The Center of Our Own Existence

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Many sources have been cited for the richly overstuffed cabinet of curiosities that is Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute. Jakob August Liebeskind’s “Lulu, oder der Zauberflöte” (“Lulu, or the Magic Flute”), published in 1786 as part of a collection of fairy tales, tells of a prince sent by a fairy to rescue her daughter from an evil wizard; he accomplishes his mission with the help of—you guessed it—an enchanted wind instrument. Ritual elements can be found in Sethos (1731), a novel by Jean Terrasson that sought to forge a link between contemporary Freemasonry and ancient Egypt. Other possible sources include Phillip Hafner’s play Megara, the Terrible Witch (1763) and the Karl Ludwig Giesecke’s Singspiel Oberon (1789). The Zauberoper, or “magic opera,” a popular genre in Vienna at the time, was itself defined by some of elements we associate with Flute—splendid scene changes, onstage animals, and magical objects used to conquer villains.

In truth, the archetypes and encounters that make up The Magic Flute have been a part of our collective consciousness as long as stories have been told. Tamino’s journey shares certain features with other works Mozart and Schikaneder were likely to have encountered; it also follows the universal hero-path described by Joseph Campbell, a path that is traveled again and again in ritual, in literature, in dreams.

This path begins with a call to adventure; in Tamino’s case, the irresistible lure of a beautiful girl in need of rescue. The hero responds to the call with refusal at first; here, it is not Tamino, but his companion, Papageno, who is reluctant to answer the call of destiny. He is persuaded to go forward when supernatural aid is offered in the form of a magic flute and bells, as well as guidance from three spirits. The hero’s next task is crossing the first threshold, where a guardian (the Speaker) tests whether he is ready for the challenges that lie within, in the belly of the whale. As Tamino continues the journey inward, he undergoes a series of trials before he can be reborn, united with his female complement, as a mature, contributing member of society.

Both Mozart and Schikaneder were members of Masonic lodges—secular fraternal organizations concerned with spiritual and moral values—so it is no surprise that the hero-path they present in The Magic Flute also borrows details from Masonic initiation rituals. The initiation is only that, a beginning; the path does not end with the completion of the final trial. Like the initiates of Mozart’s lodge, our hero must now go forth to share his revelations and encourage others on the path of self-perfection, tolerance, and enlightenment.

When virtue and enlightenment

arise in human hearts and minds

Elysium is every place

and mortals shine with godlike grace.


—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera.