The Story of the Green Serpent and the Beautiful Lily
27 November 1904, Cologne
We have over and over again laid stress on the fact that Anthroposophy is no new thing brought to humanity only in our own times. It is particularly interesting that certain individuals not far behind us in time may be reckoned among those who may be described as Anthroposophists. Besides Herder, Jean Paul, Novalis and Lessing — Goethe steps forth as one of the most prominent. Many will object to this statement, because not much Anthroposophy can be traced in his well-known works. At the time of Goethe it was not possible to give out esoteric truths to all the world. Only in small circles, such for instance as that of the Rosicrucians, could the higher truths be promulgated. Nobody was admitted into this society without proper preparation: but those who belonged to it gave various hints as to its existence, and this Goethe did in many different parts of his works. Only a man filled with the wisdom of Anthroposophy can read Goethe aright. It is impossible for instance rightly to understand “Faust” without this help. The “Fairy Tale” is Goethe's Apocalypse, his Revelations and in its symbolical presentation the profoundest secrets are concealed. We can only understand when we have the key to it, that in this Fairy Tale Goethe revealed his Anthroposophical conception of the world. Schiller asked Goethe to work with him on a magazine called “die Horen” to which Schiller had contributed an article “On the aesthetic education of the human race”. In this the question was put: — “How can a man living in the every-day world preach the highest ideals, and establish communion between the super-sensible and that which belongs to the world of sense?” In a wonderfully impressive way he found words to point out that which to him seemed the bridge leading from the world of sense to the super-sensible world.
Goethe, however, declared that it would be impossible to him to speak of the highest questions of existence in philosophical terms, but that he would do so in a great picture. He then contributed the Fairy Tale, in which he tried to answer his question in his own way, and sent it to the Magazine, “Die Horen”.
Elsewhere too Goethe expressed himself in an absolutely Anthroposophical sense. In his earlier youth he had already concealed his conceptions in Faust. Between his student years in Leipzig and his stay in Strassburg, Goethe received an Initiation at the hands of a man who was himself deeply initiated into the secrets of the Rosicrucians. From that time on, Goethe spoke a mystical Anthroposophical language.
In the first part of Faust there is a remarkable sentence which comes under the introductory notices. It is: “The Sage speaks”. At this time Goethe already had the Anthroposophical idea that there are beings among us to-day who are further on in evolution than man, and form a ladder between him and the super-earthly spheres, although they too are incarnated in bodies.
They have attained to a knowledge reaching far beyond what can be understood by the senses. The passage is as follows:
“The Spirit world is not locked;
Thy mind is closed.
Thy heart is dead!
Up, Disciple, bathe, and cleanse.
Thy earthly breast in Morning-Redness.”
When you become acquainted with Jacob Boehme you find one of the sources (Dawn of the moving Redness, the astral world) from which Goethe created his world of Theosophy. There is much in Goethe which we can only understand when we take it in this sense. In the poem “The Divine”, Goethe speaks of the law which we call Karma, and also speaks of exalted beings:
“Nach ewigen ehern'n
Müssen wir alle
Heil den unbekannten
Die wir ahnen.”
In accordance with mighty iron laws
We must all accomplish the cycles of our being —
Hail to the unknown higher Beings
Whom we divine!
Volume 2, Page 67 – 68.
Anyone who wants a verbal proof of Goethe's Anthroposophical line of thought, need only read the poem which, under the title “God and the World” is called “Howard's memory”.
When Goethe spoke intimately to those who were in the same Lodge, he spoke of the ideal Divine Beings, which are ahead of man and shone forth to him as a prototype. What he wrote in the poem “Symbolum” for instance was intended for a small circle:
“Doch rufen von drüben
Die Stimmen der Geister
Die Stimmen der Meister.”
The voices of spirits,
The voice of the Masters,
Call from above.
He here speaks openly of the Masters, for he is speaking intimately to his brethren of the Lodge. But he leads us furthest of all in his Fairy Tale of the “Green Serpent and the Beautiful Lily”. Therein we find represented the three kingdoms in which man lives, the physical, the soul-world or Astral world, and the Spirit-world. The symbol of the astral or soul-world is the water. By water Goethe always symbolised the soul, as in his poem “Fate and the Soul”. Book 11, Page 46.
“Seele des Menschen
“Soul of a man,
He was also acquainted with the Spiritual realms in which man lives between two incarnations, between death and re-birth; that is Devachan, the Kingdom of the Gods. Man is ceaselessly striving to reach this kingdom. The Alchemists took the chemical processes as the striving after this Spiritual kingdom. They called it “the Lily”, “the realm of the Lily”. And man they called “the Lion” who fights for the kingdom, and the Lily is the bride of the Lion. Goethe indicated this in his Faust, when he says:
“Then a red Lion with the Lily wedded,
A wooer bold.”
Therein Goethe speaks of the marriage of man with the spirit. (“in tepid bath”, the bath of the soul. The soul, the water, the red Lion, man) In the Fairy Tale Goethe also represents the three kingdoms. The kingdom of the senses — as the one shore; the kingdom of the soul — as the river, and Devachan (the Spiritual Realm) as that shore on which is to be found the garden of the beautiful Lily, which to the Alchemists is the symbol of Devachan. The whole relation of man to the three kingdoms is symbolised in this beautiful story. We came across from the kingdom of the Spirit and are striving, to get back there.
Goethe had the Will of the Wisps brought across by the Ferryman from the kingdom of the spirit to that of sense. The Ferryman can bring anyone across, but he may not take them back. We come across by no will of our own, but we cannot get back again in that way. We must ourselves find the way back into the Spiritual realm.
The Will of the Wisps take gold as nourishment, they eat it, and it permeates their bodies. But at the same time they throw it from them on all sides. They wish to throw it to the Ferryman as payment, he says however, that a River cannot bear gold, it would make it surge up wildly. Gold always signifies wisdom. The Will of the Wisps are those who seek after wisdom, yet do not mingle it with their nature, but give it away again undigested. The River is the Soul-life; the totality of human instincts, desires and passions. When wisdom is introduced into that, the soul is thrown out into a state of disturbance. Goethe always pointed out that a man must first undergo Catharsis (purification) before he can take in wisdom. For if wisdom is brought into the uncleansed passions, they become fanatical; and a man then remains the slave of his lower ego. The ascent from Kama to Mana is dangerous, unless at the same time the lower ego is sacrificed. With reference to this Goethe says in his “Westöstlichen Divan”, Book 4, Page 17
“Und so lang du das nicht hast
“As long as thou hast not got
A man must be prepared to sacrifice himself. The Will of the Wisps are still in Ahamkara, the slaves of the lower Ego. This wisdom cannot endure. The soul-life must be purified slowly and must ascend slowly.
The Will of the Wisps scatter their gold about in the meadow. There they meet with the Serpent who devours it and unites itself with it. The Serpent has the strength not to fill its Ego with pride, not to allow it to become self-seeking, not to raise itself up in pride to an upright position, but to pursue its way in a horizontal position and to move into the clefts of the Earth and there attain perfection gradually.
A Temple is represented, which is to be found in the clefts of the earth.
The Serpent had already passed in and out of this, and had sensed that mysterious beings are to be found therein. And now comes the Old Man with the Lamp. The Serpent, through the gold it had swallowed, has become luminous, and the Temple is illuminated by its radiance. The lamp of the Old Man has the property of only shining where light is, and it then shines with a very peculiar light. Thus, on the one hand there is the Serpent, luminous through the gold, and on the other the Old Man with the Lamp, which is also a light. Through this two-fold illumination every thing in the Temple becomes visible. In the four corners are four kings; a golden, a silver, a bronze king and one composed of a mixture of them all. Till now they could not be seen by the Serpent, he could only find them by the sense of touch; but they now become visible through their own light. They are the three higher principles of man, and the four lower principles. The bronze king is Atma — the divine Ego; the silver king is Buddhi — the love whereby all men can understand one another, and the golden king is Manas, the Wisdom that radiates out into the world and can take in the radiating Wisdom. When man has acquired Wisdom in a selfless way, he can then see things in their true nature, without the veil of Maya. The three higher principles of man now become visible to the Serpent. The golden king is Manas, for gold always signifies Manas. The four lower principles of man are symbolically represented by the fourth king, who is composed of mixtures. Atma, Buddhi and Manas are drawn into the spheres of Phenomena, but in a state of disharmony. Only when this is purified can something develop which could not live where there was a lack of harmony.
The Temple is the Sanctuary of Initiation, the Mystery school which can only be entered by those who themselves bring light, when they also are selfless like the Serpent. The Temple was one day to be revealed, and to raise itself above the river. That is the kingdom of the future, towards which we are striving, the secret places of learning must be brought up into the light of day. Everything which is man must struggle upwards, must become harmonious, must strive after the higher principles. That which was formerly taught in the Mysteries must become an open secret. The wanderers are to cross the river, must pass from the world of sense to the super-sensible world and vice versa. All mankind shall be united in harmony. The Old Man with the Lamp represents man who can today attain knowledge without climbing to the apex of wisdom, namely to the forces of piety of mind and of faith. Faith requires light from without, if it is really to lead to the higher Mysteries. The Serpent and the Old Man with the Lamp have the forces of the Spirit, which already shines in those who are to lead in the future. Even to-day anyone who feels these forces is aware of this, through certain secrets. The Old Man says he knows three secrets. But the strangest thing is said of the fourth secret. The Serpent whimpers something into his ear, whereupon the Old Man calls out, “The time has come when a great number of people shall understand which is the right road. The Serpent has proclaimed that it is ready to sacrifice itself. It has reached the point of recognising that man must die, in order to become.” (‘Denn so lang du das nicht hast, dieses stirb and werde’) (As long as thou hast not, this ‘dying and becoming’!)
To become”, in order in the fullest sense of the word “to be”; that man can only accomplish through love, devotion and sacrifice. The Serpent is ready for this. This will be made manifest, when man is ready for this sacrifice, then the Temple will be raised above the river.
The Will of the Wisps were not able to pay their debt; they had to promise the Ferryman to settle it later. The river received three of the fruits of the Earth; three cabbages, three onions and three artichokes. The Will of the Wisps go to the Wife of the Old Man and there they behave in a very curious manner; they licked the gold off the walls. They wanted to stuff themselves with wisdom in order to be able to give it forth again. Mops eats the gold and dies; for everything living must die of it; he cannot take in the truth and transmute it as does the Serpent, and therefore it is death-giving. The Old Woman had to promise the Will of the Wisps to settle their debts with the Ferryman. When the Old Man with the Lamp comes home he sees what has occurred. He tells the Old Woman she must keep her promise, but must also carry the dead Mops to the beautiful Lily, for she can bring all dead things to life. The Old Woman goes with her basket to the Ferryman: — on the way she has two remarkable experiences. She meets the great Giant, whose peculiarity is that in the evening he throws his shadow across the River so that the wanderer can pass over on it. Besides this the way is also passable when at the noonday hour the Serpent ramps across the river. The Giant can make a bridge across, but when the Sun is at its highest point, the Serpent can do so too; when through the radiant Sun of knowledge man raises his Ego to the Divine. In the sacred moments of life, at the moments of the complete blotting out of self, man unites himself with the Godhead.
The Giant is the rude physical development along which man must necessarily pass. In so doing he also reaches the yonder realm, but only in the twilight, when his consciousness is blotted out. That however is a dangerous path, which is followed by those who develop psychic forces and go into states of trance. This crossing of the bridge is accomplished in the twilight of trance. Schiller also wrote on one occasion about the Shadow of the Giant: “These are the dark powers which lead man across the Threshold.”
When the Old Woman passes him by, the giant takes from her one cabbage, one onion, and one artichoke, so that she only retained a part of that with which she was to pay the debt of the Will of the Wisps. The three-fold number is thus no longer complete. That which we require and which we must weave into our soul-life is taken from us by the twilight forces. There is danger in yielding oneself to such forces. The lower forces must be purified by the soul-forces, the body itself can only ascend when the soul completely absorbs it. Everything which encloses an inner kernel as in a shell, is a symbol for the sheaths of man. Indian allegory describes these sheaths as the petals of the lotus flower. The physical nature of man must be purified in its shell. We must pay our debts, and yield our lower principle to the soul-life. We have expressed the paying of this debt by saying that payment must be made to the river. That is the whole course of Karma. As the payment of the Old Woman was insufficient, she had to plunge her hand into the river; after that she could only feel her hand, but could no longer see it. That which in man's external, physical appearance, that which is visible in him, is the body. That must be purified by the Soul-life. This means that if man cannot pay with the plant-nature, he remains in debt. Then the actual bodily nature of man becomes invisible; because the Old Woman was not able to pay her debt she becomes invisible. The Ego can only be seen in the light of day, when purified by the soul-life; — “Oh, my hand, the loveliest part of me” The very part of man which distinguishes him from the animals. That which as spirit shines through him — becomes invisible if it is not purified by his Karma.
The beautiful youth who strove after the kingdom of the Lily (Spirituality) was crippled by her.
Goethe by this meant the ancient Wisdom, for which man must be prepared and purified and have undergone Katharsis, so that he should no longer reach Wisdom through sin but might take into himself the higher Spirituality. The youth had not been prepared by Katharsis. Every living thing which is not yet mature, is killed by the Lily. All the dead that have passed through “Stirb und Werde”, “Dying and Becoming”, are brought to life again by the Lily. Now Goethe says that one who has attained freedom within himself, is ripe for freedom. Jacob Boehme too says that man must develop himself out of his lower principle. He who does not do this before he dies, is destroyed at death. Man must first mature and be purified, before he can enter the kingdom of the Spirit (The Lily). In the old Mysteries a man had to go through various stages of purification before he could become a Mystic. The Youth too had first to pass through these stages, and he is guided through them by the Lily. The Serpent signifies development. We see the Lily gathering those together who are seeking the new way, all those who are striving after the Spiritual. But the Temple must first be lifted up above the river. They all move towards the River, the Will of the Wisps are in front and they open the door. The self-seeking Wisdom is the bridge to the selfless Wisdom. Wisdom leads a man through self to selflessness. The Serpent sacrificed itself. And now we understand the meaning of love, it is a Sacrifice of the lower self for the good of humanity, of complete brotherhood. The whole company moves towards the Temple, which rises above the river. The youth is brought to life again. He is furnished with Atma, Buddhi, Manas; Atma, in the form of the Bronze King, appears before him and gives him a sword. This represents the higher will, and is not connected with the lower will. Atma is so to work in man that the sword shall be on his left and the right hand free, till then man works separately; — the War of all against all. But when man is purified, peace comes instead of war. Only when man is purified will peace take the place of War; the sword will then be worn on the left side, for defence only, leaving the right hand free for well-doing.
The second King signifies that which at one time was known as the second principle. Buddhi (Piety, the mood in which a man turns in faith to the highest). Silver in the symbol of piety. The second King says “Feed my sheep”, for here we are concerned with the force of the spirit. The radiance here is that of Beauty. Goethe connected with art a feeling of religious reverence. He saw in it the manifestation of the Divine of the kingdom; the beautiful radiance, the realm of piety. The Bronze King signifies strength without the lower principles, the Silver King signifies peace, and the Golden King Wisdom. He says “Recognise the highest” The youth is the four principled man, who is developing his higher principles. The four lower ones are crippled by the spirit until they have undergone the purifying development; after that the three higher principles work together harmoniously in Man. He then becomes strong and able, and may mate with the Lily. That is the union between the soul and the spirit of man. The soul is always represented as something feminine in man. The Mystery of the eternal and immortal is here represented. “The eternal feminine draws us along”. Goethe makes use of the same image in his story, in the union of the Youth with the beautiful Lily. Now the sacrificed human self and all living, pass over the bridge that arches across the river. Wanderers go to and fro and all the kingdoms are now united in beautiful harmony. The Old Woman grows young, and the Old Man with the Lamp is rejuvenated; old age has passed away and everything has become new.
The Ferryman's little hut has been gilded over, and is now preserved as a sort of Altar in the Temple. What man formerly took over unconsciously, he now takes over in full consciousness. The king of many parts has collapsed. The Will of the Wisps lick the gold out of him, for that is still connected with the lower. The Giant now indicates the time. What formerly were the sense-principles (which can only lead into the shadows) which lead man across in the hour of twilight and belong to the things of sense, to nature-conditions, now points to the even and regular course of time. As long as man has not developed the three higher principles, the past and the future are in conflict. The giant then works inharmoniously. Now, through these ideal conditions, time is in harmony. Thought permanently strengthens that which was wavering, and makes it steady.
“Was im schwankende Erscheinung lebt
Befestigt mil dauernden Gedanken”. What lives in transient phenomena
Is justified by lasting thoughts.
Faust, Prologue in Heaven.
That which in the Pythagorean schools was called the “Rhythm of the Universe”, “The Music of the Spheres”, of the planets, rhythmically revolving around the Sun, is brought about by the accomplishment of Divine Thought. To the mystic a planet was a Being of a higher order. Thus Goethe too says:
Die Sonne tönt nach Alter Weise,
In Bruder-Sphären Wettgesand,
Und ihre vorgeschriebene Reise
Vollendet sie mit Donnergang. The sun rings forth in ancient fashion
In the spheres of his brother-singers.
He accomplishes his allotted journey
‘Midst resounding claps of thunder.
That man indeed has the capacity of developing to the highest Divine, Goethe says in the words; “Wär nicht das Auge sonnenhaft, Die Sonne könnt es nicht erblicken; wohnt nicht in uns des Gottes eigene Kraft, Wie könnt uns Göttliches entzücken?”
If the eye were not fashioned for the sunlight
It could not gaze upon the Sun!
If there were not in us the very force of God
How could we be charmed by the Divine?