Sulphur and Protein
Peter Stewart, February 2020
In lecture three of the Agriculture Course[i], when Rudolf Steiner begins to speak about how the cosmic and earthly forces work through the substances of the earth, he uses the poetic picture that the spirit “moistens its fingers with sulphur” when working creatively with carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to build up the organism of the plants, animals and human beings from protein. He says that sulphur is the necessary mediator for the spirit to weave the material elements of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen into the living substance of protein as the basis for organic life. In this article I would like to explore how we can better understand sulphur’s role in this process.
Firstly, we need to understand that as a living substance, protein is no longer under the same forces as its separate material chemical constituents of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. It is no longer under the sway of the inorganic forces of weight, but is under the formative influence of the cosmic forces of light and life. In Fundamentals of Therapy[ii], Rudolf Steiner and Ita Wegman characterize protein as a substance “that must have the inherent faculty to lose whatever form may result from the nature of its material constituents the moment it is called upon, within the organism, to be of service to the form the organism needs…in protein the forces proceeding from the nature and mutual relationships of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon fall asunder and disintegrate. The inorganic bindings of substance cease to take effect, and in the disintegrating protein, organic formative forms begin to work. Now these formative forces are bound up with the etheric body.”
Similarly, in lecture 3 of Therapeutic Insights: Earthly and Cosmic Laws[iii], Steiner says “the more organic a substance is, the less one atom will be chemically connected with another, for the substances are whirled about chaotically, and even ordinary protein molecules, for instance in the nerve substance or blood substance, are in reality inwardly amorphous forms; they are not complicated molecules but inorganic matter inwardly torn asunder, inorganic matter that has rid itself of the crystallization forces, the forces that hold molecules together and connect the atoms with one another. This is already the case in the ordinary molecules of the organs, and it is most of all the case in the embryonic molecules, in the protein of the germ.”
In Spiritual Science, the plant, as a living organism, is seen as one which incorporates a physical body and an etheric body – it has both life and form. In comparison, an inorganic mineral has a physical body only. The physical body is under the sway of the forces of weight, while the etheric body is under the sway of the forces of light working from the cosmic periphery. In lecture 6 of Spiritual Science and Medicine[iv], 26 March 1920, Rudolf Steiner characterises the plant as a being “set into the tension of this combat between light and weight”. The plant contains mineral constituents, revealed in its ashes, and “this dross and ash is subject to gravity, whereas the upward urge and growth of the plant is a continual conquest of gravity, and other earth-bound forces, so that we may properly speak of a polar opposition between gravity and light. Light is that which continually overcomes gravity”. The plant as a living being, is one in which the forces of light constantly overcome the tendency of the forces of weight, and as Rudolf Steiner says in a lecture on 28 July 1922[v], what particularly characterises the plant, is that it “nullifies the physical and manifests the being of the etheric”. We must see that “the plant is filled out with the physical but dissolves the physical through the etheric. The etheric is what is actually visible in the plant form. The physical is invisible”.
In a similar manner, the characterizations of protein above indicate that as a living substance, the physical, chemical laws of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen are overcome, and the substance of protein becomes open to the formative workings of the forces of light, which in this context refers to the etheric forces.
So the question becomes how does sulphur work in this process of bringing material elements into the realm of life?
In Lecture 3 of the Agriculture Course Rudolf Steiner makes it quite clear that substances like sulphur and phosphorus “have to do with how light works into matter”, and thus were called “light-bearers”. In lecture 5 of Spiritual Science and Medicine we find that Rudolf Steiner contrasts substances like sulphur and phosphorus, as bearers of imponderable light, with polar salt-like substances, which repel the imponderable and thus fall under the influence of weight:
“…all salts arise through deprivation and liberation of the corresponding substances from the inner workings of light and other imponderable elements. I might say that all that is saline has so repelled the imponderable elements through its very origin that they are alien to it.
Of phosphorus the exact contrary is true. Ancient atavistic knowledge was indeed not without justification in calling phosphorus the Light-bearer. Men saw that phosphorus does carry and contain that imponderable light. What salt repels and holds at bay, phosphorus carries within it. Thus the substances at the opposite pole from salt, are those that appropriate, so to speak, the imponderable entities — principally light, but also others, for instance, warmth – and interiorise them, making them their inner properties.”
The imponderable forces of light is again a reference to the etheric forces or ethers. Steiner distinguishes four types of ether: warmth, light, tone and life. In this case, it is possible to see in sulphur a bearer of the etheric forces of warmth. Warmth holds a special position in the scale of the elements and ethers. As described in Steiner’s cosmology, the world began in state of warmth, and then descended through 3 additional evolutionary stages of increasing densification into physical matter via the gaseous, fluid and solid states (the elements of air, water and earth). At the same time, in a kind of counter movement, warmth rarefied through the three evolutionary stages into the etheric activities of light, tone and life. In the Warmth Course[vi], given from 1-14 March 1920, Rudolf Steiner characterizes warmth as a liminal, mediating state between the physical and the etheric, as a boundary state between the elements of air, water and earth, which are under the ponderable forces of gravity, and the imponderable forces of the ethers. Warmth exists in the middle as a bridge between the materialized, mineral physical and the immaterial life of the etheric states. As Steiner states in the Warmth Course, “for the realm of heat this principle takes on a certain form; namely this, that dematerialization works down into heat from above. From the lower side, the tendency to materialization works up into the heat realm. Thus you see that I draw near to the heat nature when I see in it a striving for dematerialization, on the one hand, and on the other a striving for materialization”.
If sulphur were the bearer of etheric warmth, we should find it mediating between the physical mineral state and the etheric realm of life. Indeed, we can find this picture of sulphur in Fundamentals of Therapy, where Steiner and Wegman indicate that the action of sulphur primarily “unfolds its activity in the realm of the physical and etheric body”, and where “sulphur, introduced as a medicament, will make the physical activities of the organism more inclined to submit to the active intervention of the etheric”.
This is the key idea of sulphur as a bearer of the imponderable force of warmth, it makes the physical more inclined to submit to the etheric. In this way we can see in sulphur the warmth-bearer, a catalyst or gateway between the physical realm of materialisation and the etheric realm of dematerialization, its key activity is to be the pathway by which that which had become mineral and inorganic, ponderable and salt-like in nature, can be integrated back into the living substances of the organic, which are under the influence of the imponderable forces of light.
Indeed, in lecture 5 of the Agriculture Course, in the indications for the Yarrow preparation, Steiner presents the picture that it is sulphur which helps the plant lift and integrate the inorganic, mineral salts into the living protein:
“To begin with, we need to make sure that the major elements of the organic realm – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen nitrogen, and sulphur – can come together in the right way with other substances, with potash salts, for instance…But in the context of the interaction between the plant and the soil, it is important to transform this potash so that it relates itself properly to the forming of the proteinaceous material that constitutes the actual body of the plant…Well, the way yarrow appears in nature it is as if some plant-designer had used an ideal model in bringing sulphur into relationship with the other plant substances…By putting yarrow into a deer bladder, we significantly enhance its inherent ability to combine sulphur with other substances.”
Thus we can see, that sulphur as the warmth-bearer, acts as
the gateway between the interaction of the physical with the spiritual forces
of the etheric. Mineral nature must be raised up through this living warmth
into the realm of life, where protein, as a living substance, acts as the
foundation for plants, animals and human beings.
[i] Steiner, R. Spiritual Foundations for the renewal of Agriculture, Bio-dynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc., 1993 (CW327)
[ii] Steiner, R and Wegman, I. Fundamentals of Therapy, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983 (CW27)
[iii] Steiner, R. Therapeutic Insights: Earthly and Cosmic Laws, Mercury Press, 2005 (CW205)
[iv] Steiner, R. Spiritual Science and Medicine, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1948 (CW312)
[v] Steiner, R. The Mystery of the Trinity and the Mission of the Spirit, Anthroposophic Press, 1991 (CW214)
[vi] Steiner, R. Warmth Course, Mercury Press, 2010 (CW321)