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Reading the Pictures of the Apocalypse

Reading the Pictures of the Apocalypse: Part 1: Lecture Four


MUNICH — May 15, 1907

WITH OUR STUDY OF THE APOCALYPSE we have reached the point that leads us to the so-called third letter. This third letter portrays to us — entirely in keeping with what we have seen in the first two letters — the evolutionary secrets, so to speak, of a certain geographical territory. In order to find our way into the following train of thought we must once again briefly call to mind the basic tendency and goal of the Apocalypse.

We have seen that the Apocalypse is a book of initiation. It describes the steps to be taken by a candidate for initiation in order to develop the highest vision of the spiritual world. We have seen that acquiring knowledge of all aspects of the physical plane is the first step. Those to be initiated must raise themselves to the astral plane, and then to the devachanic plane. It has become clear to us that human beings who raise themselves to the astral plane are surrounded by a world of pictures, which are much more real than anything we call pictures in our poor language. These astral pictures are much more real than what exists here. These pictures experienced by the seer are the fundamental forces of the physical world. The physical world is formed out of this world of pictures. When human beings have worked through to the astral plane, then they raise themselves to the devachanic plane; this plane's world of pictures resounds with the so-called music of the spheres, which constitutes the inner being of all things. Progressing then from the astral plane to the devachanic the seer hears for the first time what the Pythagorean school characterized as “the music of the spheres.” The music of the spheres finds only an abstract expression in what we call the higher numbers. But what are ordinary numbers and measure? What are the numbers physicists speak about when they discover wave motion, when they speak of oscillations? What are these numbers compared with what our ears hear when they hear the sounds themselves? What we find in the philosophical books concerning the “mysticism of numbers” is nothing more than a babbling. But what Pythagoras described is what the seer perceives after the spiritual ear has been opened, when it hears the sounds that make the wave movement or hears what is expressed in such wave movement. The devachanic world is nowhere else. You can remain standing in the same location and experience the physical world fading away. The world is enlivened with colors and forms — and then you can experience that this world of light is penetrated by tones.

In the Apocalypse you will find a description of how Christian mysticism describes the devachanic world. If you raise yourself to that elevated condition as the servant of the Lord did, then you first experience what is taking place on the physical plane. This is described to us in a certain way in the seven letters to the seven communities. Then the enlightenment achieved through knowledge of the physical plane is put into signs in the seven seals. When human beings raise themselves to the astral plane they experience a world flooded with light, pictures, and forms. That is described to us in the picture of the man surrounded by the four living creatures, of the lamb receiving from his hand the book with the seven seals. As these picture-seals are unsealed the astral world comes to meet us, and the trumpeting angels signify the harmony of the spheres on the plane of devachan.

With the Apocalypse we are confronted by a book of initiation. Such a book is, at the same time, always a prophetic book. One who experiences the events of the astral and devachanic planes also, at the same time, experiences the events of the future — a profound mystery of the future is present here. What is found today on a higher plane will appear in the future on the physical plane. Place yourself with a seer presently on the astral plane; the seer can only rise to this world if his or her spiritual eye is opened. Think of everything that you experience on the astral plane condensed, grown solid like water to ice; then you have the condition of your own physical world in the near future. The present, today, in the astral world, is the future in the physical, so that the seer can see today the future state of humankind on the astral plane. Initiation means, at the same time, penetrating the secrets of future events. Hence, the Apocalypse is first of all a book of initiation and secondly, a prophetic book. This prophetic wisdom we want now to illuminate a little more closely; we want to see how this wisdom encompasses the meaning of the evolution of our humankind.

You have heard that the Apocalypse speaks of very bad conditions of our earth, devastating conditions. We have just studied the task of Theosophy within our human evolution. Let us look at the future: There will he terrible conditions, conditions that devastate the earth. Human beings will be in a moral state that will allow egotism to attain heights compared with which our present-day state is mere child's play. One might ask how will it be in the future with souls of the present day? Must they be condemned to incarnate in a morally degenerate humanity, in an evil race? We must answer with a decisive “no.”

A wonderful legend describes to us the state of development of the soul. The soul is in a different line of evolution than the body of the human being. The difference between soul and racial development can be seen if we look into the past. Souls were incarnated many times in the Atlantean race; all of you were Atlanteans at that time. The souls worked themselves out of that situation and the remaining human bodies belonged to the races that had become decadent and were falling into decline. The souls left the bodies of the races and rose up to higher races. Human bodies afflicted with fundamental evil will not have souls within them that are striving to rise above their present state to a higher one. Souls that proceed with their development, who rise above themselves, will have, through their work, achieved different kinds of bodies in the sixth root race. But there is also something in Christian esotericism called the melting of human beings with their race. There is a great difference between a human being who says: I will raise myself above what I am capable of giving today to something higher; and another who says: I will stay in the life that surrounds me today. Those who do not strive to go beyond the present-day configuration, who fuse with their race, will be condemned to lead further lives in the bodies of the later races that are left behind.

When we look to the great leaders of humankind who are our pathfinders, we look to them as leaders who will show us how to go beyond the evolution of races in order to dwell in bodies that are more perfect in the future. The fact that a human being can say: I want to stay where I am! is expressed in a legend that has lived for a long time and found various explanations. However, it is really only explained by Theosophy. Think of the pathfinder whom we call Christ Jesus, the one who points to the passage in the Apocalypse we have just discussed. It is the passage he most often refers to — the place where he speaks of the overcoming of death. When you find human souls sitting along the way who are not interested in evolving — what do they experience? They must again and again be born in the same race because they have rejected the signal from the redeemer. This tragedy is expressed in the Ahasuerus legend; [See Note 1] Ahasuerus, “the wandering Jew,” created his own destiny because he had pushed the redeemer away from himself.

We must, then, distinguish between the evolution of the soul and the evolution of races; and we are shown how souls climb ever higher. But we are also shown how races sink deeper and deeper in a terrible way. We have now explained how present day evolution is described in the seven letters. We think of the letters as directed to the seven communities of our earth.

If we divide the earth into seven zones geographically, a letter is directed to each. The first territory is one where human beings, particularly today, work to perfect their physical bodies into a higher form. In the second region etheric bodies are the focus and in the third astral bodies are especially cultivated. So you will find one aspect emphasized in one territory, and another aspect in another. Think of these regions spread over the earth. What we refer to as the various peoples or folk groups cultivate particular parts of the human constitution: one folk especially develops the physical human being, another folk cultivates another aspect. But we have mentioned that it is not true to say that at one location only the astral body, at another only the physical body, is cultivated. In our various incarnations our souls must learn the lesson of each individual region. The seven letters are directed to every human being because every human being must pass through the seven stages of evolutionary development. The letter to the community in Ephesus is directed to a territory where the physical body is especially cultivated. The individual words characterize wonderfully just this kind of development. The third letter, to the Pergamonians, goes to the region where the astral body is particularly developed.

Let us keep together all the different facts we have discovered in the course of time. The evolution of the human being proceeds in such a way that the I works into the astral body, spiritualizing it. That part of the astral body transformed by the I is designated by the term “spirit self” or “manas.” Cultivating the astral body means, then, to work manas into the astral body. As much as you have cultivated your astral body — to that extent have you worked manas into it. In Christian esotericism the word “manna” means the same as manas; what is indicated as manna in the Bible is what we mean when we speak of the manasic nature flowing into the human being.

In the third letter we read: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (communities). To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna.” (Rev. 2:17) That is clearly stated; and with this letter the other side of the issue is also indicated, that those who do not undergo this development bring their bodies down, bring them into decline. In Christian esotericism the degeneration of the astral body is indicated in a very radical way.

In the Lemurian age the higher part of the human soul descended into the three human members. Remember, at that time the external human being was at a stage just somewhat higher than today's highest animals. From that time onward human beings have been working to form and develop their astral body because the soul is dependent on it. The soul is dependent on the astral body which, when the soul first entered it, was almost at the stage of animality. The progress of humankind consists just in this, that we work on the astral body, that we purify the animalistic emotions and instincts.

Assume for a moment the opposite; the consequence is not that the astral body remains unchanged but rather that it sinks down into a condition lower than it was in during Lemuria. Such neglect is portrayed as the temptations of Satan. For a Christian esotericist, “Satan” is a being who seduces human beings into bringing their astral bodies into decline rather than into ascent. When the writer of the Apocalypse wants to describe the other side, he says: If you develop your astral body then you will enjoy the heavenly manna. But there are regions where people do not develop the astral body — they experience the temptations of Satan. He describes this pull downward on the astral body: “I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is ...” (Rev. 2:13)

The fourth letter — to the community in Thyatira — is addressed to the region where humanity's sense of personality finds expression. This I plays a large role with all those wanting to lead human nature into a descent. Especially in middle European esotericism, the I is presented altogether as the middle point, as what is actually active and at work within the human being. The human being is like a flowing together of forces, forces that flow together in the astral body, etheric body, and physical body; and the I is presented as what is at work on these three members. In Germanic mythology this is portrayed by the tree, the world-ash, the symbol for threefold human nature. The middle point for this threefold human nature is the I; through its incorporation in the three members it carries the entire tree of human growth and evolution. “Ygg” is the ancient form for growth and evolution. You will find that in the ancient forms of speech as a characterization for what has been incorporated, the world-ash is called “Yggdrasil.” Yggdrasil means, “the carrying I”; and the name of the god who is connected with the formation of the I is also derived from it.

In the course of evolution the human being first learned how to inhale; in Hebrew that is connected with the word “Jehovah.” In old High German that corresponds to Odin, who is a god of the wind and races around in storms. “Jach” (Jahweh) is the “blower,” and when we speak of Wotan, and his army that rushes here and there, then we are speaking of the Odem, who was necessary for the growth of the I. In Christian esotericism a very special value is placed on this word altogether. It is seen as the name for the eternal in the human being and is, therefore, portrayed as what carries the other bodies, as what forms their middle point. Consider only this passage: “... and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power from my Father; and I will give him the morning star.” (Rev. 2:27,28) This I means the same thing as the actual name of Christ Jesus. Here, in almost every sentence, the word I appears again to tell us that it is the eternal in the human being. You will find this meaning expressed again and again by the words in the Apocalypse.

I will cite only a very special passage. The sixth letter must be addressed to a community where budhi is especially cultivated. What does that mean? If manas is especially cultivated, and if the human being has become a knower, then what we previously knew will pass over into our living feelings; it becomes for us a natural, given, feeling. It becomes a passion for us. If you realize that justice should prevail, that justice should live, if you realize that humankind cannot live without the beautiful and the good, then you are on the way to develop budhi. If higher things have become your second nature, if your soul is fully permeated with enthusiasm for the beautiful and the true, then you are on the path to budhi. Budhi takes its substance from the realm of feelings; and atma from the realm of the will. And when humankind finally reaches the point where it has made enthusiasm for the good into a reality, then what is called the Christian ideal of brotherhood will have appeared. This sixth territory can receive its name only from the ideal of brotherhood, and “Philadelphia” is the city of brotherly love. If you read the relevant passage you will see the city described this way: “I know your works. Behold, I set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Rev. 3:8) They did not deny the name that comes from fraternal duty.

The seventh letter is taken from the realm of atma, the atma or breath of the human being. When we have come as far as the physical breath we take in, when the I has worked down into the physical body — perhaps you know that in Christian esotericism this is designated by the word “amen” — then the esotericist, when speaking of this, will refer to the “amen,” and to the Angel of the Church (community) in Laodicea write: “The words of the amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.” (Rev. 3:14)

I have been able to select only some of the passages. If we could discuss everything, then you would see that we have messages for regions in our own time in these seven letters.

Let us now go from the past into the future. What does the writer of the Apocalypse think of the future? He speaks entirely in the following way: What you can see today on the astral plane is nothing other than the formation of the physical future of human beings. Look at what is on the astral plane and you will experience the future of humankind. There is no future that does not result from the present.

You know that the human being is enveloped in an astral body that permeates the physical body. You know, too, that there are sense organs in the astral body that are entirely different from the sense organs in the physical body. We speak of the lotus blossoms or wheels. What the human being can develop today in terms of such astral senses, the human physical body will have in the future as physical senses. The astral is on the way to becoming physical. How do human beings form these organs of the future, which today are still astral? Through what we achieve today in terms of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Work and deeds of today form the foundation for organs in the future. There was a time when human beings did not have eyes — they couldn't perceive light and color. Human beings acquired eyes through their actions at that time. They had other organs previously — by turning to the light they developed eyes. Present deed is future destiny; the deeds of the past were such that eyes could be created, and from your deeds in the present day, your sense organs of the future will be created.

Human beings who are active in terms of the true, the beautiful, and the good will have normal organs in the future. If they strive against the true, the beautiful, and the good then they will have crippled organs in the future. It is impossible to erase what we do in the present. A deed laid down in the present in order that it emerge in the future is termed “sealed” in Christian esotericism. In terms of Christian esotericism one says: Today you have eyes that were nonexistent in the past but you did this or that. Your eyes were “sealed,” now they are “unsealed.” Your eyes are the “unsealing” of your past deeds. We have now the sealing of what will be unsealed on the physical plane in the future. For anyone who looks only at the physical plane, evolution is a book with seven seals. Anyone who looks at the astral plane can see all future organs already laid out. The organs reveal themselves as pictures. An esotericist would say: If you look to the middle point, which is characterized as the lamb, then the lamb will put the book into your hand; and the book is unsealed in such a way that what will have form in the future can only be expressed in pictures. Therefore, what can occur is expressed through pictures, piece by piece. In the first seal a future condition is portrayed pictorially by a horse, a further condition is revealed in the second seal through another horse and so forth. In order to discern the meaning we will consider one image, let us say, the third horse. This is the picture that appears when the third seal is broken. It is presented in the following way: “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in its hand.” (Rev. 6:5)

What does this mean? A future condition of the human being is here portrayed, a condition that proceeds from the evolution of the third member of the human being, the astral body, which has been worked on and purified by the I. An unpurified astral body is one that knows only itself, that finds everything that does not belong to it to be antipathetic. A purified astral body is one that receives everything coming to it weighed out with a just balance. If we rightly purify the astral body, an organ is created that can be expressed pictorially by a rider with a balance. An organ in the astral body arises for the human being out of just deeds in the present. This is expressed here pictorially. We could explain the other pictures in the same way. Then we would see the inadequacy of the usual explanations that are given.

When the fifth seal is opened we are told something very significant: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne ...” (Rev. 6:9) What happens to a soul that develops itself up to the fifth step? It is strangled in its lower soul; the impurities that cling to it are done away with, and the soul thereby appears clothed in innocence: “And they were each given a white robe ...” (Rev. 6:11) The soul is white; it has become innocent when it has developed to the fifth step.

If we ascend higher we arrive at the place where the astral pictures go over into the devachanic, to the sounding of the trumpets. The Ahasuerus human beings form one group of humanity; the others will be those who can enter into other beings. Now, it will appear obvious to us that what has fallen behind must be described with pictures that can only be described as repulsive. While the souls that have developed further are hearing the trumpets, the others will have achieved the peak of egotistical development. Those who have advanced, who have developed their souls, will live like lofty initiates today.

I have told you that initiates progress through various stages. They must transform not only something of their astral body, but also something of their etheric body, and even something of their physical body. In earlier times initiates were kept in a state such that their etheric body existed outside their physical body for three and one-half days while the physical body lay there as if dead. Meanwhile, the hierophant lead the etheric body through higher worlds.

The writer of the Apocalypse describes to us what a present-day initiate experiences. He describes it as something similar to the initiation process of three and one-half days. Remember that there is actually a passage in the Apocalypse that says two witnesses of God appear, who lie as if dead for three and one-half days and then again become alive: “... and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange gifts, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after three and one-half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.” (Rev. 11:10,11) The Apocalypse speaks of these two prophets in addition to the leader of humankind, whom the people could see. You have here a description of a process of initiation. You see how everything fits together.

There is something else that will show you how deeply the writer of the Apocalypse has penetrated into the mysteries of the world. I can best explain this if I relate to you the Golden Legend, [See Note 2] which has played an especially large role in Christian esotericism.

We are told that Seth was able to journey to Paradise, that the cherub with the flaming sword permitted him to pass and actually enter Paradise. He encountered there a vision: The crowns of the two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, had grown together. Seth took a seed from this tree that had grown together; this seed he placed in the mouth of his deceased father, Adam. From this seed then grew a tree with three trunks, which provided wood for various things. It was especially important that Seth could see how a kind of flaming script was formed in the branches of this tree. The following words appeared: “Ejeh, Ascher, Ejeh,” which mean, “I am he who was, he who is and he who will be. The wood from this tree was used to make the staff with which Moses performed his miraculous deeds; the wood was used to build Solomon's temple; then it was used for a bridge over the Bethesda pool, which Jesus walked over. Finally, the wood was used to make the cross on which Christ Jesus was crucified. What do these two symbols mean, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge? What does it mean that they have grown together? And what does the tree signify, the tree that provided the wood even for the cross?

The fact that Seth could enter Paradise means nothing other than that he had become an initiate, that he could penetrate into mysteries that were closed to others. Now let us ask ourselves: What do the trees that he saw signify? That is something found in every human being, something present in every individual.

How did the human being become a knower? The answer is connected with the inhalation of air through the lungs, where the “used” blue blood is transformed into red blood. In this way the human being could take up the Odem, the breath of God. This is the becoming of the individual human I: through the infiowing of the Odem of God through which the human being became a knowing soul. A real tree is actually incorporated in the human being, a tree you can still see today if you study the human body. This is the tree created by the main arteries, which branch off into smaller and smaller capillaries throughout the entire body. There is no being in the world that can become a knowing being if it cannot, like a human being, take up the oxygen from the air — the oxygen that is so necessary to create red blood — so that human beings can take into themselves the tree of knowledge through the red blood.

The other tree, the tree of blue veins, has been taken away from the human being in terms of human mastery over it. It contains the used, blue blood which is a poison, filled with death. Before the human being descended from the bosom of God, it was the tree of life. By becoming earthly, the human being was divided into two parts, comprising the veinal and arterial, the blue and the red blood vessel systems. The blue blood streams up to the heart and must unite with what the plants give. The human being breathes out carbon dioxide; plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. In this way human breathing, which expresses itself in our actual “I-ness,” is an intertwining of the red and blue “blood trees.” This is, however, only possible if the human being has a tool, and that is the plant, without which the human being cannot live. The plant is what allows us to intertwine the blue and the red “blood trees.”

The alchemy of the human being is this: what the plants do for us today, human beings in the future will be able to accomplish within and through their consciousness. What is outside the human being today will be intertwined within the physical body when we have taken in the entire plant world, when we have expanded our consciousness to include the entire world of plants. That is the future condition of humanity. Then, what exists outside in the natural world surrounding us will be entirely different.

Our entire cosmos will be changed with us. Earlier conditions will return at a higher level. There was a time when the earth and the sun were united with one another. At that time the human being existed within the being of the sun. But by entering into a physical body, the human being actually left the Mars state — and it is this state that someday humankind will once again attain. At that time the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were intertwined; at that time the human being did not need any external tool. That will be the case again in the future. What humankind will have then attained has always been indicated symbolically by drawing the sun, and then indicating the earth at a higher stage of development — with the human being also more highly developed. What will bring human beings to that point is the union of the red and blue bloodstreams by means of an expanded consciousness. This is indicated with two metal pillars — those are the two bloodstreams — and the sun is what will be ... [omission in manuscript]. Then the blue blood tree will no longer be a tree of death.

The seer must see this condition in astral signs. To describe this condition the writer of the Apocalypse must indicate it with pictures. “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun and his feet were like pillars of fire.” (Rev. 10:1) We have here a picture of this condition. In the same way the entire Apocalypse is composed with occult signs.

Christian esotericism sees the earth as the body of Christ. When Christian esotericism speaks of the body of Christ, it is speaking of the planetary body of the earth. Therefore, you must take words such as the following seriously: “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18) When we eat the bread of the earth we are treading on it with our feet.

If so, the writer of the Apocalypse can say even something more. We have seen that Seth was an initiate. Abel was a man of God who voluntarily lived from what was given to him. Cain was a farmer who himself built whatever he needed. Two lines of development are spoken of. One could be called the Seth or Abel direction, while the other included those who themselves had to change the form of everything. They will have to work for a long time; therefore tilling the soil, the work of the farmer has always been a symbol for those who transform the earth. The children of Abel or Seth stand over against the servants of Cain, who are the successors of Cain or the people of Cain. Those who have received revelations from the beginning have seen from the beginning, but also those who diligently work and strive will become initiates and behold the one who is the spirit of the earth, the planetary spirit of the earth. If the writer of the Apocalypse wants to indicate that the spirit of the planet will be seen by those who themselves transform the earth, then he will say: “All eyes will see Christ Jesus, also those who have pierced him.” Therefore, the writer of the Apocalypse says, right at the beginning, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, everyone who pierced him.” (Rev. 1:7) Those are, at the same time, words that describe the goal, the essence, the leitmotif of the Apocalypse. Precisely these profound words show us that the Apocalypse is really a prophetic book, that we can read from it the future that is here portrayed in pictures. It is our task as Theosophists to see things that Christ Jesus could not speak about in those days because the people could not yet understand. But he did point to them with signs.

What Christ Jesus has poured into these signs must become clear to us for the sake of the stream of Theosophy in the world. It must stand before our eyes symbolically during the next days of our Congress through the seven seals of the Apocalypse, through the motifs on the pillar capitals, and through the five planetary seals that we find as vignettes in the program. These five vignettes were not invented; they are rather five vignettes from the occult script.

If we learn to understand every line, all the curves and marks, then we have understood something of how human evolution has been written in the occult language of signs. Theosophy must point out this language of occult signs.

We meet together in order to work for knowledge. Everything else will come by itself through this work for knowledge. Therefore, the moral admonition, “You should love your brother” is just like saying to a stove: Your task is to heat the room! Saying so does not make the room warm. But when you put wood in the stove then it will warm the room by itself without having to be told.

By striving for knowledge, by accomplishing the work of knowing, you heat the human soul and this leads to the great work of the brotherhood of humankind. The Theosophical Society must be a society that promotes work toward esoteric knowledge, otherwise it will not thrive. If we absorb something from these ideas, then we will be able to do some of what the Theosophical Society must do, also on the occasion of this Congress. [See Note 3] If Theosophy is also connected with what is described in the book of wonders, the Apocalypse, then we must also do something in order to break the seals ourselves. Only when within our society we open the seals of the books that have been given to us by great individuals, only then are we striving toward that which the Theosophical Society should be, if it wants to be a real influence on our modern culture.



Note 1. Ahasuerus is a figure in Christian legend fraught with mystery and ambiguity. A reference in John 18, 20–22 to an officer who struck Jesus is sometimes seen as the origin of the story. Another possible source, the English Flores Historiarum (1228) describes a man in Armenia, Cartaphilus, who later converted to Christianity. Cartaphilus had been Pontius Pilate's doorkeeper. He had struck Jesus on the road to Calvary and Jesus responded: “I go, and you will wait until I return.” This legend was revived in Germany in 1602 in a pamphlet entitled, “A brief description and narration regarding a Jew named Ahasuerus.” Since then the tale has been the subject of many plays, poems, novels, and paintings. Rudolf Steiner's acquaintance, the Austrian poet Robert Hamerling, for example, wrote an epic Ahasver in Rom (1862), while Edgar Quinet in Ahasverus (1833) used the legend to symbolize the progress of humanity.

Note 2. Compare the lectures in part II of The Temple Legend (GA 93) “Concerning the Lost Temple and How It Is to Be Restored in Connection with the Legend of the True Cross, or Golden Legend” (London:Rudolf Steiner Press, 1985)

Note 3. IV Annual Congress of the Federation of European Sections of the Theosophical Society, May 18 – 21, 1907.

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