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Ancient European Clairvoyance
GA 57

First appeared in the Golden Blade 1977.1This lecture is the second of three public lectures (Berlin, April-May, 1906), which in 1955 were published in book form, in German, by the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, under the title of Isis und Madonna: Alteuropäisches Hellsehen, die Europäischen Mysterien und Ihre Eingeweihten. A typescript translation of the first lecture is in the Library at Rudolf Steiner house, London; a translation of the third appeared in the quarterly, Anthroposophy, vol. iv, no. 3, 1929.

1 May 1909, Berlin

Translated by Dorothy Lenn

In the course of these winter lectures I have repeatedly said that there is such a thing as knowledge of supersensible worlds. We have discussed bow the human being can attain to such knowledge, and we have many times spoken of its fruits. I want now to give two lectures which will serve to illustrate what we mean by knowledge of the higher worlds.

With the help of two examples, out of many that might have been selected, I propose to show how clairvoyant knowledge developed in a certain region—the kind of clairvoyant knowledge that has been, or ought to have been, left behind by present-day humanity. Clairvoyant knowledge given by natural forces, by natural capacities, will be my subject to-day. Next time I will discuss, again by means of examples, how clairvoyant knowledge can be acquired through strict training, by specific methods. To-day we will speak of the knowledge that led our ancestors to a form of spiritual perception which has now been superseded; next time I will deal with the kind of clairvoyance which has existed in all ages, but which has to undergo a different training from epoch to epoch.

I have already pointed out that Spiritual Science speaks of an evolution of human consciousness. What we call our consciousness to-day, the consciousness whereby we recreate the outer world within us in thoughts, in mental images, in ideas, is only one stage of evolution. Another stage preceded it, and yet another stage will follow it. When anyone speaks to-day of the theory of evolution, he usually means the evolution of outer form, of the forms of material existence. Spiritual Science speaks of an evolution of the soul, of the spirit, and therefore of consciousness. We can look back to an earlier form of consciousness which has been superseded by the present form, and we can look forward to a future form of consciousness which will develop only gradually. The earlier state of consciousness we may call subconsciousness, and the consciousness to which our present consciousness can be developed, by spiritual-scientific methods, we may call superconsciousness. Thus we can differentiate three consecutive stages—subconsciousness, consciousness, superconsciousness.

In a certain sense all consciousness to-day is a stage of development of consciousness in general, just as the forms of the higher animals are developments of the universal animal form. Present-day consciousness has evolved from a lower stage. It is surrounded by external objects, which it perceives through the senses—hearing, sight, taste and so on. From what was first perception it makes concepts, mental images, ideas. Thus an external world of objects which work upon us is mirrored in our consciousness.

Subconsciousness was not like that. It was of a far more direct nature. We may call it a lower clairvoyant consciousness, because whoever possessed it did not approach objects with sense-organs and straightway seek to make concepts of them, but the concepts were there directly. Pictures arose and faded away. Let us suppose that the clairvoyant consciousness encountered an external object which was dangerous to it. To-day we see the object, and the mental image called forth by the sight of it brings about the consciousness of danger. It was not like that in the earlier clairvoyant consciousness. The external object was not perceived in clear outline, especially in the earliest times. Something like a dream-picture arose and revealed whether the object was sympathetic or unsympathetic. The fluctuating pictures in dreams to-day will serve to illustrate this for us. The dreams of a normal person to-day have no real connection with any outer world. But suppose something quite definite were to correspond to every picture which arose in us like a dream-picture, one picture occurring in case of dangers another in the presence of a useful object, then we could say that it was immaterial whether we were awake or dreaming, for we could direct our lives according to these pictures!

Our present consciousness has developed out of such a dream-life, which allowed the inner nature of things, their inner soul-quality, to rise up before us. And this dream-consciousness has passed through manifold forms before reaching its present form. If we look back in history as it is revealed to us by Spiritual Science, we reach at last, in the far-distant past, a state of soul in which the external was not perceptible, but in which the surrounding world, possessed inwardly by the soul, was perceived by an old clairvoyant consciousness. But this consciousness had in consequence one attribute which, contrasted with the fundamental attribute of the soul to-day, must be designated as imperfect. It was not self-conscious; the soul could not say “I” to itself, could not distinguish itself properly from its environment. Only because external objects with sharp contours confront the soul can it distinguish itself from them. Thus man has had to purchase his self-consciousness by the surrender of his old clairvoyance. All evolution is an advance which at the same time involves the renunciation of certain advantages of the earlier stage. Now at each stage something from the earlier stage lingers on into later times, and in certain circumstances we can, from such legacies of the past, see the earlier conditions projected into the present where they rank as abnormalities.

We find traces of such atavisms even in the human body, as for example in the muscles round the ear, which in an earlier stage moved the ear. In animals these muscles still have a purpose; in human beings they still exist, but few men are able to move their ears voluntarily. At one time human beings had a form of body in which such muscles were needed. To-day they are just relics of the past—vestiges of an earlier stage of evolution.

Just as we find certain organic survivals in these outer structures, so, too, we find remains of other early evolutionary conditions. Thus we see traces of the old clairvoyance projected right into our own time, but clouded and changed by our present stage of development, and hence abnormal. This throws light upon the old European clairvoyance, which differs in a certain way from the clairvoyance of the East. To-day I want to go into these differences.

What are these survivals of the old clairvoyant state of mankind? We can distinguish two kinds. One of them speaks for itself and is a true legacy of the past. I am referring to the dream and to dream experiences. The other vestiges of the past are in quite a different category. They are very much coloured and altered by present-day development, whereas the dream has not been changed by man, but by advancing evolution. The other remnants of the past are vision, premonition, and deuteroscopy, or second sight.

Let us first take the dream. It is something left behind from the old picture-consciousness But into that ancient consciousness the nature of the object really penetrated, whereas the dream to-day, although it still shows certain characteristics of the old picture-consciousness, has lost its real value, its reality. Let us take an example. Someone dreams that he sees a tree-frog, snatches at it and catches it Then he wakes up and finds a corner of the bedcover in his band. The dream symbolised the external event. Had the man met the dream with objective consciousness, he would have seen that he had the bedcover in his hand. But this is how the dream symbolises. It can become very dramatic. For example, a student dreams that on leaving the lecture-room he is jostled by another student. It comes to a duel. The seconds are chosen, they go to the agreed place, the distance is measured, the pistols are loaded, the first shot is fired. But in that moment the student wakes up, and knocks over the chair by his bedside. There we have the same thing. If the student concerned had seen the event with his objective consciousness, had he been awake, he would have seen that the chair had been knocked over, or possibly it would not have been knocked over. Now, however, the dream gives a more or less symbolic expression to what happened.

There are all kinds of such dreams; they may even have some element of reality. But in typical cases we have to do with an arbitrary connection between what is pictured and the outer event. The dream itself shows that one is dealing with a picture; but it does not show any direct connection between the picture and the inner qualities of the outer world. In direct consciousness a man would not have been obliged to touch salt with his tongue in order to recognise it, but a quite definite dream-picture would have arisen before him, and there would have been one for vinegar, another for sugar, and yet another for a dangerous being, and so on. With every being in nature there went a specific picture.

Something of this survives in dream-consciousness. But because present-day man has contracted his whole being into self-consciousness, because he has cut himself off from the outer world, differentiated himself from it, his dream-pictures no longer have any connection with it. Through having made the normal transition from dream-consciousness to self-consciousness, he has lost connection with the outer world.

It is different as regards the other three survivals—vision, premonition, and deuteroscopy, or second sight. We have often described the course of human evolution somewhat as follows. The human being, as he is to-day, consists of four members: physical body, etheric body, astral body, and ego. The ego is the last member to develop, and it is through the attainment of the ego that man has become a self-conscious being; he has thereby wrested his being from the life in his lower members. When the ego was not so far developed as it is to-day, when man still lived in his astral body, when the astral body was the bearer of his consciousness, this consciousness was pre-eminently a dream-consciousness. It was the astral body which caused these pictures to come and go. Hence it is easy to understand that man was then more closely united with his lower members. Thus it is as if man had become free in his astral body, as if he had disengaged himself from it and had thereby acquired his present objective consciousness.

As man was once submerged in his astral body, so in still earlier times he was submerged in his etheric and physical bodies. Then he had still lower forms of consciousness. Thus we have three states of subconsciousness below the present objective consciousness.

Imagine that a man is swimming below the surface of the sea. It is then possible for him to see what is in the sea. He sees what happens at the bottom of the sea, what swims and moves there, and so on. What he encounters there is quite different from what confronts him if he rises to the surface and looks up at the star-strewn heavens. Similarly, man has been lifted out of that stage of consciousness in which he was aware of what was conveyed to him by astral, etheric and physical bodies; he has risen to self-consciousness. In certain abnormal cases, however, he can revert to the sea of subconsciousness. In dreams this happens involuntarily. What he has won by rising out of this sea he can take back again into it.

Imagine a man plunging back into this sea and able to compare all that he perceives below with what he has learnt above. That is what it is like to-day. The man takes with him what he has experienced here above. It is not as it is with a diver who takes nothing but his memory with him, who can make comparisons only with the help of his memory. Whoever plunges into the sea of subconsciousness after having become a modern man colours everything below with his experiences above. What has been experienced above is carried as a sheath into the subconscious, and man receives no clear picture of that world, but a picture clouded by the world above.

When a man plunges into his astral body, he transplants himself artificially into the sphere occupied by his consciousness when he himself still lived in his astral body. This is how what to-day we call visions come about. Were man to descend into his astral body without knowing anything of the modern world, he would really experience the inwardness of objects; they would appear to him in their true guise. To-day, however, they appear to him as a distorted reflection of what can be experienced only in the upper world of consciousness. Therein lies both the truth and the deceptiveness of visions. Anyone who descends into the world of vision may always be sure that the cause of what he sees lies in the soul-environment; but it is also certain that the vision confronting him will be distorted, that it will not show him things in their true guise, but will imitate what occurs in the world above. Hence a man’s visions usually indicate what the men of his own day are experiencing. This can be checked in full detail, from decade to decade.

Let us suppose that a man plunged into that world at a time when there were no telegrams and no telephone. Then he would have seen no telegrams and no telephone in the world below, whereas in our own day the incidence of telegrams and telephones in visions becomes more and more frequent. That, too, is why the pious Catholic, who in his objective consciousness has so often seen the figure of the Madonna, takes this figure with him, and she appears to him down there too. It is not an expression of the reality, but something which the person has taken down with him, and in which he clothes the reality. In such a case he has carried down into the world below what he has experienced in the world above. Thus when a man returns in vision into the world from which he has emerged, he gives an abnormal colouring to what he experiences.

If he plunges back again into the etheric body, he experiences what we may call premonition. But this is even more dangerous, because his state of consciousness has gone still further back. There man becomes involved in all the tangled threads of existence out of which he had raised himself into ego-consciousness; but in that case, too, he carries below all that he has acquired above. He is unable to see the threads in their true form.

Just think how little of what is all around man comes within his range. The thoughts which he makes (about cause and effect for example) are limited to a small section of the world. But the whole world in its entire circumference hangs together, and there are other relationships involved. Man is, as it were, standing upon an island of existence, and the island is all he sees. But this island is related to the whole cosmos. In his etheric body man is much more closely connected with the cosmos than he is in his present consciousness. If he were able to receive in its purity what his ether body tells him, he would see future events, because down in his etheric body things converge. He would see that an event, which might not emerge into reality for perhaps ten years, was already there in germ. But man takes down with him his little intellect, his narrow little mind soul. Hence what emerges as premonition is falsified; that is why so little reliance can usually be placed upon premonitions, just as generally there is no objective truth in visions which occur by way of nature.

When man plunges into his physical body, premonition can pass over into penetration of space. Whereas in premonition he sees other times, in deuteroscopy he can see what happens in the far distance, beyond the range of the physical eye. These pictures are like a Fata Morgana. Abnormal phenomena such as those reported by Swedenborg come into this category.2See also the following lectures by Dr. Steiner: Swedenborg's Power of Vision (Dornach, 12/9/15), printed in the Goetheanum English News-Sheet 1939; Die Geschichte des Spiritismus (Berlin. 30/5/04), published in English as the first of two lectures in the booklet, The History of Spiritism, Hypnotism and Somnambulism (Anthroposophic Press, 1943); and Menschlich und Menschheitliche Entwicklungwahrheiten (Cycle 46, Berlin, 1917: not translated). But here the deceptions are even greater, and nothing ought to be accepted which has not been tested by a trained, disciplined seer. Such conditions, which to-day are morbid, are survivals of an ancient clairvoyance which was once thoroughly healthy, was once something which placed the man in a relationship of complete understanding with his environment.

In the evolution of European peoples, in particular, we find everywhere a picture-consciousness of varying antiquity which saw the world in its inner, soul-spiritual nature. But the ego-consciousness of these peoples was still quite undeveloped. Have we anything left of what was seen and related by these people of olden times, who had not yet got the mature ego-consciousness, who had a transitional consciousness between the old picture-consciousness and the objective consciousness? We have indeed a beautiful and precious survival of it in myths and sagas, in the whole range of mythology. The content of mythology is so often described to-day as folk-poetry. Clouds will be described as flocks of sheep, and thunder and lightning as something else. There is nothing more arbitrary than such interpretations. Sagas, myths and fairy tales, too, tell us about what we experienced in the subconscious. All sagas and myths were experienced, not composed—experienced not in our present-day consciousness, but in the ancient, clairvoyant state.

We can penetrate deeply into this consciousness and into the origin of myths and sagas if we turn to an important passage of the Scriptures. You will remember the significant verse in the Old Testament which reads. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. II, 7). A certain formation of the breathing process is here associated with human evolution. We shall see later that this is a reference to the fact that man owes his present-day ego-consciousness, his capacity for living with and in his blood, to the peculiar structure of the breathing process which he has acquired in course of time and still has to-day. Only through having learnt to breathe as an upright being did man raise himself above the picture-consciousness. Animals still have picture-consciousness to-day, either directly or indirectly, because their lungs have not the upright position. It has quite rightly been observed that the dog is much more intelligent than the parrot, and yet it is only the parrot which has learnt to speak. Much depends on the direction in which an organ is placed. The parrot has a larynx in the vertical position, and that is why it learns to speak. It is because of the special configuration of his organs that man has been able to advance to his present objective consciousness.

If we have understood the words of the Bible just quoted we shall say: “Man has been so formed in conformity with the laws of the cosmos that his present breathing process has developed.” Those who understood this process from its spiritual aspect, who knew that a spiritual element lives in all things, said to themselves: “The spiritual element of the air has to penetrate us in the way that this process makes possible; then the free ego-consciousness will evolve.” When this process takes place in us in an irregular way, when the spirits of the air are unable to work into our blood in a way which corresponds to our present state of consciousness, then consciousness is forced back into an earlier stage. That is why the ancient European experienced every irregularity of the breathing process as a suppression of consciousness and an inner experience.

The physical expression of irregular breathing is the nightmare (Alpdruck). The word comes from Alb or Elf, so that it signifies the spiritual which enters into the human being even though it cannot unfold itself fully. When the breathing process becomes irregular, when the ego has to descend into a lower kingdom, the host of lower spirits, which can make an appearance in the astral realm, have access to man. And though you may say this is a kind of illness, that is not the point; the important thing is what the conditions bring about. From our higher standpoint to-day, the condition must of course be called unhealthy.

Although to-day it is a reversion to an earlier condition, it was once a transitional state between the normal and the abnormal. Our present-day breathing has arisen from a breathing process which is found as a survival in the nightmare; the nightmare is the last vestige of it. At one time man needed less oxygen and more carbon dioxide. When that was the normal condition, when man was nearer the state of the plant, he had a different form of consciousness, he was plunged into the ancient clairvoyant consciousness. Then he emerged from this condition, and what was formerly healthy became unhealthy, and during the transition period, when he oscillated between the one form of consciousness and the other, the ancient European experienced all that we find in the elves and sprites, which came to his consciousness before he had acquired consciousness of the self. Thus we look back by way of nature into conditions which were once normal; the nightmare represents a survival of the picture-consciousness which created myths and sagas.

But the change in the breathing has involved many other changes. The seeing of external objects has come about. Picture-consciousness did not involve seeing external contours, seeing the outer surface of things. Then came the time when pictures gradually vanished and were replaced by the world of external objects. And once again there was an intermediate stage when man had already developed sight, but when his external sight might in abnormal circumstances withdraw and he might revert to a state of clairvoyance.

There is a popular expression in German, an expression of ancient origin, for looking at something without seeing it. It is Spannung, Staunen, Spahnen, and the last word has the same derivation as the German word Gespenst (ghost), so that here you have the ghost before you, so to say; you have before you something which is seen by means of inner, astral forces. To-day that is abnormal. In the transitional period, whenever it occurred, the man was admonished to say to himself, “But I will see, I do not wish to be stared at, I wish to see.” Thus what he saw in this way seemed to him to be something which he had to overcome. All the stories about blinding whatever stares at one, so that it can no longer stare, derive from this. In all these stories, from the story of the blinding of the giant Polyphemus right down to the wonderful story in which Dietrich of Berne overcomes the giant Grim, we have this stage of consciousness. The very strangeness of the phenomenon, however, could have an attraction for the soul. Hence there were beings, beings who belonged to the inwardness of things, who could have a seductive influence on men, who could lead them astray.

The key word in German for this enticement is Lur or Lore. And wherever you meet this word, you have the ghost in its “alluring” form. If men were specially liable to meet it at a special place, they said that this place was its home. The word Lei is connected with this, hence the Lorelei rocks. It is there that the alluring form is to be found which withdraws into the Lei, as into its native country. We can find this word Lei in various associations with the word Lure. Thus we have the subconscious experience of seeing, with its Lore or Lure, which emerges as the specific seeing of external objects develops. The Alpe, or elves, have to do with the fact that man retains his ego-consciousness within him.

We have yet another survival, still to be found in certain Slav regions. It is the saga of the Midday Woman.3See the fourth, lecture in the cycle, The inner Nature of Man between Death and Rebirth (Vienna, 1914), published by Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1928; out of print. When men go out into the fields, and, instead of returning home at mid-day, remain there, the Midday Woman appears to them, clothed in white. She questions them until the clock strikes. If they are able to answer all the time, she says, “Good, you have redeemed me.”

Here once again an ancient clairvoyant experience is expressed. Just as we breathe in with the air the spirit of the ego, so we have gathered together our entire being, our entire microcosm, out of the macrocosm. Everything within us has come from without. Our inner intelligence is a product of the outer intelligence. There is a transitional period between the time when men saw the spiritual beings who directed the structure of the world, the beings who directed the formation of the flowers and of the crystals, and the time when the outer intelligence was formed. This intelligence has taken possession of man; he has become conscious of it. The midday sun, the midday demon, obliterates the ego-consciousness through a partial, undeveloped sunstroke. Then what has entered into man to make him intelligent, the external cause of his intelligence, appears before the man, and in such a way that he has to exercise his intelligence. It is through his having to make a mental effort that the phenomenon occurs. The man is, so to say, confronted objectively by what the cosmos has made of him. He must overcome it. If he can exercise his intelligence so as to be able to answer the Midday Woman until the clock strikes, he can unite himself again with his ego.

We meet the best expression of this in ancient Greece and sculpturally in ancient Egypt, in the great questioner, the Sphinx. The Sphinx is nothing but the highest expression of the Midday Woman. It asks the ultimate question, the question to which the answer is “man.” Whoever is able to solve the riddle redeems the Sphinx. It falls into the abyss—that is, it unites with human nature.

Man has acquired his present clear day-consciousness, which has brought with it self-consciousness, as a victory over the ancient picture-consciousness. In earlier times, although he was unable to see into himself, did not find a self within him, yet when he looked outside himself he saw spiritual beings everywhere—in the waves, in the air, in the trees—all was indwelt by spiritual beings. How could he himself not be so indwelt also? When he felt, “With the air I breathe in. I receive the actual imprint of the ego,” how could he do otherwise than see in the air the embodiment of the god to whom he owed his objective consciousness? When he breathed in the air, he knew, “The air moves my ego.” When the wind blustered without in the stormy winter nights he knew that Wotan was roaming about, the same Wotan who was breathed in by him. We could go through all the myths and sagas in this way. We should doubtless find that literary composition has brought about modifications, but they can all be traced back to the old clairvoyant consciousness.

European clairvoyance, however, differs essentially from that of the East; for every people has a special mission, a special task to fulfil in the course of evolution. Whereas in the time when the Oriental was going through the transition from the old clairvoyance to the formation of the ego, he possessed only a mere rudiment of the ego, so that it very easily surrendered itself to the higher beings, the consciousness of personality developed early in European life. It was a particular characteristic of the European peoples that during the transition period the ego made tremendous inroads. The human being was able to see into the inwardness of things, but he asserted his ego very strongly, felt himself from the outset as a strong opponent of the beings who were trying to entangle him in the threads of the spiritual world around him. Therefore the beings who are man’s helpers are those who work towards the acquisition of self-consciousness, towards the liberation of the ego.

The victory over the astral Spirits, which is the aim of those Spirits who bestow personal self-consciousness, plays a great part in Germanic literature, in European literature. The Alp-spirit, who ensnares man, is present everywhere for European consciousness in the Midgard Snake, or in the forms of the giants. Everywhere we see how the gods ally themselves with men in the formation of personal self-consciousness. We see how the god Wotan, who lives in the breathing, becomes man’s ally in his fight against all the lower spirits; he stands beside man in his struggle to overcome the lower consciousness. It is Donar or Thor, with his hammer, who conquers the giants and the Midgard Snake; he it is who expresses man’s emergence into reality.

This conquest over the astral powers, who prevent men from becoming free, played a great part in preparing the way for Christianity. There was something more impersonal in the Oriental, whereas the warm-hearted European had to experience something unknown to less advanced Eastern peoples. In Europe the urge to emerge from subconsciousness was the dominant motive. Therefore the European felt intensely: “I with my ego have emerged from the spiritual world into the physical-sensible world, in primeval times my soul was in the spiritual world, the world of light. What I have acquired here has made me blind to the old astral world.” This found its strongest expression where the victory over the astral world was most strongly felt. The ancient European consciousness felt Baldur to be the leader of souls in so far as they belong to the land of their birth, to the astral world of light. The leader of the sense-world is Hodur, who slays Baldur.4See the lectures, The Balder Myth and the Good Friday Mystery (Dornach, 2-3/4/15); published in Festivals and the Seasons (Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 1928: out of print).

Thus tragically the ancient Europeans experienced the fading out of the clairvoyant soul, the provisional death of the soul. But they experienced it as a transition; they felt that something new had to follow. Hence the “Twilight of the Gods,” the downfall of the spiritual world. And because in ancient times personal consciousness was strongly marked in the European peoples, the appearance of the personal God, Christ Jesus, could be most deeply understood by the Europeans. The germ for the reception of the personal God was laid down long beforehand.

We have seen how in Europe the present-day consciousness has developed out of the earlier one. It was only a small section of the spiritual world that people could see in this way. But the initiates had their consciousness in still higher worlds. We shall show how the knowledge of the initiates was raised above the clairvoyant consciousness of the masses, what impression the appearance of the Christ made on the Mysteries, and how the Mysteries have evolved right up to the present day. What men saw at lower levels in the past they will see in the future at a higher level; for they will see into the spiritual world in full consciousness.

Man has indeed passed through this process. While still leading a subconscious form of existence, he descended in order to acquire self-consciousness. And with his self-consciousness he will rise again. His earlier clairvoyance was not his own, but a clairvoyance which other beings had instilled into him. What he will acquire for himself will be a free self-conscious possession, best described by a saying of Christ-Jesus. On the occasion (John VIII, 32) when the Christ was emphasising the relationship between truth and freedom, he spoke of the far-distant future in these terms: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”