Sarastro's Aria


O Isis und Osiris schenket
Der Weisheit Geist dem neuen Paar!
Die ihr der Wandrer Schritte lenket,
Stärkt mit Geduld sie in Gefahr

Lasst sie der Prüfung Früchte sehen.
Doch sollten sie zu Grabe gehen,
So lohnt der Tugend kühnen Lauf,
Nehmt sie in euern Wohnsitz auf.


O Isis and Osiris, bestow
the spirit of wisdom on this young couple!
You who guide the wanderers' steps,
strengthen them with patience in danger.

Let them see the fruits of trial;
yet if they should go to their deaths,
then reward the bold course of virtue:
receive them into your abode.


When I was younger, I used to listen Sarastro’s Aria in the car, repeatedly (I recommend watching the video). I don’t know why it resonated with me so much at the time. I thought I’d share the context, the story itself, and about why I like it so much. Aria from one of my favorite Operas: The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute, and its context

“The Magic Flute” (Die Zauberflöte) is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous 1791 Opera. It is quite grand, it is a singspiel that explores the themes of The Enlightenment and a revolutionary spirit of the time. In order to understand The Magic Flute, and why it resonated with the audience at the time (it was a spectacular hit when it was first performed with Mozart in attendance in Vienna in 1791) - it’s good to get a sense of the world it was born into.

1791 was definitely a gateway year - an impasse, a turning point, a boiling point, where so much that had been bubbling underneath and developing over the previous 100 years before that under the surface started to emerge into the real world. Historically if you take a look at the macro perspective of what happened around 1791: - (1776) The Declaration of Independence is written in the United States of America, (1789) The storming of the Bastille, and the French Revolution and all the conflict it creates with Monarchies, (1793) Napoleon’s first battle at Siege of Toulon, which sets Europe on a course for the Napoleonic Wars. A lot of change is happening around 1791, and still a lot to come after it.

In order to understand the why, let’s dive a bit deeper into the time preceeding it and try to see what was bubbling underneath. Drawing the line at 1517; Martin Luther pins the 95 theses a list of grievances against the absolute authority of the Catholic Church, and kick starts a seismic shift in the religious and cultural landscape of Europe. Martin Luther attacks the core of what we assume is infallible at the time: The Catholic Church. Specifically that the Catholic Church does not have a monopoly over your interface to God. This whole process starts The Reformation, and it ignites a spirit of inquiry and dissent, and leads to questions about religions norms. This approach for a more pluralistic and tolerant approach to religious and philosophical thought, is like taking the shackles off of individual thought, and freeing it from prison - to freeing it to inquire into anything.

And so, The Enlightenment goes on to question further important topics: Physics: (Isaac Newton: “Principia Mathematica”), Politics (John Locke: “Two Treatise of Government” 1689), Secularism: (Voltaire: “Candide” 1759), Society: (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “The Social Contract”: 1762), Reason: (Immanuel Kant: “Critique of Pure Reason”), Economics: (Adam Smith: “The Wealth of Nations, 1776) and more of course, that others have written about extensively.

The Story of The Magic Flute

Magic Flute was written in 1791, which was also an important year for Mozart. Born in 1756, he is regarded as one of the greatest and wildly influential Classical Composer of all time. He was a child prodigy, who started composing at the age of 5, performing and composing for royals and monarchs most of his life in different courts. During his short life, he had composed over 600 works, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, opera, choral music in many styles as well. Many of which are still played to this day.

However, the year 1790 finds Mozart in a period of profound personal tumult and professional turmoil. Europe was in the throes of seismic social and political upheaval, reverberating from the shockwaves of various revolutions, particularly the French Revolution which began in 1789. These shifts significantly impacted the arts, as traditional systems of patronage, often underpinned by the monarchy, began to crumble. Consequently, Mozart, whose patrons were predominantly from royal backgrounds, found himself in financial straits. His situation was exacerbated by a penchant for lavish spending, leading to considerable debt.

Despite these challenges, 1791 emerged as a pivotal year in Mozart’s life. It was in this year that he composed The Magic Flute, an opera that not only achieved great success but also became emblematic of the era’s transformative spirit. The Magic Flute, with its rich exploration of themes, seemed to capture the zeitgeist of a Europe on the cusp of monumental change. This opera, steeped in the ideals and tumult of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary atmosphere of the time, served as a profound artistic response to the societal shifts occurring around him. If art is a vehicle, or a metaphor to explain the feeling of what is going on at the time, I don’t think there could have been a more apt story for that era, and person more suited to have written The Magic Flute than Mozart himself.

The story of the The Magic Flute is actually quite straightforward. Prince Tamino, finds himself in peril in a storm, only to be rescued from a serpent by three witches. These witches lead him to a chance encounter with the enigmatic and powerful Quee of the Night. She sells him on a noble quest - to rescue her daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the purpotedly malevolent Sarastro and his domain, and to return Pamina to her, safely. Given a Magic Flute (hence the name) and accompanied by the jovial bird catcher Papageno, The Queen of the Night and her aria (another famous and beautiful aria, probably the aria that most people think about when they read about the Magic Flute) convinces Tamino to set out on this journey to find Pamina and rescue her from Sarastro.

Yet, as Tamino and Papageno delve deeper into Sarastro’s domain, things are not quite what they seem. Contrary to what the Queen told them, Sarastro is not exactly the villan that they made out to be. He is wise, and benevolent - and encourages his people to seek truth and transformation. He did kidnap Pamina - yet he says this is for a higher purpose. This pivotal shift in the story begins a transformation in their journey that breaks the moral framing of good versus evil into one of beyond good and evil - a journey that is not a rescue mission but a quest for enlightenment and truth. Sarastro’s realm is not one of darkness but of wisdom and enlightenment.

And this Sarastro’s aria, is sung at a crucial juncture, a symbolic gateway, a turning point. It is more than just a mere melodic interlude; it really serves as a beacon of wisdom, giving them the blessing to go on the path for Tamino and Papageno. It is a transitions from a black-and-white dichotomy of good versus evil to a rich tapestry of moral complexity and philosophical depth. It’s in this aria that Sarastro imparts a sense of profound guidance, helping the characters, and by extension the audience, to navigate through a world where appearances are often misleading, and true understanding requires both trials and introspection.

Beyond Sarastro’s Aria

Looking beyond the aria, from where we are in today’s world, it is hard not to feel as if we’re at an impasse as well. I feel like I’ve been stagnant. I’ve been a bit stuck in a rut. Paralyzed. Maybe it is because we’ve been so daunted by the tasks and challenges that lay at hand in front of us. I find myself asking myself questions like what is humanity’s core pursuit, should everything be taken care of for us? What is our primary motivation to live? If all our needs are met (physically, which they increasingly are in the Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs), what would it look like to transcend the necessity of survival? Hegels’ End of History comes to mind - and in different eras, different people will of course answer this question in different ways.

In the Aria, Pamina and Tamino are given a blessing, and good luck in their journey into the great unknown, with unexpected dangers, to pass their trials. But there is also a word of caution, for what lies beyond the aria, and the world they are about to enter, is not one that they might make it out alive from. We, of course, hope that they make it out alive. But should they not make it - may they be acknowledged for their attempt in their pursuits. It makes me think about where we are as species. Nothing is guaranteed. We won’t even know if we will succeed in our future generations. That being said, I still want us to break out. I want us to explode with possibility, and I believe in all of us. I want to dream and I continue to yearn for pushing humanity forward.

Parting words

In 2024, I find myself thinking about it again. The context of the history in which this song came to be, its relevance as a turning point in the story, Mozart’s life. It feels like that’s what this Aria is – a metaphorical blessing for ourselves, an encouragement, a prayer, an affirmation - to imbue ourselves with the willingness to put ourselves on the line, in whatever form it may be. It is an ode to not deter from creation and love in the face of death or failure, but to help each other love, and to use our own voice. To find ways to become more human in the many centuries to come.