The term “epoch,” as it appears in Anthroposophical texts, may cause some confusion.
Steiner and his followers have used the term in various ways.
Thumbnail: During our current earthly stage of evolution, we will evolve through seven “great epochs.” They are the Polarian, Hyperborean, Lemurian, Atlantean, Post-Atlantean, Sixth (Seals), and Seventh (Trumpets) Epochs.
We are currently in the fifth of these great epochs: the Post-Atlantean. During this great epoch, we will move through seven “cultural epochs.” You can equate these, more or less, with earthly human civilizations: Indian, Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, Greco-Roman, the present, Russian, and American. Somewhat confusingly, Steiner sometimes referred to these not as “cultural epochs” but simply as “epochs,” and sometimes he used the term “ages” instead. The current cultural epoch, sometimes called the Anglo-Germanic Age, will be followed by the Russian Age and then the American Age, which will culminate in the ruinous end of the current great epoch.
“We are living in the fifth period of the fifth great epoch; we have still to live through two more periods of this great epoch. Then will follow the seven periods of the sixth great epoch and then the seven periods of the seventh great epoch. This makes sixteen stages of evolution in the future. Humanity has still to climb these sixteen stages. A man who can experience something of the conditions of existence there possible, is to a certain degree initiated. There is a correspondence between the degrees of initiation and the secret of the epochs still to come. In the life of our planet there are seven great epochs, and each of these seven has seven sub-periods — forty-nine conditions, therefore, in all.” — Rudolf Steiner, “The Work of Secret Societies in the World” (transcript, Rudolf Steiner Archive), a lecture, GA 93.
“[M]en are the instruments of the Epochal Spirits who are the guiding beings of the great epochs and also of the Spirits of the ‘meanings and conceptions’ of the smaller epochs. They are the Original Forces, they extend their consciousness down to man. They have no directing influence over what brings man together with other nature-kingdoms, for their consciousness does not reach the animal kingdom. How men conduct their lives according to the spirit of the time, how they found states, found sciences, cultivate their fields — everything of human origin, the progress of civilization from beginning to end stands under the guidance of the Original Forces. They lead man in so far as he has to do with others.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE INFLUENCE OF SPIRITUAL BEINGS ON MAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1961), lecture 7, GA 102.
“Let us turn once more to the middle of the Atlantean epoch, when the physical world was first disclosed to man. A sort of parting of the ways then took place for the Gods — those who had been the ancient companions of men in higher realms. Coming from spiritual heights man had plunged deeper and deeper into the physical world. He had already passed through three great epochs; the third being the Lemurian, the fourth the Atlantean and this will be followed by three others. We are living at present in the fifth epoch. The Lemurian epoch came to an end through great fire catastrophes; the Atlantean through mighty catastrophes of ice and water; our epoch will come to an end through other forces, through a mighty increase of egoism in human nature, and, on account of this, through the war of all against all.” — Rudolf Steiner, UNIVERSE, EARTH AND MAN (H. Collison, 1931), lecture 10, GA 105.
“We know that since the great Atlantean catastrophe, which entirely transformed the earth, there have been five great epochs of civilization. We designate these as the ancient Indian, the ancient Persian, the Egypto-Chaldean, the Greco-Latin, and the epoch we presently live in. The latter was prepared in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries after Christ; we are now actually in the middle of this epoch. Of course, such divisions are not to be understood as indicating that each evolutionary epoch abruptly came to an end and then a new one began. Rather, one epoch gradually and slowly merged into another. Long before one epoch has run its course, the next one is already being prepared.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE UNIVERSAL HUMAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1990), lecture 1, GA 117.
“It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that we live in critical days, but we will not dwell on this. We may recall that Rudolf Steiner speaks in quite specific terms about this age. He gives us the picture of the sequence of post-Atlantean history, proceeding in seven great epochs, the present being the fifth epoch. The beginning of it is marked by an astronomical event, the movement of the vernal point of the Sun, where it rises in the spring equinox, from Aries (the Ram) into Pisces (Fishes). This took place in the year 1413. But this fifth epoch is not just another one like the preceding, as five follows four. It means a fundamental turning-point of Earth evolution as far as human consciousness is concerned. Steiner describes how right to the end of the fourth epoch, although it contained the Mystery of Golgotha, human consciousness still lived in a kind of dreamy, cosmic, inherited instinct; in a sense, the last remnants of what we generally describe as clairvoyance survived, legitimately, if only in rudimentary form. Only with the beginning of the fifth epoch have we entered fully into earthly circumstances. From then on it had to be that all the cosmic legacy is spent, and for a time we are as poor as can be, spiritually. Therefore this age, this fifth epoch, is the crucial one.” — Alfred Heidenreich, THE RISEN CHRIST AND THE ETHERIC CHRIST (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969), lecture 1.
“The development of the cosmos passes through ‘planetary conditions,’ which are described in the book, OCCULT SCIENCE. The great planetary phases divide themselves, if one overlooks certain fine details, into seven epochs each. Those which the earth (as the fourth planetary condition, or incarnation) has already passed through are the Polarean, Hyperborean, Lemurian, and the Atlantean. We live now in the Fifth Post-Atlantean Age: there will then follow the sixth and the seventh stages, at the end of which the spiritualization of the earth will take place into an intermediary stage, known as Pralaya. In the course of the last great epochs of the earth evolution, the ‘good human beings’ will have acquired the forces necessary to transform the evil part, so that it can also go forward into the next stage as a special earth kingdom.” — George Unger, ON NUCLEAR ENERGY AND THE OCCULT ATOM (Anthroposophic Press, 1982), Additional Comment 1.b.
“The writer of the Apocalypse intended the seven letters in the first chapters of the Apocalypse as messages for the seven representatives of the seven cultural epochs of the post-Atlantean age; that is, the age that followed the great water catastrophe also known as the Flood. The age that will come after the seven post-Atlantean epochs reveals itself to the initiate in seven seals as the seven epochs like those of our post-Atlantean age.” — Rudolf Steiner, READING THE PICTURES OF THE APOCALYPSE (Anthroposophic Press, 1993), lecture 3, GA 104a.
“Steiner distinguishes seven 'cultural epochs' within the ‘post- Atlantean age’ (the age that began after the Deluge destroyed the continent of Atlantis) ... The chronology of the seven epochs is roughly as follows:
"Ancient Indian: 8th to 6th millennium B.C.
— Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION OF MORALITY (SteinerBooks, 1995), note, p. 74.
“Anthroposophically orientated Spiritual Science is based on occult science, as we have often emphasised, which brings us knowledge of the forces underlying the various epochs, and also enables us to understand what is at work in the cultural periods of our own epoch. So we must speak of these inner forces of our own time, whenever and wherever we meet, in order to understand the tasks of Spiritual Science in relation to what is at work beneath the surface of life, and so that occult research can help us direct our lives in harmony with the great goals of mankind ... [S]ense perception predominated over all others in the Greco-Roman era, and intellectuality is added to this to a greater degree in the present; in the one before the last, the sixth period, emotion will predominate, and in the seventh, the last cultural epoch, it will be morality, and in a way we can only dream of today. We cannot even imagine what it will be like as Socrates could, who considered that virtue could be both taught and learnt. All this, however, will become reality by the seventh epoch, for the tendencies that are already clearly perceptible in occultism foretell this.” — Rudolf Steiner, ESOTERIC CHRISTIANITY AND THE MISSION OF CHRISTIAN ROSENKREUTZ (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1984), lecture 1, GA 130.
“[A]s human evolution proceeds, certain definite capacities, certain definite impulses are developed in each succeeding cultural epoch. It is impossible to imagine people living in the ancient Indian period having a condition of soul development similar to ours. From epoch to epoch, as human beings pass through succeeding incarnations on earth, different impulses are needed for the human soul ... Everything that is potentially very good can also be perverted and become the opposite. This must be the case in order that human evolution can take its course in freedom in accordance with the present cultural age. Indeed, the very best evolutionary impulses in our age are those most likely to be turned into their opposite.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE KARMA OF UNTRUTHFULNESS, Vol. 2 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992), lecture 14, GA 174.
“In Europe in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries A.D. a cultural age was prepared that began in the fifteenth century and still continues today. It was gradually to replace the fourth, Greco-Latin, period. It is the fifth post-Atlantean culture period. The peoples, which after various migrations and most manifold destinies had made themselves pillars of this age, were descendants of those Atlanteans who had had the least contact with what had occurred in the meantime in the four preceding cultural epochs.” — Rudolf Steiner, AN OUTLINE OF OCCULT SCIENCE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), chapter 4, part 7, GA 13.
In Waldorf schools, cultural epochs or ages are usually studied
in accordance with teachers' guides such as this one,
written by a longtime Waldorf educator.
The contents of such guides are almost always
consistent with Rudolf Steiner's historical "indications,"
although the underlying occult doctrines may be downplayed.
[Floris Books, 2004.]
The great epoch before ours, the Atlantean Epoch, was also divided into seven periods. In Anthroposophy, those periods are referred to as "races."
Here is the pattern, running from the first to the seventh period:
Tauranian (Scorpio (surprise!))
The Atlantean Epoch ended with the Great Flood.
Here is the pattern for our Post-Atlantean Epoch:
American (Capricorn (and Moon))
Our Post-Atlantean Epoch will end with the War of All Against All.
Here is the pattern for the coming Sixth Epoch (Seals):
Sense-Free Thinking (Sagittarius)
Moral Feeling (Scorpio)
Sacrificial Will (Libra)
End of Karma and Physical Body (Virgo)
Sealing of Ordeal (Cancer)
The Sixth Epoch will end with Altar Fire Cast to Earth.
Here is the pattern for the Seventh Epoch (Trumpets):
Heat Death (!) (Aquarius)
First Woe (!) (Capricorn)
Second Woe (!!) (Sagittarius)
Third Woe (!!!) ( )
The Seventh Epoch will end with Woman with Sun Dragon.
For the above, I drew, in part, from Steiner's lectures and, in part,
from Richard Seddon's book,
THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY AND THE EARTH AS FORESEEN BY RUDOLF STEINER
(Temple Lodge, 2002), including the handy chart on pp. 132-133.
— Compiled by Roger Rawlings