Greek and Germanic Mythology in the Light of Esotericism
II. The Argonaut Saga and the Odyssey
14 October 1922, Berlin
To-day I should like to speak about a very important myth, also Greek, one which, like all myths, can be interpreted at many different levels. We will endeavour to uncover its real kernel. But before going on I should like to preface what I have to say by a few more theoretic observations.
In the last number of Lucifer-Gnosis 1The article here mentioned, which first appeared in the periodical Lucifer-Gnosis was later published and forms chapter 1 of Atlantis and Lemuria. I stressed that the last three culture-periods of Atlantis saw the beginning of a particular influence on the human race which still endures even to-day. It has to do with the fact that men then became mature enough to work in what we call our intellect. Before that time man was more a being of memory. Up to the fourth Atlantean culture-period man's memory was especially developed. The faculty of intellectual combination, the calculating faculty, in short, all that makes up our present-day culture, began in the fifth Atlantean period with the Ur-Semites. And it was this that made the Ur-Semites capable of originating the whole of the fifth, the Aryan, root-race. The Aryan root-race had as its primary task the development of the intelligence which is active on the physical plane. When such a new phase of human evolution occurs, it becomes possible for new Beings, Beings who up to that time had led hidden lives, to gain an influence on evolution. And in fact, since the fifth culture-epoch of Atlantis, a particular host of Beings have participated in human evolution, the activity of whom had not hitherto been noticeable. You must think of these Beings as very highly evolved, far more highly evolved than man at the stage he then was. But in a certain way they had lagged in their development behind the Beings who in the middle of the Lemurian time had intervened in the affairs of the human race. It was a fresh setback which took place at that time. The Beings of whom I am now speaking belonged in their whole nature to what we call the Moon evolution. They went through their development on the Old Moon, but they were not so far advanced as the Beings who were able to intervene in the middle of the Lemurian time. They had remained behind the normal development on the Moon. They had advanced to the point of recognising that the faculties which man had now attained were analogous to their own, to the point of recognising that they could obtain control over those human faculties. Up to this time men had not been Beings of intelligence, now they acquired the intellect. And these new Beings made use of this human intellect for their own further development. Thus it came about that a phase of human evolution now set in which we call the phase of cold, objective science. Prior to this time there was no such thing, and one day there will again be no such thing. All wisdom hitherto attained in human evolution has been fundamentally associated with love. Cold, calculating science is under the influence of these backward Beings. Thus the influence of these Beings, who are still active, will come to an end only when our whole intellectual activity, everything which we are capable of knowing, is again permeated with love. When intelligence and love are once more united in the higher wisdom, the influence of those Beings, who are not visible on the physical plane, will disappear. To make clear their influence, in the first place to the pupils of the Mysteries, and then to mankind, was the task of the Greek Mysteries
About the eighth century B.C., a very important epoch sets in as regards these Beings. If you think of the culture-epochs of our fifth root-race — of the ancient Veda culture, then of the ancient Persian culture, of the Chaldean-Egyptian culture, if you think even of the time of the Druid culture, you will find that an objective, dispassionate science of knowledge did not exist. It first emerged at the dawn of the fourth culture-epoch, which one can place in about the eighth century B.C. With it there dawned an objective knowledge, completely detached from all the rest of the contents of the human mind. A Chaldean priest who cultivated astronomy still sought to fathom the purposes of the rulership of the world; and this can also be said of the Egyptian and Druid priests; they sought to acquire insight into the purposes of the world-ruler. A purely intellectual knowledge first dawned in Greece. This intellectual knowledge had been prepared step by step, and emerged, bound up with the rest of human activity, under the influence of the Beings I have mentioned; it was fully released in the fourth culture-epoch of the fifth root-race. Those who were initiated in the Mysteries of that time, confronted by the external wisdom, looked upon the ancient wisdom, which had formerly been at the disposal of mankind, as something lost, something which men must seek to regain.
Now there was a particular way of describing the point of time in which this dispassionate, dry wisdom separated itself from the all-embracing primeval wisdom. In the eighth century B.C., the passage of the sun through the sign of the Ram, which then took place, was experienced as the repetition of an earlier passage through the same sign thousands of years previously. It is well known that the sun moves forward through the whole of the zodiac, through the Ram, the Bull, the Twins, through Cancer, the Lion, the Virgin and so on, so that it has already passed through the Ram many times. The last time it had passed through the Ram, man was in possession of a knowledge united with love, and thereby of the primeval wisdom. This primeval wisdom had now been lost, and had given place to a culture of external wisdom. The priests of the Greek. Mysteries expressed this whole process in its occult significance through the profound symbol of the Argonaut saga, in which the ram is the symbol of the union of love and knowledge.
Let us first call to mind the whole of the myth. We are told that Phrixos and Helle had to suffer many things at the hand of their bad stepmother. Therefore their dead mother appeared to Phrixos and advised him to run away and to take his sister with him. She gave him a large ram with a golden fleece, upon the back of which they were to cross the sea. Helle fell off and was drowned in the Hellespont, but Phrixos reached Colchis with the ram. There he is said to have sacrificed it and to have given its fleece to King Petus, who hung it on an oak in front of a cavern. Later, the Greek hero Jason, together with the most important of the Greek initiates of the time, Orpheus, Theseus, Hercules and others, set to work to recover the fleece from the alien people of Colchis. Through winning the hand of the king's youngest daughter, Medea, he was enabled to bring it back to Greece. First he had to overcome two fire-breathing bulls. Then he had to sow a dragon's teeth. From the dragon's teeth grew armed men, who began to fight. With Medea's help he was able to bring this conflict to a successful conclusion. It was she too who enabled him to capture the fleece and to set out, together with it and her, on the homeward journey to Greece. In order to deceive her father Medea had taken her brother with her, had slain him and had thrown his dismembered body into the sea. While the lamenting father was collecting his son's limbs she was able to continue her flight with Jason into Greece.
In the eighth and ninth centuries B.C., the pupils of the Greek Mysteries were taught the occult meaning of this saga. They were taught that the Beings who made use of the dry, dispassionate human intelligence had now attained a special importance. The longing awoke in them for the ancient culture which had obtained when the sun had passed through the sign of the Ram on the occasion before the last. That the twins Phrixos and Helle were carried by the ram to Colchis means simply that an earlier race — the Persian-Iranian, with its twofold nature (it stood under the sign of the gods Ormuzd and Ahriman) — had regained the union of knowledge and love. This race had borne the fleece to hidden realms. Still earlier, in Atlantis, this fleece, this wisdom, had been the common possession of human culture; then it had been carried into distant Mystery-schools. It had to be brought back again. Thus the Argonaut saga is an expression of the founding of the Greek Mystery-schools.
Thus we are told that a primeval wisdom existed among the people of Atlantis. It was then the common possession of humanity. It had been lost and was now only to be found in the caves and crypts of the pupils of the Mysteries. But the Greeks established the Mysteries anew; by bringing the primeval wisdom back again to Greece, Theseus, Orpheus, Hercules and others became the founders of this Greek Mystery-wisdom.
A dispassionate, cold intelligence, which is objective, is introduced by Thales, Anaximenes, Socrates and other philosophers. The Mystery-wisdom is united with love. It is a wisdom which cannot be attained without purification of the passions, the forces of Kama. 2Forces of Kama. The forces of the astral body. The other kind of knowledge can be obtained without purification of Kama.
Thus the very important Argonaut saga puts before us the transition from the third to the fourth culture-epoch of our present root-race. Human culture, which formerly was one stream, now separates into two — into mystery-wisdom and external knowledge. The one stream was hidden — it was the recovery of the golden fleece but it was nevertheless effective. It had an influence on Greek art and culture. Only on external knowledge was it henceforth to have no influence. This is the saga of the voyage of the Argonauts.
The Odyssey too is concerned with the transition from one race to another. The Odyssey has been given the most varied explanations To-day I only want to indicate the bare framework of the saga. In my book Christianity as Mystical Fact I tried to make use of its second stage of interpretation; to-day we will look at the third.
Odysseus, who took part in the siege of Troy, by his cunning and his cleverness, helped the Greeks to conquer Troy. He made lone voyages, voyages in which he went astray — voyages on the water, be it noted. He came to the land of the Cyclops and overcame their one-eyed leader; then he went further, to Circe, who, we are told, turned his companions into swine. Then he descended into the underworld, and made the acquaintance of the dead heroes of Troy. Then he came under the influence of the sirens, who lead men astray by their magic songs. We are further told that most of his companions succumbed to the temptation, but that Odysseus caused himself to be bound to his ship, and thus saved himself; we are told how he then came to a place between Scylla and Charybdis where his ships were in danger of being wrecked. To save himself he had to pass through a whirlpool. Then he comes to the island of Calypso, sojourns there seven years and is enabled to leave by the intervention of Zeus, who orders Calypso to let him go, and at last he reaches his home country.
He is led by the goddess Pallas Athene into his house and to his wife, who has had to withstand many dangers because of the suitors who beset her. So she unravels by night the weaving she accomplishes by day, because she has promised her hand to one of her suitors when the work is finished.
Now let us go through this outline of the Odyssey as it is known to us from Greek occult wisdom. The schools of initiation, in which was actually enacted what I have just recounted, led the pupils on to the astral and the mental planes 3Astral plane and Mental plane. These are the “soul-world” and “spirit-land” in Rudolf Steiner's Theosophy. in such a way as to enable them to survey a stretch of human evolution, to survey the period from the middle of Lemuria to the time when in Greece, in the school of initiation which had been founded by Jason together with Orpheus, Theseus, Hercules and others, man was again able to find the primeval wisdom. Thus the pupil was led on to the astral and the mental planes and was shown the events which humanity had to pass through between the middle of Lemuria and the point of time when the Trojan war took place. The Argonaut saga is a picture of the primeval wisdom. It shows us that it existed at that time side by side with external knowledge.
What was it that was shown to the pupils of the Mysteries in the Odyssey? Odysseus himself is its expression. Let us turn back for a moment to the middle of the Lemurian time. Man was then in a state of transition from the hermaphroditic to the condition of sexuality, in a state of transition from the condition of being able to see without an external physical sense-organ to that of seeing with the physical eye. Up to the middle of Lemuria every man had one eye, which was then replaced by two external physical eyes. It was into this phase of evolution that the pupil of the early Greek Mysteries was transplanted. He had to experience the transition from the first half of Lemuria into the second half of Lemuria, into the time after the middle of Lemuria up to the emergence of the second eye. The Cyclopes were the men of the early Lemurian time. Odysseus came to know these men upon the astral plane. After this time, human astral bodies were plunged into matter which was becoming denser, more solid. We then come — so were the initiates instructed — to the first periods of Atlantis. The Atlantean acquires more and more the capacity to make use of the forces of life, to apply these forces for his own ends. They were fully developed astral forces which the Atlantean possessed, and it was only on the astral plane that a Greek could be transported into them. This was the time, so often spoken of in occult writings, when the Atlantean races lapsed into the wildest arts of black magic. This epoch was brought before the pupils of the Greek Mysteries in these shifting scenes. This was the age when. human passions became so distorted under the influence of the forces of black magic that their astral bodies resembled those of the lowest animals. This was the picture which the Turanians presented when they lapsed into these wild magic arts. The astral body was so changed under the influence of these black arts that it could only be expressed symbolically as the changing of the comrades of Odysseus into swine. This was the moment of human evolution which the Greek initiates of that time experienced. Then Odysseus descended into the underworld. In the world of Greek mythology this always signified an initiation. Whenever it is said of a hero that he descended into the underworld, the narrator wants to express the fact that the hero concerned has been initiated, made acquainted with things that lie beyond death. Odysseus was an initiate and the Odyssey itself is the description of his initiation.
Now we go on to a point when, after the Atlantean flood, men became acquainted with the first operations of those Beings of whom I have spoken, acquainted with the effects of external culture, science and art, with forces which influenced intellectual life after the flood. The first periods of purely external physical culture were brought before the initiates as the temptations of purely worldly arts, worldly culture. These are the siren songs of the young fifth root-race. It was of these siren songs of the young fifth root-race that so much is said in occult writings. For on the one hand we have the great wisdom teaching of Manu 4Manu. Described in An Outline of Occult Science as “the Christ-initiate” or “the leader of the Christ-oracle”. who, in the sub-race which was the originator of the fifth root-race, draws men's attention to the fact that their intellect has to lift itself up to the divine. This found its expression in the Vedas, and in what the Persian Zarathustra left to his co-religionists. But then we have the pure culture of the intelligence, which diverts men from what was developing in them under the influence of Manu. In all occult writings you find described the events which then took place. Manu chose a small band and went with them into the Desert of Gobi or Sebamo. There it was only a handful that remained true to him, whilst the others were unfaithful and dispersed in all directions. This important event was shown to the candidates for initiation — that is to say, they were shown how the Manu had chosen some of the Ur-Semites, but that of those chosen only a small number followed him, whereas the others ran into destruction through following the siren-song of external culture.
Then a still more important moment of human evolution was represented by the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. What is it which now really begins in mankind? The essential Kama — Manas culture now first begins. It had gradually been prepared up to this point; it is only now that it really begins. Our fifth root-race possesses preeminently this Kama-Manas culture. Kama is in the astral, and even to-day is still active in the astral body. But Manas is what is active in the physical brain. The man of the fifth root-race thinks with the physical brain. It is only in a future phase of evolution that Kama, the astral body, will be so advanced that it will be able to think. To-day Manas has taken hold of the physical brain. We have to pass between the hindrances on either side — Scylla-Manas and Charybdis-Kama. The passage of Odysseus is a picture of this. There is on the one hand the astral whirlpool of the instincts, appetites and passions into which man can fall; on the other hand there is the physical intellect chained to the rock. The rock occurs also in the Prometheus saga, where we meet the rock again. The human intellect is exposed to all the dangers of the physical, of the rock. Man sails between the physical intelligence and the whirlpool of the astral life. If he has accomplished that successfully, if he has recognized the dangers of the passage, and has nevertheless kept his footing, then he comes to Calypso, to the hidden wisdom. Then he can take a look into the future of humanity, then he can undergo the testing time, which lasts seven years. That is why Odysseus remains with the nymph Calypso seven years. Every man who seeks initiation goes through a seven-year testing period, and this is represented by the sojourn with Calypso. Only then can he reach the point to which the soul aspires. Read Homer's Odyssey! He means that man is in search of his own soul. He who really wishes to understand the Odyssey cannot accept the view of a modern investigator who asserts that Polyphemus and the Cyclopes only mean that Etna had erupted and that the scene of the conflagration seemed to Odysseus like the eye of a giant.
At last Odysseus returns home as a beggar, without any external property. This means that the man who had recognized the unimportance of the external world and of worldly goods, seeks his soul's home not in Maya, but behind Maya, thus in a mystical sense he returns home as a beggar. That he is truly wise is shown by his being led into his house by Pallas Athene. In all esotericism the soul is represented as feminine, it is always the feminine nature that is chosen as the symbol for the striving of the individual soul. Goethe calls it the ‘Eternal Feminine’. In Medea in the Argonaut saga, in Penelope, we have to understand the real soul, to which Odysseus seeks the way again. The Virgin Mary too, in the Christian religion, is the striving human soul, only there the significance is infinitely deeper. Strictly speaking, Penelope is the human soul in the fifth root-race. The fifth root-race has to cultivate human intelligence. Human intelligence is utterly unfruitful when it is only turned upon itself. When it has something that one can call a content, then the intelligence can be applied to it. Intelligence is a network which is spun around things we have from some other place. When external experience teaches you something, you can weave around it with your intelligence. When the higher occult wisdom teaches you something, you can also weave around it. Men say that occult wisdom contradicts reason. Nothing contradicts reason! When something new dawns on their horizon men have always said that it is contrary to reason. But the intellect is only there for purposes of combining. Out of itself it can win nothing. This barrenness of the intellect, which is nevertheless the real soul of the fifth root-race, is expressed in the perpetual weaving and unraveling of Penelope's cloth. Odysseus is led by wisdom. The initiate must find the way to the soul of the fifth root-race, but he will only unite himself with this soul in the right way if he is guided by Pallas Athene. Pallas Athene too is a feminine deity, another soul-force, wisdom, the real guide. But man has to reach intelligence through many by-paths, in so far as they are paths of development — for there were many by-paths in the Lemurian epoch. And in this journey Pallas Athene must be his guide. This was brought before the pupils of the Mysteries in Greece and this is what Homer wanted to express in his profound saga.
What is described in the Odyssey is initiation as it was carried out in Greece at that time — an initiation which was a repetition on the astral and mental planes of experiences from Lemurian times right down to the time of the Mysteries themselves. Odysseus is the clever man, the cunning man, and Troy was overthrown through his ability. The clever, intellectual man is the man of the fifth root-race. But to be able to find his way rightly in the fifth root-race, he must again on his devious path seek his home country, his Penelope. The man who is merely cunning and clever would never find the right way. He must first come out of himself, broaden his view, by looking back on the long journey of the human race. Odysseus is the representative of the cunning Kama-Manas man, who has to wander through many byways, in order to be led back again to the soul of the fifth root-race.