Man as Symphony of the Creative Word. Part 3. Lecture 7 of 12.
Monday, April 22, 2013
The Plant World and the Elementary Nature Spirits: Gnomes, Undines, Sylphs, and Fire-Spirits [Salamanders]
Man as Symphony of the Creative Word. Part 3. Lecture 7 of 12.
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, November 2, 1923:
To the outwardly perceptible, visible world there belongs the invisible world, and these, taken together, form a whole. The marked degree to which this is the case first appears in its full clarity when we turn our attention away from the animals to the plants.
Plant-life, as it sprouts and springs forth from the earth, immediately arouses our delight, but it also provides access to something which we must feel as full of mystery. In the case of the animal, though certainly its will and whole inner activity have something of the mysterious, we nevertheless recognize that this will is actually there, and is the cause of the animal's form and outer characteristics. But in the case of the plants, which appear on the face of the Earth in such magnificent variety of form, which develop in such a mysterious way out of the seed with the help of the earth and the encircling air — in the case of the plant we feel that some other factor must be present in order that this plant-world may arise in the form it does.
When spiritual vision is directed to the plant-world, we are immediately led to a whole host of beings, which were known and recognized in the old times of instinctive clairvoyance, but which were afterwards forgotten and today remain only as names used by the poet, names to which modern man ascribes no reality. To the same degree, however, in which we deny reality to the beings which whirl and weave around the plants, to that degree do we lose the understanding of the plant-world. This understanding of the plant-world, which, for instance, would be so necessary for the art of healing, has been entirely lost to present-day humanity.
We have already recognized a very significant connection between the world of the plants and the world of the butterflies; but this too will only come rightly before our souls when we look yet more deeply into the whole weaving and working of plant-life.
Plants send down their roots into the ground. Anyone who can observe what they really send down and can perceive the roots with spiritual vision (for this he must have) sees how the root-nature is everywhere surrounded, woven around, by elemental nature spirits. And these elemental spirits, which an old clairvoyant perception designated as gnomes and which we may call the root-spirits, can actually be studied by an imaginative and inspirational world-conception, just as human life and animal life can be studied in the sphere of the physical. We can look into the soul-nature of these elemental spirits, into this world of the spirits of the roots.
These root-spirits, are, so to say, a quite special earth-folk, invisible at first to outer view, but in their effects so much the more visible; for no root could develop if it were not for what is mediated between the root and the earth-realm by these remarkable root-spirits, which bring the mineral element of the Earth into flux in order to conduct it to the roots of the plants. Naturally I refer to the underlying spiritual process.
These root-spirits, which are everywhere present in the earth, get a quite particular sense of well-being from rocks and from ores (which may be more or less transparent). But they enjoy their greatest sense of well-being, because here they are really at home, when they are conveying what is mineral to the roots of the plants. And they are completely enfilled with an inner element of spirituality which we can only compare with the inner element of spirituality in the human eye, in the human ear. For these root-spirits are in their spirit-nature entirely sense. Apart from this they are nothing at all; they consist only of sense. They are entirely sense, and it is a sense which is at the same time understanding, which does not only see and hear, but immediately understands what is seen and heard, which in receiving impressions receives also ideas.
We can even indicate the way in which these root-spirits receive their ideas. We see a plant sprouting out of the earth. The plant comes, as I shall presently show you, into connection with the extraterrestrial universe; and, particularly at certain seasons of the year, spirit-currents flow from above, from the blossom and the fruit of the plant down into the roots below, streaming into the earth. And just as we turn our eyes towards the light and see, so do the root-spirits turn their faculty of perception towards what seeps downwards from above, through the plant into the earth. What seeps down towards the root-spirits, that is something which the light has sent into the blossoms, which the sun's warmth has sent into the plants, which the air has produced in the leaves, which the distant stars have brought about in the plant's structures. The plant gathers the secrets of the universe, sinks them into the ground, and the gnomes take these secrets into themselves from what seeps down spiritually to them through the plants. And because the gnomes, particularly from autumn on and through the winter, in their wanderings through ore and rock bear with them what has filtered down to them through the plants, they become those beings within the earth which, as they wander, carry the ideas of the whole universe streaming throughout the earth. We look forth into the wide world. The world is built from universal spirit; it is an embodiment of universal ideas, of universal spirit. The gnomes receive through the plants, which to them are the same as rays of light are to us, the ideas of the universe, and within the earth carry them in full consciousness from metal to metal, from rock to rock.
We gaze down into the depths of the earth not to seek there below for abstract ideas about some kind of mechanical laws of nature, but to behold the roving, wandering gnomes, which are the light-filled preservers of world-understanding within the earth.
Because these gnomes have immediate understanding of what they see, their knowledge is actually of a similar nature to that of man. They are the compendium of understanding, they are entirely understanding. Everything about them is understanding — an understanding however, which is universal, and which really looks down upon human understanding as something incomplete. The gnomes laugh us to scorn on account of the groping, struggling understanding with which we manage to grasp one thing or another, whereas they have no need at all to make use of thought. They have direct perception of what is comprehensible in the world; and they are particularly ironical when they notice the efforts people have to make to come to this or that conclusion. Why should they do this? say the gnomes — why ever should people give themselves so much trouble to think things over? We know everything we look at. People are so stupid — say the gnomes — for they must first think things over.
And I must say that the gnomes become ironical to the point of ill manners if one speaks to them of logic. For why ever should people need such a superfluous thing — a training in thinking? The thoughts are already there. The ideas flow through the plants. Why don't people stick their noses as deep into the earth as the plant's roots, and let what the Sun says to the plants trickle down into their noses? Then they would know something! But with logic — so say the gnomes — there one can only have odd bits and pieces of knowledge.
Thus the gnomes, inside the earth, are actually the bearers of the ideas of the universe, of the World-All. But for the earth itself they have no liking at all. They bustle about in the earth with ideas of the universe, but they actually hate what is earthly. This is something from which the gnomes would best like to tear themselves free. Nevertheless they remain with the earthly — you will soon see why this is — but they hate it, for the earthly threatens them with a continual danger. The earth continually holds over them the threat of forcing them to take on a particular form, the form of those creatures I described to you in the last lecture, the amphibians, and in particular of the frogs and the toads. The feeling of the gnomes within the earth is really this: If we grow too strongly together with the earth, we shall assume the form of frogs or toads. They are continually on the alert to avoid being caught in a too strong connection with the earth, to avoid taking on earthly form. They are always on the defensive against this earthly form, which threatens them as it does because of the element in which they exist. They have their home in the earthly-moist element; there they live under the constant threat of being forced into amphibian forms. From this they continually tear themselves free, by filling themselves entirely with ideas of the extra-terrestrial universe. The gnomes are really that element within the earth which represents the extra-terrestrial, because they must continually reject a growing together with the earthly; otherwise, as single beings, they would take on the forms of the amphibian world. And it is just from what I may call this feeling of hatred, this feeling of antipathy towards the earthly, that the gnomes gain the power of driving the plants up out of the earth. With the fundamental force of their being they unceasingly thrust away the earthly, and it is this thrusting that determines the upward direction of the plant's growth; they push the plants up with them. It accords with the nature of the gnomes in regard to the earthly to allow the plant to have only its roots in the earth, and then to grow upwards out of the earth-sphere; so that it is actually out of the force of their own original nature that the gnomes push the plants out of the earth and make them grow upwards.
Once the plant has grown upwards, once it has left the domain of the gnomes and has passed out of the sphere of the moist-earthly element into the sphere of the moist-airy, the plant develops what comes to outer physical formation in the leaves. But in all that is now active in the leaves other beings are at work: water-spirits, elemental spirits of the watery element, to which an earlier instinctive clairvoyance gave among others the name of undines. Just as we find the roots busied about, woven-about by the gnome-beings in the vicinity of the ground, and observe with pleasure the upward-striving direction which they give, we now see these water-beings, these elemental beings of the water, these undines, in their connection with the leaves.
These undine beings differ in their inner nature from the gnomes. They cannot turn like a spiritual sense-organ outwards towards the universe. They can only yield themselves up to the weaving and working of the whole cosmos in the airy-moist element, and therefore they are not beings of such clarity as the gnomes. They dream incessantly, these undines, but their dream is at the same time their own form. They do not hate the earth as intensely as do the gnomes, but they have a sensitivity to what is earthly. They live in the etheric element of water, swimming and swaying through it, and in a very sensitive way they recoil from everything in the nature of a fish; for the fish-form is a threat to them, even if they do assume it from time to time, though only to forsake it immediately in order to take on another metamorphosis. They dream their own existence. And in dreaming their own existence they bind and release, they bind and disperse the substances of the air, which in a mysterious way they introduce into the leaves, as these are pushed upwards by the gnomes. For at this point the plants would wither if it were not for the undines, who approach from all sides, and show themselves, as they weave around the plants in their dreamlike existence, to be what we can only call the world-chemists. The undines dream the uniting and dispersing of substances. And this dream, in which the plant has its existence, into which it grows when, developing upwards, it forsakes the ground, this undine-dream is the world-chemist which brings about in the plant-world the mysterious combining and separation of the substances which emanate from the leaf. We can therefore say that the undines are the chemists of plant-life. They dream of chemistry. They possess an exceptionally delicate spirituality which is really in its element just where water and air come into contact with each other. The undines live entirely in the element of moisture, but they develop their actual inner function when they come to the surface of something watery, be it only to the surface of a water-drop or something else of a watery nature. For their whole endeavor lies in preserving themselves from getting the form of a fish, the permanent form of a fish. They wish to remain in a condition of metamorphosis, in a condition of eternal, endlessly changing transformation. But in this state of transformation, in which they dream of the stars and of the Sun, of light and of warmth, they become the chemists who now, starting from the leaf, carry the plant further in its formation, after it has been pushed upwards by the power of the gnomes. So the plant develops its leaf-growth, and this mystery is now revealed as the dream of the undines, into which the plants grow.
To the same degree, however, in which the plant grows into the dream of the undines, does it now come into another domain, into the domain of those spirits which live in the airy-warmth element, just as the gnomes live in the moist-earthly, and the undines in the moist-airy element. Thus it is in the element which is of the nature of air and warmth that those beings live which an earlier clairvoyant art designated as the sylphs. Because air is everywhere imbued with light, these sylphs, which live in the airy-warmth element, press towards the light, relate themselves to it. They are particularly susceptible to the finer but larger movements within the atmosphere.
When in spring or autumn you see a flock of swallows, which produce as they fly vibrations in a body of air, setting an air-current in motion, then this moving air-current — and this holds good for every bird — is for the sylphs something audible. Cosmic music sounds from it to the sylphs. If, let us say, you are traveling somewhere by ship and the seagulls are flying around it, then in what is set in motion by the seagulls' flight there is a spiritual sounding, a spiritual music, which accompanies the ship.
Again, it is the sylphs which unfold and develop their being within this sounding music, finding their dwelling-place in the moving current of air. It is in this spiritually sounding, moving element of air that they find themselves at home; and at the same time they absorb what the power of light sends into these vibrations of the air. Because of this the sylphs, which experience their existence more or less in a state of sleep, feel most in their element, most at home, where birds are winging through the air. If a sylph is obliged to move and weave through air devoid of birds, it feels as though it had lost itself. But at the sight of a bird in the air something quite special comes over the sylph. I have often had to describe a certain event in man's life, that event which leads the human soul to address itself as “I”. And I have always drawn attention to a saying of Jean Paul, that, when for the first time a human being arrives at the conception of his “I” it is as though he looks into the most deeply veiled Holy of Holies of his soul. A sylph does not look into any such veiled Holy of Holies of its own soul, but when it sees a bird an ego-feeling comes over it. It is in what the bird sets in motion as it flies through the air that the sylph feels its ego. And because this is so, because its ego is kindled in it from outside, the sylph becomes the bearer of cosmic love through the atmosphere. It is because the sylph embodies something like a human wish, but does not have its ego within itself but in the bird-kingdom, that it is at the same time the bearer of wishes of love through the universe.
Thus we behold the deepest sympathy between the sylphs and the bird-world. Whereas the gnome hates the amphibian world, whereas the undine is unpleasantly sensitive to fishes, is unwilling to approach them, tries to avoid them, feels a kind of horror for them, the sylph, on the other hand, is attracted towards birds, and has a sense of well-being when it can waft towards their plumage the swaying, love-filled waves of the air. And were you to ask a bird from whom it learns to sing, you would hear that its inspirer is the sylph. Sylphs feel a sense of pleasure in the bird's form. They are, however, prevented by the cosmic ordering from becoming birds, for they have another task. Their task is lovingly to convey light to the plant. And just as the undine is the chemist for the plant, so is the sylph the light-bearer. The sylph imbues the plant with light; it bears light into the plant.
Through the fact that the sylphs bear light into the plant, something quite remarkable is brought about in it. You see, the sylph is continually carrying light into the plant. The light, that is to say the power of the sylphs in the plant, works upon the chemical forces which were induced into the plant by the undines. Here occurs the interworking of sylph-light and undine-chemistry. This is a remarkable plastic activity. With the help of the upstreaming substances which are worked upon by the undines, the sylphs weave out of the light an ideal plant-form. They actually weave the Archetypal Plant within the plant from light, and from the chemical working of the undines. And when towards autumn the plant withers and everything of physical substance disintegrates, then these plant-forms begin to seep downwards, and now the gnomes perceive them, perceive what the world — the Sun through the sylphs, the air through the undines — has brought to pass in the plant. This the gnomes perceive, so that throughout the entire winter they are engaged in perceiving below what has seeped into the ground through the plants. Down there they grasp world-ideas in the plant-forms which have been plastically developed with the help of the sylphs, and which now in their spiritual ideal form enter into the ground.
Naturally those people who regard the plant as something purely material know nothing of this spiritual ideal form. Thus at this point something appears which in the materialistic observation of the plant gives rise to what is nothing other than a colossal error, a terrible error. I will sketch this error for you.
Everywhere you will find that materialistic science describes matters as follows: The plant takes root in the ground, above the ground it develops its leaves, finally unfolding its blossoms, within the blossoms the stamens, then the seed-bud. Now — usually from another plant — the pollen from the anthers, from the pollen vessels, is carried over to the germ which is then fructified, and through this the seed of the new plant is produced. The germ is regarded as the female element and what comes from the stamens as the male — indeed matters cannot be regarded otherwise as long as people remain fixed in materialism, for then this process really does look like a fructification. This, however, it is not. In order to gain insight into the process of fructification, that is to say the process of reproduction, in the plant-world, we must be conscious that in the first place it is from what the great chemists, the undines, bring about in the plants, and from what the sylphs bring about, that the plant-form arises, the ideal plant-form which sinks into the ground and is preserved by the gnomes. It is there below, this plant-form. And there within the earth it is now guarded by the gnomes after they have seen it, after they have looked upon it. The earth becomes the mother-womb for what thus seeps downwards. This is something quite different from what is described by materialistic science.
After it has passed through the sphere of the sylphs, the plant comes into the sphere of the elemental fire-spirits. These fire-spirits are the inhabitants of the warmth-light element. When the warmth of the earth is at its height, or is otherwise suitable, they gather the warmth together. Just as the sylphs gather up the light, so do the fire-spirits gather up the warmth and carry it into the blossoms of the plants.
Undines carry the action of the chemical ether into the plants, sylphs the action of the light-ether into the plant's blossoms. And the pollen now provides what may be called little air-ships, to enable the fire-spirits to carry the warmth into the seed. Everywhere warmth is collected with the help of the stamens, and is carried by means of the pollen from the anthers to the seeds and the seed vessels. And what is formed here in the seed-bud is entirely the male element which comes from the cosmos. It is not a case of the seed-vessel being female and the anthers of the stamens being male. In no way does fructification occur in the blossom, but only the pre-forming of the male seed. The fructifying force is what the fire-spirits in the blossom take from the warmth of the World-All as the cosmic male seed, which is united with the female element. This element, drawn from the forming of the plant, has, as I told you, already earlier seeped down into the ground as ideal form, and is resting there below. For plants the earth is the mother, the heavens the father. And all that takes place outside the domain of the earth is not the mother-womb for the plant. It is a colossal error to believe that the mother-principle of the plant is in the seed-bud. The fact is that this is the male-principle, which is drawn forth from the universe with the aid of the fire-spirits. The mother comes from the cambium, which spreads from the bark to the wood, and is carried down from above as ideal form. And what now results from the combined working of gnome-activity and fire-spirit activity — this is fructification. The gnomes are, in fact, the spiritual midwives of plant-reproduction. Fructification takes place below in the earth during the winter, when the seed comes into the earth and meets with the forms which the gnomes have received from the activities of the sylphs and undines and now carry to where these forms can meet with the fructifying seeds.
You see, because people do not recognize what is spiritual, do not know how gnomes, undines, sylphs, and fire-spirits — which were formerly called salamanders — weave and live together with plant-growth, there is complete lack of clarity about the process of fructification in the plant world. There, outside the earth nothing of fructification takes place, but the earth is the mother of the plant-world, the heavens the father. This is the case in a quite literal sense. Plant-fructification takes place through the fact that the gnomes take from the fire-spirits what the fire-spirits have carried into the seed bud as concentrated cosmic warmth on the little airships of the anther-pollen. Thus the fire-spirits are the bearers of warmth.
And now you will easily gain insight into the whole process of plant-growth. First, with the help of what comes from the fire-spirits, the gnomes down below instill life into the plant and push it upwards. They are the fosterers of life. They carry the life-ether to the root — the same life-ether in which they themselves live. The undines foster the chemical ether, the sylphs the light-ether, the fire-spirits the warmth ether. And then the fruit of the warmth-ether again unites with what is present below as life. Thus the plants can only be understood when they are considered in connection with all that is circling, weaving, and living around them. And one only reaches the right interpretation of the most important process in the plant when one penetrates into these things in a spiritual way.
When once this has been understood, it is interesting to look again at that memorandum of Goethe's where, referring to another botanist, he is so terribly annoyed because people speak of the eternal marriage in the case of the plants above the earth. Goethe is affronted by the idea that marriages should be taking place over every meadow. This seemed to him something unnatural. In this Goethe had an instinctive but very true feeling. He could not as yet know the real facts of the matter; nevertheless he instinctively felt that fructification should not take place above in the blossom. Only he did not as yet know what goes on down below under the ground, he did not know that the earth is the mother-womb of the plants. But that the process which takes place above in the blossom is not what all botanists hold it to be, this is something which Goethe instinctively felt.
You are now aware of the inner connection between plant and earth. But there is something else which you must take into account.
You see, when up above the fire-spirits are circling around the plant and transmitting the anther-pollen, then they have only one feeling, which they have in an enhanced degree, compared to the feeling of the sylphs. The sylphs experience their self, their ego, when they see the birds flying about. The fire-spirits have this experience, but to an intensified degree, in regard to the butterfly-world, and indeed the insect-world as a whole. And it is these fire-spirits which take the utmost delight in following in the tracks of the insects' flight so that they may bring about the distribution of warmth for the seed buds. In order to carry the concentrated warmth, which must descend into the earth so that it may be united with the ideal form, in order to do this the fire-spirits feel themselves inwardly related to the butterfly-world, and to the insect-creation in general. Everywhere they follow in the tracks of the insects as they buzz from blossom to blossom. And so one really has the feeling, when following the flight of insects, that each of these insects as it buzzes from blossom to blossom has a quite special aura which cannot be entirely explained from the insect itself. Particularly the luminous, wonderfully radiant, shimmering aura of bees, as they buzz from blossom to blossom, is unusually difficult to explain. And why? It is because the bee is everywhere accompanied by a fire-spirit which feels so closely related to it that, for spiritual vision, the bee is surrounded by an aura which is actually a fire-spirit. When a bee flies through the air from plant to plant, from tree to tree, it flies with an aura which is actually given to it by a fire-spirit. The fire-spirit does not only gain a feeling of its ego in the presence of the insect, but it wishes to be completely united with the insect.
Through this, however, insects also obtain that power about which I have spoken to you, and which shows itself in a shimmering forth of light into the cosmos. They obtain the power completely to spiritualize the physical matter which unites itself with them, and to allow the spiritualized physical substance to ray out into cosmic space. But just as with a flame it is the warmth in the first place which causes the light to shine, so, above the surface of the earth, when the insects shimmer forth into cosmic space what attracts the human being to descend again into physical incarnation, it is the fire spirits which inspire the insects to this activity, the fire-spirits which are circling and weaving around them. But if the fire-spirits are active in promoting the outstreaming of spiritualized matter into the cosmos, they are no less actively engaged in seeing to it that the concentrated fiery element, the concentrated warmth, goes into the interior of the earth, so that, with the help of the gnomes, the spirit-form, which sylphs and undines cause to seep down into the earth, may be awakened.
This, you see, is the spiritual process of plant-growth. And it is because the subconscious in man divines something of a special nature in the blossoming, sprouting plant that he experiences the being of the plant as full of mystery. The wonder is not spoiled, the magic is not brushed from the dust on the butterfly's wing. Rather is the instinctive delight in the plant raised to a higher level when not only the physical plant is seen, but also that wonderful working of the gnome-world below, with its immediate understanding and formative intelligence, the gnome-world which first pushes the plant upwards. Thus, just as human understanding is not subjected to gravity, just as the head is carried without our feeling its weight, so the gnomes with their light-imbued intellectuality overcome what is of the earth and push the plant upwards. Down below they prepare the life. But the life would die away were it not formed by chemical activity. This is brought to it by the undines. And this again must be imbued with light. And so we picture, from below upwards, in bluish, blackish shades the force of gravity, to which the impulse upwards is given by the gnomes; and weaving around the plant — indicated by the leaves — the undine-force blending and dispersing substances as the plant grows upwards. From above downwards, from the sylphs, light falls into the plants and shapes an idealized plastic form which descends, and is taken up by the mother-womb of the earth; moreover this form is circled around by the fire-spirits which concentrate the cosmic warmth into the tiny seed-points. This warmth is also sent downwards to the gnomes, so that from out of fire and life, they can cause the plants to arise.
And further, we now see that essentially the earth is indebted for its power of resistance and its density to the antipathy of the gnomes and undines towards amphibians and fishes. If the earth is dense, this density is due to the antipathy by means of which the gnomes and undines maintain their form. When light and warmth sink down on to the earth, this is first due to that power of sympathy, that sustaining power of sylph-love, which is carried through the air, and then to the sustaining sacrificial power of the fire-spirits, which causes them to incline downwards to what is below themselves. So we may say that, over the face of the earth, earth-density, earth-magnetism, and earth-gravity, in their upward-striving aspect, unite with the downward-striving power of love and sacrifice. And in this inter-working of the downwards streaming force of love and sacrifice and the upwards streaming force of density, gravity, and magnetism, in this inter-working, where the two streams meet, plant-life develops over the earth's surface. Plant-life is an outer expression of the inter-working of world-love and world-sacrifice with world-gravity and world-magnetism.
From this you have seen with what we have to do when we direct our gaze to the plant-world, which so enchants, uplifts, and inspires us. Here real insight can be gained only when our vision embraces the spiritual, the supersensible, as well as what is accessible to the physical senses. This enables us to correct the capital error of materialistic botany, that fructification occurs above the earth. What occurs there is not the process of fructification, but the preparation of the male heavenly seed for what is being made ready as the future plant in the mother-womb of the earth.