“Fairy tales are never thought out [i.e., invented]; they are the final remains of ancient clairvoyance, experienced in dreams by human beings who still had the power. What was seen in a dream was told as a story — for instance, 'Puss in Boots' ... All the fairy tales in existence are thus the remnants of the original clairvoyance.” — Rudolf Steiner, ON THE MYSTERY DRAMAS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983), p. 93.
"Among them were many who had preserved in large measure the heritage of the old dim clairvoyance — the intermediate state between waking and sleeping. Such men knew the spiritual world from their own experience and could tell their fellow-men of what goes on there. In this way there arose a world of stories about spiritual beings and events. The fairy-tales and sagas of the peoples came originally from these real experiences in the spirit." — Rudolf Steiner, OCCULT SCIENCE - AN OUTLINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969), p. 219.
When Waldorf school teachers tell fairy tales to their young students, they generally use versions of the stories that have been molded to embody Anthroposophical doctrines. Thus, they in effect give the children religious instruction — the religion being Anthroposophy. The rationale is that, according to Rudolf Steiner, fairy tales are true, at a spiritual level: They reflect the clairvoyant discoveries made by ancient peoples who were closer to the spirit realm than most people are today. According to Steiner, Anthroposophy revives the ancient wisdom, and it leads us to new, higher levels of spiritual wisdom now. The fairy tales are meant to help young children move toward the Anthroposophical path.
Here are some of the Anthroposophical lessons Waldorf teachers try to convey through fairy tales. I will quote from Roy Wilkinson’s THE INTERPRETATION OF FAIRY TALES (Henry Goulden, 1984; reprinted by the Rudolf Steiner College Press, 1997). Roy Wilkinson was a Waldorf educator for more than 60 years. The book covers 39 fairy tales; I have selected a few of the best known. In some instances, Wilkinson offers more than one interpretation of a tale, but the variations are minor: Each interpretation lays out Anthroposophical beliefs that may be conveyed to the children.
I think you will find that the Anthroposophical interpretation of fairy tales takes us far from the meanings most parents and children normally find in the stories. The Waldorf versions also include episodes and characters that may surprise you.
For clarity, I have highlighted some of the Anthroposophical concepts set forth by Wilkinson: they appear in bold type. I have also appended brief explanations.
“Genuine fairy tales portray reality ...
[T]heir content portrays soul experiences, cosmic truths,
the process of the individual’s development, the elemental world,
folk wisdom and apocalyptic imaginations.”
— Roy Wilkinson, THE INTERPRETATION OF FAIRY TALES, p. 7.
HANSEL AND GRETEL
“The story portrays spirit and soul descending into a physical body and ascending again, enriched, to the spiritual world ... The story could also be looked upon as an initiation process. Soul and spirit are engaged in developing higher organs ... Yet another interpretation would be to consider the story as one of human evolution. With the expulsion from Paradise the human being enters the material world. Through his experiences he regains the faculty of spiritual perception in a new way and regains his spiritual home greatly enriched.” — THE INTERPRETATION OF FAIRY TALES, pp. 13-14.
Anthroposophists believe that we have both spirits and souls. We descended to life on Earth from spiritual worlds, and we will return there. The “faculty of spiritual perception” is clairvoyance. Ancient people had this faculty; we tend not to have it now — but we can regain it, in an improved form, by following Anthroposophy. Becoming a real Anthroposophist means undergoing initiation, that is, entering the inner circle of spiritually enlightened humans. Part of this process entails developing invisible organs of clairvoyance, i.e., “higher organs.” All of this is wrapped up in our spiritual evolution which will lead us to become God one day. The evolution described in Anthroposophy is, obviously, quite different from Darwinian evolution.
Depending on how a teacher tells a fairy tale — the words chosen, the tone of voice, the facial expressions used, the commentary s/he adds — the children may or may not receive intimations of these doctrines. Eventually, after many, many fairy tales are told, the doctrines are generally implanted, if only at an unconscious level. These are the beliefs that trained Waldorf teachers have in mind; they are the doctrines they want their students to absorb, sooner or later, consciously or not.
A quick gloss: • Anthroposophists believe in many gods: There are many "heavenly powers" above us. • The universe also includes "elemental beings" or nature spirits, invisible creatures such as gnomes and sylphs that dwell inside nature; they help humans, to some degree, but they can also be hostile. • The "higher powers" who aid humans assist us to evolve so that we become "a new type of human being." • Individual humans evolve on a seven-year schedule. Until age seven, a child is in touch with the heavenly powers — s/he is "carried by heavenly powers." • After the seventh birthday, a child becomes significantly different — "a change takes place" and the child is more earthly — hence the elemental beings loom larger. • Incarnating more fully on earth means becoming more autonomous. "[W]hen Snow White is seven...she has grown into her own being to a certain extent." • Humans acquire "new powers" at each stage of life and during each future life. Our evolution takes us forward into new historical epochs — so time and again, "It is the beginning of a new era." • The death of the Queen/witch shows human spiritual evolution, as we set aside old powers ("the old magical powers must die") and move toward our new, higher powers. • The handsome prince who awakens Snow White embodies the "higher power" of the evolved human spiritual ego, the transformed Self. (In Anthroposophy, Christ — the Sun God — is our Prototype: We evolve to become like Him.) • There are beneficent powers but also "negative powers.' Some of these are evil gods, demons, black magicians and witches, and perverse elemental beings. The descent to Earth is a descent toward an unspiritual existence — a necessary step but a hazardous one, akin to wandering "alone in the woods."
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
“In the picture of the little girl with the red covering on her head is the ego-conscious soul. The grandmother represents old forces and ancient wisdom which are fading. Red Riding Hood seeks wisdom but has new forces of cognition. She is the bearer of cake and wine but the story becomes more significant if we think of bread and wine. A renewal of wisdom is signified through the Christ impulse. However, there is distraction brought about by the dark forces of materialism, represented by the wolf ... The dark powers seek to destroy cosmic wisdom and put themselves in its place." — Ibid., p. 19.
Red Riding Hood represents "the ego-conscious soul." The ego, according to Steiner, is the highest of the three invisible bodies each of us has in addition to a visible, physical body. Our evolution entails developing higher and higher states of consciousness. Fundamental to this process is the consciousness of oneself as an "I" or "ego." (In Anthroposophy, this is a spiritual concept, not to be confused with the "ego" of Freudian psychology).
Anthroposophists honor the ancients, who were presumably in tune with the spirit worlds. But ancient wisdom is fading, Steiner taught. Presently, dark powers threaten to overwhelm humanity: the powers of materialism and false belief, exemplified by the demons Ahriman and Lucifer. These dark powers will rule the world if the good powers of Anthroposophy do not prevail. The cosmic wisdom offered by Anthroposophy comes through the "new forces of cognition": the new, improved, "exact" clairvoyance developed by Steiner. Christ was crucially important in showing us the right direction: He is the Sun God, who came to earth to become our prototype, the model for the new type of human being that is evolving. This is the "impulse" Christ gave us.
(You should note that in his comments on this fairy tale, Wilkinson clearly plays fast and loose. In the story, Red Riding Hood brings cake and wine. Wilkinson suggests changing this in our minds to bread and wine, since this accords better with Christian communion. Do not be misled, however: Anthroposophy is not really Christian. If you are uncertain about this, go back over the Anthroposophical concepts we have already seen and ask yourself whether you would hear of such things in a Christian church. Some, yes. Others, certainly not. How many priests or ministers, for instance, would agree that Christ is the Sun God who helps us evolve through reincarnation?)
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK
“[Jack] symbolizes a soul cut off from the spiritual world, with no direction. He is, however, open to new influences ... [T]he beans are intended to represent a consolidating effect on Jack who then becomes steadier and has the impulse to climb the beanstalk, i.e., to seek a higher world ... Jack succeeds in getting the hen that lays the golden eggs and bringing it back home, signifying that he brings a spiritual treasure to the earth. (Golden = spiritual.) [sic] An egg is a new beginning. The golden egg on earth is the beginning of a new stage of evolution." — Ibid., p. 29.
Once again we see Wilkinson wrenching a tale, forcing it to conform to his belief system. Steiner did this as well, to a far greater degree. Anthroposophy consists of fairy tales, myths, superstitions, and religious teachings gleaned from many sources, and most have been twisted out of their original form.
Anthroposophy teaches that our true home is the spiritual realm or "world," which actually consists of several "worlds." In one of his self-published pamphlets, Wilkinson says that the worlds above us "can be equated with the planetary spheres" described in astrology. — Roy Wilkinson, THE HOSTS OF HEAVEN (Roy Wilkinson, PRT Offset Limited, ~1980), p. 16. Steiner prescribes steps for learning about the higher worlds in his book, KNOWLEDGE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS AND ITS ATTAINMENT (Anthroposophic Press, 1944).
It is obviously debatable whether "Jack and the Beanstalk" is really about attaining "a new stage of evolution" or, as Wilkinson says in his subtitle for the tale, "The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge." It is equally debatable whether "golden" means "spiritual" and whether the hen that lays golden eggs signifies "spiritual treasure" (i.e., knowledge of higher worlds). But to make the tale consistent with Anthroposophy, this is what Wilkinson claims, and it is what many Waldorf teachers will have in mind when they tell the tale to their young charges.
“The picture of the dying woman [i.e., Cinderella's mother] portrays the loss of ancient spiritual wisdom ... When the child [i.e., Cinderella] visits the grave it signifies a subconscious belief in the spiritual world or, that [sic] in its inmost depths, the soul retains memory of [the spiritual world] ... The "dead" can influence the living ... The old powers of spiritual perception are gone. To attain to the spiritual world the soul must undergo trials and purification. Then it may unite with the higher self ... The true ego seeks to unite with the purified soul." — Ibid., pp. 37-38.
You may not recognize the popular story of Cinderella in Wilkinson's comments, but this is how the tale is perceived in the Waldorf universe. We have seen some of the highlighted concepts already; I won't repeat myself about them. But in addition to the ego, ancient spiritual wisdom, and spiritual perception (clairvoyance), we find the following:
Children are born with memories of their past lives in the spirit realm. Waldorf schooling aims to keep the kids young so they can retain these memories. Maintaining contact with the spirit realm is helpful as we undergo the purifying trials of Earthly life, and it aids us in evolving into our truer, better selves. Also helpful is maintaining contact with the dead. Steiner's teachings on how to communicate with the dead are presented in such works as STAYING CONNECTED: How to Continue Your Relationships with Those Who Have Died (Anthroposophic Press, 1999.)
“From the starry regions the soul incarnates, bringing with it the forces of the twelve signs of the Zodiac ... With the beginning of physical maturity the light-filled world of childhood fades ... There is even an indication of an initiation process. The Prince passes through the thicket, the etheric world; he sees dogs and horses, the astral world; he comes to the court, the realms of the cosmos of archetypal man ... At one time mankind was in direct contact with the spiritual world and was inspired by it. Evil powers intervened, the vision was lost. Man became independent and intellectual forces developed. The darkness lasted until a time was ripe for a new impulse. The mankind reawakened." — Ibid., pp. 62-63.
Do you see the pattern that is developing? No matter what story Wilkinson discusses, he twists it to have the same meaning: Every fairy tale becomes a lesson in the doctrines of Anthroposophy. Several of the themes we have already seen are repeated here: reincarnation, the ancients' communion with the spirit realm, the child's communion with the spirit realm, astrology, initiation, and so forth.
We also find the terms "etheric" and "astral": These are tags for realms above us and also for two of our invisible bodies. The etheric world in closely connected to the physical world, and at night our etheric bodies remain on Earth with our physical bodies (or so Anthroposophists believe). The astral world is higher, and at night our astral bodies leave the Earth and travel along with our spiritual egos into the spirit worlds (or so Anthroposophists believe).
Occupying the spirit worlds are nine levels of spiritual beings or gods, who are arrayed above us. Someday we will evolve to a level above all nine: We will form our own, new, tenth level.
For the time being, however, we are on Earth, largely cut off from the spirit realm. Here, we contend with evil powers — a struggle that can be good for us, if it purifies us. We have developed intellectual powers, which have helped us to become free. But the intellect is a destructive power — we need to evolve far beyond it. Jehovah, the Moon God, once gave mankind an impulse leading upward in our spiritual evolution. Later Christ, the Sun God, gave us another such impulse. One day we will get God the Father's impulse, and we will climb higher yet. Indeed, we ourselves will become the Father. Or so Anthroposophists believe.
When Waldorf school teachers relate innocent-seeming fairy tales in class, these are the sorts of lessons they are trying to convey. Not all Waldorf teachers, of course. Some Waldorf teachers don't know Anthroposophical teachings well enough to understand what Wilkinson understood. But many do. As Steiner himself said, “As Waldorf teachers, we must be true anthroposophists in the deepest sense of the word in our innermost feeling.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 118.
A quick recap: In the popular stories I have listed, Waldorf teachers find such concepts as evolution, higher worlds, multiple gods, elemental beings, reincarnation, astrology, initiation, communication with the dead, memories of life before birth, dark powers, clairvoyance, the etheric, the astral, the "Christ impulse," seven-year cycles, organs of clairvoyance, invisible human bodies, and so forth and so on.
As told in Waldorf schools, fairy tales can serve as primers in the doctrines of Anthroposophy.
We should hear from Steiner. Here's why fairy tales are told in Waldorf schools: The purpose is religious:
“We form a link with the knowledge of nature conveyed to children through fantasy and fairy tales. The goal is to awaken, first of all, a sense of gratitude for everything in the world. Gratitude for what others [i.e., the gods] do for us and for the gifts of nature; this guides children’s religious feeling along the right path. It is tremendously important and meaningful to develop a child’s sense of gratitude. It may seem odd, but it is a profound fact that people should learn to feel gratitude whenever the weather is favorable to our endeavors. Being able to feel gratitude to the cosmos — though only in one’s imagination — deepens all our feelings in a religious sense.” — Rudolf Steiner, A MODERN ART OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), pp. 166-167.
It's also well to remember that fairies and the other beings who appear in fairy tales really exist:
"Whereas it is our physical body that connects us with the realm of physical becoming, our brain connects us with certain elemental beings...the elemental beings of the myths and sagas. There they are called elves, fairies, and so on.” — Rudolf Steiner, THE RIDDLE OF HUMANITY (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1990), lecture 5, GA 170.
Generic fairy tale, Anthroposophical depiction —
The chief realization we must grasp is that Rudolf Steiner believed that fairies really exist,
and his followers believe so today:
“That fairyland and its denizens should be as much a concern of scientists as they have long been of poets and painters and storytellers was one of Steiner’s deep convictions. For he was a close observer of their life and work, and it was clear to him that they were of profound importance to the earth.” — Waldorf educator Marjorie Spock, FAIRY WORLDS AND WORKERS: A Natural History of Fairyland (Anthroposophical Press, 1980), p. 8. (The book’s dedication: “In memory of RUDOLF STEINER who understood so well the living forces behind Nature.”)
Fairy tales told in Waldorf schools often retain the grisly details emphasized by the Brothers Grimm. Wilkinson defends this: "Some people object to the apparently 'horrible' which occurs from time to time in the fairy stories. One can sympathize with this point of view and wish that everything in the world were roses and honey. Unfortunately there are negative forces and the child who is prevented from experiencing these will grow up without a sense of reality." — Roy Wilkinson, THE INTERPRETATION OF FAIRY TALES, p. 11.
There is some truth in Wilkinson's statement, although Waldorf schools hardly offer children "a sense of reality" — the schools lure children into a fantasy universe. In any event, parents who are considering Waldorf schools for their kids should realize that, despite appearances, the schools are by no means refuges from the harshness of life in the wide, rough-and-tumble world. There is much harshness within the Waldorf universe. Think of the Norse myths that are so celebrated in Waldorfs: They are extraordinarily violent. [See "The Gods".] Or consider Steiner's doctrines about demons, dark forces, warfare, black magic, hidden conspiracies, people who are not really human, etc. (See such pages as "Evil Ones", "Steiner's Bile", "Double Trouble", "War", "Violence", and "All vs. All".)
Waldorf teachers find various other ways of sneaking Anthroposophy into Waldorf classes.
See, e.g., "Sneaking It In".
- Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings