Man as a threefold being

From Anthroposophy

Man is a threefold being in that three subsystems arose as part of the previous planetary stages in evolution [1]. Hence three 'subsystems' can be distinguished:

These three 'functional' subsystems

  • perform generic functions [2] that can also be found in other kingdoms of nature, such as the plant (see Schema FMC00.111 below)
  • can be described by the alchemical processes in nature [3], and
  • map to the substance and work of different spiritual hierarchies [4] (see eg FMC00.058 below)

Note that:

  • the functional systems 'cut across' Man's bodily principles
  • and although we can relate them to three areas of Man's physical body (upper, middle and lower part), the subsystems are really throughout the whole body.

For more info on how these subsystems work together, see Threefold working in Man


  • With regards to past and future evolution of Man, the head nerve sense part is the oldest part and is 'dying off', whereas the metabolic-limb part is the newest and 'coming into existence'.
  • Origin of the different systems of Man (1923-11-09-GA230)
    • Limb system from the Earth
    • Metabolic system from Old Moon
    • Rhythmic system from Old Sun
    • Nerve-senses system from Old Saturn
  • the threefold nature of Man was already described by Robert Fludd and Jacob Boehme around the 1620s (see Schema FMC00.280 and book references below)
  • Threefold Man as related to the various types of animals (1923-08-13-GA307)


Schema FMC00.112 illustrates that the aspects of the threefold nature of Man can be named head, chest and limb, but denote subsystems that run throughout the physical and etheric bodies of Man.


Schema FMC00.007 illustrates the three subsystems in Man, see also FMC00.282 below


Schema FMC00.448 is an illustration of the threefold nature of Man, and the different forces working in the upper and lower parts of Man. This image is taken from the casket from the grave of Tutankhamon. For more see also the work of Frank Teichmann from which the picture on the left was taken.


FMC00.282 illustrates the three subsystems in Man, see also FMC00.007 above. See also Thinking Feeling Willing.


FMC00.026 illustrates the three subsystems in Man, their primary location in the physical body (though each of them extends to the whole organism, so they are not spatially separate but interpenetrate ) and link to Man's bodily principles and the stages of Solar system evolution.


FMC00.058 shows how the three subsystems in Man map to three different worlds and the formative activities and substance of three different groups of spiritual hierarchies.


Schema FMC00.392 shows the elements of the physical body that relate to the three subsystems in Man as a threefold being, and the three worlds from which they are built by the three main triads of the spiritual hierarchies. See also the Bull, Lion and Eagle influences, see Sphinx.


Schema FMC00.294 considers Threefold Man as a warmth mechanism (see the Human 'I') and makes the link with the seasons in Nature. Compare with Schema FMC00.107.


Schema FMC00.111 illustrates 'Man as an inverted plant', that is: how the three functional subsystems in Man (left) correspond to the same subsystem functions in a plant (right). See also Christ Module 6 - Principle in image and story


Schema FMC00.257 shows how current threefold Man, that rises upright on Earth, gets form and life from three groups of zodiacal influences and three groups of planetary influences. Starting left, the embryo is formed in the womb, and the baby then rises upright (second drawing) as Man did in the Lemurian epoch. Compare the three groups of zodiacal influences to FMC00.256 below, see also Discussion area. On the right, quoting from 1921-10-30-GA208 how the soul life comes about:

Man develops an independent etheric life towards the head because they raise that part out of both the zodiac and the movements of the planets. Then the astral body and the I enter and are able to take part in the thought and idea activity of the ether body.


Schema FMC00.256 illustrates the three groups of zodiacal influences on Man (see lecture extract below). Compare with FMC00.257, see also Discussion area. See also Zodiac Man and Zodiac clock.


FMC00.260B shows the four groups of cosmic spiritual influences of Earth and the elemental world, the planetary spheres, and the fixed stars.

Compare with Schema FMC00.280 (Fludd) and the BBD illustration FMC00.260.


Schema FMC00.280 below depicts threefold Man with illustrations by Robert Fludd (1619).

See the two diagrams on the left, showing the three realms as they manifest in Man.

  • To the highest heaven corresponds the head, with its three functions:
    • The Deific Ray or Mind: Uncreated Light.
    • The Sphere of Light or Intellect: Created Light
    • The Sphere of Spiritus: Reason: the Empyrean
  • The planetary spheres or ethereal heaven correspond to the thorax or breast, in whose centre rules the heart, equivalent to the Sun in the 'sphere of life'.
  • The elemental spheres of fire, air, water and earth are marked both on the diagram and beneath
    • A Choler (gall bladder)
    • B Blood (liver and veins)
    • C Phlegm (belly)
    • D Faeces or dung (viscera)

On the right: The Diapason closing full in Man

The body is formed of food, hence of the four elements.

This inert matter is vivified by the soul, which is of another order of existence altogether.

The wonderful harmony of these two extremes is brought about by the Spiritus Mundi, the limpid spirit, represented here by a string. It extends from God to the Earth, and participates in both extremes. On it are marked the stages of the soul's descent into the body, and its re-ascent after death.

The three worlds are shown as concentric circles, marked on the left:

  • 'Empyrean Heaven of the Microcosm',
  • 'Ethereal Heaven of the Microcosm' and
  • 'Elemental Heaven'.

They correspond respectively to man's head, chest and belly, or on the mental plane to intellect, imagination and sense.


Lecture coverage and references

Jacob Boehme 'The Threefold Life of Man' (1620)

Man's double nature: Man and the rest of the body

synopsis contains:

  • The original causative forces for the formation of man's head work from cosmos, and man's head is its image; the rest of the skeleton is from heredity.
  • Man's outer form has a twofold origin. Man is twofold in perception — head and heart.
  • Between death and re-birth we work on the head, and there is added something for the rest of the organism. The older we grow the younger the etheric, but in youth we must learn to supply spiritual ideas as future youthful forces.

In other words, when you fall asleep everything related to your soul passes out of your body; these soul elements (the I and the actual soul) reenter your body when you awaken.

You cannot very well compare the plant world with the body that remains lying in your bed; but you can truthfully compare it with the soul itself, which passes in and out. And when you walk through fields or meadows and see plants in all the brightness and radiance of their blossoms, you can certainly ask yourselves: What temperament is revealed here? It is a fiery temperament! The exuberant forces that come to meet you from flowers can be compared to qualities of soul.

Or perhaps you walk through the woods and see mushrooms or fungi and ask: What temperament is revealed here? Why are they not growing in the sunlight? These are the phlegmatics, these mushrooms and fungi.

So you see, when you begin to consider the human element of soul, you find relationships with the plant world everywhere, and you must try to work out and develop these things further. You could compare the animal world to the human body, but the plant world can be compared more to the soul, to the part of a human being that enters and “fills out” a person when awaking in the morning. If we could “cast” these soul forms we would have the forms of the plants before us. Moreover, if you could succeed in preserving a person like a mummy, leaving spaces empty by removing all the paths of the blood vessels and nerves, and pouring into these spaces some very soft substance, then you would get all kinds of forms from these hollow shapes in the human body.

The plant world is related to human beings as I have just shown, and you must try to make it clear to the children that the roots are more closely related to human thoughts, and the flowers more related to feelings — even to passions and emotions. And so it happens that the most perfect plants — the higher, flowering plants — have the least animal nature within them; the mushrooms and the lowest types of plant are most closely akin to animals, and it is particularly these plants that can be compared least to the human soul.

You can now develop this idea of beginning with the soul element and looking for the characteristics of the plants, and you can extend it to all the varieties of the plant world. You can characterize the plants by saying that

  • some develop more of the fruit nature — the mushrooms, for example
  • and others more of the leaf nature, such as ferns and the lower plants, and the palms, too, with their gigantic leaves.

These organs, however, are developed differently. A cactus is a cactus because of the rampant growth of its leaves; its blossom and fruit are merely interspersed among the luxuriant leaves.


the head-formation is an outcome of the Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon evolutions; whereas the limb-man is a starting-point for the Future Jupiter, Future Venus and Future Vulcan evolutions.


recapitulates the sketch from 1921-10-30-GA208 regarding Threefold man and zodiac forces

The human form is a most marvellous structure.

  • Think of the head. In all its parts, the head is a copy of the universe. Its form is spherical, the spherical form being modified at the base in order to provide for the articulation of other organs and systems. The essential form of the head is a copy of the spherical form of the universe, as you can discover if you study the basic formation of the embryo.
  • Linked to the head-structure is another formation which still retains something of the spherical form, although this is not so immediately apparent: the chest-structure. Try to conceive this chest-structure imaginatively; it is as if a spherical form had been compressed and then released again, as if a sphere had undergone an organic metamorphosis.
  • Finally, in the limb-structures, we can discover hardly anything of the primal, embryonic form of man. Spiritual Science alone will make us alive to the fact that the limb-structures too, still reveal certain final traces of a spherical form although this is not very obvious in their outer shape.

When we study the threefold human form in its relation to the Cosmos, we can say that man is shaped and moulded by cosmic forces but these forces work upon him in many different ways.

The changing position of the Sun in the zodiacal constellations through the various epochs has been taken as an indication of the different forces which pour down to man from the world of the fixed stars.

Even our mechanistic astronomy today speaks of the fact that the Sun rises in a particular constellation at the vernal equinox, that in the course of the coming centuries it will pass through others, that during the day it passes through certain constellations and during the night through others. These and many other things are said, but there is no conscious knowledge of man's relationship to the universe beyond the Earth.


It is little known, for example, that when the Sun is shining upon the Earth at the vernal equinox from the constellation of Aries, the solar forces streaming down into human beings in a particular part of the Earth are modified by the influences proceeding from the region in the heaven of fixed stars represented by the constellation of Aries.

o  Neither is there any knowledge of the fact that these forces are peculiarly adapted to work upon the human head in such a way indeed, that during earthly life man can unfold a certain faculty of self-observation, self-knowledge and consciousness of his own I.

o  During the Greek epoch, as you know, the Sun stood in the constellation of Aries at the vernal equinox. In the Greek epoch, therefore, Western peoples were particularly subject to the Aries forces. The fact of being subject to the Aries forces makes it possible for the head of man to develop in such a way that I-consciousness, a faculty for self-contemplation, unfolds.

o  Even when the history of the zodiacal symbols is discussed today, there is not always knowledge of the essentials. Historical traditions speak of the zodiacal symbols — Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and so forth.

o  In old calendars we frequently find the symbol of Aries, but very few people indeed realise the point of greatest significance, which is that the Ram is depicted with his head looking backwards. This image was intended to indicate that the Aries forces influence man in the direction of inwardness — for the Ram does not look forward, nor out into the wide world — he looks backwards, upon himself; he contemplates his own being. This is full of meaning.

[Three groups of forces]

Once again, and this time in full consciousness not with the instinctive — clairvoyance of olden times — once again we must press forward to this cosmic wisdom, to the knowledge that

  • the forces of the human head are developed essentially through the forces of Aries, Taurus, Gemini and Cancer. The human head receives its spherical form from the in-working forces of Aries, Taurus, Gemini and Cancer — forces which must be conceived as radiating directly down, from above downwards.
  •  the forces of the chest-structure are subject to those of the four middle constellations — Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio whereas the zodiacal forces to which the chest-organisation of man is essentially subject (Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio), work laterally.
  • The other four constellations lie beneath the Earth; their forces work through the Earth, from below upwards. They work upon the limb-structures, and in such a way that the spherical form cannot remain intact. These are the constellations which in the instinctive consciousness of olden times, man envisaged as working up from beneath the Earth. and working upon the limb-structures.
    • Thus, according to the wisdom of the stars, a man might be a hunter — one who shoots; the constellation which stimulated the corresponding activity in his limbs, making him a hunter, received the name of Sagittarius, the archer.
    • Or again, a man might be a shepherd, concerned with the care of animals in general. This is implied in Capricorn, as it is called nowadays. In the true symbol, however, there is a fish-tail form. The Capricorn man is one who has charge of animals, in contrast to the hunter, the Sagittarius man.
    • The third constellation of this group is Aquarius, the water-carrier. But think of the ancient symbol. The true picture of this constellation is a man walking over hard soil, fertilising or watering it from a water-vessel. He represents those who are concerned with agriculture — husbandmen. This was the third calling in ancient times when there was instinctive knowledge of these things: huntsman, shepherd, husbandman.
    • The fourth calling was that of a mariner, In very early times, ships were built in the form of a fish, and later on we often find a dolphin's head at the prow of vessels. This is what underlies the symbol of Pisces — two fish forms intertwined — representing ships trading together. This is symbolical of the fourth calling which is bound up with activities of the limbs — the merchant or trader.

We have thus heard how the human form and figure originate from the Cosmos.

  • The head is spherical; here man is directly exposed to the forces of the heavens of the fixed stars or their representatives the zodiacal circle.
  • Then, working laterally, there are the forces present in the chest-organisation which only contains the human figure in an eclipsed and hidden form — Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio.
  • And lastly there are the forces which do not work directly but by a roundabout way, via the earthly activities, through the influence upon man's calling. (For example, the archer — Sagittarius — is also portrayed as a kind of centaur, half horse, half man, and so forth).

Again in our time we must strive for a fully conscious realisation of man's place in the Cosmos. The form and shape of his physical body are given by the Cosmos. The upper part of his structure is a product of the Cosmos; the lower part a product of the Earth. The Earth covers those constellations which have a definite connection with his activities in life. Not until man's connection with the whole Cosmos is thus recognised and acknowledged will it be possible to understand the mysteries of the human form and its relation to earthly activities. And at the very outset the human form leads us to the zodiacal constellations.


describes how Man's three subsystems can be seen related to mammals, fishes and lower animals


from the synopsis

Origin of the different systems of Man:

  • Limb system from the Earth
  • Metabolic system from Old Moon
  • Rhythmic system from Old Sun
  • Nerve-senses system from Old Saturn.
  • In the head of Man, the physical organisation is a copy, an impress of the spiritual individuality. The physical and the etheric part of the head stand out as complete and self-contained pictures of the spiritual; beside them, in independent soul-spiritual existence, there stand the astral and the I-part. Thus in the head of Man we have to do with a development, side by side, of the physical and etheric, relatively independent on the one hand, and of the astral and I-organisation on the other.
  • In the limbs and metabolic part of Man the four members of the human being are intimately bound up with one another. The I-organisation and astral body are not there beside the physical and etheric part. They are within them, vitalising them, working in their growth, their faculty of movement and so forth. Through this very fact, the limbs and metabolic part of Man is like a germinating seed, striving for ever to unfold; striving continually to become a ‘head,’ and — during the earthly life of Man — no less continually prevented.
  • The rhythmic Organisation stands in the midst. Here the I-organisation and astral body alternately unite with the physical and etheric part, and loose themselves again. The breathing and the circulation of the blood are the physical impress of this alternate union and loosening. The inbreathing process portrays the union; the outbreathing the loosening. The processes in the arterial blood represent the union; those in the venous blood the loosening.


  • If we contemplate the human head from this spiritual point of view, we shall find in it a help to the understanding of spiritual Imaginations. For in the forms of the head, Imaginative forms are as it were coagulated to the point of physical density.
  • Similarly, if we contemplate the rhythmic part of Man's Organisation it will help us to understand Inspirations. The physical appearance of the rhythms of life bears even in the sense-perceptible picture the character of Inspiration.
  • Lastly, in the system of the metabolism and the limbs — if we observe it in full action, in the exercise of its necessary or possible functions — we have a picture, supersensible yet sensible, of pure supersensible Intuitions.


The three groups of zodiacal influences

Note FMC00.256 and FMC00.257 show different groups.

Related pages

References and further reading

  • Jacob Boehme: 'The Threefold Life of Man' (1620 in DE as 'Vom dreifachen Leben des Menschen')
  • Lothar Vogel: 'Der dreigliedrige Mensch : Morphologische Grundlagen einer Allgemeinen Menschenkunde' (1967)
  • Johannes Rohen: 'Functional Threefoldness in the Human Organism & Human Society' (2011)