The Cycle of the Year as Breathing Process of the Earth. Lecture 4 of 5.
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, April 3, 1923:
I have frequently referred recently to the connection the course of the year has with various aspects of human life, and during the Easter days I pointed especially to the connection with the celebration of festivals. Today I should like to go back to very ancient times and say more on this subject, just in relation to the ancient Mysteries. This can perhaps deepen in one way or another what we have spoken of before.
To the people of very ancient periods on Earth, the festivals that took place during the year formed a very significant part of their lives. We know that in those ancient times the human consciousness worked in an entirely different way from that of later times. We might ascribe a somewhat dreamy nature to this old form of consciousness. And indeed it was out of this dream condition that those insights arose in the human soul, in the human consciousness, which then took on the form of myths and in fact became mythology.
Through this dreamy — or we can also say instinctively clairvoyant — consciousness people saw more deeply into the spiritual environment. But precisely through this more intensive kind of participation — not just in the sensible workings of Nature, as is the case today, but also in the spiritual events — people were all the more involved with the phenomena connected with the cycle of the year, with the differing aspects of Nature in spring and in autumn. I have pointed to this just in recent days.
Today I want to share something entirely different with you in this regard, and that is, how the festival of Midsummer, which has become our St. John's festival, and the Midwinter festival, which has become our Christmas, were celebrated in connection with the old Mystery teachings. To begin with, we must be quite clear that the humanity of the ancient times of which we are speaking did not have a full ego-consciousness, as we do today. In the dreamlike consciousness, a full ego-consciousness was lacking; and when this is the case, people do not perceive precisely that which present-day humanity is so proud of. Thus the people of that period did not perceive what existed in dead nature, in the mineral nature.
Let us keep this firmly in mind, my dear friends: It was not a consciousness that flowed along in abstract thoughts, but it lived in pictures; yet it was dreamlike. These people entered into, for example, the sprouting, burgeoning plant-life and plant-nature in spring far more than is the case today. Again, they felt the shedding of the leaves, their drying up in autumn, the whole dying away of the plant world; felt deeply also the changes the animal world lived through during the course of the year; felt the whole human environment to be different when the air was filled with butterflies fluttering and beetles humming. They felt their own human weaving in a certain way as being alongside the weaving and being of the plants and animal existence. But they not only had no interest in, they had no proper consciousness for, the mineral realm, for the dead world outside them. This is one side of the earlier human consciousness.
The other side is this: that no interest existed among this ancient humanity for the form of man in general. It is very difficult today to imagine what the human perception was in this regard, that people in general took no particular interest in the human figure as a space-form. They had, however, an intense interest in what pertains to race. And the farther back we go into ancient cultures, the less do we find people with the common consciousness interested in the human form. On the other hand, they were interested in the color of the skin, in the racial temperament. This is what people noticed. On the one side man was not interested in the dead mineral world, nor, on the other, in the human form. There was an interest, as we have said, in what pertains to race, rather than in the universally human, including the outer form of man.
The great teachers of the Mysteries simply accepted this as a fact. How they thought about it, I will show you graphically in a drawing. They said to themselves: “The people have a dreamlike consciousness by means of which they perceive very clearly the plant life in their environment.” — In their dream-pictures these people indeed lived with the plant life; but their dream consciousness did not extend to the comprehension of the mineral world. So the Mystery teachers said to themselves: “The human consciousness reaches on the one side to the plant life [see drawing], which is dreamily experienced, but not to the mineral; this lies outside human consciousness. And on the other side, men feel within them what still binds them with the animal world, that is, what pertains to race, what is typical of the animal. [See drawing]. On the other hand, what makes man really man, his upright form, the space form of his being, lies outside of human consciousness.”
Thus, the specifically human lay outside the interest of these people of ancient times. We can characterize the human by thinking of it, in the sense of this ancient humanity, as enclosed within this space [shaded portion in drawing], while the mineral and the specifically human lay outside the realm of knowledge generally accessible to those people who carried on their lives outside the Mysteries.
But what I have just said applies only in general. With his own forces, with what man experienced in his own being, he could not penetrate beyond this space [see drawing], to the mineral on the one side, to the human on the other. But there were ceremonies originating in the Mysteries which brought to man in the course of the year something approximating the human ego-consciousness on the one side and the perception of the general mineral kingdom on the other.
Strange as it may sound to people of the present time, it is nevertheless true that the priests of the ancient Mysteries arranged festivals by whose unusual effects man was lifted out above the plant-like to the mineral, and thereby at a certain time of year experienced a lighting up of his ego. It was as if the ego shone into the dream-consciousness. You know that even in a person's dreams today, one's own ego, which is then seen, often constitutes an element of the dream.
And so at the time of the St. John's festival, through the ceremonies that were arranged for those among the people who wanted to take part in them, ego-consciousness shone in just at the height of summer. And at this time of midsummer people could perceive the mineral realm at least to the extent necessary to help them attain a kind of ego-consciousness, whereby the ego appeared as something that entered into dreams from outside. In order to bring this about, the participants in the oldest midsummer festivals — those of the summer solstice which have become our St. John's festival — the participants were led to unfold a musical-poetic element in round dances having a strong rhythmic quality and accompanied by song. Certain presentations and performances were filled with distinctive musical recitative accompanied by primitive instruments. Such a festival was completely immersed in the musical-poetic element. What man had in his dream-consciousness he poured out into the cosmos, as it were, in the form of music, in song and dance.
Modern man can have no true appreciation of what was accomplished by way of music and song during those intense and widespread folk festivals of ancient times, which took place under the guidance of men who in turn had received their guidance from the Mysteries. For what music and poetry have come to be since then is far removed from the simple, primitive, elemental form of music and poetry which was unfolded in those times at the height of summer under the guidance of the Mysteries. For everything the people did in performing their round-dances, accompanied by singing and primitive poetic recitations, had the single goal of bringing about a soul mood in which there occurred what I have just called the shining of the ego into the human spirit.
But if those ancient people had been asked how they came to form such songs and such dances, by means of which there could arise what I have described, they would have given an answer highly paradoxical to modern man. They would have said, for example: “Much of it has been given to us by tradition, for those who went before us have also done these things.” But in certain ancient times they would have said: “One can learn these things also today without having any tradition, if one simply develops further what manifests itself. One can still learn today how to make use of instruments, how to form dances, how to master the singing voice” — and now comes the paradox in what these ancient people would have said. They would have said: “It is learned from the songbirds.” — For they understood in a deep way the whole import of the songbirds' singing.
My dear friends, mankind has long ago forgotten why the songbirds sing. It is true that men have preserved the art of song, the art of poetry, but in the age of intellectualism in which the intellect has dominated everything, they have forgotten the connection of singing with the whole universe. Even someone who is musically inspired, who sets the art of music high above the commonplace, even such a man, speaking out of this later intellectualistic age, says: “I sing as the bird sings who dwells in the branches. The song that issues from my throat is my reward, and an ample reward it is.” Indeed, my dear friends, the man of a certain period says this. The bird, however, would never say such a thing. He would never say: “The song that issues from my throat is my reward.” And just as little would the pupils of the ancient Mystery schools have said it. For when at a certain time of year the larks and the nightingales sing, what is thereby formed streams out into the cosmos not through the air, but through the etheric element; it vibrates outward in the cosmos up to a certain boundary... then it vibrates back again to Earth, to be received by the animal realm — only now the divine-spiritual essence of the cosmos has united with it.
And thus it is that the nightingales and the larks send forth their voices into the universe (red) and that what they thus send forth comes back to them etherically (yellow), for the time during which they do not sing;
but in the meantime it has been filled with the content of the divine-spiritual. The larks send their voices out over the cosmos, and the divine-spiritual, which takes part in the forming — in the whole configuration — of the animal kingdom, streams back to the Earth on the waves of what had streamed out in the songs of the larks and the nightingales.
Therefore if anyone speaks not from the standpoint of the intellectualistic age, but out of the truly all-encompassing human consciousness, he really cannot say: “I sing as the bird sings who dwells in the branches. The song that issues from my throat is my reward, and an ample reward it is.” Rather, he would have to say: “I sing as the bird sings who dwells in the branches. And the song which streams forth from his throat into the cosmic expanses returns to the Earth as a blessing, fructifying the earthly life with divine-spiritual impulses which then work on in the bird world and which can only work in the bird world because they find their way in on the waves of what has been ‘sung out’ to them into the cosmos.”
Now of course not all creatures are nightingales and larks; also of course not all of them send out song; but something similar, even though it is not so beautiful, goes out into the cosmos from the whole animal world. In those ancient times this was understood, and therefore the pupils of the Mystery-pupils were instructed in such singing and dancing as they could then perform at the St. John's festival, if I may call it by the modern name. Human beings sent this out into the cosmos, of course not now in animal form, but in humanized form, as a further development of what the animals send out into cosmic space.— And there is something else yet that belonged to those festivals: not only the dancing, the music, the song, but afterward, the listening. First, there was the active performance in the festivals; then the people were directed to listen to what came back to them. For through their dances, their singing, and all that was poetic in their performances, they had sent forth the great questions to the divine-spiritual of the cosmos. Their performance streamed up, as it were, into cosmic spaces as the water of the earth rises, forming clouds above and dropping down again as rain. Thus, the effects of the human festival performances arose and came back again — of course not as rain, but as something which manifested itself to man as ego-power. And the people had a sensitive feeling for that particular transformation which took place in the air and warmth around the Earth just about the time of the St. John's festival. Of course the man of the present intellectualistic age disregards anything like this. He has something else to do than people of olden times. In these times, as also in others, he has to go to five o'clock teas, to coffee parties; he has to attend the theater, and so on; he simply has something else to do which is not dependent on the time of year. In the doing of all this, man forgets that delicate transformation which takes place in the Earth's atmospheric environment.
But these people of olden times did feel how different the air and warmth become around St. John's time, at the height of summer, how these take on something of the plant nature. Just consider what kind of a perception that was — this sensitive feeling for all that goes on in the plant world. Let us suppose that this is the Earth, and everywhere plants are coming out of the Earth.
The people then had a subtle feeling awareness of what is developing there in the plant, of what lives in the plant. They had in the spring a general feeling of nature, of which an after-echo is still retained in our language. You will find in Goethe's Faust the expression “es gruenelt” (It is beginning to get green). Who notices nowadays when it is growing green, when the greenness, rising up out of the Earth in the spring, wells and wafts through the air? Who notices when it grows green and when it blossoms? Well, of course people see it today; the red and the yellow of the flowers please them; but they do not notice that the air becomes quite different when the flowers bloom, and again when the fruit is formed. Such living participation in the plant world no longer exists in our intellectualistic age, but it did exist for the people of ancient times.
Hence they were aware of it in their perceptive feeling when the “greening,” blooming, and fruiting came toward them — not now out of the Earth, but out of the surrounding atmosphere; when air and warmth themselves streamed down from above like something akin to plant nature (shaded in drawing). And when air and warmth became thus plant-like, the consciousness of those people was transported into that sphere in which the “I” then descended, as answer to what they had sent out into the cosmos in the form of music and poetry.
Thus the festivals had a wonderful, intimate, human content. This was a question to the divine-spiritual universe. Men received the answer because — just as we perceive the fruiting, the blossoming, the greening of the Earth today — they felt something plant-like streaming down from above out of the otherwise merely mineral air. In this way there entered into the dream of existence, into the ancient dreamy consciousness, also the dream of the ego.
And when the St. John's festival was past and July and August came again, the people had the feeling “We have an ego, but this ego remains up there in heaven and speaks to us only at St. John's time. Then we become aware that we are connected with heaven. It has taken our ego into its protection. It shows it to us when it opens the great window of heaven at St. John's time. But we must ask about it. We must ask as we carry out the festival performances at St. John's time, as in these performances we find our way into the unbelievably close and intimate musical and poetic ceremonies.” — Thus these ancient festivals already established a communication, a union, between the earthly and the heavenly.
You see this whole festival was immersed in the musical, in the musical-poetic. I might say that in the simple settlements of very ancient peoples, suddenly, for a few days at the height of summer, everything became poetic — although it had been thoroughly prepared beforehand by the Mysteries. The whole social life was plunged into this musical-poetic element. The people believed that they needed this for life during the course of the year, just as they needed daily food and drink; that they needed to enter into this mood of dancing, music, and poetry, in order to establish their communication with the divine-spiritual powers of the cosmos. A relic of this festival remained in a later age, when a poet said, for example; “Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, the son of Peleus,” because he still remembered that once upon a time the great question was put before the deity, and the deity was expected to give answer to the question of men.
Just as these festivals at St. John's time were carefully prepared in order to pose the great question to the cosmos so that the cosmos might assure man at this time that he has an ego, which the heavens have taken into their protection, so likewise was prepared the festival at the time of the winter solstice, in the depths of winter, which has now become our Christmas festival. But while at St. John's time everything was steeped in the musical-poetic, in the dance element, now in the depths of winter everything was first prepared in such a way that the people knew they must become still and quiet, that they must enter into a more contemplative element. And then there was brought forth — in these ancient times of which outer history provides no record, of which we can only know through spiritual science — all that during the summer had been in the forming and shaping and imaging elements which reached a climax in the festivals in music and dance. During that time these ancient people, who in a certain way went out of themselves in order to unite with the ego in the heavens, were not involved in learning anything. Besides the festival, they were occupied in doing what was necessary for their subsistence. Instruction waited for the winter months, and this reached its culmination, its festival expression, at the time of the winter solstice, in the depth of winter, at Christmas time.
Then began the preparation of the people, again under the guidance of pupils of the Mysteries, for various spiritual celebrations which were not performed during the summer. It is difficult to describe in modern terms what the people did from our September/October to our Christmas time, because everything was so very different from what is done now. But they were guided in what we would perhaps call riddle-solving, in answering questions that were put in a veiled form so that people had to discover a meaning in what was given in signs. Let us say that the Mystery-pupils gave to those who were learning in this way some kind of symbolic image, which they were to interpret. Or they gave what we would call a riddle to be solved, or some kind of incantation. What the magic saying contained, they were to apply to Nature, and thus divine its meaning.
But especially there was careful preparation for what later took on the most varied forms among the different peoples; for example, for what was known in northern countries at a later time as the throwing of the runic wands so that they formed shapes which were then deciphered. People devoted themselves to these activities in the depth of winter; but above all, those things were cultivated that then led to a certain art of modeling, in a primitive form, of course.
Among these ancient forms of consciousness was a most singular one, paradoxical as it sounds to modern people, and it was as follows: With the coming of October, an urge for some sort of activity began to stir in people's limbs. In the summer a man had to accommodate the movements of his limbs to what the fields demanded of him; he had to put his hands to the plough; he had to adapt himself to the outer world. When the harvest had been gathered in, however, and his limbs were rested, then a need stirred in them for some other form of activity, and his limbs took on a longing to knead. Then people derived a special satisfaction from all kinds of plastic, moulding activity. We might say that just as an intensive urge had arisen at the time of the St. John's festival for dancing and music, so toward Christmas time an intensive urge arose to knead, to mould, to create, using any kind of pliant substance available in nature. People had an especially sensitive feeling, for example, for the way water begins to freeze. This gave them the specific impulse to push it in one direction and another, so that the ice-forms appearing in the water took on certain shapes. Indeed people went so far as to keep their hands in the water while the shapes developed and their hands grew numb! In this way, when the water froze under the waves their hands cast up, it assumed the most remarkable artistic shapes, which of course again melted away.
Nothing remains of all this in the age of intellectualism except at most the custom of lead-casting on New Year's Eve, the Feast of St. Sylvester. In this, molten lead is poured into water, and one discovers that it takes on shapes whose meaning is then supposed to be guessed. But that is the last abstract remnant of those wonderful activities that arose from the impelling force in Nature experienced inwardly by the human being, which expressed itself for example as I have related: that a person thrust his hand into water which was in process of freezing, the hand then becoming numb as he tested how the water formed waves, so that the freezing water then “answered” with the most remarkable shapes. In this way the human being found the answers to his questions of the Earth. Through music and poetry at the height of summer, he turned toward the heavens with his questions, and they answered by sending ego-feeling into his dreaming consciousness. In the depth of winter he turned for what he wanted to know not now toward the heavens, but to the earthly, and he tested what kind of forms the earthly element can take on. In doing this he observed that the forms which emerged had a certain similarity to those developed by beetles and butterflies. This was the result of his contemplation. From the plastic, formative element that he drew out of the nature processes of the Earth, there arose in him the intuitive observation that the various animal forms are fashioned entirely out of the earthly element. At Christmas man understood the animal forms. And as he worked, as he exerted his limbs, even jumped into the water and made certain movements, then sprang out and observed how the solidifying water responded, he noticed in the outer world what sort of form he himself had as man. But this was only at Christmas time, not otherwise; at other times he had a perception only of the animal world and of what pertains to race. At Christmas time he advanced to the experience of the human form as well.
Just as in those times of the ancient Mysteries the ego-consciousness was mediated from the heavens, so the feeling for the human form was conveyed out of the Earth. At Christmas time man learned to know the Earth's form-force, its sculptural shaping force; and at St. John's time, at the height of summer he learned to know how the harmonies of the spheres let his ego sound into his dream-consciousness.
And thus at special festival seasons the ancient Mysteries expanded the being of man. On the one side the environment of the Earth extended out into the heavens, so that man might know how the heavens held his “I” in their protection, how his “I” rested there. And at Christmas time the Mystery teachers caused the Earth to give answer to the questioning of man by way of plastic forms, so that man gradually came to have an interest in the human form, in the flowing together of all animal forms into the human form. At midsummer man learned to know himself inwardly, in relation to his ego; in the depth of winter he learned to feel himself outwardly, in relation to his human form. And so it was that what man perceived as his being, how he actually felt himself, was not acquired simply by being man, but by living together with the course of the year; that in order for him to come to ego-consciousness, the heavens opened their windows; that in order for him to come to consciousness of his human form, the Earth in a certain way unfolded her mysteries. Thus the human being was inwardly intimately linked with the course of the year, so intimately linked that he had to say to himself: “I know about what I am as man only when I don't live along stolidly, but when I allow myself to be lifted up to the heavens in summer, when I let myself sink down in winter into the Earth mysteries, into the secrets of the Earth.”
You see from this that at one time the festival seasons with their celebrations were looked upon as an integral part of human life. A man felt that he was not only an earth-being but that his essential being belonged to the whole world, that he was a citizen of the entire cosmos. Indeed he felt himself so little to be an earth-being that he actually had first to be made aware of what he was through the Earth by means of festivals. And these festivals could be celebrated only at certain seasons because at other times the people who experienced the course of the year to some degree would have been quite unable to experience it at all. For all that the people could experience through the festivals was connected with the related seasons.
Mark you, after man has once achieved his freedom in the age of intellectualism, he can certainly not come again to this sharing in the life of the cosmos in the same way that he experienced it in primitive ages. But he can nevertheless come to it even with his modern constitution, if he applies himself once more to the spiritual.
We might say that in the ego consciousness which mankind has had for a long time now, something has been drawn in which could be attained only through the windows of heaven in summer. But just for that reason man must be learning to understand the cosmos, acquire for himself something else which in turn lies beyond the ego. It is natural today for people to speak of the human form in general. Those who have entered into the intellectual age no longer have a strong feeling for the animalistic-racial element. But just as this feeling formerly came over man, I should like to say as a force, as an impulse, which could be sought only out of the Earth, so today, through an understanding of the Earth which cannot be gained by means of geology or mineralogy but only once more in a spiritual way, man must come again to something more than the mere human form.
If we consider the human form we can say: In very ancient times man felt himself within this form in such a way that he felt only the external racial characteristics connected with the blood, but failed to perceive as far as the skin itself (red in drawing); he did not notice what formed his outline.
Today man has come so far that he does notice his outline, his bodily limits. He perceives his contour indeed as the typically human feature of his form (blue). Now, however, man must come out beyond himself; he must learn to know the etheric and astral elements outside himself. This he can do only through the deepening of spiritual science.
Thus we see that our present-day consciousness has been acquired at the cost of losing much of the former connection of our consciousness with the cosmos. But once man has come to experience his freedom and his world of thought, then he must emerge again and experience cosmically.
This is what Anthroposophy intends when it speaks of a renewal of the festivals, even of the creating of festivals like the Michael festival in autumn of which we have recently spoken. We must come once more to an inner understanding of what the cycle of the year can mean to man in this connection; it can then be something even loftier than it was for man long ago, as we have described it.
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