The Way of Initiation in the Ancient Mysteries,
the Way of Knowledge in Modern Times
by Ita Wegman, M. D. (SWITZERLAND)
Rudolf Steiner tells us that the Mysteries of ancient times enshrined a knowledge which was not only of the intellect but bound up as well with the element of the moral will. This knowledge contained much more than the mere ‘picture’ which may live in the human intellect quite independently of the reality if nature; it had a certain power over nature, a power born of and issuing from the soul, with which only those who had been specially prepared were entrusted, lest it be misused. For this reason the preparation consisted in an enhancement of the sense of responsibility towards the people or race. The Initiate himself was King in his own right. Down to the time of Moses echoes of this persisted, for under the dispensation of Moses man is warned that a moral failing must affect one's children's children. It is thus evident how high a value was in those days still set upon morality and the effects of immorality were regarded as penetrating right down into physical life.
With the progress of human evolution this perception of the connection of power and knowledge vanished. More and more there has evolved a mere philosophy, a religion with an existence quite apart, and an increasingly anaemic cosmology. Man disappeared from philosophy — man, whose nature it had been the primal object of philosophy to reveal, as evinced in Indian thought and indicated by Rudolf Steiner in his book Theosophy. Religion became less and less and effective way of reaching the Supersensible, although this indeed was its whole raison d'etre. Only through what Rudolf Steiner has given us can we experience once again how the religious element in man rises to the spiritual world. Cosmology became more and more mythology from which all concrete reality vanished. The creative cosmic Word of the Veda became the words of ordinary speech and concrete pictures of spiritual Beings, as given once again by Rudolf Steiner in An Outline of Occult Science, died away from the consciousness of the masses.
In the ancient Mysteries, however, the great cosmological truths were revealed to the pupil. He was given concrete instruction on the subject of the path of inner unfoldment and illumination was shed upon that life of which abstract thought is but the corpse. Through such preparation a transformation was effected in the inner being of man which enabled him to come under the direct guidance of the Gods. This was expressed in the Mysteries as the meeting with Hermes, the Guider of Souls. In speaking of Hermes we approach the threshold of the true Mysteries. By a series of stages the pupil penetrated into the depths of his own nature, learnt to behold the Gods and the Temple of the Gods in his own being and lifted up his soul to cosmic spaces.
And then the Christ Impulse poured into this stream of evolution. As a free being man could now turn back again to the earth in order to redeem the earth and her creatures through the power of Christ.
Thereby the evolution of humanity received its true meaning and purpose. A common goal for all humanity was added to the single aims of races and peoples and the manifold impulses of the Mysteries fused into one great unity. Only by the complete acceptance of the Christ Impulse as it is presented to us in the life-work of Rudolf Steiner do all the various Mysteries appear as stages and metamorphoses of one great stream of evolution, of one single Initiation-Science.
The progressive stages in the Mysteries were strictly regulated. The pupil experienced the different members and functions of his being, the ordering of the divine Hierarchies, and the structure of the cosmos. At the first stage the candidate for Initiation learnt to observe his own organism and the whole earth, not as they appear to sense-perception but as they appear to the human being as he descends to earth from the cosmos and through conception and birth enters into a physical organism to live an earthly existence. What is thus presented to the eye of soul is not mineral, plant, animal, man, but one magnificent picture-transformation of the sense-world including all the kingdoms of nature. The lungs do not then appear as bodily organs. When those who are endowed with faculties of supersensible sight observe the lungs, they know that these organs are only a last, shrunken product of a mighty cosmic Imagination. The lungs take on a bird-like form; the archetypal form (Urbild) of the bird hovers about it. But as the bird-form rises upwards and out into the heights, shimmering in brightness of light and beauty of colour, it becomes clear to occult observation that every ascent can only be at the cost of a corresponding descent in development. The worm wriggling along moist places on the earth must be there in order that the birds can exist. This other form too is found in man, for in the movements of his intestine, in the peristaltic movement, the earthly foodstuff passes along its way within his organism just as the worm impels itself over the ground.
To supersensible sight this is a direct perception which the empirical, intellectual knowledge using the earthly senses only reaches by piling up a series of conclusions. To higher vision it is clear that bird and reptile must have appeared at the same stage of the earth's evolution. This, in imaginative cognition, is at the same time an experience in the moral sphere. But something else reveals itself to imaginative cognition in connection with the lungs.
What is done by the lungs when they take in oxygen, is done in the organism of the earth by the carbon, and in studying carbon-formation from the geological aspect we are at the same time studying the process of lung-formation. In Geology, mineral, plant and animal are studied in juxtaposition. At the stage of higher knowledge known as Imagination, however, the inner connection of the separate kingdoms of nature is a matter of direct perception, for the formative processes of man and earth are seen simultaneously, in one picture. The geologist has before him an Imagination which has become fixed. To imaginative knowledge there is revealed not the single organ by itself but the process of organ-formation. One organ alone (the lung) has here been mentioned by way of illustration. If the same mode of imaginative knowledge could be applied to all the organs, the transition from the experience of the physical body to the observation of the body of formative forces, or the etheric body, would be achieved and the process of organ-formation in respect to past, present and future would appear in one all-embracing picture.
And so at the first stage of higher knowledge in the Mysteries the pupil viewed nature as it appears when the veil of sense-perception is suddenly lifted. The All, that which was, is and shall be, appeared unveiled before the eyes of spirit. Cosmic understanding streamed into the soul of the pupil.
Persephone, the symbol of the soul abducted by the dark Pluto, by the dense physical body, was liberated from the night of sense-perception, from the Hades of ordinary earthly thinking and appeared in the radiance of eternal light. The pupil addresses her thus: “I too, O Persephone, bear the essence of eternal light within me. In my body of formative forces I am like unto thee!” Thus did self-knowledge dawn in the pupil, reflected from the mirror of nature. Persephone or the Goddess Natura, as was her name in later times, her maidens, the weaving vision of evolution in its single forms and states, its forces and figures had revealed themselves to him. “Truly, thus did I behold thee before my descent to birth.” — Thus spake the soul of the pupil in the Mysteries. “I saw thee in radiant beauty, graced with the loveliness that is thine because the gifts of all the Gods have blessed thee!
With the departure of Imagination in modern times, this comprehensive view of nature has also been lost. A science of nature, fragmentary and disjointed in spite of all its greatness, has arisen. Goethe's work in the domain of natural science was an attempt to penetrate once again to the view of nature as revealed to Imagination. The complete liberation of Persephone was, however, first achieved in the modern age by Rudolf Steiner. In his picture of nature man lives once again in his whole being. The disintegration of the various members has been overcome. Will unites with observation, so that in the realm of medicine, for example, the finding of the remedy is coincident with the picture presented by the disease.
At the present stage of supersensible knowledge in the Mysteries, this wonderful picture of world-evolution was again dispersed. The process was described in the ancient Mysteries as the wrending of a wondrous veil interwoven with the majestic pictures of the cosmos. Modern spiritual research speaks of a dispersion of the pictures arising in Imagination by a deliberate act of the will. Instead of experiencing one unified picture of nature, the pupil of Spiritual Science must now experience the manifold orders of spiritual Beings who work in the world-process. He must learn of the many-sided relationships of these spiritual Beings. As the second stage he has to listen, as he experiences Inspirations, to the speech of the spiritual Beings in a region of the cosmos where words are deeds. He has to listen to the world-harmony as the outcome of innumerable deeds. The ancient Mysteries expressed this in many different ways. At one time they would speak of the harmony of the spheres, at another of planetary Gods whose spheres are traversed between death and rebirth by the soul moving upwards and downwards as in a musical scale. The proportions revealed by the human body, the relation of one part of the body to another — these were visible expressions of the experiences through which the soul had passed between death and rebirth. The proportions themselves gave the clue to what the path of the soul had been during the period between death and a new birth. If in traversing the spheres of the planets the soul's ascent from Moon to Saturn had been slow and its descent from Saturn to Moon and thence to the new birth had been swift, then the proportions would differ from those of a body inhabited by a soul who had ascended swiftly and descended slowly. Aristotle's teaching on physiognomy contains an echo of this Mystery-wisdom. The knowledge to be gleaned from a study of the proportions in the body and of the music of the spheres was still accessible to the mode of cognition known as Inspiration. And because the body was verily the Temple of the Gods, and this Temple contained the proportions of the human form as well as the expression of the harmony of the spheres, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Architecture were also revealed to this Mystery-wisdom in their inner connections. A reflection of this knowledge through Inspiration has lingered on in the seven Liberal Arts.
The pupil of the Mysteries in whom this knowledge awakened insight into the path of the soul after death and into the working of cosmic Beings on this soul, learnt to know that part of his own nature of soul and spirit which wends its way from planet to planet, from star to star. We now call this part of the human being, his astral or starry body. At the second stage of higher knowledge the pupil in this way became aware of the cosmic harmonies within himself; he found a reflection of this world-harmony in his nerve-system in the form of Apollo's lyre. Within his soul there still resounded the harmonies and disharmonies of the heavenly worlds of which he could become consciously aware through the earthly image of this cosmic harmony, through his nerve-system.
The third stage of supersensible knowledge, however, consisted in finding the actual expression of this world-harmony in the being of man and one of the most shattering experiences to be undergone by the soul was the realisation that the body structure, the skeleton of man, is this expression. Death, represented by the skeleton, had to be experienced and recognised as a constituent part of the world-harmony behind which life is hidden. Whoever lacked the courage to pass through the gate of death could not share in the profound experience that within the bones the life-blood itself is formed. Goethe expresses this experience when he says that nature devised death in order to have abundant life.
The reality of Being behind all life was revealed only by a courageous passage through the portal of death; the way to Hades must be trodden by the living human being. The phoenix of the sun must arise from the ashes. So there appeared at the third stage — which Rudolf Steiner called that of Intuition — the great mystery of Transubstantiation: spirit-birth from material death. The spiritual side of the world of matter revealed itself and instead of what we now call Chemistry, there appeared the choir of spiritual Beings, resounding and living in an indescribable radiance of light.
The further stages on the path to supersensible knowledge led the human being, when he had penetrated thus into the depths of his own being, into the macrocosm, into the ocean of spirit. He had a prevision of the world's future and of the Christ Who by overcoming death has brought from cosmic spaces into earthly evolution that which secures for this earthly evolution a cosmic future.
These three last stages of the sevenfold path of knowledge revealed themselves to the pupil along the further course of his development. He found the way from the earth to the cosmos; he united his eternal being with the cosmos; and finally, with the deepest fervour of his being and with a hallowed act of will, he was able, in advance, to bring the world's future into line with the world's goal.
We have seen that earthly science is a reflection of the teachings of the first stage on the path to knowledge and that these were expressed in the seven Liberal Arts. Is there, then, also an earthly science emanating from these last three stages?
Man bears these last three stages in his heart as faith in continuous evolution, as love for the progress in world-becoming, as active-hope, born from the fire of will, that the world's goal will be achieved.
This path, with all its wonders, has been shown us by Rudolf Steiner in order that our study of the sciences and arts of the earth, of Embryology, Geology, Mathematics, Geometry, Music, Astronomy, Chemistry shall make us mindful of the truth that the world's future must be born of the fire burning in the will of man.
And so the edifice of the sciences is seen as the reflection of the path to supersensible knowledge, for Geology, including Mineralogy, Botany, Zoology, the science of man in process of Becoming (Embryology) together form the content of imaginative knowledge and are in reality one science.
Astronomy, Geometry, Mathematics, Music, Architecture unite to form the content of knowledge by Inspiration.
A true Christian which includes the enacted Mystery of Transubstantiation and a true Physiology, are the content of Intuition.
Initiation-Science bears the future within itself! Truly, it is important that we should have knowledge of these things. For just as the pupil of the Mysteries in days of yore pursued his way through these stages of knowledge, so the student of Spiritual Science in our time must traverse these stages of knowledge in the way indicated in the Initiation-Science revealed by Rudolf Steiner and our way of teaching the sciences must accord with these stages of knowledge. It is our task — even though at first we can but gropingly seek our way forward — to set our feet upon this path.
Translated by kind permission from Natura, Vol. 4, No. 6.
from ... ANTHROPOSOPHY, A Quarterly Review of Spiritual Science, No. 4. Christmas 1930 Vol. 5.
London: Anthroposophical Publishing Company.
Other Works by Dr. Wegman: