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Origin and Destination of Humanity
GA 53

XVI. Goethe's Secret Revelation I

16 February 1905, Berlin

In this and the two following talks we want to occupy ourselves with what Goethe called his apocalypse, his secret revelation.

We have seen, among which lofty brotherhood Goethe counted himself. He was convinced that knowledge is not anything that is ascertained once from a human point of view but that the human cognitive faculty can develop and that this soul development is subjected to principles about which the human being needs to know nothing at first, just as little as the plant knows the principles according to which it develops. The general theosophical teachings of the developing cognitive faculty comply completely with the Goethean approach to life. In various ways Goethe expressed this view.

He now answered a question that he tried to answer in infinitely deep way that he approached when his friendship with Schiller became closer and closer. This friendship was hard to make because both personalities stood spiritually on quite different ground. Only in the middle of the nineties (of the 18th century) they met forever and complemented each other. At that time, Schiller invited Goethe to contribute to the Horen (Horae), a magazine in which the most beautiful products of German cultural life should be made accessible to the public. Goethe promised his cooperation, and his first contribution in this magazine was his apocalypse, his “secret revelation:” The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1794/95).

It concerns the great connection of body and spirit, of the earthly and the super-sensible he wanted to demonstrate, as well as the way which the human being must take using his developing cognitive faculties if he wants to ascend from the earthly to the spiritual.

It is a question that the human being must always put to himself. Schiller had demonstrated this problem spiritedly in his way in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. This treatise, little known and studied, is a repository for somebody who approaches this riddle. Goethe was thereby inspired to comment the same question and he did it in the Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily which he annexed later to the Conversations of German Emigrants.

This fairy tale leads deeply into theosophy. Theosophy says also that the contents of knowledge of our soul are dependent any time on our cognitive faculty, and that we can develop this cognitive faculty higher and higher, so that we gradually do not have anything subjective as contents of cognition in our souls, but that we can experience objective world contents. The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily shows the development of the human soul to higher and higher insights, because all human soul forces can develop not only the human intellectual capacity. All soul forces, also feeling and willing, can penetrate into the objective world secrets. But you have to eliminate everything personal.

This fairy tale is so profound that it is worthwhile to consider it more intimately. It leads us into the depths of Goethe's world view. Goethe himself said of it to Riemer (1774–1841, Goethe's secretary) that the same applies to it as to St. John's Book of Revelation that only a few find the right thing in it. Goethe put his most profound ideas into it that he knew about the human destiny. He was always very reserved about it: he said if hundred human beings were found who understand it correctly; he would give an explanation of it. They were not found up to his death, and the explanation was not given. After Goethe's death, a big number of attempts to explain were made which were collected by Meyer-von Waldeck (1824–1899, German writer). They are partly valuable as building stones, however, cannot fathom the profound sense.

The question could appear: why did Goethe put his real life secret into such a fairy tale? He himself said that he could speak on such a question only pictorially. He did the same with it as all great teachers of humanity who did not want to teach in abstract words who treated the loftiest questions in pictures, symbolically.

Up to the foundation of the Theosophical Society it was only possible to give this highest truth pictorially. Thereby comes about what Schopenhauer so pleasantly called the “choir of the spirits,” if the spark is enkindled in the souls like by hieroglyphics. Where the world view became completely personal, completely intimate to Goethe, he could express himself only in this form. One finds two important clues in Goethe's conversations with Eckermann.

Later Goethe still expressed himself in two other fairy tales more intimately, in The New Melusine (1807) and then in The New Paris (1810). These three fairy tales are the most profound expression of Goethe's world view. In The New Paris he says in the end: “whether I can tell you what happens further, or whether it is expressly forbidden to me, I do not know.” This should be a hint to the sources of this fairy tale.

These fairy tales are revelations of Goethe's most intimate approach to life and world view. The fairy tale The New Paris points clearly to the sources from which it comes. It begins: all clothes drop from the boy's body, everything drops from the human being that he has acquired within the culture in which he lives. A man, young and nice, approaches the boy. This welcomes him joyfully. The man asks: do you know me? The boy answers: you are Mercury. This I am and I was sent by the gods with an important order to you!

Let us look at these three fairy tales as Goethe's most profound revelations. At first the Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. The fairy tale immediately begins mysteriously. Three fields are brought forward to us, a this-worldly one, a yonder one and in between them is a river. It shows the world of body, soul and spirit, and the path of the human being to the super-sensible world. The near side bank is the physical world, the yonder one, the country of the beautiful lily, is the spiritual world; in between is the river, the astral world, the world of desire.

Theosophy speaks of the soul life in the physical world, of this mortal world, then of the devachan which the soul experiences after death, but also if it got free of anything personal by means of an esoteric development already here in the physical world. Then it can ascend to the beyond, to the kingdom of the beautiful lily; then it finds the way to the yonder bank, where the human being constantly strives for, the way to the home of his soul and spirit. The river in between, the astral world, the current of desires and passions separating the human beings from the spiritual world must be overcome.

A bridge is now built across the river and the human being gets to the kingdom of the beautiful lily. This is the goal the human being strives for. Goethe was completely familiar with the significance of the lily in medieval mysticism. He was, so to speak, initiated in the secrets of the mystic world view and knew the alchemical efforts of the Middle Ages. After he had recognised the deepness of mysticism on one side, he also met the trivial reflection of it in the caricatures of literature.

In the first part of Faust, he still shows us humorously that the problem of the connection of the human being with the beautiful lily stood before his eyes. In the Easter walk you read before he makes the acquaintance with Mephistopheles of the efforts of the human being in a distorted alchemy.

My father was a worthy commoner,
who in good faith, but in his own eccentric way,
laboured at fanciful speculations...
there a mercurial suitor, the Red Lion,
would in a tepid bath be married to the Lily...

This is a technical term of alchemy: lily signifies Mercury. According to the theosophical world view Mercury is the symbol of the wisdom the human being strives for, and lily that condition of consciousness in which the human being exists if he has obtained the highest. The marriage of the male with the female in the human soul is shown here. “In a tepid bath” means in the alchemical sense “being released from the fire of desires.”

We speak of ahamkara in theosophy, the striving of the human self which wants to enclose the highest. This human principle striving at first in selfness is shown in alchemy as a lion which has been freed from selfness, from desires and passions, and is allowed to combine with the lily. Even if one did no longer know a lot of the true alchemy in mediaeval times, one had preserved the names. All higher truth stands in the etheric shine before us if we approach it, released from stormy desires, from the lion of desires which were cooled down in the tepid bath. Then the human mind can find the lily, the eternal-female, which attracts us; he can have the union with these truths of the spiritual worlds. This is a way which the souls have always gone in the fullest clearness. Mystic is somebody who strives for the clearness, the highness, and the purity of the views.

There must not be sympathy and antipathy of wisdom, but only an unselfish being merged in it. Because one does not feel any passion with the truths of mathematics, no quarrel is possible; if human sensations came into question, it would be also argued whether two times two are four. In the same etheric shine all higher truths stand before us if we express this attitude. It was this serenity in all that Pythagoras called catharsis, purification. Goethe described this whole way with its intimate secrets in his fairy tale because our colloquial language is not really suitable to show these matters. Not until we succeed in describing that in coloured pictures which lives in the soul of the mystic, we find the language to describe the highest form of the human consciousness, the lily.

One likes to represent mysticism as something unclear. But unclear is only somebody who does not find the way to the heights. The mystic strives for the most precious clearness of the concepts in pure etheric height, free of harsh immediate reality. We need to acquire the concepts only which lead us to this country of clearness. Goethe looked for this country of clearness, he strove for mathematical knowledge. In Goethe's estate I found a notebook fifteen years ago. This confirmed that Goethe concerned himself with mathematical studies even during later years, even up to the highest problems. Like a real gnostic he made his studies on nature and the human soul. Because of his intuitive spirit he could also behold the archetypal plant, for example.

But as he was hard understood concerning the archetypal plant and animal, he was still less understood concerning the soul-life. I remind of the conversation with Schiller in Jena in 1794. Goethe expressed himself to Schiller in such a way that he said that an approach of the world and its contents could be probably found which does not pick the things to pieces, as science does, but which shows the connecting band of all forms, which points to something higher, something uniform behind all sensuous phenomena. Goethe drew his archetypal plant, a formation which was similar, indeed, to a plant, but not to living ones which you can perceive with outer senses, and he said to Schiller: this is the essentiality of plants, the archetypal plant, this is the connecting band of the plants; but this archetypal plant lives in no single plant, but in all plant beings. It is the objective of all plants.

He answered to Schiller's objection that his archetypal plant were an idea: “If this is an idea, I see my ideas with eyes.” At that time, Goethe showed how he stands to the spirit; there is an intuitively beheld plant for him which lives in every plant being. Only an intuitive beholding can perceive the objective behind all sensory things, only thinking free of sensuousness can attain this. The will-o'-the-wisps of the fairy tale show us how thinking can develop to objectivity. Who cannot rise toward Goethe's view does not understand what he means; at that time even Schiller did not correctly understand what Goethe meant, but he did his best to penetrate into Goethe's world view. Then the letter of the 23rd August, 1794 came. This broke the ice between both spirits.

Goethe hid a lot of his higher spiritual beholding in this fairy tale. Let us now try to penetrate into the fairy tale.

You read: In the middle of the night, two will-o'-the-wisps wake up the old ferryman who sleeps on the other bank in the spiritual world, and want to be ferried over. Fro the kingdom of the lily he ferries them over the river whipped by the storm. They behave discourteously, dance in the small boat, so that the ferryman must say to them that the small boat topples over. Finally, after they had arrived at the bank with effort, they want to pay him with many gold pieces which they shook off from themselves. The ferryman rejects them and says sullenly: It's a good thing that you have not thrown them into the river which can stand no gold and would have wildly foamed and devoured you. Now I have to bury the gold. However, I myself can be paid only with fruits of the earth. He does not let them loose until they promise three cabbages, three artichokes and three onions. Then the ferryman hides the gold in the abysses of the earth where the green snake lives. This consumes the gold and becomes radiant from within. It can now walk in its own light and sees how everything round it is transfigured by this light. The will-o'-the-wisps meet it and say to it: you are our aunt of the horizontal line. The will-o'-the-wisps are its cousins who stem from the vertical line. These are ancient expressions, vertical and horizontal, which were always used in mysticism for certain soul states.

How do we come to the beautiful lily? - The will-o'-the-wisps ask. Oh, it lives on the other bank, the snake answers. Alas! We have nicely made our beds, from there we come! The snake informs them that the ferryman is allowed to ferry over everybody to this bank but not back to the other. Are there no other ways? Yes, at midday I myself form a bridge, the green snake says. But this is not convenient to the will-o'-the-wisps, and that is why the snake points to the shade of the giant who himself is powerless, but is capable to do everything with his shade. At sunrise and at sunset the shade lies down as a bridge across the river.

The snake tries, after the will-o'-the-wisps had gone away, to satisfy a curiosity which had tormented it for long. On its wanderings through the rocks it had discovered with its feeling smooth walls and manlike figures which it hopes to recognise now with its new light.
It creeps through the rock and finds a room in which the portraits of four kings are put up. The first of the kings is of gold, he is decorated with a wreath of oak leaves. He asks the snake where from it comes: from the abysses where the gold lives! What is more marvellous than gold? The king asks. The light, the snake answers. What is more refreshing than light? The conversation, the snake answers. Then it looks at the remaining kings, the second is of silver, decorated with a crown, the third is of ore, he is decorated with a laurel wreath, the fourth king is misshapen and composed of all these metals.

Now a bright light spreads; an old man with a lamp appears in the vault.

Why do you come, although we have light? The golden king asks. You know that I am not allowed to illuminate the dark. Does my empire end? The silver king asks. Late or never, the old man answers. The bronze king begins: when will I get up? Soon, the old man answers. With whom should I combine? The silver king asks. With your older brothers, the old man replies. What will become of the youngest? He will sit down.

During this conversation the snake looked around in the temple.

Meanwhile the golden king says to the old man: how many secrets do you know? The old man answers: three. Which is the most important? The silver king asks. The obvious one, the old man answers. Do you want to reveal it to us? The bronze king asks. As soon as I know the fourth one, the old man says. What do I care, the composed king murmurs to himself. I know the fourth, the snake says, approaches the old man and hisses something in his ear. The old man shouts with booming voice: the time has come! The temple resounds; the metal statues sound, and at this moment the old man disappears to the west and the snake to the east, and both roam the abysses of the rocks very quickly.

So far for the moment the contents of the fairy tale. Schiller writes to Cotta: “The public will still find out something, one reads the resolution in the fairy tale.” We are in a point where we want to begin with the resolution. Because we do not want to go too far afield, we have to get some ancient expressions of the secret doctrine clear in our mind to understand the pictures: flames signify something certain to the mystic. What did Goethe show in the flames, the will-o'-the-wisps symbolically? The flames which are the will-o'-the-wisps represent the fire of passions, of the sensuous desires, of the impulses and instincts. This is the fire which lives only in warm-blooded animals and in the human being.

Once there was a time when the human being did not yet have the same figure as today. This fire was not there before the Lemurian race; before it was incarnated in the human body, there were any desires and impulses in this race. The human being became a longing, wishing being by the penetration with the warm-bloodedness, kama manas. The fish and reptiles belong to the cold-blooded animals. That is why mysticism makes an even stronger distinction than the natural sciences between cold-blooded and warm-blooded beings.

At that time, in the middle of the Lemurian age, a moment happens at which the human being develops from lower to higher stages. This moment is called in the myths, in the Prometheus legend, the bringing down of the fire. About Prometheus it is told that he had brought it down from heaven, and he was forged to the rock the physical, mineral human body.

The sum of the desires, emotions, instincts, and passions is the fire which pushes the human beings to new actions. In theosophy this flame is called the emergence of the human self-consciousness, of the ability to say "I" to oneself. If the human being did not get round to becoming the flame, he could not have developed the self-consciousness and with it he would not be able to ascend to the knowledge of the divine. There is a lower self-consciousness, the self-consciousness, and a higher one. The lower nature of the desires and the higher one of the consciousness are linked in the human being. The physical human being originated by the penetration of his self with the blood, with the flame. The flames of the will-o'-the-wisps show the emergence of the self-consciousness within the impulses, desires and passions. This is kama manas as we say in theosophy. With it the human being lives in the physical world at first, on this side of the river.

But the home of the human being in which he stays before he is born is beyond the river, in the spiritual world. The ferryman ferries the human being from this spiritual world over the river of the astral world to the physical, this-worldly existence. However, the seeking soul strives incessantly again back to the land beyond the river; but the ferryman nature cannot bring them back. That means: if they found him also on this bank, he would not accept them, because he is allowed to ferry over everybody to this bank, but nobody to the yonder bank. The snake says this to the will-o'-the-wisps. Natural forces have brought in the human being by birth to the physical world. If the human being wants to be brought back to the higher worlds during life, he must do this himself. There is a road back. The self can collect knowledge. Gold is the occult symbol of knowledge. Gold and wisdom knowledge correspond to each other.

The lower humanity also has the gold of knowledge represented by the will-o'-the-wisps and becomes a will-o'-the-wisp if it does not find the right way. There is a lower wisdom which the human being acquires within the sensory world, while he observes the things and beings of this sensory world, makes ideas of them and combines them by his thinking. However, this is wisdom of mere reason. The will-o'-the-wisps want to pay the ferryman with this gold which they take up easily and cast off easily again. But the ferryman rejects it. Wisdom of reason does not satisfy nature, only that gift can have an effect on nature which is connected with the living forces of nature. Immature wisdom makes the river of the astral foam, it does not accept it. The ferryman demands fruits of the earth as a pay. The will-o'-the-wisps did never enjoy them. They did never strive for penetrating into the depths of nature, but they must still pay tribute to nature. They must promise to fulfil the demand of the ferryman soon. This demand comprises fruits of the earth: three cabbages, three artichokes and three big onions. What are these earth fruits? Goethe takes these fruits which have skins representing the human covers.
The human being has his three covers, his three bodies: the physical body, the etheric body and the astral body. Within these covers the core of the human being lives. In these bodies which surround it like sheaths the self has to gather the fruits of an incarnation after the other. Earth fruits must be gathered. These fruits do not consist of the knowledge of reason. The ferryman demands these three bodies as a contribution to nature. Goethe hid this teaching intimately in his fairy tale.

The gold comes to the snake. This is the gold of real wisdom. The snake was always the symbol of the self that does not keep to itself, but is able to take up the divine in selflessness, to sacrifice itself, gathers earth wisdom unselfishly, creeping in the “abysses of the earth.” It ascends to the divine not unfolding egoism and vanity, but trying to make itself similar to the divine. The snake in its unselfish striving takes up the gold of wisdom, it penetrates itself completely with the gold and thereby it becomes luminous from within. It becomes luminous as the self becomes if it has advanced to the stage of inspiration where the human being has become internally luminous and full of light and where light radiates toward light. The snake notices that it had become transparent and luminous. Before long one had asserted to it that this phenomenon is possible. It was green before, now it is luminous. The snake is green because it is in sympathy with the beings around, with the whole nature. Where this sympathy lives, the aura appears in bright green hues. Green is the colour in which the aura of the human being appears if mainly unselfish, devoted striving lives in the soul. Now when it itself has become luminous from within, the snake does see, before it felt only in its striving endeavours. All leaves seem to be of emerald, all flowers are glorified most marvellously. It sees all things in a new, glorified light. The things appear in such luminous emerald hues to us if the spirit flows from them toward us, if light radiates toward light.

Now after it has become luminous and has taken up the higher divine nature in itself, it also finds the way to the subterranean temple.

The sites, the mystery temples, in which in former times the truths were announced, were deeply hidden in the caves and abysses of the earth There light faces light.

Indeed, up to now the snake was compelled to creep without light through these abysses; but it could probably distinguish the objects by feeling. It perceived objects by feeling which revealed the forming hand of the human being, above all human figures. Now it is in the possession of light, and light faces it. It finds the temple and four kings therein, and the old man with the lamp approaches it. The man with the lamp signifies the ancient wisdom, the ancient wisdom of humanity which is only light and does not shadow which contains something that modern natural sciences cannot understand. Goethe says profoundly that the lamp of the human soul only shines if another light which the soul must produce is shown. It is the same view which he expresses in the saying which he placed in front of his theory of colours and about which he says that these are the words of an old mystic:

Unless the eyes were like the sun,
How could we see the light?
Unless God's own force lived in us,
How could delight us the divine?

Theory of Colours. Didactic Part

After the snake's eye has become sun-like because the light of the divine is enkindled in the snake, the light of the ancient wisdom of the world shines toward it.

The fire of passion has changed to the light. The fire which has changed in the earth to the light of wisdom is able to shine toward the bringer of wisdom, the “old man with the lamp.”

The snake looks at the four kings with amazement and reverence. Amazement and reverence are always the soul forces that bring the human beings forward and upwards. It beholds the golden king first, and he starts talking: where do you come from? From the abysses where the gold lives, the snake answers. What is more marvellous than gold? The king asks. The light, the snake answers. What is more refreshing than light? He asks. The conversation, the snake answers. In the conversation wisdom comes to the fore intimately for the human being, this is more refreshing than the great revelation. Does one not think of the Platonic dialogues in this discussion of the king with the snake? There were world secrets expressed with few words, few sentences. Goethe wants to explain: what is in the temple and happens there concerns the highest secrets of human development.

Which alchemy transforms the things that way? It is the initiation. Even the modern theory of evolution takes the perpetual transformation of the things as basis. The temple has to be subterranean at first, it is closed to the most human beings; but now the moment approaches when it is open to all human beings. It wants to send the gold of wisdom which has become light from human being to human being.

Who is the golden king, and who are the other three kings, the silver one, the bronze one and the mixed king? The golden king is manas, wisdom itself which could only develop higher in the mystery temple up to now. This is that soul-force which the human being can gain with purified thinking free of sensuousness. The silver king indicates an even higher element than wisdom: it is love, the creative word of the world buddhi, the god, being aglow with love. Its kingdom is called the kingdom of appearance; Christianity calls it glory (gloria in excelsis). It is pointed to a time which becomes later accessible only; then buddhi has the mastery over humanity. The bronze king whom the snake does not see at first and who is apparently little valuable is of huge seize. He looks rather like a rock than a human form. This is the king who expresses the willing-like soul-force which rests in the human being covertly.

He represents atma with which the striving human being is endowed last what he finds last.

Thus Goethe showed in a beautiful picture the endowment of the human being with the three highest virtues which are given to him one day. Without having attained this maturity, nobody was admitted to initiation in former times.

Then there is still the fourth king, of cumbersome figure; he consists of a mixture of gold, silver and bronze, but the metals seemed to have not correctly melted with the casting, nothing correlates with each other. This is the soul of the undeveloped human being who does not yet develop higher striving, in who thinking, feeling and willing are chaotically disorganised and which give “the picture a disagreeable appearance.” The fourth king shows the force of thinking which is still clouded with the sensory impressions, the fire of the soul which does not unfold love but lives in desires and impulses, the disordered will of the human being.

Remember the discussion of the kings with the man with the lamp. The golden king asks the old man: how many secrets do you know? Three, the old man replies. Which is the most important one? The silver king asked. The obvious one, the old man answers. Do you want to disclose it also to us? The bronze king asked. As soon as I know the fourth one, the old man said. I know the fourth one, the snake said, approached the old man and hissed something in his ear. The time has come! The old man shouted with penetrating voice.

There are three secrets the most important one is the obvious one. If this is disclosed, the fourth one can be known! This is the most important word of the whole fairy tale and at the same time the key of it as Goethe said in a discussion with Schiller. The old man knows three secrets; these are the secrets of the three realms of nature. The realms of nature have become steady in their development. However, the human being develops perpetually. He is able to do this, because the spirit, the self lives in him. The three secrets which the old man knows explain the principles of the mineral realm, the plant realm and the animal realm.

With its own forces the soul has to find the principle which must live in the human soul if it wants to obtain the maturity of initiation. The snake has found it. It hisses it in the ear of the old man. What did the snake say to the old man? That it wants to sacrifice itself! Sacrifice is the principle of the spiritual world. – Somebody can walk the path to the higher knowledge only who does not regard this knowledge as an end in itself, and seeks for it in the service of humanity. All true mystics know this soul path; they all have gone through this experience of sacrificing like the snake. As soon as the words sound in the temple: I want to sacrifice myself! The old man shouts: the time has come!

The words of the old man, the time has come, point to the distant future when the whole humanity has attained the maturity. Then the time has come that the temple rises up above the river, that the whole humanity takes part in wisdom, in the initiation which was otherwise given to few people only in the temples, in the abysses.

To somebody like me who concerned himself with this fairy tale for twenty years deeper and deeper profundities appear, time and again the lines point to an even more profound primary source. Here are treasures to be found; however, we have to find them. We must only take care not to permit ourselves something in view of Goethe that Goethe lets Mephisto characterise in his Faust in such a way:

To understand some living thing and to describe it,
the student starts by ridding it of its spirit;
he then holds all its parts within his hand
except, alas! for the spirit that bound them together!

(Faust's Study, verses 1936–1939)

Let us seek for this spiritual band in Goethe's creations.


The text of this and the following lectures are based on two incomplete transripts which were complemented with handwritten notes of two other participants.