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The Apocalypse of St. John
GA 104

Lecture I

18 June 1908, Nuremberg

During the next few days we are to occupy ourselves with a very profound theosophical subject. Before beginning our studies let me express my great satisfaction that we are able to place before friends from so many parts of Germany, and indeed of Europe, this deep and important subject. Especially do I express it to our friends in Nuremberg, who for their part are certainly not less happy than the speaker to cultivate for a short period of time anthroposophical life in this city in common with our foreign friends. There has always been in this city a very earnest search for the knowledge of great spiritual truths, and a deep understanding of anthroposophical life, of the true anthroposophical attitude towards life, has always been manifest.

This kind of life which is only understood when our anthroposophical doctrines are not merely a theoretical interest, but something which spiritualizes, kindles and uplifts our inmost life, links us in closer bonds with our fellow-men and with the whole world. It means much to man to feel that everything he sees in the outer world in his objective sense-existence can be recognized as the external physiognomy of an invisible super-sensible existence lying at its foundation. The world and all it contains will at length become to one who applies Anthroposophy to life more and more a physical expression of divine spiritual realities; and when he observes the visible world around him it will be to him as if he penetrated from the mere features of a person's face to his heart and soul. All that he sees externally, the mountains and rocks, the vegetation of the earth, the animals and human beings, human activities—everything in the world surrounding him—will be to hint the physiognomical expression, or the countenance, as it were, of a divine existence lying behind it. From this mode of observation new life rises up within him and permeates him; and a different, a noble enthusiasm fires all that he wishes to undertake.

Let me give you a small symptomatic example from my experience on one of my latest lecture tours, showing how significant world history is when looked upon as the expression of the divine spiritual, and how it can speak to us in a new language. A few weeks ago in Scandinavia I noticed that in the entire life of Northern Europe there is still an echo of that ancient period of the Norse world when all spiritual life was permeated by the consciousness of the beings who were to be found as the gods of northern Mythology. One might say that in those countries one may hear the echoes everywhere of what the Initiates of the Druidic and Trotten Mysteries imparted to their pupils and which constituted the old Norse spiritual life. One becomes aware of the magic breath of that spirit life pervading the North; one sees something like the expression of beautiful karmic connections. One feels oneself placed—as it was my privilege in Upsala—in the midst of all this, when one contemplates the first German translation of the Bible, the Silver Codex of Ulfilas ... It came to Upsala through karmic complications of a peculiar kind. It had previously been in Prague. In the Swedish war it was taken as booty and brought to Upsala, and there it now lies; a token of something which can be penetrated by one who is able to look a little more deeply into the nature of the ancient Mysteries. The Mysteries within the ancient European civilizations in which pupils were taught how to penetrate into the spiritual world were all pervaded and permeated by a remarkable characteristic, which could be observed more deeply by those who received initiation in those ancient tines. Their hearts were filled with a feeling of tragedy when it was made clear to them that although they were indeed able to glimpse the secrets of existence, nevertheless, something would appear in the time to come which would give the most complete solution of the riddle. They were shown again and again that a higher light was to ray into that knowledge which could be given in the ancient Mysteries. One might say that in all these Mysteries it was prophetically indicated what was to come about in the future, namely, the appearance of Christ Jesus. The undertone, the attitude of expectation, this mood of prophecy lay in the nature of the Northern Mysteries.

The statement I am now about to make must not be pressed too far or too sharply outlined in thought. It is only intended to express symptomatically the deeper truth which lies behind in the legend of Siegfried, which has remained like a last page out of the traditions of the old German Mysteries, there is something like an echo of that mood. When we are shown that Siegfried is really the representative of the ancient nordic initiation, that on the place where he is vulnerable there lies a leaf, that this place is on his back, then one who is able to feel such a thing symptomatically feels: That is the spot on the human being where something different will rest, when such injury as the initiates of the ancient Northern Mysteries experienced can no longer touch him. This spot the Cross shall cover, there the Cross of Christ Jesus shall rest. It did not yet rest there in the case of the initiates of the ancient Northern Mysteries. In the old Mysteries of the German peoples, this is indicated in the legend of Siegfried. Thus even here is symptomatically indicated how the ancient initiations of the Druids and Trotten should be thought of as harmonizing with the Christian Mysteries. The placing of the first German translation of the Bible in the northern world reminds one of this like a physiognomic gesture. And the fact that it is like a karmic chain may also appear symbolically to you by the circumstance that eleven leaves were once stolen from this Silver Codex and that the one who possessed them later on felt such qualms of conscience that he would not keep these eleven leaves and so returned them. As already said, these things ought not to be pressed too far, but they may be taken as a pictorial representation of those karmic developments which come to physiognomical expression in the placing of the first German translation of the Bible in the northern world. And just as in the case of this historical event, so will everything which meets us in life, great or small, also be deepened and irradiated with a new light through the anthroposophical outlook, which sees everything physically perceptible as the physiognomical expression of super-sensible spirit. May we, during this course of lectures, be filled with the conviction that this is the case, and may the spirit and feelings which are to fill our hearts and minds during this series of twelve lectures proceed from this conviction.

In this frame of mind let us approach these lectures which will deal with the most profound document of Christianity, the Apocalypse of John. The deepest truths of Christianity can be considered in connection with this document, for it contains nothing less than a great part of the Mysteries of Christianity, the profoundest part of what may be described as esoteric Christianity. It is therefore not to be wondered at that of all Christian documents this one has been most misunderstood. Almost from the beginning of the spiritual movement of Christianity it has been misunderstood by all who were not really Christian initiates. And it has always been misunderstood at various times according to the prevailing thought and disposition of those times. It has been misunderstood by the ages which, one might say, have thought in a spiritually materialistic way; by the ages which have forced great religious movements into one-sided fanatical party affairs; and it has been misunderstood in modern times by those who, its the grossest and most sense-bound materialism, believed themselves able to solve the riddle of the universe. The high spiritual truths announced in the early days of Christianity, and witnessed by those who were able to understand them, are disclosed as far as is possible in writing in the Apocalypse of John, the so-called canonical Apocalypse. But even in the first ages of Christianity exotericists were little inclined to understand the deep spiritual truths contained in esoteric Christianity. Thus in the very first ages of Christianity the idea came into exotericism that things which in the world's evolution first take place in the spiritual, and are recognizable by those who can see into the spiritual worlds—that such purely spiritual proceedings were to take place externally in material life. And so it came about that while the writer of the Apocalypse expressed in his work the results of his Christian initiation, others only understood it exoterically; and their opinion was that what the great seer saw—and of which the Initiate knows that spiritually in it takes place over thousands of years—must happen in the very far future in external life and be visible to the senses. They imagined that the writer indicated something like a speedy return of Christ Jesus, a descent from the physical clouds. As this did not happen, they simply lengthened the period and said, “With the advent of Christ Jesus a new period has begun for the earth as regards the old religious teachings, but”—this again was understood materialistically—“after a thousand years the earliest events represented in the Apocalypse will take place in the physical world.” Thus it came about that when the year A.D. 1000 actually drew near, many people waited for the coming of some power hostile to Christianity, for an Antichrist who should appear in the sense world. As this again did not occur, the period was further extended, but at the same time the whole prediction of the Apocalypse was elevated to a kind of symbolism—whereas the crass exotericists represented this prediction more literally. With the advent of a materialistic world-conception these things were enveloped in a certain symbolism; external events were invested with a symbolic significance. Thus in the twelfth century Joachim of Floris, who died at the beginning of the thirteenth century, gave a notable exploration of this mysterious record of Christianity. It was his opinion that Christianity contained a deep spiritual power, that this power would have to expand more and more, but that historical Christianity had always given this esoteric Christianity an external interpretation. Thus many people came to this point of view, which was that the Romish Church with the Pope at its head, this externalization of the spirituality of Christianity, was something hostile and anti-Christian. And this was particularly fostered in the following centuries through certain Orders attaching higher value to the fervent spiritual aspect of Christianity. Thus Joachim of Floris found followers among the Franciscans, and these looked upon the Pope as being the symbol of Antichrist. Then in the age of Protestantism this conception passed over to those who looked upon the Romish Church as an apostate of Christianity and Protestantism as its salvation. They considered the Pope as Symbol of Antichrist, and the Pope retaliated by calling Luther the Antichrist. Thus the Apocalypse was understood in such a way that each party drew it into the service of its own view, its own opinion. Each regarded the other party always as Antichrist and their own party as having the true Christianity. This continued into modern times when modern materialists developed, with which, for grossness, the materialism I have described as belonging to the early centuries of Christianity cannot be compared. For at that time spiritual faith and a certain spiritual comprehension still existed. Men could not understand, only because they had no initiates among them. A certain spiritual sense was there; for although it was crudely imagined that a Being would descend in a cloud, there still belonged to it a spiritual faith. A spiritual life such as this was no longer possible with the crass materialism of the nineteenth century. The thoughts of a genuine materialist of the nineteenth century regarding the Apocalypse may be described somewhat as follows: “No man can see into the future, for I myself cannot. No one can see anything more than I can see. To say that there are initiates is an old superstition. Such persons do not exist. What I know is the standard. I can scarcely see what will happen in the next ten years, therefore no man can say anything about what is to happen in thousands of years. Consequently he who wrote the Apocalypse, if he is to be taken as an honest man, must have been describing something which he had already seen—for I only know what has already taken place and what I can discover from documents. Therefore the writer of the Apocalypse could see nothing more either. What, therefore, according to this, can he relate? Only what has happened to him. Consequently it is obvious that the events of the Apocalypse, the conflicts between the good, wise and beautiful world and the ugly, foolish and evil world, this dramatic contrast is only intended to represent what the author had himself experienced, what had already taken place.” The modern materialist speaks in this way, it is his opinion that the writer of the Apocalypse describes things as he himself does.

What, then, was the most dreadful thing to a Christian of the first century? It was the beast which made war against the spiritual power of Christianity, against the true Christianity. Unfortunately only a few people perceived that there was something behind this, but they did not know how to interpret it correctly.

In certain esoteric schools there was a kind of writing in numbers. Certain words which it was not wished to impart in ordinary writing were expressed by figures. And, like much else, some of the deep secrets of the Apocalypse were hidden in numbers, particularly that dramatic event in the number 666. It was known that numbers were to be dealt with in a particular way, especially when such a distinct indication is given as in the words, “Here is wisdom.” “The number of the beast is 666.” When such an indication was given it was known that the figures must be replaced by certain letters, in order to ascertain what was intended. Now those who had heard something, and yet really knew nothing, came to the conclusion in their materialistic conception that when letters were substituted for the number 666, the word “Nero” or “Caesar Nero” resulted. And nowadays in a large part of the literature dealing with the deciphering of the Apocalypse you may read: Formerly people were so foolish that they imagined all sorts of things in connection with this passage, but the problem is now solved. We now know that nothing else is intended than the Emperor Nero. Therefore the Apocalypse must have been written after Nero's death, and the writer wished to say by all this that the Antichrist had appeared in Nero, and that what is contained in this dramatic element is an enhancement upon what had preceded it. We need now only investigate what happened immediately before and we shall discover what the writer of the Apocalypse really wished to describe. It is reported that earthquakes took place in Asia Minor when the struggle between Nero and Christianity was raging. Therefore it was to these earthquakes that the writer was referring in the opening of the seals and the sounding of the trumpets. He also mentions plagues of locusts. Quite correct! We know from history that at the time of the persecution of the Christians by Nero there were plagues of locusts. He was, therefore, speaking of these. Thus the nineteenth century has come to materialize the profoundest document of Christianity so far as to see nothing in it but the description of what may be found by a mere materialistic observation of the world.

I have only mentioned this in order to point out how fundamentally this deepest and most important document of esoteric Christianity has been misunderstood. I shall postpone to the last lectures what is to be said about the historical part of the Apocalypse until we have understood what is contained in the Apocalypse. To those who have studied Anthroposophy but little, there can be no doubt that even the introductory words of the Apocalypse show us what it is intended to be. We need only remember that it says that he from whom the contents of the Apocalypse proceeded was placed in an island solitude, which had always been surrounded by a kind of sacred atmosphere, in one of the ancient places of the Mysteries. And when we are told that the author was in the spirit, and that in the spirit he perceives what he gives us, it may indicate to us that the contents of the Apocalypse originate from the higher state of consciousness, to which a person may attain through the evolution of the inner creative capacity of the soul, through initiation. In the Secret Revelation of the so-called John is contained that which cannot be seen and heard in the sense world, and cannot be perceived with external senses; and it is given in the way in which it can be imparted to the world through Christianity. In the Apocalypse of John we have therefore the description of an initiation, a Christian initiation. For the present we need only briefly recall what initiation is. We shall, indeed, go more and more deeply into the question as to what takes place in initiation, and how initiation is related to the contents of the Apocalypse, but to begin with we will only draw something like a rough sketch and paint in the details later.

Initiation is the development of the powers and capacities slumbering in every soul. If we wish to have an idea of the manner in which it really takes place we must clearly bear in mind what the consciousness of the present normal man is; we shall then also recognize in what way the consciousness of the initiate differs from that of the ordinary man of the present day. What is, then, the consciousness of the normal human being? It is a changing one; two entirely different states of consciousness alternate, that of the day, and that during sleep at night. The waking day-consciousness consists in our perceiving sense objects around us and connecting them by means of concepts which can only be formed with the aid of a sense organ, namely, the brain. Then, each night, the astral body and the Ego withdraw from the lower principles of the human being, the physical and etheric bodies, and therewith the sense objects around man sink into the darkness; and not only this, for until re-awakening unconsciousness prevails. Darkness spreads around man. For the human astral body to-day under normal conditions is so organized that it is unable of itself to perceive what surrounds it. It must have organs. These organs are the physical senses. Therefore in the morning it must plunge into the physical body and make use of the sense organs. Why does the astral body see nothing when during sleep at night it is in the spirit-world? For the same reason that a physical body without eyes or ears could experience neither physical colours nor physical sounds. The astral body has no organs with which to perceive in the astral world. In primeval times the physical body was in the same position. It too did not yet possess what later was plastically worked into it as ears and eyes. The external elements and forces moulded the physical body, formed the eyes and ears, and thus the world was revealed to man, a world which previously was hidden from him. Let us imagine that the astral body, which is now in the position in which the physical body was formerly, could be so treated that organs could be built into it in the same way that the sunlight plastically moulded the physical eyes, and the world of sound the physical ears in the soft substance of the physical human body. Let us imagine that we could mould organs in the plastic mass of the astral body; then the astral body would be in the same condition as the present physical body. It is a question of moulding the organs of perception for the super-sensible world into this astral body, as a sculptor moulds his clay. This is the first thing. If a man wishes to become a seer, his astral body must be treated as a piece of clay by the sculptor; organs must be worked into it. This was, in fact, always done in the schools of initiation and the Mysteries. The organs were plastically formed in the astral body.

In what does the activity consist by means of which it is possible for the astral body to have organs plastically moulded into it? It might be thought that a person must first have the body in front of him before he can work the organs into it. He might say: “If I could take out the astral body and have it in front of me, I could then mould the organs into it.” That would not be the right way, and above all, it is not the way for modern initiation. Certainly an initiate who is able to live in the spiritual worlds could mould the organs like a sculptor, when during the night the astral body is outside. But that would entail doing something with a person of which he is not conscious; it would mean interfering in his sphere of freedom, with the exclusion of his consciousness. We shall see why this has not been allowed to happen for a long time past, and particularly not at the present time. For this reason, even in esoteric schools such as the Pythagorean or old Egyptian, everything had to be avoided whereby the initiates would have to work from outside upon the astral body which was taken out of the physical and etheric bodies of the neophyte. This had to be avoided from the very outset. The first step towards initiation had to be undertaken with man in the ordinary physical world, in the same world where man perceives with the physical senses. But how can this be done? For it is exactly through physical perception coming into earthly evolution that a veil has been drawn over the spiritual world formerly perceived by man, although but dimly. How can one work from the physical world upon the astral body? Here it is necessary that we should consider what happens with regard to our ordinary everyday sense perceptions. What happens in these cases? What happens while man is perceiving all day long? Think of your daily life, follow it step by step! At every step the impressions of the outer world press in upon you, you perceive them; you see, hear, smell, etc. When you are doing your work impressions storm upon you all day long and you work upon these impressions with your intellect. The poet who is not an inspired poet permeates them with his fantasy. All this is true! But all this cannot, to begin with, lead man to the consciousness of the super-sensible spiritual which lies behind the sensible and material. Why does it not come to his consciousness? Because all this activity which man exercises with respect to the surrounding world does not correspond with the essential nature of the human astral body as it exists to-day. When in the primeval past the astral body proper to man saw the pictures of the astral perception rise up—those pictures of joy and sorrow, of sympathy and antipathy—inner spiritual impulses were present, causing something to rise in man which formed organs. These were killed when man had to allow all the influences from outside to stream in upon him, and at the present time it is impossible for anything to remain in the astral body from all the impressions received during the day which could mould it plastically.

The process of perception is as follows: All day long we are subjected to the impressions of the external world. These work through the physical senses upon the etheric and astral bodies, until the ego becomes conscious of them. The result of what affects the physical body is expressed in the astral body. When the eyes receive impressions of light, these influence the etheric and astral bodies and the ego becomes conscious of them. So, too, with the impressions made upon the ears and other senses. Thus the whole of one's daily life affects the astral body through-out the day. The astral body is continually active under the influence of the outer world. Then in the evening it withdraws from the physical body. It now has no power in itself to become conscious of the impressions in its present environment. The ancient forces of the distant past were killed with the first perception of the present sense world. During the night it has no power because the entire life of the day is incapable of leaving anything in the astral body which could work formatively upon it. All the things you see around you produce effects as far as into the astral body, but that which then takes place is unable to create forms capable of becoming astral organs. It must be the first step of initiation to allow a person to do something during the life of the day, to allow something to play into his soul, which continues during the night when the astral body is withdrawn from the physical and etheric bodies. Imagine that—pictorially expressed—something were given to a person while he is fully conscious, which he has to do, which he has to allow to happen, and which is so chosen, so constructed that it does not cease working when the day is over. Imagine this activity as a sound, which continues when the astral body is withdrawn; this resounding would then constitute the force which worked plastically on the astral body, as at one time external forces have worked upon the physical body. This was always the first step of initiation—to give a person something to do during the life of the day, which has an after-effect in the life of the night. What is called meditation, concentration, and other practices which a person undertakes during his daily life, are nothing but exercises of the soul, the effects of which do not die away when the astral body withdraws, but reverberate, and then in the night become constructive forces in the astral body.

This is called the purification of the astral body, the purification from all that is unnatural to it. This was the first step, which was also called catharsis, purification. It did not yet constitute activity in super-sensible worlds; it consisted in exercises of the soul which the pupil performed during the day as a training of the soul. It consisted in adopting certain forms of life, certain feelings, a certain way of treating life, so that it could reverberate; and this worked upon the astral body until it had been transformed, until organs had developed in it. When the pupil had progressed so far that these organs had developed in the astral body, the next thing was that everything which had been formed there should be imprinted in the etheric body. Just as the characters on a seal are imprinted in sealing-wax, so must everything which has been formed in the astral body be imprinted in the etheric body. This imprinting is the next stage of initiation; it was called illumination. For it brought with it an important stage in initiation. A spiritual world then appeared around the pupil, just as formerly the sense world was around him. This stage is also characterized by the fact that the events of the outer spiritual world do not express themselves as physical objects do, but in pictures. At this stage of illumination the spiritual world first expresses itself in pictures. The pupil sees pictures. Think of the ancient initiate I referred to yesterday who saw the group-soul of a people. When he had progressed to this stage, he at first saw this group-soul in pictures. Imagine an initiate such as Ezekiel, who, when his illumination began, became aware of spiritual beings as folk-souls, group-souls; he felt himself in their midst; he saw group-souls in the form of four symbolical beasts.

To begin with, the spiritual world appeared to the pupil in significant pictures—that was the first stage. Then followed a further penetration into the etheric body. What at first was present as the impression of a seal, continued as a further penetration into the etheric body. Then there began to be added to the pictures what was known as the music of the spheres. The higher spiritual world is perceived as sound. The higher initiate having, through illumination, perceived the spiritual world in pictures, begins spiritually to listen to those sounds which are perceptible to the spiritual ear. Then he comes to the later transformation of the etheric body, and afterwards in a still higher sphere something else approaches him. If, for example, there is a screen here and behind it a man is speaking whom you cannot see, yet you may hear sounds. It is somewhat similar with the spiritual world. At first it appears in pictures, then sounds are heard, and then the last veil falls away, so to speak—as if we were to take away the screen behind which the man is standing and speaking. We see the man himself; we see the spiritual world itself, the beings of the spiritual world. First we perceive the pictures, then the sounds, then the beings, and lastly the life of these beings. It is indeed only possible to give a hint of what exists as pictures in the so-called Imaginative world by making use, as symbols, of pictures from the sense world. One can only give an idea of the harmony of the spheres by comparing it with ordinary music. Now what may be compared with the impressions of the beings at the third stage? It is comparable alone with that which to-day constitutes the inmost being of man, his acting in accordance with the divine will. If the pupil works according to the will of the spiritual beings who are helping the world onwards, the being within him will then become similar to these beings and he will perceive in this sphere. He perceives that the element within him which opposes the evolution of the world, which retards its progress, is something which must be thrown off in this world, something which must fall away like a last covering.

Thus the pupil first perceives a world of pictures as a symbolic expression of the spiritual world, then a world of sphere-harmony as a symbolic expression of a higher spiritual sphere, then a world of spiritual beings of whom he can to-day only form an idea by comparing them with the depths of his own being, with that which works within him in accordance with the good powers or even in accordance with the evil spiritual forces.

The neophyte passes through these stages, and they are faithfully portrayed in the Apocalypse of John. The start is made from the physical world. That which is first to be said by means of the physical world is said in the seven letters. What we wish to do in outer civilization, what we wish to say to those working in the physical world, we say in letters. For the word expressed in the letter can produce its effect in the sense world. The first stage provides symbols which must be brought into relation with what they express in the spiritual world. After the seven letters comes the world of the seven seals, the world of pictures of the first stage of initiation. Then comes the world of the sphere-harmonies, the world as it is perceived by those who can hear spiritually. It is represented in the seven trumpets. The next world, where the initiate perceives beings, is represented by those who appear at this stage and who strip off the shells of the forces opposed to the good. The opposite of the divine love is the divine wrath. The true form of the divine love which carries the world forward is perceived in this third sphere by those who for the physical world have stripped off the seven shells or husks of wrath.

Thus the neophyte is led step by step upward into the spheres of initiation. In the seven letters of the Apocalypse of John we have that which belongs to the seven categories of the physical world, in the seven seals that which belongs to the astral imaginative world, in the seven trumpets that which belongs to the higher world of Devachan, and in the seven husks of wrath that which must be cast aside if the pupil wishes to rise into what is spiritually the highest to be attained in our world, because this spiritually highest is still connected with our world.

To-day we wished to give merely a sketch of the outer structure of the Apocalypse of John, which serves to show that this is a book of initiation. In our next lecture we shall begin to fill in this brief sketch.