Well, it’s been way too long since my last post on Hildegard. To tell you the truth, the delay has been partly due to extreme busy-ness, but also partly because the thought of trying to sum up the main themes of Hildegard’s work and her importance to Steiner’s thought was, to say the least, slightly daunting. The more I thought about it, the more connections there seemed to be. Indeed, as far as her relationship to Waldorf teaching is concerned, there hardly is a subject that is NOT impacted in some way by this truly magisterial woman’s work. Theater? She invented the morality play. Music? Hers is the best-preserved body of work by any medieval composer, and her work so completely original that it is hard to imagine a history of music class without her. Life sciences? Her medical treatises and herbals rank with the most sophisticated works of her day. Likewise in the fields of theology and cosmology. The woman was literally instructing the greatest minds of her day in the fine points of the composition of heavenly spheres. Not to mention the relationship of the planets to both the human form and the divine.
Viriditas: Hildegard’s Big Idea
So… given all that, how to summarize her contributions? And more importantly (for the Waldorf folk among us) how to examine her relationship to the work of Rudolf Steiner? Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Steiner it’s this: when in doubt, meditate. So off I trotted to the meditation cushion and after, oh, about three months, here’s what came to me: if there’s one central theme that both ties together Hildegard’s body of work and connects it to Steiner’s thought, it’s her notion of viriditas.
Bear with me, please! Rest assured, I’m not going to start throwing around Latin like some papal dignitary. But I really must use this one term from Hildegard’s oeuvre in the original because there really is no equivalent in English. Or in any other language, as far as I know. And that’s not surprising, because Hildegard took the word, which can be found in only a handful of passages before her, and made it central to her whole cosmology. In fact, if you Google the term, you’re basically directed to sites dealing with Hildegard. So what, exactly, did viriditas mean?
It’s usually translated as “greening power” or “sustaining life force,” or something similarly new-age-y sounding. Essentially, for Hildegard, it denoted God’s generative power that permeates and upholds the creation. If you’re like me, as soon as you read the translations “greening power” and “life force” you made several mental leaps–perhaps associating viriditas with pagan/Wiccan notions of fertility, especially the many medieval depictions of the “Green Man.” Or maybe your mind turned to Chinese ideas about qi. Or, if your brain is as influenced by pop culture as mine, your very first thought might have been something closer to this:
In some respects, any of these associations (even Yoda) is appropriate. It’s certainly interesting to note that some “Green Man” images predate Hildegard, so she may have been picking up on a strain of popular belief when she chose vocabulary that evokes growth and greenness. (1) And even ideas about Chinese qi and the Jedi “Force” aren’t completely off-base. Hildegard definitely believes that viriditas, like qi, can be transmitted to humans through the food they eat, giving them a greater vitality. (Any Chinese grandma would heartily agree.) Indeed, Hildegard’s cures (that is, the recipes for health that fill her books Physica and Causes and Cures) are full of descriptions detailing how the sick can benefit from harnessing the viriditas that flows through nature, imbuing humans, plants, animals, and even stones with various degrees of energetic power. She writes:
“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm. And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)
You can see from this passage that, like the Jedi “Force,” Hildegard’s viriditas isn’t really a thing, so much as it is an energy. All the different parts of nature (earth, air, animals, plants, humans, and even, for Hildegard, stones) have their role to play in circulating, condensing, and conveying viriditas. So far, so good. But was Hildegard’s main achievement that she anticipated George Lucas by a millenium? Should we picture her with lightsaber in hand, her habit looking remarkably like Obi Wan’s robes, intoning, “Feel the viriditas, Luke…”?
Well, much as I love that image, it would seem that, in fact, Hildegard’s viriditas has a lot more to it than Lucas’ rather impersonal, ubiquitous “Force.” For Hildegard, viriditas comes close to being God Him/Herself. And that’s where it gets interesting–both in terms of Hildegard’s theology, and also in terms of her relationship to Rudolf Steiner.
Viriditas and the Word
The starting point for Hildegard’s deeper understanding of viriditas is the Biblical passage from the beginning of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Fine, I can hear you thinking–but what does the Word have to do with “greening power” or “life force”? Well, that’s the interesting part. Hildegard moves freely between a variety of words and concepts in her work, grasping at different ways for conveying the power of what she has experienced in her visions. (3) Bear with me, here, because I’m going to quote at length from one of her passages where I think you can see her many streams of thought coming together–from her use of elemental imagery (earth, air, fire), to her deployment of the term viriditas, to her relation of all these things to Reason and the Word. This is from her Book of Divine Works (Liber divinorum operum), and she is speaking in the voice of the divine being she observed in her first vision:
“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows; I gleam in the waters; and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life. The air lives in green-ness (viriditas) and in flowers, waters flow as if alive, the sun, too, lives in his light. . . .And thus I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power. Everything burns because of me in such a way as our breath constantly moves us, like the wind-tossed flame in a fire. All of this lives in its essence, and there is no death in it. For I am life. I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made. I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species. For I am life. . . .Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it. Since God is Reason, how could it be that God, who causes all divine actions to come to fruition through human beings, is not active?…For this life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action…” (4)
So…just in case that was a little long and heavy for you, here’s the recap: God is Life, Viriditas, Fiery power, and Reason. As such, God is active. “Well,” you might say, “Big deal. Of course God is active. What’s the point of an inactive, dead God?” I think, though, that when Hildegard uses so many different terms and ideas in this one passage, she’s trying to get at something quite different than the usual idea that God, as a person or proper noun (even as “Person” with capital “P”) performs actions. Rather, she’s suggesting that God somehow is action. Or at least, that God cannot be understood outside the realm of action. Look at the words she uses–life, viriditas, fiery power (and flames), Reason. These things (if you can call them “things”) all exist in the boundary between matter and energy. God, in other words, is not a thing, not a noun. God is a verb.
And on that theological cliff-hanger, I’ll leave you until my next post, which I promise will follow much sooner on the heels of this one than this one did on my previous Hildegard post! Stay tuned…Hildegard has some pretty good surprises up her sleeve. As a great philosopher once said, shit is about to get REAL.
1) The most famous “Green Man” images in Hildegard’s area of Germany post-date her by a century or two, as indeed, do most of the “Green Man” images. It appears as though the first “Green Man” sculptures in Western Europe date from the early 4th century CE (in France). Their popularity seems to have increased slightly during the early Middle Ages, and then taken off after Hildegard’s time, with the most famous literary example, of course, being the Green Knight of Sir Gawain’s adventure. The imagery was somewhat transformed during the Renaissance, when animal heads with vegetation, rather than human ones, predominated. But to tell you the truth, it can be difficult to follow the development in a scholarly way, since nearly all of the literature about it is written from a neo-pagan viewpoint that emphasizes continuity over historical development. One neo-pagan site that does have some helpful chronological charts is Mike Harding’s Green Man site, which lists the images according to century.
And then there’s also Tom Cheetham’s book, Green Man, Earth Angel, which covers the 20th c. Islamic scholar Henry Corbin’s work on Muslim images of the “Green Man,” who is identified in Sufic tradition with the figure al-Kadir. (Tom Cheetham. Green Man, Earth Angel. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2004.) What’s interesting about Corbin/Cheetham’s work (though the book doesn’t actually trace this out explicitly) is that it suggests that the explosion of “Green Man” imagery in the high Middle Ages might have its origins in the transmission of Sufic ideas from Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain). Since many scholars now believe that medieval ideas of courtly love and chivalry have their origins in Moorish courts, it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that notions of “greening power” and the “Green Man” might be traceable to Islamic mystical thought as well. But as far as I know, no one has actually examined the topic in any depth.
2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164. Available online here. For this quote and other insights, I’m indebted to a paper written by Allison Jaines Elledge, “You Are What You Eat: Hildegard of Bingen’s Viriditas.” available online here.
3) This is a point Hildegard had in common with Rudolf Steiner, who also used different vocabulary and idioms to try to describe his spiritual experiences. Both of them seem to have moved fluidly through a number of different metaphors and descriptors to try to capture something that is ultimately indescribable in ordinary language. In fact, Hildegard went so far as to create her own alphabet, the “Litterae Ignotae,” a series of unique letters that she used in some of her hymns and songs to capture the mysterious “unknown language” (Lingua Ignota) she heard in her visions. (For more on the Lingua Ignota and Litterae Ignotae, click here.) I’m indebted to a personal conversation with Fred Amrine on the topic of his lecture “The Seven Languages of Anthroposophy,” for first spurring me to think about Steiner’s different “languages,” and the possible parallel to Hildegard’s shifting imagery.
4) This is my “tweak” of Richard Cunningham’s translation in Hildegard von Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. ed. Matthew Fox. Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1987. For the original Latin and an alternate translation, I used the very interesting article by Jeannette Jones, “A Theological Interpretation of ‘Viriditas’ in Hildegard of Bingen and Gregory the Great.” BU Dept of Musicology & Ethnomusicology Online Archive, May 11, 2013.
Jones’ article is interesting not only for it’s look at Hildegard’s use of viriditas, but also for her examination of Gregory the Great, who is the one other theologian prior to Hildegard who used the word with some regularity. The upshot of Jones’ argument is that for Gregory, viriditas is used to describe the church as it grows in holiness (using the earth as a metaphor for the church). Hildegard, she argues, continues his imagery of vitality and growth, but extends the word to refer to a specific kind of thriving that is created and sustained by God, specifically through Christ as the “viriditas of God’s finger.” I should note, here, that I actually disagree with Jones about the “viriditas of God’s finger” being Christ in his male form. I think that, rather, Hildegard is talking about Divine Wisdom, as indicated by the use of the feminine “gloriosa” in the original Latin. But more on that topic in my next (third and final?) post on Hildegard.