Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Myths and Symbols
GA 101

21 October 1907, Berlin

Translation by Dorothy S. Osmond

A Mongolian Legend. The Hermaphrodite. Man’s Victory over the Physiognomy of Death; the Skeleton. The Flight of Birds.

The different lectures given on the subject of sagas and myths have shown us that ancient knowledge of the spiritual world is contained in narratives which have survived among the peoples or have spread in some other way through humanity. The spirit of man has preserved in these myths a kind of thinking and feeling which once enabled humanity to possess a far higher form of knowledge than can ever be attained by the intellectual observation that is bound up with the outer senses. But one who has the gift of real discernment can perceive the deep wisdom-truths radiating from these brief legends and narratives.

We know that there was once a great migration from West to East; as certain sections of the Atlantean peoples moved from the West across to the East, they carried with them remembrances of conditions prevailing in old Atlantis and in still earlier times. In those who ponder the indications contained in the legends of these peoples with insight quickened by Spiritual Science, a knowledge of ancient times will begin to dawn and feelings that may well be stirred by these wisdom-truths then find their bearings in the divine World Order. The more closely wisdom approaches intellect, the colder, more devoid of feeling it becomes; the higher it ascends, the warmer, the more full of feeling it becomes.

Is there anyone whose feelings glow with real warmth while he is studying some scientific theory? The theory of physical heredity or adaptation never stirs the feelings. But if someone hears how humanity has lived through the conditions of Saturn-, Sun-, and Moon-existence, through the epochs of Lemuria and Atlantis—if he hears these things and remains inwardly unmoved, then the state of his soul cannot be really healthy. Such narratives strike chords in the very heart of a man whose mind and feelings are open and unbiased. Truths of this nature are contained in the sagas and myths and even if a man does not understand them, he will surely glimpse something of their profundity and wisdom in the feelings which arise in him.

Among the Mongolians in Asia there is a simple tale which has found its way to regions in Europe where Mongolian sagas still survive. It is a short, deeply moving narrative.

There is a mother who has at the top of her head a single eye. She wanders despairingly through the world, for she has lost her only child. On her wanderings she picks up every stone she sees, holds it in front of this eye and then, in utter disappointment, casts it away so that it splits into a thousand fragments. She has realised that this is not her child. Believing that she will find the child in every object, she seizes it, holds it in front of her eye and casts it from her. And so she hurries on, never at rest, always meeting the same experience.

This narrative is nothing else than a remembrance living in the peoples who wandered farthest to the East and who in Atlantis had still known of primeval conditions of our Earth, when men themselves were still able to see into the spiritual worlds. You all know that the bones at the top of a child’s head close only by degrees. In very ancient times there was, at this place in the head, a channel of communication between the human being and the outside world. If one had been able to see this connecting-link, it would have appeared as a body of light at the top of the head, raying outwards into the world.

This organ was not an eye but an instrument of feeling—particularly for warmth—by means of which the human being was able to look out freely into the astral world, to perceive not only bodies but the beings within those bodies around him. This organ has shrivelled away to become the pineal gland, as it is called, now covered by the vault of the skull. But as a heritage of this ancient organ which enabled him to experience the spiritual worlds, man still has something within him today, namely, the longing for those worlds which have been shut away from him by the closed door of his head. This longing in the souls of men finds expression in the religions. Just as in days of yore man saw around him beings aglow with warmth and feeling, so nowadays he sees himself surrounded by physical objects.

Truly it is a moving narrative. The woman, the mother of humanity who has the power of clairvoyance, wanders through the world, seeking for something that will satisfy her longing but she does not find it in any of the outer objects which are disclosed to mankind today through the senses. It is with this profundity that the spirit of man speaks to us in the sagas and myths whose real meaning can only be discovered with the help of Spiritual Science. It might be thought that the story is sufficiently explained by linking it with the remembrance of a condition actually prevailing among mankind, but in reality it is far deeper. With these narratives it is not only a matter of what is said but also of how it is said. They contain something deeper still.

There may seem to be a contradiction in the fact that the woman in whom this organ is preserved perceives and recognises external objects with a single eye, whereas the things of the outer world can be perceived only with the two eyes as they are today. But precisely here lies a deep mystery-truth, only to be fathomed by turning our gaze to the happenings in which humanity has been involved. We shall see how applicable this knowledge is in practical life when it is viewed in the light of Spiritual Science.

When a scientist is examining a human body in the dissecting room or studying physiological processes from outside, he feels that the same approach can be made to every one of the organs; he uses the same instruments when dissecting the heart or the stomach; he thinks that the only matter of real importance is that of the particular chemical constituents of which these organs are composed. He has no inkling whatever that they differ fundamentally, according to the sources of their form and structure. None of these organs would exist if an astral body were not membered into man, and because the nervous system is excreted, as it were, from this inner member, the nerve-substance is, in its very essence, different from other substances. The shapers and architects of the nerve-substance have their life and being in the astral world.

In certain realms there are forces, akin to the human ego, which gave the primary impulse for the formation of the red blood. Ego-beings are the shapers and architects of this red blood. They were working from outside before the Ego was able to come down into man. The animals have not an Ego; they are ‘possessed’ by the red blood. But man attains freedom because he is possessed by his ‘I’, by his own very self. It was necessary that he should take possession of himself in order that he might be able to achieve self-mastery.

In the glandular organs the etheric body is working—that is to say, the beings who are active in etheric space. In order to understand the glands we must be clear about one thing;—if there had been no astral body in man, but only an etheric body, then only such beings as are active in etheric space would have worked on the organs in animal and man; the organs we know as glands could never have arisen but only organs similar to those we find in the plant-kingdom around us, for there too the etheric body is working. Every new and additional principle works upon and transforms whatever is already in existence.

Because the astral body penetrates into man and builds the nerve-system, it also works back upon the ether world and transforms the original plant-organs in such a way that they become glands.

If we go back to the original organs from which the liver or spleen or gall-bladder have been formed, we find something altogether different from what comes to light when these organs are dissected with ordinary scientific instruments. When our knowledge of organs is drawn from the higher worlds and then applied in practice, medical science which can be effective in the real sense, will come into being. This is only in the preparatory stage today but will become reality in the future.

In studying the human body it is particularly important to know that certain organs have assumed their present form at a comparatively late stage, whereas others have existed in their present form since primeval times. The organs which only received their present form at a late stage are destined, in a not far distant future, to decay, to wither and fall away from the human body. Other organs are only now in their initial stage of development. These latter organs are destined in the future for an important role in everything that comes to pass through man. Everything connected with the heart and with the larynx will be a creative force. The heart and larynx are still only at the beginning of their development. They will become organs of reproduction, of procreation. An indication of this can be found in the change of the male voice at puberty. Heart and larynx will be transformed into greater and greater perfection of form and later on will bring forth human beings.

On the other hand the procreative organs as they are at present, are in the dying stage; they will harden more and more and sever themselves from the human body. We only understand man’s body when we know how the dying part is related to the progressive part in its evolution. Man has within himself something that is on the way to death and something that is budding more and more into new life. Occult observation can confirm in the case of each of man’s organs whether it is on the way to death or whether it is in the youthful stage.

Once upon a time the pineal gland was very active and powerful; it has now become an organ of almost no importance. The methods for attaining clairvoyance will again conjure forth a new organ from the present pineal gland. Certain organs are imbued with life again when they have reached the stage of death; others die off entirely, disappear from the physical plane and then arise in a new form. Let us study those organs in man which are most obviously on the descending path leading to death, and those in which young life is unfolding on the upward path. The organs of greatest importance are those in which both death and life are contained. The use to which they are put is, from a certain point of view, of supreme importance.

You are all acquainted with the elementary fact that man consists of physical body, etheric body and astral body; within the astral body is the ‘I’, the Ego. The ‘I’ works, to begin with, upon the astral body, continually transforming one part of it. When the ‘I’ came down from the bosom of the Godhead and began for the first time to work upon the astral body, this astral body was, in point of fact, a gift bestowed upon man. Let us picture man at the moment when the ‘I’ penetrated into him. The physical body, the etheric body were there, and penetrating them, the astral body. Then, from above, the ‘I’ strikes into this body and begins to work in the human being. The part of the astral body that is shaped by the ‘I’ is therefore twofold—one part is also possessed by the animal and another arises in the human being because the ‘I’ has worked upon the astral body. In the animal there has been no such incision of the ‘I’; the astral body of the animal has been formed in a particular way, but by powers outside. Everything that comes from the higher worlds shapes and brings about new transformation in the old organ. It is from this standpoint that we must study the relations between these three bodies.

The physical body is composed of the physical and chemical substances existing in the external world; with these alone, without the other bodies, it would simply be mineral. But the ether body, or life body, permeates it in all directions.

What is the function of the life-body? At every moment it counteracts the destruction of the physical body, fights against this destruction; without the life-body the physical body would succumb to the chemical and physical forces and disintegrate, as indeed it does as soon as the life-body has abandoned it at death. While the two are united during life, the etheric body fights all the time against this disintegrating process.

And what is the function of the astral body? It is very important to study this. In a certain sense the astral body is occupied during waking life—not during sleep—with killing the etheric body all the time, with suppressing the forces unfolded by the etheric body; hence the body becomes exhausted during the day. The astral body is constantly destroying the etheric body. But if this did not happen no consciousness would arise. Consciousness is not possible without the gradual destruction of life. The spiritual activity of life which we are describing, the wonderful, scintillating life in the ether-world and the constant suppression of this rhythm by the astral world—this is what gives rise to consciousness. These processes in the spiritual worlds express themselves in the physical world in the following way:—The moment consciousness shoots into what is merely life, a process of hardening, of ossification, begins in the physical body. The more the soft, organic life-masses are permeated inwardly by hard, bony formations, the nearer does the animal approach to a conscious state. In the molluscs and snails these hardened inner organs do not yet exist; the hard shell is excreted in order that the dim consciousness possessed by these animals may arise. In animals with a higher degree of consciousness, all osseous substance is secreted as a secondary activity; the hard, cartilaginous tissues and bony structure are separated out from soft, gelatinous masses. In the highest animal this process has almost reached its culmination in an organic system that is practically finished and complete.

In man, something special happens:—A new incision takes place which partially transforms the astral body. A new direction is given to the earlier tendency towards ossification. If man had left the astral body unchanged and had worked only in the direction of skeleton-formation, no culture would have been possible on the earth. The part of the astral body which was kept separate, brought about a new tendency, a particular task. The hardening process in the skeleton-formation is governed by the astral body.

How does this tendency make itself manifest? Whereas the former tendency led more and more towards hardening, towards fixing a culminating point for the astral system in evolution, the astral body in man keeps something back, something that has a tendency to soften again. This makes it possible for evolution to advance. If this tendency had been absent, if everything had streamed into the bony system, there would be no progress, no culture. Animal species do not progress; the evolution of the tiger species, the lion species, has reached its culmination and goes no further. Man, however, with the part of the astral body which has been kept separate, is able to take what has hardened back again and new organs, soft and pliable organs, can be formed. This is extraordinarily significant! In the animal there is no such tendency.

Let us think of a living human being, with his tendency towards hardening on the one side and on the other, his tendency to hold something back. We see that these two tendencies separate when the human being reaches the age of seven—the time of the change of teeth. The tendency which culminates in ossification is manifest in the teeth. But the human being keeps back sufficient life-force to enable him to evolve. Up to the seventh year in the life of the human being it is only what belongs to the species, the genus, that can come to expression. At this point he is able to take his place in the cultural progress of the times and the school period begins. These two things are inwardly connected: the hardening tendency which comes to expression in the formation of the teeth and the tendency towards softening where something must be kept back, something that the etheric body—which becomes free at the seventh year—needs for its development. The two are connected.

There are many phenomena between which it is difficult to perceive any connection if they are not observed from the vantage-point of the spiritual investigator. Puerperal fever,1Puerperal fever is fever caused by uterine infection following childbirth. as it is called, usually goes together with faulty teeth. The connection between the two tendencies, the tendency to hardening in the teeth and the tendency to carry evolution forward, to give play to the procreative force, becomes evident here; if the one has been impaired, the other is injuriously affected. It is important for these two tendencies to be kept in balance and endeavours must be made to adjust life accordingly. It may happen that the tendency to softening gets the upper hand. For example, workers on the land—whose place in civilisation is essentially different from that of town-dwellers—may be brought into the towns. They would be able to adjust themselves if they and their forefathers had grown up in these conditions; but as things are, there is no harmony, no equilibrium between the hardening and the softening forces of their organism. One of the two will get the upper hand. But if the hardening tendency preponderates, the soft tissues of the organism will begin to harden in a remarkable way. Then when the hardening process becomes unduly strong tuberculosis appears.

As long as animals live in their right environment, no illness of this nature will befall them. But if they are removed from this right environment they too will be prone to this disease in which the hardening tendency preponderates—as for example, in the case with monkeys.

Thus do the spiritual worlds work into our physical world and we can only understand the latter by going back to its spiritual foundations. Just let us reflect how closely everything that has been said is connected with man’s happiness or suffering. Equilibrium in the life of man depends upon his organs having assumed their right form in the evolutionary process at the right time. If an organ remains at an earlier stage, if hardening or softening comes about in the wrong way, a life of unhappiness is the result. Each organ must reach a definite stage in its evolution at a definite time. The development even of those organs in man which are not visible may lag behind or hurry too far ahead. In future times, tuberculosis will no longer be injurious because then certain parts of man’s organism must harden. Diseases that are due to the conditions of civilisation differ from all others.

Do we not hear an echo of this in the tale of the Mongolian woman who vainly seeks her lost child? She has the organ in her head at the wrong time. It brings her woe; never pausing, she hastens through the world and finds nothing that can give her eye satisfaction. She seeks in vain for what belongs to her. What deep wisdom has been woven by the Leaders of humanity into this legend!

Let us now go further and consider man as he is today; he consists of organs on the ascending and descending lines of evolution. Stage by stage the astral body has been membered into him. There was a time when his organs were like plants, of the nature of plants. As the result of the astral body having built the nerve-system, the plant-body took flesh upon itself. This process was only gradual and did not affect all the organs at the same time. If we were to go back to pre-Lemurian times in evolution we should find that the human body still had organs of an entirely plantlike nature.

All the organs in the human body in which the sensual desires work less strongly were the earliest to be transformed into organs of flesh; the organs in which the sensual appetites work most strongly—the sexual organs—were the latest to be so transformed. For long, long ages these organs retained their plant-nature and they will be the first to wither away and pass over into a plantlike existence. It was not until sensual desire had already taken deep root in the human being on his path of descent that the sexual organs were transformed from their plant-nature into organs of flesh. Spiritual Science looks back to a godlike age in remote antiquity when the sexual forces were as yet unknown to man. Such a being could have been seen in the ancient Mysteries—a human being still without sex. At the places where the sexual organs are now situated we should have been able to see in this being creeper-like plant-formations, organs permeated by the etheric body only, untouched as yet by the astral body. Such a being was the figure of the Hermaphrodite in the Mysteries; he appeared in the form which Spiritual Science can confirm as having been a man’s actual form in those remote ages. He has plant organs at the place where the organs of reproduction are situated today and creeper-life plants go out from his loins. We can now understand why among very ancient people and in the Bible legend, the fig-leaf is spoken of. It was not there as a cover but pointed to an ancient, sacred existence when the human being was still plantlike at this place in his organism.

But there is still more to be said. We can observe this overcoming of the hardening tendency in man in yet another way. It is noteworthy that in the occult schools particular account was taken of this. When the ‘I’ of man descended to the Earth from the bosom of the Godhead, it was necessary for this hardening tendency to be overcome. But even before that time there were other creatures in whom this development had already taken place, namely the birds. The birds have an ‘I’ but an ‘I’ that lives much more in the outer external world. Therefore there is something in which they have not shared, something that is important for all human occult development. It is what comes to expression in the development of certain parts of the skeleton, in the development of the bone-marrow. The bones of the birds are hollower than the bones of a human being and the other animals; they have retained a much more ancient condition which man, and the higher animals too, have left behind.

Man sends the forces of the ‘I’ right into the marrow of the bones and a considerable part of his occult development consists in changing the passive relationship in which he stands to his bone-marrow into a conscious one. At the present time he can only work upon what is contained within the bones of the skull, upon his brain, but preparation is being made to enable him to work upon that semi-fluid element which permeates the bones. The fact that the essential force in man penetrated into the very bones, made his present evolution possible; in future time he will acquire the forces to work upon the actual substance in his bones and so to transform his body down to the very bones. First of all he gains dominion over his blood and the blood will then be the instrument whereby he can work right into the bone-substance. The bones are a mineralisation of man’s being. When, down to the very bones, man has gained full mastery over what expresses itself, at the wrong time today, as rickets, then he himself will create his own form; he will transform himself into Atma.2Atma or Atman (anthroposophical term: ‘Spirit Man’) is the highest principle of the human being which is now only in its germinal state and will be fully developed only in the last stage of the cosmic evolution from the Old Saturn to the future Vulcan. He has then gained the victory over the hardening principle, the principle that leads to death, that which expresses its real physiognomy in the human skeleton. The skeleton is a true image of death.

Man will conquer the physiognomy of death when he controls through the power of the spirit the form he now controls from outside through the mechanical organs of the muscles. His thoughts today penetrate into his bones; later on it will be his feelings—and then he will have gained the victory over the physiognomy of death.

What abundant blessing the sciences will bring to man when they come to know about the hardening and softening processes! That is what is meant by saying that Spiritual Science must be put to practical application in life. If legends like the ancient Mongolian fairy-tale have still survived, the truths it contains will be expressed in a different form. Man will observe the world with different senses and be able to understand many of its riddles—for example, the secret of the flight of the birds will then be unveiled. By miraculous ways they travel hundreds upon hundreds of miles from the cold North to the warm South and then back again in the spring by different routes. I have said that the birds are a species that has remained behind at earlier stages of existence.

Progress on the Earth in the real sense began only when the Moon separated from the Earth; before then, when the two were united and there was only Sun and Earth-Moon, this Earth-Moon moved around the Sun with one side always turned towards it. All living creatures on the Earth moved once around the Moon during one of the Moon’s revolutions in order to receive the forces and influences of the Sun. And in the flight of the birds, something of that journey round the planets has been preserved. The birds split off from the progressive course of the evolution of humanity before the ‘I’, the Ego, came to the Earth. With advancing physical evolution, the sexual element entered into possession of each single body. Previously, the astral body—which is filled with desires and works upon the single bodies—was not present. The desires were previously a cosmic force, streaming from the ancient Sun to the ancient Moon. This was the force which directed those ancient movements around the planets, for it determined the manner in which procreation took place. The circling of the birds around the planet is thus nothing else than a bridal procession. In the birds the sexual element is still in the surrounding world and this cosmic force is the directing power, guiding and leading the migration. It guides the birds from outside, whereas in the other case it has penetrated into the single bodies. These are the same forces which work within the body and lead one human being to another in the different sexes. The sexual force that works in man does not work from within in the case of the birds; it comes to expression in the flight around the planets.

When man has acquired the faculty to be united with the whole cosmos, he will also possess the power to work outwards again into the cosmos. The woman of the Mongolian legend too will then again be present. But those forces of spiritual perception which are an attribute of the single eye in the head and which being unappeased made her cast aside and shatter every created thing—those forces will then permeate man. He will then perceive not merely the outer physical objects, but that which lies behind and expresses itself in them. The now hardened physical body will then again be spiritual; the woman of the Mongolian legend will live again and look out as of yore into the spiritual world. And what she then takes hold of she can press lovingly to her heart; she can find in a world made spiritual that which she can hold in her loving embrace.

The evolution of man is towards ascent into the cosmos. Were man unwilling to share patiently in this evolution, the force, the fluid contained in the eye of the men of ancient time would not stream through his whole being, would not permeate his organs. This force would spend itself and man would wither away from lack of love. But the mission of man is to permeate with love everything that lives upon his planet, to pour his forces into the universal All. There can be no redemption of the individual without the redemption of what lies outside us. Man has to redeem his planet together with himself. There can only be redemption when man pours his forces into the cosmos; he must not only be one who is himself redeemed, but he himself must become a redeemer.