Astrosophy and The Planetary Spheres — The Earth and the Four Ethers

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“Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the Universe”
—Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts (1924)

One of the goals of Astrosophy is to create a bridge between the world of the stars and the spiritual realities dwelling behind them. Being part of the Anthroposophical current, these efforts definitely fall under Steiner’s definition reported in the opening quote. Indeed, one of the tasks of Anthroposophy as a path of knowledge is to provide an image of the higher worlds—the spiritual realities beyond the world of the senses.

In this regard we want to consider Astrosophy as a complementary discipline to Astrology. The latter studies the dynamic relationships between the stars, providing a traditional wealth of knowledge to observe and identify the Archetypes at play in the physical world. The former deepens the spiritual realities at the very foundation of this tradition.

Vulcano Eruption as a symbol of the Four Elements and Four Ethers

In this series of articles we are going to talk about the three worlds described by Anthroposophy that we sometimes mentioned in previous posts. In particular, we are going to relate them to the planetary spheres in order to have a physical reference for them. This is going to allow us to expand our representations of the traditional astrological planets as well.

So let’s start with the our planet, the Earth, and the Physical World.

The Earth glyph (Antinomy), symbol of the human I

The Earth and the Physical World

The Physical World doesn’t require much explanation. It’s the world of the senses that we experience everyday of our life. But even though we are very familiar with it, there are some very important distinctions that we need to make. So please bear with me.

From a philosophical perspective, the Anthroposophical worldview is based on a very specific form of Idealism. Now, I am not a philosopher and I don’t want to overcomplicate things (especially if they are not within my competence).

But simply put what this means is that the reality of the Physical World doesn’t rely on our senses only, but also on ideas. In other words ideas are not just abstract things that live in the human head. On the contrary they are an integral part of reality itself.

So why do we need to know this? We need to know this to start discerning what’s material from what’s physical. Let’s make some examples to better understand this, since these concepts might look similar but they are very different.

A rock is material, right? It’s made of what we usually refer to as matter. But what about a travel? We can’t say a travel is made of something, right? This because it is a concept, an idea manifesting through matter. It’s not strictly speaking made of matter in itself. It is the concept of a travel that makes a series of physical experiences such. So we can say that a travel is physical, but not material.

The same applies for example to a piece of wood: it is material. But what about an industrial production process? Again, it can’t be strictly speaking material, since a process is a concept manifesting through matter, not matter in itself. From this perspective, not only matter but also all ideas manifesting though it are part of the Physical World.

In Anthroposophy we consider ideas to be part of objective reality. And this is very important if we want to overcome materialism. In addition, Astrology mainly deals with ideas manifesting through matter, and it would be inconceivable outside of these philosophical foundations.

Deepening these philosophical questions goes out of the scope of this article. But if you are interested you can read The Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner for free.

Download The Philosophy of Freedom

Now that we understand that ideas are part of reality we can introduce two very important aspects of the Physical World. They are the Four Elements and the Four Ethers.

The Four Elements

If you’re into Astrology you should be already familiar with the Four Elements. Their significations are very complex and rich, and they are a fundamental part of the classical western tradition. However we have to say that generally speaking in Anthroposophy they indicate something more specific.

In fact they mainly refer to the four states of aggregation of matter, in this way:

  • Earth is everything being in a physical state of aggregation;
  • Water is everything being in a liquid state of aggregation (for example, even lava would be Water in this regard);
  • Air is everything being in a gaseous state of aggregation;
  • Fire is every form or manifestation of warmth and it is a bridge between the Four Elements and the Four Ethers.

This regardless of the specific substance. So as you can see the concept of “state of aggregation” is the idea manifesting through matter here, differentiating it into the Four Elements. The processes (or concepts) that allow us to pass from one element to the other are condensation and rarefaction.

Fire is the most rarefied of the elements, and through a process of condensation we gradually find Air, Water and Earth. The most interesting part of all this is that Steiner described how, starting from Fire, we have a double process happening at the same time.

On one hand we have a condensation process going downward, creating the denser elements. On the other, we have a rarefaction process going upwards, where we find the four Ethers.

The Four Ethers and the Four Elements in the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. They create the seven layers of the Physical-Etheric World.
The Seven Layers of the Physical-Etheric World
The Pentagram, the shape of the Etheric Body

The Four Ethers

What are the Four Ethers? This is a very complicated subject in Anthroposophy. But we can understand what they are more easily, if we consider the way they formed.

Let’s take a look at the picture above. Starting from the red circle on the left, we have the finest of the four elements: Fire. This element is a bridge between the gross states of matter and the subtlest rarefactions of the etheric.

Warmth Ether

You can think of warmth not only as the finest of the elements, but also as the densest of the ethers. When we experience outer warmth, we are in the Fire Element. When we experience inner warmth, we get in touch with the Warmth Ether. This because according to Anthroposophy the Elements can be experienced mainly outwardly, whereas the Ethers can be experienced mainly inwardly.

This is especially true when we have a delicate inner experience of human warmth that resembles a sort of body warmth. This Ether in fact is in charge of regulating every temperature change in our system. And this also allows us to understand the general function of the ethers in our body.

Being the reflection of the elements on a higher level, they act on them to regulate and preserve life. At this level it’s difficult to make a distinction between the Fire Element and the Warmth Ether, because they flow freely one into the other. However you can picture the passage from one to the other using your body experience as a threshold. The Warmth Ether is inside, the Fire Element is outside.

Light Ether

Moving on, we find the Light Ether. In the picture (second column) you can see on one hand the Fire Element condensing downward and becoming the Air Element. And the other, the Warmth Ether rarefying upwards and becoming the Light Ether.

How can we imagine the Light Ether? If we can still have a direct experience of the Warmth Ether, the Light Ether is more difficult to grasp. This because light in itself is invisible to us. We see illuminated objects, but we can’t see the light itself. Light enables us to see, sacrificing itself so to speak, so we can see through it. But by seeing the objects we become aware of “the darkness”, not of the light.

True light is an inner experience. And if we could perceive the light clairvoyantly we could also grasp its subtle action. This because the Light Ether is a subtle force of expansion. In fact light itself literally expands from the source at the center towards the periphery.

We can see a reflection of this action also observing the tendency that each gas has to expand. This because the Light Ether has an indirect effect on the Air Element, controlling it.

From the biological perspective, the Light Ether acts in all processes of expansion and growth. The direction in which a tree branch stretches and expands, growing towards a specific direction, is due to its action.

Sound Ether

The third stage is the condensation of the Air Element into the Water Element, and the rarefaction of the Light Ether into the Sound Ether. This passage is crucial, because for the first time we are dealing with a substance that maintains the shape it is given, even if just temporarily. We know that Astrologically the Water Element has a strong connection with the Moon and with its ability to reflect the cosmic forces. Those forces can be reflected by the surface of any fluid, creating waves shaped in several ways.

So, why Sound Ether? This ether has many names: chemical ether, tone ether and even number ether. All these names tries to describe the same phenomenon: the action of subtle waves organizing subtle matter into specific shapes. It’s easier to see it in action than to speculate on it, so I recommend you to watch this video.

Chladni Figures as an Example of how the Sound Ether Works

Rudolf Steiner suggested to use the Chladni Figures as an example of how the Sound Ether works. In the video we can see that sand on a metal plate is used in order to retain the Chladni Figures created by sound.

But we need to understand that this is just an example, and that the Sound Ether is not what we usually call sound. First of all we are dealing with an etheric substance which vibrates beyond any physical level. Secondly, the medium in which the Sound Ether creates the shapes is always a liquid, or in other words the Water Element.

Watching the video is very easy to imagine how this ether acts to organize and preserve life. In fact the Chladni Figures themselves are all very organic, and immediately recall images of biological processes at a cellular level.

Life Ether

Lastly, we have the Life Ether. The Water Element condensates further into the Earth Element, whereas the Sound Ether rarefies upwards becoming the Life Ether. Again, in order to understand the ether we can look at the element it has power on.

The Earth is the first element that not only has a shape, but that is also capable of retaining it. In a liquid a shape is very temporary. In a solid it lasts. This enables this element to create solid bodies having a specific shape through which they can separate from their context.

For this reason Earth is also the element which mostly represents matter. In order to penetrate and organize matter itself the subtler and highest etheric forces are needed. So how does the Life Ether work?

We are now dealing with a closed and separate system capable of retaining its shape. On a biological level the simplest example would be a single-celled organism. The Life Ether is in charge of organizing all the internal components of the cell in order to retain its form. In order to do that, the Life Ether makes use of the Sound Ether (biochemical processes), the Light Ether (growth and expansion) and the Warmth Ether (warmth production).

The Pentagram

In the Western Mystery Tradition we can find a trace of the ethers in the symbol of the pentragram. The five pointed star is indeed the symbol of the four elements balanced by a “fifth element”. This fifth component was called quintessence or, precisely, the ether.

In Anthroposophy the pentagram isn’t just a symbol. It’s a correct representation of the Etheric Body, the subtle body in charge of preserving and organizing the life functions of the Physical Body. Its shape corresponds to the shape of the human being: a five pointed star.

And being made of the four ethers, it can act on the physical body through the four elements as we have described. So in this context the Pentagram represents the synthesis of the four ethers at the service of life, as shown in the picture above.

In conclusion

Among the Planetary Spheres, the Earth is the one that mostly represents the Physical World in all its complexity. As you can see the Physical-Etheric World has 7 levels in total. Three of them are mainly Physical (Earth, Water and Air). Three, are mainly Etheric (Light, Sound and Life). And one stays in between, bridging the physical and the etheric (Fire-Warmth).

Beyond the Physical World, we are going to explore in future articles the Soul World and the Spiritual World as well. And we are going to see that this sevenfold structure (3+1+3) applies to them as well.

Thanks for reading, as always if you enjoyed this article please subscribe to the Astronomicon Newsletter with the bar at the top of the website to receive weekly updates, and not to miss the future posts about the Planetary Spheres. Thanks again, and have a good week.


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