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The Spiritual Hierarchies
GA 110

Lecture I

12 April 1909, Düsseldorf

This course of lectures will take us into exalted regions of the spiritual world. We shall be led from the earth on which we live into the wide physical spaces of the cosmos, uplifted into the spiritual spheres from which the physical universe has derived its origin. They will show that the fundamental aim of knowledge and wisdom is to solve the greatest of all riddles, the riddle of man. To do so, we shall have to draw our explanations from far distant spheres. Thus, it is necessary, that, to follow this course with understanding, one should be acquainted at least with the basic concepts of anthroposophy.

When we speak of the Spiritual Hierarchies, we must turn our inner gaze upwards to beings who exist above earthly man. In the visible sense world we are only aware of beings who represent four degrees of a single hierarchy, that is, the worlds of the minerals, plants, animals and man. Above man, a realm of invisible beings is to be found that can be investigated by supersensible cognition by those who have developed the ability to do so. We rise in this way toward powers in the supersensible, invisible world that form a continuation of the four stages to be found on earth.

You are all familiar with the fact that knowledge of these realms has not come into existence in our period of human evolution, nor is their investigation limited to the present time. A primeval world wisdom, as one might call it, exists in which everything that man can fathom, that he can know and realize, the ideas and concepts he can acquire, everything that can be attained through clairvoyant imagination, inspiration and intuition, has been prefigured in deed and in knowledge by beings who stand above him. These things are experienced afterwards, as it were. Consider, for example, a watchmaker who first conceives the idea for a watch and then sets out to make it. He constructs the watch according to the ideas that have been envisioned prior to its construction. Later, one can take the watch apart, analyze it, study it and reconstruct the thoughts of the watchmaker. Indeed, at our present stage of evolution, we can have only this kind of connection with the primeval universal wisdom, that is, to the spiritual beings who stand above us. It was spiritual beings who originally had the imaginations, inspirations and intuitions, the ideas and thoughts according to which our surrounding world has been created. We recover these thoughts and ideas in the world and, when we rise to clairvoyant perception, we discover the imaginations, inspirations and intuitions through which we can gain access again to the realm of spiritual beings. We can say, therefore, that even before our world came into existence, the wisdom and plan of the world of which we are going to speak already existed.

How far must we go back in time and yet remain within the limits of reality? To seek access to this primeval universal wisdom should we go back to a particular historical period of some great teacher? Much could be learned from this, but in order to gain access to the loftiest manifestations of primeval wisdom, it will be necessary to return to a period when the outer visible earth was not yet in existence. Out of this wisdom has the world come forth. According to it the divine spiritual beings created the world, but it was later imparted to man. He was able in his thinking to apprehend the ideas according to which the gods created the world. The primeval universal wisdom evolved through several stages following the great Atlantean epoch. It first appeared in the first post-Atlantean period through the ancient Holy Rishis, the great teachers of India.

Through the Holy Rishis the primeval wisdom appeared in a form hardly conceivable to the man of today. This is due to the fact that his capacities of thinking and feeling have changed considerably since the great teachers of India taught the people of the first post-Atlantean period. If one were to repeat today what the Holy Rishis said, man the world over would merely hear so many words. In order to understand the wisdom that was imparted to post-Atlantean humanity, quite other powers of comprehension are necessary from those of our time. All that is to be found in the best books regarding primeval world wisdom represents but a faint echo of it, and in most cases it is merely obscured and darkened. No matter how sublime the Vedas may appear to us today, or how beautiful the Songs of Zarathustra, or how magnificent the language in which the ancient wisdom of Egypt was clad—indeed, they cannot be admired enough—nevertheless, they give but a dull reflection of the original wisdom of Hermes, the great teaching of Zarathustra, or the sublime knowledge proclaimed by the ancient Rishis.

Yet, this sublime wisdom was preserved and could always be found among small groups who guarded the Mysteries, the term used to encompass this knowledge. In the Mysteries of India, Persia, Chaldea and Egypt, as well as in the Christian Mysteries as they have existed up to our time, the primeval wisdom of humanity has been preserved. Until recently, a living wisdom not to be found in books existed only in these small circles. It will be made clear in the course of these lectures that what was kept alive in this way must now be made accessible to ever larger groups of people. The stream of the ancient wisdom of the Rishis, for instance, has never dried up. It has continued to flow, like a fountain of life, into our era. This primeval, divine wisdom that was given to humanity in earlier times was perpetuated by Zarathustra and by his pupils, the Chaldean and Egyptian teachers. It streamed into the revelation of Moses and came forth again with a new impulse, renewed in the fountain of life, in the appearance of Christ on earth. But as a result, the stream became so deep, so inward in character, that it could flow only gradually into humanity again.

Since the time of the external proclamation of Christianity, the primeval world wisdom has flowed slowly and gradually into humanity. Even so, it has produced no more than a beginning. Its message is to be found in the Gospels and in other Christian writings, which contain the wisdom of the Holy Rishis in a form renewed in the fountain of life. But how could this message be understood at the beginning of our era—an era that was to be purified by Christianity? It was understood least of all through the Gospels. Gradually a wider understanding will come about but only after the general darkening has become more widespread. For the majority of people today the Gospels are the most completely sealed of books. In future, they will come to be understood by those who have allowed themselves to be renewed by the forces of Oriental wisdom. Their contents have been guarded in small circles and perpetuated in various Mystery societies such as the Brotherhood of the Holy Grail and the Brotherhood of the Rosicrucians. Their treasures of knowledge have been closely guarded and only made accessible to those who, through several trials, have prepared themselves to receive this living wisdom. Thus, the treasures of Eastern and Western wisdom were almost inaccessible to the majority of men for centuries after the beginning of our era. Some small amount of it trickled through here and there in the outer world, but for the most part it has remained a secret of the new Mysteries.

Now a time has come when the contents of the primeval world wisdom can be brought to a greater number of people in an appropriate form. Since the last third of the nineteenth century, primeval wisdom can be spoken of in a less veiled form. Because of certain happenings in the spiritual world, the Guardians of the Mysteries have been allowed to let some of the ancient wisdom flow out to the world at large. You are all familiar with the development of the Theosophical Society and must realize that the impetus for its development accompanied the proclamation of certain truths, in a form I need not describe here, known as the Stanzas of Dzyan, which are included in the Secret Doctrine. They do, in fact, contain some of the deepest and most significant pieces of wisdom, much of which originated in the teachings of the Holy Rishis that flowed into the sacred lore of the East. There is also much in them that streamed into Western Europe after the rejuvenating impulse of Christianity had occurred. The Stanzas of Dzyan contain not only wisdom preserved in the East, but also much that shines like a bright light through the centuries of our era into the Middle Ages and the Mystery Schools of the West. Much of what is to be found in the Stanzas will only gradually be understood in all its depths. It must be made clear that they contain a wisdom that cannot as yet be understood in the widest theosophical circles or fathomed with the exoteric capacities of the present day. It is a hopeless task, indeed, to attempt to interpret this important realm exoterically.

After the ice had been broken, however, one could speak more freely out of the well-springs of Western occultism, which was itself a continuation of Oriental occultism that had been transplanted to meet the different spiritual and physical conditions of life in the West. The time has now come to speak out of the sources of the living occultism faithfully guarded in the Rosicrucian Mysteries. There is no such thing as a wisdom of the East that has not streamed into Western occultism. In fact, in the teachings and investigations of the Rosicrucians, you will find everything that has been preserved by the great sages of the Orient. Nothing, absolutely nothing of what is known through Eastern wisdom is missing in the wisdom of the West. There is only this difference. The wisdom of the West has had to illumine, with the light kindled in humanity by the Christ impulse, the whole body of Oriental teaching without losing any of it. It should not be said of Western occultism, which was derived from the hidden Rishis of the West who were invisible to human eyes, that a single iota of Oriental occultism is missing in it. Nothing is missing. It is simply that everything had only to be renewed out of the rejuvenating fountain of the Christ impulse. The great wisdom of the supersensible world as it was first uttered by the Holy Rishis must resound again in what is proclaimed about the Spiritual Hierarchies and their reflection into the physical world. Just as the geometry of Euclid has not been altered although it is taught today by means of new human faculties, so the wisdom of the Holy Rishis has not changed even though it is taught and acquired by capacities kindled by the Christ impulse. So, much of what has to be said about the spiritual worlds may be called Eastern wisdom. There should be no misunderstandings in these matters. Unfortunately, they occur all too easily.

Willingness to free oneself from certain misconceptions will prevent misinterpretations of what was said yesterday in the Easter lecture, for example. This is mentioned in order to penetrate to a fuller understanding. Those who do not wish to do so might say, “You spoke yesterday of the divine truths of the Buddha. You said that the Buddha taught and revealed the divine truths of life and of life's sorrows; that birth is sorrow, illness is sorrow, old age is sorrow, death is sorrow; that to be separated from loved ones and what one loves is sorrow; that to be denied what one desires is sorrow. You also said that we should consider post-Christian times and those who gained a true understanding of the Christ impulse to see how the ancient truths of the Buddha concerning the sorrows of life began to lose some of their validity through the permeation of them by the Christ impulse, which acted as a cure for the sorrows of life.

“You said that Buddha taught that birth is sorrow, but one who truly understands the Christ would reply that through birth we enter into a life that we share with Christ, and through this sharing the sorrow of life is extinguished. The same is true of the healing power of the Christ impulse, which eradicates illness. Illness, death, etc., are no longer sorrow for one who rightly understands Christ. Further objections to what you have said might be made, but I can show you that the same words that are found in the holy writings of the Buddha can also be found in the Gospels. There too, it is said that life, illness, etc., are sorrows and it might be assumed superficially that even though we possess these modern religious documents, their contents can be traced to Buddhism. One might conclude from this that there is no progress or development in the various religions since they all embody the same truths. But you have spoken of progress and have told us that because of it the ancient holy truths of Buddhism are no longer true because of Christianity.”

For an individual to arrive at this conclusion from what has been said would be for him to suffer the most grievous misconception because that was not even implied. Indeed, all of the foregoing was said with the exception of the last sentence. In matters as subtle as these, however, it is important to develop a precise understanding. This can only be comprehended by one who has developed a capacity for objectivity, certainly not by a fanatic. A person who speaks out of the source of Rosicrucian wisdom will never attack the contents of the writings of the great Buddha, nor claim that anything in them is untrue. What, through his illumination, the Buddha beheld of the great truths of the sorrows of life is correct in every detail. Nothing can distract from it because profound truths are contained in it. Birth is sorrow, illness is sorrow, old age is sorrow, death is sorrow, etc., but the Christ impulse is the powerful remedy for us. Christ cancels sorrows, which are indeed present unless a mighty impulse raises the world beyond them.

The Christ was able to be effective because Buddha proclaimed the truth. It was necessary for humanity to be led down from spiritual heights where primeval world wisdom was active in its purest form. Mankind had to be guided to independence on the physical plane and as a result life and illness became sorrow. But in the course of evolution a mighty remedy for these irrefutable facts had to appear. Does anyone who makes the following claim deny the reality of the matter? Yes, the facts are true, but at the same time a remedy has been gradually given to heal the situation produced by the facts. In the lofty heights of the spheres of the Spiritual Hierarchies there is no question of Buddhism opposing Christianity, or vice versa. There the Buddha stretches out his hand to Christ, and Christ reaches out to the Buddha.

If one fails to recognize an ascending development in human evolution, one also fails to recognize the most spiritual deed that has occurred in earth evolution, the deed of Christ. Thus, the wisdom of the East, which has brought the wisdom of the Holy Rishis to us, is not to be denied. Over long periods of time during which this wisdom streamed out, it became increasingly difficult for the masses who had no access to the sources of the Mysteries to understand this wisdom. In ancient Atlantean times, prior to the great catastrophe, the masses of humanity were still endowed with dim powers of clairvoyance. Things appeared different to them when they turned their gaze to the heavenly expanses; looking upward, they perceived the Spiritual Hierarchies. It was only later, after this clairvoyance had disappeared, that the physical eye came to behold only the physical space of the heavens. Before the Atlantean catastrophe it would have been sheer nonsense to speak about the heavenly bodies spread out in space as they are today. Then, the clairvoyant eye gazed into heavenly spheres and beheld the spiritual world. There would have been no point in speaking about Mercury, Neptune or Saturn as astronomy does today because its theories are based only on what can be discerned with the physical eye. This was not so for clairvoyant humanity in ancient Atlantean times because one did not then see sharply defined stars.

What the physical eye sees today is only the outward expression of the spiritual reality that humanity formerly beheld. When we look through a telescope to the place where Jupiter stands in the heavens, we see, so to speak, a physical globe surrounded by moons. But what did the ancient Atlantean behold when he looked clairvoyantly at the same spot? During those times the physical eye saw much as one does today when one tries to peer through a thick autumn mist. Then the light is surrounded by a kind of misty aura and disappears in the colored rings that form around it. The Atlanteans would have seen the physical planet Jupiter in a similar way. They would have beheld its aura as well as those spiritual beings of which the physical planet is but the external expression, thus beholding those elements that are still connected with Jupiter but no longer perceptible to human beings today. Before the Atlantean catastrophe the spiritual eye of man swept the expanses of the universe and beheld spiritual beings everywhere. At that time one could only speak in terms of a spiritual content. It would have been meaningless to talk about physical stars at a stage when the physical eye was not yet open as it is today. Gazing into these vast, wide spaces of the universe, man actually beheld the Spiritual Hierarchies.

The following comparison may help us to understand further the course of evolution. Let us imagine ourselves in a thick fog. We cannot see each separate light because everything is shrouded in a misty aura. Suddenly the fog lifts and the single lights become plainly visible, but as a result the auras can no longer be seen. In former times the eye beheld the aura of Jupiter and the spiritual beings in it who, because of their particular stage of development, belonged to Jupiter. But as humanity developed, the capacity of physical sight also developed. The aura remained even though man can no longer see it. The physical center, however, gradually became more clearly visible. Thus, the spiritual counterpart was lost when the physical aspect became manifest. The spiritual knowledge surrounding the stars, and of the beings who dwelt in them, was preserved in the Mysteries and spoken of by the Holy Rishis. At a time when humanity was capable only of physical sight, the Holy Rishis spoke of the spiritual atmosphere, of the spiritual populations in cosmic bodies that are distributed in space.

But consider the situation that arose. Within the sanctuaries of knowledge one could speak of spiritual beings who surround the cosmic bodies. Outside, people came to speak more in terms of physical matter as sense perceptions became increasingly sharper. When the Holy Rishis uttered the word Mercury—they never actually used this word, but let us use it to make ourselves clear—did they mean the physical orb in the cosmos? No, not even the ancient Greeks, when speaking of Mercury, implied the physical planet but rather the totality of spiritual beings inhabiting it. When the word Mercury was spoken in the sanctuaries of knowledge, it referred to supersensible worlds, to spiritual beings. When the pupils in these sanctuaries pronounced Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in their respective languages, they were referring to a sequence of spiritual beings. Today, these words refer to the coarsest physical substance of the planets, and the most important aspect is thereby omitted. The teacher in ancient times evoked the idea of a mighty spiritual realm and when he pointed to the place in the heavens where the Moon stood, he was conscious of the fact that the lowest rank of the Spiritual Hierarchies dwelt there. But the man who had severed himself from a spiritual beholding because of his increasing sensory perception, looked up and saw only the physical moon, which he then called, “Moon.” One word for two things, which, though connected, called forth quite different representations in the minds of men. The teacher of the spiritual stream, in referring to Mercury, Sun, and Mars, meant by these words something quite different from the teacher in the materialistic stream.

The two streams drifted further and further apart. In the Mysteries, the words that later came to denote the external heavenly bodies, had previously always referred to supersensible worlds, to a sequence of spiritual realms. The outer world always understands the words to mean the material aspect, a fact that is true even of the present-day mythology—I use the word deliberately—that we call modern astronomy. Spiritual science recognizes the full value of all mythologies, and so it also appreciates the worth of the mythology termed modern astronomy, which sees only space filled with physical cosmic bodies. This modern mythology is, for one who really knows, only a particular phase of all mythologies. A golden thread runs through them from the sagas of the gods of the inhabitants of ancient Europe to the mythologies of the Greeks and Romans, the obscure myths of the Middle Ages, and the fully justified and admirable ones founded by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. A time will come when men will say of the modern mythology, “In the past, there were men who thought it correct to place the physical sun in the center of an ellipse and who made the planets rotate in ellipses around it. They constructed a cosmic universal system as earlier people had done before them. But today, we know that it is all mere saga and legend.”

Indeed, such a time will come however much the old mythologies are despised by the modern world, which regards it as absurd to speak of a Copernican mythology. But this will help us to understand how words have been interpreted so differently in the course of time.

Nevertheless, the primeval cosmic wisdom flowed onward. Exotericaliy, it was understood less and less because of its increasingly materialistic interpretations; true spiritual insight ebbed away. In order that humanity might not completely lose its connection with the primeval spiritual wisdom, mankind was again directed to the starry realms at the time of the rejuvenation of the ancient wisdom at the beginning of our era. Man was told in clear, direct words that, when he looks up with his physical eyes to the heavens, he will not only find a material universe out there, but also spiritually filled realms. The most intimate pupil of St. Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite, clearly proclaimed in Athens that there is not only matter out there in space but that, when the soul rises sensitively into the realms of the universe, it will also find spiritual beings who stand above man in evolution.

Dionysius coined different terms from those used previously, for otherwise people would only have thought he referred to material entities. The Rishis spoke of spiritual hierarchies and they meant the same as when Greek and Roman wisdom referred to the ascending realms of Moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. Dionysius, the pupil of St. Paul, had the same worlds in mind as the Rishis. He clearly emphasized, however, that one was dealing with spiritual realms, and so he deliberately chose words that he knew would be taken spiritually, that is Angels, Archangels, Archai, Powers, Mights, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim. But humanity had completely forgotten what it once had known. If the connection between the terminology of Dionysius the Areopagite and the Rishis had been understood, one would have known that what is called Moon by the Rishis, and the realm of the Angels in the other Mysteries, refer to one and the same thing. One might have heard the word Mercury on the one hand, and Archangel on the other and would have known that they are one and the same. Archai and Venus refer to the same realm, as do Sun and Powers. On hearing the word Mars, one would have had the feeling of rising to the Mights. The word Jupiter in the school of Dionysius corresponds to Dominions, and the term Saturn to Thrones.

In wider circles this knowledge had disappeared and was no longer known. As science became increasingly materialistic, the old names, which had once denoted spiritual realities, remained but they applied to matter. In contrast, a spiritual life existed that referred to Archangels, Angels, and so forth, but it had lost the connection with the physical expression of these spiritual beings. Thus we see how primeval cosmic wisdom penetrated into the school founded by St. Paul through Dionysius. Now it is a question of permeating the newly founded knowledge with the spiritual impulse of the past. Indeed, it is the task of spiritual science or anthroposophy to forge again the bond between the physical and the spiritual, between the world of the earth and the Spiritual Hierarchies. For those who do not know the true origin of ideas about the outer material world, the spiritual aspect of knowledge must remain incomprehensible. This becomes particularly noticeable in dealing with writings that can, although they contain only a faint echo of primeval cosmic wisdom, nevertheless, be understood only by means of this wisdom. In order to exemplify the difficulties involved, let us take a passage from the Celestial Song, the Bhagavad Gita, which throws considerable light on man's relation to the Hierarchies. The passage can be found in Chapter 8 and opens with verse 23:

“I will explain to you, seeker of truth, (that is the usual translation) under what circumstances the lofty spirits of gods depart through the gate of death in order to be reborn or not. I say to you: Behold the fire, the day and the time of the waxing moon and the months of the increasing light of the sun. Those who die at that time pass through the gate of death into Brahma. But those who depart in the sign of smoke, in the night, at the time of the waning moon, during the decreasing days of the sun, they enter the lunar light through the gate of death and return again to this world.”

My dear friends, here you have a passage from the Bhagavad Gita that tells us that the progress of a human being and his successive incarnations depends upon whether he dies in the sign of light, by day, by waxing moon, during the six months that the sun stands high in the heavens, or whether he dies in the sign of the smoke, by night, when the moon is waning and the sun is low. That is the literal meaning of the statement. Those, however, who pass through the gate of death in the sign of fire, by day, by waxing moon, when the sun is high in the heavens, are said to need no longer to return. Of the others, who die in the sign of smoke, by night, by waning moon during the six months when the sun is low, it is said that they are unable to rise to the level of Brahma but only to the height of the moon and therefore must return again. This passage in the Celestial Song of the East presents untold difficulties to those who seek an exoteric interpretation. It can only be explained when light is shed upon it from spiritual knowledge. The light out of which the passage was in fact written, continues to shine in the Mystery Schools. It was rejuvenated through Christianity and is a light that illumines the bond existing between Moon and Angels, Mercury and Archangels, Venus and Archai, and so forth. We shall find the key to such a passage, which we have chosen as an example, by means of this light. It will be our starting point this evening, and once we have discovered the key we shall rise to an understanding of the Spiritual Hierarchies.