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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Festivals and Their Meaning:
Ascension and Pentecost

V. Whitsun: The Festival of United Soul-Endeavour

7 June 1908

The spiritual evolution of mankind must be brought into a living connection with the whole surrounding world. For many men to-day a great deal has become dead and prosaic; and this is true even of our religious festivals. A great section of mankind has only the smallest notion of what Christmas, Easter and Whitsun signify; it has almost entirely lost that overwhelming richness in the life of feeling which in earlier times men possessed through their knowledge of their connection with the spiritual worlds. Yes, even the festivals have for many men to-day become dead and prosaic. The pouring down of the spirit has become a mere abstraction, and this will change only when men come again to a real spiritual knowledge.

Much is said nowadays about the forces of nature, but little enough about the beings behind these forces. Our forefathers spoke of gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders, but to see any reality in such ideas is regarded to-day as sheer superstition. It doesn't matter much, in themselves, what theories people hold; it only begins to be serious when the theories tempt people not to see the truth.

When people say that their ancestors' belief in gnomes, undines, sylphs, salamanders and the like was all nonsense, one would like to make a rather grotesque reply, and say: “Well, go and ask the bees. They could inform you: the sylphs are no superstition to us; we know well enough what we owe to the sylphs.”—Anyone investigating spiritual forces can find out which force it is that draws the bee on towards the flowers; he sees actual beings leading the bee to the flowers: amid the myriads of bees which fly forth in search of nourishment are the beings our predecessors called sylphs.

It is especially where the different kingdoms of nature come in contact with each other that certain elemental beings are able to reveal themselves. Where moss is growing on the rocks, for example, such beings can establish themselves; or again, in the flowers, in the contact of the bee with the flowers, certain beings have the chance to show themselves. Another possibility arises where man himself comes into touch with the animal kingdom. This does not happen, however, in the ordinary run of things, as for example, when a butcher slaughters an ox or when a man eats meat. It does occur, however, in less usual circumstances, where the contact between the two kingdoms is the result of something more than the mere fact of life. It occurs particularly where a man has that kind of relationship to animals which involves his own feelings, his own concern of soul. A shepherd, for example, may sometimes have such a special relationship to his sheep. Connections of this sort were very frequent in more primitive cultures in earlier times; they resembled the relationship which an Arab has to his horse. And such soul-forces as play over from one realm into the other—as they do between the shepherd and his lambs, or when the forces of smell and taste stream over from the flowers to the bees—these give to certain beings the possibility of incarnating themselves. The spiritual investigator perceives something like an aura around the blossoms, which arises as the bees thrust their way into them and taste what they find there. A kind of flower-aura streams out, and this provides nourishment for certain spiritual beings.

The question why there are beings just here and nowhere else, does not arise for anyone who understands the spiritual world. If opportunities are provided for such beings, then they are there; give them that on which they can live and they are there. It is just as when human beings let evil thoughts stream out from themselves, certain beings then incorporate themselves in his aura; they are there because he allows nourishment to stream to them. The opportunity is given for certain spiritual beings to incorporate themselves wherever different kingdoms of nature come into touch with each other. Where metal is found in the rocks, the miner as he hacks away sees certain tiny beings which were compressed together into quite a small space and now scatter in all directions. These are beings in some ways not unlike man himself; they have the power of reason, but it is reason without responsibility; and so, when they play some mischievous prank on a man, they in no way feel they are doing anything amiss. They are the beings our forefathers called gnomes; they prefer to take up their abode where metal and stone come together. There was a time when they did men good service, as in the early days of mining; the way to lay out a mine, the knowledge of how the strata ran—this was learnt from such beings.

Mankind will land itself in a blind alley if it fails to acquire a spiritual understanding of these things. As with the gnomes, so with the beings we may call undines; they are found where the plants come into contact with the mineral kingdom. They are bound up with the element of water, they incorporate themselves where water and plant and stone come together.—The sylphs are bound to the element of air, and lead the bees to the flowers. Now everything science has to say about the life of the bees is riddled with error from top to bottom, and nowadays the beekeepers are often misled by it; in this direction science proves itself unusable and again and again beekeepers have to come back to old practices.

As for salamanders, these are still known to many people. When someone feels that this or that element of soul is streaming towards him, this mostly arises through the salamanders. When a man relates himself to animals in the way the shepherd does to his lambs, the salamanders are then able to embody themselves; the knowledge the shepherd has in regard to his flock is whispered to him by these beings.

If we take these thoughts farther we shall have to say: We are entirely surrounded by spiritual beings; we are surrounded by the air and this is crowded with these spiritual beings. In times to come, if his destiny is not to be of the sort that will entirely dry up his life, man will have to have a knowledge of these beings; without such a knowledge he will be unable to make any further progress at all. He will have to put the question: Whence do these beings arise? And this question will lead him to see that, through certain steps taken by the higher worlds, that which is on the downward path to evil can through a wise guidance be changed into good.

Here and there in life we meet with the products of decay with waste products. Thus for example, manure is a waste product, and in agriculture it is used as a basis to further plant growth. Things which have apparently fallen away from a higher course of development are taken up again by higher powers and transformed. This happens with the very beings of whom we have been speaking.

Let us consider how the salamander, for example, originates. Salamanders, as we have seen, are beings who require a special relationship between man and animal. Now the kind of ego man has to-day is only to be found in man, in the human being living on the earth; every man has his ego enclosed within himself. It is different with the animals: they have a group-ego, a group-soul; that is to say, a group of animals with the same form have a common group-ego. When the lion says ‘I’, its ego is up above in the astral world. It is as if a man were to stand behind a wall in which there were ten holes, and then to stick his ten fingers through them. The man himself cannot be seen, but every intelligent observer would conclude that someone is behind, a single entity who owns the ten fingers. It is the same with the group-ego. The separate animals are simply the limbs: the being they belong to is in the astral world. We must not imagine the animal-ego to be like the human being of course, though if we consider man as he is as a spiritual being, we can then certainly compare the animal group-ego with him.

In many animal species the group-ego is a wise being. If we think of how certain kinds of birds live in the north in the summer and in the south in the winter, how in spring they fly back to the north—in this migrating flight of the birds there are wise powers at work; they are in the group-egos of the birds. Anywhere you like in the animal kingdom you can find the wisdom of the group-egos in this way. If we turn back to our schooldays we can remember learning how modern times gradually arose out of the Middle Ages, of how America was discovered, and how gunpowder and printing were invented, and later still the art of making paper from rags. We have long been accustomed to such paper, but the wasp group-soul invented it thousands of years ago. The material of which the wasp's nest consists is exactly the same as is used in making paper out of rags. Only gradually will it become known how the one or the other achievement of the human spirit is connected with what the group-souls have introduced into the world.

When the clairvoyant looks at an animal, he sees a glimmer of light along the whole length of its spine. The physical spine of the animal is enveloped in a glimmering light, in innumerable streams of force which everywhere travel across the earth, as it were, like the trade winds. They work on the animal in that they stream along the spine. The group-ego of the animal travels in a continual circular movement around the earth at all heights and in all directions. These group-egos are wise, but one thing they have not yet got: they have no knowledge of love. Only in man is wisdom found in his individuality together with love. In the group-ego of the animals no love is present; love is found only in the single animal. What underlies the whole animal-group as wise arrangements is quite devoid of love. In the physical world below the animal has love; above, on the astral plane, it has wisdom. When we realise this a vast number of things will become clear to us.

Only gradually has man arrived at his present stage of development; in earlier times he also had a group-soul, out of which the individual soul has gradually emerged. Let us follow the evolution of man back into ancient Atlantis. Mankind once lived in Atlantis, a continent now lying beneath the Atlantic Ocean. At that time the vast Siberian plains were covered with immense seas; the Mediterranean was differently distributed, and in Europe itself there were extensive seas. The farther we go back in the old Atlantean period, the more the conditions of life alter, the more the sleeping and the waking state of man changes. Since that time consciousness during the sleeping condition has darkened, as it were, so that to-day man has, so to say, no consciousness at all in this condition. In the earliest Atlantean times the difference between sleeping and waking was not yet so great. In his waking state at that time man still saw things with an aura around them; he did not attain to any greater clarity than this in his perception of the physical world. Everything physical was still filled out, so to say, with something unclear, as if with mist. As he progressed, the human being came to see the world in its clear-cut contours, but in return he lost his clairvoyance.

It is in the times when men still saw clairvoyantly what was going on up above in the astral world that all the myths and sagas originate. When he was able to enter into the spiritual world, man learned to know the beings who had never descended into the physical world: Wotan, Baldur, Thor, Loki.—These names are memories of living realities, and all mythologies are memories of this kind. As spiritual realities, they have simply vanished from the sight of man. When in those earlier times man descended into his physical body, he got the feeling: “Thou art a single being.” When he returned into the spiritual world in the evening, however, the feeling came over him: “Thou art in reality not a single being.” The members of the old tribal groups, the Herulians, the Cheruskans and the like, had still felt themselves far more as belonging to their group, than as single personalities. It was out of this condition of things that there arose such practices as the blood-feud, the vendetta. The whole people formed a body which belonged to the group-soul of the folk.

Everything happens step by step in evolution, and so it was only gradually that the individual developed out of the group-soul. The accounts of the patriarchs, for instance, reveal quite other relationships which confirm this fact. Before the time of Noah, memory was as yet something quite different from what we know. The frontier of birth was no real frontier, for the memory streamed on in those through whom the same blood flowed. This onstreaming of memory was in earlier times something quite different from what we possess; it was far more comprehensive. Nowadays the authorities like to have the name of each individual recorded somewhere or other. In the past, it was what man remembered of the deeds of his father and grandfather that was covered with a common name and called Adam or Noah; what was remembered, the stream of memory in its full extent, was called Adam or Noah. The old names signified comprehensive groups, human groups which extended through time.

Now we must put ourselves the question: Can we compare the anthropoid apes with man himself? The vital difference is that the ape preserves the group-soul condition throughout, whereas man develops the individual soul. But the ape group-soul is in a quite special position to other group-souls. We must think of a group-soul as living in the astral world and spreading itself out in the physical world, so that, for instance, the group-soul of the lion sends a part of its substance into each single lion. Let us suppose that one of these lions dies; the external physical part drops away from the group-soul, just as when we lose a nail. The group-soul sends out a new ray of being, as it were, into a new individual. The group-soul remains above and stretches out its tentacles in a continual process of renewal. The animal group-soul knows neither birth or death; the single individual falls away and a new one appears, just as the nails on our fingers come and go.—Now we must consider the following:—With the lion it is entirely as we have said, that every time a lion dies, the whole of what was sent out by the group-soul return to it again. It is not at all so, however, with the apes. When an ape dies the essential part does return to the group-soul, but a part does not; a part is severed from the group-soul. The ape detaches substance too strongly from the group-soul. There are species where the single animal tears something away from the group-soul which cannot return to it. With all the apes, fragments are detached in each case from the group-soul. It is the same with certain kinds of amphibians and birds; in the kangaroo, for example, something is kept back from the group-soul. Now everything in the warm-blooded animals that remains behind in this way becomes an elemental being of the kind we call a salamander.

Under entirely different conditions from those on the earth to-day, the other types of elemental beings have detached themselves in the past. We have here a case where cast-off products of evolution, as it were, are made of service under the wise guidance of higher Beings. Left to themselves, these would disturb the Cosmos, but under a higher guidance the sylphs, for example, can be used to lead the bees to the flowers. Such a service changes the harmful into something useful.

Now it could happen that man himself might entirely detach himself from the group-soul in becoming an individual and find no means of developing further as an individual soul. If he does not accept spiritual knowledge in the right way, he can run the risk of complete severance.

What is it that protects man from an isolation which is, without the direction and purpose which, earlier on, the group-soul had given him? We must clearly recognise that man individualises himself more and more, and to-day, he has to find a connection once again with other men out of his free will. All that connects men, through folk, race and family, will be ever more completely severed; everything in man tends more and more to result in individual manhood.

Imagine that a number of human beings on the earth have come to recognise that they are all becoming more and more individual. Is there not a real danger that they will split away from each other ever more completely? Already nowadays men are no longer held together by spiritual ties. Each one has his own opinion, his own religion; indeed, many see it as an ideal state of affairs that each should have his own opinion. But that is all wrong. If men make their opinions more inward, then they come to a common opinion. It is a matter of inner experience, for example, that 3 times 3 makes 9, or that the three angles of a triangle make up 180 degrees. That is inner knowledge, and matters of inner knowledge need not be argued about. Of such a kind also are all spiritual truths. What is taught by Spiritual Science is discovered by man through his inner powers; along the inward path man will be led to absolute agreement and unity. There cannot be two opinions about a fact without one of them being wrong. The ideal lies in the greatest possible inwardness of knowledge; that leads to peace and to unity.

In the past, mankind became free of the group-soul. Through spiritual-scientific knowledge mankind is now for the first time in the position to discover, with the utmost certainty of purpose, what will unite mankind again. When men unite together in a higher wisdom, then out of higher worlds there descends a group-soul once more. What is willed by the Leaders of the spiritual-scientific Movement is that in it we should have a society in which hearts stream towards wisdom as the plants stream towards the sunlight. In that together we turn our hearts towards a higher wisdom, we give a dwelling-place to the group-soul; we form the dwelling-place, the environment, in which the group-soul can incarnate. Mankind will enrich earthly life by developing what enables spiritual beings to come down out of higher worlds.

This spirit-enlivened ideal was once placed before humanity in a most powerful way. It was when a number of men, all aglow with a common feeling of fervent love and devotion, were met together for a common deed: Then the sign was given, the sign that could show man with overwhelming power how in unity of soul he could provide a place for the incarnation of the common spirit. In this company of souls the same thing was living: in the flowing together, in the harmony of feeling they provided what was needed for the incarnation of a common spirit. That is expressed when it is said that the Holy Spirit, the group-soul, sank down as it were into incarnation. It is a symbol of what mankind should strive towards, how it should seek to become the dwelling-place for the Being who descends out of higher worlds.

The Easter event gave man the power to develop these experiences; the Whitsun event is the fruit of this power's unfolding. Through the flowing of souls together towards the common wisdom there will always result that which gives a living connection with the forces and beings of higher worlds, and with something which as yet has little significance for humanity, namely the Whitsun festival. When men come to know what the downcoming of the Holy Spirit in the future can mean for mankind, the Whitsun festival will once more become alive for them. Then it will be not only a memory of the event in Jerusalem; but there will arise for mankind the everlasting Whitsun festival, the festival of united soul-endeavour.

It will depend on men themselves what value and what result such ideals can have for mankind. When in this right way they strive towards wisdom, then will higher spirits unite themselves with men.