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On the Nature of Butterflies

On the Nature of Butterflies

A Lecture by
Rudolf Steiner
Dornach, October 8th, 1923
GA 351

Lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Dornach, 8th October, 1923. Translated by A. Innes and published for the first time in English by permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung. This lecture is number one of fifteen in the lecture series entitled, The Functioning of Spirit in Nature and in Man – The Being of Bees, and published in German as, Mensch und Welt. Das Wirken des Geistes in der Natur. Ueber das Wesen der Bienen. Vortraege fuer die Arbeiter am Goetheanumbau. It is contained in Volume No. 351 of the Complete Centenary Edition of Rudolf Steiner's works.

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A lecture given by Rudolf Steiner to the Workmen, Dornach, 8th October, 1923.

Translated by A. Innes.

Duplicated as manuscript by kind permission of the Rudolf Steiner-Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland, by whom all rights are reserved.

Dornach, 8th October 1923.

Well, gentlemen, have you had any ideas? If not, I will talk to you about something which links up quite well with matters I have already discussed.

In observing Nature — as a rule people do so rather without thinking — the moment we begin to reflect about the things of Nature, so much points to the presence of the spiritual that our curiosity cannot fail to be aroused regarding the actual working of this Spirit, we cannot help becoming curious about it. In the case of the beavers' lodge and other such things I have repeatedly drawn your attention to the amount of spiritual activity to be found in Nature. Now today I am going to point to something further.

At a certain time in summer when man walks in the open and sees the lovely iridescent play of butterfly wings, he does not stop to query the origin of this manifold many-coloured fluttering of butterflies moving so freely.

You see, this is even of great practical significance. In fact, I am convinced that were we to attempt new experiments in the field of aeronautics, here in our Goetheanum precincts, they would not be staged as they are when based on materialistic science. Experiments are continually being made based on the flight of birds, dragon-flies, and so forth, but experimenting along the lines of butterfly flight has never been considered. Aviation, however would only assume its right form could it on a large scale base its experiments on the butterfly flight. But people today do not think of this, because they are unable to discern the true facts. Even in regard to the practical side of life these things are only grasped rightly when the spiritual is considered.

Now today I am going to point out something regarding butterflies which does not really belong to aeronautics but which will shed light on the subject.

You see, a butterfly does not start life as such, but evolves by means of a very complicated process. We will start from the fact that when autumn approaches the time is now ripe for the butterfly to lay an egg. Thus the starting point of the butterfly is the laying of an egg. It is not a butterfly that comes out of this egg. What emerges from this egg is not an ordinary butterfly — the swallow-tail, for instance, which looks like this (drawing) — but something which is commonly called a grub; in other words, a caterpillar is hatched. Now this caterpillar is hatched from the egg. Here is its head, here at the other end the sting (drawing), and it crawls around lazily. Outwardly it appears to be a sluggard. Inwardly however, it is far from sluggish, for from its own body it spins threads out of which it forms a hard covering. Gradually the caterpillar completely disappears into this covering, and disintegrates; thus it spins itself a cocoon which it attaches to a tree where it hangs. It first attaches the threads and then vanishes into the cocoon. So we first have the egg, then the caterpillar and now the Chrysalis — for that is its name. This chrysalis remains suspended for a certain length of time, after which an opening appears in some part of it and the butterfly emerges.

Thus before the butterfly exists as such, four things are required. First of all the egg, secondly the caterpillar, thirdly the chrysalis, and fourthly the actual butterfly. The egg is laid in some place. The caterpillar crawls around, the chrysalis remains quite still, and the butterfly gaily flutters forth into the air. It can then lay another egg and the same story is repeated in the course of the year. This is what happens.

Now people see this and learned folk explain it by observations under a microscope or other such means. The matter, however, is not so simple. One has to take into account where and how the egg can live, how the caterpillar and chrysalis live, and finally how the butterfly lives. If the egg is to reach the stage of hatching out a caterpillar, it above all requires moisture — often just a drop in which a little salt is dissolved. No egg can thrive without a certain amount of humidity in which salt is present. For this reason the butterfly's instinct must lead it to lay the egg where it will find moisture containing some salt. Otherwise nothing happens. What I am telling you in regard to butterflies applies also to bees. It is likewise necessary for bees to lay their eggs where salt — even if very little — has penetrated. It suffices for mist to seep in, as mist always possesses a certain amount of saline moisture. Nature comes to the rescue. Such things do not always dawn on human understanding. Nature indeed is far cleverer than man. The egg, however, always requires moisture containing a certain amount of salt. This is necessary to the butterfly, too, as it enables the caterpillar to be hatched. So the egg just requires this moisture containing salt; it has no eyes, so sees nothing and just lives for itself in a world of total darkness. The moment the caterpillar is hatched it meets the light and remains in it. It has some organs, has reached the light, and now becomes quite another kind of creature than it was as an egg. The egg has entirely transformed itself into a caterpillar. Inner sensation is produced in the caterpillar because it is exposed to the light and has sense organs. Such things are made evident in the case of certain phenomena. You have no doubt noticed the astonishing fact when a lamp has been lit that all sorts of insects flutter around in the room, feel drawn to the light, and are even so stupid as to hurl themselves into the flame and get burnt. Why is this? Of course this does not happen in the case of the caterpillar, but it has the same urge. I may say that the caterpillar is drawn to the sunlight by the same urge as that felt by the insect who plunges into the candle flame, only the caterpillar cannot rise to the sun. Could it rise from the ground and fly to the sun, very soon we should no longer have any caterpillars. They would all fly up and away to the sun. For that is their urge, gravity only binds them to the earth. So when we see a caterpillar we know that it really has the urge to follow the light. This is impossible, so what does it do?

Just imagine that here is the beam of light and here the caterpillar (drawing). As the caterpillar crawls along, it spins a thread in the pattern of the beam of light. It spins in exact accordance with the beam of light and at night when there is no light it rolls up the thread. It spins it out in the sunlight and rolls it up again at night. In this way it forms its sheath. The caterpillar completely surrenders to the light, it dies in the light. Just as the insect surrenders to the flame, so the caterpillar dies into the light, but being unable to reach the sun it does not enter the sunbeam. However, it spins its own body into these threads and so forms the cocoon — as threads spun in this way are called. The silkworm spins the silk according to the light, so when you take its silk you can certainly say: This is spun light! Earthly matter is spun in the pattern of light rays, and when you come across a chrysalis you are really seeing pure sunlight spun around this earthly matter in the pattern of the sunbeam. We have now reached the point where spun light surrounds the chrysalis, and naturally something different occurs from what does in the case of the insect which burns by plunging into the flame and so can accomplish nothing further. In the short time the insect takes to hurl itself into the flame, could it but spin such a cocoon modelled on light, a new animal would arise from the fire. This is only hindered by the burning. By reason of this it is interesting to learn the real impulse of the insect which flutters around the room at night and plunges into the flame. Its urge is indeed to propagate itself and perish in order to re-emerge as a new being. Only it deceives itself because it cannot create a cocoon so rapidly. The caterpillar, however, has the time to create this sheath, to hang it up, so the sun forces, imprisoned inside, can now create the butterfly which is then able to fly out and enjoy the activity of a sun-being.

This is the way to observe things in Nature. First, quite a significant idea is implied in what I have told you. One might think that the insect by plunging into the flame just has the urge to perish, whereas this is not the case. It wants to reappear in another form. It would fain be transformed by the flame. This is always so in death. Death does not annihilate, but when it comes about in the right way it transforms the creature. This is the first thing we see. The second is the deep connection between all things in outer Nature. The butterfly you see is created out of light, but light had first to take up matter, form a case and be turned into threads inside the chrysalis. All animal entities are created out of light. This applies to man as well, by reason of the fertilisation of the female ovum. A sheath encloses the light within the mother's body, so man is really created by this light. So the possibility arises for man to be born out of light. Thus we see how the butterfly arises from light which has first been imprisoned.

Now the butterfly flutters about in many different colours. These colours are seen to be prevalent where the light is most effective. In regions where the birds have wonderful colours the sun has greater power. What effect is produced by the action of imprisoned sunlight? In every instance colour is produced and this applies to the butterfly as well. The butterfly owes its colour to the action of imprisoned light. The butterfly is understood only when viewed as a complete creature of light which is responsible for its manifold colours.

But you see this cannot be accomplished by the sun alone. The matter stands thus: In the case of the egg, we see that moisture and salt play their part. Salt is earthy moisture in water. So we can say that to thrive, the egg needs earth and a little water. The caterpillar creeps into the light. By nature the caterpillar cannot thrive in just earth and water (in other words, dissolved chalk and water) but it requires moisture, water, and also air. This moisture and air the caterpillar demands is not merely the physical substance required by the egg, but in this moisture lives what is known as ether — what I called ether-body in referring to man. The caterpillar acquires an ether-body through which it breathes. This ether-body enables it to take in the spiritual present in air. The egg is still entirely physical, whereas the caterpillar already lives in both physical and etheric, but this it finds difficult as it contains far too much earthly matter. When the content of the caterpillar comes into contact with the light, one sees that it spins the light out of itself in the form of a cocoon. The caterpillar has an urge towards the light, but it is held back by the strong forces in it. It cannot deal with this task. Its urge is to soar, to pour itself into the light and to live there. So what does it do? Well, it isolates itself, envelops itself in its sheath along with the sunbeams. In the chrysalis the caterpillar altogether isolates itself from the physical earth forces. Inside the chrysalis where the grub has vanished, astral forces are now present — no longer earthly or etheric forces, but astral forces which are entirely spiritual and live in imprisoned light. Imprisoned light always contains spiritual astral forces, and these create the butterfly. As the butterfly consists entirely of astral forces it can now fly about in the air which was impossible for the caterpillar. It can follow the light. Being no longer subject to gravity the butterfly can simply follow the light. Through its surrender it has eliminated gravity to which it is no longer subject. So it can be said that it has matured as far as the ego. It is an ego in which we see the butterfly flying around. We men have our ego inside, whereas that of the butterfly is outside. The ego is actually light and is responsible for the butterfly's colour.

In thinking this over there is something that must be clear in your minds. You are continually saying “I” to yourself. What does this signify? Every time you say “I” to yourself a little flame lights up in your brain, only it is invisible to ordinary sight. That is light. When I say “I” to myself I kindle this inner light. In saying “I,” I kindle the selfsame light that colours the butterfly's wings! It is really most interesting to note that when I say “I” to myself, could I allow this “I” to expand over the whole world of Nature, it would be light. It is only my body that keeps this “I” imprisoned. Were I able to let it expand, this ego, this light, would permit me to create real butterflies. The human ego actually has the power needed to create real butterflies and insects in general. You see, men imagine everything to be so simple, but in olden times when people had knowledge of these things, they spoke accordingly. In ancient Jewish times a word such as Jahve had the same meaning as “I.” In old Hebrew, Jahve could be pronounced only by the priest, because he had been prepared to understand its significance. For as he spoke this word he saw himself surrounded by a flight of butterflies. If he failed to do so he would know that he had not spoken with true inner feeling. But when he pronounced the word with right inner feeling he saw actual butterflies. He could not impart this to others however, for it would have unbalanced their minds. He had first to prepare himself for such an experience. It is none the less true.

Well, gentlemen, how can this be explained? Just picture a large eiderdown filling the space between the reading desk and the point where I am standing. The down inside is rather sparse. So from where I stand I try to push on towards the desk, pressing the down together. But I am unable to reach the desk, I have to stop half-way, because I cannot compress the down any further. I cannot reach the desk but can feel pressure when I lean against the eiderdown. In the same way, gentlemen, you have the urge to express the “I” — in fact to produce real butterflies, because the ego consists of light. But this you cannot do. Instead, you feel the resistance just as I do when I press forward. This is due to your thoughts. Your thoughts impede you from creating real butterflies by means of light. The ego thinks thoughts and these thoughts are really just pictures of the butterfly-world.

You see, the same thing would happen today as in ancient Jewish times when just anyone who said Jahve could have seen the whole of the butterfly-world. People would have said: “Of course he is crazy!” It would moreover have been true had he been too immature to behold spiritual things. But today if one states that the “I” and light are identical, that light when imprisoned creates butterflies, and that the same thing in our specially adapted brain creates thoughts, again people will say: “The man is mad!” All the same it is true, and this is just the difference between truth and mere madness! So when we see the bright butterfly in the air we must realise that the same impulse works upon us when with the right inner feeling we say “I.” Neither the butterfly nor even the higher animal can say “I,” for in their case the ego works from outside. When you see a lion, it is the animal's buff colour that its ego works upon from outside. The whole world of nature is responsible for the lion's existence. Because we think from within outwards we do not acquire our colouring from outside, but acquire from within the colour of our skin which, in painting, it is very hard to reproduce. Our “I” with the help of the blood is responsible for giving our body this wonderful human tint, only reproduced in painting when one succeeds in mixing and blending all the colours correctly. You see Nature is forever at work on the creature, but she works in a spiritual way. I have told you here that there must be a transition from moisture containing air to light. Now here is the chrysalis living in air and light; as caterpillar it lived in water and air; here as chrysalis in air and light; then it shuts itself off more and more from the light which is imprisoned, and it turns to the astral which now works upon it.

Just take another look at this: caterpillar and chrysalis. Now think of an animal not able to spin threads from its own body, Let us imagine a special kind of caterpillar which, having become such, has the urge to reach the light but is unable to do so because its body cannot spin threads. The animal cannot turn its body into one capable of spinning threads outside. The caterpillar really spins itself to death. It ceases to be, for its whole body is consumed in the spinning. An empty framework is all that is left. But suppose you had an animal that did not possess the physical substance with which to spin. What will the creature do if it is in this plight, if exposed to strong light? It cannot spin a cocoon for itself. What does it do then? It will do the spinning inside its body, and what it spins will be the blood vessels! The blood of such an animal which lives in the air is inwardly spun, just as the butterfly, or rather the caterpillar, spins the cocoon outside. We should then have an animal which as it lived in the air-water element would have a blood system suited to that element. If it lives for a time in the light it alters the form of its blood vessels; they become quite different. It now spins them inside its own body because it cannot spin outside. Now let us make a clear picture. Imagine there is an animal that breathes through gills — as it must in water — and that this animal moves in the water by means of a tail. Then his blood vessels extend into gills and tail. Thus the animal swims in the water where it can even breathe. The fish has gills, with which it is possible to breathe in water. But imagine the animal often rises to the air, gets out on the bank, or the pond itself dries up. Then it is more exposed to the light and loses the watery element. New regions appear where it must have light and air instead of water and air. What does the animal do then?

Now look — I will draw this with dots. The animal withdraws the blood vessels from the gills which increasingly vanish, and it spins these blood vessels in here. The animal spins its own blood vessels and those which were directed to the gills are now inserted here. The blood vessels formerly belonging to the tail are withdrawn and thus feet are grown. The blood vessels formerly in the tail now go to the feet enabling them to walk, and they are spun differently from those in the tail. You can see this in Nature — this is a tadpole and that a frog! The frog starts life as a tadpole with tail and gills, and can live in water. When it reaches the air it inwardly performs what the caterpillar does outwardly. The tadpole which is a frog, able to live in water, spins a network out of its own blood system. This spreads out in its body, and what once formed part of blood vessels and gills now becomes lung. Where gills once were, we now have lungs, spun there by the animal. In place of the tail we have feet and, as the movement of the blood has already evolved a heart, these feet move by means of the blood circulating from heart to lung. So the same path from water and air to air and light, followed by caterpillar to chrysalis, is also taken by the frog in its elements of air and water. In this case, however, air penetrates, as the animal must be exposed to both air and light. Light and air create lungs and legs whereas water and air create fish tails and gills.

The fact is that activity not only takes place within the animal but the whole cosmic environment always plays its part as well.

What attitude is taken by the scientists? What did we do in trying to make our picture? Well gentlemen, what we have done is to look at the world. We have viewed the world as it is and have observed Nature! What does the scientist do? Generally speaking he takes scant notice of Nature when he seeks to discover these things. Instead, he starts by going to an optician and ordering a very powerful microscope. It will not be taken out into the world of nature where it would be of little use, but will be shut up in a room where butterfly eggs will be laid. The scientist has little feeling for the butterfly fluttering in the light. He puts the egg on a specially prepared plate and observes it through the microscope (drawing). He keeps his eye on it and takes note of what happens to the egg after he has dissected it. Nature no longer acts, but the scientist cuts up little bits and examines the particles flattened out on a piece of paper under the microscope. These tiny particles cut with a razor blade are examined, and investigation is based on just that. This is how investigations are often made today. Think of a university lecture. The professor assembles as many people as possible into his study and allows them in turn to view what he has dissected. Of course, he often takes them for outings as well, but has little to say about what exists out-of-doors because he does not know much about it. His entire knowledge consists in what he sees under the microscope after having chopped up little bits and pieces. What wisdom does he acquire in this way? He discovers everything already present in the egg only in infinitesimal quantity. Well, gentlemen, that is all one can find when one begins by chopping it up with a razor blade and examining it under the microscope! One forgets all that is active outside in air, light and water. We just have the little specimen all ready and place it under the microscope. It is impossible to investigate in this way. All one can say is that the butterfly lives in the open, and here under my microscope I already have the whole butterfly in miniature.

Today people no longer believe what follows, but formerly they would say: Here we have a woman called Annie who has a mother called Maria. Now Maria gave birth to Annie. Very well, but the entire Annie was already present in the ovum inside the mother Maria. So we must imagine it thus: here is the ovum of Anna and here the ovum of Maria in which is Anna; but Maria herself derives from Gertrude who is Annie's grandmother. Now if Annie's ovum was contained in Maria's, it must also have been in that of Gertrude. Now Annie's great grandmother was Katie; so the ovum of Annie, Maria and Gertrude must have already been present in that of Katie, and so it goes on right hack to the first ovum of all, which is Eve's. So people said — it was of course the easiest solution — that a person alive today was already present in the egg-cell of Eve. This was known as the theory of pre-formation. The theories we still have today are just a little more nebulous. They no longer reckon on going back to Eve, but the idea is identical, and they have not really progressed if they say: The whole butterfly is already present! — and light, air and water which after all play their part are no longer considered.

You see, when one considers the scientific method pursued by the professor who takes people into his study to demonstrate these very learned matters — which in regard to Nature's activities are mere folly — one realises that after all light, air and all the rest should be taken into account! The professor ignores all this and enters his dark room where artificial light is introduced, when possible, so that daylight may not disturb the microscope. And the thought comes to us: Good gracious! He still believes in the egg as containing everything; and present-day science just dismisses all the rest. It is all shelved and has nothing left to do. Contemporary science no longer has any knowledge of what works in air, light and water; it knows nothing at all about it. You see, this is something which already sorely rankles in our social life — this fact that on the one side we have a science that really disregards the entire cosmos and only has eyes for what can be seen through the microscope and, on the other side, a State that takes no interest in a pensioner nor has further use for him beyond paying his pension. The same thing applies in the case of the scientist who extracts means of nourishment from Nature, but no longer understands its working and only concerns himself with the microscope, in other words just with parts. Science today really regards the whole cosmos as an idler who has been pensioned off. This is a dreadful state of affairs, for the masses are unable to see any further. The general public says: these are the people who ought to understand such things. One already thinks of turning tiny children into scholars, and they are sent to school to be taught. From then on today they make great efforts to learn. Up to the age of twenty-seven or twenty-eight they keep on studying; surely what they acquire must be the truth! Naturally, the general public cannot form an opinion and allows itself to be guided in these matters by the “learned,” and has no idea that what is taught no longer has any connection with Nature. Nature is referred to as someone now “on the shelf.” Thus the whole of our spiritual life is being swamped, and the time has now come when we must emerge. We do not progress for the simple reason that the general public finds it easier to accept what it hears. The truth today is told only by Anthroposophy! Nowhere else will you hear what I have just told you. Nobody will say such things. The general public simply pays no attention to them any longer. Anyone saying them is considered mad. It really is mad that this should be so! It is not the really mad who are considered so, but anyone speaking the truth is deemed mad. People really view this the wrong way round.

In this connection I will tell you another little story. There was once a medical commission that arrived at the entrance of a lunatic asylum where they wished to do some research. They found a man by the door who received them in such a way that they took him to be the director or the doctor in charge. So they said: Will you be so kind as to take us round your cells and explain everything? So the man at the door took them round the cells explaining each case, saying: Here is a mental case who has remarkable visions and hallucinations along with epileptic fits. In the next cell he explained that this patient suffered from abnormal impulses of the will. He described it all quite clearly. They then came to the genuine lunatics who suffer from obsessions. You see, he said, here is a case who is always being pursued by ghosts, and here another who is pursued by human beings, not ghosts. Now I will take you to the worst case we have. So he took them to the greatest lunatic of all and said: This man suffers from the fixed idea that he is the Emperor of China. Of course this means that ideas have solidified in his head. Instead of these ideas just remaining as thoughts, in his case they have solidified. He explained this with great precision and added: But you must realise, gentlemen, that this is nonsense for I myself am the Emperor of China!

You see, he had explained everything. He had led them around, but instead of leading them to science he had led them by the nose. For he himself was mad. He had told them that the other man was mad because he believed himself to be the Emperor of China, whereas he was that himself! The Commission had been conducted round by a complete lunatic.

Thus where science is concerned it is not always possible to discern whether someone is mad or not. You would be surprised by the cleverness of some things lunatics tell you when you come into contact with them. For this reason the Italian natural scientist Lombroso has stated that there is no hard and fast distinction between genius and madness. Geniuses are always slightly mad, and madmen always possess a slight amount of genius. You can read about it in the little book called “Genius and Madness” published in a popular edition.

When one is sane of course he can distinguish between genius and madness. But today we have reached the point where whole books can be found — such as Lombroso's — where science itself states that it is impossible to distinguish genius from madness. Of course this state of affairs cannot continue or spiritual life will be completely swamped. Nature, now neglected, must once more be reckoned with. Then one will notice the development from the egg to the caterpillar, and from the caterpillar to the chrysalis. One will see how light is imprisoned there as in us it is imprisoned — the gaily coloured butterfly darting forth. This is what I wanted to link with what we have already discussed, so that you may see how light contains creative spirit. For the worm or caterpillar has first to disappear for the butterfly to arise. It arises inside where the caterpillar has perished. The spirit creates. In every instance matter must first be destroyed and vanish, thus enabling the spirit to create the new being. This same thing applies to mankind. Fertilisation signifies that matter has first been destroyed. A minute quantity of this destroyed matter remains, and here spirit and light create the ego in man.

If you give this a little thought you will grasp what I have told you. Instead of going on blindly, observe the tadpole and the frog and realise why the latter has a heart, lungs and feet, and why the tadpole can swim in water. All these things are interconnected. The matters we shall be studying further will show you that a genuine science which understands them can only arise out of Anthroposophy.

Last Modified: 16-Oct-2017
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