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An initiate (GreekΤελέστης Telestes, from τελεῖται teleitai "to reach a goal", "to improve", from Greekτέλος telos "goal"; also Greekεποπται epoptai "eyewitness, seer"[1]) is able, by virtue of the path of spiritual training he has followed and the initiation (from Latininitium "entrance, beginning, start") thereby achieved, to recognise the laws of the spiritual world, which are secretly hidden from purely sensory experience. In this sense he may also be called a secret scientist. His ability is based on inspiration, through which the spiritual world expresses itself about its nature. The initiate does not necessarily have to know the spiritual worlds first-hand like a clairvoyant, i.e. he does not necessarily have to have fully developed the ability of imagination.

Clairvoyants and Initiates

In the ancient Mysteries there was a strict separation between clairvoyants and initiates. Today this strict separation can no longer be carried out. Now it is necessary that everyone who has attained a certain degree of initiation should at least also be given the opportunity to attain a certain degree of clairvoyance. The reason for this is that in our time it is not possible to establish the great complete trust from person to person that existed as a matter of course in ancient times. Today everyone wants to know and see for himself.

„Now he who, without being clairvoyant himself, sees everything that secret science has to say, is an initiate. But he who can enter into these worlds, which we call the invisible, is a clairvoyant. In ancient times, which are not so long behind us, there was a strict separation between clairvoyants and initiates in the secret schools. One could ascend to the knowledge of the higher worlds as an initiate without being a clairvoyant, if one only used the mind in the right way. On the other hand, one could be a clairvoyant without being initiated to a particularly high degree. It will become clear to you how this is meant. Think of two people, a very learned gentleman who knows all sorts of things that physics and physiology have to say about light and the phenomena of light, but is so short-sighted that he can hardly see ten centimetres away: he does not see much, but he is initiated into the laws of the working of light. Thus one may be initiated into the super-sensible world and see badly in it. Another can see excellently in the outer sensuous world, but know next to nothing of what the learned master knows. Thus there can also be clairvoyants before whose spiritual eyes the spiritual worlds lie open. They can see into the spiritual world, but have no science, no knowledge of it. For a long time, therefore, a distinction was made between the clairvoyant and the initiate. In order to embrace the fullness of life, one often needed not one but many people. Some were not made clairvoyant in order to progress. Others were made spiritual eyes and ears. That which existed in secret science came about through communication and exchange of ideas between secret scientists and clairvoyants.

In our time this strict separation between clairvoyants and initiates cannot be carried out at all. Today it is necessary that everyone who has attained a certain degree of initiation should at least also be given the possibility of attaining a certain degree of clairvoyance. The reason for this is that in our time it is not possible to establish complete trust between people. Today everyone wants to know and see for himself. That deep, devoted faith which formerly prevailed from man to man made it possible that there was a special kind of clairvoyant from whom one heard what they perceived in the higher worlds. Others then systematically arranged what they had perceived. Today a kind of harmony has been created in the development of the abilities of the initiate and the clairvoyant. Therefore a third, the adeptship, can today recede very strongly.“ (Lit.:GA 56, p. 26f)

Even higher than the initiate is the adept, who not only knows how to recognise the powers of the spiritual world, but also how to handle them effectively.

Initiation in the pre-Christian and Christian Mysteries

„Man must be so prepared that during ordinary daily life he does those exercises prescribed by the schools of initiation, meditation, concentration and so on. These exercises are basically the same in all schools of initiation as far as their importance for man is concerned. They are only a little different from each other in that the further back we go into the pre-Christian schools of initiation, the more they are directed towards exercising, training the thinking, the powers of thought. The more we approach the Christian times, the more they are directed towards training the powers of feeling, and the nearer we come to the more recent times, the more we see how in the so-called Rosicrucian schools, conditioned by the demands and needs of humanity, a special kind of culture of the will, of exercises of the will, is introduced.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 53)

In order to become a part of the initiation, the student of the spirit had to go through mystical death after this preparation, as Plutarch (born around 45 in Chaeronea; † around 125) already described it in a hint. Through death, he says, the soul returns to the whole:

„Of this the soul has no knowledge at all as long as it lives here; only after death does it attain to it, and then the very change takes place with it which those experience who are initiated into the great mysteries[2]. Hence it is that the words which mean to die and to be initiated[3] are, like the thing itself, very similar to each other. The first thing that comes to us in this life is a tiring and arduous wandering, a restless running through dark, ghastly ways. Even then, when we think we have reached the end, all kinds of horrors, fear, anxiety, deathly sweat and senseless stupefaction still await us. Finally, however, a wonderful light suddenly shimmers towards us. We now enter the most graceful realms, where joyful songs and dances reign everywhere, where eye and ear are delighted by the holiest, most sublime objects. Here the accomplished, the initiate, freed of all bonds, walks about in full freedom, celebrates the holiest mysteries adorned with wreaths, enjoys the company of pious and righteous people, and looks down with regret on the unsanctified and impure multitude of those who still prowl fearfully here on earth in mud and mist, and persist in their miserable state partly out of fear of death, partly out of distrust of the bliss of the other world.“

Plutarch: Moral Treatises 5

Rudolf Steiner explains the spiritual background of this death-like initiation process:

First Apocalyptic Seal; painted by Clara Rettich according to Rudolf Steiner, Stuttgart 1911

„In a person who does such, let us say, occult exercises, the astral body gradually shows the most manifold changes during the night. It shows other light phenomena, it shows that plastic arrangement of the organs of which we have already spoken; and then it becomes more and more distinct. The astral body gradually acquires an inner organisation such as the physical body has in its eyes, ears, and so on.

But that would still not lead to seeing much, especially not in the human being of today. However, man already perceives some things when his inner organs have been developed for a while. Then he begins to have a consciousness during sleep. Spiritual environments dawn out of the other general darkness. What man can perceive there, what he perceived in the older times in particular, for today it is already rarer, are wonderful images of plant life. These are the most primitive achievements of clairvoyance. Where formerly there was only the darkness of unconsciousness, there rises something like a dreamlike living, but real, of a kind of plant life. And much of what is described to you in the mythologies of the ancient peoples has been seen in this way. When it is described in legends that Odin, Vili and Vé found a tree on the beach and that they formed man from it, this indicates that it was first seen in such an image. In all mythologies you can perceive this primitive kind of seeing, the plant-like seeing. The depiction of such seeing is also Paradise, namely with its two trees of knowledge and of life; that is the result of this astral seeing.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 54)

„So that is the first thing. But then, in the pre-Christian mysteries, something special had to occur [...]

It is not enough that the organs are formed in the astral body. They must be imprinted in the etheric body. Just as a signet prints its letters in the sealing wax, so the organs of the astral body must be imprinted in the etheric body. For this purpose, in ancient initiations, the disciple to be initiated was placed in a very special position. For three and a half days he was brought into a state similar to death. We will recognise more and more that this condition can and must no longer be carried out today, but that other means of initiation are now available. I will now describe the pre-Christian initiation. In this initiation, the person to be initiated was brought into a death-like state for three and a half days by the one who understood it. Either he was placed in a kind of small chamber, in a kind of tomb. There he rested in a state of deathly sleep. Or else he was tied to a cross in a special position with his hands outstretched, for this promotes the occurrence of that state which one wanted to achieve.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 55f)

This is what happened, for example, in the Egyptian initiation:

„When the disciple was ready, only then were the real procedures carried out with him, only then was he to experience that he as a human being is not only called to recognise, to be introduced into knowledge, but that this knowledge has to gain life. This is expressed in a profound symbol in the Osiris myth and especially in the cultus. Isis and Horus were depicted as lying on the ground with their hands stretched out sideways. Underneath they placed the cross (which cannot be called anything else). This was the symbol of the resurrection of that which had fallen into the dust. In the cross we have the same idea as we have in Platonic philosophy, in which God, the All-Spirit is crucified. Here it becomes a symbol and at the same time the awakener. Passing through the cross, at the coffin of Osiris, he will resurrect and then be ruler anew. This process played out for centuries in the Egyptian temples. The young priest was actually introduced into a new world.“ (Lit.: Steiner 1901, p. 211)

„The Egyptian mysteries and mystery priests reached their climax in initiation. The initiation process belonged to the cults of the Indian religion and was also carried out there. The process consisted of the great Osiris drama being carried out as an initiation process on the individual personality. The individual personality had to submit to a process by which sensuality and the physical were purified to such an extent that it could comprehend the world in a spiritual way. The process was carried out within the Egyptian priestly mysteries in such a way that one who was considered to be mature enough to be subjected to an etherisation of the body was put into a kind of higher hypnosis and placed in a coffin, in a tomb. With his hands stretched out, he lay there in a mystical sleep, from which he was to be awakened on the third day; the awakening from the mystical sleep was accomplished by the rising morning sun. Now, however, this whole process made such a great impression on him that he led an actual new life when he had gone through this process. Now he could understand when the Egyptian and Indian world views claimed that the earthly is nothing and that the world of the senses no longer means anything. Goethe's words for this were: 'Die and become'.“ (Lit.: Steiner 1901, p. 236 )

Second Apocalyptic Seal; painted by Clara Rettich according to Rudolf Steiner, Stuttgart 1911

„During this death-like state at least a part of the etheric body left the physical body, so that a part of the etheric body, which was otherwise inside, was outside in this state. As you know, this is described in more exoteric lectures by saying that the etheric body is pulled out. That is not really the case. But we can only make these fine distinctions now. Thus, during these three and a half days, during which the priest-initiator well supervised the initiate, we have the human being in a state where only his lower part was united with the etheric body. This is the moment when the astral body with all its organs is imprinted in the etheric body. At this moment enlightenment occurs. When the initiate was awakened after three and a half days, then what is called enlightenment had occurred, that which had to follow the purification, which consists only in the formation of the organs of the astral body. Now the pupil was a knower in the spiritual world. What he had seen before was only a preliminary stage of seeing. This world, which consisted of a kind of formations that preferably imitated plants, it now supplemented itself with essentially new formations.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 56)

„The initiate who experienced the great moment when the astral body was imprinted into the etheric body1 first got to see the most important group souls. If we look back into the ancient times of humanity, we find everywhere that the present I has developed out of such group consciousness, group ego, so that for the seer, when he looks back, the individual human beings flow more and more together into the group souls. Now there are mainly four types of group souls, four archetypes of group souls.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 58)

„Now what about that which comes out during sleep in the ordinary human being, what about the astral body and the ego? These are also not conscious during the night. In the ordinary human being, nothing is experienced within the astral body during night sleep. But think now if you practised the seven stages of St. John's initiation, these significant moments of Christian mind initiation. Then you would not only experience what has been described so far. Quite apart from the fact that you can develop clairvoyant power when the astral body touches the etheric body, something else would occur. The human being becomes conscious of the spiritual characteristics of the astral world and of the Devachanic world, from which he was born according to his soul. And in addition to this image there is a still higher symbolism which seems to fill the whole world. To this symbolism of the old initiation something is added for the one who goes through the St. John initiation stages, which is best represented by the first seal. As a clairvoyant apparition he sees the priest-king with a golden belt, with feet that seem to be made of cast metal, his head covered with hair as if of white wool, a fiery sword flaming from his mouth and in his hand the seven stars of the world: Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus.

The figure in the middle of the second seal picture was only indicated in the old initiation as the fifth of the group souls. It is that which was present in the humanity of the old time only in the germinal stage and only emerged in the Christian initiation as that which is also called the Son of Man, who rules the seven stars when he appears before man completely in his true form.

Thus it should be clear to us, through this symbolic representation, that what appears in the human being of today as the separation of the various members - physical and etheric body on the one side, astral body and ego on the other - can be treated in such a way that both are sovereign and sovereign, can be treated in such a way that both can, so to speak, contribute their share to initiation, first through the form of initiation in the contact of the astral body with the etheric body, where the four group souls light up, then in the treatment of the astral body, so that it becomes seeing in particular. In former times, actual seeing in the supersensible world had reached at most a kind of vegetable living through of the world. Through Christian initiation that is given which signifies a higher stage of initiation in the astral body and which is symbolically indicated by the second image.“ (Lit.:GA 104, p. 63f)


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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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Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English (by Steiner Online Library).
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  1. In the Mysteries of Eleusis, the third and final stage of the initiatory path was called epoptai.
  2. To die is in fact Greekτελευτᾷν teleutan and to be initiated teleitai. Both come from one root word.