Esoteric Cosmology - Lecture 3


by Rudolf Steiner

This is the third of three lectures given in the Berlin branch of the Theosophical Society in 1904. Rudolf Steiner was the general secretary of the German Theosophical Society until he broke with the Theosophists in 1913 and formed the Anthroposophical Society. At that time Steiner used theosophical terminology derived from oriental sources. He later abandoned most of these terms in favor of German. This lecture was published in German by the Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach, Switzerland, in 2001. It is based on notes taken by participants, none of whom was a professional stenographer. This is the first and only English translation to my knowledge.
The first lecture may be found at Esoteric Cosmology – 1. The second at Esoteric Cosmology - 2.

Translated from the German by Frank Thomas Smith

A week ago, I tried to explain the manner of thinking, so strange to western minds, through which the theosophist attains his insights and knowledge of the cosmos. The sketchy character these lectures necessarily have prevents me from delving more profoundly into theosophical cosmology. Nevertheless, I will attempt today to give you at least a picture in descriptive form of the origin of the world based on Theosophy. I beg those who have scientific bents to bear in mind that in the course of three short lectures it isn’t possible to go into scientific explanations of what I will say today. These scientific explanations will be included in a subsequent lecture cycle, in which I will speak in more detail about this subject. Also, in the second volume of my Theosophy, which will soon be published, cosmology will be discussed. [A second volume of Theosophy never appeared. Instead, Steiner’s An Outline of Esoteric Science, which includes a detailed description of cosmological evolution, was published in 1909. Ed.]

Allow me first of all to mention an important thought, which is basically very simple, but which must be clear to whoever wishes to understand evolution in the theosophical sense. When we speak of development, or evolution in a broad sense, we don’t only mean the development of animal or plant life from a previous form, but we also mean the great transformations within the universe, and we include the origin of matter, the matter we can today perceive with our physical senses.

            We said last time that in the history of the evolution of our planet there are seven consecutive stages, and I also briefly described these to you. You must therefore think of how our earthly planet goes through seven stages, which we call Rounds, in rhythmical sequence. Everything that exists and lives on our Earth was also existent before our present Earth come into being; it was existent in a kind of seed state, just as a whole plant is present in a seed, sleeps in the seed, so to speak, before it takes on form in the outer world. Such a slumber stage is called a “Pralaya”. On the other hand, the state in which everything awakens, gradually emerges and progresses from a beginning to a high point of perfection, we call “Manvantara”. When the state of perfection is reached, a Pralaya, a sleeping state, occurs once more, and this is followed again by a state of waking and growth. Thus the planet goes through this sequence seven times, reawakening seven times to a new Round.

            The time between one Manvantara and the next passes in a state in which everything living on the earth sleeps, so to speak. But it isn’t comparable to normal human sleep. In normal sleep only the activities of understanding and sense are interrupted, but you can see the physical body. The sleeping state of the Earth must be thought of differently. No earthly being is visible during this sleeping state. This state would be perceptible only to the opened eye of the so-called Dangma, the highest developed seer. This state is indescribable in words, for our words are inadequate for this kind of existence. I find no words in any language for this state. Therefore the developed seer says something quite different in order to give an idea of this state. He says: imagine a plant. You see this plant. Now imagine a kind of plaster impression of the plant, but in such a way that the plant itself is empty space and a Round is the plaster. Consider that the plaster is spiritual and only perceptible for certain senses. Whoever can see the plant cannot see the plaster impression at the same time, that is, the negative of the plant. Something similar is what the developed seer would perceive of the Earth during the Pralaya sleep. The Earth is not there. It is the hollow form, swimming in a great, mighty sea of the highest spiritual beings that is gradually disappearing and out of which the Being of the Earth itself flows.

            Then something begins to originate within this hollow space, something not yet perceptible to the physical senses; it is only perceptible to the highly developed seer who can consciously move in the spiritual plane. At the beginning of the Earth’s existence he would see a sphere in space, a purely spiritual sphere in which only the spiritual is present. Every time before a new Round begins, our Earth exists in such a spiritual state. When it awakens from the Pralaya sleep, it does so as such a sphere. The spiritual seer perceives it in a wonderful reddish glimmer. But that Earth contains everything that later becomes Earth. The densest bodies are also contained in this sphere.

            How can we imagine this? It can be made clear by means of a simple process. Imagine a glass full of water. The water is fluid. When you cool the temperature sufficiently, the water becomes ice. You have the same thing in front of you as previously – ice is nothing other than water, only in another form. Raise the temperature and the ice reverts to water, with higher temperatures even to steam. By this example you can imagine how all matter derives from the spirit through densification. The spiritual sphere – seen only by the seer’s developed eye – densifies gradually after it passes through a small Pralaya. It can then be seen by a less developed seer’s eye. Then follows a kind of short sleeping state, and now the sphere is visible to the astral eye, that is, for whoever has developed this sense on the astral plane. Again a Pralaya state follows, and the sphere appears again as physical solid matter. Only now can physical eyes see it, physical ears hear it, physical hands grasp it. That is the fourth stage. Then a short Pralaya comes again. This stage disappears and again an astral sphere presents itself, but with much more highly developed beings. An analogous state appears in the sixth Round, also only visible to the spiritual seer. Thereafter another Pralaya and then a state only visible to the highest developed seer. Then follows what is invisible even to the Dangma. A long Pralaya follows and then the whole process begins again. This happens seven times. In this way the Earth is transformed from the lowest to the highest level.

            Let us now follow the first Round. We can study it best by observing what exists on our Earth where it is most solid. In the first Round there were no mineral forms yet, no physical nature energy and no chemical energy. The Earth had carried out the previous evolution only to create a foundation for physical existence; it created this foundation in order to prepare a physical existence in the fourth Round. Our Earth looked like a fiery mass, with such tremendous temperatures that none of our present substances could have the form they now have. All substances were jumbled up in that fiery primal porridge – allow me to use that trivial word – in homogeneous, undifferentiated matter. Theosophy says: the Earth was in the fiery stage. Common fire is not meant, however, but fire of a higher, spiritual nature. There were no chemical elements involved. But what was in the interior of this matter was active. Two kinds of spiritual beings were active: those we call “Dhyani Chohans” [Archangels in Christian terminology. Ed], and those beings who had not yet descended to physical materiality, who had a partially spiritual body, and who flowed through the fiery matter with tremendous rapidity. We see here a continuous emergence and disappearance of irregular forms, also of forms that remind us of those that will exist on Earth at a much later time.                                                 

The emerging and disappearing seems to follow a pattern. Forms arise which are reminiscent of later crystals and plants – even something that takes on human form, and then disperses. The humans who would later incarnate lived in that fire, modeling and preparing their bodies. That is how the Earth’s first Round appears to us. Then followed the transition from this fiery, flowing Earth to the sleep-state.

            The second Round began in the same spiritual way. “Ether” is finer than our present-day gas, but denser than the Earth was in the previous stage. In this very fine matter what we call chemical elements formed. You can find this second stage wonderfully described in religious books, where it is written that the divine beings ordered everything according to mass, number and weight. What had earlier been irregular was now organized in chemical elements according to number. The chemist will understand me, for he knows the regular periodic system of the elements. The individual substances were not yet related to each other. Now, however, as matter became differentiated, we see the most wonderful forms coming into existence which remind us of later forms, only they are not yet solid: star-like forms, angular forms, tetrahedrons, polyhedrons, round forms and so on. The forms that will later constitute nature are intimated. As in the first Round crystal forms were prearranged, the plant forms were constituted in the second Round. Then all flowed away; the astral and spiritual natures went through a Pralaya stage again and re-appeared in the third Round.

            When we consider the physical state of the third Round, we find matter in a quite different state. It is not yet differentiated as air and water, but forms a kind of mist, or steam. It is no longer an ether form, but rather somewhat as cloud formations are today. And within these mist formations, which we find described in old sagas – the sagas of Nebelheim (home of mist) and Niflheim describe this state – we see matter in another form, no longer organized according to number, but equipped with energy. The esoteric researcher speaks here of the Law of Selected Relationships. The chemical substances organize themselves according to the Law of Selected Relationships. Now, however, in the third Round, energy emerged, which allowed the small to become larger and expand. The substances could organize themselves from within, energize themselves. Not only the first plant forms, which we met in the second Round, appeared, but growth was also possible. The first animal forms appeared, which we would consider to be extremely grotesque today. Gigantically large, colossal shapes formed themselves out of the mass of mist. For the occultist there is something of truth when he looks at the clouds and sees that one cloud looks like a camel, another like a horse. In the third Round the beings were mist-like forms, which reproduced by one transforming itself into the other, one deriving from the other, like the lower cell organisms, which are reminiscent of this process. These animal bodies, which formed out of the mist, could now provide the basis for those individualities who came from previous worlds to find bodies. The human being could now incarnate. He found a body which allowed him to appear, at first in an imperfect, primitive, groping way. Failed incarnations were also possible. We could say that during the third Round beings existed on the Earth who were intermediate beings between man and animal, in which the human being did not feel completely right, but could nevertheless incarnate.

            Then another Pralaya occurred, and then the fourth Round. That is the Round to which we belong today. The Earth passed through the spiritual state, went through the astral and etheric states and finally arrived at the physical state which we have now reached. During the first Round the foundation for the mineral kingdom was formed, during the second Round the foundation for the vegetable kingdom was formed, during the third Round the possibility for animal forms was established. And now, during the fourth Round, the human being acquired the ability to take on the form he has today.

            Let us consider the state of our physical Earth somewhat more closely. The state of the Earth in this fourth Round must be described as being much denser than the states of the previous Rounds. First there was a fiery state, then a misty one, then one between air and water. Still during the beginning of the fourth Round we had a kind of gushing matter, similar to protein. Gradually it all condensed, and what we have today as matter is nothing other than the condensed, originally gushing matter, exactly as ice is condensed water. At the beginning of the fourth Round all beings were created so they could live in this gushing matter. Man had a form similar to the one he has now, but his consciousness was extremely dim, comparable to that of a dreaming person. He dreamed his being in a kind of sleeping consciousness; the spirit was still lacking. Let us consider this state more closely. The human being was possible in that flowing, gushing state. We call these people of the first race dream-men. It is difficult to describe them. Another stage followed this one, in which matter became denser and separated into a more spiritual and a more physical materiality, comparable to the North and South Poles.

            Now I ask you to consider the difference between the esoteric and the usual understanding of Darwinism. We have the human being present in the indicated stage of the earth, as well as the vegetable kingdom. The animal kingdom was also present, but without sexual reproduction capability, without warm blood and not yet capable of bringing forth sounds. The human being was also mute. He could not yet think, not even dim thoughts. The spirit had not yet entered the bodies. In the following, second race, matter separated into two poles. The human beings withdrew the matter that was useful to them and separated out the less useful matter, from which a kind of lateral branch of the higher animals formed. The lower animals were similar to today’s mollusks, even fish-like forms developed.

            The human being developed further and at the third stage discarded the matter that would not enable him to become the bearer of a higher consciousness. He gave it up as material for the animals, which now looked like amphibians with gigantic forms. They are described in fables and myths as flying dragons and so on. Until then, no being possessed sexual reproductive capacities. Not until the middle of the third race, the Lemurian epoch, does this appear, albeit primitively. The scene of this development, Lemuria, was in Asia in the Indian Ocean.

            During the middle of the Lemurian age the great event occurred which allowed man to become a human being. The human beings who came over from previous planetary states were not all at the same level of development. Those who had reached a normal evolution during the previous misty earth cycle were able to incarnate during the third epoch. Among them, however, there were some who had already reached a higher stage; they could not incorporate during the third race at all. During every Round there are humans who develop to a normal stage and others who are more advanced. These are the masters. They are more highly developed individuals. In Theosophy they are called solar pitris or sun pitris. They had reached a higher spirituality, but could no more incarnate in the bodies of the men of those times than a contemporary person could incarnate in a plant. They waited for further evolution until the appropriate time had come, during the fourth race, when their incarnation could take place. Thus a spiritually highly developed humanity arose. The sagas and myths relate how at that time personalities existed who rose far above their fellow men. Individuals such as Prometheus, the Indian Rishis, Fire-Rishis, who were the leaders of humanity, including Manus, who gave later humanity laws. Only these solar Pitris could incarnate as adepts.

            I already mentioned that at the start of the fourth Round sexuality did not yet exist. The separation of the sexes occurred only during the Lemurian time. Therewith the first incarnations were possible, the taking over of a body which hadn’t already existed. Previously one being derived from another. With the separation of the sexes during the middle of the Lemurian age, birth and death arose and therefore the possibility of the effects of karma. The human being could burden himself with guilt. Everything we know as “human” arose at that time.

            The Lemurian continent was destroyed by a fire-like catastrophe, and the Atlantian continent arose on the floor of what is now the Atlantic Ocean. During the Atlantian time another important event occurred to which I drew your attention when I spoke of the Whitson holiday. I said that, with the exception of the solar Pitris, all beings lived in a lower spiritual condition. The solar Pitris could only take on selected bodies. Other bodies would only have allowed them to live with a dim consciousness. Dull- minded individuals would have resulted had they used the existent bodies. The Pitris therefore waited until certain animal-like forms evolved further. On the one hand they sank deeper into instinctual desires, but on the other hand, by this means the prerequisites for the later development of the brain were given. Matter was differentiated into nervous matter and sexual matter. The Pitris who had waited for that later time incarnated in this inferior matter. Religion indicates this as the biblical fall from paradise: the incarnation in worsened matter. If that hadn’t happened, they would have remained in a much less conscious state. They would not have attained the clear thinking we now posses, but would have remained in a much duller state. They paid for this by allowing their bodies to be inferior, which however was compensated for by refined brain matter, thereby allowing them to achieve a higher level of consciousness and spirituality. A particular result of the evolution of the Atlantian race was the development of a phenomenal memory.

            After Atlantis was destroyed by water, continued evolution resulted in our contemporary fifth race, during which deductive reasoning was a special achievement. This enabled the human race to bring art and science to a high level of development, which previously had not been possible. During the fifth sub-race of the fourth Round humanity reached a highpoint: control by the spirit, which had incarnated in matter, so that humanity could ascend to higher and higher stages of evolution.

            We have seen how the cosmos evolved in rhythmic stages to the point where we now stand. In previous Rounds the following developed:


1.      the mineral kingdom     

2.      the vegetable kingdom

3.      the animal kingdom
and then-

4.      the human being


Theosophical cosmology is a self-contained whole, derived from the wisdom of the most developed seers. If I had a little more time I would be able to indicate to you how certain natural scientific facts are conducive to testifying to the accuracy of this image of the world. Look at Haekel’s famous phylogenic trees, for example, in which evolution is materialistically explained. If instead of matter you consider the spiritual stages, as Theosophy describes them, then you can make the phylogenic trees as Haekel did – only the explanation is different.

In order that you do not confuse what I have said with what is described in many theosophical books as the various astral or physical states, I would like to bring the following to your attention. Evolution is often described as if they were concurrent stages. You find spheres placed next to each other, so that it appears as though life went from one sphere to another. In reality only one sphere exists, and only its conditions change. It is always the same sphere which goes through the various metamorphoses: spiritual, astral, physical, and so on.

We have seen that the introduction to these lectures, which we took from Goethe’s words, is completely justified – that it is after all the human being who is the goal, the task of the earthly planet. The esotericist knows that every planet has its specific task. Nothing in the cosmos is coincidental.

The task of physical evolution is that what is created for us humans achieve its objective. You will not find a human being as he is today on Earth on any other planet. Beings, yes – but not human beings. The Earth exists in order that “I”-conscious human beings could be created. Through the first four Rounds the kingdoms of nature evolved in order that in the fourth man could be made a self-conscious being, who could reflect himself in his body. He will rise to higher levels of evolution, something that few can understand correctly. In the next, the fifth Round, the mineral kingdom will disappear. All mineral matter will be transformed to vegetable matter. Then the vegetable kingdom will reach its culmination and in the next Round the animal kingdom will form the lowest kingdom. During the seventh Round the human being will achieve his highest level of evolution. He will have become what planetary evolution intends.

Whoever understands this can have a profounder insight into the religious documents. There was a time when people believed like children in the religious documents. Then the Enlightenment came, and nothing is believed any more. But a time will come when people will learn to understand the images preserved for us in religious documents, fairy tales and fables. Thus we have the seven Rounds as the seven days of creation in the Bible. The first three days of creation have gone by, we are now in the fourth day of creation and the last three days of creation are yet to come. The first three days of creation in Genesis represent the past Rounds, and the last three indicate what is to come in the future. Rightly understood, Moses wanted to say with the description of the first three days, that we live in the fourth Round; he describes the fourth day of creation in a quite special way. That is why you find a double creation in Genesis [This may refer to Genesis 1, 26, where God creates humankind. In Genesis 2, 7, this creation is described again, albeit differently. Ed] Those who judge the Bible with their intellect only will never understand it. The human being of the seventh day of creation has not been created. That man was made of clay is a symbol of our fourth Round. The double creation tells us in images of what has been created, the stage in which we now find ourselves, and of the stage at the end of the seventh Round. When we see the Bible’s message in this way, a meaning of these documents suddenly arises which we could not have previously understood. Humanity will finally see that there is such a profound meaning there that one would almost have to become a different person in order to understand it.

It is necessary that in our times the high, spiritual meaning of these old documents be revealed, and that is the task of the theosophical movement. It doesn’t criticize the materialism of our times because it considers it to be necessary. But it strives to enable people to again recognize the spiritual meaning of these documents. We will work on this during the coming winter. Today’s lecture is the last of this cycle. We will, however, still meet here every Monday at eight o’clock.