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What Did Rudolf Steiner Actually Say?

Rudolph Steiner in 1905. Photo: Public Domain
Rudolph Steiner in 1905. Photo: Public Domain

Part 1: Background, and the first half of his lectures

by Andrew Chalk

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) is the Austrian who invented biodynamics. Biodynamics, or biodynamic farming, as it is more informatively called, is one of the most talked-about subjects in wine. It invariably engenders positive associations. These include better fruit, fewer negative chemicals in the final product, and healthier vineyards. Some researchers have claimed that certified biodynamic wines obtain higher scores from critics, although I have argued that these studies are fatally flawed. But why does biodynamic farming receive such approbation? What is it?

To answer this question we need to go back to Steiner’s original words. There, we can extract his claims, his tests, and his evidence, just as we would for any other agricultural method or, more generally, any scientific proposition. First, we summarize Steiner’s intellectual background and totality of work on agriculture.



Rudolf Steiner was born in Murakirály (Kraljevec) in the Muraköz region of the Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire (present-day Donji Kraljevec in the Međimurje region of northernmost Croatia) in 1861. His father was a gamekeeper who had met his mother when she was a maid in the Hoyos household in which he served. The Count had refused permission for the marriage so his father left to become a telegraph operator on the Southern Austrian Railway.


In 1879 Steiner entered the Vienna Institute of Technology on a scholarship where he took courses in botany, chemistry, mathematics, mineralogy, physics, and zoology. He also audited courses in literature and philosophy. An academic breakthrough came in 1882 when Steiner was referred to the editor in chief of a new edition of Goethe’s works for the position of natural science editor. This was a career-changing elevation for a 21 year old with no college degree or publications.


This work, and an 1888-1896 stint at the Goethe archives in Weimar, saw him write a large part of his philosophical work and be awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Rostock. In 1897 Steiner moved to Berlin where he worked until the 1923 Nazi Beer Hall Putsch left him in fear for his safety, prompting a relocation to Dornach, Switzerland where he had had a residence since 2013. During his working time in Berlin he played a leading role in the Theosophists. He was head of the German section of the Theosophical Society from 1902 (apparently without ever having formally joined). His work during this time involved a lot of lecturing. Doctrinal differences led Steiner and a majority of the German branch of the society to leave around 1912 and form the Anthroposophical Society.


Steiner believed himself to have significant spiritual experiences. At age nine he believed he saw the spirit of a dead aunt before he or his family knew of her death. At age fifteen, he believed that he completely understood the concept of time, which he saw as required for spiritual clairvoyance. On the train each day to University he met a herb gatherer who produced profound sounding nature lore. He claimed to be able to understand the language of plants who told him what illnesses they could heal. And to listen to the speech of minerals which told him of the natural history of the planet. Steiner appeared to take this herb gatherer’s pronouncements very seriously as he immortalized him in his Mystery Dramas.

The time working on the new edition of Goethe’s works was spent on Goethe’s writings in natural science, considered the more impenetrable part of Goethe’s treatises. Steiner’s work met with approval and was instrumental in getting him into his next position, an editor of the great Standard Edition of Goethe’s Complete Works at the central Goethe Archives in Weimar. It was a role that was to last for seven years of his life from 1889 to 1896 and Heidenreich notes

“had a profound effect upon the unfolding of Steiner's own mind and philosophical consciousness. Goethe was the catalyst which released new mental and spiritual energies in Steiner’s own personality. It was during these years that Steiner's fundamental philosophical works were conceived and written.”

In other words, Steiner’s scientific methodology followed an extensive period of study of the works of Goethe, who had contributed to natural science, mainly with his theory of colors and study of bones culminating in the discovery of the ‘Goethe bone’ found in all mammals. However, Goethe was not an avid Theosophist, nor an esotericist. Theosophy was to become a central part of the next stage of Steiner’s life.

He moved to Berlin in 1897 to edit Das Magazin fur Litteratur which put him slap in the middle of the German literary elite. In 1899 he was invited to lecture to the Theosophical Society and became heavily involved with Theosophy, although steadily more critical. Theosophy was founded around Indian ideas and India was its intellectual centre. Steiner centered his beliefs in European ideas and Christian esoteric traditions. Steiner and others in the German section of the Theosophical Society left and formed the Anthroposophical Society. The central idea of Anthroposophy was that there was an objective spiritual world, and it was thus amenable to scientific study. While being rooted in European ideas this idea was esotericist, founded in German idealist and mystical philosophies. Steiner applied it to numerous areas where he sought to have influence. These included the foundation of schools, named Waldorf schools, anthroposophical medicine, a naturopathic system, social reform, and a complete system of government which he called the Threefold Social Order, architecture, and the performing arts.

However, the area where Steiner had the most impact for wine industry participants was the creation of what came to be called biodynamic agriculture (often called biodynamics). Given this, it seems remarkable that Steiner’s life, as described thus far, has so little involvement with agriculture, agronomy, other agricultural scientists, botanists, or biology. Certainly, he came across biology in his reading of Goethe, but this would have been mainly confined to morphology. Rather, the source of the comprehensive system of agriculture that Steiner presented is something of a mystery.

The actual delivery of biodynamics was over 10 days in a series of 8 lectures in Koberitz, Silesia (now Kobierzyce, Poland), from the 7th to the 16th June, 1924. The audience of just over 100 consisted of farmers and members of the Anthroposophical Society. The location was the estate of Count Carl Keyserlingk which, at over 7500 acres, was one of the largest in the region.

When one reads the translated full text of the lectures, along with the interspersed question and answer discussions, one is reminded of the comments of others on reading Steiner’s work. ‘Tough going’ and ‘impenetrable’ (Lachman); “difficult” (Turgeniev); “daunting”, “confusing”, and “bewildering” by his biographer, Wilson; and “irritatingly incomprehensible” (Childs) are typical comments of those who have studied Steiner in depth.

In this article I shall select key propositions and show how Steiner derives each. Each proposition is examined against alternative, mainstream or other, theories. Steiner’s derivation is highlighted not to argue necessarily that assumptions are realistic, but to explain Steiner, and to see how his thought process is different from mainstream thought. Page numbers refer to the page numbers in the referenced PDF copy of the lectures.


In his first lecture, Steiner strikes an opening blow at mainstream economic thought. If one has not actually farmed, one cannot (is apparently not qualified to) talk about the economics of agriculture. All economic theory not so informed is ‘manifest nonsense’. He says (p. 25) that forming theories the way that is done in economics (as in any scientific discipline) through deduction and empirical observation, is doomed to failure applied to any subject.

This proposition is a criticism of all scientific disciplines, as economics did not invent deductive and positivist methodologies. Under Steiner’s rules, for example, a medical professor could not teach medical students about the pain from an inflamed appendix unless he had personally experienced appendicitis. One would be hard put to find a present day academic who agreed with Steiner's stricture. They would also draw strong exception to Steiner’s absence of any justification for his claim.


Steiner discusses the process of plant growth on earth, Steiner goes back to anthroposophy to emphasize that what happens on the earth is a reflection of what happens in the Cosmos. On earth, siliceous substance (silicon plus oxygen, known as silicon dioxide, or silica) is, he asserts, the most active component. He contrasts this with the mainstream recognition that silicon is the most prevalent element in the earth’s crust but almost entirely ignored. By contrast, anthroposophical Medicine incorporates silicon in numerous medications.

Plants also need limestone, potash and sodium (Steiner calls the latter two the ‘kindred substances to limestone’). He asserts that this category and siliceous substances must be in equilibrium (an unexplained term in the context in which he uses it).


Steiner contends that everything that ‘lives in the silicious nature’ (p.33) contains forces that come from Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (the so-called distant planets, referring to their distance from the sun relative to the earth). These planets (the text says plants, but this appears to be an editing error) influence plants and animals through their effects on siliceous substances. On the other hand the planets ‘near the earth’ (the Moon, Venus, and Mercury) influence plants and animals via their effects on limestone, potash, and sodium.

Steiner is even more specific about the role of each cluster of planets (their nature, as he terms it). The near planets affect everything relating to reproduction and multi-generation sustenance. The far planets, through the siliceous nature, affect growth. “The silicious [sic] nature opens the plant-being to the wide spaces of the Universe and awakens the senses of the plant-being in such a way as to receive from all quarters of the Universe the forces which are moulded by these distant planets” (p. 33). He gives no indication how to recognize these conditions.

This model of Cosmic influence on the earth has an almost fairy-story quality to it. Steiner gave no basis for the planets influencing plants and animals through these mechanisms and the mechanisms contain no scientific support. He also describes the moon as a planet, a description that is wrong at the astronomical level and loose at best. The ‘distant planets’ (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) are described as ‘beyond the sun’ whereas they simply orbit the sun in orbits, on average, greater than that of the earth.

Since Steiner is so specific regarding which planets do what, it is odd that Uranus and Neptune are not included, or their absence explained. Pluto would be discovered six years after Steiner’s lectures. How would his followers go about revising their theory of the Cosmos based on this (they made no changes)? What about Pluto’s 1990 demotion to dwarf planet?


Steiner’s first application of anthroposophy to an agricultural question is to the planting decision. He compares seed sowing following rain, and seed sowing following sunny weather. He has a discourse on water being just H2O to the physicist, but ‘much more’ to the anthroposophist. Without explicitly defining what that ‘more’ is, he goes on to say that water ‘brings about the distribution of the lunar focus in the earthly realm.’ (p. 35). He posits that a subsequent full moon causes forces to spring up on earth that shoot into the growth of plants, but only if several days of rain have gone before. Sowing should therefore be timed around a full moon and maybe even carried out by the light of the moon.

To the mainstream farmer or agronomist this is a relationship between rain and yield. A familiar irrigation story. The state of the moon is irrelevant. To the anthroposophist the descriptive superstructure about the moon supplying energy is vital. To the positivist scientist the anthroposophical theory is incomplete in that there is no justification presented for the inability of the forces of the Moon to release energy into plant growth in the absence of rain. However, that force from the moon is what explains observed rapid growth after rain.

At this point the argument is entirely a hypothesis. What anthroposophists need to win adherents to their theory is a controlled experiment that demonstrates a positive empirically measurable difference in plant growth for a given rainfall dependent on whether a period around a full moon is present or not. The mainstream (positivist) expects the experiment to show that the state of the moon does not affect plant growth.


Steiner’s second major application of anthroposophy to agriculture is to the effect of atmospheric temperature on growth. Warmth, posits Steiner, facilitates those forces which work through silicon oxide. These forces in the Cosmos emanate from Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. At this point Steiner points out that Saturn takes 30 years to orbit the sun. As a result, he says, Saturn’s effect on plants must be quite different from planets with much shorter orbits (in his example, he appears to assume that earth’s moon orbits the sun every 28 or 30 days. p.35).

Whatever effect Saturn has on plant growth, it is equally effective when it is beneath the earth. Its rays, Steiner tells us, penetrate through the earth. From either perspective, the intensity with which the Saturn forces penetrate plants increase with temperature.

Because Saturn has a long orbital period, it affects long-lived plants (perennials) through their long-lived components such as bark (in the case of trees). Planets with shorter orbital periods have more effect on annuals.

He unwittingly formulates a couple of testable propositions

“If someone wishes to plant an oak, it is of no little importance whether or no[sic] he has a good knowledge of the periods of Mars; for an oak, rightly planted in the proper Mars-period, will thrive differently from one that is planted in the Earth thoughtlessly, just when it happens to suit.


“Assume for instance that we take, as firewood, wood that is derived from trees which were planted in the Earth without understanding of the cosmic rhythms. It will not provide the same health-giving warmth as firewood from trees that were planted intelligently.”

There are several unsupported contentions here.

  1. Saturn delivers forces that work through silicon oxide.

  1. It does so more effectively the higher the temperature.

  1. Saturn forces penetrate through the earth without loss of efficacy.

  1. Saturn’s forces affect the long-lived components of plants more due to Saturn’s long orbital period.

The first chapter ends with an appeal to anthroposophy via the personal anecdote “Why, for example, is it impossible to-day to eat such potatoes as I ate in my youth?” (p. 37).


In this chapter, Steiner considers everything that affects soil. He starts with the contention that every farm should strive to be self-contained (p.40). For example, the amount of animal manure produced should be the amount needed by the crops. Manure brought in from outside should be regarded as a remedy for a sick farm. He explains the logic as the effect Cosmic forces have on the soil “...the earthly soil as such not only contains a certain life — a vegetative nature of its own — but an effective astral principle as well; a fact which is not only not taken into account to-day but is not even admitted nowadays” (p.41).

The ‘inner life’ of the earthly soil is different in summer and winter. This is vague, even if inner life is taken to refer to the organisms in the soil.

He goes on at length with an analogy (p.42) of the earth and human body in which the head is underground and faces the centre of the earth, the surface is the diaphragm, and vegetation is in the intestines.

Activities above the earth are dependent on the “planets near the Earth” (the Moon, Mercury, and Venus) supplementing the influence of the Sun.

By contrast, the distant planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn which Steiner says, “revolve outside the orbit of the Sun” work on everything that is beneath the Earth’s surface. They assist those influences which the Sun exercises from below the earth.

So the far planets influence below the Earth’s surface and near planets influence above the Earth’s surface. No evidence is adduced for this.

He describes the mechanism that he fancies that executes these influences. It is analogous to the process of heat reflection that is important in vineyards worldwide. However, Steiner is not talking about something as understood in natural science as heat. He uses the term ‘forces’, allowing for broad effects from the cosmos.

Sand and rock are the most important substances in the earth for the unfolding of the growth processes. They depend on the influence of the most distant cosmic forces. It is through the sand’s silicious content that there comes into the Earth life-ethereal and chemically influential elements (p. 43).

Sandy soil gets the credit for the way the soil grows alive (p. 44). Silicious ground is essential for plants roots.

Where does clay come in? Clay is a “means of transport” (p. 44) of what has come from the Cosmos back up above the soil.

He apparently has the analogous stomach above ground because he regards what happens there (in taking in things) as a process of digestion (p. 45). Limestone draws things down into the soil. He scoffs at mainstream science’s understanding of this process (p. 44). He goes off on the tangent of warmth and claims that there is a great difference between the warmth above the soil (affected by the near planets - Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon) and that below the surface of the soil (affected by the far planets - Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). One is ‘leaf-and-flower warmth’ and the other is ‘root warmth’). The warmth above the earth is ‘dead’, the warmth below the earth is ‘living’ (p. 45).

There are big things taking place between these two zones. Warmth beneath the earth is most alive in winter. It would make humans stupid (!). We need dead warmth, he claims, in order to be clever. Limestone draws this in, although it is not explained how. Once in, dead warmth ‘wakes up’ (p. 46).

Air above the soil contains more oxygen and air beneath the soil contains more carbonic acid.

Why? He claims air is ‘permeated’ with vitality the moment it passes into soil. He does not say how, or posit the formula for vitality (p. 47).

Water undergoes the reverse effect. It becomes ‘more dead’ on entering the soil. This makes it more responsive to distant cosmic forces.

Mineral substances are most influenced by distant cosmic forces Jan. 15th-Feb. 15th. Steiner considers that time as when the interior of the earth is least self-dependent and most influenced by the Cosmic forces of the far planets.

Just before this period the crystals are of greatest importance. They ‘ray out the forces that are particularly important for plant-growth’ (p. 47). Steiner refers to this as ‘fact’ and postulates that a time will come when it is used to optimize plant growth. (p. 47).

As is common in related literatures there is a retreat into grandiose generalities “Altogether, we should be clear that the whole domain of Agriculture — including what is beneath the surface of the Earth — represents an individuality, a living organism, living even in time. The life of the Earth is especially strong during the winter season, whereas in summer-time it tends in a certain sense to die” (p. 48).


Seeds become plants as follows “When the complexity of structure has been enhanced to the

highest degree, it all disintegrates again, and eventually, where we first had the highest complexity attained within the Earth-domain, we now have a tiny realm of chaos. It all disintegrates, as we might say, into cosmic dust. Then, when the seed — having been raised to the highest complexity — has fallen asunder into cosmic dust and the tiny realm of chaos is there, then the entire surrounding Universe begins to work and stamps itself upon the seed, thus building up out of the tiny chaos that which can only be built in it by forces pouring in

from the great Universe from all sides (Diagram No. 4). So in the seed we get an image of the Universe” (p. 50).

His references to chaos in seeds is not clear.


Consider Steiner’s explanation for the green color of plants: “The green leaves, in their form and thickness and in their greeness [sic] too, carry an earthly element, but they would not be green unless the cosmic force of the Sun were also living in them.” (p. 51). Here is a parallel explanation to the well-understood process of photosynthesis. The latter isolates carbon dioxide CO2 and water H2O under the influence of light producing sugar C6H12O6 and Oxygen 6O2, Thus:

CO2 + H2O -> Light -> C6H12O6 + 6O2,

Carbon Dioxide Water -> Light -> Sugar Oxygen

The sugar is the chemical energy that can be used to fuel the organism’s metabolic activities. An important implication of photosynthesis is that it takes the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as an input and outputs oxygen back to the atmosphere, essential for human breathing. On the macro scale photosynthesis is the main source of the oxygen content of the earth’s atmosphere.

Interestingly, this mainstream theory of plant physiology places its operations in a very wholistic context, the context that biodynamic proponents claim as their own.

Steiner goes on to make some very specific attributions of color to Cosmic forces:

“And even more so when you come to the coloured flower; therein are living not only the cosmic forces of the Sun, but also the supplementary forces which the Sunforces receive from the distant planets — Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In this way we must look at all plant growth. Then, when we contemplate the rose, in its red colour we shall see the forces of Mars. Or when we look at the yellow sunflower — it is not quite rightly so called, it is called so an account of its form; as to its yellowness it should really be named the Jupiterflower. For the force of Jupiter, supplementing the cosmic force of the Sun, brings forth the white or yellow colour in the flowers. And when we approach the chicory (Cichoriuns Intybus), we shall divine in the bluish colour the influence of Saturn, supplementing that of the Sun. Thus we can recognise Mars in the red flower, Jupiter in the yellow or white, Saturn in the blue, ...” (p. 51).

The attribution of colors to specific Cosmic entities is not analogy here. Steiner means it literally. The red in roses really does come from Mars, etc. No evidence is adduced and it would have been interesting to have observed the audience during this lecture.

The same Cosmic attribution is true of taste “In the apple you are eating Jupiter, in the plum Saturn” (p.55).


Farms should keep adequate animals to produce sufficient manure to fertilize all the crops. If the animals are fed on the crops they will produce optimal manure to grow the next cohort of crops. An inability to produce an adequate quantity of the right manure on the farm should be seen as a deficiency which should be remedied.


On animal physiology: from the snout to the heart, the distant planets are the influential Cosmos forces. In the heart, the Sun and behind the heart, the near planets (p. 57). Again, no explanation or evidence adduced.


Certain members of the periodic table are critical to anthropomorphic agriculture according to Steiner. Their names are not a surprise to conventional agronomists but their role and method of action have no conventional parallel.


Nitrogen works with ‘four sisters’, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur, to make up proteins.


“Sulphur in protein is the very element which acts as mediator between the Spiritual that is spread throughout the Universe — the formative power of the Spiritual — and the physical.” (p. 61). To follow the tracks that the Spiritual marks out we must follow sulphur. First, Steiner discusses carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. The motivation here is that he considers the modern chemist as knowing little of them.


Carbon has fallen to low cultural prestige as coal and graphite. Despite it also being diamonds. It used to be the Philosopher’s Stone. “Carbon, in effect, is the bearer of all the creatively formative processes in Nature. Whatever in Nature is formed and shaped be it the form of the plant persisting for a comparatively short time, or the eternally changing configuration of the animal body — carbon is everywhere the great plastician” (p. 63). To build these forms, carbon uses sulphur.

3.3.1 The Carbon Cycle in Man

Man inhales oxygen, “unites” it with carbon, and exhales carbon dioxide. The amount of carbon, taken by Steiner as the source of stiffness, is reduced by respiration. This is what keeps man mobile. Plants, by contrast, are stiff because they have more carbon, taking it in as the exhaled carbon dioxide, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen. Man excretes some carbon, combined with the oxygen, as carbonic acid.

Mainstream biology would have little argument with the two cycles here. The attribution of human ‘stiffness’ to the amount of carbon in the body (indeed, the imprecise definition of the terms) would not be accepted. Mainstream physiology has a much more detailed, and richer, explanation of human growth.

The human skeleton is the “limestone nature” which man makes use of to create something more solid as a basis, although its origins or any notion of evolution is absent (p. 65).

The Spiritual forces that loom so large in Steiner’s epistemology move through the physical world on the paths of carbon (p. 65).


Living beings are permeated by an ethereal which Steiner considers to be the true bearer of life. Medicine has well defined descriptions of the respiration (oxygen->CO2) process in breathing but Steiner has a totally different parallel account (p. 65). “Only now does the breathing process reveal its meaning. In breathing we absorb the oxygen. … But in this oxygen the lowest of the supersensible, that is the ethereal, is living — unless indeed it has been killed or driven out, as it must be in the air we have around us. In the air of our breathing the living quality is killed, is driven out, for the living oxygen would make us faint. Whenever anything more highly living enters into us we become faint. Even an ordinary hypertrophy of growth — if it occurs at a place where it ought not to occur — will make us faint, nay even more than faint. If we were surrounded by living air in which the living oxygen were present, we should go about stunned and benumbed. The oxygen around us must be killed. … As soon as it enters into us through our breathing it becomes alive again. Inside us it must be alive” (p. 66).

Likewise, oxygen becomes living oxygen when it passes from the air into the soil.


The role of nitrogen, in Steiner’s theory, is that of mediator. It guides life into the form that is embodied in the carbon. He says the bridge between carbon and oxygen is built by nitrogen. Steiner, as an anthroposophist, cannot omit spirituality and sees the spirituality in nitrogen, assisted by sulphur, as the astral spirituality.

3.5.1 Respiration, per Steiner:

“Now you can see into the human breathing process. Through it man receives into himself the oxygen — that is, the ethereal life. Then comes the internal nitrogen, and carries the oxygen everywhere — wherever there is carbon, i.e., wherever there is something formed and figured, albeit in everlasting change and movement. Thither the nitrogen carries the oxygen, so that it may fetch the carbon and get rid of it. Nitrogen is the real mediator, for the oxygen to be turned into carbonic acid and so to be breathed out.” .(p 69).

He claims that if the ratio of nitrogen is reduced, the human body will produce nitrogen and reduce the ratio of other things, to correct the imbalance. NItrogen is like a corpse in the air, transporting the astra. Underground in the earth it comes alive. “nay more it

becomes sentient and sensitive inside the Earth” (p. 69).

Nitrogen has feelings (p. 70). If there is the proper quantity of water in a given district of the Earth it has sympathetic feelings. If there is too little, it has a feeling of antipathy. If the right plants are there for the soil then it has a sympathetic feeling.


He notes hydrogen is close to the Spiritual and to the Substantial. It carries all that is formed, alive, and astral out into the Cosmos. Because of its low atomic weight hydrogen is actually the least spiritual of all.


Steiner makes a sidetrack to the subject of meditation. Noting that it is inexorably bound up with the subject of breathing he says that we do not totally expel the carbon dioxide in our system when we meditate. This, he clams, gives us a conscious living experience of the nitrogen around us (p. 74). “If we have made ourselves thus receptive to nitrogen's revelations, we shall presently conduct our farming in a very different style than before (p. 75).” The peasant-farmer is a meditator and acquires a spiritual perception.


Under Steiner, seeds form as a means of enabling carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen to become independent of the protein in which they are bound. The other way, hydrogen carrying them outward into “the far space of the Universe”. In the seed they are receptive to the inpouring forces of the Cosmos. In the seed there is chaos, in the far Universe there is chaos. The two, says Steiner, must interact in order to create new life.

Steiner sees the carbon that comes from a plant into a human being as needing first to become mobile, then it needs to build on the limestone in the animal skeleton and the siliceous element in the body. Nitrogen is pulled down into the earth by limestone (nitrogen inbreathing). The plants that do this are the papilionaceae, known as nitrogen collectors.

He discusses limestone and its acquisitive nature. The silica nature is the opposite. Clay mediates between the two.

The result in the growth of plants is that carbon could perform the growth, it had access to water. However, limestone blocks it so it needs silica to assist, together with clay. One is left screaming, how do these elements interact? An explanation something along the lines of mainstream botany. However, Steiner does not make any attempt to bridge the two.

Steiner therefore describes each of these five elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulphur as inwardly related to a specific spiritual principle.



Steiner starts by taking mainstream science to task. Picking on nutritionists for an example of its failings makes his job a fairly easy task. He contrasts differing and contradictory nutrition recommendations over time in an attempt to show how mainstream science is preoccupied by the short term. In so doing he may have made the kind of overstretch that is so common in anthroposophical writing: he blames the arterial sclerosis of old age on ‘the toxic effect of superfluous protein’ (p. 95). Later research contradicts this.


Very important to Steiner. The greater part of what man consumes is to enable activity, not to store. So the question is, are foodstuffs consumed providing us with the ‘proper living quality of forces’ (p. 96). He considers that the body renews itself every seven or eight years (no explanation of how or why). The substances to do this are received through the sense-organs, the skin and breathing in minute doses.

Earthly matter contains etherically living substance. It is always on the way to becoming a plant cover. Life in the plant continues into the surrounding soil. To manure the earth is to make it alive. Require a ‘personal relationship’ with the manure (p. 101). In Steiner’s terminology, the organic entity establishes the relationship between its inner and outer side. It must smell inwardly.

Manuring communicates livingness to the soil. Nitrogen must communicate enough life forces to the soil. He contends that purely mineral substances as manure will not get at the real earthy element. Plants using mineral manures will have a different kind of growth from those using earthy manures.

He favors compost “the compost heap really contains ethereal and living elements and also astral.” (p. 103). Another testable proposition “the chalky or limestone element. Bring some of this perhaps in the form of quicklime — into the heap of compost, and you will get this result: Without inducing the evaporation of the astral overstrongly, the ethereal is absorbed by the quicklime, and therewith oxygen too is drawn in, and the astral is made splendidly effective.” The problem is that Steiner has no explanation for recognizing the ethereal or the astral.


Steiner asks the rhetorical question: Why do cows have horns? Because living entities can have streams of forces coming out of them and going in them. Horns facilitate this, obviating the need for lumps to do it.

By contrast antlers carry streams outward.

So, the cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral ethereal formative powers, which are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism.”if you were there inside the belly of the cow you — would smell how the astral life and the living vitality pours inward from the horns ” (p. 105). In manure, the astral contains nitrogen-carrying forces. The ethereal contains oxygen-carrying forces. It has gone through the creature so it is devoid of certain original ingredients (lost in the digestive metabolic system). But, Steiner claims but does not justify, it cannot be improved through the addition of inoculation with bacteria. He does not address whether it can be improved by the addition of artificial fertilizer. This is an important point to leave unspoken.

He then describes, in detail, the process for making manure in cow horns (Preparations 500 and 501).


“We take manure, such as we have available. We stuff it into the horn of a cow, and bury the horn a certain depth into the earth — say about 18 in. to 2 ft. 6 in., provided the soil below is not too clayey or too sandy.” Why do this? “You see, by burying the horn with its filling of manure, we preserve in the horn the forces it was accustomed to exert within the cow itself, namely the property of raying back whatever is life-giving and astral.” That is what manure does. What is the effect? “Through the fact that it is outwardly surrounded by the earth, all the radiations that tend to etherealise and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn. And the manure inside the horn is inwardly quickened with these forces, which thus gather up and attract from the surrounding earth all that is ethereal and life-giving.” (p. 107).

Preparation 500. Photo courtesy Podere La Marronaia
Preparation 500. Photo courtesy Podere La Marronaia

The horn must remain buried for the winter and then dug up and the manure scraped out into a bucket of water. The water must be stirred vigorously in a total body commitment, for one hour. The motion must involve changes in direction (clockwise then anti-clockwise). Steiner claims that this is not onerous and could be palmed onto usually non contributing members of the family (perhaps those tourists who go on grape picking excursions to conventional wineries could be assigned to manure stirring on biodynamic ones).

He estimates that one horn and half a bucket of water can cover 1200 square metres. The distribution tool for small areas is the syringe, “for larger surfaces you will have to devise special machines.”

Steiner presents no data on the efficacy of Preparation 500. Conventional agronomists would also be baffled at the superstructure of “forces”, “etherealising and astralising”, finding these processes quite alien to conventional chemical reactions.


To make Preparation 501 fill a cow horn with quartz or silica or orthorclase (sic) feldspar ground to a fine powder. Bury for the summer and dig up in the Fall. Instructions for burying are surprisingly missing, in contrast with Preparation 500. Keep the unearthed horn until Spring.

Usage is similar to Preparation 500 except that Steiner contends a much smaller quantity is necessary “You can take a fragment the size of a pea, or maybe only the size of a pin's head, and distribute it by stirring it up well in a bucket of water”. The same hour-long stirring is necessary.

Steiner claims that the effects of 500 and 501 are complementary. Spray Preparation 501 on a field sprayed with Preparation 500 “and you will presently see how well this supplements the influence which is coming from the other side, out of the earth itself, by virtue of the cow-horn manure.” Empirical support consists of the reassuring sentence “It will have a wonderful effect, notably in the case of cereals.”

Steiner claims a very special status for his agricultural methods. Contending conventional farming (‘mineral farming’, as he would have it) is concerned only with short term success like a higher farm profit or larger potatoes he says that, by contrast, he is concerned with a much bigger picture: whether the products of farming are beneficial to man to eat. He doesn’t try to prove this and evidence on the nutritional quality of biodynamic vs. conventionally farmed food would show no difference. Farmers using conventional methods would likely be stunned to be lectured on their time frames and priorities by a social philosopher. Overall, Steiner’s claim for a more holistic outlook of biodynamics is unproven at best and tendentious at worst.


The lectures (so far) are a jumble of unfashionable social philosophy, bizarre methods without scientific support, and snippets of common sense that are already part of mainstream agriculture, and therefore not innovative. Their popularity with a small group of German farmers from 1924 may be explained by the agricultural milieu at the time. Major chemical countries (BASF, Bayer, and others) were the tech. firms of their era. They were experiencing their golden age of growth, based on claims of large increases in agricultural output from the use of their products. The more farmers used, the better the results. This generated a reaction from some farmers, who looked for other ways to improve their agricultural results. To some, biodynamics offered this, although the take up was small. Biodynamics never really caught on among farmers who were pragmatic, and driven by results.

The present day favorable disposition of biodynamics among, in particular, wine writers, is hard to explain but exists presumably because they have not read what Steiner actually said. Without having read his lectures, they guess that biodynamics must just be ‘rigorous organic farming’, which it clearly is not. Anthroposophy drives biodynamic farming. The baffling preparations, harvest schedules, all unconventional strictures are derived by Steiner from his introspection against anthroposophy. A rigorous consideration of viticulture would treat it with contempt until it produces empirical results.



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