William Blake built an extensive and very personal mythology, which is expressed in greatest detail in his illuminated books. As I illustrated in the first article in this series, that mythology also underpins many of his paintings. In this article, I have gathered some of those paintings, and a little material from those books, to give a brief overview of his mythology, as far as it is relevant to his paintings.
Although Blake did provide some obvious clues that certain of his paintings relied on his mythology, others have proved harder to read. Until quite recently, the large watercolour now known as The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (c 1795) was believed to show the ancient Greek goddess Hecate, and The Sea of Time and Space (1821) remains controversial. It is quite possible that some paintings have undiscovered readings based on Blake’s mythology, and his deep-found concepts have influenced others, such as Pity (c 1795), which are not currently seen as mythological.
One of the fundamental concepts in Blake’s mythology is that of pairings: there are many elements which have male and female counterparts, the latter being termed emanations. These might take the generation of Eve from Adam as their prototype, and have similarities to Louis Janmot‘s body-spirit duality.
Nowhere does Blake envisage a pantheon of gods, but stretches the Jewish and Christian concepts of a single God, going far beyond the Christian Trinity. These include expressions of God which are associated with particular eras, such as the vengeful God of the Old Testament, and those of particular interpretations which Blake deprecates.
One central area is that of the four Zoas. These are drawn from the four beasts seen standing around the throne of the Lamb by John in his Revelation, chapter 4, but also echo those seen by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. They are associated with the faces of a man, lion, ox, and eagle, and the four evangelists, and recur in many of Blake’s writings, illustrations, and paintings, including Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (1824–7).
Blake associates them with four fundamental aspects of humans:
- the human body, Tharmas, geographically the west, with the emanation of Enion, and divine correspondence with God the Father
- human reason, Urizen, the south, with the emanation of Ahania, and divine correspondence with Satan
- human emotions, Luvah, the east, with the emanation of Vala, and divine correspondence with God the Son, Jesus Christ
- human imagination, Urthona who becomes Los, the north, with the emanation of Enitharmon, and divine correspondence with the Holy Ghost.
The word zoa is actually a Greek plural, although Blake uses it as a singular, thus pluralises it to Zoas. You will therefore see the names Zoa and Zoas used as both singulars and plurals, depending on the source.
The Ancient of Days (c 1821) shows not the Christian God the Master Craftsman, but Urizen as the architect, creating the world, in Blake’s reworking of the creation myth. Urizen then went on to become the chariot-driver of the material sun (as Apollo). But his desire for dominion is his undoing, and in his downfall he becomes like Satan. He is then the ‘God of This World’, the material world which Blake despises, and a jealous god, like that of the Old Testament (in which he overlaps with Elohim, below).
Blake also envisages the traditional creator and judge in the early part of the Old Testament, as Elohim, seen here creating Adam. Treated as both a singular (the God) and plural (the Judges), the Elohim roll apart with the arrival of Jehovah, the God of Mercies, when he is revealed to Moses.
Blake’s mythology has an elaborate and sometimes opaque genealogy. Urthona, the Zoa, is transformed into his “Vehicular Form of strong Urthona” as Los, who is in this world poetry, the expression of Creative Imagination, and very dear to Blake’s heart as his direct inspiration. Los and his emanation Enitharmon have children, the first of whom is Orc. As Los is spiritual revolution, so Orc is revolution in the material world.
Orc hates his father Los in an Oedipus complex of love for his mother Enitharmon. As shown in Los and Orc (c 1792–3) above, Los is driven to bind Orc to a rock on the top of Mount Atlas, using the chain of jealousy. Orc’s limbs then become enrooted in the rock, pinning him there. This cannot prevent Orc’s imagination from raging, though, and permeating everything.
Enitharmon, partner, twin, and inspiration to Los (and mother of Orc), is spiritual beauty, and was most probably modelled on Blake’s wife, Catherine. In The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (c 1795), she establishes her Woman’s World, with a false religion of chastity and vengeance – which is Blake’s view of the 1800 year history of the ‘official’ Christian church.
As the moon to the sun of Los, she is accompanied by symbols of night, such as the owl and bat. She also plays the role of Eve, which may explain the head of a snake peering out towards Enitharmon here. The donkey eating thistles underlines Blake’s rejection of the ‘official’ church, and the two figures behind Enitharmon face in and bow their heads in guilt. The book on which Enitharmon’s left hand rests is Urizen’s ‘Book of brass’, in which his repressive laws are laid down.
Blake’s frontispiece to Visions of the Daughters of Albion (c 1795) reaches further down the genealogy. Albion is the general name applied to England, that is Britain as it does not necessarily exclude Ireland (which was entirely British at the time), Scotland, or Wales, and is the ‘father of all mankind’. Albion’s wife is Brittannia, and his emanation is Jerusalem.
Although Blake uses the term Albion’s Daughters to refer to Englishwomen as slaves to the social mores of the day, it also refers to twelve named individuals, who are the emanations of the Twelve Sons of Albion. However, the figures shown in this painted print are not drawn from those individuals, but are (from the left) Bromion, Oothoon, and Theotormon. (It is worth noting that the Tate’s labelling may have this order accidentally reversed in places!)
Bromion is Reason, and one of the sixteen sons of Los and Enitharmon. When Oothoon is making her way to her true love Theotormon, Bromion rapes then rejects her. The two are therefore shown here shackled to one another in an enforced union of hatred, back to back. Oothoon is the central figure of this book, and represents frustrated love. She is another of the offspring of Los and Enitharmon, and is also the emanation of Theotormon.
Theotormon is another of the sons of Los and Enitharmon, and represents desire, which when suppressed becomes jealousy. Following Oothoon’s rape by Bromion, he considers her defiled, and rejects her. His arms are here wrapped around his head so that he can see and hear nothing, and only knot his limbs in indecision.
The Sea of Time and Space (1821) may, if Heppner is correct, refer to an elaborate mixture of Jewish and classical Graeco-Roman myths, but it has also been interpreted in terms of Blake’s own mythology.
According to the latter, Urizen and his sun chariot are shown at the top left, and the veiled woman in the centre is Vala, the goddess of nature. She is the emanation of Luvah, but is also his daughter. Blake studies the relationship of Vala with Jerusalem in his book Jerusalem, where they represent the laws of nature and freedom respectively. It is thus possible that the figure in red may be Luvah, using his association with Jesus to calm the waters.
This is the final plate of Blake’s last completed illuminated book, Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion (1804-20), in its sole fully-painted form. The figure in the centre, holding his blacksmith’s hammer and tongs, is that of Los, who has paused from his labour of building Jerusalem. Behind him, though, is the Druidic form of a temple (reminiscent of Stonehenge), which represents the rise of false religion, already starting to snake out over the country.
On the left, the sun is carried around not by Urizen in his chariot, but by a youth, perhaps the Spectre of Urthona. On the right, Enitharmon is in the shadows of the night and surrounded by stars, as she winds the thread of life from a distaff. Those threads fall past the crescent moon onto the earth.
This shows that the task of building Jerusalem is never complete, and takes the book’s conclusion onward to the eternal continuation of Blake’s mythological processes.
Blake, W (2000) William Blake: the Complete Illuminated Books, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 28245 8.
Blake, W, Erdman, DV & Bloom H (1988) The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised edn, Anchor Books. ISBN 978 0 385 15213 6.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.
Damon, S Foster (2013) A Blake Dictionary, the Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, updated edn., Dartmouth College Press. ISBN 978 1 61168 443 8.
Frye, Northrop (1947, 1969) Fearful Symmetry, a Study of William Blake, PrincetonUP. ISBN 978 0 6910 1291 9.