Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Between Death and Rebirth
GA 141

Lecture IV

10 December 1912, Berlin

In earlier lectures we have heard that the imperishable part of the human being which at death leaves the physical body and, to a considerable extent, the etheric body too, passes through a life between death and the new birth, and that during this period its forces are drawn from the world of the stars. We have also heard how the human being is able to draw these forces from the world of stars to the extent to which he developed moral and religious qualities during his life on Earth. It was said that, for example, from the region which receives forces radiated from the planet known in occult science as Mercury, a man will be able to draw the requisite forces if, during his life on Earth before death, he developed a genuinely moral disposition; from the Venus region he can draw the forces he needs for his further life in the spiritual worlds, also for his subsequent life on Earth, if he developed a truly religious attitude before his death. To sum up, we may say that as long as a human being is making use of his senses, as long as he lets himself be guided and directed by the intellect that is bound to the brain as its instrument, he is connected with the forces of the Earth; in the life between death and a new birth he is connected with the forces radiating from the worlds of the stars. In man of the present age, however, there is a certain difference between his connection with the forces of the Earth during his physical life and his connection with the forces of the stars between death and the new birth. The forces which man draws into his consciousness during his earthly life, that is to say, the forces he experiences consciously during earthly life, contribute nothing essential to what he needs for the up-building and vitalising of his own being; for they give rise to catabolic processes, processes of destruction. Evidence for this is the simple fact that during sleep the human being has no consciousness. Why not? The reason is that he is not meant to witness what happens to him during sleep. During sleep the forces used up during waking life are restored and man is not meant to witness this process, which is the antithesis of what is in operation during waking life and is concealed from human consciousness. The Bible uses profoundly significant words to express this fact. It is one of the passages in the Bible which, as is the case with all occult principles in religious records, is very little understood. In the story of the expulsion from Paradise it is said that the Divine Spirit resolved that when the human being had acquired certain characteristics, for instance, the faculty of distinguishing between good and evil, insight into the forces of life should be withheld from him. That is the passage in the Bible where it is announced that the human being was not to witness the revivification of his members either during sleep or during his entire existence on Earth. While man is awake the whole life-process is one of destruction, of wear and tear. During waking life nothing in man's being is restored. In the very earliest years of childhood, when any actual inflow of life can still be observed, the child's consciousness is still dim and the whole restorative process is concealed from the human being in his later years. Evidence for this is the fact that he does not remember his earliest childhood. We can therefore say that the whole life-giving, restorative process is concealed from man's conscious life on Earth. Processes of perception, of cognition, lie within the field of his consciousness; the life-giving process does not.

This is different during the period of existence between death and the new birth. The purpose of the whole of that period is to draw into the being of man the forces which can build up and fashion the next life, to draw these forces from the world of the stars. But this process is not as things are on Earth, when man does not really know his own being. What, after all, does he know about the processes working in his organism? He knows nothing of them through direct perception and what is learnt from anatomy or biology conveys no real knowledge of his being but is something quite different. In the life between death and rebirth, however, a man beholds how forces from the world of stars work upon his being, how they gradually rebuild it. From this you can gather how greatly perception between death and rebirth differs from perception on Earth. On Earth the human being stands at a particular point, directs his senses outwards and then his sight and hearing expand into space; from the centre where he is standing he faces the expanse of space. Exactly the opposite is the case during the life after death. There man feels as if his whole being were outspread and what he perceives is really the centre. He looks at a point. There comes a period between death and the new birth when the human being describes a circle which passes through the whole Zodiac. He looks out as it were from every point of the Zodiac, that is to say from different viewpoints, upon his own being, and he feels as if he were gathering from each particular section of the Zodiac the forces which he pours upon his being for the needs of the next incarnation. He looks from the circumference towards a centre. It is as if you could duplicate yourself, move around while leaving yourself at the centre, and could drink in the forces of the Universe, the life-giving ‘soma’ which, streaming as it does from different points of the Zodiac, assumes different characteristics as it pours into your being which you have left at the centre. Translated into terms of spiritual reality, this is actually how things are during the life between death and the new birth.

If we now think of the difference between a condition that is really very similar to life between death and rebirth, namely, the condition of sleep, this difference can be characterised very simply, although people who are not accustomed to these ideas will not be able to make much of it. Put simply, the condition of sleep can be characterised as follows.

When the human being sleeps during his earthly existence, that is to say when he has left his physical and etheric bodies and is living in his Ego and astral body which are then in the world of stars, he too is actually in that world. And it is a fact that our condition in sleep is objectively far more similar to the condition between death and rebirth than is usually imagined. Objectively, the two conditions are very similar. The only difference is that during sleep in normal life the human being has no consciousness of the world in which he is living, whereas between death and the new birth he is conscious of what is happening to him. That is the essential difference. If the human being were to awake in his Ego and astral body when these members are outside his physical body during sleep he would be in the same condition as he is between death and the new birth. The difference is actually only a state of consciousness. This is a matter of importance because as long as the human being lives on Earth, therefore also during sleep, he is bound to his physical body. Nor does he become free from the physical body until it passes into the lifeless condition and undergoes a change at death. As long as the physical body remains alive, the union is maintained between the spiritual man, that is to say, Ego and astral body and the physical and etheric bodies.

Our conception of the state of sleep is, as a rule, too simple; and that is quite comprehensible because usually we describe things from one point of view only, whereas when a human being passes into the higher worlds conditions are complicated. A complete picture becomes possible only as we progress patiently in Spiritual Science and learn to view things from all sides. We generally characterise the state of sleep—and rightly so—by saying that the physical and etheric bodies remain in the bed, while the Ego and astral body move outwards and unite with the forces of the stars. But correct as this is from one point of view, it nevertheless presents only one aspect of the matter, as we can realise if we consider from the standpoint of Spiritual Science the sleep that occurs at a more or less normal time. Objectively speaking, an afternoon nap is a quite different matter from ordinary sleep at night. What I have now said is concerned not so much with a man's ordinary state of health but rather with his whole relationship to the world. We will therefore not consider an afternoon nap but the sleep of a healthy human being, let us say at midnight, regarded from the standpoint of clairvoyant consciousness.

During the waking life of day there is a certain regulated connection between the four members of man's being: physical body, etheric body, astral body and Ego. This connection can be indicated if I make sketches to show how the so-called aura of the human being appears to clairvoyant consciousness—but of course the sketches are only very rough.

The important point is that what may be called the auric picture of the Ego when a human being is asleep, actually becomes twofold. During the waking state the Ego-aura holds together in the form of an oval (A) but during sleep divides into two parts (B), one of which turns downwards as the result of a kind of gravity and spreads out below. This part of the Ego-aura appears to clairvoyance as a very dark area tinged with dark red shades. The other, upper part streams upwards from the head and then expands into the infinitudes of the world of stars. The Ego-aura is thus divided—in appearance at all events; we cannot, however, speak of an actual division of the astral aura.

This occult spectacle is a kind of pictorial expression of the fact that the human being; with the Ego-forces that permeate him in the waking condition, goes forth into cosmic space in order to be united with the world of stars and draw its forces into himself.

(Note by translator. Dr. Steiner's drawings were probably made with coloured chalks which would have indicated the several members of man's being with greater clarity than is possible in the printed reproductions. Comments made in connection with the drawings have been abbreviated as follows:

Figure A. Waking state. The physical body is indicated by the innermost darker dotted outline, the etheric body by the fainter dotted outline, the astral body by the sloping lines; the Ego-aura seems to envelop the human form.

Figure B. Indicates the difference in the auric picture while a human being is asleep. The upper part of the Ego-aura radiates outwards and upwards without defined limit, and the lower part radiates downwards without defined limit.)

Now that part of the Ego-aura which streams downwards and becomes dark and more or less opaque while the part streaming up wards is luminous and radiant—all this lower part is particularly exposed to the influence of Ahrimanic powers. The adjacent part of the astral aura is, on the other hand, particularly exposed to the Luciferic forces. The account that has been given—quite rightly from a certain standpoint—that the Ego and astral body leave the human being during sleep is, however, strictly true only as regards the upper parts of the Ego-aura and astral aura. It is not correct as regards the parts of the Ego-aura and astral aura which correspond more to the lower areas of the human figure, particularly the lower parts of the trunk. Actually, during sleep, these parts of the astral aura and of the Ego-aura are more closely bound up with the physical and etheric bodies than is the case during the waking state, and below they are denser, more compact.

Now it is extremely important to know that in view of the evolution of our Earth and all the forces that have played their part in that evolution—which you will find described in the book Occult Science—an Outline,—it was ordained that man should not participate in this more lively activity of the lower aura during sleep, that is to say he was not to witness this activity. The reason for this was that the revitalising forces needed by man for the restoration of what has been used up during the waking hours, are kindled by the lower Ego-aura and lower astral aura. The vitalising forces must be drawn from these parts of the aura. That they work upwards and revitalise the whole man depends upon the upper aura developing powers of attraction drawn from the world of stars; it can therefore attract the forces which rising from below, act restoratively. That is the objective process.

Understanding of this fact is the best equipment for understanding certain information available to one who studies ancient records or records based on occultism. You have always heard—and from a certain standpoint the statement is quite correct—that man leaves his physical and etheric bodies in the bed and goes forth with his astral body and Ego; this is absolutely correct as regard the upper parts of the Ego-aura and astral aura, especially of the Ego-aura. But if you study Eastern writings, you will find a statement that is exactly the opposite. It is stated there that during sleep what is otherwise present in man's consciousness penetrates more deeply into the body. This is the opposite description of sleep. And especially in certain Vedanta writings you will find it stated that the part of man of which we say that during sleep it leaves the physical and etheric bodies, sinks more deeply into those bodies, and that what gives us the power of sight withdraws into deeper regions of the eye so that sight is no longer possible. Why is the process described in this way in Eastern writings? It is because the Oriental still has a different standpoint. With his kind of clairvoyance he pays more attention to what goes on within the human being; he pays less attention to the emergence of the upper aura and more to the permeation by the lower aura during sleep. Hence from his particular point of view he is right.

The processes which take place in the human being in the course of his evolution are very complicated and as evolution progresses it will become more and more possible for him to picture the whole range of these processes. But evolution consists in human beings having gradually acquired knowledge of particular processes, hence the differing statements in the different epochs. Although the statements seem to differ they are not for that reason false; they relate to the particular condition prevailing at the time. But the process of evolution as a whole becomes clear only when all the various processes are taken into account.

We ourselves have now reached the point when it is possible to survey a certain definite portion of the process of evolution. There is a most significant difference in the whole attitude and disposition of man's soul when we observe its development during incarnations, let us say in the Egypto-Chaldean period, then in the Graeco-Roman period and then again in our own. Even externally it is not difficult to discover what the soul is experiencing. I think that even in this enlightened audience there will be quite a number of individuals who when they look at a star-strewn sky cannot locate the particular constellations or perceive how their positions change in the heavens during the night. Speaking generally it can be said that the number of individuals who are still well-informed about the starry sky will steadily decrease. There will even be people, among town-dwellers for example, whom one might ask in vain: Is there now Full Moon or New Moon? This does not in any way imply reproach, for it lies in the natural course of development. What holds good for the soul now would have been utterly impossible during the Egypto-Chaldean epoch, particularly during its earlier periods. In those days men's insight into the heavens was very great. Our present age, however, has a definite advantage over the Egypto-Chaldean epoch, inasmuch as logical thinking—of which most people would be capable today if they were to make efforts—was quite beyond the men of that earlier epoch. They lived their lives and carried out their daily tasks more instinctively than we do today. It would be quite erroneous to imagine that when a building or, say, an aqueduct was to be constructed, engineers would sit in their offices and work out the project with the help of plans and the other methods employed nowadays. Engineers in those times no more worked from plans than the beaver does today when with such skill and accuracy he sets about building his den.

In those early times there was no logical, scientific thinking such as is general today; the activities of men during waking life were instinctive. They had acquired their knowledge—and stupendous knowledge has been preserved from the Egypto-Chaldean epoch—in a quite different way. They knew about the secrets of the stars in the night, about the heavens, although they had no Astronomy of the kind that is available for men of the present age. They watched the spectacle presented by the stars in the heavens on successive nights and the whole power of the astral forces in space worked upon them, not merely the sensory impressions made by what they observed. For example, the passage of the Great Bear or of the Pleiades was an actual experience within them and the experience continued while they were asleep, for they were sensitive to the spiritual reality connected with the passage of a constellation such as the Great Bear across the heavens; together with the spectacle perceived by the senses they were inwardly aware of the living spiritual reality in cosmic space. Something came into their consciousness which ours today is quite unable to experience. Nowadays man has eyes only for the material picture of the stars in the sky. And being very clever he looks at a chart of the heavens into which figures of animals are inscribed, and says: The ancients inscribed symbols here and there to represent their idea of the grouping of the stars, but we have now progressed sufficiently to be cognisant of the reality. A man of the modern age does not know that the ancients had actually seen what they inscribed into their charts; they drew something of which they had had direct vision. Some of them were more skilful draftsmen than others, but they drew what they had actually perceived. They did not, however, perceive in the way that is customary in physical life. When they experienced, for example, the passage of the Great Bear across the heavens at night they saw the physical stars implanted in a mighty spiritual Being whom they could actually perceive. But it would be childish to imagine that they saw an animal moving across the heavens in the way we should see a physical animal on the Earth. This experience of the passage of the constellation of the Pleiades, for example, across the heavens affected them intimately. They felt that the experience had an effect upon their astral bodies and caused changes there.

You can form an idea of this experience by picturing that there is a rose in front of you but you are not looking at it; you are merely holding it and what you experience is your own contact with it. You then form an idea of the rose. It was in this way that the ancients ‘contacted’ as it were with their astral bodies what they experienced about the constellation of the Great Bear; they ‘felt’ the astral reality and experienced their own contact with it. This brought about changes in their very being, changes which are still brought about today but are unnoticed.

Evolution leading into our modern scientific age with its power of rationalistic judgement consists in the fact that direct experience of spiritual processes has ceased and that we are left with the world of the senses and the brain-bound intellect. Thus when in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch men spoke of the spiritual Beings in space and drew figures of these Beings, inscribing physical stars as focal points, this was in keeping with the reality—which was an actual experience. Hence in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch men had a faculty of perception far more in line with the life between death and rebirth than is our present physical consciousness. When it is realised how the astral body and the Ego experience what is happening in the heavens it is also obvious that we are then living outside our physical and etheric bodies and there is not the slightest reason for believing that a life in which such experiences occur is impossible when the physical and etheric bodies are actually laid aside (at death). Thus in the men of old it was a matter of direct knowledge that between death and the new birth they would experience the happenings in the world of stars. A man living in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch would have thought it ridiculous if anyone set out to prove to him the immortality of the soul. He would have said: ‘But that needs no proof!’ He would not even have understood what a proof is in our meaning of the word, for logical thinking did not yet exist. If he had learnt in an occult school what in the future would be meant by ‘proof’, he would still have insisted that it is unnecessary to prove the immortality of the soul, because in experiencing the nocturnal starry heavens one is already experiencing something that is independent of the body. Immortality was thus an actual experience and the men of those times knew a great deal about what we today describe in connection with perception in the disembodied state.

And now, turning from the more remote worlds of stars to the planets, these men of old experienced the spiritual sphere that is connected, for instance, with Saturn. They were able to perceive—this is true especially of the earlier periods of the Egypto-Chaldean epoch—what remains of a human being during his life in the Saturn sphere between death and the new birth. People would have thought it very strange if it had been suggested to them that they should try to establish connection with Mars as is sometimes hinted at today, for they were quite conscious of being related to these worlds. If someone has knowledge of Saturn or Mars or other planetary sphere and can follow its functions in our planetary system, this leads to knowledge of the pre-earthly conditions of Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon described in the book Occult Science—an Outline. This was once a matter of actual experience. There would have been no need to lecture about it. All that was necessary would have been to make men conscious that it was simply a matter of inducing in those no longer capable of perceiving such things conditions which made perception possible. This could not otherwise have been achieved.

By the time of the Graeco-Latin epoch this state of things had already changed. Men had lost their sensitivity for everything I have been describing and remembrance of it alone remained. In the Graeco-Latin epoch, among the leading peoples, for example of Southern Europe, there was no longer any equal possibility of direct vision of the spiritual Beings of the heavens, but remembrance of that vision remained. Just as a man remembers today what he experienced yesterday, so did souls in the Graeco-Latin epoch still remember what they had experienced of the Universe in earlier incarnations. This radiated into the souls of men and was a living experience. Plato speaks of it as ‘recollection’, but men do not always call it so. Progress in evolution consisted in the suppression of this direct experience and the development during the Graeco-Latin epoch of the faculty of judgement and the formation of concepts. Hence the earlier vision was bound to recede and could survive only as recollection, remembrance. This is exemplified most clearly of all in Aristotle who lived in the fourth century BC. and was the founder of logic, of the art of judgement; he himself was no longer able to perceive anything of the spiritual realities in the worlds of the stars, but in his writings he brings all the old theories back again. He does not speak of the physical heavenly bodies as we know them today but of the ‘Spirits of the Spheres’, of spiritual Beings. And a great many of his utterances were an enumeration of the individual planetary Spirits and of the fixed stars, finally leading to the one universal Godhead. The Spirits of the Spheres still play an important role in the works of Aristotle.

But even the remembrance in Graeco-Latin times of the Spiritual Beings in the Universe was gradually lost to humanity and it is interesting to watch how the ancient knowledge disappears gradually as later epochs approach. The more spiritually minded among men still drew from their remembrance the consciousness that spiritual Beings are connected with all physical bodies existing in space—as Anthroposophy describes today. A great deal in this connection was presented magnificently by Kepler. But the nearer we come to modern times, the more does the possibility fade of even a remembrance of what the soul experienced in the Egypto-Chaldean epoch from contemplation of the heavens. As the age of Copernicanism approached even the remembrance that still survived in the Graeco-Latin epoch faded, and men had eyes only for the physical globes moving through space. Occasionally something plays into the consciousness of more modern men that there is still a possibility of gleaning from the constellations in the heavens genuine knowledge of spiritual events. Kepler, for example, set out independently to calculate from the stars the date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Such a calculation was possible because Kepler's whole being was still permeated through and through with spirituality. The same applies to his realisation that a certain constellation of stars in the year 1604 would be followed by further suppression of the ancient remembrances.

The nearer we come to the modern age the more is humanity dependent upon the physical senses and the brain-bound intellect, because what the souls of men experienced in ancient times has been thrust down into the deeper strata of consciousness. The souls of all of you once harboured the experiences known to men when they were still able to be aware of the spiritual life pervading cosmic spheres. This is everywhere present in the depths of your own souls. But it is not possible today to lead souls during the hours of darkness and guide their vision, let us say, to the constellation of the Great Bear and enable them to experience as realities the spiritual forces emanating from that group of stars. It is not possible because the powers of vision and perception lie in such depths of the soul. During sleep at night man experiences the heavens with the radiating upper part of the aura but is not conscious of it. Hence for souls of the present age the right procedure is to raise into consciousness by valid methods the forgotten impressions received in olden times. And how is this done? As we do it in Anthroposophy! Nothing new is imposed upon souls but what they experienced in earlier epochs is drawn forth. What souls could no longer actually experience in the Graeco-Latin epoch but had not yet entirely forgotten—today it is entirely forgotten but can be drawn forth again. Anthroposophy is the stimulus for drawing forth the forces of knowledge which lie deep in the souls of men. All human beings who have partaken in evolution up to the time of Western culture have in the depths of their souls the conceptions which should be kindled to life through Anthroposophy; and the methods used in Anthroposophy are the stimuli for achieving this.

We will now consider the difference between these two attitudes to the world, between that of a human soul incarnated in the Graeco-Latin epoch and one incarnated today. We have heard that during the Graeco-Latin epoch, in earthly life too, the soul had a certain connection with and capacity for perception of what is lived through in the period between death and the new birth. These experiences had not yet withdrawn into such deep strata of the soul. Hence in those very ancient times there was much less difference between men's consciousness on Earth and between death and rebirth than there is today. The ancient Greeks had some remembrance of what they had once experienced, but even so the difference was already great. Conditions today have reached the stage when between death and the new birth, consciousness can still be kindled in a human being in the Venus sphere if, on Earth, he has cultivated a moral and religious attitude of soul. But in and especially beyond the Sun sphere it is impossible for consciousness to be kindled if during his life on Earth a man has made no attempt to raise to the level of waking consciousness the concepts lying in the depths of the soul. Here, in earthly life, Anthroposophy seems to be a kind of theoretical world-conception which we master because it interests us. After death, however, it is a torch which from a certain point of time onwards between death and rebirth illumines the spiritual world for us. If Anthroposophy is disdained here in the physical world, no torch is available in that other world and consciousness is dimmed. To pursue Spiritual Science is not merely a matter of imbibing so many theories; it is a living force, a torch which can illumine life. The contents of the spiritual teachings here on Earth are concepts and ideas; after death they are living forces! But this applies to consciousness only. It will be clear to you from what I said at the beginning of the lecture that already in earthly existence the spiritual ideas we acquire are life-giving forces. But a man cannot witness the outcome of these life-giving forces because knowledge of the powers from which they originate is withheld from him. After death, however, he actually beholds them. Here on Earth, Anthroposophy seems to be so much theory and the human being in his waking state has no consciousness of what is spiritually life-giving but nevertheless objectively present. After death man is a direct witness of how the forces he took into himself together with the spiritual teachings received during his life on Earth have an organising, vitalising, strengthening effect upon what is within his being when he is preparing for a new incarnation.

In this way spiritual teaching actually becomes part of the evolution of humanity. But if this spiritual teaching were to be rejected—at the present time it suffices if only a few accept it but in the future more and more individuals must do so—then, as they return to incarnations on Earth, human beings will gradually find that they lack the life-giving forces they need. Decadence and atrophy would set in during the subsequent incarnation. Human beings would quickly wither, be prematurely wrinkled. Decadence of physical humanity would set in if the spiritual forces were not received. The forces that were once drawn by men from the worlds of stars must now be drawn from the depths of their own souls and used for furthering the evolution of humanity.

If you reflect about these matters you will be filled through and through with the thought that existence on Earth is of immense significance. It was necessary that the human being should be so inwardly deepened by his union with the worlds of stars that the forces he had otherwise always drawn from those worlds would become the inmost forces of his soul and be drawn up again from its depths. But that can be done only on Earth. One could say: in primeval times the soma-juice rained down from the heavens into individual souls, was preserved there and must now be drawn forth again from those souls. In this way we acquire a conception of the mission of the Earth. And having presented this conception today we will proceed to study the life between death and the new birth in even greater detail.