ANOTHER SOURCE FOR BLAKE’S ORC
William Blake derived the name and characteristics of his figure Orc from a variety of sources, combining them to produce the various aspects of the character in such poems as America, The Four Zoas and The Song of Los. The hellish aspects of Orc probably come from the Latin Orcus, the abode of the dead in Roman mythology and an alternate name for Dis, the god of the underworld. In Tiriel, Ijim describes Tiriel’s house, after his sons have expelled him, as “dark as vacant Orcus.”1↤ 1 The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 278. The libidinous aspect of Orc may well come, as David Erdman has suggested, from the Greek ὄρχεις, “testicles.”2↤ 2 David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 3rd ed., 1977), p. 26. “Orcs,” from the Latin orca, “whale,” appear in Paradise Lost, a poem much read by Blake, and in America Orc appears symbolically as “sometimes a whale.”3↤ 3 See Paradise Lost, XI, 835, and America 1:14. Finally, in Hoole’s version of Orlando Furioso, for which Blake prepared an engraving in 1783, the poet would have noted that “the word orca . . . is applied to any monster or creature of the imagination [and] occurs in Milton.”4↤ 4 Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, p. 25. But Orc also appears as a fiery figure in association with Mount Atlas; these aspects of the figure derive from Jacob Bryant’s New System, Or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (first published in 1774), which Blake as a young apprentice may have had a hand in illustrating.5↤ 5 See Geoffrey Keynes, Blake Studies (London: R. Hart-Davis, 1949), pp. 42-49. We know that the poet thought highly of the work, as his remark in the Descriptive Catalogue makes clear: “The antiquities of every Nation under Heaven, is no less sacred than that of the Jews. They are the same thing, as Jacob Bryant and all antiquaries have proved.”6↤ 6 Blake: Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 578.
In Bryant’s chapter entitled “Of Ancient Worship, and of Etymological Truths Thence Deducible,” Blake would have found the theory that the Hercynian Forest in Germany gets its name from the Greek δρυμός ὀρχύνιος, “the forest of Orcun.”7↤ 7 Jacob Bryant, A New System, Or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (London: T. Payne, 1776), I, 210. Bryant goes on to note that at the edge of this forest stands a mountain, the name of which, Pyrene, “signifies a fountain of fire,” because the “mountain had once flamed. . . . The country therefore and the forest may have been called Orcunian upon this account. For as the worship of the Sun, the Deity of fire, prevailed greatly at places of this nature, I make no doubt Hercynia, which Ptolemy expresses ὀρχυνια, was so named from Or-cun, the God of that element.”8↤ 8 Bryant, I, 211. Bryant goes on to theorize that one of the “Puratheia, or open temples, for the celebration of the rites of fire,” may have stood on Mount Atlas: “This Atlas (of which I have been speaking) is a mountain with a cavity, and of a tolerable height, which the natives esteem both as a temple, and a begin page 199 | Deity.”9↤ 9 Bryant, I, 221. These passages in Bryant stand as another source of the name of Orc, and may in part lie behind Blake’s assertions that “The cave of Orc stood to the South, a furnace of dire flames,” and that “Orc on Mount Atlas howld, chain’d down with the Chain of Jealousy.”10↤ 10 Erdman, Poetry and Prose, pp. 344, 66.