Founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the Anthroposophical Society was established in Dornach, Switzerland, in 1912 as a vehicle for Steiner’s system of occult theory and practice. Called Anthroposophy (“wisdom of humanity,” from Greek anthropos, “human,” and sophia, “wisdom”), this system derives partly from Steiner’s background as a Theosophist, partly from his intensive study of the writings of the German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), and partly from Steiner’s wide acquaintance with the occult traditions of his own time. Standard Theosophical concepts such as karma, reincarnation, lost continents, root races, and spiritual evolution play a very large role in Anthroposophy, but share space with a strong if idiosyncratic Christian spirituality, in which the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth forms the central turning point in human evolution, an equivalent for the earth and humanity of the mystery initiations of ancient Greece. See mysteries, ancient; Theosophical Society.

Steiner evolved many of these ideas during his years as a Theosophist, during which he rose to the position of General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany. In 1912, he broke with the Theosophical Society over the latter’s promotion of Jiddu Krishnamurti as the next World Teacher, and founded the Anthroposophical Society as an alternative. More than 90 percent of German Theosophists followed him into the new society. Steiner obtained a charter for a lodge of the Rite of Memphis and Misraim – an occult branch of Freemasonry – from German Masonic promoter Theodor Reuss, but the Anthroposophical Society ended up taking Theosophy as its model and abandoned the secret society tradition in favor of a public teaching organization with an active publishing arm. See Order of the Star in the East; Reuss, Theodor; Rite of Memphis and Misraim.

Unlike many of the offshoots of Theosophy, Steiner’s evolved a distinctive set of meditative exercises designed to foster spiritual clarity and non-physical perceptions. It also helped to inspire a remarkable range of practical applications. Steiner’s work on biodynamic agriculture helped launch the modern organic farming movement, his Waldorf schools remain a popular alternative to conventional schooling, and eurhythmy, a performing art combining dance and gesture with the spoken word, has a small but devoted following in Europe and America.

All these movements have helped channel people into the Anthroposophical Society, which remains active today. Headquartered still in Dornach, in a building designed by Steiner, the Society focuses its efforts wholly on preserving and publicizing Steiner’s legacy. This has had the predictable effect of stopping any further growth of the tradition in its tracks. As a result, while many of the practical manifestations of Steiner’s work have seen immense development over the years, Anthroposophy remains where it was at the time of Steiner’s death, and the Society has had trouble attracting followers in recent years.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006