And now comes the fourth realm where human beings live, the realm wherein according to our method of cognition we to-day place the mere objects and processes of Nature, but where the ancient Oriental felt the whole of Nature penetrated with the elemental spirits of water and of earth. This was Asia. Asia meant the lowest spirit realm, in which he, as human being, lived. You must remember that the present-day conception of things that we have in our ordinary consciousness was unknown to the man of those times. It would be nonsense to suppose that it were in any way possible for him to imagine such a thing as matter devoid of spirit. To speak as we do, of oxygen and nitrogen would have been a sheer impossibility for the ancient Oriental. To him oxygen was spirit, it was that spiritual thing which worked as a stimulating and quickening agent on what already possessed life, accelerating the life-processes in a living organism. Nitrogen, which we think of to-day as contained in the atmosphere together with oxygen, was also spiritual; it was that which weaves throughout the Cosmos, working upon what is living and organic in such a way as to prepare it to receive a soulnature. Such was the knowledge the Oriental of old had, for example, of oxygen and nitrogen. And he knew all the processes of Nature in this way, in their connection with spirit; for the present-day conceptions were unknown to him. There were a few individuals who knew them, and they were the Initiates. The rest of mankind had as their ordinary everyday consciousness a consciousness very similar to a waking dream; it was a dream condition that with us only occurs in abnormal experiences. (Steiner 2012:8)
One of the Mysteries where such things were taught, was continued on into much later times. It was the Mystery centre of Ephesus [Rudolf Steiner spoke in detail about this place in the 6th lecture of Mystery Knowledge and Mystery Centres, Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1973.]. This Mystery had in the very middle  of its sanctuary the image of the Goddess Artemis. When we look to-day at pictures of the goddess Artemis, we have perhaps only the grotesque impression of a female form with many breasts. This is because we have no idea how such things were experienced in olden times; and it was the inner experience evoked by these things that was all-important. The pupils of the Mysteries had to go through a certain preparation before they were conducted to the true centre of the Mysteries. In the Ephesian Mysteries the centre was this image of the Goddess Artemis. When the pupil was led up to the centre, he became one with such an image. As he stood before the image, he lost the consciousness that he was there in front of it, enclosed in his skin. He acquired the consciousness that he himself is what the image is. He identified himself with the image. This identification of himself in consciousness with the divine image at Ephesus had the following effect. The pupil no longer merely looked out upon the kingdoms of the Earth that were round about him — the stones, trees, rivers, clouds and so forth — but when he felt himself one with the image, when he entered as it were into the image of Artemis, he received an inner vision of his connection with the kingdoms of the Ether. He felt himself one with the world of the stars, one with the processes in the world of the stars. He did not feel himself as earthly substance within a human skin, he felt his cosmic existence. He felt himself in the etheric. And as he did so, there rose before him earlier conditions of Earth-experience and of man’s experience on Earth. He began to see what these earlier conditions had been. To-day we look upon the Earth as a great piece of rock or stone, covered with water over a large part of its surface and surrounded by a sphere of air containing oxygen and nitrogen and other substances, — containing, in fact, what the human being requires for breathing. And so on and so on. And when men begin to explain and speculate on what passes to-day for scientific knowledge, then we get a fine result indeed! For only by means of spiritual vision can one penetrate to the conditions that prevailed in the earliest primeval times. Such a spiritual vision, however, concerning primeval conditions of the Earth [See the 5th lecture in Mystery Knowledge and Mystery Centres.] and of mankind was attained by the pupils of Ephesus, when they identified themselves with the divine image; they beheld and understood how formerly what surrounds the Earth to-day as atmosphere was not as it now is; surrounding the Earth, in the place where the atmosphere is to-day, was an extraordinarily fine albumen, a volatile, fluid albumenous substance. And they saw how everything that lived on the Earth required for its own genesis the forces of this volatile, fluid albumenous substance, that was spread over the Earth, and how everything also lived in it. They saw too how that which was in a certain sense already within this substance — finely distributed but everywhere with a tendency to crystallisation — how that which was present in a finely distributed condition as silicic acid was in reality a kind of sense-organ for the Earth and could take up into itself from all sides the Imaginations and influences from the surrounding Cosmos. And thus in the silicic acid contained in the earthly albumenous atmosphere were everywhere Imaginations, concretely, externally present. (Steiner 2012:14-5)
STEINER, Rudolf. 2012. World History in the light of Anthroposophy. (Trans.: George Adams; Mary Adams; Dorothy Osmond) London: Rudolf Steiner Press.