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Anthroposophy and Astronomy

by Dr. Elizabeth Vreede

An essay printed in the journal,
Anthroposophy a Quarterly Review of Spiritual Science,
Vol. 3, No. 3, Michaelmas, 1928.

Portrait of Dr. Elizabeth Vreede
Elizabeth Vreede

Dr. Elizabeth Vreede (1879–1943) was the leader of the Mathematical and Astronomical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland in 1928.

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THE Spiritual Science of Rudolf Steiner has bequeathed to us a cosmology of Spirit which gives man once again a place within the world-picture and links Heaven and Earth together in unity. At the same time it was Rudolf Steiner's aim to build a bridge from this knowledge to Astronomy as cultivated in modern science. That such a bridge is necessary follows from the fundamental principle of all spiritual knowledge, that the outer world of sense is maya, illusion, whereas Spiritual Science would penetrate to the underlying reality. How and at what point maya and reality meet — that is the great problem of which Rudolf Steiner spoke in the year 1912 in his course of lectures at Helsingfors: Spiritual Beings in the Heavenly Bodies and in the Kingdoms of Nature [Course No. XXI. Anthroposophical Publishing Co., London.]

Detailed study of these lectures points the way from the outer maya to the inner, spiritual reality. We are directed to the past if we would discover what corresponds to reality. “The physical universe of heavenly bodies represents what has remained of the past deeds of the several hierarchies of Beings, whose after-influences have lasted on into our present age.” In this sense the world of stars as well as the rest of Nature is a maya — of the past! Behind this veil of maya the stars reveal themselves as ‘Colonies of Spiritual Beings.’ We are led to a study of the nature of the higher hierarchies, stretching in nine stages above man and all bound up in some way with the world of stars or its cosmological evolution. In Rudolf Steiner's Outline Of Occult Science these hierarchies are described in greater detail.

The first kingdom above man is that of the Angelic Beings, the Angeloi. They are the guardian Spirits of man and guide him from incarnation to incarnation. Their home is the sphere of the Moon although they cannot, to begin with, unfold their activity on the Moon itself. Still higher powers are necessary for this — powers such as only the Archangeloi and the Archai or Primordial Powers possess. These Beings — who together with the Angeloi constitute the lowest hierarchy of the spiritual world — guide and lead the peoples and great epochs of time on Earth. The Archangeloi are also Folk-Spirits, the Archai ‘Time’- or ‘Epoch’-Spirits. These hierarchies then — the area of whose field of action is the Moon-sphere — are essentially concerned with the historical life of individual human beings and of peoples.

In the Sun-sphere dwell the Beings of the second hierarchy — Spirits of Form, Spirits of Movement, Spirits of Wisdom. It was of these Beings that Rudolf Steiner spoke in his lecture entitled The Mystery of Golgotha [A full translation of this lecture appeared in Anthroposophy, Vol. I., Easter, 1926.] given in Manchester College Chapel, Oxford, August, 1922. “The souls of olden time, looking out through the body into their physical environment, had seen in all the stars the pictures of the world of spiritual Being which they had left behind when they descended to this life through birth. In the light of the Sun they saw the radiant Wisdom which they had indwelt, which had been their very breath of life. In the Sun itself they beheld the choirs of divine hierarchies by whom they had been sent down to Earth.”

It is true to say that the home of these Beings is in the Sun, but from there they work upon the planets, sending their forces from the planets also down to the Earth. The form and configuration of each planet is imparted by the Spirits of Form. The Spirits of Movement generate the inner mobility of the planet — not its movement in space but the changes brought about in the course of hundreds and thousands of years by ebb and flow, earthquakes and volcanic action, meteorological and climatic influences.

It is somewhat different when we come to speak of the Spirits of Wisdom who work from out of the Sun itself, pouring Sun-forces into the planetary system. Whereas the inner configuration and inner mobility of each planet differs according to the working of the Spirits of Form or of Movement, the action of the Spirits of Wisdom is uniform in all the planets. This uniformity of the action of the Spirits of Wisdom is most easily to be traced in the plant-world. There is variety of form in the plants; the position of their leaves, tendrils and so forth, reveal different spiral proportions; and in these are reflected the planetary forces emanating either from a Spirit of Form or a Spirit of Movement working from the focus of a particular planet. One thing, however, is common to all plants — the perpendicular direction of the stem, away from the Earth and towards the Sun. Here we have an expression of the uniform working of the Spirits of Wisdom in all plants. A kind of general, rudimentary consciousness of the whole planetary system is functioning here, just as in every human being, common elements of feeling and of impulse may arise from the subconsciousness. The Spirits of Wisdom have their home not only on the Sun but on all the fixed stars so that the primary, common principle of the whole world of fixed stars is to be found in these very Spirits of Wisdom.

In the first hierarchy we have the most sublime Beings of the whole Cosmos, the Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim, as they were named by ancient esoteric wisdom. The Thrones or Spirits of Will govern the movement of the planets in space; the Cherubim harmonise the different movements and bring about an ‘understanding’ between one planet and another. They are the planetary messengers, just as the Angeloi are the messengers of the world of men. The Seraphim in turn have the same task in respect of the whole world of stars; they bring about mutual understanding as between the Sun and other stars, fixed star and fixed star, linking the whole Cosmos into one great unity.

Thus we have:











Of the comets it must be said that they are particularly the field of action of Seraphim and Cherubim. It may perhaps be a cause of surprise that we ascribe the comets — the rebels in the sphere of cosmic law — to the highest Beings we have yet considered. To understand this we must try to penetrate more deeply into the relation between reality and maya.

The divine world-plan is received by the Beings of the hierarchies (especially of the first hierarchy) from the World-Spirit and carried into effect in the mighty course of evolution. But into this evolution has played much that has changed the spiritual reality into the sense-perceptible maya in which we all live to-day. The movements of the planets and fixed stars (also their so-called ‘apparent’ movements) take place with such regularity that a man of modern time may well ask: ‘What then remains for the Thrones still to regulate in the outer movements of the planets? They all proceed according to strictly mechanical law.’

This was not, however, always the case, nor, in a certain respect is it so to-day. The comets are an exception; and that may perhaps in itself lead us to surmise that their movements must be directed by the most sublime Beings of all. At this point we must bear in mind that the universe has passed through different stages, described by Rudolf Steiner in An Outline Of Occult Science as the evolutionary periods of Saturn, Sun, Moon and Earth. In each of these stages the world of stars, too, was different. At the stage of ancient Saturn, spiritual Beings only were there — those Beings of whom we have previously spoken. As yet, however, they did not express themselves in any starry world, of which, indeed, there was nothing more than the most rudimentary indication.

During the stage of the Old Sun-evolution, the stars were manifestations of the spiritual Beings. In their movements and so forth, the stars were a direct expression of indwelling Beings, in the same sense as the human body is directed in its movements and expressions by the indwelling Spirit.

At the next stage — that of the Old Moon — it was only possible for the spiritual Beings to send forth their impulses into the heavenly bodies, from which their true being became more and more remote.

In order to make these things a little clearer, we will briefly consider the course of earthly evolution from this point of view. The Earth represents the fourth stage — called by Rudolf Steiner the world of finished ‘Work,’ a world that fulfils the description quoted at the beginning of this essay. In the ages of history, however, man recapitulated the earlier stages of evolution in his consciousness. In the ancient Indian epoch, for instance, he paid no attention to the world of stars as such but only to the spiritual Beings themselves. (We are speaking here of an age preceding that of the Vedas.) In the ancient Persian epoch, the essence of the Sun-Being was revealed to Zarathustra. (The movement of the Sun itself, of course, was subject to the same law as it is to-day, whereas during the period of the Old Sun evolution it was the direct expression of the Sun-Spirit. In the ancient Persian epoch of civilisation, man was experiencing at a later stage, an earlier condition.) The ancient Chaldeans and Egyptians had vivid experience of the activities of the spiritual Beings in the heavenly bodies; from this emanated their Astrology — wonderful, indeed, for those times, although it must not be applied in the same form in our day. The Egypto-Chaldean epoch was, in a sense, a recapitulation of the Old Moon evolution. Man beheld Beings connected with Sun Moon, Planets and Stars, but it cannot be said that these Beings belong to the hierarchies proper; they are their descendants — Beings who have separated off from the hierarchies. They carry out, as it were, the activity from which their Creators — the hierarchies themselves — withdrew, when the plan underlying the movements and so forth in the planetary system had been established. Many such orders of lower Gods are active in the Cosmos and the Egyptians and Chaldeans, especially of the later period, who could no longer ascend to the actual realm of the stellar Gods, observed the activity of these subordinate Beings. These ‘descendants’ of the several hierarchies are responsible for phenomena which are thought to-day to occur simply ‘of themselves.’

If man were to develop freedom, it was necessary for the higher Beings to withdraw from the world of stars and of Nature and seemingly to abandon these to spiritless mechanical law. Yet in this mechanism, as in all natural phenomena, spiritual Beings — the ‘descendants’ of the higher hierarchies — are working. The fact that in Spring the plants come forth from the soil, that blossom and fruit appear and that the plants wither away in Autumn, the fact that when here we have Autumn, Spring begins to burst on the other side of the Earth — all this is brought about by the Nature-Spirits, the gnomes, undines, sylphs (the descendants of the third hierarchy) together with the salamanders who have separated from the Spirits of Form. These subordinate Beings accomplish the work under the ‘Spirits of the Seasons’ or ‘Spirits of Rotation’ who guide them over the Earth. The action of some of these Spirits of Rotation turns the Earth around its axis while others of them lead the Earth and the planets in their regular courses around the Sun.

These Beings are the descendants of the highest hierarchies — the Seraphim and Cherubim. The Spirits of Movement, of Wisdom and of Will have as descendants, Beings who are really the ‘group-souls’ of the animals, plants and minerals.

All these Beings are of a lower order than their progenitors; it is they who — under divine injunction, as it were — have brought about the separation of the natural and moral world-order, which on this account presents a certain duality to external observation. Hence it comes about that in Nature and in the Cosmos, we confront a maya wherein the mere forces of Nature appear as an impress of the activities of the Nature-Spirits. And instead of the direct, in working powers of the hierarchies, we now have the laws of Nature as the impress of the Spirits of Rotation in the world of maya.

Whereas all these processes take their course under the law that necessarily obtains in the outer world in order to allow man to develop the experience of inner freedom, the Comets represent an element that does not wholly enter this sphere of law. Although as so-called periodic comets they subject themselves more or less to the laws of the planetary system, with the appearance of new comets (and even Kepler said that comets are as numerous as the fishes in the sea) these laws are always broken through. The comets still contain a trace of the direct working of spiritual powers, indeed, of the very highest — the Seraphim and Cherubim. Before ordinary law may be broken through, the very highest power and insight is required. The comets, indeed, are agents of a very special nature in our planetary system, their polar antithesis being in the moons. Just as the moons are a kind of corpse which the planetary system trails along with it, so, on the other side, the comets may be spoken of as constant purifiers of the spiritual atmosphere within the solar system. In earlier times men thought of them as the “scavengers of God,” and many superstitions have gathered around them. To the eye of Spirit, too, the mission of the comets is perpetually to expel impure astral forces from the Cosmos or to introduce new impulses.

The Cosmos contains not only those Beings and forces of which we have been speaking up to now. If that were so, the whole Cosmos would consist of Being only, without substance. The heavenly bodies would not be visible nor earthly substance tangible. In order fully to understand maya, it must also be remembered that other orders of Beings — Luciferic and Ahrimanic as they are called in An Outline Of Occult Science — have laid hold of evolution and are playing their part in it. They are Beings belonging to the higher hierarchies who do not pass through the same development as the others but remain behind while the normal Spirits ascend to ever higher stages. Thus there are, for instance, Spirits of Form who in the normal course would be Spirits of Movement but who have remained at the stage of the Spirits of Form. The ethereal Saturn or Jupiter-spheres are formed by the Spirits of Form, their inner mobility being the work of the Spirits of Movement. The rebellious Spirits of Form array themselves in opposition and, instead of working in harmony with the planetary movement, create a form at a definite point in the ethereal sphere as the result of congestion. This form is the planet we see in the heavens! The planetary sphere remains an ethereal structure in which astral forces are working while the actual planet itself only moves around the periphery of this ethereal sphere. Other Luciferic Beings then appear on the scene and, from the point where the planet exists, throw back the light that is radiating spiritually from the Sun so that the planet becomes outwardly visible. Later on, Ahrimanic Beings impart solid substance to the Earth and thus generate the dense veil of maya which is presented by the outer world of sense. Everything that can thus be an object of outer investigation contains in some way the Luciferic element — the outer essence of light — and the Ahrimanic element — heaviness or gravity. This also is part of the maya that spreads itself over spiritual reality.

We may pursue the same line of study in reference to other cosmic phenomena, the meteors — for they, too, are connected with the comets. The comets are spiritual formations sent forth into the Cosmos by the highest, most sublime Spirits, but in the course of their activity as purifiers of the astral atmosphere, they gather to themselves various substances, gases and the like. Now other cosmic formations, generated by the ‘abnormal’ Spirits from the realm of the Thrones — Beings who ought really to have become Seraphim and Cherubim but who have remained at the stage of the Thrones — fling themselves in the path of the meteors and work with a prodigious power acquired from their having remained at a lower level. The Thrones are the Creators of the mineral group-souls and the retarded Thrones — those who have remained behind — generate solid mineral formations in the Cosmos, in the meteors which often accompany the comets or appear in ‘showers’ at more or less regular intervals of time in the atmosphere of the Earth. And so in these formations — withdrawn as they are in a certain sense from the ordinary law obtaining in the planetary system — we have the highest spirituality united with the densest materiality.

The very behaviour of the comets may continually remind us that the processes taking place in the solar system can never be exhaustively explained by the Newtonian theory of gravitation. In the case of the other heavenly bodies, too, something can always be detected which, when observation is made over long periods of time, is seen to be an expression of the living working of spiritual Beings that has never wholly entered into the ‘finished Work’ stage. It is only in the comets and meteors that the ‘incalculable,’ the arbitrary, makes itself manifest. The incommensurable factor in the movements of the other heavenly bodies shows that we must base our observation of their movements on something other than the theory of gravitation which holds good for the Earth.

Rhythm and periodicity live in the planetary movements and constitute their primal law; even as the law of gravity holds sway in the immediate environment of the Earth. (The Earth, of course, as one of the heavenly bodies also participates in cosmic laws of rhythm and periodicity.) These laws are identical with those according to which man and the other kingdoms of Nature have been fashioned. Thus do man and the universe again become one; religion unites itself again to the world of stars. The stars bear for us the traces of the Deeds of the Gods which lead through the Beings of the hierarchies to the frontiers of Divinity Itself. And in this sense Rudolf Steiner was able to say to his hearers, when he had led them from Anthroposophy to Astronomy: “When we observe the life of the world of stars, we are beholding the bodies of the Gods and, ultimately, of Divinity Itself.”

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