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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Elephants to Einstein
GA 352

I. Pachyderms. Nature of shell/carapace and skeletal development

7 January 1924, Dornach

Good morning, gentlemen. We have not been meeting for some time. Maybe one of you has thought of something in particular that we may discuss today?

Questioner: The large ants to be found around our woodlands have a kind of honey or resin at the bottom of their ant heap. This is used for ritual purposes; Roman Catholic priests like to use it for incense. I would like to ask where this comes from and what it is made of.

Rudolf Steiner: Those resins contain the same material as is found in incense, and really have no other value but it is a way of getting one's incense cheaply. Ant heaps develop because with their formic acid ants also secrete all kinds of things they bring with them from the resinous parts of the trees where they gather sap. It is not a kind of honey, therefore, but a resin that has formic acid mixed in with it.

Mr Müller: I would like to go back to the bees, the carpenter bees that infest trees. In my young days I knew a case where all the wood in a forestry area rotted away and was not used. A master carpenter came and bought enormous quantities of this wood, which in the old days was always only used to make boxes. He used the wood for carpentry in new houses. A year later, people kept finding bees everywhere in those houses. These bees were such a danger to the structure that the master carpenter had to take the houses back after two years. All the timber work, including the rafters, had to be taken down. He had to take the houses back completely, buy them back.

Rudolf Steiner: That can happen, of course. Did the bees get into the wood in the timber yard or when it was still in the woods?

Mr Müller: It runs sold by auction in the autumn, then used in the spring, and the bees came out in the summer.

Rudolf Steiner: Anything that may be extremely useful in one respect can also be terribly harmful in another. This does not go against what I said before, which is that these bees in the wood are something that is really needed. As I said, something that may be extraordinarily useful in one situation can on the other hand be extraordinarily harmful. Let me give you an example. Imagine a little boy who is short-sighted. If he is given glasses, that is necessary and can indeed be very useful. But if the other boys were to see this as something rather distinguished and decided to put on glasses as well, this would not be useful but harmful. And that is how it is. Something that is extraordinarily useful in one situation may prove extraordinarily harmful in another. That is the way it is.

Mr Müller: I'd like to go back to the bees again and things connected with our life and activities as beekeepers. My colleagues have complained several times that it would have been better if I did not read out what I want to say but speak freely. I have to say to them, however, that I have only been to primary school and have no special gift as a speaker. I am therefore not in a position to speak freely. So I am going to read out again today what I have written and not speak freely. About the bees, the queen bee. (Spoke about beehives and then referred to problems between workers and employers; going back to 1914, he expressed some dissatisfaction. Made a comparison: we, too, are a beehive in that situation, and so on.)

Rudolf Steiner: Well, gentlemen, it is difficult to speak immediately off the cuff about such matters. I expect we all know from experience that when such things are brought up and one discusses them on the spot the discussion has a different tone than when the matter has been fully considered. Let us therefore consider the matter carefully, that is, if we are to talk about it at all. We have time available again on Wednesday and I'll then ask the gentlemen who have something to say on the matter that we use the time on Wednesday for this.

People have, quite rightly, spoken of the temperaments. The temperaments work in a different way if one has had a sleep in between. I do not mean that I want to remove the subject from the agenda, for this is not to say that I won't say something on the subject myself on Wednesday. But I think the way to do it is not to discuss the matter right away, when some people may get rather hot around the collar, but give it time, until Wednesday. I'll therefore ask you, gentlemen, to speak on Wednesday, if you wish.

For today let us continue with matters of science. And as I said, Mr Muller's suggestion will certainly be considered, and we'll say what we have to say about it on Wednesday. And I myself will then also say what I have to say. You see, with scientific subjects it is relatively, pretty well possible for someone who knows the subject to say quite a few things even if unprepared. But the whole issue that has been presented here is something I would like to think through first. Is this all right with you? (Agreement.) Does anyone else have a question?

Mr Dollinger: A question that has often come up recently—it has been in all the papers—is that one never knows where dead elephants have got to, for their remains are never found. I would like to ask Dr Steiner if it might not be interesting to talk about this.

Rudolf Steiner: That is an interesting thing with those elephants. The fact is that remains of elephants from prehistoric times are sometimes found in extremely good condition. And the way those elephants from prehistoric times are found shows that these particular animals, called pachyderms in natural history, must always have died in the places where such prehistoric animals are found in a way—that is, they must have been preserved in such a way—that they were enveloped all at once in the soil that surrounds them. What I mean is that these thick-skinned pachyderms could only have been so well preserved because it did not happen that water, let us say, soil and mud seeped in gradually. It must have happened that they were lying in a cave and a landslide caused them to be enveloped in soil quite suddenly. The result has been that when that foreign soil had dissolved the flesh surrounding the bones, the enveloping form, which was firm in itself, preserved the skeletal structures extremely well. You find most beautifully preserved examples especially of these huge animals in museums everywhere.

This proves that these animals have the peculiar habit of withdrawing into caves when the time comes to die. Of course, the matter cannot be taken quite as strictly as you have put it, for all we can say is that very often—one does of course also find dead elephants—no trace can be found of an elephant that before had certainly been seen around. These animals have the peculiar habit of withdrawing into caves when they see death approaching, and to die in caves. You see, gentlemen, this has to do with the fact that these animals—and what you have said refers essentially only to pachyderms—have such an extraordinarily thick skin. And what does such a thick skin signify? You see, the hard parts of an animal are the parts most related to the soil. Your own nails are also most closely related to the earth. And an elephant's skin is such by nature that it is indeed related to the earth to an extraordinary degree. Because of this an elephant really feels himself surrounded by the earth all his life, meaning the earth in his skin, and only feels well surrounded by his skin. Now, within his skin the elephant is really continually dying. When death approaches—this is the peculiar thing with pachyderms—these animals feel this particularly strongly, exactly because they have such a thick skin. They then want to have more of the earth in their skin. Their instinct then makes them go into caves. People tend not to look for them in those earth caves. If they were to look for them there they would find more dead elephants in the regions where elephants are. They are not to be found in the open.

What this fact proves is that animals have much more of an idea of approaching death than humans do, especially animals with a thick skin all around them, but also lower animals, small ones such as insects, for example, with their horny outer covers. And you see, when it comes to these small animals we have to say: It is not only that they feel death approaching, but also that they make all kinds of arrangements when they come to die, so that death shall happen in a place that is the best place for it. Some insects withdraw into the soil to experience death there. You see, with human beings the situation is that they pay for their freedom by having really very little intuition. Animals do not have freedom, everything about them is unfree. But they have great intuitive powers. As you know, when danger threatens, an earthquake, for instance, animals move away, while human beings are caught completely unprepared by such events.

We may say that it is extraordinarily difficult for humans to enter into the inner life of animals. But anyone able to observe animals properly, anyone with the gift for observing animals, will always find that animals act in an extraordinarily prophetic way in anything that concerns their lives. And the peculiar habit we have spoken of is indeed connected with the prophetic life of these animals. But again we should not compare animals directly with humans when they do such things.

Here we may speak of something else connected with elephants. It will make the subject of your question even more understandable. You see, it has repeatedly been observed that a small elephant herd, let us say, was taken to water. Now it might be that a young rascal was standing by the roadside as the elephants passed and threw something at an elephant. For the time being the elephant would seem to be a patient creature who did nothing of the kind, and his reaction would seem fairly indifferent. But lo and behold, when the elephant came back, he had kept a hefty charge of water in his trunk. And as he walked back and saw the boy again, he sprayed the boy from top to toe with the water, before the boy could throw something again. This has been observed on several occasions. Now we might say: My word! The elephant is a lot cleverer than a person, for the elephant must have enormous wisdom to remember the insult the boy inflicted on him, keep the water in his trunk and then take his revenge.

Well, gentlemen, such an idea of the elephant is not quite correct. You should not compare this with human cleverness but with another human faculty. If a fly settles on your eye, here, you do this: you brush it off without giving the matter much thought. Scientists, who have all kinds of terms for things, terms that are not always easily understood, call this a reflex movement. You simply use a kind of instinct, a defensive movement, to brush off something that might be harmful to you. Humans do such things all the time. The brain is not at all involved in such actions, where someone merely brushes off a fly. Only the nerves that go to the spinal cord are involved. I think you know that when a person thinks about something it is like this: up here is the brain, and when he has seen something, for instance, the optic nerve goes to the brain, and from the brain the will impulse to do something goes through the rest of the organism. But when someone simply brushes away a fly which has settled on him, the nerve does not go to the brain at all—even if it was on the head—but goes directly to the spine, and the fly is brushed off without any thought given to it in the brain. It thus is the spinal marrow which brings it about that we defend ourselves instinctively when something of this kind touches us.

We human beings do not have a thick skin, at least physically speaking; we have a very thin skin. Our skin is so thin that it is actually transparent, for it consists of three layers: the inner one is called the dermis or corium; then comes a layer known as the basal or Malpighian layer, followed by the outer skin, which is quite transparent. We do have a skin, like the elephant, but it is extremely thin. The outer skin is completely transparent. Because we have a transparent skin we are also in contact with the environment with our feeling senses, and because we are in contact with the environment we human beings think inwardly and consider things. The elephant is also physically thick skinned, humans often are so morally. What does this lead to? You can easily imagine after what I have told you that an elephant is extraordinarily insensitive to his environment. Such an elephant really feels nothing at all, and everything he perceives of the environment is by sight. It is like a world closed off in itself. To enter into the heart and mind of an elephant is extraordinarily interesting for some people. Sometimes a person should actually desire more than anything to be an elephant, so that he may gain in insight. For you see, if a human being had the human way of thinking as well as an elephant mind he would be so clever that one could not even find the words to say how clever! But the elephant does not have the brain to be that clever. Because he is completely closed off in himself, his reflex movements, defensive movements, slow down. It takes a long time. If a fly had settled on you and you did not have the quick instinct to brush it away, the fly would fly away of its own accord before you got round to it. With the elephant, it is like this: he would leave a fly be, for the business of brushing it off would probably only come an hour later, that is how slow the reflex or defensive movement is. And what the elephant does with his trunk is nothing but such a reflex movement, only that it takes longer. And we cannot say that he thinks: That boy has insulted me, I must pour a load of water over his head. An elephant does not think like that. If a boy throws mud at you, you give him a clout on the ear without giving it much thought. But an elephant is a slow creature, exactly because he is a pachyderm, and it therefore takes a long time until he goes there and then comes here and puts out his trunk to give the boy a clout on the ear. But as he takes in water during the interval he realizes that his trunk is stronger when there is water in it. He wants to make his trunk stronger by keeping water in it. And he feels his trunk getting longer. He simply wants to use the extended trunk to strike the boy when he sprays him with a load of water. So this is what we have to consider. We should not simply ascribe human wisdom to them but need to enter into their inner heart and mind. Then we discover such things. And the situation with an elephant is that it is a creature closed up within itself and notes everything, noting above all everything that goes on inside it. Because of this the elephant also becomes aware of approaching death and is able to withdraw.

The situation is that there is really only very little animal psychology today. You know, people observe animals and discover all kinds of interesting things, as I have told you. But really looking into the animal's soul—that is something extremely rare today. But one needs to strengthen one's senses if one wants to get at such things, to observe life altogether.

slimy mass
Figure 1

Take very small animals of the kind one may find. Some very small animals consist altogether only of a soft, slimy mass (Fig. 1). This soft, slimy mass can extend something like a threadlike feeler from its mass if there is a little grain somewhere near. An arm is produced out of the mass. It can be taken back again. But, you see, such creatures secrete shells of lime or silica, so that they are surrounded by shells of lime or silica. Well, you cannot see very much when you observe such small animals. But there are creatures that are more developed, and with them you can observe more. There are creatures that also consist of such a slimy mass, but inside is something that looks like small rays if you look a bit more closely; and they also have a shell around them, and the shell has spines (Fig. 2). Everything that later develops into coral looks like this.

shell with spines
Figure 2

Take such a creature, which has a shell with spines and inside in its soft mass such ray-like structures. What is it? If you really go into it, you find that those rays inside are not brought about by the earth but by the sphere around the earth, by the stars. This soft mass is brought about by something that comes from the heavens, and the hard mass, or the mass with spines, is brought about by something from the inner earth. How does such a thing come into existence? Well, gentlemen, if you want to know how it comes into existence, you must see it like this. Here is a little bit—I am drawing it much larger—of such a small slimy animal. Through an influence that comes from a faraway star, a little bit of such a ray develops inside. As it develops, the influence from the star is causing quite a bit of pressure on the rest of the mass here. This then pushes even more strongly against the wall here. A bulge forms on the inside of the shell there, because of the increased pressure, and a spine is created in the surrounding mass of lime or silica. So that the spine is brought about from outside, from the earth, the ray, however, from inside, but due to the influence of the star. Can you understand this?

The structure that develops here inside is the beginning of a nerve mass; the structure that develops out there is the beginning of a bone mass. We thus see, looking at these lower animals, that nerves develop under the influence of the outer world circumference, which is beyond the earth. Everything that is bony or shell-like by nature—the lower animals only have bone on the outside—develops under the influence of the earth.

As we go on to consider more highly developed animals, we see shell development come to an end and skeletal development evolving, reaching its most perfect form in man. But take a look at the human skeleton. Looking at it you realize that the head can be compared to a lower animal, for it has a kind of shell. It is soft inside. That is a big difference from the rest of the human skeleton. Your leg and thigh bones are inside, and the flesh covers them. There the human being has taken the bony skeleton inside. In the rest of the human being the external skeleton is not as it is around the head but is taken inside. This is connected with the fact that the blood develops in a particular way in these higher animals and also in human beings. When you look at those lower animals, everything is a white mass. Even the substance that flows in them as blood is white. These lower animals thus really have white blood that is not at all warm. The higher the animals, and the closer we come to the human being, moving up the scale of animal organization, the more the human being, who remains light-coloured, has blood mass present in him. And the more the nerve is penetrated by blood mass, the more does the skeleton, initially an outer shell, withdraw into the inner organism. We are thus able to put it like this. Why does the human being have bones developed as internal structures, the way they are in his arms and legs? Because he has blood mass entering into his nerve mass. We are therefore able to say that higher animals and man inwardly need the blood inside them and therefore outwardly take the shell inside. Is this clear to you?

We are then also able to say: such a lower animal knows nothing of itself; human beings, however, and the higher animals, know of themselves. How does one know of oneself? Because one has the skeleton inside oneself. It is because of this that one knows of oneself. So if we ask: 'Why does man have self-awareness, what makes him know of himself?' We should not point to the muscles, nor to the soft parts, but we must point exactly to the solid skeletal support. Man knows of himself because he has a solid skeletal support. And it is extraordinarily interesting to study the human skeleton.

skeletal system
Figure 3

Let us assume this is the human being, and I roughly put in the skeletal system (Fig. 3). Now this is extraordinarily interesting. Looking at a skeleton you have to realize it has been inside a human being. But this human skeleton is completely enclosed in a membrane. If I wanted to draw this membrane I'd have to draw it like this. When the human being is alive, the whole of his skeletal system is as though in a sack, inside a membrane called the periosteum, which fits it very closely. Imagine a joint (Fig. 4). Here one bone has a head and that fits into a cup, as it were. With the periosteum it is like this. There you have the membrane, with the whole bone enclosed in it, and the membrane continues like this, arriving there and covering the skeleton. So if you just think of the skeleton inside the human being, it is entirely separate in the human being. Between all other parts of the human being and the skeleton lies a sack-like skin. It is really as if you were to take the skeleton of a living human being and imagine you spread a sack over the whole skeleton, covering it closely everywhere, so that the sack would cover the outside of the whole skeleton. But you don't need to do this, for nature has already done it. The whole is in a sack, the periosteum. And the interesting thing is that the blood vessels only go as far as the periosteum—they are present in the whole of this membrane. This blood nourishes the bone in so far as nourishment is intended, but inside the sack the bone is all earth: calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, ash, salts, and so on. So you have the strange situation that you are muscle, liver, and so on, and have your blood vessels inside you, and the blood initially creates a sack. This sack closes you off from the inside. Inside the sack is a hollow space, and the bony skeleton is inside this hollow space. So it really is as if your bones were inside you, and you had separated them off, using a sack, the periosteum. And those bones are entirely earthy, they are earth inside you. You cannot feel them inside you as something that is you. You are as little able to feel your bones, seeing what they are, to be part of you as you would feel a piece of chalk you pick up to be part of you. The chalk is outside yourself, and in the same way your bone is outside yourself, and you are separated from it by a sack. You all have something inside you, in your skeleton, that is not you. It is earth made in the shape of bones, calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate. You have this inside you, but it is enclosed in a sack, in the periosteum.

human joint
Figure 4

You see, gentlemen, that is not a place for something that is not of the spirit. For if you get some splinter of earth matter inside you, it must fester until it comes out. Your bone does not fester until it comes out. Why? Because there where you are dead inside yourself, where the bone appears dead inside its periosteum, spirit is present everywhere. You see, that was the wonderful instinct that made ordinary people, who often knew more than the academics, to see death as a skeleton. For they knew that the spirit was present in the skeleton. And if they thought of a spirit walking about, then it, too, had to be a skeleton. That was exactly the right image. For as long as a human being lives, he makes room in himself for the spirit through his bones.

This is something we'll discuss further in the very near future. But you also see from this that man does a great deal to bring the spirit into his bones. The elephant still leaves room for the spirit inside his thick skin. And because the elephant still leaves room for the spirit inside his thick skin, the spirit, which the elephant is then able to sense, is able to perceive when the outside world destroys it. Man does not know of his death because his skin is too thin. If he were thick-skinned also in physical terms, he, too, would withdraw into a cave and die in a cave. And then we would also say: 'Where do human beings get to? They go to heaven when they die!' Yes, gentlemen, the same thing which has been said about animals has also been said about individuals who were greatly venerated by many people. Moses is an example. It was said that his dead body was never found. He vanished, and people thought this really happened in his case. He had grown as wise, people thought, as I have been saying. If human beings were thick-skinned physically and had their brains, they would be so clever that words cannot tell how clever they would be. And people knew of such things. You see, it is amazing what people did know. They said of Moses that he was as clever as he would have been if he had had a thick skin. And because of this he withdrew, and his dead body was never found. This is a very interesting connection. Don't you think so? Ancient legends often have to do with a pure, most beautiful animal veneration.

Well, we'll talk about this next time, if the discussion that has been imposed on us today leaves time for it. Until next Wednesday, then, gentlemen.1Incidents that had aroused ill feeling were discussed with the builders on 9 January, with further discussions following on 12 and 16 January.