Chemical element

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The periodic table of chemical elements

A chemical element, according to today's definition, consists exclusively of atoms with the same proton number (nuclear charge number = atomic number of the element) in the nucleus.


Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)
Henry Moseley (1887-1915)
Moseley's law: The diagram published by Henry Moseley in 1914 showing the linear relationship of the atomic number of the chemical elements to the square root of the frequency of their characteristic X-rays (Philosophical Magazine, 1914, p. 703 pdf)

Chemical elements are pure substances which, according to the original definition by Robert Boyle, in contrast to chemical compounds, cannot be further decomposed or converted into each other by chemical means. This corresponds, analogously transferred to the chemical elements, more or less to the definition already given by Aristotle (384-322 BC) with regard to the ancient four-element doctrine:

„Let an element therefore be to us that among the bodies into which the other bodies are divided as into one potentially or actually contained in them (namely, in which of these two ways is still in dispute), and which itself can no longer be divided into others different in kind...“

Aristotle: On Heaven III,3 302a[1]

From an anthroposophical-spiritual-scientific point of view, the matter is quite different. Behind the chemical elements are, according to Rudolf Steiner, not hypothetically conceived atomic structures, but rather ahrimanic powers, which do not act at present, but from the past.

„Suppose some natural philosopher ponders, ponders what is behind the phenomena of nature. Well, he makes all kinds of theories and hypotheses about atomic connections and the like. But that is not the way it is. Behind what is spreading around us in a sensuous way is not really what natural philosophers usually assume, but behind all this is the sum of the Ahrimanic powers, but not as present. So if the natural philosopher is compelled, let us say, to suppose any atomic structures behind the chemical elements, that is wrong; behind the chemical elements are ahrimanic powers. But if you could lift what you see from the chemical elements and look behind them, you would see nothing behind them in the present: there it would be hollow, where you look for the atoms, and what works works into this hollow from the past. That is how it is in reality. Hence these many unsuccessful theories about that which is the "thing in itself"; for this "thing in itself" is not there at all in the present. Rather, at the place where the "thing in itself" is sought, there is nothing; but the effect is there from the past.“ (Lit.:GA 183, p. 168f)

In mineralogy, chemical elements that occur in nature not only as components of chemical compounds, but also in pure elemental form, are called native element minerals. This applies in particular to precious metals such as silver, gold and the platinum metals as well as copper. Many non-metals such as carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen and the noble gases also occur in a native form.

The periodic table of chemical elements

The periodic table of elements was drawn up independently and almost identically by two chemists in 1869, first by the Russian Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) and a few months later by the German Lothar Meyer (1830-1895). In it, all chemical elements are divided into periods and groups according to increasing atomic number according to their chemical properties. There are a total of 18 groups, 8 of which are called major groups (groups 1, 2 and 13-18) and 10 of which are called minor groups (groups 3-12). These groups contain the so-called transition metals, which, with the exception of the zinc group, have only an incompletely filled d-shell.

In 1913, the British physicist Henry Moseley (1887-1915) used X-ray spectroscopy to find a linear relationship between the root of the frequency of the characteristic X-ray radiation, which is based on transitions between the energy levels of the inner electron shell, and the atomic number of the elements (Moseley's law). He thus proved that the atomic numbers have an experimentally measurable basis. Until then, it had been assumed that the atomic number was to some extent an arbitrary number based on the sequence of atomic masses, but that it had to be changed if necessary to assign a chemical element the correct place in the periodic table. On this basis, today the elemental composition of a sample can be determined qualitatively and quantitatively quickly and non-destructively by means of X-ray fluorescence analysis, for example.


Most naturally occurring chemical elements are a mixture of several isotopes (Greekἴσος ísos "same" and τόπος tópos "place, location"), which differ in the number of neutrons in the atomic nucleus and, with largely the same chemical behaviour, in their physical properties. The name is derived from the fact that they are in the same place in the periodic table. Some isotopes are unstable and are gradually transformed into other elements by radioactive decay, i.e. by a nuclear and not chemical process.

Element symbols

In abbreviated notation, the chemical elements are represented by internationally standardised (→ IUPAC) element symbols consisting of one or two letters, e.g. H (hydrogen, from Latinhydrogenium), O (oxygen, Latinoxygenium), Cl (chlorine), Na (sodium), Fe (iron, Latinferrum), etc.

The structure of the periodic table from a spiritual-scientific point of view

Rudolf Steiner expressed himself as follows on the spiritual background underlying the periodic table:

„You see, you must be clear about the fact that that which is effective in any substance today, is formative, potassium or sodium, for example, does not necessarily have to arise in the universe today. It may be something that has come into being at some time, perhaps a very long time ago, and has been preserved, so that the original forms, the original crystalline forms of our elements - whether they are distinct crystalline forms or something else - have been formed out of the cosmos in prehistoric times, let us suppose during the lunar period, and that in these elements the tendency has remained to preserve these forms. We must therefore be clear: On the one hand, we have to do with the present-day forms which appear, as it were, in imprint, and which were formed in a very early period of cosmic development; on the other hand, again, we have to do with the effects of that which has now become of the factors around the earth. So we are not dealing directly with our elemental forms, so that we could say with a cosmic effect.

Here somewhere would be the earth, here the planets, and the planets effect something through their constellation. If, for my sake, we have Venus, Mars and Mercury here, it is not today that the constellation of Venus, Mars and Mercury, as they act on the earth in mutual phenomena of force, will directly produce a tetrahedrally shaped body, but these Venus, Mars and Mercury will have created the tetrahedron during the lunar period; and the fact that it appears today is because the lunar effect has been preserved. Whereas, when Mercury and so on work out of the cosmos today, they work, as it were, according to the laws of the imponderables; they actually work against the ponderables. Formation, therefore, already has its cosmic origin, but every formation that occurs on earth is, so to speak, deformed by that which today proceeds from the same cosmic planets that formerly produced the forms; so that we must, for example, regard an evaporation as a cosmic effect existing today, but a crystallisation as one in which the former is again produced in opposition to the present. There we have temporal effects that diverge.

Now you do not need to think of what I have now, as it were, torn out schematically, in such a way, of course, that there are, as it were, only a few constellations, but there are very many constellations. If you imagine this, you will naturally get a complicated system, for instance a complicated system of curves, which you can imagine in the cosmos and in the earth.

If you summarise the original places in the earth, where the metal forms, by means of curves - these curves must be imagined in the interior of the earth, because there is the centre; the metals, however, come to the surface in later epochs, but it is actually in the interior of the earth the forces through which the conservation takes place - and outside in the cosmos the forces that lead to the crystal forms, then we can also grasp these forces in the environment by means of curves. And there we have, if you now imagine this pictorially, a sphere and spherical shells intertwining in the most diverse ways and the resultant, which would arise from this, if I imagine the difference in forces between what is conserved there and what is in the cosmos today. If I now think of the differences of the forces in these two systems of forces, I actually get what represents the present state of cosmic action on earth. And within this must be everything that then comes to light in the periodic system. The periodic system is nothing other than the interaction of a pre-earthly state with a present cosmic state that surrounds the earth. These are only hints to answer, but I think it can be understood.“ (Lit.:GA 73a, p. 426ff)

The chemical elements as a sub-sensory reflection of the harmony of the spheres

„In the world there are a number of substances that are compoundable and separable. What we call chemism is projected into the physical world from the world of Devachan, the harmony of the spheres. So that in the connection of two substances according to their atomic weights we have the shadowing of two tones of the harmony of the spheres. The chemical relationship of two substances in the physical world is a shadowing from the world of the harmony of the spheres. The numerical relations of chemistry are really the expressions for the numerical relations of the harmony of the spheres. This latter has become mute through the condensation of matter. If one were really able to bring the substances to the etheric dilution and to perceive the atomic numbers as an inwardly forming principle, one would hear the harmony of the spheres. One has the physical, the astral world, the lower Devachan and the upper Devachan. Now if you push a body down even further than to the physical world, you come to the sub-physical world, the sub-astral world, the lower or bad lower devachan and the lower or bad upper devachan. The bad astral world is the realm of Lucifer, the bad lower devachan is the realm of Ahriman and the bad upper devachan is the realm of the Asuras. If you push chemism even further down than under the physical plan, into the bad lower devachanic world, magnetism arises, and if you push light into the sub-material, that is, one step lower than the material world, electricity arises. If we push that which lives in the harmony of the spheres still further down to the Asuras, then there is a still more terrible force which will not be able to be kept secret much longer. One must only wish that when this power comes, which we must imagine to be much, much stronger than the strongest electrical discharges, and which will come at any rate - then one must wish that before this power is given to humanity by an inventor, men will have nothing more immoral about them!“ (Lit.:GA 130, p. 102f)

See also


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References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English (by Steiner Online Library).
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. Translated from: Aristoteles, Vier Bücher über das Himmelsgebäude. Zwei Bücher über Entstehen und Vergehen, Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, Leipzig 1857, p. 209 pdf