Let them save this man from Consumption sent-by-the-gods, these plants, fathered by Heaven, mothered by Earth, whose root is the primal cosmic ocean. –Atharva Veda 8:7:2
Plants are basically invisible! This is a startling statement and one that is obvious nonsense to any sensible, rational human being. But the esotericist would point out that the thing we call a plant is only the mineral aspect revealing itself to our external senses. We do not see directly the life forces that make the seed germinate and let the plant grow, mature, and flower. Nor do we see the soul (astrality) or the spirit of the plant. They remain forever removed from the external world and do not incarnate. To really see a plant, one must be clairvoyant. The great poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tried to formulate this in a way acceptable to the contemporary mentality. He called the plant a “sensual-supersensual” being. In his study of plant metamorphosis, he developed the idea that every visible plant is a play of the archetypal plant, the Urpflanze.1
The plant is not a mere thing like an inanimate or manufactured object. The plant is a living process that is in a constant state of becoming, unfolding and originating. In so doing, it makes dynamic use of substances (elements), leaving in the wake of its growth finished forms — stalks, branches, leaves, blossoms — that bear the mark of life energy having passed through. Once this etheric energy has passed through, the formed substance is given back over to the laws of physical matter, begins to disintegrate, and returns to the soil and air. The plant thus tiptoes through the world of physical matter, touching ever so lightly into incarnation. The steps of such plant incarnations are marked by rhythmical, seasonal changes-tied to solar, lunar, and cosmic rhythms-involving the interplay of contraction and expansion, systole and diastole.
The unfolding begins with a seed — a tiny, hard, dry protein body. After the elements of water and warmth from the spring sun and spring rain awaken it, growth starts. But the seed does not just get bigger and bigger. Instead, after the initial swelling, it breaks apart. As its first metamorphosis, it expands its cotyledons into the light and sinks a root into the ground. Polarity — one of the signs of living processes! Then, in harmony with cosmic influences, it grows rhythmically, alternately drawing together to form bud or node and expanding into leaf and stalk. The repetitions are not mechanical or exact. Observe a typical herbaceous plant: the lower leaves are rounder, fuller, and closer to the elemental natures of water and earth. As it grows, the leaves become gradually more serrated and pointed. The ponderable substance seems to melt away as buds form anew in preparation for the next crescendo: the bursting open of the flower petals. Within the corolla, the pistil and stamens represent another contraction to be followed by the expansion of the ovary into the fruit and, finally, the contraction into the ovule. Once the seed is formed, the vitality of the visible plant has spent itself. Like Persephone, it must go into the earth again and, awaiting a new season, draw anew the life (etheric) energy from the earth and cosmos for the next cycle of manifestation. In this process, nowhere is the entire plant completely present at any one single time. Each time we look at a plant, we see only a part of it in actual manifestation.
For Goethe, the archetypal plant organ is basically the leaf, flat and open to the cosmos. It has no inner organs that would serve as anchoring places for an incarnated soul (astrality), as one finds in human beings or animals. The plant is open to the in-streaming cosmic impulses. They — planets, sun, moon, stars — are its organs, bringing about its rhythmic contractions (as in seed, bud, stamen, anther, pistil, ovule) and expansions (as in cotyledons, leaves, sepals, petals, fruit). Upon this archetypal theme, each plant family, and within them each individual species, plays and improvises in amazing variety. The mints, for instance, do not get excited about root or flower but spend themselves on fragrant leaves. The cucumber family, twisting over the ground like so many snakes, splurges on bloated, watery fruits. Others such as the mandrake have a thing for roots! Asters and sunflowers bundle their individual flowers into disks, reaching a new threshold of organization. Perennial plants like to linger, while some weeds and spring flowers are flighty and shy. Thus, the Urpflanze-the mother of all plants-plays out its myriad ideas and lets its imagination become visible in countless forms.
Plants are visible imaginations. Goethe insists that this archetype, real as it is, must be perceived by the faculty of imagination-by an artistic eye, so to speak, not just by clinical analysis. In the plant world — as well as in the world of insects, fish, birds, and mammals — nature says to us, “Hey, man, can you imagine this?” If you can’t imagine it, you might perceive it, but you won’t “see” it. With this in mind, we see that it is not so odd at all that herbalists and wortcunners are also masters of imagination, at home in fairy tale, folklore, dance, and song.
Human beings also have an archetypal form of their body/soul configuration. One of the differences is that the soul (sensing, feeling, desiring, consciousness, sympathies and antipathies, joy and pain) of human beings is incarnated into their physical/etheric organization, while for the plants it impinges from the outside onto the physical/etheric organism.
Human beings do their playful improvising in the realm of soul and spirit: there they can think, imagine, and dream up the most bizarre and wonderful forms. The plants, on the other hand, can do this within their physical/etheric bodies, creating even monstrous and weirdly shaped flowers, fruits, stems, or roots without any ill effect to themselves. In contrast, when a human being creates bizarre thyroids, gigantic livers, violet skin, strawberry noses, or any other distorting play on the archetypal form of his body, he or she is truly sick. Rudolf Steiner formulated this as, “What is beautiful in the plant is illness in the human being.” This, however, becomes a clue in the use of herbal medicine. It is a matter of finding the bizarre (but healthy) plant and bringing it into relation with the bizarre (sick) organ of the suffering human being. And the signatures, so herbalists tell us, are the clue.
Human Illness and Corresponding Plants
Once again, let us look at the intuition of the archaic philosophers: originally creation was One. This unity divided itself into the kingdoms of nature: human beings and animals on one side, plants and minerals on the other side. Human beings and animals are more thoroughly incarnated because they have brought their soul with them into their physical existence. The soul in existence (Latin ex +sistere = “standing outside”) is a soul standing outside of the original wholeness and thus is not in eternal bliss but in a state of dukka(“suffering”). Plants have kept their “souls” out of existence — insofar as scientists are correct in asserting that plants have no soul. The soul of vegetation rests in essence (oneness, the void, heaven). Plants have retained in a state of wholeness (health) that which human beings have taken into existence. Thus, plants cannot really become sick or suffer in the way human beings (or animals) do.
Astrality works externally upon the physical plant, but it works internally in the human being. Since plant astrality cradles in the heavens, nonincarnated, its ordering and guiding influence upon the plant bodies is harmonious. It is different for mankind! Here, misguided astrality will eventually result in distortion of the physical/etheric organization. This is behind the biblical wisdom that sickness and death are the result of sin (from Old English sunder = “to separate”) or Buddha’s teachings that desire (astrality) is the cause of all suffering. Whether the cause of the illness has to be sought in previous lives or in this life; whether it comes from the inside as frustration, unfulfilled wishes, greed, anger, lust, and so on; whether it is projected by sorcerers and black magicians from the outside; whether it comes from parents in the form of family karma — all these considerations can be left aside for the moment. The fact is that the unguided astrality of the human creates the conditions and situations that result in suffering. Accidents, infections of germs, and epidemics are just the agents to carry this out. A healthy soul is not likely to become infected, and a watchful mind can avoid accidents quite well.