The Easter Festival in the Evolution of the Mysteries
Dornach, 19th April, 1924
Easter is felt by many to be associated on the one hand with the deepest feelings and sensibilities of the human soul, and on the other, with cosmic mysteries and enigmas. The connection with cosmic mysteries becomes clear when we consider that Easter is a so-called movable feast, the date of which is fixed each year with reference to a specific constellation in the heavens. We will have more to say about this in the lectures to come. As for Easter's connection with the human soul, if we examine the customs and rites that have become associated with it through the centuries, we cannot fail to observe the great significance with which a large part of mankind has come to invest this festival.
For Christianity, Easter was not important initially, but it became so during the first few centuries. It is linked to Christianity's basic tenet, the Resurrection of Christ, and to the fundamental impulse to become a Christian provided by that fact. Easter is therefore a celebration of the Resurrection, but as such it points back to times and festivals predating Christianity.
These earlier festivals centered around the spring equinox, an event which, though not identical with Easter, enters into the calculation of its date, and celebrated nature's reawakening in the new life burgeoning forth from the earth. And this leads us directly to the heart of our subject, which is the Easter festival as a stage in the evolution of the Mysteries.
For Christians Easter commemorates the Resurrection. The corresponding pagan festival in a sense celebrated the resurrection of nature, the reawakening of what, as nature, had been asleep throughout the winter. However, there the similarity ends. It must be emphasized that with regard to its inner meaning, the Christian Easter festival in no sense corresponds to the pagan equinox celebrations. Rather, a serious examination of ancient pagan times reveals that Easter, in the Christian sense, is related to festivals that grew out of the Mysteries and that were celebrated in the fall.
This most curious fact demonstrates what serious misunderstandings regarding matters of the highest importance have occurred in the course of humanity's development. In the early Christian centuries, nothing less happened than the confusion of Easter with a completely different festival, with the result that Easter was moved from fall to the spring.
With this we touch upon something of enormous importance in the development of humanity. Consider for a moment the essential content of Easter. First, the figure central to Christian consciousness, Christ Jesus, experiences death, as commemorated by Good Friday. He then remains in the grave for three days, symbolizing his union with earthly existence. Christians observe this interval, the one between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as a period of mourning. Finally, on Easter Sunday, the central being of Christianity arises from the grave. In essence, then, Easter involves Christ's death, lying in the grave, and resurrection.
Let us now turn to one of the many forms of the corresponding pagan festival, for only in doing so can we grasp the relation of Easter to the Mysteries.
Among many ancient peoples we find celebrations whose rituals enact a content strongly resembling that of the Christian Easter festival. One of these was the festival of Adonis, which was observed by certain Near Eastern peoples over long spans of pre-Christian antiquity. At the center of this festival stood a likeness of the god Adonis, who represented all that manifests itself in human beings as vigorous youth and beauty.
The ancients in many respects undoubtedly confused the god's image with what is represented; hence their religions frequently bordered on fetishism. Many indeed took the image of Adonis to be the actually present god, the god of beauty and youthful strength, of an unfolding seminal power that reveals in splendorous outer existence all the inner nobility and grandeur of which humanity is capable.
To the accompaniment of songs and rites portraying humanity's deepest grief and sorrow, the god's likeness was immersed for a period of three days in the sea if the Mystery site was near the sea, in a lake if it was near a lake, or otherwise in an artificial pond that was dug nearby. For three days a profound and solemn silence took hold of the entire community. When after that time the idol was lifted from the water, the laments gave way to songs of joy and hymns to the resurrected god, the god who had come back to life.
This was an external ceremony, one that profoundly stirred the souls of a great number of people. Even as it did so, however, it hinted at what happened within the sacred Mysteries to every person aspiring to initiation.
In those times every candidate for initiation was led into a special chamber. It was dark and gloomy and its walls were black. The chamber contained nothing but a coffin or at least something like it. Laments and dirges were sung around this coffin by those who had led the neophyte into the chamber. The latter was treated as if he were about to die. His teachers made it clear to him that by being laid in the coffin he was to undergo the experience of death and of the three days following. The candidate was to achieve total inner clarity regarding those experiences.
On the third day, in a spot visible to the occupant of the coffin, a branch appeared, signifying life's renewal. The earlier laments gave way to hymns of joy, and the initiate arose from his grave with transformed consciousness. A new language, a new script were revealed to him, the language and script of the spiritual world. He was permitted to see, and did see, the world from the viewpoint of the spirit.
Compared with these procedures enacted deep within the Mysteries, the external, public rites were symbolic, resembling in their form the initiation ceremonies of the select few. At the proper time these rites, of which the Adonis festival may be taken as typical, were explained to their participants. The rites took place in the fall, and participants were instructed in somewhat the following way:
“Behold, autumn is now upon us; the earth loses its mantle of plants and leaves. All is withering. In place of the greening, burgeoning life that began to cover the earth in spring, snow will now come, or at least a desolating drought. Nature is dying. And as it dies all around you, you shall experience that part of yourself that is similar to nature. Human beings die as well. Each of us has his autumn. And although when life comes to an end it is fitting that the souls of those remaining should be filled with deep sorrow, it is not enough to meet death only when it actually happens. In order that you be confronted with death's full solemnity, that you be able to remind yourselves of death again and again, you are shown each fall the death of that divine being who stands for beauty, youth, and human grandeur. You see that he too goes the way of all nature. Yet, precisely when nature becomes barren and begins to die, you must remember something else. You must remember that although human beings pass through the portal of death, although in this earthly existence they experience only things that are like those that die in autumn, at death they are drawn away from the earth and live their way out into the vast cosmic ether, where for three days they feel their being expand until it encompasses the whole world. Then, while the eyes of those on earth are focused only on death's outer aspect, on what is transitory, in the spirit world the immortal human soul awakens after three days. Three days after death it arises, born anew for the spirit land.”
In a process of intense inner transformation, the candidate for initiation into the Mysteries actually experienced this dying and reawakening within his own soul. The profound shock inflicted upon people by this old method of initiation — we shall see that in our day completely different methods are necessary — awakened within them latent powers of spiritual vision. They knew henceforth that they stood not merely in the world of the senses, but in the spiritual world as well.
What the students of the Mysteries received as timely instruction might be summed up in the following words: “The Mystery ritual is an image of events in the spiritual world, of what occurs in the cosmos; the public rituals in turn are a likeness of the Mysteries.” No doubt was left in the students' minds that the Mysteries encompassed procedures representing what human beings experience in forms of existence other than the earthly, that is, in the vastness of the astral and spiritual cosmos.
Those who could not be admitted to the Mysteries because they were deemed not mature enough to receive directly the gift of spiritual vision were taught appropriate truths in the cultic rituals, which symbolized what occurred in the Mysteries. These rituals, such as the Adonis cult, that took place amid autumn's withering, when all of nature seemed to speak only of the transience of earthly things, of the inexorability of death and decay, served to instill in people the certainty, or at least the idea, that death as experienced by nature in the fall must also overtake human beings, overtake even the god Adonis, representative of all the beauty, youthfulness, and grandeur of the human soul. The god Adonis also dies. He disappears into the earthly representative of the cosmic ether, into water. But just as he is lifted out of it, so too is the human soul raised from the waters of the world, the cosmic ether, about three days after it has passed through the portal of death.
The secret of death itself was thus portrayed in the ancient Mysteries through the corresponding autumnal festivals. These festivals coincided in their first half with the withering and decay of nature, and in their second half with the opposite, namely, with the eternal essence of the human being. Humanity was to contemplate the dying of nature in order to recognize that human beings die as well, but that in accordance with their inner nature they arise anew in the spiritual world. The purpose of these ancient pagan Mystery festivals was thus to reveal the true meaning of death.
As humanity developed, the time came when a particular being, Christ Jesus, carried down into bodily nature the process of death and resurrection that the candidate for initiation had achieved in the Mysteries only on the level of the soul. People familiar with the ancient Mysteries can peer into them and perceive that neophytes were led through death to resurrection within their souls, that is, they awakened to a higher consciousness. It is important to note that their souls, not their bodies, died and that they did so in order to rise again on a higher level of consciousness.
What aspirants to initiation experienced only in their souls, Christ Jesus passed through in the body, that is, on a different level. Because Christ was not of the Earth, but rather a sun-being in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, he could undergo on Golgotha in the entirety of his human nature what initiates had formerly experienced only their souls.
Those who still possessed intimate knowledge of the old Mystery initiation, from that time on to our own, understood the event at Golgotha most profoundly of all. They knew that for thousands of years people had gained knowledge of the spiritual world's secrets through the death and resurrection of their souls. During the process of initiation body and soul had been kept apart, the soul being led then through death to eternal life.
What a number of select people had thus undergone in their souls was experienced all the way into the body by the being who descended from the sun into Jesus of Nazareth at the time of his baptism in the Jordan. An initiation process repeated over many, many centuries became in this way a historical fact.
That was the essence of what people familiar with the Mysteries knew. They knew that because a sun-being had taken possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth what had formerly occurred for the neophyte only at the level of the soul and its experiences could now take place on the plane of the body as well. In spite of Christ's bodily death, in spite of his dissolution into the mortal earth, the Resurrection could be brought about because Christ ascended higher in soul and spirit than was possible for a candidate for initiation. The neophyte was incapable of bringing the body into such profoundly subsensible regions as Christ did, so that he could not rise as high in resurrection. Except for this difference in cosmic magnitude, however, it was the ancient initiation process that appeared in the historic deed on sacred Golgotha.
In the first Christian centuries very few people knew that a sun-being, a cosmic being, had lived in Jesus of Nazareth, or that the earth had actually been made fruitful by the coming of a being previously visible only in the sun for students of initiation. And for those who accepted it with genuine knowledge of the old Mysteries, Christianity consisted essentially in the fact that Christ, who could be reached in the old Mysteries by ascending through initiation to the sun, had descended into a mortal body. He had come down to earth, into the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
A mood of rejoicing, even of holy elation, filled the souls of those who understood something of this Mystery when it occurred. Living awareness then gradually gave way, through developments we shall discuss presently, to a festival in memory of this historical event on Golgotha.
While this memory was taking shape, awareness of Christ's identity as a sun-being grew dimmer and dimmer. Those familiar with the ancient Mysteries could not be mistaken about that identity. They knew that genuine initiates, by being made independent of the physical body and experiencing death in their souls, had ascended to the sphere of the sun and there found the Christ. From the Christ they received the impulse to resurrection. Having raised themselves up to him, they were cognizant of his true nature. From the events on Golgotha they knew that the being formerly accessible only in the sun had descended to mankind on earth.
Why? Because the old rite of initiation, through which neophytes had risen to Christ in the sun, could no longer be performed. Over time human nature had changed. Evolution had progressed in such a way as to make initiation by means of the old ritual impossible. Human beings on earth could no longer find Christ in the sun. For this reason he came down to enact a deed to which earthly humanity could now turn its gaze. This secret is among the holiest things of which we may speak here on earth.
What was the situation then for those living in the centuries immediately following the Mystery of Golgotha? If I were to draw it, I would have to sketch something like this:
In the old initiation center (red, at right), neophytes gazed up to the sun and through initiation became aware of the Christ. To find him they looked out into space, so to speak. In order to show later developments, I must here represent time in terms of the earth proceeding along a line from right to left — its subsequent positions from year to year represented by arcs beneath the line — even though the earth does not actually move this way through space. At the left, let us say, is the eighth century; the Mystery of Golgotha (cross, at center) had already taken place. Human beings, instead of seeking Christ in the sun from a Mystery temple, now look back toward the turning point of time, to the beginning of the Christian era. They look back in time (yellow arrow in figure) toward the Mystery of Golgotha, and there find Christ performing an earthly deed.
The significance of the Mystery of Golgotha was that it changed a previously spatial perception into perception through time. Furthermore, if we reflect upon what transpired in the Mysteries during initiation, remembering that initiation was an image of human death and resurrection, and then consider the form taken by the cult — the festival of Adonis, for example — which was itself a picture of the Mysteries, then these three things appear raised to the ultimate degree, unified and concentrated, in the historical deed on Golgotha.
The profoundly intimate rites of the Mystery sanctuaries now stood forth as an external, historical event. All humankind now had access to what was previously available only to initiates. No longer was it necessary to immerse an image in the sea and symbolically resurrect it. Instead human beings were to think of, to remember, what actually took place on Golgotha. The physical symbol, referring to a process experienced in space, was to be supplanted by the internal, immaterial thought, by the memory of the historical deed on Golgotha experienced within the soul.
A remarkable development began to take place during the centuries that followed. Human beings were less and less cognizant of spiritual realities, so that the substance of the Mystery of Golgotha could no longer gain a foothold in their souls. Evolution tended toward the development of a sense for material reality. Human beings could no longer grasp in their hearts that precisely where nature presents itself as ephemeral, as dying and desolate, the spirit's vitality can best be witnessed. The autumnal festival thus lost its meaning. It was no longer understood that the best time to appreciate the resurrection of the human spirit was when outer nature was dying, that is, during the fall.
Autumn simply became an unsuitable time for the festival of resurrection, for it could no longer turn people's minds to spiritual immortality by underscoring nature's transience. People began to depend upon material symbols, upon enduring elements of nature, for their understanding of immortal things. They focused upon the seed's germinating force, which, though buried in the fall, sprouts forth again in spring. People adopted material symbols for spiritual things because matter could no longer stimulate them to perceive the spirit in its reality. Human souls lacked the strength to receive autumn's revelation of the spirit's permanence in contrast to the impermanence of nature. Help from nature, in the form of an outwardly visible resurrection, was now necessary. People needed to see plants sprouting from the ground, the sun gaining strength, light and warmth increasing, in other words, a resurrection of nature, in order to celebrate the idea of resurrection itself.
But this meant that the immediate connection to the spirit present in the festival of Adonis, and potentially present in the Mystery of Golgotha, disappeared. An intense inner experience that was possible in ancient times at every human death gradually faded out. In those times people had known that although a departed soul's first experiences beyond the gate of death were indeed a matter for solemn reflection, after three days the living could rejoice, for they knew that then the departed soul arose out of earthly death into spiritual immortality.
Thus the power inherent in the festival of Adonis disappeared. It lay in humanity's nature that this power should at first arise with great intensity. Ancient peoples beheld the death of the god, the death of human beauty, grandeur, and youthful vigor. This god was immersed in the sea on a day of mourning. The mood was somber, for people were at first to develop a feeling for the ephemeral. This mood, however, was to yield in turn to a different one, to that evoked by the human soul's super-sensible resurrection after three days. When the god — or rather his likeness — was raised out of the water, rightly instructed believers saw in it an image of the human soul as it exists a few days after death. The fate of departed souls in the spiritual world was placed before them in the image of the risen god of beauty and youth.
Thus each year in the fall human minds were awakened to a direct contemplation of something deeply connected with human destiny. At that time it would have been deemed inappropriate to convey this by means of outer nature. Truths that could be experienced spiritually were represented in the cult's symbolic rituals. However, when the time came for the ancient, physical idol to be replaced with the inner experience of the unseen Mystery of Golgotha, a Mystery that embodied the same truth, humanity at first lacked the strength, for the spirit had retreated into deeply hidden regions of the human soul.
The need to look to nature for symbols of the spirit has continued into our own time. Nature, however, provides no complete image of our destiny in death; and while the idea of death has survived, that of resurrection has increasingly disappeared. Even though resurrection is spoken of as a tenet of faith, the fact of resurrection is not a living one for people of more recent times. It must, however, once more become so through anthroposophical insight that awakens a feeling for the true concept of resurrection.
If, therefore, as has been said on appropriate occasions, we as anthroposophists must cherish the Michael idea as a heralding thought, and must deepen our understanding of the Christmas idea, so too must our experience of the Easter idea be particularly festive. For it is anthroposophy's task to add to the thought of death that of resurrection, to become an inner celebration of the resurrection of the human soul, imbuing our philosophy with an Easter mood. Anthroposophy will be able to achieve this when people understand how the ancient Mystery concepts can live on in the true concept of Easter, and when once again a proper view prevails of the body, soul, and spirit of the human being and of the fates of these in the physical, soul, and divine-spiritual worlds.