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EGYPTIAN MYTHS AND MYSTERIES
Spiritual connections between the culture-streams of ancient and modern times
September 2, 1908
by Rudolph Steiner
If we ask ourselves what spiritual science should be for men, then presumably, out of all sorts of reactions and feelings that we have developed in the course of our work in this field, we will place the following answer before our souls: Spiritual science should be for us a path to the higher development of our humanity, of all that is human in us.
Thus we set up a life-aim, which in a certain way is self-understood for every thinking and feeling person, a life-aim that includes the achieving of the highest ideals and also includes the unfolding of the deepest and most significant forces in our souls. The best men in all ages have asked themselves how man can rightly bring to expression what lies within him, and to this question the most diverse answers have been given. Perhaps none can be found that is terser or more telling than the answer Goethe gave out of a deep conviction in his Geheimnisse:
“From the power that binds all beings That man frees himself who overcomes himself.”
Deep meaning lies in these words, for they show us clearly and pregnantly what lies at the heart of all evolution. This is that man develops his inner feeling through rising above himself. Thereby we lift ourselves, so to speak, above ourselves. The soul that overcomes itself finds the path that leads beyond itself to the highest treasures of humanity. This lofty goal of spiritual research should be borne in mind when we undertake to treat such a theme as the one that is to occupy us here. It will lead us beyond the ordinary horizons of life to sublime things. We will have to survey wide reaches of time if we take as our subject an epoch stretching from ancient Egypt down to our own day. We will have to pass millennia in review, and what we gain there from will really be something connected with the deepest concerns of our souls, something that grips our innermost soul-life. Only apparently does the man who strives toward the heights of life remove himself from his immediate surroundings; just through this he comes to an understanding of his daily concerns. Man must get away from the troubles of the day, from what his routine brings to him, and look up to the great events of the history of the world and its peoples. Then for the first time he finds what is most sacred for his soul. It may seem strange to suggest that connections, intimate connections, should be sought for between our own time and ancient Egypt, when the mighty pyramids and the Sphinx appeared. It can at first seem remarkable that one should understand his own time better by directing his gaze so far back. But just for this purpose we are going to look backward over much wider and more comprehensive epochs. This will bring the result we seek: The possibility of transcending ourselves.
To one who has already carefully studied the ideas of spiritual science, it will not seem strange that one should look for a connection between widely separated periods of time. It is one of our basic convictions that the human soul continually returns, that the experiences between birth and death occur repeatedly for us. The doctrine of reincarnation has become ever more familiar to us. When we reflect on this we may ask: Since these souls that dwell in us today have often been here before, is it possible that they were also present in ancient Egypt during Egyptian cultural epoch, that the same souls are in us which at that time looked up at the gigantic pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinxes?
The answer to this question is, Yes. Our souls have beheld the old cultural monuments that they see again today. The same souls that lived then have gone through later periods and have appeared again in our own time. We know that no life remains without fruit; we know that what the soul has gone through in the way of experiences remains within it and appears in later incarnations as powers, temperament, capacities, and dispositions. Thus the way we look on nature today, the way we take up what our times bring forth, the way we view the world, all this was prepared in ancient Egypt, in the land of the pyramids. We were then prepared in such a way that we now look at the physical world as we do. Just how these widely separated periods link themselves together is what we will now explore.
If we want to grasp the deeper meaning of these lectures, we must go a long way back in earthly evolution, We know that our earth has often changed. Before ancient Egypt there were still other cultures. By means of occult research we can see much further back into the gray primeval times of human evolution, and we come to times when the earth appeared quite other than it is today. Things were entirely different in ancient Asia and Africa. If we look back clairvoyantly into primeval times, we come to a point where a tremendous catastrophe, caused by water-forces, took place on our earth and fundamentally altered its face. If we go still further back, we reach a time when the earth had an entirely different physiognomy, when what now forms the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and America, was above water, was land. We come to a time when our souls lived in entirely different bodies than today; we reach ancient Atlantis, of which our external science can as yet say little.
The regions of Atlantis were destroyed through colossal deluges. Human bodies had different forms at that time, but the souls that live in us today lived also in the ancient Atlanteans. Those were our souls. Then the water-catastrophe caused a movement of the Atlantean peoples, a great migration from west to east. We ourselves were these peoples. Toward the end of Atlantis all was in movement. We wandered from the west toward the east, through Ireland, Scotland, Holland, France, and Spain. Thus the peoples moved eastward and populated Europe, Asia, and the northern parts of Africa.
It must not be imagined that those who, in the last great migration, wandered out of the west into the regions that have gradually developed into Asia, Europe, and Africa, did not encounter other peoples. Almost all of Europe, the northern parts of Africa, and large parts of Asia were already inhabited at that time. These areas were not peopled from the west only; they had already been settled earlier, so that this migration found a strange population already established. We may assume that when quieter times set in, special cultural relations arose. There was, for instance, in the neighborhood of Ireland, a region where, before the catastrophe that now lies thousands of years behind us, there lived the most advanced portions of the entire population of the earth. These portions then migrated, under the special guidance of great individualities, through Europe to a region of central Asia, and from that point cultural colonies were sent out to the most diverse places. One such colony of the post-Atlantean time was sent from this group of people into India, finding a population that had been seated there from primeval times and had its own culture. Paying due heed to what was already present, these colonists founded the first post-Atlantean culture. This was many thousand years ago, and external documents tell us scarcely anything about it. What appears in these documents is much later. In those great compendiums of Wisdom called the Vedas, we have only the final echoes of a very early Indian culture that was directed by super-earthly beings and was founded by the Holy Rishis. It was a culture of a unique kind, and we today can form only a feeble idea of it because the Vedas are only a reflection of that primeval holy Indian culture.
After this culture there followed another, the second cultural epoch of the post-Atlantean time. Out of this the wisdom of Zarathustra flowed and the Persian culture arose. Long did the Indian culture endure, long also the Persian, reaching a culmination in Zarathustra.
Then arose, under the influence of colonists who were sent into the land of the Nile, the culture that is comprised under the four names, Chaldean-Egyptian-Assyrian-Babylonian. This third post-Atlantean culture arose in Asia Minor and northern Africa, and reached its summit, on the one side, in the wonderful Chaldean star-lore and, on the other, in the Egyptian culture.
Then comes a fourth age, developing in the south of Europe, the age of the Greco-Roman culture, which dawns with the songs of Homer and goes on to produce the Greek sculptures and the art of poetry that appears in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Rome also belonged to this period. The epoch begins in the eighth pre-Christian century, approximately in 747 B. C., and lasts until the fourteenth or fifteenth century A. D. After that we have the fifth period, in which we ourselves live, and this in turn will be followed by the sixth and seventh periods.
In the seventh period, ancient India will appear in a new form. We shall see that there is a remarkable law that enables us to understand the working of wonderful forces through the various epochs and the relationships of the epochs to each other. If we begin by looking at the first period, that of the Indian culture, we will find that this first culture later recrudesces in a new form in the seventh period. Ancient India will then appear in a new form. Mysterious forces are at work here. And the second period, which we have called the Persian, will appear again in the sixth period. After our own culture perishes, we will see the Zarathustra religion revive in the culture of the sixth period. And in the course of these lectures we will see how, in our own fifth period, there takes place a sort of reawakening of the third period, the Egyptian. The fourth period stands in the middle; it is peculiar to itself, and neither earlier nor later does it have a parallel.
To make this mysterious law somewhat clearer, we should add the following. We know that India has something that strikes our humanitarian consciousness as strange. This is the division into definite castes, into priests, warriors, merchants, and laborer. This strict segregation is foreign to our modern views. In the first post-Atlantean culture it was not strange, it was entirely natural; in those times it could not be otherwise than that the souls of men should be divided into four grades according to their capacities. No harshness was felt in it for men were distributed by their leaders, who had such authority that what they prescribed was accepted without question. It was felt that the leaders, the seven Holy Rishis who had received their instruction from divine beings in Atlantis, could see where each man should be placed. Thus such a classification of men was something altogether natural. An entirely different grouping will appear in the seventh period. The division in the first period was effected by authority, but in the seventh period men will group themselves according to objective points of view. Something similar is seen among the ants; they form a state which, in its wonderful structure as well as in its capacity to perform a relatively prodigious amount of work, is not rivaled by any human state. Yet there we have just what seems to be alien to us, the caste system; for each ant has its particular task.
Whatever we may think of this today, men will see that the salvation of humanity lies in division into objective groups, and they will even be able to combine division of labor with equality of rights. Human society will appear as a wonderful harmony. This is something we can see in the annals of the future. Thus ancient India will appear again; and in a similar way certain traits of the third period will appear again in the fifth.
Glancing at the immediate implications of our theme, we see a large domain. We see the gigantic pyramids, the enigmatic Sphinx. The souls that belonged to the ancient Indians were also incarnated in Egypt and are again incarnated today. If we follow our general line of thought into detail, we will discover two phenomena that show us how, in superearthly connections, there are mysterious threads between the Egyptian culture and that of today. We have observed the law of repetition in the different periods of time, but it will seem far more significant if we follow it in spiritual regions. We are all familiar with a painting of great importance that has surely passed before all our souls at least once. I mean Raphael's famous painting of the Sistine Madonna, which by a chain of circumstances has come to be located among us in central Germany. In this picture, which is available in countless reproductions, we have learned to admire the wonderful purity poured out over the whole form. We have all felt something in the countenance of the mother, in the singular way the form floats in the air, perhaps also in the deep expression of the child's eyes. Then, if we see the cloud-forms round about from which numerous little angel-heads appear, we have a still deeper feeling, a feeling that makes the whole picture more comprehensible to us. I know it seems daring when I say that if one gazes deeply and earnestly on this child in the arms of the mother and on the clouds in the background forming themselves into a number of little angel-heads, then he has the feeling that this child was not born in the natural way, but that it is one of those that float round about in the clouds. This Jesus child itself is such a cloud-form, only become a little denser, as though one of the little angels had flown out of the clouds onto the arm of the Madonna. That would be a healthy feeling. If we make this feeling live within us, then our view will expand and free itself from certain narrow conceptions about the natural connections of life. Just out of such a picture our narrow vision can be expanded to see that what must happen in a certain way according to modern laws could at one time have been different. We will discern that there was once a form of reproduction other than the sexual one. In short, we will perceive deep connections between what is human and the spiritual forces in this picture. This is what lies in it.
If we allow our gaze to wander back from this Madonna into the Egyptian time, we are met by something similar, by an equally sublime picture. The Egyptian had Isis, the figure connected with the words: I am what was, what is, and what will be. No mortal has yet raised my veil.
A deep mystery, heavily veiled, manifests itself in the figure of Isis, the lovable goddess who, in the spiritual consciousness of the ancient Egyptian, was present with the Horus child as our Madonna is present today with the Jesus child. In the fact that this Isis is presented to us as something bearing the eternal within it, we are again reminded of our feeling in contemplating the Madonna. We must see deep mysteries in Isis, mysteries that are grounded in the spiritual. The Madonna is a remembrance of Isis: the Isis appears again in the Madonna. This is one of the connections that I spoke of. We must learn to recognize with our feelings the deep mysteries that show a superearthly connection between ancient Egypt and our modern culture.
Still another connection can be brought before you today. We recall how the Egyptian handled the dead; we remember the mummies, and how the Egyptian concerned himself that the outer physical form should be preserved for a long time. We know that he filled his tombs with such mummies, in which he had preserved the outer form, and that as mementos of the past physical life he gave to the deceased certain utensils and possessions suited to the needs of physical life. Thus what the person had had in the physical was to be retained. In this way the Egyptian bound the dead to the physical plane. This custom developed more and more and is a special earmark of the old Egyptian culture. Such a thing is not without consequences for the soul. Let us remember that our souls were in Egyptian bodies.
This is quite correct; our souls were incorporated in these bodies that became mummies. We know that when man, after death, is freed from his physical and etheric bodies, he has a different consciousness; he is by no means unconscious in the astral world. He can look down from the spiritual world, even though today he cannot look up; he can then look down on the physical earth. It is not then indifferent to him whether his body has been preserved as a mummy, has been burned, or has decayed. A definite kind of connection arises through this. We shall see this mysterious connection. Through the fact that in ancient Egypt the bodies were preserved for a long time, the souls experienced something very definite in the period after death. When they looked down they knew — that is my body. They were bound to this physical body. They had the form of their body before them. This body became important to the souls, for the soul is susceptible to impressions after death. The impression made by the mummified body imprinted itself deeply, and the soul was formed in accordance with this impression.
These souls went through incarnations in the Greco-Latin period, and in our own time they are living in us. It was not without effect that they saw their mummified bodies after death, that they were repeatedly led back to these bodies; this is by no means unimportant. They attached their sympathies to these bodies, and the fruit of their looking down upon them appears now, in the fifth period, in the inclination that souls have today to lay great weight upon the outer physical life. All that we describe today as the attachment to matter stems from the fact that the souls at that time, out of the spiritual world, could look upon their own embodiment. Through this man learned to love the physical world; through this it is so often said today that the only important thing is the physical body between birth and death. Such views do not arise out of nothing.
This is not a criticism of the practice of mummifying. We only want to point to certain necessities that are connected with the repeated incarnating of the soul. Without this pondering on the mummies men would not have been equal to developing further. We would by now have lost all interest in the physical world had the Egyptians not had the mummy-cult. It had to be thus if a proper interest in the physical world was to be awakened. That we see the world as we do today is a consequence of the fact that the Egyptians mummified the physical body after death.
This cultural stream was under the influence of initiates, who could see into the future. Not through any whim did men make mummies. Particularly in those days mankind was led by high individualities who prescribed What was right. This was done under authority. In the schools of the initiates it was known that our fifth epoch was connected with the third epoch. These mysterious connections stood at that time before the eyes of the priests, who instituted mummification so that the souls might acquire the disposition to seek spiritual experience in the external physical world.
The world is guided through wisdom; this is a second example of such connections. That men think as they do today is a result of what they experienced in ancient Egypt. Here we glimpse deep mysteries that reveal themselves in the cultural streams. We have barely touched these mysteries, for what has been shown of the Madonna as a remembrance of Isis, together with what we have seen of mummification, gives only a feeble hint of the real spiritual connections. But we will throw more light upon these relationships; we will consider not only what appears outwardly, but also what lies behind the external.
External life runs its course between birth and death. Man lives a much longer life after death, in what we know as kamaloca and the experiences of the spiritual world. The experiences in the supersensible worlds are no more uniform than the experiences here in the physical world. What did we experience as ancient Egyptians in the other world?
When our eyes looked on the pyramids and the Sphinx, how completely different was the course of our lives, how differently did our souls live between birth and death! That life cannot be compared to the life of the present day; such a comparison would have no meaning, and the experiences between death and a new birth have been far more dissimilar than the experiences of outer life. During the Egyptian epoch the soul experienced something quite different than in the Greek world, or in the time of Charlemagne, or in our own time. Also in the other world, in the spiritual world, evolution takes place, and what the soul experiences today between death and a new birth is something quite different from what the ancient Egyptian experienced when he laid aside his outer form at death. Just as mummification worked on in its peculiar way, causing the mood of the present day, just as this external life repeats itself from the third into the fifth period, so does evolution continue in those mysterious worlds between death and birth. This also we will have to study and here again we will find a mysterious connection. Then we will be able to grasp what lives in us as the fruit of that ancient time. We will be led into deep recesses of the labyrinth of the earth's evolution. But just through this we will recognize the full connection between what the Egyptian built, what the Chaldean thought, and what we today live. We will see what was then achieved flaring up again in what surrounds us, in what interests us in our environment. Physically and spiritually we will obtain clues to this connection. It will also be shown how evolution proceeds, how the fourth period forms a wonderful link between the third and the fifth. Thus our souls will lift themselves to the significant connections of the world, and the fruit will be a deep understanding of what lives in us.
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