diagram from Kees Zoeteman, Gaia-Sophia, p.77
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Very early in his career Steiner borrowed from Theosophy (with minor adaptions of his own) a metaphysical system of great rigidity. Although his cosmology seems complex, that is only because of the minute attention to detail. In actual fact, its principles are simplistic yet extraordinarily baroque, very like the Ptolemaic (Geocentric) cosmology just prior to Copernicus, in which everything is explained in terms of cycles and epicycles, a kind of vast cosmic mechanism. Everything is explained within a series of cosmic cycles: the Old Saturn, Old Sun, Old Moon, and Earth eras, and three future ones; each of which possesses certain characteristics:
- Old Saturn: Solar System single mass; densest substance "warmth"
- Old Sun: Sun, Moon, and Earth single mass; densest substance "air" (or gaseous)
- Old Moon: Earth and Moon single mass; densest substance "water" (or liquid)
- Earth: Present world; densest substance "earth" (or solid) during its densest substages
- "Jupiter" ) future increasingly
- "Venus" ) spiritualised worlds;
- "Vulcan" ) reverse of previous stages
This idea of a cyclic universe is fairly straighforward, recalling similiar themes from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, from Kabbalah, from the now discarded "pulsating universe" speculations of astrophysics, and so on. The whole thing is unfortunately made much more obscure and absurd by dividing each of the seven cosmic cycles into seven (each with it's own small pralaya), and each of those in turn into seven, and each of those in turn into seven, and each of those in turn into seven!!! This infatuation with cycles and sub-cycles and sub-sub-cycles (a kind of quasi-fractal universe) is another theosophical theme that Steiner retained. These stages and all of their sub-stages and sub-sub-stages were worked out in great detail, producing a cosmology that is at its best as awesome and inspiring as any other great myth of creation, yet just as absurd and ridiculous when taken literally (which unfortunately is what Steiner's followers do).
What about the rest of the universe, you may ask. Unfortunately, Steiner doesn't mention this. Indeed, astonishingly for a man living in the beginning of the 20th century, he seems totally uninterested in anything beyond the orbit of Saturn. His entire cosmology is limited to this Solar System; when he says "the cosmos" he is referring to the Solar System out to Saturn.
Cycles and Sub-Cycles
The first hierarchical level, the "Metamorphoses" (bottom), represents the primary cosmological division, equivelent to the "Chain" of Theosophy. Apart from the "Form Conditions", which refer to descent from the spiritual pralaya state (Arupa; "Formless") to matter, and subsequent ascent, all the others are in some respect or other a recapitulation on a smaller scale of the original eras or "Metamorphoses".
Thus the present Earth stage consists of or is divided into seven "Small Cycles", sub-eras: a fiery or Old Saturn era (which recapitulates the first eras), a gaseous or Old Sun era, a liquid or Old Moon era, and an earthy (solid) or Earth era (our present age), and three future ones (which presage the future eras). Each of these small cycles is the same as the "Round" of Theosophy.
The Earth era of the Earth Metamorphosis is in turn divided into seven Form Conditions (= "Globes" of Theosophy), referring to, as indicated above, the descent from spirit to physical matter (the present Earth), and subsequent ascent back to Spirit.
The present Earth condition is divided into seven eras, according to the Root Race (another Theosophical concept Steiner adopted) that exists at that time. These are the seven evolutionary periods: Polarian, Hyperborean, Lemurian, Atlantean, "Post-Atlantean" (the current one) and two future ones, given the apropriately biblical names of "Seal" and "Trumpet" (in refereance to the Book of revelations). Each era lasts exactly 15,120 years, the time of the Platonic "Great Year", or "Precession of the Equinoxes". In keeping with his reliance on the Classics, Steiner used this old Greek time-frame as the central element of his chronology.
Finally, each of these eras is in turn divided into seven, giving seven "Culture Periods" of exactly 2,160 years each. Originally, Steiner taught that every human ego (soul) reincarnates precisely twice, once as a man and once as a woman; later, he dropped this idea.
As can be seen, with all these cycles within cycles, Steiner's entire cosmology came pretty well out of Theosophy. He formulated it in the early days, when he was trying to find favour with the Theosophical Society (according to Colin Wilson's biography on him, Steiner was an upward social climber). Into the Theosophical style statements, the Greek elements were mixed in.
Yet even if Steiner derived his overall cosmology from Theosophy, he still made a creative and original contribution within that framework. Whilst the Theosophical cosmology, especially that of the post-Blavatsky theosophists such as C.W. Leadbeater and Alice Bailey, is mechanical and unimaginative, Steiner added an extraordinary amount of new details.
The Relevence (or otherwise) of Steiner's cosmology
The Difficulty with taking all this literally
Because of its absurd elements, Steiner's cosmology has become a curiosity by the uninitiated, and a dogma to the believers. I remember listening to one young woman who was educated in a Rudolf Steiner school, and who referred dismissively to Steiner's metaphysics as the "way in which people used to think in those days" - a totally inaccurate statement (for the early twentieth- century was just as "scientifically" inclined as the modern decade), but typical of the way in which the layperson reacts to Steiner's cosmology.
Towards an Occult Interpretation af Steiner's Cosmology
The myth of man and creation/emanation in Rudolph Steiner's cosmogony
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