Sacrificial smoke and the self-denial of the gods. The four elements in science lessons

Jürgen Brau

Rudolf Steiner’s works include a cycle with the title Inner Experiences of Evolution: a volume of five lectures given in late 1911 in Berlin which describe the earlier planetary incarnations of the earth in connection with human development. My teacher Georg Maier, who died 2016, particularly recommended it to us physicists – the meditative study of the images given there can enable us to immerse ourselves in the moments of creation of the elements of fire, air, water and earth. The four elements can be assigned to the temperaments: fire to the choleric, air to the sanguine, water to the phlegmatic, earth to the melancholic. All the temperaments are always present in a person but individually dominant to a greater or lesser extent. Thus we can also experience in the four years of upper school a particular basic soul mood which is taken up by means of the lesson content and is dealt with in the matter at hand, specifically the sciences.


The element of fire arises in the spaceless and timeless void of “old Saturn” in that the Thrones (spiritual beings consisting of courage) sacrifice their will substance to the Cherubim (spirits of wisdom). This relationship, the – voluntary – sacrifice, gives rise to the quality of time, the blaze of sacrifice to warmth. The essence of every warmth process in our world is based on the warmth of sacrifice. This warmth being forms the environment for the I, the “I-body” (Basfeld) of the human being, and the foundation for their present physical body.

In order to survive in a lively, sometimes boisterous class 9, we do indeed have to learn to navigate on the “surging ocean of courage”. Talking to a neighbour – an expression that we are alive – cannot always be prohibited, and shouting for silence is a contradiction in itself! The formative forces from the class teacher period have been exhausted and leave a vacuum in which the I of the adult has to shape the learning environment of the pubescent young person: that can only be done with a lot of humour and an inner clear, warm-hearted soul mood which can raise and give guidance to the adolescent.

The subjects coming up in physics, which revolve around hot and cold, positive and negative pressure as well as modern technical communication, should be dealt with in such a way that interest is awoken in the world and a lively, warmth-infused learning process is created. In chemistry the breakdown of organic substances through combustion and fermentation can be investigated; in biology the cardiovascular system and human respiration. Cardiac and respiratory rhythms are linked in a ratio of four to one and are connected with cosmological rhythms such as the Platonic Year in which our sun passes through the zodiac.


On the “old Sun”, fire is joined by the air element: the spirits of wisdom transform through their devotion the sacrificial fire of the Thrones kneeling before them into sacrificial smoke which rises to all sides and forms clouds. They gift their inwardness to the world which is returned to them from the periphery as light: light creates space – the “old Sun” shines towards the inside. The basic gesture in all forms of air and gas, the surroundings of the “astral body”, is the gifting virtue of the Cherubim. In this way the “etheric or life body” is integrated into the human being.

In class 10, a “new wind” is indeed blowing: things become visible (comprehensible) and set the soul in motion. The young person seeks to find their standpoint in that movement through logical thinking and argumentation, particularly also for the sake of argument. The changing body is tested, questions of meaning become important: why do I need this at all? The teacher would be well advised to pay careful attention to the latent questions – even if they cannot always answer them satisfactorily.

In physics, the laws of statics, kinematics and dynamics have to be learnt, in chemistry the interaction of acids, bases and salts; biology deals with the sense organs and the nervous system. What forces are at work here, how do I budget them and in what way do mathematical tools help to understand the movement and transformation process? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? The surveying practical in class 10 makes the search for the “right” standpoint refreshingly objective and turns into a meaningful experience.


At the next evolutionary stage, the “old Moon”, the following happens: the sacrificial smoke rising into the sun space is not accepted by a number of Cherubim – they forgo it so that it is dammed up and densified. This creates the element of water. That denial is a creative process: “Everywhere where there is water in the world the gods are denying themselves something!” (Steiner). What remains is the longing of the Thrones who cannot make a sacrifice. Water on the “old Moon” forms the environment of the etheric body, and human beings receive the predisposition for their astral body.

During class 11 we have the impression that the spirited interested in the world is as if dammed up in the young person and internalised to a greater extent. The inner emotional space is a sphere of dreams filled with yearning which desires to be explored and taken hold of. Ethical and moral questions arise in the soul – like dream images but in all seriousness: can they provide support in everyday life? How can I truly take responsibility for myself and my environment? The invisible can be experienced – but can it also be understood?

The physics of electromagnetism and radioactivity deals with the invisible and uncovers its laws. In chemistry we deal with quantitative stoichiometry, in biology with genetics and embryology. In all of this the model character must be differentiated from the full experience of the sensory phenomena. The assumptions and limits of models must be discussed in this connection. The inner gesture of the phenomenon resonates with the inner space of the young person and deserves to be observed – in this way the teacher can also additionally learn a lot. All scientific explanations are, after all, anthropomorphisms.


Sacrificing important things creates an intimate connection between giver and taker, means one being realised in the other. Rejection means that the content of the sacrifice becomes alienated from its source – the substantive will locates the meaning of its sacrifice somewhere different from itself and is therefore something alien, dead for both parties involved, as if ejected from the rest of the cosmic process. Death is nothing other than the “exclusion of a cosmic substance, a cosmic being from its actual meaning” (Steiner). The only element in which it reveals its reality is the earth: in the “physical body” and its surroundings where human beings obtain their ego consciousness.

Class 12 means: gaining an overview and arriving in the present. Overview requires a sense of development – all the main lessons in class 12 are designed to take this into account. During this time the young person also experiences their first lunar node which reminds them of what they originally intended to do. And arriving in the present means starting to act, above all in our own thinking – and becoming capable of making judgements. In order to do so, we have to be able to adopt different standpoints and cope with contrasting positions. In order then to take control of our own lives, the birth of the I needs to be prepared.

The development of optics illustrates the common history of light and consciousness well (Zajonc). In physics, the class 12 pupil is guided through the changing understanding of the nature of light and in doing so dies many a death for all thinking about light is subject to cultural change: when something new emerges, something old has to be left behind or at least be relativised. The wave-particle dualism carries this struggle to its limit: is there any place at all where there is cognitive certainty? The young person is referred to themselves, to their own thinking. The biochemistry and biology of evolution sharpens our awareness that everything is engaged in development and connected – the only secure place to be found is where the thinking is referred to itself. That is the core thought of Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom: “We have to be able to have a living experience of the idea, otherwise it enslaves us.”

The human being at the centre

The above reflection points to the interior aspect of the four elements in connection with planetary evolution, for “what has once happened continues to happen today” (Steiner). The wide span of these horizons gives us as teachers in all modesty an intimate view of the developmental steps which the young person has to undertake in the four years of upper school. An education appropriate for our time always has the human being at its centre who through their own development also enables all other beings to continue their development.

About the author: Jürgen Brau is an upper school teacher of physics and mathematics at the Bielefeld Rudolf Steiner School.