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Souls of the Nations

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Souls of the Nations

Souls of Nations: Eighth Lecture


This lecture and the ninth especially bring in the mythological aspect announced in the title. In introducing the well-known figures of Germanic myth and legend, Dr. Steiner not only explains them from his clairvoyant spiritual investigation. He tries to awaken in us a feeling of the background in consciousness out of which these mythologies arose; thus he appeals to our artistic and dramatic sense and unfolds again the great perspectives of history and pre-historic time. The mythological aspect is therefore truly welded with the other, dominant aspect of this lecture-cycle: knowledge of nation-souls. The Celtic and Germanic stream to which we belong, which is to come into its own in this fifth culture-epoch, shall also with the help of these, its ancient pictures, be awakened to self-knowledge of its tasks and shake off deadening habits clinging to it from the outworn, Græco-Latin age.

Whatever differences there may be, says Dr. Steiner in introduction, between the different versions — the Scandinavian for example or the Germanic of more Southern regions — Northern mythology as a whole is one in kind. The differences are slight compared with the immense change in character as between this mythology and the ancient Greek, not to speak of the Egyptian or others of the more distant East and South.

Turning aside for a moment to point out how superficial the much-reputed analogies of ‘comparative religion’ often are, Dr. Steiner goes on to characterize what this essential difference is, which everyone may feel who really comes into the atmosphere of the Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. He bids us first reflect again on the succession of civilization-epochs since Atlantis. The difference in character between these epochs concerns not only the human beings but also the higher beings — Angels, Archangels and Time-Spirits — who partook in them. In old Atlantis man, as it were, had had to leave behind the old clairvoyant gifts. The transition to post-Atlantis was a gigantic work in education of mankind, deeply conceived by the Initiates and lasting in effect through many thousands of years. However long a people had to wait till the main focus in the development of cultures should come their way — the Celtic and Germanic peoples to whom we belong waited until the fifth epoch, nine thousand years! — a golden thread connected them with old Atlantis and with the plans laid down by Manu, the Christ-Initiate, when he went eastward with his chosen ones. Yet there was naturally an overwhelming difference in the quality of spiritual experience according to whether a people came early, as did the ancient Indians, or late in turn, as we are doing.

This spiritual guidance of mankind, although it led away from old clairvoyance to the experience of the physical plane through the senses, was yet an education leading from the very outset towards a higher and fuller experience of what is spiritual. (Details are given in the first two chapters, notably the second, of Atlantis and Lemuria.) Now in a way the peoples of the earliest culture-epochs — especially the Indian — received this spiritual education more serenely, as it were more unconsciously. At a time when the Ego was not yet so developed, they already rose to high spiritual levels in their religious philosophy, in their conception of the spiritual Beings and so on. They had all this without conscious Ego-consciousness, if I may use this pleonasm. Hence the serenely impersonal character of the sacred literature of India, which, though incomparably later, still reflects the inner character of the first epoch.

Thenceforth, through the religions and mythologies of Persia, Egypt-and-Chaldea, ancient Greece, there is a gradual yet overwhelming change to the more Ego-filled, more humanly and personally experienced character of the Germanic myths. This also helps explain the mysterious divergence of East and West to this day and the great difficulty bearers of Eastern culture have in overcoming a certain superior attitude (Zugeknöpftheit, ‘buttoned-up-ness’ is Dr. Steiner's word) towards the spiritual life of the West. They will not really be able to appreciate it until it comes to them through the growing life of Anthroposophy.

This is the theme of the first half of the lecture. The European, notably the Germanic peoples awakened to the Ego while still at an elementary stage in soul-development. Thus, Ego-consciously they underwent stages in spiritual experience which, as we said; those of more ancient cultures received in a far less awake condition.

This difference, however, has to do in a quite definite way with man's relation to the spiritual Hierarchies. There is, as Walter Johannes Stein has often said in lectures on the Holy Grail, a gradatim, step-by-step descent of the ‘I Am’ into mankind, beginning in the high realm of the Kyriotetes — Spirits of Wisdom — and coming downwards through the Archangels and Angels into man. Nearest to human consciousness we find the Beings of the third Hierarchy — Angels, Archangels and Archai; ‘Spirits of Soul,’ for so they are addressed in the third verse of our The Foundation Stone Meditation. Rising to higher levels, we become aware of the creative, cosmic and in-forming greatness of the second Hierarchy — Exusiai, Dynamis and Kyriotetes; Powers, Mights and Dominions. It is from these, Creators of the Worlds, that we received the ‘I,’ which in its turn — rising through all the levels where it must find itself in human soul-life, through all the drama of individual destinies, nations, historic times — returns at last to the pure Spirit, there to behold the Divine Beings who gave it birth.

In old Atlantis man had been dimly, clairvoyantly aware of these high Beings of the Sun — the spiritual reality underlying all the forms of the world around him. Thereafter, the most advanced of the early Indians, willingly taught as they had been to let go the remnants of old clairvoyance — to lose, that they might find in a new way — rose by comparatively easy stages to behold again the highest of these realms:


the sum-total of the Spirits of Movement; (Dynamis)


the sum-total of the Spirits of Wisdom (Kyriotetes), in Their unison;

— so Dr. Steiner interprets the Sanskrit terms. Impersonal and in a certain sense not very Ego-conscious, they ‘slept through’ the intervening stages where Angels and Folk-spirits work more in the realm of human souls, of psychic strife and turmoil; so did they found their philosophies directly on this sublime and cosmic region. They therefore only awakened to the ‘I’ at a comparatively high stage of development.

The ancient Persians, a stage lower, looked to the Spirits of Form, to whom relates, says Dr. Steiner, their conception of the Amshaspands. The third, the Chaldean peoples were already more aware of the Archai or Time-Spirits, Spirits of Personality. So also in the fourth epoch were the Greeks and Romans, but in addition they had a memory of the working in the human soul of Archangels and Angels, both normal and abnormal. This above all found its expression in Greek mythology. We recall what Dr. Steiner so often told, of how the figures of Greek mythology are memories of the Angelic and. semi-Divine beings (e.g., the Luciferian Angels) who had so much to do with human life, both inwardly and outwardly, in old Atlantis.

What we remember takes on a sharper outline than. What we suffer and enjoy in the living present. Hence the plasticity, the classical perfection in the characters of Greek mythology. The Gods of the Norsemen on the other hand are in a way more vital, more directly present. For the Germanic and Northern peoples not only remembered; they were aware directly of all the surging and striving of Archangels and Angels in and about the human ‘I.’ In them the ‘I’ awakened at a still more elementary level than in the Greeks and Romans.

All this explains why the Western peoples — Celtic, Germanic, Greek and Roman, in their several ways — were more able to receive the glad tidings of Jesus Christ at His coming than the inheritors of the more ancient and highly developed far-Eastern culture. It was indeed a case of ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ To apprehend the coming of Christ Jesus, says Rudolf Steiner, “one needed faculties belonging to a less lofty station of the ‘I’ — a dwelling of the ‘I’ still in more humble forces of the human soul” (page 98 in our edition).

In a mysterious way, Northern mythology tells of two races of Gods, the Wanen and the Asen. [It seems preferable to retain the Germanic — also Anglo-Saxon — plural n, as after all we still have it in children and in other words.] The former, Dr. Steiner now explains, represent the old Germanic peoples' clairvoyant memory of the higher Gods known to the old Atlanteans, who had been ‘seen’ through the dim mists of Atlantis long, long before man felt the ‘I’ within himself. Such were the Wanen. The Asen on the other hand were Angels and Archangels more immediately concerned with the soul-life of man, the ‘I’ at its awakening, after Atlantis. Therefore the Asen were more nearly present to them.

So did the man of old Germanic times, says Dr. Steiner, “perceive the Divine Beings working directly upon his soul; he saw the human soul wresting its way forth from the Cosmos. This was direct experience to him. Not just in memory did he look back on how the souls of men had been in-formed into their bodies; he saw all this as an immediate and present happening. With his own Ego he was there — a witness, a partaker in it. Even until the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries A.D., he retained this feeling, this understanding of how the forces of the soul are gradually formed and crystallized into the body.” Accordingly, in this mythology there is a genius to understand the occult truth of how the Microcosm issues from the Macrocosm and corresponds to it. In its great pictures it contains the spiritual cosmology and genesis of man which we to-day are learning more in the way of conscious thought.

Towards the end of the lecture we are introduced more individually to the Germanic Gods. Wotan or Odin, the giver of speech, is among the greatest of the Archangels: one of those, in effect, who long ago resigned their evolution to higher stages, to give the gift of language to the incarnating soul of man. The magic draught Wotan received at his initiation at the springs of Mimir is His endowment with that wisdom which lives directly in the spoken sounds (vowels and consonants) of speech. We shall remember how in later years, through Dr. Steiner himself (Eurhythmy and Speech-formation), this wisdom in the sounds of speech began to be taught again to our own time. Dr. Steiner always spoke of this as a beginning; it was to play an ever-increasing part in the future.

Archangels too were Hönir who gave the power of thought, and Lodur who gave blood and colour, — “that which lies nearest to race.” These two were Archangels more in the normal line; Will and We on the other hand, like their brother Wotan, were among those of abnormal development. Yet in a people who had themselves quite literally ‘remained behind’ (namely in Europe, nearest Atlantis, the while their brethren went eastward to advance more quickly and found the earlier culture-epochs), the human Ego felt most akin to these Archangels who had resigned their further evolution for man's sake. They worshipped Wotan above all.

Thor is an Angel-being, yet again one who could have risen to far higher rank but remained an Angel, to be with the ‘I’ of man at his incarnation. He is akin to every human ‘I;’ He helps the individual ‘I’ in these Northern regions at its awakening, transmitting to it spiritual powers of the Archangel and higher worlds. He is the son of Odin; the gift of speech precedes, and must precede, the birth of the ‘I’ in man.

Even as speech lives in our breathing, so is the ‘I’ or Ego incarnated in the pulsing of our blood. This is the hammer of Thor, returning ever and again into his hand — as the pulsing blood returns to the same place. The wind and cloud formations in the Macrocosm are related to the breathing; thunder and lightning to the strong heart-beat in the human Microcosm. These things the Norsemen knew not theoretically but directly: they felt the hammer of the ‘I’ in their own pulse-beat, the kinship of the inner fire of the blood and of the outer lightning-fire. So did they recognize Wotan and Thor, deeply akin to their own being, in the powers of surrounding Nature. So too did they distinguish in the human microcosm Niflheim, the microcosmic North, “cool realm where human thoughts are woven and whence the body is supplied with the twelve cranial nerves,” and on the other hand the microcosmic South — Muspelheim — forces that issue from the human heart.

Ginnungagap, the Germanic chaos, corresponds to the beginning of the Earth, when after Saturn, Sun and Moon the dawning world, still without form and void, undifferentiated, came forth again out of pralaya.

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