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On the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Times
GA 180

I. Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Times

25 December 1917, Dornach

One thought will probably lie near at hand for all of you; it may be clothed in this question: “How did it happen, in consequence of the events which we have been considering, that the materialistic mode of thought assumed precisely the form in which we observe it to-day, permeating all human impulses of our time?” With open mind we must observe the ingredients that have entered into the spiritual life of modern time. We must not be influenced, in so doing, by what the orthodox historian describes as ‘historic necessity.’ We must turn our attention to those events that can explain and illumine what is actually experienced.

Among all the important transformations that have taken place in the new epoch of humanity, we must also include one that was, in a sense, an echo or aftermath of earlier transformations. I refer to the last third of the 18th century, when European humanity finally lost the last vestiges of an understanding for the Mysteries. In recent lectures I have cursorily referred to the fact that in the 18th century there still existed such a mode of thought as that of Louis Claude de Saint Martin, whose ideas gained influence in wide circles—not only owing to himself but owing to the prevailing impulse of the time during that century.

In the 19th century, on the other hand, Saint Martin's ideas and ways of thought receded altogether. We need only remember one feature of his mode of thought, and we shall observe at once how radically it differs from all that our own time, for example, is able to think and feel. In his important work, Des Erreurs et de la Vérité, he speaks among other things of a certain event in earthly evolution—an event that took place, however, before Man became physically Man. Looking backward as it were, he speaks of a deeply significant cosmic transgression—if we may call it so on the part of mankind as a whole, before man ever entered into physical heredity. This is significant, for we here see that those who shared Saint Martin's way of thinking still had a wider horizon. They were still able to look beyond the physical world of humanity, into the purely spiritual. Thus it was possible for them to speak of such things, the connection of which with the evolution of humanity differs from anything that could be contained in the mere physical domain. A follower to some extent of Jacob Boehme, Louis Claude de Saint Martin had a few disciples, it is true, scattered throughout the civilised world, even as late as the 19th century—nay, even on into the most recent period. But the prevailing consciousness of the time, during the 19th century, cannot be said to have been influenced by any such impulses as occur in his writings. The open outlook, above all, into the Spiritual World, which we find here and there in his work, was utterly lost to the 19th century.

Such teachings as Saint Martin's were, in reality, the very last relics of an ancient Mystery-wisdom. To understand, however, even in an outer historic sense, how such a mode of thought as we find in Saint Martin was supplanted, we must not put the question thus: “Who was it who disseminated doctrines calculated to supplant his ways of thinking?” No, we should rather frame it thus: “In what personality does the sum-total of those impulses, whereby the humanity of the 19th century became so utterly materialistic, find the most characteristic expression?”

To understand what was really happening, we must realise that by this last transformation, at the end of the 18th century, the understanding of the Mysteries was completely lost to humanity. Thus, in the 19th century, only a very few people—only a very few human souls—knew anything of the deep importance and influence of the Mysteries.

The personality to whom I refer—though he is only the typical expression of the prevailing Zeitgeist of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries—is Dupuis; and his important work, whereby the death-blow, so to speak, was dealt to the understanding of the Mysteries, is entitled Origine de tour les Cultes. This book came out in the year 1794.

When we conceive the outlook of men in the 19th century, we generally think of natural-scientific materialism. This natural-scientific materialism however, if I may say so, assumed the character and stamp which the 19th century impressed on nearly all human activities. I mean, what we found most characteristically expressed in the ‘bon Dieu citoyen’—the words with which Heinrich Heine greeted Jesus. I mean the character of bourgeois Philistinism. Materialism too was steeped, by the 19th century, in the channels of Philistinism. Philistine limitation was the essential characteristic of 18th century materialism. To understand the root-nerve of the 19th century, we must look for this impulse of Philistinism everywhere, Dupuis' materialism, on the other hand, was in a sense not yet Philistine; there was a certain grandeur and freedom about it, reaching far beyond Philistine, middle-class limitations. His was in a sense a heavenly—a celestial materialism; he still had the courage to conceive a more thorough-going materialistic theory than all the learned and brilliant men of the 19th century.

Dupuis got behind certain things—at least, he thought he got behind them. And the way he did so is extremely interesting. We must not forget that he was a man of genius. Already in the 1780's he had set up a kind of private telegraphic apparatus, with which he used to telegraph, from his own house, to a friend, Fortine, who lived at a considerable distance. When the Revolution broke out, he was afraid his telegraphic communications might appear suspicious; therefore he destroyed his machines, and the whole thing was forgotten. Of course, I do not say he had an electric telegraph; nevertheless, the principle of the telegraph was thoroughly carried out by him.

Dupuis was also a Commissary of Public Education in France at the end of the 1780's. Leaving Paris when the Revolution broke out, he was elected very soon after as a member of the National Assembly; and on his return, he played no little part in the Convention, and subsequently in the Council of Five Hundred. He belonged, as a rule, to the moderate parties. We must imagine what was living in Dupuis, as an impulse that passed from him to many other souls; but it is still more important for us to realise that the Time itself was possessed with this impulse, which only found its most characteristic expression in him.

What Dupuis perceived was the following. He made a study of ancient myths and legends—say, the Hercules legend, or the legend of Isis and Osiris, or of Dionysos, He studied these ancient myths, which, as we know, are only veiled statements of the truths of the Mysteries. Take, for example, the Hercules myth. Dupuis observed the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Following up the Labours in detail, he perceived that certain things which occur in the narrative justify one in assuming a connection between the passage of Hercules through his twelve Labours and the Sun's revolution through the twelve Signs of the Zodiacs. Dupuis studied these things quite consciously and carefully, and as a result he evolved the following theory:—In antiquity there were certain persons, so-called priests of the Mysteries, whose aim it was to keep the broad masses of the people as quiet and docile as possible, in order to rule and guide them easily. Therefore they told, to certain of the people, the myth, for example, of a Hercules who lived once upon a time; whom man should emulate, with whom he should associate his labours. In like manner, other myths were told—the Isis and Osiris myth, for instance. Within the Mysteries, however, in their own circle, the priests—according to Dupuis—knew that it was so much ‘eye-wash.’ They knew that such a person as Hercules or Osiris or Isis had, of course, never existed; they knew that all that goes on the Earth is brought about by the material heavenly bodies and their constellations. The myths are only veiled descriptions of the events in the sky. According to the ancient Mystery-priests—so said Dupuis—that which takes place on the Earth depends on the Sun's passage through the twelve Signs of the Zodiac, or on the passage of the Moon through the twelve Signs of the Zodiac. The priests were well aware what these celestial processes bring about on Earth. They knew that the material process which finds expression in the starry constellations—the material process in the outer cosmos—is the real cause of plant-growth and of human progress, human fertilisation, and so on. The priests were well aware of all these things. Far from believing that there were any other spiritual Powers here at work, they were ‘enlightened’ enough to believe in the mere play of material forces in material celestial space. But, for the common folk, they clothed these facts of astronomy in myths, believing, as they did, that this was necessary to delude the people; for only by such means could they be ruled and guided.

Thus, for Dupuis, the Mysteries were so many lie-factories, instituted for the purpose of clothing in suitable language, for the credulous and 'stupid' populace, what was well known to the priests themselves, namely that it is the material processes in the Heavens which bring about other material processes here on the Earth. In Dupuis' work, Origin de tons les Cultes, we find for example the following sentence: Truth knows no Mysteries. All Mysteries without exception belong to the realms of error and deceit ... Their origin—namely, the origin of the Mysteries—must be looked for outside the realms of truth and reason; offspring of night, they flee the light of day.

No doubt it was only a small minority who read such writings, but that is not the thing that matters. The point is that such things take effect; the point is simply that they are there. When they are voiced by an individual like Dupuis, it only means that he has the special faculty to formulate them. These things began to work from the end of the 18th century onward; and they worked on throughout the 19th.

Now we must bring forward something of the real historic truth, as against the things Dupuis discovered with such genius when he laid the foundations of his celestial materialism—for so we may justly describe it. After all, the Philistine scientists of the 19th century only looked for the material processes in the atoms; they remained in the earthly realm. Dupuis was bold enough to propound heavenly materialism; to conceive all that is working towards the Earth from the Cosmos as material influences of the stars and constellations, and to describe the so-called ‘Spiritual’ as so much ‘eye-wash’—the mere aftermath of the conscious deception which was practised by the priests of the old Mysteries.

This conclusion above all was drawn by Dupuis in his important and famous book:—All the great figures, in reality, are none other than facts of Astronomy, welded together and appropriately garbed for the edification of the common people. Hercules is the Sun, his twelve Labours are the passing of the Sun through the twelve Signs of the Zodiac. Isis is the Moon; what is narrated of her is the passage of the Moon through the Zodiac. Dionysos—in that great cosmic poem with its 48 cantos—is only a description of the Sun in its passage through the Signs of the Zodiacs. And so on ... the Christians merely put Christ in the place of Hercules, Dionysos and Osiris. Christ too is none other than a mask for the Sun. The priests knew well enough that the real thing is the Sun; but, for the common folk, they needed the story of the Nazarene—Christ Jesus, the Sun of the New Testament, by contrast to Hercules, Dionysos and Osiris, the Suns of the Old Testament.

Truly, a radical destruction of all religious ideas is contained in Dupuis' work, Origine de tous les Cultes.

The general consciousness commonly remains behind,—does not pursue these radical changes. Hence it came that in the 18th century very few people clearly perceived that these thoughts were in the air—if I may use the trite expression. Nevertheless, they left them in the air. Few, no doubt, had the courage to rise to the clear-cut conclusions of Dupuis. But these thoughts were contained in the spiritual consciousness of all educated people. And it was under the pressure of these thoughts that all the theological absurdities of the 18th century developed. The underlying fact is nothing else, than that Dupuis had pointed out to those that were of a like mind:—Just as little as Hercules or Osiris existed as physical and human personalities ; just as they were only Suns, so likewise, Christ never was a physical personality, but a Sun. It was under the pressure of this thought that for the later theologians of the 19th century Christ gradually vanished into thin air. Then they began to take the greatest pains to make the ‘bon Dieu citoyen’ of Nazareth presentable. The liberal Philistines dressed him up as a humane ethical preacher; the Social Democrats as a Social Democrat, and so on ; the psycho-pathologists as a madman or an epileptic. Thus, each one in turn set him forth under the pressure of these thoughts.

Now you may place this beside the other important truth which I have told you, namely that man really dreams historic evolution. Then you will well be able to conceive that thoughts like the above—even where they are not radically expressed—play their part in the dreams of men.

Over against it, as I said, we must now set forth the real historic truth. Look back into the ancient Mysteries—those that had their origin in the 3rd post-Atlantean epoch. Wherever these Mysteries appear, we see that esoteric as well as exoteric truths were represented. What then was esoteric, what was exoteric? This question must be applied especially to those Mysteries whose origin goes back into the 3rd post-Atlantean epoch. Esoteric—in the ancient Mysteries to which I now refer—was all that relates to physical science—to the manipulations, the technique of science. The science of religion was never esoteric in those ancient times; we give ourselves up to an utterly false belief if we imagine that the ideas about God and the Gods were esoteric in those old Mysteries. What they preserved as esoteric were the facts they knew about certain matters which we nowadays investigate in our chemical laboratories and clinics. That which related to outer physical science was in the main kept esoteric. It was this that the esotericists held to be dangerous. Never, in the Mysteries of those ancient times, did they conceive a religious truth to be in any way dangerous. Whatever they represented in matters of religion they expounded quite openly. Not so what we to-day call Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. The latter were strictly preserved and guarded; they held their hands over these sciences, and were only willing to pursue them in the severely limited circle of those who took on the obligation to keep these truths within the Mysteries. They had to make this promise under very stringent oaths indeed.

Then came a time when the Mysteries changed their policy—albeit only in a certain sense—as regards the teachings over which they held their hand. This is the case in all those Mysteries whose origin mainly goes back into the 4th post-Atlantean epoch (reaching on, therefore, into the 15th century A.D.). During this time, it was the custom in the Mysteries to keep secret not so much physical science, but what we may describe—in a certain aspect—as a kind of symbolic treatment of the mathematical, and indeed, the intellectual sciences generally. I mean for instance all that is connected with such things as circle, triangle and spirit-level—in short, all that is mechanical, mathematical and intellectual knowledge. These things they tried to keep within the walls of certain Brotherhoods, whose members were laid under strict obligation not to betray the truths they there learned about the circle, the triangle, the spirit-level, the plumb-line and so forth. In other respects they gradually grew more lenient. Namely, in keeping esoteric the truths of physical science they grew more lax. These truths gradually penetrated out of the Mysteries, into the general consciousness of the public.

You may object: “What, after all, had the Mysteries of the 3rd post-Atlantean epoch to keep secret? Surely very little! Science was in its swaddling-clothes; there was practically no Chemistry. They knew nothing at all of the great world of facts which has been so gloriously discovered in our time.” Well, if you judge so, you are merely repeating what's usually said to-day. Yet even ordinary outer history should make one hesitate to pronounce such judgments. Having discovered gunpowder as a result of their external science, the Europeans were naturally, nay indeed, justly proud. But it soon emerged that the Chinese had had gunpowder in very ancient times; and, for that matter, the art of printing, and many other inventions. One might adduce numerous instances where the accepted notion on these matters becomes very shaky, to say the least.

The plain truth is that in ancient times (to mention radical matters at once) such principles as that of the airship or of the submarine were known. Only, as forming part of physical science, they were kept strictly secret. They were withheld from the general populace; were not released from the Mysteries. In other words (for it comes to the same thing) the results that could have been attained by such knowledge were not made use of in the general social order.

It is an amateurish idea, for the Mysteries of the 3rd post-Atlantean epoch, not to relate the concept of ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ to these things, but to imagine that the Mysteries of that time contained within them specially mysterious and hidden truths on matters purely spiritual.

Afterwards, in the Middle Ages, they endeavoured to withhold a certain aspect of mathematical and mechanical knowledge, not letting the people in general gain access to it.

These things had their good meaning and their real value in those olden times. With the approach of modern time they gradually lost their value. As I have often said, the life of the Mysteries cannot be continued in the same way as before. Nay, in the present—the 5th post-Atlantean epoch—it is in many respects no longer even allowable (no longer allowable, I mean, over against the higher spiritual Powers) to keep certain matters quite esoteric. The ‘esoteric’ nowadays would consist in certain psychological truths. In very ancient times it was the physical truths; then it became the intellectual; to-day, as I said, it would be certain psychological truths—truths of the soul-life. These truths, however, are only kept under lock and key nowadays by Brotherhoods such as those of which I told you, when I described the general world-situation of to-day as proceeding from certain dark Brotherhoods, whose origin, you will remember, I characterised last year.

Now the question arises: Why did the old Mystery-priests keep back what we may call physical science? The reason is deeply connected with the evolution of mankind. As I have often pointed out, humanity has indeed undergone an evolution, passing from form to form—from one form to another. The time in which the Mystery of Golgotha took place is, in reality, the greatest transition-time of all Earth-evolution. External history is of course unaware of this fact; indeed, it is ignorant of some of the actual facts connected with this transformation.

In olden times, my dear friends,—especially in the times that went before the Mystery of Golgotha—the human being received quite special forces when he reached the age of 14 or 15, over and above the forces he possessed in earlier childhood. At the 14th or 15th year of life, in those olden times, man received forces which have been lost to mankind since the Mystery of Golgotha. These forces are no longer there; or they are only there in a backward, atavistic manner;—no longer as normal forces of human nature generally.

The forces which the human being thus received when he became about 14 or 15 years old were simply there in his environment inasmuch as he himself was there. Moreover, they were such as could unite with the processes of physical manipulations. When a man to-day combines oxygen and hydrogen—well, he simply combines them, and he gets water. Nothing that flows out from man himself enters into the process. In those ancient times it was very different. Something that flowed out from man did indeed enter into it and became united with it. Man himself partook in the process. Laboratory manipulations became real magic by virtue of these forces which were developed in the human being at the 14th or 15th year of life.

It was for this reason that the Priests of the Mysteries had to keep the outer manipulations secret. For the outer manipulations would have become magical manipulations, simply by virtue of the then prevailing properties of man. Magic would have been spread abroad everywhere; and, needless to say, it would only too easily have become what is called ‘black magic.’ Therefore at that time it was necessary to veil certain truths of physical science in the deepest secrecy. It was necessary, simply on account of the prevailing human nature.

The forces man then received about the 14th or 15th year of life have gradually been lost. It was with the 15th century that they disappeared almost entirely. That is why many things that were written before the 15th century A.D. are no longer intelligible at all to-day, save with the help of Spiritual Science. For in these olden times, the moment a man set to work with any physical manipulations (such as are done nowadays quite commonly in our laboratories),—the moment he did so, he gave occasion for certain Luciferic elemental beings to arise at the same time. At any rate, he could give occasion for this. These Luciferic elemental beings were thoroughly effective; and, if engendered, would have played their part in the social life of men, if these things had not been kept secret.

(Such an epoch as the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had least of all any idea of the true facts of human evolution. The men of that time had not the vaguest notion. Hence, all that proceeded from their blank ignorance was gathered up in such statements as that Truth knows of no Mysteries, or that all Mysteries belong to the realms of error and deceit.)

Human beings had to be preserved, so to speak, from any immediate knowledge of physical secrets, Moreover, not only had they to be preserved from such physical manipulations as are normally carried out to-day in our laboratories. They also had to be preserved from a purely physical knowledge of Astronomy. Therefore the spiritual counterpart of such knowledge was given out in the form of myths and legends. It was a necessary requirement of the time. But the times have now changed, and greatly so. Mankind to-day is not exposed to those Luciferic elemental spirits of whom we may speak in this connection. But in compensation for this, human beings are exposed all the more strongly to certain Ahrimanic elementals. Ahrimanic elemental spirits come into being to-day with a like necessity, as the aforesaid Luciferic beings did in antiquity. Only they come into being in a very different way—out of quite other forces and impulses in human nature. To-day (I am not merely referring to science, but to the social life, which concerns all people, not only the so-called educated people),—to-day a great number of things are working in social life; things which are simply there because man has acquired purely mechanical, technical, physical, chemical thoughts, and the like;—in a word, because he possesses a certain range of physical science. Man to-day is acquainted with and makes use of machines; moreover, he applies a certain mechanical technique to the financial affairs of the world. He thinks mechanically, the whole world over. Once more, I am not merely referring to the mechanical theory of the universe. (What I now refer to concerns every human being, down to the simplest peasant in the remotest Alpine hut. He, of course, knows nothing of mechanical science; but the medium in which he lives is permeated with such thoughts, and that is the thing that matters. Now just as in antiquity the mechanical, physical, chemical manipulations became mingled with a Luciferic force, so to-day (when they can no longer be held in reserve) they become mingled with Ahrimanic forces. And this is due to a certain specific circumstance. There is a Law, according to which all that proceeds from a mechanical, chemical, physical way of thinking can in a peculiar way be fertilised by that which proceeds from a partial human nature. I refer to the following fact. The thoughts which relate to chemical, physical, mechanical, technical, even financial matters are being thought nowadays by people who are still immersed, for instance, in a national habit of thought. (Other things too come into play in this connection.) Now the thoughts in themselves are incompatible with this; they do not agree with it. Or a man thinks physical, mechanical or chemical thoughts nowadays, in such a way that the brain which is thinking these things is at the same time filled with a national outlook; the national outlook works upon the things which he is thinking, of physical, chemical, mechanical and technical matters; and works so as to fertilise Ahriman. (And by this union of a national mentality with international physical science, Ahrimanic elemental spirits come into being in our environment to-day. For by their nature, such thoughts and manipulations as are contained in modern chemistry, physics, technics, mechanics, even finance and commerce, are only compatible with a non-national way of thinking.

This is a deeply significant secret, which we must know if we would understand the texture of modern life. It lies not in the possibility of the Time to hold these things in check by any other means than by knowledge. The leaders of the ancient Mysteries sought to restrain the corresponding evils by practising secrecy. To-day the very opposite must happen: the evil must be checked and balanced by the widest possible spread of spiritual knowledge,—for spiritual knowledge works in the opposite direction. Humanity, in this respect, has undergone a complete inversion. In the old time, certain matters of physical science had to be held back behind the barriers of the Mysteries. To-day, Spiritual Science must be spread as far and wide as possible. Only by this means can we drive out what works in the direction I have just indicated.

For the most part, humanity to-day has not an inkling of what it means to be nationally-minded on the one hand, while on the other hand one is trying to pursue international physics. These things, however, meet in human nature; they fertilise one another in human nature, and lead to Ahrimanic formations in our time, just as in ancient times they led to Luciferic. Mankind to-day have no other alternative—either they must leave off the pursuit of all that belongs to Physics, Chemistry and the like; or else they must become truly international in their way of thinking.

The people of to-day have as yet no inkling of the existence of such Laws, intimately connected as they are with the general life of mankind. Yet this very truth is beating against the doors of our consciousness at the present moment of evolution, and, for the well-being of this present evolution, it must gain entry. The powers most hostile to human progress are opposing these truths above all,—misleading the people of to-day to lay the most radical stress on the idea of nationality. Such things ought to be pointed out in our time, for they contain the truth; and they, perhaps, alone are able—just because they contain the pure and real truth—to heal humanity from the nonsense that figures in so many heads today. Unbelievable as it may seem, there are still many people who appear capable in our time, both in theory and practice, of not perceiving how the opposing powers of the age have artfully contrived, for instance, to produce the incarnated nonsense, and call it Woodrow Wilson. Not only what I have told you now, but many other things, are connected—essentially connected—with what is thus named and characterised.

He who lets pass through his mind all the religious systems that were right and justified before the Mystery of Golgotha, and recognises them in their real depths, knows that they all had the definite impulse to preserve men from contact with those powers who if they were not combatted would work in the way I have just described. It was one of the cardinal impulses of the old religious systems to preserve man from the harmful effects of the forces that emerged in the fourteenth or fifteenth years of life, in relation to outer physical manipulations. That their action in this respect was justified, the ancient priests of the Mysteries were able to perceive from one definite fact, namely this:—When they were initiated in holy ancient Mysteries and were thus enabled to communicate with the dead, then they discovered the great thankfulness of the human being after death, for such measures as they had taken. The dead proved thankful, above all, for the fact that before their passage through the Gate of Death they had been saved from contact with these forces.

And the analogy exists to-day. He who becomes acquainted with the life of the human soul between death and new birth, knows how thankful the dead are if they were able to be preserved during their life from these extreme aberrations of mankind,—the separatism of groups, the strait-jacketing of men into national groups for example, and the like.

The old religions had to restrain and regulate and give the proper form to certain forces that emerged in the fourteenth or fifteenth year. With the Mystery of Golgotha, the Christ-force entered the evolution of mankind. ‘In the Beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and a God was the Logos’:—It is an indication of the Word, the incarnated Logos, who, among all the other impulses, has also the impulse to overcome every separate and special logos—all that arises from human nature into the human larynx, the creator of words, severing men into divided groups over the Earth, even through the creator of words in man.

Just as the old Gods had to overcome those other forces, likewise the Power of the Logos has to overcome the special, separating forces that are connected with the development of the word—that is, with language. To the human beings of that moment who were far more advanced than were the subsequent writers on the Christ-impulse, it was not the mere word that mattered; and when they used a word, they did so with a specific object. Notice, when the writer of St. John's Gospel used the word ‘Word’ itself, when he used this word and no other, he did so with the very aim which I have now described.

These things are intimately connected with the evolution of mankind. The evolution of mankind is calling out to be recognized in its deeper forces. That, once and for all, is the task of our time. We therefore will now study, above all, the things that are connected so significantly with the great and thoroughgoing transformation which was inaugurated for mankind at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, and from which in the sequel many other, smaller transformations have ensued.