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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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From Beetroot to Buddhism
GA 353

V. What did Europe look like at the time when Christianity spread?

15 March 1924, Dornach

Gentlemen, let us continue today by my showing you some other ways in which Christianity came alive in Europe.

In the early days after its founding, Christianity first of all spread through the south, across to Rome and then later, from the third, fourth and fifth centuries onward, to the north. Let us take a look at Europe as it was when Christianity spread, that is, the time when it was founded and a little after. The question I want to consider is, what did Europe look like at the time when Christianity came to it? Let us think of Asia over there [drawing on the board]. Europe is like a small appendage, a small peninsula. As you know, it looks like this. Here we have Scandinavia, then the Baltic; here we come across to Russia, and here is Denmark as it is today. Here we come to the north coast of Germany, here into Dutch and then French territory. We move on to Spain, and across to Italy. We now come to regions we know already: the Adriatic, Greece and the Black Sea. We then come to Asia Minor, and down there we would have Africa. Here, on the other side, we would have England and Wales, and here Ireland, which I'll just indicate here.

I am going to try and show what Europe looked like at the time when Christianity gradually spread and then reached it. Here, Europe is closed off from Asia by the Urals. We then have the huge Volga river, and if at the time when Christianity came up from the south we had gone to the regions that are now southern Russia, the Ukraine, and so on, we would have found a people who later disappeared completely from there, moving further west and merging with other peoples: the Ostrogoths [eastern Goths]. You'll see in a minute how all these peoples started to migrate at a particular time. But at the time when Christianity was coming up from the south, these peoples lived in this part of Europe.

Now if you take the Danube, you have here, further along, the Romania of today, and this is where the western Goths were. Over here, where western Hungary is today, north of the Danube, were the Vandals. Those were the names of the peoples in those days. And in the area where we have Moravia, Bohemia and Bavaria today were the Suevi, the Swabians of today. Higher up—this is where the river Elbe rises which then flows into the North Sea—here it was all Goths. But here—this is the Rhine, which you know well, with today's Cologne about here—here in the region around the Rhine lived the Ripuarian Franks and up near the mouth of the Rhine the Salian Franks. Over here, towards the Elbe, were the Saxons. They were given their name by people to the south of them who had noted that they lived preferably or almost exclusively on meat and therefore called them 'meat-eaters'.

The Romans had spread to these regions here, including modern France, Spain, and so on. Here, too, you would find Graeco-Roman peoples everywhere. Christianity spread first among them, before moving further north. We may say that in these areas Christianity reached the northern parts earlier than it did in areas further to the west. One of the early bishops among the Goths was Ulfila, or Wulfila, meaning ‘little wolf’.31Ulfila, or Wulfila (c. 311–83). Ulfila translated the Bible into Gothic at a very early stage, in the fourth century. His translation is particularly interesting because it differs from those that came later. It is found in a most valuable volume at the Library in Uppsala in Sweden.32Codex argenteus (silver book), Gothic sixth-century Gospel manuscript written in silver and gold letters on deep crimson parchment originating in northern Italy; contains Ulfila's Gospel translations. We can see from this that Christianity spread earlier here in the east.

Looking at the blackboard we thus see that the Greeks and Romans were there; but in very early times you still had here everywhere a much older European population and this is of great interest. This population—I have marked it in red—had already been pushed further west at the time when Christianity came. Originally they lived more to the east. You have to visualize them living on the border between Asia and Europe. The Slavs of today were even further into Asia in those days.

The question is this. If we were to go back to the times before the origin of Christianity, I would have to hatch this whole map of Europe in red, for an ancient Celtic people also lived everywhere in Europe. Everything I have drawn on the board for you only came across from Asia later, a few centuries before and after the founding of Christianity. So the question is, why were those peoples migrating? At a certain point in world history they started to move, pushing across into Europe. The reason was this. If you look at Siberia as it is today, it is really a vast, empty, sparsely populated space. Not that long ago—not long, a few centuries, before the coming of Christianity—Siberia was much more low-lying and relatively warm. It then rose. The land does not have to rise by much and it will be cold where it was warm before, the lakes dry up, and it grows desolate. Nature herself thus made people move from east to west.

The Celtic population of Europe were most interesting people. The peoples migrating from the east found them there, a relatively peaceful population. They still had the original gift of clairvoyance. If they took up a trade they would think the spirits were helping them in their work. And when someone felt he was good at making boots—they did not have boots then, but something to protect the feet—he would see his skill to be due to help from the spirits. And he would actually be able to perceive the element from the world of the spirit that gave him help. The way those ancient Celts saw life was that they were still on familiar terms with the world of the spirit, in a sense. And the Celtic peoples produced many beautiful things. They also went to Italy in very early times and brought beauty to it. This softened the rough edges of the original robber mentality at a time when the Romans had achieved a high life-style. The influence of the Celtic peoples softened the brutal nature of the Romans.

In earlier times, therefore, Celts were to be found everywhere in Europe. To the south you then had the Roman and Greek, Romance-Greek, Graeco-Latin peoples. And, as I said, when Siberia grew colder, these peoples moved west. As a result, the map of Europe looked like this at the time when Christianity moved northwards from the south [pointing to the board].

It is a strange thing, gentlemen—certain characteristics of peoples survive well, others less so. Among the peoples coming to Europe from Asia were the Huns, for instance, with Attila the most powerful of their kings.33Attila, king of the Huns from 434 to 453. Attila was, however, a Gothic name meaning ‘little father’. Many of the peoples whose names I have written on the board also accepted Attila, the king of the Huns, as their king, and that is why he was given a Gothic name. The Huns were, however, very different from the other peoples. You see, the wilder peoples migrating to the west had originally been mountain tribes in Asia. The slightly less wild people, such as the Goths, were more plains people. And the wild doings of the Huns, and later also of the Magyars, were due to the fact that they had originally been mountain people in Asia.

As the Romans extended their rule more and more to the north—this was independent of Christianity—they encountered the peoples coming from Asia. Many wars were fought between the Romans and the peoples here in the north. I have mentioned Tacitus to you, the important Roman historian.34See note 10. He wrote a great deal about Roman history and also a truly tremendous little book called Germamia,35De origine et situ Germanorum (about the origin and homelands of the Germanic tribes), written in Latin, probably in about the year 100, and generally known as the Germania. in which he described the tribes who lived there so well that they truly come to life. I have also told you that Tacitus, a highly educated Roman, had no more to say about Christianity than that it was a sect established by a certain Christ over there in Asia, and that the Christ had been put to death. Writing in Rome at a time when Christians were still suppressed and lived in their underground catacombs, he did not even get this right.

At that time Christianity had not yet reached these peoples in the north. They had their own religion, however, and this is very interesting. Please call to mind, gentlemen, how religious ideas arose among the peoples in the south and the east. We have spoken of the Indians who considered above all the physical body, that is, one aspect of the human being. The Egyptians considered the ether body—another aspect of the human being. The Babylonians and Assyrians considered the astral body—yet another aspect of the human being. The Jews considered the I in their worship of Yahveh—again an aspect of the human being. Only the Greeks—and the Romans took this over from them—looked less at the human being and more at the world of nature. The Greeks were truly magnificent observers of the natural world.

These peoples in the north, however, saw nothing of the human being as such, of the inner human being; they saw less even than the Greeks. This is interesting. Those people in the north completely forgot the inner human being; they did not even have memories of any thoughts people might have had before about the inner human being. The Greeks and Romans at least still had memories, being the neighbours of peoples all over the Near East—Egyptians, Babylonians and so on. They remembered what those ancient peoples had thought. The peoples of the north looked only at the world around them, outside the human being. And they did not see nature but the nature spirits. The ancient Greeks saw the world of nature; the peoples here in the north saw the nature spirits. And the most wonderful stories, fables, legends and myths arose among them, because they always saw the spirits. The Greeks would see Mount Olympus rise high, and their gods dwelt on Olympus. The people in the north did not say: gods live on a mountain. They would see the god himself in the mountain top, which did not look like a rock to them. When the rosy dawn shone on the mountain top, making it golden all over, and the morning sun rose, these people did not see the mountain but the way the morning sun moved across the mountain, and this they felt to be divine. It seemed to have spirit nature to them. It was quite natural to them to see spirit nature spread over the mountains.

The Greeks built temples for the gods. Everywhere over there in Asia people built temples for the gods. The peoples of the north would say: 'We do not build temples. What would be the good of building temples? It is dark in there, but up on the mountains it is light and bright. And the gods must be venerated by going up the mountain.'

Their thoughts about it were like this. When the light shines in the mountains it comes from the sun; but the sun is most beneficial in midsummer, when St John's-tide—as we call it today—approaches. They would then go up into the mountains, light fires and celebrate their gods not in a temple but high up in the mountains. Or they would say: 'The light and warmth of the sun go down into the soil, and in the spring the powers the sun has sent into the earth rise from the soil. We therefore must venerate the sun also when it lets its powers rise from the soil.' They were particularly aware of the beneficial gifts of the sun coming from the earth in their forests, where many trees grew. They therefore venerated their gods in the forests. Not in temples, but on mountains and in forests.

These peoples saw everything spiritualized. The ancient Celts who had been driven away by them had still seen the actual spirits. These peoples no longer saw the spirits but to them everything that was light and warmth in the natural world was divine. That was the old religion of the German tribes which was then driven out by Christianity.

Christianity reached those areas in two ways. On the one hand it penetrated southern Russia and the areas which are Romania and Hungary today. This is where Ulfila translated the Bible. The Christianity that came to the people there was much more genuine than the Christianity that spread from Rome, which was the second route. There it had more the character of dominion. It would be fair to say that if the Christianity that spread over here, moving up through Russia in the east, had spread there at a time when the population was not yet Slavic, it would have been very different, more inward, having more of an Asiatic character. The Christianity that spread from Rome was more superficial, finally becoming dead ritual because the significance was no longer understood. I have spoken to you about the monstrance with the host, which is really sun and moon, but that was suppressed; it was no longer given any significance. And so a ritual spread that had no reality to it. This was taken to Constantinople by a Caesar who also had no reality; Constantinople was founded. And later this altered Christianity also spread through other countries.

The Christianity that exists in Ulfila's Bible translation, for instance, has completely vanished from Europe. The more superficial, ritual Christianity spread more and more. And in the east, too, this ritual, with little inwardness, spread even more when the Slavs came.

The things I have told you about religious ideas of these peoples later went through a change. It is always the same. Initially people know what something is about; then a time comes when they no longer know what it is about and it becomes mere memory. Some outer aspect remains. And so the gods that had once been seen by people, the spirits found everywhere in nature, became three main gods. One was Woden or Odin, who was really still thought to be like the light and air that floats above everything. He would be venerated, for example, when the weather was stormy. Then people would say: Woden blowing in the wind.

Those peoples tended to express anything they experienced in nature in their language. And so they venerated Woden blowing in the wind. Can you feel the three Ws when I say these words?36German: Wotan weht im Winde—German W is English V sound. See pronunciation table. It made those people shiver when a storm came and they imitated the storminess in those words. These are the words as we say them today, but they were similar in the old language.

When summer came and people saw lightning flash and heard the rumble of thunder they saw a spiritual element in this, too. They would imitate this in words, calling the spirit who rumbled in the thunder Donar, Thor: Thor thunders in thunder.37German: Donar dröhnt im Donner. See pronunciation table.

The fact that this came to expression in speech shows that these people related to the outside world. The Greeks were less strongly connected with the outside world. They looked for these things in rhythm rather than in the shaping of speech. With these northern peoples, it was in the speech itself.

And when these peoples went across into Europe and first met the Celts, there were constant wars and battles. Making war was something people did all the time during the centuries when Christianity spread. They saw spiritual elements in the blowing of the wind and the rumbling of thunder, and in the roar of battle. They had shields, and would rush forward in closed ranks carrying their shields. That was still their way when they met the Romans. And when the Romans opposed them as they rushed down from the north, the Romans would above all hear a terrible cry. The people from the north would shout into their shields from a thousand throats as they rushed forward. And the Romans were more afraid of the terrible war cry than they would be of the enemy's swords. In present-day words the war cry was something like Ziu zwingt Zwist.38German: Ziu zwingt Zwist (Ziu forces strife, see pronunciation table)—all three phrases were written on the blackboard. Translator. Ziu was the spirit of war and the ancient Germans believed him to be rushing before them. The Romans would hear the dull reverberations of the cry roaring above their heads. As I said, they were desperately afraid of this, more than of bows and arrows and the like. A spiritual element was alive in the courage and thirst for battle shown by those tribes.

If they were to come again today—and they do, of course, because there is reincarnation, but they'll have forgotten all about the past—and if they still were the way they were then, they would look at people today and immediately put a nightcap on everyone's head, saying: 'It's not right for people to be such sleepyheads. Let them put on a nightcap and go to bed!' They looked at life in a very different way; they were mobile.

There would of course also have been times when those tribes could not go to war. In that situation they would lie down on bear skins and drink—they were terrible drinkers. That was their second occupation. It was considered a virtue in those days; and their drink was not as harmful as drink is today; it was relatively harmless, being brewed from all kinds of herbs. Beer came to be produced later, and was of course very different. They would feel truly human when mead, a beer-like sweet drink, coursed through their bodies. You sometimes still see people who feel themselves a little bit to be descendants of those ancient Germans. I met a German poet once in Weimar who drank almost as much as the ancient Germans. We started to talk and I said to him: 'Surely no one can be as thirsty as that!' He answered: 'Ah thirst—I drink water when I'm thirsty. I actually drink beer when I'm not thirsty. When I drink beer it is not for the thirst, it is to get merry!' and that is how it was with the ancient Germans. They grew merry and active when the sweet mead-like drink coursed through their limbs as they lay on their bear skins.

Their third main occupation was hunting. The tilling of the soil was very much a secondary occupation performed by subjugated tribes. When such a tribe gained new territory they would subjugate others who then had to till the soil. They were unfree. In war they had to take up arms, and so on. The difference between free and unfree people was enormous at that time. The free people, who went to war, hunted and lay on their bear skins, would meet to organize affairs. They would discuss judicial or administrative matters and so on, whatever was necessary. Nothing was written down, for they were unable to write. Everything was by word of mouth. Nor did they have towns or cities. People lived in scattered villages. About a hundred villages would form a community and be called a 'hundred'. Several hundreds would make a gau. The hundreds had their meetings, as did the gaus. The whole was truly democratic among those who met, which would be the free people. Their name for it was not parliament, diet or the like, which would be a much later term, but a Thing, which was a meeting on a fixed day. You often hear English people say 'thing' when the name of something does not come to mind. The word has fallen into discredit today. I got into trouble once about this word. I had been asked to set up a resolution that had been discussed, and included the word 'thing'. The chairman, a famous astronomer, took this very much amiss because the word is so poorly regarded today; it should not be used, he said, when people meet to discuss serious matters. But in the old days it was called a Thing. People would not say they were going to parliament, or the diet, but to the Thing, the Tageding. When someone spoke about something, they would say he vertagedingt the matter, which has later become verteidigt, defended. That is how words evolved. Today one usually has a 'defender' in court, and here in Switzerland they don't say defender but advocate.

This, then, was how those tribes lived with one another and with their gods. And the peoples from the south brought Christianity to them.

Again there were two ways in which Christianity arose over there in the west. Part of it came directly from Rome; but there was another route—from Asia through all those more southern regions where the Graeco-Latin element had not gained much influence, through Spain and on to Ireland. Christianity spread in a very pure form in Ireland in the early centuries and also over here in Wales. Christian missionaries then went to Europe from there. They brought Christianity to some, whilst others had it from Rome.

You'll remember I said that in the monasteries and also in the early universities people still had much of the old wisdom, and Christianity was thus linked with the old wisdom. The old star wisdom that survived, only to disappear completely from Europe at a later time, really all came from Ireland. What had come from Rome had really only been ritual. Later, when central Europe turned to the Gospels, these were added on to the ritual. But much of what lived among the people had come from Ireland. You see, in Europe Christianity gradually became part of temporal rule. And the good elements that existed here in the upper areas, where Ulfila produced his Gothic translation of the Bible, and those that had come from Ireland had more or less disappeared later on. Quite a bit survived into the Middle Ages, but then it largely disappeared. You see, the people who came from Rome were very clever.

The tribes whose names I have given, originally forced by natural conditions to migrate from an Asia grown desolate to Europe, developed a certain wanderlust, a desire to be on the move. And it is strange to see what happened.

Here we have the River Elbe, for instance. The people who lived there soon after the coming of Christianity were the Lombards. They lived to the north-east of the Saxons, on the Elbe. Soon after, about 200 years later, we find them down there by the river Po in Italy! They had migrated. Before the coming of Christianity the Goths, the Ostrogoths, were to be found here by the Black Sea. A few centuries later they were here, where the Vandals and the western Goths had been before. The western Goths had moved further to the west and after some time could be found in Spain. The Vandals had been here, on the Danube. A few centuries later they were no longer to be found in Europe, but over there in Africa, opposite to Italy. The peoples were migrating. And as Christianity spread they moved further and further to the west. The Slavs only came much later.

What was happening in the west? The Romans already ruled the world when Christianity evolved. They were really very clever. At the time when these tribes moved westward and encountered Roman civilization, the Romans had grown feeble, quite worn out, and really could not do much more but stand with quivering legs when the roar of Ziu zwingt Zwist rolled into the shields from up there. They were quaking in their boots. But they were crafty, arrogant and proud in their heads.

The difference between them and the tribes was enormous. They had their lands, their fields, were settled, with something to fall back on. The tribes did not care much about places. They were on the move. The Romans would take in the tribes that came rushing south and give them land, of which they had more than enough. The tribes then changed from being hunters and warriors to being tillers of the soil. The Romans had their own way of giving land, however. They remained in control, running the administration, and in this way gradually became the rulers. Their rule was most powerful here to the west. In the area later populated by the Germans, people resisted for a long time. But tribes like the Goths went down to Italy, mingling with the people who lived there and becoming dependent.

The Roman, Latin people were clever, therefore. They said: 'It no longer works so well if we take up the sword.' They had grown feeble. So what did they do? They made the peoples who came from the north into warriors. The Romans waged their wars by sending the Germans—who were given land but had to fight in return. The ancient Germans who had remained in the north were thus fought by their own former warriors. And in the early days when Christianity spread, wars were really waged by the southern people, the Romans, with the help of those ancient Germans who had joined them. Only the generals of the Roman armies were normally Romans. The mass of soldiers really consisted of ancient Germans who had become Roman.

It was then a question of introducing the religious element in a way these people would accept. In those very early times people were much more attached to their religion than later. And so the following would happen, for instance. You see, those people always saw the light and air in the natural world as something spiritual. They felt it was hard when the snows came in October or November, covering the ground, so that everything spiritual really had to disappear. But they specially venerated the time when we celebrate Christmas today. They could feel that the sun was returning. This was the feast of the winter solstice, when the sun returned to humankind again. These tribes therefore were inclined to accept the spiritual element in nature. The Romans, who had already made Christianity part of their system of rule, let the tribes keep their solstice. But they said it was not to celebrate the solstice but the birth of Christ. The tribes were thus able to celebrate their feast as before, but it had been given a new meaning.

The ancient Germans always perceived a spirit in any tree that stood out more. The Romans made the spirit into a saint. Essentially they took everything of the old pagan religion and gave it a new name. People would not notice this so much, and that is really how Christianity spread among the ancient German tribes. Feasts like those of the returning sun and so on were celebrated, taking account of the fact that the tribes liked to celebrate their gods in the open air, in mountains and forests.

We may thus say that cleverness was the main principle in the founding of Christianity coming from Rome. Essentially Europe has been governed using such cleverness for centuries—Roman cleverness. This went so far that the Romans preserved the old Latin language in the schools, with the vernacular really only spoken among the people. When the Romans introduced scholarship with their Christianity, this would not be in the vernacular but in Latin. The vernacular only came into scholarship in the eighteenth century. Roman culture thus persisted in its original form for a long time.

To the west, going through Spain, France and finally Britain, Roman culture remained alive. A language has developed in which it lives on. Here, in central Europe, the Germanic element gained more of the upper hand. The German languages developed. Over here the Romance element prevailed and therefore Romance languages. But in their origins all those people were really German, those who went to Spain and also those who went to Italy. I mentioned the Ripuarian Franks, the Salian Franks. They went over there later, German tribes settling in France. And the Romance language spread over them like a cloud. French has evolved from it, and so has Spanish. There the old Latin language lives on in a new form.

Further to the east, from the Rhine onwards, people as a nation would say: 'Well, the scholars in the schools, wearing their wigs, may speak Latin, and anyone wishing to be a priest may as well listen to them.' But the ordinary people kept their language. This has given rise to the difference that Europeans are still finding hard to swallow today, the difference between central and western Europe.