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Rudolf Steiner's Identification of Mercury and Venus

Rev. 1999

The first mentions of Mercury that I have found in Rudolf Steiner's lectures I've had access to, are on 1 and 28 Oct. 1905, in June 1906 and on 30 Aug. 1906. Mercury and Venus are mentioned 13 Sept. 1907 and on 8 Jan. & 15 Feb. 1908. There is nothing in these early lectures to suggest that there may be some question as to Steiner's identification of these planets discussed, and those of the night sky; but that situation rather quickly changed. Indeed, we find ourselves facing the following question that needs to be accurately answered: When Dr. Steiner described beings, qualities and relationships of Mercury and Venus, did he make it clear which astronomical body he was referring to?

Dr. Steiner himself indicated the method by which this (and other) questions may be answered when he said, referring to his own work: “It is very necessary to gather together carefully the items of concrete knowledge that have been given and to correlate them.” (The Occult Movement in the 19th Century, 1973, pp. 130-131) This is a huge task and I would appreciate any additions to what follows.

The famous unveiling of the open secret of the Copernican reversal of Mercury and Venus occurred in one short paragraph of an Apocalypse lecture cycle (20 June 1908), which otherwise contained no direct astrological or astronomical references: “Here I come to a point where a little secret, so to say, must be unveiled, one which may only be divulged at this point. In truth if we wish to speak esoterically, as the writer of the apocalypse has done, we must speak of Mercury as the morning star. By the morning star he meant Mercury: I have given the direction towards thine `I', to the morning star, to Mercury. - You may still find in certain books of the Middle ages, which describe the true state of affairs, that the stars of our planetary system are enumerated thus: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and then Earth is followed not as it is now by Venus, Mercury, but by the reverse, Mercury, Venus.” (The Apocalypse of St. John, 1943, pg. 71). This reversal was emphatically, but incidentally, repeated on 5 September, 1908, viz.: “Here I would like to add one thing, because misunderstandings have crept into the naming of the planets. In all occult nomenclature, what astronomers call Venus is called Mercury, and vice versa. Astronomers know nothing of the mysteries behind this, because in the past it was not desired that the esoteric names should be revealed. This happened in order to conceal certain things.” (Egyptian Myths and Mysteries, 1971, pp. 41-42).

The first scientifically important use of this reversal (in works available to me) occurs in April 1909 in the cycle called The Spiritual Hierarchies and Their Reflection in the Physical World (1970). The use of the planetary pattern of Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun,,, etc. by the mysteries of the ancient Greeks is presented by page 10. “But consider the situation that arose. Within the sanctuaries of knowledge one could speak of spiritual beings who surround the cosmic bodies. Outside, people came to speak more in terms of physical matter as sense perception became increasingly sharper. When the Holy Rishis uttered the word Mercury - they never actually used this word, but let us use it to make ourselves clear - did they mean the physical orb in the cosmos? No, not even the ancient Greeks, when speaking of Mercury implied the physical planet but rather the totality of spiritual beings inhabiting it. When the word Mercury was spoken in the sanctuaries of knowledge, it referred to supersensible worlds, to spiritual beings. When the pupils in these sanctuaries pronounce Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in their respective languages, they were referring to a sequence of spiritual beings. Today, these words refer to the coarsest physical substance of the planets, and the most important part is thereby omitted.”

On pages 74, 76 and 83, three diagrams showing the integration of the physical Copernican system with the astral-etheric Ptolemaic system all depict Mercury as the planet closest to the Earth and Venus closest to the Sun. The thought-provoking and careful discussion includes this statement: “You must picture the earth as the starting point and around it a sphere of influence reaching up to the moon. This is followed by a realm reaching up to Mercury, then one to Venus, and then one up to the sun. Now you may be astonished at the sequence of the planets as I have given it here. You might think that if this is the earth and this is the sun, that I should draw Mercury in the immediate vicinity of the sun, and then Venus. But that is not correct. The names of these two planets have been interchanged by a later astronomy. What is called Mercury today was known in ancient teachings as Venus, and the planet referred to as Venus nowadays was always known as Mercury. We cannot rightly understand what is said about Venus and Mercury in ancient writings if we assume them to refer to the present planets of these names. At the time when the world system was turned topsy-turvy, when the earth was robbed of its central position, not only the perspective was completely altered, but the opportunity was taken of interchanging the names of Mercury and Venus.” (pg. 75). Throughout the many pages of details in these lectures, Rudolf Steiner is clearly using the terms Mercury and Venus in accord with his diagrams and the reported fact of the reversal.

My next reference is in the 1910 cycle available as Macrocosm and Microcosm (1961). Referring to the application of the many facts he is presenting, Steiner says, “The moon revolves around the Earth and the planets usually called Mercury and Venus are nearer to the Sun and revolve around it. I emphasize here that in the course of time a change has taken place in the names of these two planets. The planet that is called Mercury to-day was formerly Venus, and the planet called Venus today was formerly called Mercury. Therefore you should think of these designations reversed, so that they do not correspond with current astronomical designations. The planet lying nearer the Sun must be known as Venus and the planet lying farther away from the Sun must be known as Mercury.” (pp. 35-44). Slightly later (12 June 1910), the use of the `Ptolemaic' Venus and Mercury pattern is listed without comment.

Discussions of Mercury and Venus on 3 September 1910 and 28 March 1911 are not decisively identified and must be considered in the context of preceding and following lectures.

The next quite important scientific reference occurred in Apr. 1912 (The Spiritual Beings in the Heavenly Bodies and the Kingdoms of Nature, 1951). Here many important general facts about the planets are given, but when the time comes to be specific we are again reminded of the misapplication of the astronomical names. (“Thus these normally developed Spirits of Motion so work down from the planets that they succeed one another in the process of human evolution, and reveal themselves in the great civilization impulses in the evolution of the earth which reach out beyond the sphere of the Spirits of the Age. Thus, for example, from that Spirit of Motion who worked down from the planet which present-day astronomy calls Venus, and which ancient astronomy called Mercury (for these two names have been exchanged), from that Spirit of Motion came originally the impulse of the civilisation which was expressed in Buddhism.” pg. 168). Indeed, here Steiner relates a most telling fact: “If we observe the planet Saturn in our system we find that the life stream which permeates the earth directly from him is connected with the substance we call lead: so we have a basic substance which is inwardly animated by Saturn. From Jupiter we get tin as the main substance; from Mars, iron; and in the occult sense, from Venus, copper. With regard to Mercury we must take into consideration that he was later confused with Venus. The life activity (in the sense of true occult nomenclature) produced creatively by Mercury, on account of its greater proximity when it penetrated the earth-organism, bears a still greater resemblance to the planet itself, for Mercury stands nearer the earth than the other planets. Therefor the substance has been given the same name as the cosmic body itself, namely, mercury or quick-silver.” (pp. 185-191).

On 11 June, 1912, specific use is made of the astronomical Venus which by now we know refers to traditional, Ptolemaic Mercury: “ . . . employing therefor in this case not the old terminology which was altered by Kepler, but the names that are customary in the astronomy of today . . . ” (Man in the Light of Occultism, Theosophy and Philosophy, 1989, pp. 173-176) On 3 Nov. 1912, the use of the Ptolemaic (occult) Venus is again specified to be the astronomical Mercury, and on 18 Nov. 1912, the Ptolemaic pattern is used unqualified, as on 15 & 22 Dec. of that year. In the lecture cycle Ancient Myths (1971), on 8 Jan. 1918, Steiner uses the Ptolemaic sequence to specify planet-Zodiac sign relationships (pp. 51-57).

The next unqualified use of the Ptolemaic sequence I have found is 26 & 27 Mar., 1920, (firstly; “There are not only these two elements in co-operation. Marshalled against them are the influences from the Moon and the so-called inferior planets, Mercury and Venus. The Moon, Mercury and Venus cause the earthward, downward tendency in the plant.” pp. 83-85. And secondly; “The study of metals in particular, on the lines indicated, leads to concrete relationships, so that we must ascribe their formations as follows. Lead results from the unimpeded action of Saturn, tin from that of Jupiter, iron from Mars, copper from Venus, and what is now termed quicksilver from Mercury.” pp. 90-92.). On 8 Apr. both sequences are included in one paragraph, and in future lectures we see that when discussing the inner planets collectively Steiner does not give meaning to their order. These are in the significant cycle Spiritual Science and Medicine, (1989).

The next day, Steiner's discussion again is given a Ptolemaic context: “And it becomes possible if we have here Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and lastly Earth, then it becomes possible, if we look at the Sun, to observe it in its outer manifestation as something separating, as a dividing element.”(Man - Hieroglyph of the Universe, 1972, pp. 14-17), while on 2 May, Mercury and Venus are discussed as a group in no particular order. On 5 May, 1921, there is an inconclusive use of the Ptolemaic pattern. Someone might want to make a case for confusion out of a subsequent, unqualified astronomical listing, but this would have to ignore an introductory discussion that common sense says indicates Ptolemaic usage: “Just as this ancient astronomy was subsequently obscured after the fourth century and physical astronomy took the place of the old etheric astronomy in the fifteenth century . . . ” (Materialism and the Task of Anthroposophy, 1987, pp. 54-58)

A lecture on 12 Nov. 1922 shows an explicit Ptolemaic usage of Mercury and Venus: the soul descending to the earth through first the Venus and then the Mercury spheres.

On 26 Nov. and 3 Dec, 1922, unqualified astronomical sequences are given when Mercury Venus and Moon are discussed as a group, and on 10 Feb. 1923 a detailed description and illustration of the Copernican system is given before a discussion focused on planetary-medical relationships. However, this Copernican discussion does not revise previous Ptolemaic meanings but prefaces the statement: “..and it was only twenty-five to thirty-five hundred years ago that people looked upon the planets in a completely different scientific way.” (Health and Illness, Vol. II, 1983, pg. 153)

On 27 July & 28 August, 1923, the Ptolemaic usage of Mercury and Venus is explicit in an elaborated and clearly intended pattern, while on 20 Oct. 1923 the Copernican system is used in a clearly qualified way. The statement, “I'm drawing this in the sequence customary today in astronomy; I could also draw it differently.”, does not indicate any abandoning of what has been previously so forcefully stated and consistently applied. (Man as Symphony of the Creative Word, pp. 28-31)

Now we come to the June 1924 Agriculture Course (1974) On pages 22-27 Rudolf Steiner explicitly employs the Ptolemaic usage: “ . . . they had this sequence: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Without astronomical explanations I will now speak of planetary life . . . ”. The juggling around of Moon, Venus and Mercury sequences in what follows only shows that for his purpose here the actual pattern is not important. For the significant listing of the pattern of planetary influences relating to animal structure, the Ptolemaic sequence is used (“The animal organism lives in the whole complex of Nature's household. In form and colour and configuration, and in the structure and consistency of its substance from the front to the hinder parts, it is related to these influences. From the snout towards the heart, the Saturn, Jupiter and Mars influences are at work; in the heart itself the Sun, and behind the heart, towards the tail, the Venus, Mercury and Moon influences.” pp. 35-41), while for the famous mouse-skin “Venus in Scorpio” specification he clearly specifies the Copernican usage.

The last references available to me include 16 Aug. 1924, when Steiner explicitly uses the Ptolemaic pattern to describe planetary influences on the seven-year cycles of human development. And in September 1924 astronomical Venus is named in an explanation of the influence of the “morning and evening star” during and after its transit of the sun every hundred years or so. (The Evolution of the Earth and Man, 1987, pp. 178-182)

This survey is necessarily incomplete, but it does represent a careful review of about 150 of Dr. Steiner's lecture cycles and books available in English. I have tried not to quote carelessly or out of context, but thoroughly and in a manner open to scrutiny. To act as an authority and dictate a point of view is not in keeping with the task of the age of the Consciousness Soul, which began when the spring equinox entered Pisces in 1413 and will end when it enters Aquarius in 3573. This age requires the mere enumeration of facts, allowing individuals to reach their own conclusions. This is a foundation stone of Steiner's work, and any judgments of mine that have crept in are from the requirements of common sense and accurate context in so brief a review.

It does seem to me, though, that areas of doubt are so few and susceptible to context, and areas of certainty so many, that we should be able to go forward and build a picture of what Dr. Steiner observes of these inner planets, confident we know which object in our night sky he is talking about.

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