Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Year as a Symbol of the Great Cosmic Year
GA 165

A lecture delivered in Dornach, on December 31st, 1915. Lecture 17 of 19 from the lecture series: The Festivals of the Seasons (1928), and lecture 6 of 13 from the lecture series: The Spiritual Union of Humanity through the Christ Impulse. Published in German as: Die Geistige Vereinigung der Menschheit Durch Den Christus-Impuls.

31 December 1915, Dornach

Much that I should like to say regarding the spiritual world has to be hinted at pictorially, or rather half pictorially for the pictures must be taken in a real and active sense.

It is necessary to indicate pictorially such things as I desire to bring before your souls to-day for further meditation, because if one were not to speak symbolically but in ideas, one would have to speak at very great length. Each one of you can himself reach the depths of that of which I shall speak to-day, if he holds and ponders over it to a certain extent within his soul.

Every year at this season we pass from one division of time to another. This may at first appear simply a matter of convenience; but it is not so. The men who had to separate time into seasons followed by profound instinct certain great laws regulating the course of time. The festival of the passing of one year into another takes place with us in the depths of winter (naturally, I speak of our part of the world) at the time when all plants have suspended their growth, their blossoming and fruit-bearing. Only certain forest trees remain what is called evergreen through winter. The power of the Sun is then at its lowest.

We know that in all events and occurrences that take place before our senses, spiritual events are interwoven. We know that when we walk through the forest, we have not only the trees about us with their green foliage, but that in the background of existence spiritual and psychic beings are everywhere active. We are already familiar with this thought, which the clever people of our time regard as a childish superstition; we realise it as a true and actual fact.

It is absolutely clear to us that behind all the things of sense, whether they be solid or whether they be happenings which our senses perceive—are spiritual activities, and spiritual life.

Now let us, to begin with, consider what people call our lifeless inorganic Earth, the mineral kingdom of our Earth. This which is apparently lifeless substance, the mineral which to the materialist is merely lifeless, is to us not only endowed with life, but with soul and spirit, so that we speak also of a soul-and-spirit part of our so-called lifeless inorganic, purely mineral Earth. True, when we speak of the consciousness of the Earth, we do not in the first place see in the geological-mineral substance that which may be compared to a man's muscles and blood, but we see only what may be compared to his bony system, namely, the solid earth ; so that when we speak of the consciousness of the Earth, we have to think of it as connected with the whole Earth, not only with its bony system, but with water, air, ether, etc., corresponding to the muscles, blood, and so on.

The whole Earth has consciousness, a consciousness belonging to the mineral kingdom. We shall not occupy ourselves with the differences in this consciousness of the Earth in special regions during the course of the year, but we shall endeavour to evoke in our souls the conception that the whole Earth has consciousness. Let us now turn from the mineral Earth, and direct our attention to all that springs forth and sprouts on Earth, to the plant world.

Looked at in accordance with Spiritual Science, we must regard the plant world, in the first place, as an independent entity in reference to the Earth. That the whole plant world is an independent entity as regards the Earth only comes clearly before us when we consider the consciousness of these two entities or beings. We can speak of a consciousness of the whole mineral Earth, but we can equally speak of a consciousness of the whole plant world which evolves on the Earth. The laws of this consciousness are certainly entirely different from the laws of human consciousness. In speaking of plant consciousness, we must always speak of it as regards certain districts only, because it changes with different regions of the Earth.

As men we are not aware that there really is a certain parallel between our consciousness and the consciousness of the whole plant world, for we are apt to look on our waking consciousness as our complete consciousness, without taking our sleeping consciousness into consideration. To simplify our subject, we say: In the daytime when awake, our ego and astral body are within our physical body. I have, however, often remarked that this in fact refers to our blood and nervous system only, not to the remaining parts of our system. When the ego and astral body withdraw from our head, for instance, they are so much the stronger within other parts of us.

A parallel thing happens on the Earth, when on one part of it there is summer and on the other winter; this also is merely a change of consciousness. The case is the same with ourselves. We are not aware of this, however, because in man the two kinds of consciousness are not of equal clearness; they are of different strength. Night consciousness is beclouded consciousness, for us practically no consciousness at all; while day consciousness is full consciousness of our other side. In the night our lower nature wakes, while with our higher nature we sleep, and it is exactly the same with the Earth, when on the one hemisphere there is winter, on the other there is summer. On one side the consciousness is awake, on the other side it sleeps and vice versa. As I have just said, and as I have often explained, this only holds good in respect to the plant world. We know that the plant world sleeps in the height of summer when there is growth on every side; while it is outwardly unfolding its physical nature—it is asleep. But it wakes to full consciousness during the time when physically, externally, it is going through no development; then the plant world is awake. Thus we speak of all plant life on Earth as a whole; and this plant life, as a whole, has a consciousness.

When speaking of this consciousness which as a second consciousness intermingles with the mineral consciousness of the Earth, we can really say that during the height of summer in our part of the Earth the plant consciousness is asleep, and in depth of winter it is awake. At this season, however, during the time at which we now are, something further takes place.

Now I beg you to note that these two states of consciousness, that is, the general consciousness belonging to the mineral earth, and the general plant consciousness—are always distinct. They are throughout the whole year two separate beings. But these are not only two distinct Beings, for at one season they unite, so that at the present time of year, the one interpenetrates the other. At the time when one year is passing over into the other, the mineral things and events of the Earth and the whole plant world have but one consciousness, which means that these two consciousnesses interpenetrate each other.

What is the nature of the mineral consciousness of the Earth, the varieties of which (as I have said) we shall not study to-day as we shall those of the plant consciousness, which we realise wakes during winter time and sleeps in summer? What is the peculiar nature of this mineral consciousness, this consciousness of the great Earth-Being?

The man who is limited in his physical senses, and limited to the understanding that he considers appertains to these physical senses, can at first know nothing of this great Earth-consciousness. Spiritual Science, however, can instruct as to what this Earth-consciousness really thinks—thinks as we think of plants, animals, air, rivers, mountains, etc. Just as with our ordinary waking consciousness, we think of the things round about us, so, in like manner does the Earth think. Let us inquire to-day: of what does the Earth consciously think?

The Earth thinks with its consciousness the whole firmament of heaven nearest to the Earth. As we look with our eyes on trees and stones, so does the Earth consciously look into space and contemplate all that takes place in the stars. The Earth is a being that meditates on the occurrences of the stars.

Thus fundamentally the mineral consciousness contains the secret of the whole Cosmos. While we men move about on the Earth in a superficial way, thinking merely of the stones against which we knock, or of the many things which our senses reveal to us, the Earth thinks with its consciousness—through which we are passing as we move through space—of the whole Cosmos. She has indeed greater, more all-embracing thoughts than we have. In truth, it is an extraordinarily exalting thought, when we realise: ‘I am not simply passing through the air; I am moving through the thoughts of the Earth.’

Now let us again consider the other consciousness, that of the plants. These are not able to think so much as the Earth can. The thinking consciousness of the plants—not of individual plants, but of the whole united plant-world—is a much more restricted consciousness, it embraces a smaller circle of the Earth throughout the year; but this is not the case at the present season. Plant consciousness is now one with the whole consciousness of the Earth, and because the plant consciousness interpenetrates the earth-consciousness, the plant-world at New Year time, knows the secrets of the stars and applies them. Plants are thus able to unfold again in spring in accordance with the secrets of the cosmos, and can bring forth their blossoms and fruit. In this unfoldment the whole mystery of the cosmos is contained, in the way plants bring forth their leaves, blossoms and fruit.

But during the time the plants are producing their leaves, flowers and fruit, they are not able to meditate upon it. It is only at this present season they can think—now—when the plant consciousness is united with the consciousness of the whole mineral world. This is why it is said in Spiritual Science: About the season of the New Year, two cycles interpenetrate each other.

This is the main secret of all existence—that two cycles penetrate each other; then parting, continue separately their further development; again intermingle, and so on. Only think how marvelous this secret of existence is! Plant-consciousness and mineral-consciousness, two streams of evolution—progress apart through the whole year, then at the time when one year passes over into another, they unite. Again they pass through the year apart, uniting once more at the festival of the New Year. The cyclic advance of history is similar to this.

We turn from this mystic event, through which we are now passing, and which fills us with a deep feeling of holy awe in respect of the passing of one year into the other—we turn to a still deeper mystery.

We know that we are now living in that cycle in which the consciousness-soul is unfolding, that this was preceded by that of the unfolding of the rational or intellectual-soul, which was again preceded by the cycle in which the sentient soul was developed, before which again we go back to the time of development of the sentient body. This takes us back 6,000 years before our Christian era, to a time when all human thought was evolved within the cycle of the sentient body—of the so-called astral body.

We have now to advance through the cycle of the spiritual or consciousness-soul, and through that of the Spirit-Self, and further still man has to develop.

The consciousness-soul (since 1923 translated by Dr. Steiner as the spiritual-soul) is principally developed at the present time because man chiefly makes use of his physical body alone as an instrument. On this account—as you know already from many lectures—this present age is the high tide of materialism. A time will come, however, when man will not only make use of his physical body, but will again learn to use his etheric body, as in earlier times he used his astral body, in the cycle of evolution when that body was the main element of consciousness.

We can therefore say: Our condition at one time on Earth was such, that our soul experienced a contact of its consciousness with the consciousness of our astral body. Just as at New Year, plant-consciousness penetrates mineral consciousness, so, thousands of years ago, did our soul intermingle with our astral body. At that time our soul was one, in its consciousness, with the astral body. The time of that type of consciousness was six thousand years before our era. When that consciousness came about man celebrated a New Year on Earth; a mighty New Year!

Just as we regard the New Year as the mingling of the plant-consciousness with the mineral consciousness of the Earth, so we must realise that 6,000 years before our era a great, a mighty cosmic New Year of our Earth took place. Our Soul-consciousness then united with—passed through—the astral consciousness of our body.

What was it that then took place?

At that time when our inner soul-consciousness passed through (or intermingled with) the astral consciousness of our body—then our limited human consciousness, the consciousness which we have to-day, had progressed as far as the present plant-consciousness at New Year. Just as plants gaze abroad into the heavens because their consciousness has been united to the mineral consciousness of the Earth, so did man then see and perceive a wide field of wisdom six thousand years before our era, when his soul was united with his astral body at the time of the cosmic New Year.

From this time originated the knowledge which we have now lost, since the wisdom of the Gnostics has perished. The source of this knowledge must be sought in the earthly and cosmic New Year about 6,000 B.C. This was the knowledge from which Zarathustra gave forth his teaching; the knowledge, whose last great rays still illuminated the Gnostics, but of which only a few fragments remain. It is the winter of the Earth, but the Earth's New Year to which we here look back.

If we now add four thousand years more to the years we have passed through since the founding of Christianity, we again come to a similar intermingling as that I have just indicated; to the mingling of our soul-consciousness with our astral consciousness, but at a higher stage. Man will once more experience a universal stellar consciousness. For this we endeavour to prepare ourselves through our Spiritual Science, so that there may be men ready to receive it.

We will seek to prepare for this cosmic New Year. If we prepare for it through the keeping of the Christmas Festival, as I indicated in a recent lecture, we are preparing ourselves in the right way. If the birth of spiritual knowledge within us leads to that frame of mind which is in accord with the ‘Christmas Initiation,’ we are preparing ourselves for that new cosmic New Year on which we shall enter twelve thousand years after the previous cosmic New Year.

Twelve months pass by between one union of the plant-consciousness with the mineral consciousness of the Earth, and another. Twelve thousand years pass between one cosmic New Year and another: between one intermingling of the human soul with the Astral World-Soul, and another.

So at this sacred season, we turn from the little New Year to the great cosmic New Year, from the New Year's Eve of our year, to that for which we are preparing ourselves, by endeavouring—now in this winter time—to behold the light, which in a normal elemental way flows into man as inhabitant of the Earth, only at the cosmic New Year.

We really only see the world in the true light, when we grasp what is around us, not only as it is presented to our senses,—as materialists do—but when we accept all that is about us in the outer world as a symbol of the great secrets of the universe.

Then when New Year draws near, it seems as if a message from spiritual worlds approaches, and unveils for us the mysteries connected with the birth of the New Year; and declares, ‘Behold, now in the depths of the dark cold winter, the consciousness of the plant world unites with the mineral consciousness of the earth. Let this be to you a sign that the Earth too has its year—the great cosmic year, of which Zarathustra spoke long ago, explaining how the world passed on from one great New Year's Eve to another; this must be understood by those who really seek to comprehend the course of human evolution.’

Zarathustra spoke of epochs of twelve thousand years. He meant the great cosmic years of which I have spoken to you to-day. He represented the course of human evolution as being divided into four divisions within the Earth year. This fact is deeply rooted in spiritual mysteries.

So, from a deeper understanding of our Spiritual Science, let us accept a true Christmas attitude of reverence. Let us develop within our hearts that inner warmth which comes, when in the frosty night of winter we receive the first intimation of the dawning of the Sun-Spirit on the Earth, and with it the mystery of the revolving year. The thirteen days are the days in which the plant-consciousness unites with the mineral consciousness. If a man is but able to place himself within the plant consciousness, he can dream of—can gain a conception of—the many mysteries which then crowd into his heart, such as did in the dream of Olaf Oesteson, the description and explanation of which entered into and stirred our souls here, this time last year. When we feel such a mood of initiation, we evoke the proper feelings and the perceptions for the aims and objects of our spiritual knowledge and with such warmth of heart we shall make preparations for the new cosmic New Year. Through it we can worthily expect that day which is to usher in a New Year for the world. Thus: when in succeeding incarnations our souls experience the cosmic New Year under quite new conditions on Earth, we shall be able to pass through it as those can for whom the small New Year's Eve (which recurs every twelve months instead of every twelve thousand years) becomes a symbol of the great New Year's Eve of the world.

This is the secret of our existence. Everything is in great as in small, and in small as in great. The small, the yearly cycle, can only be understood aright when it becomes for us a symbol of the mighty events of the cosmos—of the vast cycle of thousands of years. The year is an image of the aeons, and the aeons are the realities of those images which we encounter in the course of a year. When we understand this yearly course aright we are filled, in this important night in which a New Year begins, with thoughts of the great cosmic mysteries. Let our endeavour be, so to attune our souls, that they may look forward to the New Year with this conscious thought: I will accept the year as a symbol of the great cosmic year which contains all mysteries, through which pass and re-pass the Divine Beings who accompany our souls from aeon to aeon, as the lesser Gods follow the secret development of plant and mineral existence throughout the course of an Earth year.