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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Occult Signs and Symbols
GA 101

II. The Symbolic Meaning of Noah's Ark and the Gothic Churches.

September 14, 1907, Stuttgart

The Symbolism of Certain Animal Forms and Their Relation to the Elements: Snake, Fish, Butterfly, Bee.

Yesterday, we stopped with the indication about Noah's Ark, stating that in the proportions of its height, breadth and length were expressed the proportions of the human body. Now, in order to understand the meaning of this Ark mentioned in the Bible (I Moses 6, 15), we must deepen our knowledge of various things. We must at first make clear to ourselves what it means that a vessel through which man should be rescued has definite dimensions. It will then be necessary to occupy ourselves with that time of man's development in which the actual happenings to which the Noah story refers took place.

When people who understand something of occultism produced some object in the outer world, a quite definite purpose for the soul was always connected with it. Recall the Gothic churches, those characteristic buildings that arose in the beginning of the Middle Ages and spread from Western to Middle Europe. These churches have a definite architectural style, which expresses itself in the arch that consists of two parts joining in a point above. This architectural feature permeates the whole as atmosphere—that peculiar arching consisting of two parts tapering up to a point, the whole reaching upward, the columns with a definite form, etc. It would be quite wrong to assert that such a Gothic cathedral simply came to be out of outer needs, out of a certain longing perhaps, to create a House of God that should express or mean this or that. Something much deeper underlay this. Those who indicated the first ideas for these Gothic buildings were adepts in occultism. They were, to a certain degree, initiates. It was their purpose to see that whoever entered such a House of God was to receive quite definite soul impressions. When one sees these peculiar archings, when one views the inner space in which the columns rise as trees rise in a grove, such a House of God works upon the soul quite differently than does a house, for instance, that is carried by old columns, that has an ordinary Roman or Renaissance cupola. Of course, man does not become conscious of the fact that such forms produce quite definite effects; they occur in the unconscious. He cannot be rationally clear about what is happening in his soul. Many people believe that the materialism of our modern time arises because so many materialistic writings are read. The occultist, however, knows that this is only one of the lesser influences. What the eye sees is of far greater importance, for it has an influence on soul processes that more or less run their course in the unconscious. This is of eminently practical importance, and when spiritual science will one day really take hold of the soul, then will the practical effect become noticeable in public life. I have often called attention to the fact that it was something different from what it is today when one in the Middle Ages walked through the streets. Right and left there were house façades that were built up out of what the soul felt and thought. Every key, every lock, carried the imprint of him who had made it. Try to realize how the individual craftsman felt joy in each piece, how he worked his own soul into it. In every object there was a piece of soul, and when a person moved among such things, soul forces streamed over to him. Now compare this with a city today. Here is a shoe store, a hardware store, a butcher shop, then a tavern, etc. All this is alien to the inner soul processes; it is related only to the outer man. Thus, it generates those soul forces that tend towards materialism. These influences work much more strongly than do the dogmas of materialism. Add to these our horrible art of advertising. Old and young wander through a sea of such abominable products that wake the most evil forces of the soul. So likewise do our modern comic journals. This is not meant to be a fanatical agitation against these things, but only indications about facts. All this pours a stream of forces into the human soul, determining the epoch that leads the person in a certain direction. The spiritual scientist knows how much depends upon the world of forms in which a man lives.

Toward the middle of the Middle Ages there arose along the Rhine that remarkable religious movement called Christian Mysticism. It is linked up with such leading spirits as Master Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck, and others. This was a tremendous deepening and intensification of the human feeling life because these preachers did not stand alone but had a faithful audience at that time. The name parson (Pfaff—a derogatory expression for “parson”), in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did not have the meaning it has today, but was something to be esteemed. Plato used to be called “the great parson”. Because there emanated such a deepening from these great souls, the Rhine was named at that time, “Europe's Great Parson Street”. Do you know where these soul forces were bred that were searching for an inner union with the godly forces of being? They were brought forth in the Gothic cathedrals with their pointed arches, pillars and columns. This had educated these souls. What the human being sees, what is poured into his environment, becomes a force in him. In accordance with it, he forms himself.

Let us put this before our souls schematically against the background of human development. At a given time an architectural style is created, born out of the great ideas of initiates. Human souls take up the force of these forms. Centuries go by. What the soul has absorbed through its contemplation of building forms appears in the mood of his soul. Ardent souls will then come into existence, souls who look up to the heights. Even when the course was not always quite as I have described it, still like effects showed themselves often in human development.

Now let us follow these people some millennia further. Those who absorbed the forces of the forms of these buildings into their souls show the expression of their inner soul configurations in their countenances. The entire human shape forms itself through such impressions. What was built thousands of years ago, appears to us in human countenances thousands of years later. Thus, one recognizes why such arts were practiced. Initiates look out into the far future and see how human beings are meant to become. Hence it is that at a definite time, they form external building styles, outer art forms, on a large scale. So it is that the germ of future human epochs is laid.

When you rightly keep all this in mind, you will understand what occurred at the end of the Atlantean epoch. Air did not exist as it does today; the distribution of air and water was quite different from what it is today. Masses of mist surrounded Atlantis. When you picture to yourself how mist rises, how clouds form, and rain falls, then you have in miniature what happened over enormous expanses of Atlantis during millennia. With the change in the outer living conditions of man, he, too, changed. Formerly then, a country covered with thick mist masses had people living in it who had a kind of clairvoyance. Gradually the rain storms came; gradually the people accustomed themselves to an entirely new way of life, to a new perception, a new awareness. The human bodies had to change. You would be amazed if you were to see pictures of the first Atlantean people. How different they were from people today! Do not believe, however, that this change occurred by itself. Through long periods of time the human souls had to work on these human bodies and bring about effects such as were described by the simple example given of the effects of architectural forms on the feeling life of the soul that later appeared in their countenances.

How was it when the Atlantean epoch passed over into the post-Atlantean epoch? At first, the human soul underwent change and, in accordance with this, the body shaped itself. Let us go into this more deeply! Let us picture an old Atlantean. He still had clairvoyant consciousness and was thus connected with the environment in which he lived, with the mist-filled atmosphere. Because of this atmosphere, things did not show themselves to him with firmly marked contours. Actually, they were rather colour pictures that emerged for him; his perceptions were floods of surging interweaving colours. Into this, outlines gradually appeared. Objects revealed themselves like lanterns in the mist, encircled by rainbow colours, and his spiritual capacities developed accordingly. Had this condition continued, it would have been impossible for man to acquire his present body. Objects had to take on their present contours, the air became free of water. This process went on for thousands of years. Only gradually did things take on distinctness. The human soul had to receive other impressions, new impressions, and form its body correspondingly, for in accordance with what you think and feel is your body formed. What kind of form had the soul to experience when it escaped from the Atlantean watery landscape into the new airy landscape? For the present body to shape itself, the human being had to be surrounded by a form of definite length, breadth, and depth. As a matter of fact, this form was given to him so that the body could form itself thereby. Just as the mood of the mystics modeled itself out of the shape of the cathedral, and as the initiate would be able to indicate which countenances had shaped themselves accordingly, so did the human beings gradually transform themselves since, as a matter of fact, they lived in vessels, under the influence of great initiates, which had been built according to these measurements. Before the time of our present humanity there was a kind of water or sea-life that was lived in vessels, in which humanity gradually accustomed itself to life on land. The life of the Atlanteans was for the most part a life in vessels. Not only were they surrounded by a watery, misty air, but a large part of Atlantis was covered by the sea. This is the deep mystery of Noah's Ark. What is to be found in the original religious documents has an immense depth. A radiance of wisdom and limitless sublimity surrounds these primal records when we immerse ourselves deeply in them.

In Genesis you find the symbol of the snake. In the Roman catacombs you come upon the picture of the fish, which tradition tells us signifies the Christian or the Christ. If someone were to reflect on these symbols, he could, of course, find much that is ingenious, but this would only be speculation. We want to deal only with realities since these things, too, are given us out of the spiritual and astral worlds. If you will follow me for a few moments into the history of man's evolution, you will see what truths are contained in both these symbols.

Let us recall once again that the earth has had as many different embodiments as man. The human form was always present during the different earth incarnations—on Saturn, Sun and Moon. His ego, however, was acquired for the first time on the earth. Now we must turn our attention briefly to the appearance of the earth as it was in its first incarnation, while it was still Saturn. At that time rocks or fields for tilling did not yet exist. The human physical body existed but in a finer state. It was only gradually that it condensed to its present fleshy form.

When you examine the materials around you today, you will find that they exist in various conditions. First, there is the solid, called Earth in occultism; then the fluid, called Water in occultism—not only the water on earth is meant, but all that is fluid. Then all the gaseous matter, called Air in occultism. There is one still finer condition, Fire. Of course, physicists of today do not accept this, but the occultist knows that Fire can be compared with Earth, Water and Air, that Fire is the first etheric condition, that it is finer than Air. Where you find Fire or Warmth, something is present that is still finer than Air. Were we to picture a substance finer than Warmth, we would come to Light. What we, in the occult sense, term Earth, Water, and Air was not yet in existence on Saturn. These bodily states arose on the Sun, Moon, and Earth. The densest condition on Saturn was Warmth or Fire. Man lived within it, his body actually a kind of reflected image. To present this in greater detail would take us too far afield.

Saturn changed into the Sun. Air was added to Fire and was the densest condition on the Sun. When the physical body had reached the airy stage, it was impregnated with the etheric body. There were no other beings but Air beings. As man, one would have been able to penetrate these Air beings because they were just as penetrable as air is today. They could be compared with a Fata Morgana, so light and fleeting were they. To be sure, the air on the Sun was somewhat denser than our present air. The watery condition first arose on the Moon, and all that lived on this Moon was but a condensation of Water. Jelly fish and slimy creatures such as are still to be seen today give us a notion of these water beings. Only physical bodies of this kind were capable of taking up an astral body.

The development gradually proceeded. At the end of the Moon period certain watery parts had densified sufficiently so that a kind of firm ground like turf, slime or spinach was formed. The greatest densification resembled the wood of our present day trees. Then the Moon transformed itself into our present earth; the condition of the solid, the mineral, was added. The outer sheath became firm; accordingly and gradually all beings became denser and firmer. Gradually, man developed into a being of flesh—at first on Saturn a Warmth being, an Air being on the Sun, a Water being on the Moon, and finally, on Earth he became a being of flesh.

Let us now consider the meaning of this development. On Saturn the germinal foundation for the physical body was formed; on the Sun the etheric body was added; on the Moon the astral body. But something additional happened on the Moon. The human being who remained on the Old Moon was then much lower in his development than he is today because the astral body in the Moon period was full of raging passions. Only later, when the ego was added, was the astral body purified. For this a planetary development was necessary. The Moon had again to fall back into the Sun, the bad lunar men had again to unite with the Sun beings. Thus, when the Earth began, the ancient Sun and Moon were again one body. It was the high beings who inhabited the Sun who had to cast out the Moon, and as a result the Moon became a dense mass with all its various impulses. Now all the bad beings who had been expelled with the Moon had to be rescued again, and so the reunion of the Moon with the Sun took place. What would have happened if this reunion had not occurred, if each had gone its own way? Then it would have been impossible for man to appear in his present form, nor would the Sun beings have progressed to what they are today. Had the Old Moon gone its own way alone, and not been enabled through reunion with the Sun to draw on new forces, then the highest being that could ever have been created on the Moon would have resembled a snake. The Sun beings, on the other hand, who were so spiritual that they had no physical body but possessed an etheric body as their lowest member, would have received a physical body whose highest form would have been that of a fish. Naturally, the fish-form would have been only the outer expression for souls who reached a much higher stage of development, just as our present fish group soul is something exalted.

The Moon fell back again into the Sun, and later our earth threw out the present moon, which took with it the worst substances. Thereby it became possible for the beings of our earth to develop themselves beyond the snake stage to that of the human. It was the Sun beings who bestowed upon the beings of our earth the strength to lift themselves above the snake. The material purity of the Sun condition of those high beings expresses itself in the fish form, for this is the highest material form that the old Sun nature could have attained.

The Christos is the Sun Hero who has transplanted all the strength of the Sun upon the Earth. Now you will be able to understand with what deep intuition esoteric Christianity conceived of the fish form, because it signifies the outer symbol of the Sun power, of the forces of the Christ. To be sure, the fish is outwardly an incomplete being but it has not descended so deeply into matter and it is penetrated to a small extent by egotism. The occultist says that the snake is the symbol for the earth as it developed itself out of the Moon. The fish is the symbol for spiritual being as it has developed itself out of the Sun. Our earth, as it stands before us with its solid substances, has its lowest being in the snake. What separated itself as watery substance, as pure water, could manifest itself as fish. To the occultist the fish is something that has been born out of the water.

What is it that, in a similar way, has been born out of air, or out of fire? These are regions that are hard to explain, but at least some indications can be given here.

What were things like on the earth when it had just developed from the Saturn to the Sun stage? Man was then a kind of air being. Death and dying, as understood at present, he did not know because he could transform himself. Let us make it clear to ourselves how man arrived at his present consciousness of death and dying. Man's soul was in the atmosphere of the Sun but it was related to what was there below as body. In our time man's astral body, even when it has slipped out at night, belongs to the physical body, and it was the same on Saturn and Sun except that it never slipped in. At the beginning of the Sun stage the body was below; above was something that as soul belonged to a definite body, that directed this body, that had spiritual consciousness. The body of this soul was subject to other laws of growth and dying off than is the case today. It lost certain parts, but it added new parts. For long stretches of time the soul lived on unchanged while the body changed. To be sure, when the Sun was in a certain condition, man identified himself in a certain way with his body. His body transformed itself into alternate conditions. At first a body of definite form was produced, then this form transformed itself into another, again into another, and then into a fourth. After its last change it came back to its first condition. The human being retained the same consciousness while these forms changed. When the first bodily condition arose again, when the human being came back to the first form, after he had lived through the other three, he then felt himself renewed. This transformation has been preserved for us in the butterfly that develops itself through four forms: egg, larva, pupa, and butterfly. This is the hieroglyph, the sign for the airy condition of the human being on the Sun. In the butterfly today, under our completely changed conditions, this state is, of course, a kind of decadence. The human being evolved beyond this state, but for the occultist the butterfly is the symbol for it. He designates it as the air being, just as he designates the snake as earth being, and the fish as water being. Why the birds are not designated as air beings will be dealt with at some other time.

Now let us go back to the first Saturn condition when the human being was a soul-spiritual being that always had the same body, that knew itself immortal on a lower level and continually changed his body. This condition, too, has been preserved for us in a peculiar being that, when considered as a whole group soul, stands in a certain way higher than man. This is the bee. When you study the whole hive, you have something totally different from the single bee. The whole beehive has a spiritual life that in some ways corresponds to life on Saturn on a lower stage, and that will be reached on Venus on a higher level. The body of the bee, however, has stayed on the old Saturn level. We must indeed distinguish the soul of the whole beehive as no ordinary group soul but a being in itself, and the single bee as having preserved the form that the human body passed through on Saturn. Because the bee is retarded as outer being, it could win a higher spiritual consciousness. Hence the wonderful social composition of the beehive! The bee is the symbol of the spiritual man who does not know mortality. When man was of such spirituality, our planet was in a fiery state. When, as Venus, it will again be quite fiery, man will again be a spiritual being. Thus, in the bee you have the being that is the fire being for the occultist.

It will be interesting to mention here a parallelism about which ordinary science has little to say. What does the man of today have in him of Saturn's warmth? His blood-heat. What at that time was distributed over the whole of Saturn has in a measure freed itself and today forms the warm blood of man and animal. When you investigate the temperature of a beehive, you find it to be about the same temperature as that of human blood. The whole beehive develops a temperature comparable to that of blood because, in accordance with the nature of its being, it goes back to the same source as does the human blood.

So, the occultist designates the bee as born out of warmth. He designates the butterfly as air being and the snake as earth being. Again you see from these considerations how deeply symbols and occult signs are connected with what we know of the evolutionary history of the planets and of man.