Here, in this enchanting stew, this mulligatawny of ideas set in a magnificent pot, is an epic contest. Two temple leaders, each guarding his and her own territory, jealously fight over a new recruit. The part of the story not made explicit in the opera is the cultic practice of charging an initiation fee based upon the depth of pocket of the initiate. Temples were expensive operations, after all. Magical effects, thunder and lightning and sudden appearances, lakes of fire and such, were costly necessities, essential for wowing the members. Priests weren't paid much for showing up night after night, and may have been tired from their day jobs. The Queen of the Old Order relies upon personal charisma and special effects; Sarastro and his fellows are working toward a practice of pure reason without giving up the expected rigamarole. It's a cultural moment, the age of magic giving way to what we still capitalize, without irony, as the Enlightenment. (We can understand the power of lodges and their ritual, at least in the US, by looking at the sudden importance of fraternal orders in the lives of mid 20th century veterans of wars. Look at the number of pages of the Idaho Daily Statesman, January 1st 1950, dedicated to Lodge news, for a sample].
Then there's Tamino. Why would a young prince be wandering about by himself? Where are the horses, servants, the whole impressive retinue? Surely this is the youngest and least promising of a large field of sons. You can hear the King, his father—a sort of King Arthur of Monty Python court. Sure, sure, kid, take off on your own, look for a princess to save. Write if you find work. The opera doesn't show Tamino writing home for his fee money; we don't see the offstage wink as the priests strip to their underwear and pick up a chain to dance and convince Papageno he's got some good juju in those bells. We don't know if the Queen drops to hell or down a trap door onto a mattress.
Mozart's last opera has always produced mixed responses. Musically it is a masterful blend of high art and low in the Shakespearean manner, integrating German and Italian influences from the Queen's beloved Italianate arias to folksy duets. Thematically it embarrasses even its admirers. It has been described as a hash, a mash of theatrical effects in at atmosphere of fairy tale magic relieved by burlesque humor, all amusingly set in the context of an 18th century freemasonry initiation.
Mozart was a member of the guild of freemasons and references to the organization's rhetoric and ritual abound in the opera. A quick review of the history of the guilds, their sources in ancient religions, especially the cult of Isis, and their place in German society is helpful.
Guilds of Mozart's day retained several traces of ancient religious practice. Two of the most ancient gods of Egypt, Isis and Osiris, were honored, at least in some form. (Note for all that follows that there was no keeper of dogmatic purity in earliest Egypt; stories varied and were symbolic rather than literalistic.) Isis was the daughter of Geb, or earth, and his sister/ spouse, Nut, or sky. Isis produced, among other bodies, Re (or Ra) the sun and Osiris, who became her lover and co-ruler of the golden age of Egypt. (The throne of pharaohs is the body of Isis; each Pharaoh sat in her lap). Isis' brother Seth jealously murdered Osiris; Isis retrieved her husband's mutilated remains and breathed just enough life into them to become pregnant with Horus.
Horus was not her only son. She also gave birth to Re, the sun. The relationship between Isis and Re is most interesting for the storyline of Mozart's opera. Re rode through the sky each day, then traveled through the underworld in a boat, lighting that world, each night. This voyage was a dangerous one through a field of snakes and a lake of fire, among other dangers. The importance and magic associated with language, and the elements of the travel through the dark into a silent realm of danger are essential to the cults of Isis and similar mystery cults.
Even among the gods, males held superior powers. Isis gained some of her son's power by a trick. She caught drops of Re's saliva and mixed them with clay, forming a serpent. She then made sure this serpent bit Re. The only antitidote strong enough to save him was the utterance of his own most secret name. But uttering this in the presence of Isis would give that power to her! He tried to throw her off with fake names but she refused to leave until he said the right one, which healed him and forced him to share his power with his mother. This could conceivably render his nightly trip over a pit of snakes all the more unpleasant, Mother's little reminder.
Mystery cults represented a sea-change of religion from one that was celebrated for the good of the entire country, throughout Egypt and the middle east, which tied the fate of the country to that of their supreme leader, to what the West has today, a religion of the individual ("The Army of One."). This is the difference between personal salvation of the Christian New Testament and that of the Hebrew's Old Testament, the saving of a "nation." Each of these cults, at the time of shift to personal salvation, had its priests, its ritual loaded with symbolic elements, an initiation ritual, and a promise of an afterlife shared with the gods. Underlying stories for the mystery cults bear great similarities, being local variations of related legends. Some included riotous drinking and destruction of property and persons (toga, toga); others required extreme sacrifice (most spectacularly, the self-removal of male generative organs) but others, like the cult of Isis and Osiris, were quite respectable. In each, "it was perceived that man must enter into fellowship of the deity's sufferings if he would participate in the deity's joy," according to Samuel Angus (in "The Appeal and Practice of the Mystery-Religions: the Conversion of the Germans." Readings In Everyday Life, volume 1 p.56-) Following in some symbolic form the life of the god gave the benefit of wisdom; wisdom allowed participation in the happiness of the gods. (The German version of this is known affectionately among folklorists as "pancake heaven," where food grows on trees and the streams flow with wine for those brought into the heavenly abode. This, plus a wife, is certainly heaven to the common man represented by Papageno.)
Each cult had degrees of status that required preparation and sacrifice of its candidates (Isis may have had seven degrees, three before initiation, four after). We have to look, then, at common understandings of the life of the god in order to estimate the emphasis, if not the particular practice, required of candidates and celebrated in meetings. Isis went three days without food as she searched for her murdered husband, Osiris in the underworld; austerities and fasts were known to be part of the Isiac cult. To gain the mysteries of Osiris, then, required a ritual passage through death and rebirth.
Secret words had tremendous importance. The core of the ceremony was retelling a secret, sacred story that was usually acted out as part of the ceremony. Participants were given secret names. Initiation culminated in a rebirthing or baptismal ceremony like that which allowed Isis to return to the world of the living. Participants wore special clothing. In the case of the free masons, who evolved out of the stonemason guild, it was an apron. Often the ceremony introduced a special handshake or hand clasp through some sort of portal, veil, or shroud. Even today, stones with holes in them can be found in England, Scotland and Ireland, stones that were part of ceremonial hand clasping ceremonies at sites like Stonehenge. This and other evidence—growing barley for beer, for instance—shows that the sun cults were carried by neolithic sailors to northern Europe. Some writers knowledgeable in the ceremonies of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, notablly the, historian Fawn Brodie,have suggested parallels between LDS and Masonic Order ceremonies, with acted-out sacred and secret "history," (including an apron for a good guy role) the giving of secret names and sacred undergarments, and a handshake through a veil. Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS church, was a Mason.
Belonging to the cult had ongoing obligations. For Isis cults, "Festal white robes had to be procured in honour of the deity, and would regularly demand the fuller's services... An elaborate and expensive priesthood had to be maintained by the offerings of the faithful... altar fires tended and the morning sacrifices provided..." Feasts had to be regularly provided, statues erected and decorated with precious stones. The most faithful were expected to take pilgrimages, which required money plus savings to care for the family. Those who were wealthy provided more than their share; lesser priests received only token payments. Slaves, of course, lacking the right to salary, which might have supported a family, were even cheaper.
Abuses of the system are recorded. Some cults finished initiation ceremonies (done by men and women in silence) with "marriage" feasts, where the marriages were temporary. The Old Testament records these (see Exodus 32:4-6) as part of Aaronite celebrations. Note that the golden calf created by Aaron was called Horus, the son of Isis. Later similar Canaanite celebrations were decried by Israelite prophets. Apparently even after being warned, Jewish men were known to slip out of the family compound and sit through a boring ceremony in order to participate in the consumption of alcohol, orgiastic dancing and a night with the official temple prostitutes. (Rumor has it that such behaviors have not been unknown in fraternal lodges descended from this tradition.) Thus the gift of wives to Tamino and Papageno is in keeping with this tradition.
Priests were also known to act for personal gain. Apulius tells the story of his master, Lucius, who had substantial income and an inheritance. Lucius spent a great deal of money joining the company of Isis ("The initiatory fee was fixed by the goddess herself"), only to be told one year later that he needed to spend another fortune upgrading into the next level, of Osiris. P. 61 of Angus.
For the early Germanic people, also, the king was both political and religious sovereign, head of the holy temple. Religious leadership thus depended upon inheritance. Once a king converted to a new religion, all his people converted, too. The motivation for kings to convert to Christianity was the dark side of the old system. Since luck of the entire country depended upon its king, bad luck could be improved by killing the king. Given these circumstances, kings had reason to shift to a religion that put responsibility for luck, good or bad, back on individuals. A side benefit was that the mystery cults (including Christianity) made salvation possible for all, regardless of class or family. Christianity was more egalitarian, with no initiation fees. This system accounts for much religious affiliation in Germany; those princes and landowners who supported Charlemagne kept their lands and their heads, while incurring obligations to support the designate of Charlemagne. Some hundreds of years later, farmworkers awoke to find themselves followers of Martin Luther if their sovereign lord was so disposed.
Early Christian fathers suppressed competing mystery cults for various reasons. Some cult practices included barbaric behavior, including drinking until one was willing to dismember and consume a live animal. None had a fixed dogma and in this laxity, combined with good times, could be an attraction and thus a threat to Christian doctrine.
Cult participants expected to have a goddess, as they concluded that gods naturally will have mothers. Plutarch claimed that Isis, mother of the other gods, is identical to Sophia, identified in some Hebrew writings as the mother of Jehovah. Sophia means wisdom through silence—a passage through darkness in silence being the way to imitate Sophia's own journey to her tremendous wisdom. Thus, meditation was feminine, bringing the initiate from dark ignorance to light and understanding. (Although meditation crept back into the practice of monastic orders it could not control the night mare, the succubi and incubi that threatened the virtue of monks).
Christian scholars saw a danger here: cultists might imagine themselves to be taking on godly powers, not equal to those of a supreme god but enough to shift away interest in priests of the Holy Roman Father. The calling down of female Powers the making of spells and wearing of unapproved talismans and amulets (like symbols of goddesses) was declared heresy and the cult of the Mother of God became subsumed into obedient Mary, mother of Jesus. The death of a young hero and three day journey before resurrection, conventional elements in many mystery cults, was absorbed into Christian belief, along with faith in the power of the young god to give favored place to adherents in the afterlife. Catholic doctrine continues to insist that females are not worthy of sacred responsibilities.
Despite official objections, much of the belief and some of the practice of the mystery cults persisted into the middle ages and beyond. It was practiced as gnostic or secret knowledge, they incorporated symbolic charms, amulets, signs and words that shared magical power much like that of the magic flute and bells in Mozart's opera. As late as the 17th century, educated men passed around esoteric literature compiled from folk sources, including Dr. Rudd's Treatise of the miraculous Descensions and Ascenions of spirits, verified by a practical examination of the principles in the Great World—the second part professes to contain some choice Rosicrucian Chymical medicines, wholesome and fit to keep the body in health and lustiness." This blend of numerology, astrology, demonology, ancient folk belief and practice was typically glossed as "angel magic," and is so labeled in a modern collection edited by Adam McLean. The derivation of the Stone Mason's sign, carved into many a cathedral, can be seen in collections of alchemical symbols (also associated with angels in medieval manuscripts).
Medieval artisan's guilds used these ancient signs proudly; they traced their lineage to early Egyptian and Hebrew practice, including the cults of Isis and Osiris. (The freemasons claimed Noah as their supreme lodge master.) In the fifteenth century the stone mason's guild was one of several that established standards for judging the skill of its members before granting the treasured "free" status. Members paid regular fees and provided mutual support, attending each others funerals, assisting each other in times of trouble. Higher-order free masons could travel to another town without the obligation to join a local guild. This allowed guildsmen a freedom of travel advantageous to all—to the skilled workers, to nobility desirous of a manse equal to the neighbors, and to stable market towns desirous of raising a town cathedral, that symbols of community pride, wealth (thus virtue) and appreciation to the deity who blessed their sustained labors.
In England and Germany, among other countries, these guilds gradually became craft fraternities uniting men of several crafts. The beginning of the factory system and accumulations of capitol freed these fraternal orders from their workingman associations. Kings and generals, philosophers and amateur scientists were welcomed in Freemasonry in its heyday, the eighteenth century. With its secret handshakes and recognition gestures, its arcane ceremonies and temples of elegant, exotically eclectic architecture, its independence from Christian dogma made it attractive to deists. Many founders of the new United States were freemasons.
Today, after the highest policy-making body in the world's most powerful nation voted down restrictions on its capacity to test weapons, citing a fear of much less powerful rogue nations, we are reminded again of issues underlying Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. Who's in charge, here? What is the source of virtue in the individual as well as the state? How do we harmonize the inherent conflicting demands? Can a morally lazy ruler guide a "good" state? Is the opposite more likely- will a high-minded (if boring and punitive) ruler produce a good state? The United States was to provide an instructive contrast within the years 1997 and 2005.
Mozart was three years old when Voltaire published Candide, that roguish satire that slashed two ways, backwards against the trust in enlightened despots (who still ruled most eighteenth century states, large and small) and forwards as it mocked confidence in the fundamentally good impulses of the individual, that mainstay of romantic attitudes to come. Voltaire sends his hero to a Clintonesque pancake heaven rather than the unlikely land of post apocalypse peace following George W. sower-of-dragons-teeth Bush. Despite his cynicism (or under the influence of romantic visions of the new Americas) he ends where Mozart begins when he imagines a return to some innocent, natural paradise as alternative to the world's complicated evils. The peaceful garden of Candide's retirement after all his travails could easily be in the land of Papageno's bird-catching.
Both Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute have father figures who are fiercely demanding autocrats. Perhaps the more profound of these two operas, philosophically, Giovanni hints at a soaring dignity behind rebellious self indulgence, dignity despite tragedy that awaits heroic impudence that has been encouraged by a culture's lethal blend of patriarchal authority and privilege. Resolution, thematically and musically, comes in the final octet, after the death of the protagonist: grand chords and thundering harmonies avoid smugness by suggesting that it is only a society of shared values that can grant power to individuals.
The Magic Flute is more problematic. Self-indulgence is represented, on one side, by the Queen and her ladies, who are introduced to us as unaware of the disgust they engender; they are lascivious, class-proud, and ready to punish poor Papageno, the son of one of their own whom they treat contemptuously. The serpent threatening Tamino in the opening of the opera reminds us of the serpents winding around Inanna, another Queen of the Night. The serpent is emblem of amoral power continuously reinventing itself, convenient associations for Christian dogmatists eager to demonize pagan belief and practice. [The power and persistence of this metaphor shows up in rural snake-handling Christian churches in the US south].
Another kind of snake, the vile Monastotos, is lackey to the powerful while he remains dangerous to the vulnerable, evidence that proximity to nobility doesn't necessarily improve human nature. Perhaps the Magic Flute's composer and librettist shared racist and classist stereotypes: being subject to absolute authority corrupts the Moorish slave even as it ennobles the young prince.
Some of the opera's characterizations are echoes of conventional commedia characters. Tamino and Pamina are traditional young lovers, accepting authority and its demands, interested in, motivated essentially by desire for each other despite Tamino's insistence, to Sarastro, that he desires wisdom. Pamina's childlike acceptance of her jailor, Sorastro, does not cancel out her love of her mother, the Queen of the Night. Once assured of Tamino's love she transfers loyalty and trust to him, an acolyte of her mother's enemy, as a "good" woman should.
Tamino shows no more independent judgment. For him, virtue and integrity are equivalent to following directions, to stoically accepting the dangers set out by authority, not trusting or even addressing, especially not responding to inferiors who are assumed to be weaklings (here, all females and the lower class chatterbox Papageno). One of the opera's (unintentionally) hilarious lines is Tamino's expression of awe inside the temple of Sarastro, where the grandiose architecture "proves" to him the virtues of the proprietor.
Papageno is as close as we get to the Enlightenment's natural man, raised like an animal by the Queen and her followers, with food set out for him, no apparent nurturing, a simple set of rewards and punishments to guide him. His courage and kindness, his instant and total loyalty to a prince he hardly knows, his desire for one woman to love, all these are meant to demonstrate his essential and natural goodness. His inability to follow artificial rules is not punished because he is so dispensable, so unimportant. Who would be influenced by a silly bird-catcher? Compare him to Figaro, who retains much goodness of heart despite the corrupting influence of courtly life. Mozart enlivens the otherwise ritualistic cruelty of the goings-on in the temple with this one character who is likeable because he allows himself to make mistakes, to express his doubts as well as his hopes. We are pleased as he is with his good luck, even as we have no desire to know more about Sarastro's priests, that echo chorus.
Mozart seems to accept the Enlightenment's equating of innocent, youthful beauty with virtue. As Papageno expresses in an aside, the loss of beauty or lack of it diminishes both a female's humanity and her rights—an ugly woman is "naturally" scorned, neglected, betrayed. This, after all, is the ragged edge of the age of persecution of witches, when the neglected or widowed woman of power is expected to take up poison or knife against herself or her challengers, and failing that, to hand off the obligation for bloody revenge to her daughter (this in a country that, a hundred years earlier, routinely sacrificed all female descendants of a woman believed to be a witch). Not one character in the opera, not interloping young hero or deposed queen or country boy or despicable slave questions the notion that the older queen will act immorally and must be deposed if she has no king controlling (or protecting) her.
Mozart must be forgiven for not imagining the implications of his trust in authority for what would happen in his country at the end of empire, two hundred years later. And, after all, what have we Americans gained from Europe's disillusionment? Our reliance on the supposedly leveling and ennobling effects of "equal" opportunity and economic competition have yet to be justified. When faced with a few ferocious, single-minded challengers, we panicked and turned to ferocity flavored with economic opportunism.
There is still no proof that idealistic codes are sufficient guidance for well-intended despots. Late fall of 2005, the emphatic repetition of code words has not stripped off gathering tarnish. At the other end of the chain of authority, we see little evidence that trust in idealistic Powers of Reason can bring us through fire and flood to true love and self control.
Contemporary composers do not have the luxury of conviction that allows Mozart to express his faith in the purifying power of affiliation with other high-minded compatriots, his beloved freemasons, and in the individual's capacity to survive life's terrible trials—with splendid, noble thirds, fifths and octaves that Pythagorus and before him the Egyptians believed echoed the harmonies of the universe. The least convincing element of the opera ironically, is the magical flute given to Tamino by the wicked queen. This plot device magically works to "save" him, by quieting the elements that are meant to be a test of his courage—a device that suggests, by extension, that the young hero doesn't have these powers within himself. It is an anomaly, a violation of the opera's argument that devotion to ideals will get us through our challenges.
More convincing, paradoxically, is the delightful glitter of the handbells in the hands of the natural man, Papageno. For him the bells are his true voice, his freedom from cultural restraint. He is a model of pure human impulse who only goes astray when he forgets to trust himself. When he rings his heart bells he gets what he deserves, for good or ill.
But the bells are only a momentary diversion on a larger theme. Throughout The Magic Flute, Mozart's orchestral rhythms, melodies and harmonies, shifting, reflecting, guiding and undergirding human activity, honoring, quoting and integrating earlier musical traditions, all offer promise of divine purpose barely understood yet somehow available to we mere mortals. Like Job, we must believe in sources felt rather than demonstrated in our lives. Like Mozart and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, we find the truisms underlying religious faith to be undependable as magic flutes. What we have left are the promises in Mozart's final choruses, the advantages of good fellowship, with or without ritual trimmings. We know that keeping company with like-minded idealists has benefits, whether or not we face personal and global dark nights of the soul, with the vipers lying therein.
October 25, 1999, updated November 23, 2005