Die vier Weltalter; or, Schiller as Proto-Mormon

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). 
The Council of Gods (1518) by Raphael.

Next to the immortal Goethe, Friedrich Schiller stands as the great German polymath of Weimar Classicism and the Sturm und Drang (conventionally translated as “storm and stress”) literary movement. Schiller’s works include dramas, poetry, histories, and philosophical essays. 

Schiller’s work has endured in popular culture, even if you don’t realize it. Ever heard of the story of the marksman William Tell shooting an apple off of the head of his son? Well, that’s from the old German legend of Wilhelm Tell made popular by Schiller’s 1804 play. So the next time you hear this music, think of Schiller, as the opera was directly based on his play.

Or maybe you’ve heard Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” from the last movement of his 9th symphony. The lyrics are taken directly from Schiller’s “Ode an die Freude,” written in 1785.

As with “Ode an die Freude,” there is another multi-stanza ballad by Schiller that includes the imagery of the gods, nature, creation, beauty, joy, history, etc (themes all-too-common to Schiller and like-minded Romantics). This one, however, especially caught my attention because of the depiction of the divine council and some other imagery that fits nicely in Mormon mythology and cosmology. I’m positively fascinated by the concept of the divine council, so I thought I’d share this wonderful poem (titled “Die vier Weltalter,” or “the four ages of the world,”) with y’all and comment on how many aspects of this poem makes Schiller something of a proto-Mormon.

First, I want to make it perfectly clear that I don’t think what Schiller said here, and elsewhere, is in perfect accord with Mormon theology. I’m not trying to prove Schiller was some sort of doctrinal harbinger for Joseph Smith. (Indeed, I’d be surprised if Joseph even heard about Schiller at any point in his life.) I’m also not saying that there is some sort of intellectual or philosophical genealogy from Schiller to Joseph. As you’ll see, there are clearly points of divergence between what Schiller describes here and what Joseph described in his revelations.

That being said, I think you’ll also see some very interesting parallels between Schiller’s and Joseph’s respective cosmologies. 

Wohl perlet im Glase der purpurne Wein,

    Wohl glänzen die Augen der Gäste;
Es zeigt sich der Sänger, er tritt herein,
    Zu dem Guten bringt der das Beste;
Denn ohne die Leier im himmlischen Saal
Ist die Freude gemein auch beim Nektarmahl.

Truly how the purple wine fizzes in the glass.

    Truly how the eyes of the guests shine.
The singer shows up, and comes inside,
    to the good ones he brings the best.
For without the lyre in the heavenly hall,
joy is simply nasty with nectar.

We begin the poem by setting up the scene: a bard shows up to a party and begins to strum the lyre. What will he sing for us? Surely nothing less than a mythic drama, or what Hugh Nibley called a “temple drama.”

Ihm gaben die Götter das reine Gemüth,
    Wo die Welt sich, die ewige, spiegelt;
Er hat Alles gesehn, was auf Erden geschieht
    Und was uns die Zukunft versiegelt;
Er saß in der Götter urältestem Rath
Und behorchte der Dinge geheimste Saat.

The gods have given him a pure disposition, 

    where the eternal world itself is reflected.
He’s seen everything that’s happened on earth,
    and what’s been sealed for the future.
He sat in the primordial council of the gods,
and espied even the tiniest little secrets.[1]    

In what is classic divine council imagery from both biblical and Mormon mythology, the bard is granted divine secrets by the gods that only he can impart to the world. The bard, who sat in the pre-mortal council, has been given visions and secret knowledge (what’s called in Hebrew the sôd, or secret counsel of God) that qualifies him to be our story teller.  

Er breitet es lustig und glänzend aus,
    Das zusammengefaltete Leben;
Zum Tempel schmückt er das irdische Haus,
    Ihm hat es die Muse gegeben;
Kein Dach ist so niedrig, keine Hütte so klein,
Er führt einen Himmel voll Götter hinein.

He spread it comically and radiantly,

    the folded-together life.[2]                              
He makes his earthly home like a temple;
    the one that the muses gave him.
No roof is too low, no hut is too small,
it leads to a heaven full of gods.

The bard consecrates the shabby, earthy hut into a temple with his music. When he tells the stories of the gods he draws his audience towards the heavens. So now we ascend with the bard up into heaven, to look down upon the same grand vision he experienced. In other words, we’re invited to participate with him in the divine council!

Und wie der erfindende Sohn des Zeus
    Auf des Schildes einfachem Runde
Die Erde, das Meer und den Sternenkreis
    Gebildet mit göttlicher Kunde,
So drückt er ein Bild des unendlichen All
In des Augenblicks flüchtig verrauschenden Schall.

And how the inventive son of Zeus

    on a simple round shield
the earth, the sea, and the Zodiac,
    built with godly ability,
So he pressed an image of the unending universe
in the volatile moment of a clanging sound. 

We begin with creation. Hephaestus, the unmistakable craftsman god and son of Zeus, hammers out the earth, water, and zodiac on a rounded shield (hypocephalus, anyone?). With quick clanging he hammers out the universe, which we can only gasp at with wonder.

Er kommt aus dem kindlichen Alter der Welt,
    Wo die Völker sich jugendlich freuten;
Er hat sich, ein fröhlicher Wandrer, gesellt
    Zu allen Geschlechtern und Zeiten.
Vier Menschenalter hat er gesehn
Und läßt sie am fünften vorübergehn.

He comes from the childly age of the world,

    Where people themselves were youthfully joyful;
He, a jolly traveler, join himself with,
    all sexes and times.
Four ages of man has he seen,
but he let’s them ignore the fifth.

Now that creation is accomplished we go down to earth in its first primeval childhood.

Erst regierte Saturnus schlicht und gerecht,
    Da war es heute wie morgen,
Da lebten die Hirten, ein harmlos Geschlecht,
    Und brauchten für gar nichts zu sorgen;
Sie liebten und thaten weiter nichts mehr,
Die Erde gab Alles freiwillig her.

First reigned Saturn, simply and justly,

    as it was today and tomorrow,
So lived the shepherds, a harmless race.
    with absolutely nothing to worry about.
They loved and did nothing more,
the earth gave them everything willingly.

With Saturn reigning resplendently over his children, mankind can enjoy life in the earth’s paradisiacal glory. What a glorious Eden the earth is, where there is abundance and safety for all.

Drauf kam die Arbeit, der Kampf begann
    Mit Ungeheuern und Drachen,
Und die Helden fingen, die Herrscher, an,
    Und den Mächtigen suchten die Schwachen.
Und der Streit zog in des Skamanders Feld;
Doch die Schönheit war immer der Gott der Welt.

But then came work, the war began,

    with monsters and dragons,
Then Heroes, sovereigns, commenced,
    and the strong preyed after the weak.
But even though conflict progressed to Scamander’s field,[3]
beauty was ever the God of the world. 

When lo! suddenly is come opposition. Dragons, monsters, war, and work, disrupt our paradisiacal earth and plunge us into a fallen world! But although we’re fallen, our world is still beautiful and glorious.

Aus dem Kampf ging endlich der Sieg hervor,
    Und der Kraft entblühte die Milde,
Da sangen die Musen im himmlischen Chor,
    Da erhuben sich Göttergebilde –
Das Alter der göttlichen Phantasie,
Es ist verschwunden, es kehret nie.

From the war went, finally, the victory,

    and power crowned meekness with flowers,
So sang the muses in a heavenly choir,
    as they raised up images of gods –
The age of a godly fantasia,
is gone, never to return.

Temporary rest. Good has, for the time being, at least, triumphed. But the earth’s edenic state can never be recaptured, at least not now. So the muses raise up images of the gods to direct the attention of mortals heavenward.

Die Götter sanken vom Himmelsthron,
    Es stürzten die herrlichen Säulen,
Und geboren wurde der Jungfrau Sohn,
    Die Gebrechen der Erde zu heilen;
Verbannt ward der Sinne flüchtige Lust,
Und der Mensch griff denkend in seine Brust.

The gods condescended from heavenly thrones,

    to topple majestic columns,
And so was born the son of the virgin,
    The afflicted of the earth to heal;
Banished was any sense of fleeting desire,
as man grasped reason to his breast.[4]

Now comes Christ, the son of a virgin. His mission is to heal the downtrodden and bring light to the minds of men. It’s interesting that the bard switches suddenly from pagan to Christian imagery. This, I suppose, is to move us along the course of human history. We’ve left the vissicitudes of the Greeks and are entering the time of Christ.

Und der eitle, der üppige Reiz entwich,
    Der die frohe Jugendwelt zierte;
Der Mönch und die Nonne zergeißelten sich,
    Und der eiserne Ritter turnierte.
Doch war das Leben auch finster und wild,
So blieb doch die Liebe lieblich und mild.

And a smug, opulent charm escaped,

    and adorned the happy young world;
The monk and the nun scourged themselves,
    while the iron knight tourneyed.
Life was dark and wild,
but love was sweet and mild.

Now we’ve in the Middle Ages. Monks are flogging themselves while knights smash each other at a tournament. But although life is dark, love still pervades, if only quietly.

Und einen heiligen, keuschen Altar
    Bewahrten sich stille die Musen;
Es lebte, was edel und sittlich war,
    In der Frauen züchtigem Busen;
Die Flamme des Liedes entbrannte neu
An der schönen Minne und Liebestreu.

And a holy, chaste age,
    the silent muses themselves preserved;
It lived nobly and uprightly,
    in the bosoms of virtuous women;
The flame of the song ignited anew
In the beautiful courtly love and fidelity.

Through the darkness was preserved by the muses art, beauty, love. All in the bosoms of women! While the men are off killing each other and the superstitious flogging themselves, enlightened, virtuous women are guided by the gods to protect the flame of divinity. The fall, strife, apostasy, contention, and anything like unto them weren’t able to extinguish the divine spark within the bosoms of humanity.  

Drum soll auch ein ewiges, zartes Band
    Die Frauen, die Sänger umflechten,
Sie wirken und weben, Hand in Hand,
    Den Gürtel des Schönen und Rechten.
Gesang und Liebe in schönem Verein,
Sie erhalten dem Leben den Jugendschein.

And so is an eternal, delicate ribbon
    braided by women, by singers,
They work and weave, hand in hand,
    The sash of beauty and justice.
Song and love in a lovely society,
they retained for life a gleam of youth.

And now we conclude. In spite of it all, humanity has prevailed. Women have ensured the immortality and eternal life of the human race through their diligence in preserving beauty, art, justice, and love.

So there you have it. This poem could,  I believe, be called Schiller’s “Plan of Salvation.” It’s a breathtaking mythological, cosmological overview of the nature of the divine and the earthly. It includes the themes of creation, the divine council, primeval theomachy, birth, a fall, strife, opposition in all things, apostasy, restoration, and exaltation. All of these are very important themes in Mormon cosmology. Of course, for Schiller this “Plan of Salvation” doesn’t include making and keeping sacred covenants, as well as other things Mormons consider eternally crucial, and for that reason I again add my cautionary note that I’m not claiming that what Schiller wrote lines up 100% with Mormon theology. Also, I’m sure my reading in some places is maybe a stretch. (Maybe it’s possible that I’m reading too much of my Mormonism into this poem. Who knows?) Nevertheless, what I see in this poem, from my Latter-day Saint perspective, at least, is Schiller, with what light and knowledge he had, grasping at the same thing Joseph would later grasp for–––and eventually, line upon line, reveal to the world.  

Notes to the translation:

[1]: Literally something like “and eavesdropped on the things of the most secret seeds.”

[2]: Not sure how to idiomatically translate this into English.

[3]: An allusion to the mythological figure Scamander. See here.

[4]: Literally, “And the man grasped thinkingly to his breast.” I decided to turn the adverb into a noun since that more idiomatically conveys what the line means.