Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Easter Festival in Relation to the Mysteries
GA 233a

I. Festivals and the Mysteries. The Adonis Mystery. The Easter Thought

Dornach, 19th April, 1924

Easter is felt by large numbers of human beings as a festival connected on the one hand with the deepest and most intimate feelings of the human soul, and on the other hand with cosmic mysteries and cosmic riddles of existence. Indeed we cannot but observe the connection of Easter with the secrets and riddles of the Universe when we bear in mind the fact that Easter is a movable festival, the date of which has to be reckoned year by year from that constellation of the stars which we shall shortly consider more in detail. At the same time we must observe how many customs and sacred ceremonies have been associated with the Easter Festival for centuries — customs and ceremonies which lie very near to the heart of large numbers of humanity. These things will show us the immense values which mankind has gradually laid into the Easter Festival in the course of historic evolution.

In the first centuries of Christianity — not at its immediate foundation but in the course of the first centuries — Easter became a most important festival connected with the fundamental thought and impulse of Christianity, I mean, with that impulse which arises for the true Christian from the fact of the Resurrection of Christ.

Easter is the festival of the Resurrection. Yet at the same time it leads us back into pre-Christian times. It leads us to the festivals which were held about the time of the Spring Equinox (which still plays a part in our calculation, at least, of the date of Easter). It points to those old festivals which were connected with the reawakening of Nature — with the springing of life that grows forth once more from the Earth.

Here we already find ourselves within the very subject of these lectures; for here already we must touch upon the connection of Easter with the evolution of the Mysteries in the history of mankind.

Easter as a Christian festival is a festival of Resurrection. The corresponding Heathen festival, taking place about the same time of the year as our Easter, was a kind of Resurrection festival of Nature — the coming forth again of what was asleep in Nature throughout the winter time. But we must emphasise most strongly at this point that the Christian Easter is by no means coincident as to its inner essence and meaning with the Heathen festivals of the Spring Equinox. On the contrary, if we do want to relate it to the old Pagan times, we must connect the Christian Easter with certain festivals which, proceeding from the ancient Mysteries, were enacted at the Autumn season. This is a remarkable fact in the determination of the Easter Festival, which by its very content is obviously connected with certain of the ancient Mysteries. Easter above all can remind us of the deep and radical misunderstandings that have arisen, in the course of evolution, in the world-conceptions of mankind with regard to matters of the greatest significance. Nothing less has happened than that the Easter Festival has been confused with an altogether different one, and has thus been removed from Autumn and turned into a festival of Springtime.

We have here touched something of infinite significance in human evolution. Consider the content of this Easter Festival. What is it in its essence? It is this: Christ Jesus, the Being who stands at the centre of the Christian consciousness, passes through death. Good Friday is held in memory of this fact. Christ Jesus lies in the grave. It is a time that takes its course in three days, representing the union of Christ with Earth-existence. This time is celebrated in Christendom as a festival of mourning — the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is the day when the central Being of Christianity rises out of the grave; it is the day of remembrance of this. Such is the essential content of the Easter Festival: the Death, the lying in the Grave and the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Now let us look at the corresponding ancient Heathen festival in any one of its forms. Only then shall we be able to penetrate into the connection between the Easter Festival and the Mysteries. In many places and among many people, we come across ancient Heathen festivals whose external structure — and the structure of the ceremonies which were enacted in them — is decidedly similar to the Easter-content of Christianity.

From the manifold festivals of ancient time, we may select for an example the Adonis festival. Through long, long periods of pre-Christian antiquity this festival was celebrated among certain peoples of Asia Minor. A sacred image was the central point of the festival. It was an image of Adonis — Adonis as the spiritual representative of all that is the springing and thriving force of youth in man, of all that appears as beauty in the human being.

True it is that in many respects the ancient peoples confused the substance of the image with what the image represented. The ancient religions often thus present the character of fetish worship. Many human beings saw in the image the actual and present God — the God of beauty, of the youthful strength of man, of the unfolding germinating forces which reveal in outward glory all the inner worth and inner greatness that man contains, or can contain, within him.

With songs and acts of ritual representing the deepest human grief and mourning, this image of the God was lowered into the waves of the sea, where it had to remain for three days. Or if the sea were not near it was lowered into a lake. Or again, an artificial pond was constructed near the sacred place of the Mysteries, so that the image of the God could be submerged and left for three days. During the three days the whole community associated with this cult remained in an atmosphere of deepest earnestness and stillness. After three days the image was withdrawn from the water. The songs of grief and mourning were transformed into songs of joy, hymns to the resurrected God, to the God who had come to life once more.

This was an outward ceremony which deeply stirred the hearts of large circles of mankind. And this ceremony indicated, in an outward act of ritual, what took place in the Holy of Holies of the Mysteries with every human being who was about to reach initiation. For within the Mysteries in those ancient times every human being who was to receive initiation was led into a special chamber. The walls were black, the whole space was dark and gloomy, empty save for a coffin, or something not unlike a coffin. Beside the coffin those who accompanied the candidate for Initiation broke forth into songs of mourning, songs of death. The candidate was treated like one who is about to die. He was given to understand that when he was now laid in the coffin, he would have to undergo what the human being undergoes in the first three days after death.

On the third day there appeared at a certain place, within sight of the one who lay in the coffin, a twig or a branch to represent springing, thriving life. And now the songs of mourning were transferred into hymns of joy and praise. With consciousness transformed, the man arose out of his grave. A new language, a new writing, was communicated to him; it was the language and writing of spiritual Beings. Henceforth he was allowed to see the world — for now indeed he could see it — from the standpoint of the Spirit.

What was thus enacted in the hidden depths of the Mysteries with the candidates for Initiation was comparable to the sacred cults or rituals enacted in the outer world. The content of the sacred ritual, pictorial as it was, was none the less similar in structure to what took place with chosen human beings in the Mysteries. Indeed the cult — and we may take the special cult of Adonis as representative — the cult was explained at the proper season to all those who partook in it. It was enacted in the Autumn, and those who took part in it were instructed somewhat as follows: “Behold, it is the Autumn season! The Earth is losing her adornment of plants and green foliage. All things are fading and falling. In place of the green and springing life that began to cover the Earth in Springtime, snow will soon come to envelop, or drought to lay waste, the Earth. Nature is dying, but while all things are dying around you, you are to experience that in the human being which is only half like the death you see around you in all Nature. Man also has to die. For him, too, there comes the Autumn season. And when man's life draws to a close, it is right for the hearts and minds of those who remain behind to be filled with sorrow and deep mourning. And that the full earnestness of the passage through death may come before your souls, that you may not experience it only when death approaches you yourselves, but may be mindful of it ever and again — it is enacted before you Autumn by Autumn how the divine Being who is the representative of the beauty, youth and greatness of man, dies and undertakes the same journey as all the things of Nature. Nevertheless, just when Nature is laid waste and bare, when all things in Nature are on the way to death, you also are to remember another thing. Remember how man passes through the gate of death! All that he experienced here in this earthly life was like the things that die in Autumn-time. For in this earthly realm he experiences only what is transient. But when he has passed from the Earth and lives on out into the far spaces of the Cosmic Ether, then will he behold himself growing ever greater and greater, till the whole Universe becomes his own. For three days he will live outward and outward into the wide spaces of the Universe. And then, while here on Earth the earthly eye is turned to the image of death — for the earthly eye is turned to all that dies, to all things transient — yonder in the Spirit after three days the immortal soul of man awakens. Yonder the soul arises, arises to be born again for Spirit-land, three days after passing through the gate of death.”

Deep and penetrating was the inner transformation when these things were enacted in the candidate's own person during the Initiation ceremony, in the hidden depths of the Mysteries. The profound impression, the immense and sudden jerk which the life of a man underwent in this ancient form of initiation, awakened inner forces of the soul within him. (As we shall presently see, in modern times it cannot be done in this way but must be done in quite another way.) The inner forces of the soul, the powers of seership were awakened in him. He knew that he stood henceforward no longer in the world of the senses but in the spiritual world.

I may perhaps sum up in the following words the instruction that was given, once more at the right and proper time, to the pupils in the ancient Mysteries. They were told: That which is enacted in the Mysteries is an image of what takes place in spiritual worlds, in the Cosmos. Sacred cult is itself an image of what is enacted in the sacred Mysteries. For everyone who was admitted to the Mysteries was fully clear that events which the Mysteries concealed within the earthly realm — events enacted there upon the human being — were true images of what man experiences in the wide spaces of the astral-spiritual Cosmos in other forms of existence than in this earthly life. And those who in ancient times were not admitted to the Mysteries — since according to their stage in life they could not yet be chosen to receive the vision of the spiritual world directly — were instructed in the corresponding truths through the sacred cult or ritual, that is to say, through a picture of what was enacted in the Mysteries.

Such, then, was the purport of the Mystery which we have learned to know in this example of the Adonis festival. Autumn, when earthly things were fading away, becoming waste and bare, Autumn, expressing so radically the transitory nature of all earthly things, the dying process and the fact of death — this Autumn time was to call forth in man the certainty, or at least the pictured vision, of how the death that overcomes all Nature in the Autumn, overcomes man too, nay even overcomes the representative of all beauty, youthfulness and greatness in the human soul, portrayed in the God Adonis. Even the God Adonis dies, and is dissolved in the earthly prototype of the cosmic Ether — in the Water. But even as he rises again out of the Water, even as he can be drawn forth from the Water, so is the soul of man drawn forth from the Waters of the world, that is to say, from the cosmic Ether, approximately three days after the human being here upon Earth passes through the gate of death.

It was the secret of death itself which those ancient Mysteries sought to represent in the corresponding Autumn festival. They made it visible in picture form, in that the first half of the sacred ritual coincided with the dying and the death in Nature, while on the other hand the very opposite was shown to be the essential truth for man himself. Such was the meaning and intention of the Mysteries: the human being shall turn his gaze to the death of Nature, in order to become aware how he himself dies in the outward semblance, while in his inner being he is resurrected — resurrected, to begin with, for the spiritual world. To unveil the truth about death was the meaning and purpose of this ancient Pagan festival which was connected so closely with the Mysteries.

Then in the further course of human evolution the great Event took place. What had been undergone at a certain level by the candidate for initiation in the Mysteries — the Death and Resurrection of the soul — took place even as to the body with Christ Jesus. For how does the Mystery of Golgotha appear to one who is acquainted with the Mysteries! He gazes back into the ancient Mysteries. He sees how the candidate for Initiation was led, in his soul, through death to the Resurrection of the soul; that is to say, to the awakening of a higher consciousness in the soul. The soul died, to rise again in a higher consciousness. We must above all hold fast to this, that the body did not die, but the soul died, in order to be awakened to a higher consciousness.

What the soul of every candidate for Initiation underwent, Christ Jesus underwent even in the body. That is to say, He underwent it on a different level. For Christ was no earthly man. He was a Sun-Being dwelling in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Hence what the candidate for Initiation in the ancient Mysteries had undergone in his soul, could be undergone in the entire human nature by Christ Jesus upon Golgotha.

Those who still had knowledge of the ancient Mysteries and of the above Initiation-rite — it was they who understood most deeply what had happened upon Golgotha. Indeed to this day, it is they who understood it most deeply. For they could say to themselves: For thousands and thousands of years, human beings have been led through the death and resurrection of their souls into the secrets of the spiritual world. The soul was kept separate from the body during the act of Initiation. The soul was led through death, to life eternal. What was thus experienced in the soul by a number of chosen human beings, was undergone even in the body by a Being who descended from the Sun at the Baptism by John in Jordan, and took possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. The act of Initiation that had been repeated again and again through long, long years, now became a historic fact.

The essential thing was that man should know: because it was a Sun-Being who took possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth, therefore what was accomplished for the Initiates only with respect to the soul and the soul's experience, could be accomplished now even into the bodily existence by this Being. In spite of the death of the body, in spite of the dissolving of the body of Jesus of Nazareth in the mortal Earth, there could be a Resurrection of the Christ. For the Christ rises higher than the soul of the initiate could rise. The candidate for Initiation could not carry the body into those deep regions of the sub-sensible into which Christ Jesus carried it. Hence, too, the candidate for Initiation could not rise so high in resurrection as the Christ. Yet it remains true that but for this difference in respect of cosmic greatness, the ancient rite of Initiation appeared as a historic fact at the sacred place of Golgotha.

Yet even in the first centuries of Christianity there were only few who knew that a Being of the Sun, a cosmic Being, had lived in Jesus of Nazareth, that the Earth had really been fertilised by the descent from the Sun of a Being whom until then man upon Earth had only been able to behold within the Sun, by the methods cultivated at the places of Initiation. This was the essential point in Christianity, inasmuch as it was also accepted by those who had real knowledge of the ancient Mysteries. They could say: The Christ to whom we lifted ourselves up through our initiation, the Christ whom we could reach by our ascent to the Sun in the ancient Mysteries, has descended into a mortal body, into the body of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to Earth.

It was indeed a festival mood, nay, a mood of sublime holiness which filled the hearts and souls of those who, living in the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, had some understanding of this Mystery. Gradually, and by processes which we shall yet have to trace, what had thus been an immediate and living content of their consciousness became a memory, a festival in memory of the historic event on Golgotha. But while this “memory” was taking shape, the consciousness of who the Christ was as a Being of the Sun, became lost ever more and more. Those who had knowledge of the ancient Mysteries could not fail to know about the Being of the Christ. For they knew that the real Initiates, being made independent of the physical body and passing in their souls through death, rising into the Sun-sphere and there visiting the Christ, had received from Him — from Christ within the Sun — the impulse for the resurrection of their souls. They knew the nature of the Christ because they had raised themselves to Him. With their knowledge of this Initiation rite, the ancient Initiates knew from what took place on Golgotha that the same Being who formerly had to be sought for in the Sun, had now visited mankind on Earth. Why was it so? The sacred rite that had been enacted with the candidates for Initiation in the ancient Mysteries in order that they might reach up to the Christ within the Sun, could no longer be enacted in this way. For in the course of time, human nature had undergone a change. By the very evolution of the human being, the ancient ceremony of Initiation had become impossible. It would no longer have been possible through that ancient Initiation ceremony to visit the Christ in the Sun. It was then that He descended to enact on Earth a sacred deed to which human beings might henceforth turn their gaze.

What is contained within this secret is one of the very holiest things that can possibly be uttered on this Earth.

For how did it really appear to the human beings in the centuries following the Mystery of Golgotha?

Diagram number 1, Lecture One

From an ancient Initiation sanctuary man upon Earth looked upward to the Sun-existence and became aware, through his Initiation, of Christ within the Sun. Man looked out into Space in order to approach the Christ. And how did the evolution of mankind go forward in the succeeding periods? I must now represent Time itself: the Earth in one year, the Earth in a second year, in a third year, and so on in the course of Time. Spatially, the Earth is of course always present but here I have represented the course of Time. The Mystery of Golgotha has taken place. A human being living, let us say, in the eighth century A.D., instead of looking upward to the Sun from a sacred place of the Mysteries so as to reach the Christ, looks backward through the course of Time — back to the Mystery of Golgotha. At the turning-point of Time — at the beginning of the Christian era — he beholds the Mystery of Golgotha. Thus he can find the Christ within an earthly action, within an event on Earth. He finds the Christ within the Mystery of Golgotha.

Through the Mystery of Golgotha, what had formerly been a vision in Space, became henceforward a vision in Time. That was the significance of what had taken place.

We must however especially contemplate what took place during Initiation in the ancient Mysteries. It was a picture of the death of man and of his resurrection in the life beyond. Then we must consider the structure of the sacred cults, the festival of Adonis, for instance. For this in turn was a picture of what took place within the Mysteries. When we contemplate all this, these things — the three united into one — come before us in a sublime and transcendent aspect concentrated in the one historic action upon Golgotha.

Outwardly upon the scene of history there appears what was hitherto accomplished in the deep and inner Holy of Holies of the Mysteries. For all human beings there now exists what existed hitherto only for the Initiates. Men no longer need an image that is immersed and symbolically resurrected from the sea. Henceforth they shall have the thought — the memory — of what took place in all reality on Golgotha. The outward symbol, relating to a process that was experienced in Space, is now to be replaced by the inward thought and memory, without any picture to the senses — the memory of the historic event of Golgotha, experienced purely in the soul.

Strange is the course of human evolution as we perceive it in the succeeding centuries. Man's penetration into spiritual things becomes ever less and less. The spiritual content of the Mystery of Golgotha cannot find its way into the minds of men. Evolution tends now to develop the sense for material things. Men lose the inner understanding of the heart, which once told them that just where outer Nature reveals her transitoriness and appears as a dying existence, the life of the Spirit can be seen, and with it they lose their understanding for that outer festival which can most truly be felt when Autumn comes with its fading, dying process, inasmuch as the death of the Earthly and Natural corresponds to the Resurrection of the Spiritual.

Thus it becomes possible no longer for Autumn to be the time of the Resurrection Festival. Autumn loses its power to turn man's thought from the transitoriness of Nature to the eternity of the Spirit. Man now needs the support of material things, needs the support of what does not die in Nature, but springs forth again in Nature. He needs to connect his Resurrection Festival with that which is resurrected in outer Nature — the force of the seed which was laid into the Earth in Autumn-time. He takes the material as a symbol for the Spiritual because he is no longer able to receive inspiration for a true perception of the Spiritual itself. Autumn no longer has the power to make manifest through the inner power of the human soul the Eternity of the Spirit, over against what is transient in the world of Nature. Man needs the support of external Nature, of the external Resurrection in Nature. He needs to see how the plants spring out of the Earth, how the Sun increases in strength, how light and warmth increase in strength once more. He needs the Resurrection in Nature in order to celebrate the thought of the Resurrection.

At the same time he loses that immediate inner relationship which he had with the Adonis Festival, and which he can also have with the Mystery of Golgotha. The inner experience which could arise at the earthly death of man, loses its power. In that inner experience the human soul was aware how the man who in the earthly sense passes through the gate of death, undergoes in three days what can indeed fill the soul with solemnity and earnestness. Then, however, the soul must become inwardly joyful, inasmuch as out of this very death the human soul arises after three days to spiritual immortality.

The power that lay in the Adonis Festival was lost. To begin with, it was intended for humanity that this power should arise with still greater intensity. Man had gazed upon the death of the God, the death of all that is beautiful in mankind — of all that is great and filled with the strength of youth. This God was immersed in the ocean on the day of Mourning, on the day of Chara (Charfreitag is Good Friday; Chara means mourning). They fell into a solemn, earnest mood. This was the feeling they first wanted to unfold in view of the transitoriness of Nature. But then this very feeling of the transitoriness of Nature had to be transformed by the soul into a feeling of the super-sensible resurrection of the human soul after three days. When the God — or image of the God — was lifted out again, the true believer beheld the image of the human soul a few days after death. “What happens to the dead man in the Spirit, behold! it stands before thy soul in the image of the resurrected God of youthful strength and beauty!”

This truth, deeply united with the whole destiny of man, was really awakened in the human spirit year by year in the Autumn season. In that ancient time men could not have thought it possible to take their start from external Nature. That which was perceptible in the Spirit was represented in the symbolic action of the sacred cult. But the time came when this picture of ancient times had to be blotted out in order that the memory, unassisted by any image — the inward memory, experienced purely within the soul, the memory of the Mystery of Golgotha in which the same truth is contained — should take the place of the picture. To begin with, humanity had not the power for it to be so. For the Spirit descended into the very depths of the soul of man. To this day it has remained so; man needs the support of external Nature. But external Nature provides no symbol — no perfect symbol — of the destinies of man in death. Thus the thought of death itself was able to live on, but the thought of the Resurrection disappeared more and more. Though the Resurrection is still referred to as an article of faith, the fact of the Resurrection is not a really living experience in the humanity of modern times. It must become alive again through the anthroposophical conception reawakening the sense of man to the true Resurrection thought.

The Michael thought, as was said at the proper season, must lie near to the anthroposophical heart and mind as the thought of the Herald of Christ. The Christmas thought too, must be made ever deeper in the heart of the anthroposophist. And the Easter thought must become especially sacred and joyful. For Anthroposophy has to add to the thought of Death, the thought of the Resurrection. Anthroposophy itself must become like an inner festival of Resurrection for the human soul. It must bring an Easter mood into man's world-conception. This will indeed be possible if it is understood how the thought of the ancient Mysteries can live on in the true Easter thought. And this will still be possible if there arises a true conception of the body, soul and spirit of man, and of the destinies of body, soul and spirit, in the physical world, the soul-world and the spiritual world of Heaven.