tells how men “were plotting against Re,” who was the king of heaven and earth and who dwelt on earth at that time. The rebels were punished and special measures had to be taken to avoid the complete destruction of mankind. The suppression of the revolt was celebrated every year in the Feast of Hathor, which was celebrated at different times in different locations throughout Egypt, and thus remembered annually by the Egyptian populous. The giving over of the treasures of the earth to the serpents, which are seen as the manifestations of various gods, many of whom are evil, is also mentioned.
Thus we can trace a form of Egyptian creation narrative, which was incorporated into Egyptian initiation. The creation narrative was then transmitted through the Isis cult, and classical authors who had experienced Egyptian initiation referred to it, without divulging what occurred by referring to passing through the four Aristotelian elements. This reference, having obscured what occurred in the Egyptian initiation, was then misunderstood and reinterpreted by Terrasson and Schikaneder as representing a trial by the four elements.
At the end of the opera, Tamino and Pamina appear “in priestly clothing” (in priesterlicher Kleidung) as the entire theater changes into a representation of the sun (2.30). This enactment follows Apuleius’s description of the initiate at the end of the Egyptian initiation in Egyptian priestly robes wearing a crown of leaves and carrying a torch or lamp representing the sun.Carrying a torch or lamp is actually typical of Egyptian temple ritual and is explicitly compared by the Egyptians to the sun.
The wreath or crown worn by the initiate appears as the wreath of justification in Egyptian sources where “the wreath of divinity is placed on the head of a man after you have given [him] a lamp of fire.”Although this text is attested only in Ptolemaic Egypt, the wreaths themselves have been found on earlier mummies (ca. 1880 BC) antedating not just classical sources but even earlier Linear B sources.
Some of the motifs of the initiation in The Magic Flute have their origins in ancient Egyptian initiations. The elements, however, have been modified: first by the classical authors, second by Jean Terrasson, and third by Emanuel Schikaneder. The changes include altering the gender of the names of the protagonists, changing the requirement of silence to not addressing women, and transforming the creation to a trial by the four Aristotelian elements. In much the way that blocks from Pharaonic Egyptian monuments are sometimes reworked into later architecture, one can still recognize the traces of authentic Egyptian artifacts reworked into the structure of The Magic Flute.