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Souls of the Nations

Souls of Nations: Introduction

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In studying — alone, or in study-groups together — the lectures of our teacher Rudolf Steiner about the Missions of the Nation-Souls, we want to be imbued with the feeling that what we do is for the benefit of all mankind. The present ailments and convulsions of mankind will only be healed out of the great resources of the Spirit, and these in turn can only be approached with inner quiet and serenity. ‘The mills of God grind slowly.’ The occult disciple must learn to distinguish reality from illusion. Unreal and destructive things which are being done on so vast a scale to-day are mostly done out of excitement and fanaticism. What will outlive them will be born out of this faculty — discriminating real things from vain — to which belongs quiet conviction of the inherent power of the pure Spirit. To approach the Spirit in this way is the deed of Faith in our time, and will be needed more and more. We may then enter upon this study with a good heart and in good faith; the Spiritual World will be able to make far more of it than we can know.

It is important that human beings turn to Reality in these great questions of mankind, race and nation. For in Reality alone is the creative source of peace and harmony. The ground on which we stand (I write in autumn 1938, when in a number of working groups in this country we are entering, on this particular course of study) gives us the opportunity, denied to-day through a great part of Europe, to work together freely. We use this ground on behalf of all mankind. The knowledge we shall gain, once founded in our hearts, will find its way into the world of outer realities also, to help in mankind's liberation.

We base our studies primarily on the lecture-course about the Mission of Folk-Souls (Cycle XIII), given by Dr. Steiner in Oslo — or Christiania, as it then was — in June 1910. This course contains only a part of all that Dr. Steiner gave upon this subject, especially in later years, and in the Bibliography we therefore draw attention to some — if only to a very few — among his other lectures and writings containing spiritual knowledge about the peoples, countries and civilization-epochs of our Earth. Nevertheless the ‘Folk-Souls’ cycle, as we may briefly call it, will naturally and rightly be taken as the centre and starting-point in an approach to this realm of Spiritual Science.

A word or two more may be said about the history and circumstances of this lecture-cycle. Held in the summer of 1910, four years before the outbreak of the Great War, it is the first of the numbered and printed lecture-cycles of Rudolf Steiner to have been given in Scandinavia. Like all the lecture-cycles until 1912, it was held within the Theosophical Society. Dr. Steiner, as General Secretary of the German Section, was speaking by invitation in the Norwegian branch of that Society. In Hamburg on his way thither (May, 1910) he had been giving the well-known lectures on the Manifestations of Karma. The Christiania course was followed, in August of the same year, by the first of the four Mystery Plays, The Portal of Initiation, and by the Genesis lecture-course, in Munich. Then in September Dr. Steiner went to Berne and gave the lectures on St. Matthew's Gospel. (The St. Luke lectures had been given a year previously.) The Outline of Occult Science had just been published in its first edition. These were the works of Dr. Steiner immediately before and after the Folk-Souls cycle. I will however also mention certain other lecture-courses, the subject of which is related to this one. The souls of the nations (Archangels) and the guiding Time-Spirits (Archai or Principalities) are Beings of the Hierarchies, and in this cycle much about the spiritual Hierarchies in general is contained. Dr. Steiner himself frequently refers to his earlier lecture-course, Spiritual Hierarchies (Düsseldorf, April 1909, Cycle VII). His other well-known lecture-course on the same theme, Spiritual Beings in the Heavenly Bodies and in the Kingdoms of Nature (Cycle XXI) was given two years later, 1912, in Helsingfors.

Two other works of Dr. Steiner bear very closely, from another aspect, on the subject of the ‘Folk-Souls’ cycle, namely the lectures on the Apocalypse (1908), in which the history of mankind, the sequence of races and civilization-epochs is dealt with in some detail, and then the lectures given in Copenhagen a year after the Folk-Souls course, in June, 1911, which Dr. Steiner himself — against his usual custom — revised for publication in book form (The Spiritual Guidance of Man and of Mankind) immediately after they were held. The last-named and the ‘Folk-Souls’ lectures were among those to which Dr. Steiner in later years — during and after the War — repeatedly referred, indicating that he had dealt with these subjects at the time he did with fully conscious purpose. There can indeed be no doubt that Dr. Steiner in those years very deliberately chose to speak upon the ground of Occultism concerning the character of nations and details of the spiritual guidance of mankind, and that he afterwards looked back with satisfaction upon the fact that this had been done before the outbreak of those terrible events — events in the midst of which, after all, we are still living. In the preface to The Spiritual Guidance of Man and of Mankind (August, 1911), apologising for his departure from his usual custom of not mixing up the written and the spoken word, he says: “I have reasons for publishing this work precisely at this moment, and to re-write it completely on this principle would take too long.” And in the introductory lecture of the ‘Folk-Souls’ cycle itself (page 2 in the English edition) he says still more definitely:

“It is not without reason that in our time we should also choose to speak quite candidly upon this subject which we are naming: ‘the mission of the several nation-souls within mankind.’ As good a reason as there was for silence hitherto (on the part of occultists) about this mission, so good a reason is there to begin to speak about it now. It is important because the approaching destinies of mankind will, in far greater measure than was hitherto the case, bring human beings together into a mission common to all mankind. To this, the members of the different peoples will only be able to bring their free and proper contributions if in the first place they have an understanding for their nationality — if they appreciate what we may call: ‘self-knowledge of a people.’ For even as the saying ‘Know thyself’ played a great part in the Mysteries of Apollo in ancient Greece, so likewise in no distant future this will be spoken to the folk-souls or nation-souls: ‘Know yourselves as nation-souls!’”

At the same time, while emphasizing how important this knowledge is for the present age, Dr. Steiner realizes that there are special difficulties in the way of its reception, — national prejudices, jealousies, emotions. A still higher degree of open-mindedness, he says, is necessary for the receiving of these things without resistance or antipathy. And he refers in this connection to the occult degree of ‘homelessness’ or of the ‘homeless man,’ where the disciple appears to lose his connection with his particular country or nation, yet in reality only does so to reach up to it again on a higher level. In ‘homelessness’ he learns to know and understand the great laws of all-human evolution, uninfluenced by his own country or nationality, — ‘without admixture of the particular shades of sentiment or feeling that might arise from home and soil.’

It is no doubt significant that these lectures were held in a Scandinavian country. In a peculiar way these Northern lands have been protected; they are far less involved in political strife, in matters of national prerogative. To speak and listen with detachment was more possible in Norway than it would have been in many other countries. Moreover Dr. Steiner chose to relate his main theme, that of the Nation-Souls, with the Germanic and Norse mythology, thus giving it a setting reaching far away back into the pre-historic beginnings of European culture. One feels transplanted, as it were, into a clearer and a cooler air; the deeper sources, the eternally appointed tasks of European humanity as a whole are touched upon. Thus one is taken right away from the rather narrow international rivalries which are so largely at the surface of men's minds to-day.

The mythological aspect mainly comes in during the latter half of the lecture-course: I may here mention the full title and its translation, and clear away one or two possible misunderstandings. This is the title Dr. Steiner gave in the original: Die Mission einzelner Volksseelen im Zusammenhange mit der germanisch-nordischen Mythologie. We may translate it: ‘The Missions of Individual Nation-Souls, in connection with Germanic and Scandinavian Mythology.’ For Scandinavian —nordisch — in this booklet I have sometimes also written ‘Norse’ or even ‘Northern’; the words, I trust, will be understood in their right context. In the existing English translation the hyphened adjective which Dr. Steiner uses has as a rule been rendered ‘Germanic-Scandinavian.’ In one place it is translated ‘Northern Germanic’ — surely misleading — though ‘Northern and Germanic,’ with the ‘and’ rightly understood, would be admissible. Altogether, it seems to me truer to replace the frequent hyphen of the German by an and.

These are more subtle difficulties. There is however one very grave error which must be guarded against, and as unfortunately it occurs in the Synopsis at the beginning (though not, so far as I have seen, in the actual text) of the present English edition, it shall be mentioned. The word germanisch means, not German, but Germanic. German, as we use the word in modern English, is the name of a nation, whose name is really deutsch in their own language, and also incidentally — spelt duitsch — in the language of that other nation whom we call ‘Dutch’! Germanic on the other hand, germanisch, is the name of a race — one to which not only the German but the Dutch, the Scandinavian, the English and several other nations belong.

One other matter of translation: the German Volk, which Dr. Steiner uses for example in Volks-Seele, is a word in daily use, both for ‘people’ in the sense of ‘the common people,’ and also for ‘nation.’ At the same time it has something of the meaning and sentiment of the cognate English ‘folk.’ It is impossible to render it quite truly. ‘Nation’ is always in danger of being interpreted too nationalistically, too politically. ‘Folk,’ as we understand the word to-day, is too archaic and limited in meaning. ‘People’ is nearer than either, and for Volks-Seele we may rightly say ‘the soul of a people.’ Perhaps it will be best for us to speak of Nation-soul and Folk-soul alternatively, the one expression to some extent correcting what might be misleading in the other.

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