From Anthroposophy

Background: challenges with terminology

Spiritual science uses an extensive 'jargon' with a myriad of spiritual scientific terms that describe concepts and realities not found in science or the description of our physical reality. It implies that many 'reserved words' are terms with a special and specific meaning, even if these terms are sometimes also used in our everyday use of language.

A complicating factor is that the concepts and realities have been described with different sets of terminology or nomenclature, eg terminology is different in anthroposophy than in theosophy , but similarly so another terminology is used in medieval alchemy, hermetics, esoteric christianity.

The problem is even broader:

  • Rudolf Steiner also uses terminology used in previous cultural ages and their spiritual scientific teaching, eg those of Zarathustra in ancient Persia, the Holy Rishis in Ancient India, the terminology of Greek philosophers or the symbolism and terms used in Ancient Egypt, or the way of viewing in the middle-ages and/or rosecrucian teachings.
  • the same goes for names of spiritual entities in the various cultures, and the Gods in myths and legends and various religious teachings
  • furthermore, in Rudolf Steiner's twenty years of teaching, certain terms changed from theosophical terminology (where more Indian sanskrite terms are used) to more european terms. See specifically: Mapping theosophical terminology
  • and last but not least, in the last century, dozens of translators and editors have made choices with regards to terms, eg 'Ego' versus 'I', the use of capitals for the planetary stages, planets and hierarchies (or not). Similarly so for authors of secondary literature.

As a result, there is no simple single set of terminology. The already complex subject matter is not simplified by the fact that the student has to master and bridge these different terminology sets, with various different labels for the same (or similar) concepts.

Therefore on this site we use only one single set of terms for the hierarchies, the structural bodily principles or bodies of Man, etc .. and have streamlined for consistency wherever needed under the SWCC philosophy.

We did however keep the use of both the planes (from theosophy) as well as (the astro-language of) the planetary spheres, zodiac and fixed stars.

What remains is still the mapping between the sets of terminology used. Indeed the student will still be confronted with the different terms across the many sources. See 'Illustrations' section below, and/or Mapping theosophical terminology. These are a first iteration of a section that, in the future, could provide a better overview of mappings between various sets of terminology. See also 'References and further reading' section below for additional info.

Problem statement

As a or the major source of modern teachings on spiritual science comes from Rudolf Steiner, we need to consider the following.

  • First: Rudolf Steiner lectured for 20 years, and during that time did not always use the same terminology consistently. This a.o. of a result that initial audiences were within the theosophical society and hence the theosophical terminology of that time was used, with terms from ancient indian teachings (in sanskrite). In parallel but especially later on, more and new anthroposophical terminology was introduced to make the language of the teachings more european (eg manas, budhi, atma became spirit self, life spirit, and spirit man). Similarly Globes and Rounds are called Conditions of Form and Conditions of Life. And so on.
  • Secondly: The thousands of lectures by Rudolf Steiner span a period of twenty years, and were edited and published, and later translated, over a period of about a century. This means that a large group consisting of different generations of editors and translators worked on this. Furthermore, english translations of the many GA volumes were organized by different teams and publishing companies over decades. A normal consequence is that there is no overall consistency in terminology, as individual editors and translators used their own best judgment on a case by case basis. We are also confronted with the reality that errors sneaked in to the original transcripts and editing before publishing, and the fact that consecutive editors did not always have the in-depth mastery of spiritual science but 'glossed over' existing texts, polishing them mainly for readability as they deemed right. One well known editor did not know the difference between elementary kingdoms and elementals of nature.

Needless to say this adds a layer of complexity for the student.

The question is whether we need to carry this heritage along. Lectures are referenced all the time with all these terms mixed, and a lot of attention goes to the discussions with purists about the literal aspect and respecting of the original texts. Rightly so, the base text is the authentic source and its meaning should not be played around with. However it is not that simple, as the Gesamtausgabe process through which we access the lectures has gone through decades of editing of the original transcript by different editors, and then the same goes for translators who change the spin, phrasing and choice of words even more (because they have no choice, english is not german). See references below for further reading.

Statement of position

On this site the mission is to look at the future and not the past. Therefore we have chosen to use a single consistent terminology.

When different terms and options were available, choices were made based on the basis of various criteria including useage, in other words 'how established' or widespread terms were. For sure this is debatable, every choice can be challenged, but we are convinced that the total set of choices made represents a modern language framework that is easiest for the student (because, that is where the choices come from and are based on).

The next section gives an overview of (some of) the choices made for a uniform nomenclature on this site.

Overview table with terminology choices made

Spiritual hierarchies

Regarding the naming of the spiritual hierarchies - see also Schema FMC00.273 on Overview of the spiritual hierarchies

  • the use of the terms angels, archangels and archai is so established, that there is little value add of keeping the latin angeloi, or the anthroposophical Spirits of Twilight, Spirits of Fire, Spirits of Personality. The latter have not been commonly adopted or widespread, and therefore take so much getting used to that they add little value over the simplicity of using established terms.
  • It is different for Exusiai, Dynamis and Kyriotetes. These are the more difficult Greek terms (even to write and pronounce), yet somehow more widespread and established. Here the choice was made for the modern Spirits of Form, Motion and Wisdom .. because it consistently groups the Second Hierarchy and also adds keywords (Wisdom-Motion-Form) that link quite logically to the nature in each hierarchy. On this site the following abbreviations are also used as shorthand: SoF, SoM and SoW.
  • For the first hierarchy, again the ancient terminology is used because it is so established and widespread. The terms Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones are used. Note here also Rudolf Steiner proposed an alternative with more european spiritual scientific terms, but even he did not consistently deploy these either, given how established the ancient terminology is.

Planes or Worlds of Consciousness

Schema FMC00.079 (below) on Planes or Worlds of Consciousness gives an overview of various terminology sets used, incl. theosophical, rosecrucian, medieval european.

Dimensions of evolutions

Schema FMC00.093 on Three dimensions of evolution summarizes the 'Condition' terms chosen, comparing them with theosophical and esoteric christian terminology.

Evolution: planetary stages in the chain of evolution

Regarding the planetary stages in the evolution of the solar system - see more on Overview of solar system evolution

  • they are called planetary stages consistently and not phases or periods.
  • Whereas one can encounter Old Saturn, Ancient Saturn, Saturn .. we consistently use the prefix Old and Future, as in Old Saturn and Future Jupiter, because it is important enough to avoid the potential confusion with the current physical planets. It is important to be consistent and consequently we use Future Jupiter and not just Jupiter as is most often done (though some text versions may still use bracketed prefixes with 'new' or 'future')

Planetary stage Earth: 'extrusion, separation or departure' of the Moon and Sun?

  • Extrusion is the strangest term of the three. It used in geology for extrusion of volcanic lava flows that reach the surface, and eg salt extrusion in plants is the process to separate salt through filtration at the root (like excretion).

Separation and departure are the most commonly used terms, however their link to the process of what happened does not lie contained in how we use the words today.

  • Departure is more like a ship or plane that is leaving, the 'moment of departure'. This does not seem appropriate.
  • Separation is like people in a relationship that are separated. That may be more appropriate given the fact the Moon and Sun will re-unite with the Earth again.

Therefore, although 'extrusion' may speak most to our imagination, we choose for separation because it implicitly contains the possibility of re-union, which therefore gives us a terminology also for that later stage. Hence we use separation and reunion and not extrusion or departure.

Epochs and ages

This site consistently uses the top level term epoch only for the periods such as the Lemurian or Atlantean epoch. In the early theosophical terminology often the term root-race was used to denote this evolutionary period. Rudolf Steiner explained that this term is no longer appropriate for the current epoch, see Human races.

For the level below, the periods currently spanning some 2000 years, the term cultural age is used consistenly, and not cultural epoch or sub-age.

New terms


Example illustration schema FMC00.079 gives an overview of the various terms for the different worlds or 'planes' corresponding to different Conditions of Consciousness.


Lecture coverage and references


Related pages

References and further reading