The World Ash: Yggdrasil
7 October 1907, Berlin
During the next few lectures we will study the relationship of what one might call occult or mystic symbols to the astral and spiritual worlds. You are constantly meeting signs, symbols, stories which are dismissed by complete materialists as no more than poetic fancies. They assume that such things arise in some way from the imaginings of simple people and they regard them as meaningless nonsense. Or you may meet well-disposed people who speculate as to the meaning of such symbols as the pentagram, and so on. At the Munich Congress we made it clear that we ascribe a certain importance to occult signs. The true occultist, however, does not speculate, but tries to find the actual facts. You will never discover the meaning of occult signs through philosophical speculation, and much that is said and written about their meaning is valueless, because it comes only from thinking. Nevertheless these signs are important to us, for they are, as it were, instruments through which we can rise into higher worlds.
To-day let us consider another form of symbolism; it is one already familiar to you, and we will now try to discover its real origin and value.
Before we pass on to this, we must make some preliminary observations about human beings. You will soon see why a subject seemingly quite remote is introduced.
Let us go back to a point of time in evolution familiar to all of you. You know that our own age was preceded by the Atlantean age. In primeval times there was land where now lies the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and the territory we now occupy was covered far and wide with water. There, in Atlantis, our forefathers dwelt, for in truth the European population has for the most part sprung from the descendants of Atlantean peoples. There was once a migration of the peoples from west to cast. From ancient Atlantis, which lay between present-day Europe and America, they travelled far over towards the east, when the floods which now constitute the Atlantic Ocean engulfed this earlier part of the earth.
In the last third of the Atlantean age, a little band representing the most advanced people of the time gathered in the north-east, in the region of present-day Ireland. The whole of Atlantis was covered with thick, heavy mist, and in the memory of the Germanic peoples was called “Niflheim.”
In this ancient time, when the air was continually weighted with heavy masses of water, soul-life, too, was quite different. There was still an ancient clairvoyance; at that time men could see into the spiritual world. When you approached anyone, certain colour-phenomena arose before your soul which told you whether the man was sympathetic to you or not. It was the same with animals; when you approached an animal, you could judge whether it was harmful to you or not. A primitive clairvoyance existed in Atlantis.
Mankind passes through various stages of evolution; men could not remain in that dull clairvoyance; the present-day method of perception through the senses had to come. The old clairvoyance had to fall into abeyance for a while, though it will have to be won back again in the future, as an addition to the present clear day-consciousness. What is to-day the basis of our external culture — the use of reason, of intelligence — was not at the disposal of the old Atlantean clairvoyants; it had to be acquired. Man’s eyes and his ears, his organs of sense-perception, had to focus on the outer world; the inner spiritual eye withdrew for a while. Thus the migration of our forefathers towards the east was an event asso¬ciated with the loss of the ancient clairvoyance.
In was in this little band of people, living in the neighbourhood of present-day Ireland, that the faculty of calculation, of counting, had first developed. They were the first to travel towards the east. And as the floods continued to pour in, more and more people followed them; they populated the soil of present-day Europe. A double vision of things existed in these peoples; they had a capacity for observing the outer sense-world, for counting, calculating, com¬bining, which eventually made possible the technical progress of the present day. But in their hearts they bore also something else — memory and longing, the memory of the worlds into which they had gazed, and the longing somehow to reach this spiritual world again. Great numbers of people brought with them to Europe the remains of the ancient clairvoyance. Many of our European forefathers, if they sat quietly in the twilight or in the night, could still see vividly into the spiritual world. Many had retained, not only the memory of that world, but even, in certain exceptional states, the capacity to see into it. And others had a characteristic which has vanished in the course of evolution far more than one realises — a characteristic which was then very common, and far more intense than anyone can imagine to-day; I mean the capacity for trust, for genuine faith. Those who knew what to say about the spiritual world found faith, because love and trust, especially in European countries, were potent forces. The critical attitude, the insistence upon personal conviction which one meets to-day, was something which occurred to no one. When we look at this ancient population, we see that deep down in their souls they were fully aware of the spiritual world which lies behind this sense-world.
Now we will try to understand how the new perception of the man who looks at objects through his senses came into being. I have already hinted that something happened to that little band of men in the north through whom calculating, counting, combining became a human faculty. I indicated that man’s etheric body was then drawn into the physical head. Whereas formerly the part of the etheric head in the region of the eyebrows was outside, it was now drawn inwards, and the two parts became one. Thereby man attained to self-consciousness, to ego-consciousness. In Atlantean man part of the etheric head, which is to-day coincident with the physical head, projected far beyond the head — hence man’s insight into the spiritual world, his clairvoyance.
Now let us transplant ourselves for a moment into the souls of this Atlantean population, first into those primeval times when men still had their etheric heads far outside their physical heads, and then into that period of Atlantis when the two had already come to coincide. The Atlantean was able to see this drawing-in of the etheric head, and it seemed to him very strange. Let us try to bring this before our souls. I will describe it to you.
“Whence come the faculties which I am now acquiring?” said the Atlantean to himself. “They come from the external world.” Previously he had seen a spiritual world outside him. It was all around him. What did it show him?
If you could suddenly become clairvoyant in the same measure as the Atlantean, what would happen in your souls? You would see spiritual beings all around you. This physical world would be peopled by the beings of the astral and spiritual planes. You would actually see these beings. Where would they have come from? They would come through your own faculties, faculties which are now dormant in you, but would then be awake. It would seem to you as if something streamed out of your own selves. But in former times this something had first to stream in. All the spiritual conceptions that man is now able to acquire were then living beings outside him. The Atlantean watched these beings draw into him. He said to himself: “I begin to see things with my eyes, to hear sounds and tones with my ears; I begin to see what is perceptible by the senses.” This capacity streamed into him from without.
Let us take another look at old Atlantis. The land was covered with large masses of watery mist. This watery mist varied in density. Especially in the first and last periods of Atlantis, it was different in the neighbourhood of present-day Ireland from what it was in the other regions. In the south this watery mist was warm, like warm or hot vaporous matter; toward the north it was cool. Towards the end of Atlantis it became colder. It was this northern cold which brought out in men, as if by a spell, the new vision, the new soul-life. Never would the faculty of judgment, the intellect, have been able to make its first appearance in humanity in the fiery glow of the south. The Atlantean in the neighbourhood of Ireland felt the sense-organs stream into him, organs which permeated him with the capacity for seeing things outside him. He felt that he owed this to the cooling of the air.
The outer perception of objects is associated with nerves. For each of our sense-organs a nerve goes out from the brain — one to the eye, one to the ear, and so on. These nerves, which to-day enable men to bring sense-impressions to consciousness, were inert until the outward vision of things came into existence. The Atlantean clairvoyant thus saw coming towards him the forces which made these nerves into sense-nerves. He experienced the whole situation as streams flowing into his head from outside and then penetrating the nerves in his head.
Now among the nerves which were brought into activity at that time, nerves which we can still trace anatomically, there were twelve pairs. Ten of them are in the several parts of the human head, to set the organs in movement … for instance, when you move your eyes, there is an eye nerve, and this is not the nerve of sight. Thus there are ten pairs of nerves emanating from the human head, and two pairs of nerves that travel further downwards. And the Atlantean felt twelve streams enter into him; he saw them. What you now have in yourselves as nerves seemed to him to be brought about by twelve streams entering into him.
While it is true that we owe the twelve nerve-fibres to the fact that the air became colder, that the whole of “Niflheim” became a cold land, something else also was needed. Up to this time the heart had had quite a different task. In a being who conjured up his environment clairvoyantly before the soul, the blood circulation had to be quite different from what it now became for this Atlantean, as the external world gradually revealed itself to his external senses. This transformation of the heart was brought about by the warmer region of Atlantis. You must imagine a people who began to undergo a transformation of the heart, while at the same time the other part of their nature was being stimulated by the cold north.
The streams which came from the north transformed the human forehead to such an extent that man could become a thinker, an observer through the senses. These northern forces, acting on the twelve streams — this is what made man into a thinker. And the warm stream gave him feeling, gave him sensitivity, and also his present-day capacity for living in the senses. Because the heart now filled with blood, had become a different organ, bodily nutri¬tion also had to change. For with the change in the blood circulation, the sap nourishing it from without had to become quite different. Man was worked upon from two sides, so that on the one hand a physical body could be created capable of becoming the bearer of the brain, while on the other hand the physical parts could be supplied with the blood that was needed by this transformed man.
All this came before the ancient Atlantean seer as a picture. The inflow of the spiritual was represented as twelve streams coming down from the cold north, and that which remoulded the heart was what pressed upwards as fire from the south. This was his actual astral vision. And a picture was to be seen for what transformed the physical man with his bony system into the man who sees in the modern way — the picture of primeval man. And again a picture for that which nourished him, the picture of animal nature.
How was all this put before the people? They would not have been able to understand it: they had still retained an old clairvoyance. What had to be said to convey to them the truth in a form they could understand? This is what one would have had to say to them: “Before you were able to see into the world which you now recognise as your world, there was nothing but a dark, yawning space like a chasm; you are gradually projecting pictures into this space. But all that is there in space has come from this chasm.”
This is the ancient Germanic chaos. Then the seer would say: “From the north there flowed hither twelve actually visible streams, and from the south came sparks of fire — it is this that has brought about the new form of the digestive system.” And he would go on to say: “Through the union of the fire-sparks with the twelve streams, two beings arose — the Giant Ymir and the Cow Audhumla.” Who is this giant Ymir? He is the thinking man, who has come into being out of the chaos; he is the new body which has been created by the twelve streams. And the cow Audhumla is the new nutritive element. In the new man the giant Ymir and the cow Audhumla are united. Here we have the origin of the Germanic version of Genesis.
The ancient Druid priest derived his wisdom from what had actually occurred. He knew that he would be understood if he described what was presented to the seer in the astral — the twelve streams which come from the north and constitute the twelve pairs of nerves, and the sparks of fire which are emitted from the south and unite with the northern streams.
And how beautifully it is told! The two worlds have arisen from the cold Niflheim and the hot, flame-flashing Muspelheim — so we are told. Niflheim releases the twelve streams, Muspelheim the sparks of fire. And now let us go a stage further.
We know that in the moment when the etheric body of the head united with the physical head, the ego arose as a clear self-conscious ego. Of course, man had already felt himself to be an ego-being, but until then ego-consciousness had not dawned on him. What had happened to him? There was the influence of the twelve streams which had permeated his head with the nerves of the brain; but there was also the influence derived from the union of the trunk, the rest of the body, with the head — derived, that is, from the cow Audhumla. These two things united at that time; you can see this clearly in the human being. What came from the south is connected with an earlier, quite different formation which had developed out of a quite different human condition. What is new is the sexual principle. This was one thing which had established itself clearly in man. The second new thing was the form of the heart itself; and the third thing, which developed little by little at this time, was speech. Speech, too, is a creation of Atlantis. Without speech you cannot envisage the higher spirituality. Neither can you think of it without the self-conscious sexual being. Thus the new man is marvellously organised. His thinking, his vision of external objects, is membered into his head; as a sort of counterbalance to his thinking we have conscious sexuality, the conscious heart-principle, and conscious speech, which is the expression of his inner world.
All this, too, is imaged on the astral plane, as well as the twelve streams. It appears as a tree with three roots — sexuality, the heart, and speech. These three are in communication with the head. The nervous currents stream unceasingly to and fro, like a being who is constantly running up and down — like a being in whom the lower part seems to be in continuous conflict with the spiritual. These two streams are in constant conflict with one another. The nerve fluids are all the time flowing down from above and back again. The clairvoyant sees this happening. That is really the picture of the coming into being of modern man in preparation for post-Atlantean times.
The ancient Druid priest, too, had to speak in this way. He had to say: “This can be seen, this is how it is.” The people did not understand it, but he could describe it to them in a picture. Therefore he said to them: “What exists in man to-day, what is now living in him, the ego-personality, comes from three sources. One of these sources, which existed previously but has only now come to consciousness, derives from Niflheim. But there is a snake gnawing all the time at this particular root, from which the whole tree originates. This snake is called Nidhoggr.” One can really see this snake biting; for the excesses of the sexual principle are something that bites at man.
Then we have the second root, which is there because the new life of man comes from the heart. Everything he does comes under the impulse of his heart; he feels what makes him happy or unhappy; he feels the present, and also what he owes to those with whom he grows into the future — the real human destiny felt by the heart. And the priest-sages said: “Here is the root beside which the Norns sit and spin — the three Norns, Urdb, Verdhandi and Skuld, past, present and future.”
The third root is what man experiences as speech. Hence Mimir’s Well is at this root — Mimir, who drinks the draught of wisdom. And up above the tree-tops reach into the realms of the spirit: and out of the spiritual come drops of the fructifying nerve-fluid. Hence it was said: “Up above is a she-goat who perpetually fructifies what is down below.” And this fructifying principle was also described as a squirrel which runs down from above and carries back grumblings from below.
The new man in the new world is like a tree, an ash that has three roots. One root comes from the north, from Niflheim; the second from the warm Muspelheim; and the third from Mimir’s Well. They are fructified from above by the goat, and a squirrel runs down and returns with complaints from below. The whole is called ‘the World Ash’ — Yggdrasil. In this tree the cosmic forces are gathered together. The tree is the ‘ego-bearer.’ Yggdrasil means ego-bearer. ‘Ygg’ is ‘I’, and ‘drasil’ comes from the same root as the German verb tragen (to bear).
Now try to remember how many learned and ignorant, clever and stupid explanations of this Germanic myth have been given. None of them has any value for occultism. For occultists the statement that every sign — and even stories are signs — has its reality in the spiritual world holds good, and only when we know what is in tune with the spiritual world do we know the true significance of signs and myths. No one can revive and make use of the forces that reside in the Germanic line of development who does not approach myths in this way. No sign has a significance in occultism that cannot be seen in the higher world, and the ancient myths are signs, realities. If we are able to decipher the writing, we gaze deep into past ages, and at the same time the myths fructify us. Our abstract science can point to the twelve pairs of nerves: the occultist leads us into the entire cosmic connection. And in this way the whole connection becomes clear, as a symbol for the hidden spiritual. Therefore the occultist says, “If a man knows himself rightly, he knows himself to be a symbol.”
Man himself, as a transitory being, is a symbol for something that is imperishable. But when he recognises the imperishable, there dawns in him the recognition of his own imperishable core.