Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Astrology and Alchemy: A Historical Overview
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, December 22, 1923:
As was said in the last lecture, the Mysteries extended over different regions of the Earth, and took different forms; each region of the Earth according to its people and according to the conditions for that region of the Earth, had its own special form of the Mysteries. Then came the time which is so extremely important for the entire nature of the Mysteries. That is the time which in the evolution of the Earth commenced a few centuries after the foundation of Christianity.
It can already be seen from my book Christianity as Mystical Fact that what happened on Golgotha was in a certain sense a combination of everything which was formerly divided among the different Mysteries over the Earth. The Mystery of Golgotha itself, however, is distinguished from all other Mysteries I have described in that it stands before the whole world on the stage of history; whereas the ancient Mysteries operated in the dim twilight of the Inner Temple, and from this twilight their impulses were sent out into the world.
If we look into the eastern Mysteries which I have portrayed to you, the Mysteries of Asia Minor, the Mysteries of Ephesus, if we turn to the Greek Mysteries, whether they be the Chthonic or the Eleusinian Mysteries, or if we look at the Samothracian Mysteries mentioned in the last lecture, or, lastly, to the Mysteries which I have characterized as the Mysteries of Hibernia, everywhere we see how the actual Mystery operated in the dim twilight of the inner part of some temple, and from thence sent its impulse out into the world. Whoever really understands the Mystery of Golgotha — and no one of course understands it simply by knowing the historical records which relate about it — anyone who really understands the Mystery of Golgotha understands at the same time all the Mysteries which preceded it.
These Mysteries which preceded the Mystery of Golgotha and found their culminating point therein, all had one peculiarity in reference to their effect on the life of feeling. There was much of tragedy in them, and any man who sought initiation into these Mysteries had to undergo pain and sorrow. I have often described that to you; but speaking quite generally one can say that right up to the time of the Mystery of Golgotha anyone who was to experience initiation, and was told that he would have to undergo much self-denial, pain, and suffering, and to experience many tragic things, would nevertheless say: “I will go through all the fire of the world, for that will lead me finally into the Light-region of the spirit, in which one beholds what otherwise with the ordinary consciousness of man on the Earth one can only dimly divine at a definite epoch of time.”
Fundamentally it was a longing, but a longing which was at the same time joyful, and was thus felt by those who sought the way to the ancient Mysteries. It was an earnest joy, a deep joy, a sublime joy; but it was joy.
Then there came a transitional epoch (when I hold the historical lectures in the next few days I shall have to characterize these things from their historical standpoint), now there came this transitional epoch, which finally led on to the 14th and 15th centuries when, as you know, a new epoch in human evolution began. And so this transition time came; and after it came that which furnishes quite another feeling, at the starting point of the path for one who then sought cognition in the higher worlds. It is a fact, when we investigate the ancient Mysteries by means of the Akashic Record, we find there joyful countenances, deeply earnest countenances, but fundamentally filled with joy.
If I were to describe to you such a scene as we can obtain out of the Akashic Record of what transpired in the Mysteries of the Kabiri of Samothrace, those personalities who then went into the inner temple of the Kabiri had eloquent, earnest countenances, yet their countenances were radiant with joy.
Following that there came a transitional epoch; and then came that period which possessed no real temples, but still had, as it were, a moral link, such as we found in the ancient Mysteries. And then we come to that which is described as the Rosicrucian Mysteries in the Middle Ages.
Now if one seeks to characterize the scholars of the Rosicrucian Mysteries in the same way as I have characterized the ancient Mysteries, one has to say: The most important of these personalities who devoted themselves to knowledge and investigation into the spiritual world in the Middle Ages no longer had, in truth, these joyful countenances; they had countenances of a deeply tragic character. That is such a real truth that one may say that those who did not have this deep tragedy written on their countenances were certainly not sincere in their striving. There was good reason for this tragic expression.
I should like to try and make clear to you the way in which gradually those who strove after knowledge had to stand in a different relation to the secrets of nature and of the spirit to that in which they stood to them in the ancient Mysteries. I am speaking now of that epoch which culminated in Rosicrucianism about the 14th and 15th centuries.
In the last lecture attention was drawn to the fact that natural phenomena, natural events, were for the ancients directly divine processes. It would never occur to anyone today to regard the movement of the human eye as something by itself. We regard it as a manifestation of a psychic spiritual bodily element in man. So just as little did it occur to a human being in that ancient time to consider any phenomenon, any event in nature by itself, isolated. He regarded every event in nature as the expression of a God, a God who revealed himself through natural phenomena. The surface of the Earth was to the ancients just as much the skin of an earthly divine being as the human skin is the skin of a humanly ensouled being to a man of today. One does not understand the mood of soul of such a man of old unless one knows that he spoke always of the Earth as a divine body, and of the relationships of the other planets of our planetary system as of the relationships of brother and sister.
This immediate relation to the phenomena and events of nature in which each single thing, each single occurrence, was a revelation to him of a divine being — this view of things passed over into quite a different one, in which as it were all knowledge of what is divine in nature gradually withdraws from humanity. Just suppose that such a terrible thing should occur to one of you sitting here that nothing could be seen but your body, that there was no longer any idea of a soul ensouling your body, just as we now see the Earth without any ensouling principle! That would be terrible, something quite awful — but this is just what has happened as regards our knowledge in recent times; and it was this dreadful thing that was felt by those who knew in the Middle Ages. That was what they felt. It was as though the divine had withdrawn in man's cognition of the events and phenomena of nature, and whereas in olden times the things and processes of nature were revelations of the divine, there now comes this middle epoch in which the events and processes of nature are simply pictures; no longer manifestations, but only images of the divine.
But man of today has no longer a true idea to what extent the processes of nature are images of the divine. I should like to give you an instance of this, one which is probably well known to any of you who have learnt a little chemistry. I should like to show you how those men who still held to some extent to the view that natural events and processes of nature are pictures of the divine, formed a concept of science.
Let us take quite a simple experiment, which can be easily made by any chemist of today. Let us take a retort and pour into it oxalic acid, which can be extracted from clover, and mix with the oxalic acid an equal part of glycerin. We then heat the oxalic acid and glycerin and obtain carbonic acid, which vanishes, and what remains over is formic acid. The oxalic acid is transformed in losing carbonic acid into formic acid. I beg you to take note: oxalic acid, formic acid, and this carbonic acid which dies away. If you go into the laboratory in which you have your retorts you as a modern chemist can easily make such an experiment.
Now this was not the case with the man of the Middle Ages; he would have looked at once to two things. He would have said: oxalic acid, yes, that is most predominant in clover, but oxalic acid is at the same time to be found to a certain extent in the whole of man's organism, especially in that part of the organism which embraces the organs of digestion, the liver and the spleen. Thus when you consider a human organism, where we have the digestive tract we have especially to do with those processes which are under the influence of oxalic acid.
Now that goes on in such a way that the human organism exercises an influence on this oxalic acid — which exists especially in the lower body of man and has there its significance — an influence is exercised similar to that which is exercised upon it in the retort through the glycerin. A glycerin influence works also in the human body.
And now just think of this. Under the influence of this glycerin working there passes into the lungs, and into the air that is breathed, this transformed product, formic acid; and man then breathes out carbonic acid. We drive it out with the expired breath, this carbon dioxide. You can compare the retort with the heated mixture of glycerin and oxalic acid quite well with the human digestive tract, and the part where the formic acid flows we can compare with the lungs, and there where the carbonic acid gas disperses is the expired breath, carbonic acid coming from the lungs.
Now, however, man is no retort. The retort simply shows in a dead way that which exists in man in a living and feeling way. It is correct, however, that if man were not able to develop oxalic acid in his digestive tract he would be unable to live; for that would mean that his etheric body would have no basis in his organism. If man was unable to transform oxalic acid into formic acid his astral body would have no basis in his organism. Man requires for his etheric body oxalic acid. For his astral body he requires formic acid; and he does not merely require these substances, he also requires that activity in his organism which consists in the transformation of oxalic acid into formic acid. This view must be acquired by the modern physiology.
That is one question which a natural scientist of that time, standing before his retort, asked himself: How does the external process which I perceive in the retort, or any other chemical arrangement, how does this process take place in man?
And the second question was this: How does this process take place in great nature? For concerning this process, which I have chosen as an example, the natural scientist of that time would have said: I can turn my gaze outwards to the Earth, over which the plant world is spread. Now, of course, radically speaking we find oxalic acid chiefly in sorrel and in the plants of the clover family, but in reality oxalic acid is spread out everywhere in the world of vegetation, though often only to be found there in homeopathic doses. Oxalic acid is everywhere in the vegetable kingdom, and we find homeopathic traces sometimes of this if we turn our attention to the ants, for they approach rotting wood in order to get to the oxalic acid there. This army of insects, often so tiresome to man, transforms what is spread out everywhere in the meadow in the plants, in the whole vegetable covering of the Earth, into formic acid; and we actually breathe in formic acid, even if only in small doses; we continually breathe this, and we owe this to the work of the insects on the plants, who transform the oxalic acid of the plants into formic acid.
The medieval natural scientist said: In man we have this process of transformation from oxalic acid into formic acid, but in the life and activity of nature this transforming process is also present. These two questions were put by the medieval natural scientist with reference to every process which he met with, every experiment he made in his laboratory. There was one thing characteristic of these medieval scientists which to the man of today is quite immaterial. It is thought today that anyone can work in a laboratory and make investigations, whether he be a good man or an evil man. That does not matter a bit. He has the formulae and can make analyses and syntheses. Anyone can do it. But in those days when nature was regarded as the work of the divine, whether the divine in man or the divine in the great world of nature, the following demand was made: The man who investigates in this way must at the same time be filled with inner piety. He must be in a position to turn his soul and spirit to the divine spiritual element of the world. It was clearly understood and to them it was a fact, that he who prepares himself for his experiments as if preparing himself for a sacrificial offering, who becomes really inwardly glowing through the exercises in piety preparatory to his experiments, discovered that his experiments led him, on the one side into the revelation of man, and on the other into the investigation of the great world of nature. Therefore inner goodness, inner morality, was regarded as a preparation for investigation. Experiments in the laboratory were so regarded that the scientist considered that the questions which he asked were gladly answered by divine spiritual beings.
Herewith I have characterized that transition which took place from the spirit of the old Mysteries to that which the Mysteries in the Middle Ages were still able to be. Much pertaining to the old Mysteries was preserved traditionally, even in the Mysteries of the Middle Ages; but that which constituted the real greatness, let us say, even of the later Mysteries, whether the Samothracian or Hibernian, that which was the real greatness of these Mysteries, could no longer be attained in the Middle Ages.
Traditionally, we find preserved right on into our own days something of what was known as Astrology. Traditionally something was preserved of what was known as Alchemy; but we know nothing today — and even in the 12th to 15th centuries very little was still known — of the conditions of true astrological and alchemical knowledge.
No one can acquire Astrology through thought or empirical research, as it is called today. If those who were initiated into the ancient Mysteries had been asked whether by means of investigation and thought one can learn Astrology, they would have answered: You can no more learn Astrology through thinking or empirical research than you can learn the secrets of a man by those means if he does not reveal them to you. Just imagine for a moment that there was something which one man knew and which no one but he knew; and that someone thought he would like as an experiment to try and find it out, or would think about it in order to discover it. As you see, that would be absurd; and to experience astrological things through thinking, or experiments, or by observation would have seemed to one of those ancient men just as absurd as it would seem today that a man should seek to investigate by means of experiment the secret of another human being. For these ancients knew that the Gods alone knew the secrets of the stellar world: the Gods, or as they were called later, the Cosmic Intelligences. The Cosmic Intelligences know the secret of the stellar world, and they alone can tell it. Therefore the student had to follow the path of cognition which leads to an understanding intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences.
The real true Astrology depended upon a man's attaining this possibility of understanding the Cosmic Intelligences. And a true Alchemy did not then depend as it does today on a man's experiments and calculations, but on his learning to recognize the spirits of nature in the processes of nature, so that he could have intercourse with them; so that the spirits of nature could tell him how the processes took place and what really happened. Astrology in the oldest times was not a spinning of thoughts, nor investigation by means of observation; it was intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences. Neither was Alchemy in those olden times an investigation through observation, nor was it calculation; it really was intercourse with the spirits of nature. This it is necessary to know. If we had gone to an ancient Egyptian, and especially to a Chaldean of very ancient times, he would have told us: “I use my observatory in order with the help of my instruments to be able to hold converse with the Cosmic Intelligences.” A man who, being a medieval natural scientist, a pious scientist in the Middle Ages, stood before his retort and scientifically investigated on the one hand the inner being of man and on the other the weaving and working of the great world of nature, this medieval investigator would have said: “I am experimenting because, through my experiments, the spirits of nature speak to me.” The Alchemist was one who evoked the spirits of nature. Everything regarded later as Alchemy is simply a decadent product. Everything which in ancient times was Astrology was the result of intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences.
In the epoch during the first centuries after the rise of Christianity this ancient Astrology — that means, intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences — was already past; but there was still some tradition of it. Men then began to calculate when the stars were in opposition or stood in conjunction, and so on. They still possessed what had come over as tradition from those times when astrologers had intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences; but, whereas in that epoch, a few centuries after the rise of Christianity, Astrology really had passed away, Alchemy still existed; and intercourse with the spirits of nature was still possible, even in later times.
And if we look into that which in the Middle Ages — let us say, in the 14th or 15th centuries — was a real Rosicrucian laboratory, we find in it instruments remarkably like our modern instruments, or at least sufficiently like them to indicate what they were. But if we look back spiritually into these Rosicrucian Mysteries we find practically everywhere the older, more earnest, more deeply tragic persons, such as that one who later became the Faust of Goethe. But in contrast with what we meet with in these Rosicrucian laboratories as the person with the deeply tragic countenance, who cannot understand life, what meets us later in the Faust of Goethe is, compared with those Rosicrucian scientists, like the Apollo of Belvedere of newspaper articles compared with that Apollo who took form in sacrificial smoke rising from the altar of the Kabiri.
If we look back into those alchemical laboratories of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and even into the 13th century, we really look into a deep tragedy; and this tragedy of the Middle Ages, this tragedy of those earnest seekers, is not described in any history book in the right way, because no one can look so deeply into their souls.
But those real investigators of the Middle Ages who sought in this way to investigate nature in man and the cosmos in their retorts, they all had very evolved Faust-like natures, for they all felt one thing very deeply: When we experiment, the divine spirits of nature speak to us; the spirits of the earth, the spirits of water, of fire, the spirits of the air. We can hear them in their whisperings, in their murmurings, in their peculiar flowing, humming sounds, which then pass over into harmonies and melodies, in order to withdraw again into themselves. Thus melodies reveal when events of nature occur. Men stood before their retorts. They deepened themselves, as I have said, as pious men in that which then transpired in their experiments. Then in such a process wherein was experienced the metamorphosis of oxalic acid into formic acid, when they questioned this process, then it was that the spirits of nature answered them. They could as it were use the spirits of nature for investigating the inner being of man. The retorts began to speak to them through color-phenomena; they felt how nature spirits of the earth, the nature spirits of water, arise out of the oxalic acid, make themselves felt, and all this then passes over into forms of humming melody, and into harmonies which then drew back again into themselves. In this way was experienced the process which results in formic acid and in carbonic acid.
When they experienced with their being this transition of color into sound, they could enter into that which they learnt through their laboratory experiments about the great world of nature and of man. Then they had the feelings: “These things of nature, these processes of nature, still reveal something of what the Gods are saying, they are pictures of the Gods, pictures of the divine;” and they then applied it inwardly for the advantage of mankind.
In all these epochs the art of healing was to a high degree intimately connected with their knowledge of the universal cosmos. Let us suppose that a man holding such a view had the task of developing therapeutics, the science of healing, and saw a human being before him. Now the same external complex of symptoms can bring about the most manifold conditions and causes of diseases, but with the method such as that which was employed in the Middle Ages (I do not say that one should use them today, because naturally things alter in the course of time) but with such a method one might say: When a certain definite complex appears in a man, it shows he is not in a position to transform in his body sufficient oxalic acid into formic acid. He has somehow become too weak to bring about this transformation of the oxalic acid of his body into formic acid. One might perhaps give him a remedy for this by giving him formic acid so that thereby one helps him from outside to produce the formic acid himself.
Now you might have such a diagnosis for two or three people who cannot produce formic acid, so they are treated with formic acid and that helps them considerably. But then you might have another patient in whom similar symptoms appear; if you give him formic acid it does not help him; but the moment you give him oxalic acid, that helps him immediately. Why? This is because this deficiency of force lies in another place. It lies where the oxalic acid should be transformed into formic acid. In such a case one who thought in the sense of these medieval investigators would have said: “The human organism under certain conditions, if one simply gave it formic acid, would say: ‘I do not require this formic acid for my lungs so it goes into the breathing and the circulation, I seek to be affected in quite another place. I seek to be affected in the sphere of oxalic acid: there I will myself transform it into formic acid. I do not require formic acid, for I have to make that myself.’”
So you see these things are all very complicated; but the whole question as regards the work of an alchemical investigator worthy of the name — for of course much stupidity has been intermingled with this — the whole attitude of an alchemical investigator was, continually to regard the healthy nature of man as being in intimate connection with the sick part of a man. All this led to nothing else than intercourse with the spirits of nature. These medieval investigators had the feeling: “I have intercourse with the spirits of nature;” but they knew that in more ancient times humanity had had intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences, and that this was cut off from them.
Indeed, since even the spirits of nature have withdrawn from human cognition, and the events and processes of nature have become the abstractions which meet us today in our modern physics and chemistry, there is no longer that tragedy which existed in the Middle Ages. For the spirits of nature, with whom these human beings still had intercourse, were able to arouse the longing after these Cosmic Intelligences to whom the ancients had access, but man could no longer find his way to them by means of the path of knowledge followed at that time. He could only find his way to the spirits of nature; and when he perceived the spirits of nature and drew them into his cognition, he experienced the tragedy of no longer being able to reach the Cosmic Intelligences by whom the spirits of nature themselves were inspired. He learnt what the spirits of nature knew, but was not able through them to reach the Cosmic Intelligences. That was the feeling.
The fact that the knowledge of the nature spirits possessed by the medieval alchemist had remained while the knowledge of the Cosmic Intelligences had been lost, was the cause of his sadness; that was also the cause that the medieval investigator could no longer attain a really complete knowledge of man; but he still divined where a complete knowledge of man was to be found. Indeed we must say that we find a reminiscence of what was felt in many a laboratory in the Middle Ages in the saying of Goethe's Faust:
“Here I stand, as wise, poor fool,
As when at first I went to school.”
For the learning of these laboratory students led them to the nature spirits; and these could not give them any real soul-knowledge.
Much has been lost in the way of tradition which must again be found. These medieval investigators certainly had knowledge concerning repeated Earth lives; but when an investigator stood in his laboratory the nature spirits whom he evoked had this peculiarity, that they would speak of all kinds of things in connection with substances, and describe the secrets of the cosmos; but they never spoke of repeated Earth lives. They had no interest in repeated Earth lives.
In this lecture, my dear friends, I have placed before your souls a few of the thoughts which were the origin of that sad tragic feeling to be found in these medieval investigators of nature. We can picture the peculiar figures of the Rosicrucian investigator especially in the early medieval laboratory, with his earnest, deeply penetrating, but often anxious countenance. He had no intellectual scepticism, but a deep uncertainty of mind; no weakness of will, but was filled with the consciousness: “Oh Will! Will is in me. How can I guide it upwards to those paths which lead to the Cosmic Intelligences?”
So there arose countless questions in the minds of these medieval investigators of nature; and we find a faint echo of this in the first part of Faust in the monologue and what follows.
In the next lecture we will investigate more closely these deeply earnest scientists with their tragic countenances, who are actually the prototype of Goethe's Faust.