The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

This morning I’m returning to the world of esoteric culture, the theosophical society, the world of Madame Blavatsky, the world in which people explore the knowledge of the hidden. And in particular I wanted to think about one important person from that world - the turn of the century Austrian, Rudolf Steiner. His name in this country is most closely associated with education. You may have heard of Steiner Schools, which use the experimental education curriculum designed by Rudolf Steiner. Each day is punctuated with exercise, movement, and dance; it’s an education system which is supposed to be more holistic, spiritual, and focused on creating harmony within society.

Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861, and he was something of a polymath. He traversed a broad landscape of ideas; he was a philosopher, studying, in particular, German idealism, he was a contributor to a literary journal, and he was a Goethe scholar. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who we know as the author of Faust, was a very influential German thinker. He’s essentially the Shakespeare, or the Dante, of Germany. Goethe was the archetypal German scholar, and many Germanic scholars have latched on to Goethe and drawn a great deal of inspiration from him, including Georg Hegel, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Fredrich Nietzsche, to name a few. Carl Jung even pretended, when he was younger, that he was related to Goethe. He created an elaborate story about his grandfather being Goethe’s illegitimate son. Goethe, although most famous today as the author of Faust, did a great deal in his lifetime. He was an advisor to a Saxon duke, he wrote a great deal of poetry and prose, and wrote papers on botany and anatomy. All of these Rudolf Steiner read, studied and catalogued.

When Rudolf Steiner was about forty, his life took a radical turn; he was swept up into the world of theosophy and esoteric culture. This shift began when he wrote an essay on one of Goethe’s short stories, a fairy tale called ‘The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily’, which we’ll be hearing. The only thing you need to know beforehand is that the story refers to entities called will-o’-wisps – strange ghostly beings from European folklore, which could appear sometimes like normal people, and at other times like orbs of light that float in the air. So, Rudolf Steiner wrote an essay on this fairy tale, attempting to explain some of the symbology within the story. The theosophical society took note of his interesting essay, and this launched him into the more peculiar, second half of his life.

‘The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily’ (1795) by Johann Goethe (adapted by Lewis Connolly).

In the 18th century when Goethe wrote ‘The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily’, it was human freedom which was uppermost in his mind. The French Revolution was in full swing, in which liberty and freedom were being championed, but what was freedom? Could freedom really be imposed upon another? Did it not need to arise from within each person? And what of necessity? Or reason? In exploring these ideas, Goethe wrote his fairy tale, using imaginative pictures to show how the human soul could become whole and free. In Goethe’s landscape there are two lands, divided by a Great River. On one side is the land of the senses, in other words the land of ordinary consciousness, our normative sense of perception. And on the other side, the land of the spirit - this is the land not ordinarily accessible by our everyday sense. And by the end, there is a permanent bridge linking these two lands together.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Like most fairy tales, many magical and inexplicable things occur. It doesn’t follow our normal everyday logic, it adheres rather to a higher logic, as it seeks to express a higher spiritual knowledge. Without necessarily knowing it, the characters are all leading the story towards its ultimate climax, that of unification - unification of the lands, unification of the couple, and the unification of the four principles that govern all: the quaternity of wisdom, appearance, strength, and most importantly, love. Some of the deeper wisdom within the fairy tale remained hidden for nearly a century, until Rudolf Steiner came along and began decoding it. Although, as I said, he wrote an essay on it when he was nearing his 40th, he actually received the book as a present for his 21st birthday, and spent all that time considering its hidden meaning. While studying for his PhD in philosophy, and while cataloguing Goethe’s other work, he returned to the fairy tale obsessively, and slowly he felt the deeper profundity of the piece began to show itself. He believed the piece possessed the power to transform its readers’ souls. He declared, “this is the new way to Christ.” This fairy tale. Quite a claim.

The piece initiated and shaped his ongoing engagement with the esoteric world, from his initial invitation to speak coming from the theosophical society, to the creation, ultimately, of his own esoteric school of thought, which he named ‘Anthroposphy’. ‘Anthropo’ meaning pertaining to human beings, and ‘Sophia’, Wisdom. His insight concerning the fairytale hinged upon some of the Alchemical symbology he uncovered. If it's about transformation of the soul, the transformation of our inner architecture, we can view the whole thing as an alchemical process, and all the elements added into the mythic scene, all the different characters, are much like elements added to the beaker to bring about the desired outcome. Each element goes through its own process of separation, purification, and reunification in a new thing. In my simplified version of the story I was just attempting to convey the thrust of the narrative. The original is much longer, and has many more characters. But nonetheless, you still get the idea. The alchemical unification of all things requires the trickster will-o’-wisps, and although in and of themselves they are destructive and self-seeking, they are still necessary components in achieving the common end, along with the moping prince, the beautiful Lily (symbol of pure spiritual forces), and the snake.


The snake, that part of us which is willing to delve deep down, and seek things in the depths of our unconscious world of great value, the pearls of great price which inspire us to act, that we might ultimately bring that hidden treasure to the surface, so we might benefit the totality of the self or the other through its exposure. And there’s also this idea, exemplified in the death of Jesus, of dying in order to become. Dying to an old way, an old configuration, to realise a new way of being. You don’t need to think of that in terms of an individual dying, but merely an aspect of the self dying. Like the snake demonstrates, a sacrificial death to bring about greater love, and ultimately, a greater unification. The moping prince, who represents the seeking soul, travels across the river from the land of ordinary consciousness, to the beautiful Lily, who is in a garden in the land of the Spirit, and yet these two are brought together and unified. This reminds me of the symbol of Yin and Yang, curving like a river through the middle, with a bit of yin in the yang, and a bit of yang in the yin, a symbol of harmony and unification. A unification made possible because certain elements deep within the soul were awoken. First the Ferryman is awoken, who facilitates movement from one realm to the other, and then the snake is awoken from deep within the cleft of the rock, who ultimately unifies the soul into a complete whole.

Steiner went so far as to adapt Goethe’s story into a mystery play, which was performed, to make the symbolic significance of the piece even more accessible, (much like I’ve done this morning), so that the work of Goethe in Steiner’s time could be made more relevant and more accessible to his early 20th century audience. The ideas then contained within Anthroposphy are supposed to bridge and unite the two lands. Much as it is at the culmination of Goethe’s story the snake that sacrifices her life to allow us to move freely from one land to the other, so Rudolf Steiner gave his life’s work, inspired by Goethe, to create a living bridge for us to access the spiritual world. So it’s interesting also to track Steiner’s engagement with, and relationship to, Madame Blavatsky and the theosophical society.

The Second Goetheanum (Built in 1928), the first one burnt down in 1922.

If you can cast your mind back a couple of months to when I talked about it, you’ll remember that Blavatsky was essentially trying to bring an esoteric eastern philosophy to the West, to the United States in particular, and then from there it filtered back into Europe, hence Steiner’s engagement with it. Blavatsky’s Eastern mysticism, with her so called “hidden masters”, Koot Hoomi, the secret letters, and all that, was very enticing for many. But Steiner wasn’t very interested in all that Eastern esoteric stuff; he was much more interested in the Western Esoteric tradition, be that Christian Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, masonic mythology, the alchemical tradition, or the European fairy tale tradition. But nonetheless, here was a spiritual network that stretched across Europe which Steiner recognised could be used to disseminate his own esoteric material, so he essentially sought to take over the movement for that purpose. But eventually, because of clashes with people at the top of the organisation, he determined that that course of action was not possible, and splintered off to go his own way, to set up his more Christian esoteric group, The Anthroposophical Society, which he saw as the new religion of our age.

He built a huge temple in Switzerland, which he called the Goetheanum, named after Goethe, complete with a theatre (one of the largest theatres in Europe) in which his mystery plays could be performed – in which initiation rituals could be performed. It was built soon after WWI, by people from throughout Europe, again to symbolise this coming together and harmonising which was possible. He then developed his whole education methodology, which became popular. Rudolf Steiner, from an early age, perceived himself to be living in two worlds: the outer world, and an inner world of thought, an idea he explored and developed at first privately, and then from 1900 onwards, from 40 onwards, publicly. Towards his vision of spiritual wholeness, spiritual completeness, towards his vision of a bridge which could connect the warring dimensions of the self, the warring dimensions of society. A bridge, born of a snake, across a Great River, within the inner architecture of the self, offered in love.


Lewis Connolly