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BLAKE AND ZOROASTRIANISM
There is considerable evidence that Blake was influenced by Zoroastrian and Mithraic iconography in several illuminations for his and other’s poetry. When one compares the figures of god and daeva with Blake’s drawings and engravings, the sheer number of parallels argues convincingly for some form of influence. Were there no other data than this to prove that Blake may have incorporated elements of representations of the bull-slaying ritual, of Arimanes or Ahriman, god of dark, and Ormazd, god of light, into his visual art, the evidence would seem persuasive. Fortunately, there is a good deal of external evidence to substantiate the case for direct sources. To begin with, we have Blake’s own testimony in A Descriptive Catalogue of 1809. In his discussion of the spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth, Blake asserts:
These two pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo and Egyptian antiquity which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age. The artist having been taken in vision to those wonderful republics . . . has seen those wonderful Originals . . . some of them were one hundred feet in height; some were painted as pictures, and some carved as basso relievos, and some as groupes of statues, all containing mythological and recondite meaning, where more is meant than meets the eye. (Keynes, 565-66; Erdman, 521-22.)Several things are suggested: first, that Blake actually saw representations of ancient Persian and other compositions, for he asserts that they are preserved on rude monuments and are but copies of the originals; second, that Blake’s imagination was keenly touched by what he saw, as his visionary journey to view the originals attests; third, that he obviously considered his two paintings to resemble Persian design, the most likely element being the snake enfolding portions of creation. Blake’s words and the often stunning similarity of his illuminations and “copies” of Ahriman and Ormazd require careful consideration of these analogues and possible direct sources of the Persian or so-called Zoroastrian.
The evidence is corroborated by the existence of a large and diverse body of literature on Zoroaster, which was often accompanied by drawings and engravings, and some of which we know Blake saw. That this material usually contained information on and designs of the cult of Mithras—the religion popular among Roman legions and thus spread even to Britain—is of no real importance, for writers frequently confused the two. Religious and secular commentators contributed volume after volume on the subject. Travelers’ accounts of voyages to the East were popular and numerous after mid-seventeenth century and continued to interest philosophers and mythologists in the eighteenth century. These books only occasionally added any really fresh information to what was already known from ancient Greek and Roman sources and from medieval writers, but they sometimes contained line engravings of ruins, temples, rituals, and the like.1↤ 1 Mandelslo, du Mans, Le Bruyn, Wheeler, Hanaway and Kaempfer, for example, are among those traveler-journalists cited, with some engravings reproduced, in Jacob Bryant, A New System (1774-76). See also J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les Mages Hellénisés (Paris, 1938); F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatif aux mystères de Mithra (Paris, 1902); J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster (Oxford, 1958); and A. V. W. Jackson, Zoroaster, the Prophet of Ancient Iran (New York, 1898, 1928). (Although many travelers were themselves clergymen, they by no means unanimously approved of Persian religion and culture.) To some, the praise of Zoroastrian monotheism and spiritual enlightenment smacked of a heretical failure to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity’s divinely revealed truth. This priestly perception fueled many a dispute, eventually involving begin page 73 | ↑ back to topbegin page 74 | ↑ back to top even the philosophes, notably Diderot and Voltaire, who wished to discredit the idea that Christianity was the sole possessor of Truth, which could be discovered, they argued, by man in a natural and reasonable fashion, unaided by the “light of Revelation.”2↤ 2 Duchesne-Guillemin, pp. 2-10, 12-15. Both groups of partisans entertained hopes that the explorations of a young Frenchman in India would settle the battle in their favor; both were rather disappointed, for the scrupulously non-partisan researcher declined to enter the lists. Interest in Zoroastrianism was greatly stimulated, nonetheless, in 1771 upon the publication of his work, Zend Avesta, Ouvrages du Zoroastre.
Anquetil du Perron had spent eight years in India in Pahlavi or Parsee communities learning ancient and modern Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. During these years he also meticulously copied and collated numerous volumes of sacred works, and collected many texts and sorely needed dictionaries in these languages. His two-volume translation, with a lengthy account of his voyage and a seventy page “Vie de Zoroastre,” was received with much excitement in Germany and France, where scholars agreed that it superseded all other works. Although English academics knew of du Perron’s finds before they were published, for he had visited London and Oxford University before returning to France (Tome I, cccclviij-ccccxviij), they were slower to accept the Continental judgment. Indeed, du Perron’s splendid achievement had little if any effect on English mythologists before 1830: studies continued to pour out and most, like John Bell’s New Pantheon, or Historical Dictionary of the Gods (1790), rehearsed the established errors and clichés. In addition to such “new” efforts, earlier popular works were readily available. Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, for example, went through four editions in England between 1710 and 1826.
Two volumes contain crucial evidence about Blake’s possible sources. The first is familiar to Blake critics. Jacob Bryant’s A New System, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-1776) contains several fine line engravings of Ormazd, the god of light, and Mithraic devices. The plates were engraved in Basire’s shop while Blake was an apprentice there, as is well known. Almost certainly, they are a direct source for one of Blake’s most important illuminations. The second work may have been seen by Blake, though it is impossible to be certain. Prior to 1771 (and long after in England) the treatise on the Persian religion most widely known and influential was by the English scholar Thomas Hyde, whose Historica Religionis Veterum Persarum [sic] was first published in 1700 and reissued in a second edition, which I have used, in 1760. On the continent it had been the subject of heated debate and controversy because of the English cleric’s high esteem for the Zoroastrian religion. In England it remained a major source for “speculative mythologists,” like Jacob Bryant, as his numerous references to it in A New System reveal.
Historica Persarum contains several reproductions, including a four-panelled tauroctone (illus. 1), which is from the 1760 edition. The progress of the panels is from the lower left, where the stage is set for the sacrifice; to the upper left, where the key characters are positioned (Mithra, the bull, Cautes, Cautopates, dog, sun, moon, snake and scorpion); to the upper right, in which the arrows, whip and stylized thunderbolts indicate the world turbulence the sacrifice will rectify; to the lower right panel, where the bull’s blood and semen are shed, and, though they try, neither scorpion nor snake will steal the precious life-renewing fluids. Located between the two right panels is a minute particular which, if Blake saw this book, he might not have overlooked. Illustration 2 is an enlargement of the center right scene. Between the Apollo-like figure guiding four horses (which resembles the upper left hand figure in Marriage, plate 11) and the chariot of seven fire altars drawn by two horses, there are two figures of special interest. The main, winged one is serpent entwined and holds a sceptre in his left hand. This small engraving of Ahriman, taken from a gem-stone carving, is accompanied by another, less frequently seen version of the god or daeva, one which depicts him without lion features and wings, as an entirely human form which is serpent encoiled.
In this illustration from the 1760 work much alluded to by Bryant we find two major elements which are paralleled in Blake drawings and engravings: first, those in the tauroctone in which Mithra sacrifices the sacred bull; second, the winged, serpent-bound god, Ahriman, ruler of the corporeal world and guardian of the means of ingress and egress. There is little difficulty tracing sources for the bull-slaying scene, which was frequently described and illustrated. Examples of the Mithraic ritual, identical in the main to its Zoroastrian counterpart, are housed in museums throughout Britain. Some were imported, like the magnificent marble statue of the sacrifice in the British Museum (#1720), taken to England from Rome in 1815 by one C. Standish, Esq. But in reality that was a case of coals-to-Newcastle, for the country was dotted by archaeological sites containing tauroctones and a number of these were reported in “Transactions of the Philosophical Society,” starting as early as 1743.3↤ 3 Leroy A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology (London, 1968). Prof. and Mrs. T. J. King verified data on the holdings in the British Museum. The representation of Ahriman, however, is rarer. These two figures in Hyde are the only possible direct links I have yet discovered between Blake and images of the Mithraic god who is the Zoroastrian devil, except for Fuseli’s drawing of Tornado, which we know only through Blake’s engraving (illus. 3). While it cannot be stated unequivocally that the figures in Historica constitute a direct influence, it can justly be said that Blake at least could have known through Bryant of this widely influential work. I suggest that these minute particulars are very possible sources and that such close analogues may in fact indicate direct influence, especially in the light of Blake’s own comments in A Descriptive Catalogue.
The figure of Ahriman in Hyde contains all the vital components commonly found in representations of the god except one, the lion’s head. Curiously, Blake’s engraving of “Tornado” after Fuseli, depicting begin page 75 | ↑ back to topbegin page 76 | ↑ back to top
I have included examples of statues and bas-reliefs of the two main Mithraic traditions without intending to suggest, naturally, that they are to be used for anything other than comparisons. As striking as some of the correspondences are, there is no reason to believe they are more than coincidence. To facilitate the discussion, I offer a brief account of the major Ahrimanic visual traits and their symbolism.
In the statues, “basso-relievos,” and gem-stone engravings, Ahriman is most frequently depicted as having the body of a man, the head of a lion, and one or two sets of wings (illus. 4, 5, and 6). His body is entwined by a serpent—usually in two to three or five to seven coils—whose head rests on the crown of the god’s head. In Mithraism, the serpent represents the world serpent believed to have been coiled around the body of the cosmos. The four wings attached at the shoulders and hips (broken in illus. 4 but clearly visible in 6) represent the begin page 77 | ↑ back to top4↤ 4 Campbell, pp. 211, 300-03, 348, 353. Cumont Les Mages, I, 12, 59, 67; II, 145. R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London, 1961), pp. 129-30.
Although there is a good deal of variety in the representations of the god, most of them contain the symbolic elements described, with two noteworthy exceptions. There is a not very common tradition in which Ahriman is depicted solely as a serpent encircled human figure, with none of the features usually given him. Second, many of the standard traits appear in illus. 7, as well as another unusual, intriguing detail. To the lower left, attached to the lowest two coils of the serpent, is what appears to be a cocoon-like structure with the head and shoulders of a tiny human form breaking through its top. The cocoon is similar to the design in the center of the god’s chest in illus. 4. Its progress down the snake’s body toward its tail suggests the movement of the soul toward material or bodily existence. This appears to be a symbol of creation specifically as a fall into the mortal world.5↤ 5 Campbell, p. 350. Note that the cocoon-like encasing of the human form is analogous to the Frontispiece, “What is Man?”, For the Sexes and to the ambiguously infantile worm, Plate III, The Book of Thel.
There are numerous Blake illuminations which closely parallel these versions of Ahriman’s form and meaning in Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. Perhaps the most well known are the variants of plate 6 of The Book of Urizen. In copy D in the Fitzwilliam, a single serpent entwined human figure is shown falling, head downwards, arms in a cruciform position. The more frequently published version of that detail contains two additional snake-coiled figures on either begin page 78 | ↑ back to top6↤ 6 Where it is feasible, I refer readers to published plates, as in this case; see the Micromethods filmstrips for the Fitzwilliam variant. See also David V. Erdman, The Illuminated Blake (Garden City, N. Y., 1974), p. 188. Blake has clearly incorporated his own recondite mythological meaning. The cruciform male with his falling companions simultaneously fore-shadows and parodies Christ’s crucifixion, an inevitable though distant consequence of Urizen’s error, which leads to fallenness or creation. But also the falling, serpent-bound bodies are symbolic forms being thrown headlong toward the abyss or, more mercifully, toward the fixed forms that will limit their fallen condition, which may then be temporary. Although the cruciform position of the figure is unique, I think, to Urizen, the motive is certainly utilized increasingly in Blake’s visual art after 1795, paralleling perhaps his growing view of the peril and horror of corporeality, despite its merciful quality or even its beauty. Examples abound, from the detail in plate 13 of the early prophetic book, America, to major individual creations such as “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan,”[e] “Laocoön,” or “A Vision of the Last Judgment.”
Blake’s “Elohim Creating Adam” (1795) is a richly imaginative analogue to the icons of Ahriman, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the critical elements—wings, lion’s head, man’s naked body, and serpent—are dispersed, so to speak, divided between the two figures (illus. 8). God or the Elohim is given the wings (which closely resemble those of Ahriman in illus. 4) and a lion-like face with flowing, mane-like hair. Adam’s body, serpent encoiled, is being created, given fixed form. The begin page 79 | ↑ back to topbegin page 80 | ↑ back to top 7↤ 7 Blake’s “With Dreams upon my bed thou scarest me,” Plate XI of Job, is indeed a horrific and intensely ironic analogue to his “Elohim Creating Adam.” See S. Foster Damon, Blake’s Job (New York, 1969).
Ahriman was an ambiguous figure partly because of his innately paradoxical attributes and partly because of the early confusion of two discrete traditions. In Mithraism he was a deus whose awesome powers necessitated supplicating him for release from earthly existence and safe passage to heaven; in Zoroastrianism he was a daeva (diabolical spirit) with a ferocity, cruelty, and fondness for wantonly destroying men’s fortunes and spiritual hopes. This latter tradition predominated in Western culture, where he was identified with Baal, Pluto, the anti-Christ and Satan.8↤ 8 F. Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (New York, 1956), pp. 153-54; and Les Mages, I, 12, 59. Campbell, p. 353. Blake’s watercolor, “Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve” (1808) for Paradise Lost (illus. 9), is part of that tradition, to the extent that we can allow that he was influenced by representations of Ahriman. It is also an analogue to a late Roman visual development. The transformation in the bas-relief (illus. 10) represents a late trend in which Ahriman has fully human features, though the symbolic lion is retained, appearing on his chest. As in the other icons, he is serpent entwined and bears the sceptre of sovereignty in his left hand. Signs of the zodiac adorn the ovular frame of the relief, and that structure is echoed by the egg—note its flaming halves at his feet and above his head—from which the god is born.begin page 81 | ↑ back to top Blake’s Satan, winged and serpent bound like the god, also has fully human features. In the foliage just left of and slightly above Eve’s right wrist, however, one may see a shape created by the configuration of the leaves, flame-like leaves, which suggests perhaps the head of a lion. It is coincidence undoubtedly that there is so great a similarity between the drawing and bas-relief so removed from each other in time and place. Yet the resemblance is even more striking in “Satan’s and Raphael’s Entries into Paradise” (1807) for Paradise Lost (illus. 11). One can only marvel at what appears to be one of those fortuitous similarities whose exactness is suggestive of the powerful, universal appeal of certain visual symbols.
Examples abound of Blake’s incorporation of two Ahrimanic details, perhaps from Hyde and certainly from Fuseli, into his own visual symbolism, bat-like wings and serpent-encoiled forms. Any one even a little familiar with his illuminations and paintings can call to mind an impressive number of serpent-bound bodies, emblematic of Blake’s vision of the paradox of corporeal existence. Though essential to life and often the portals of joy, the senses, especially touch, are perilous and can easily become a bog in which mortals flounder and are lost. They are simultaneously the tangible, outward bound of the process by which the spirit is benighted and the mode in this life of experiencing potentially redemptive bliss. Touch (particularly sexuality), the most threatening of all, is appropriately symbolized by the serpent. And, though the condition of being either female or male bespeaks to Blake the spirit’s descent and diminution, sexual delight is a reflection, if only a pale one, of the imagination’s delight which is Eternity. As such it lies at the heart of the dilemma of mortality—the unavoidable need to surrender to that which in Eternity is horrific because in corporeality it is a staff of life to the soul.
In few instances indeed does Blake’s pictorial imagery more succinctly delineate this quandary than in “Comus with the Lady Spellbound” for Comus (illus. 12). The patterns on the chair to which the enchanted Lady is riveted are unique adaptations of the serpent-bound Ahriman, with and without wings. The two wingless figures decorating the legs of the chair and the winged one on its back are women, not girls, as their full breasts indicate. Unlike the Lady, whose hands fold protectively across her breasts, the winged, serpent-coiled female’s arms are raised, perhaps suggesting her openness to experience, as in plate 99 of Jerusalem. The sinuous coils of the serpents are rigidly circumscribed by the moldings of the chair, a potently compressed metaphor of the Lady’s condition as she confronts the problem of successfully negotiating her way from childhood to a womanhood which includes wholesome sexuality. The nightmare enchantment, the phallic threatening Comus, and the serpent-dominated females who are further imprisoned in the frame represent the Lady’s own spiritual state as she approaches and resists adult sexuality. The9↤ 9 And she does, as Irene Tayler so cogently argues in “Say First! What Mov’d Blake? Blake’s Comus Designs and Milton,” [S. Curran and J. A. Wittreich, Jr., eds., Blake’s Sublime Allegory (Madison, Wisconsin, 1973), pp. 233-581.
We have examined at some length the ambiguities of the serpent, but wings too have their paradoxical emblematic value. They may be those of the eagle who is strong enough to fly near the sun, emblem of the life of the imagination which is Eternity; or those of the bat, symbol of the long night of the soul and dormancy of the imagination. But both are after all wings, where withal for passage from one point or state to another, image of the capability during the season of mortal existence of transforming consciousness into either the divinely human state of Man that approaches eternal bliss or the sub-human, visionless state of misery that Blake called Satan. So consistently did Blake use the bat-like dragon wings of his Tornado engraving that they constitute a visual code for destructive fallenness or demonic vision. With a few exceptions (like the early, ironic use of the emblem in some copies of Marriage, plate 10, where a devil-liberator attempts begin page 82 | ↑ back to top to instruct the human from the bible of Hell) the bat wings signify vision so narrow as to constitute evil, the hindrance of life. In plate 11 of Europe; plate 19 of For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, added after 1815, when For the Children was enlarged and renamed, according to Erdman (Poetry and Prose, p. 734); in several illustrations for the Divine Comedy; Job engravings and paintings, and “Sullen Moloch” for On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, we have instances of the adaptation from Fuseli of Ahriman’s demon wings to Blake’s own symbolic cosmos.10↤ 10 The Illuminated Blake, pp. 169, 279; Albert S. Roe, Blake’s Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (Princeton, 1953); Damon, Blake’s Job. “Sullen Moloch” is reproduced in Ruthven Todd’s William Blake The Artist (London, 1971).
I wish to call attention briefly to three last motives from Zoroastrian and Mithraic statuary and bas-reliefs which may have influenced Blake’s illuminations of Jerusalem. The first we have already examined in the reproduction from Hyde’s Historica (illus. 1), but as I pointed out, tauroctones were frequently unearthed in, and even brought to, England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The bull slaying, sacred to Zoroaster and Mithras, is analogous to plates 25, 69, and 85 of Jerusalem.11↤ 11 The Illuminated Blake, pp. 304, 348, 364. Blake Newsletter, 22, Vol. 6, no. 2 (Fall, 1972) note by Deirdre Toomey on the states of Plate 25. Of course, Blake’s symbolism stresses the cruelty and dubious value of the living sacrifice. The second feature, noticed originally by Anthony Blunt, is the near mirroring in what he calls Blake’s “human-headed bulls” in plate 41 of Jerusalem of an engraving12↤ 12 Anthony Blunt, “Blake’s Pictorial Imagination,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 6 (1943), 205; and The Art of William Blake (New York, ), p. 38, Plates 50a, b. I think Erdman’s idea that they are “ox-hooved, lion-maned, man-headed unicorns” is convincing.13↤ 13 The Illuminated Blake, p. 320. Although I have not found any source to which Blake may have had access, I have recently come across examples from Susa of the winged bull figure, single-horned like the fabulous unicorn. In some cases such figures have even been called sphinxes, perhaps in acknowledgement of their likeness to the human-headed offspring of Chimaera, herself part serpent and lion. In any event, the similarity between Blake’s beasts in harness and the Persepolis reliefs is so great that it hardly seems accidental, especially since the figure in Ouseley is also reproduced in A New System, source for the final device in Jerusalem that I wish to discuss.
The Zoroastrian god of light, Ormazd, was frequently represented on temples and state buildings in “basso relievos,” and copies of them were available in travel accounts and books on mythology. Illustration 13 is taken from an 1807 edition of the second volume of A New System. Because of Blake’s relationship to Bryant, it is one quite important example of the readily accessible reproductions of Ormazd. In addition to the staple elements, such as the sun and fire altar, we see here the priest and Ormazd looking amazingly like in features and begin page 83 | ↑ back to topbegin page 84 | ↑ back to top clothing (Bryant, II, plate XI). The god floats above his priest in clouds which fan out to either side; he holds a circlet or ring which is symbolic of the sun, the universe, and his eternal realm beyond this life. Scroll- or ribbon-like streamers unfold beneath the clouds to either side of the rather ragged skirt of the god’s gown. There are more accurate engravings of this motive in the same volume. A stylized drawing of the god’s wings (left, illus. 14) also contains the traditional curving, serpentine appendages below (Bryant, II, plate VIII). The line engraving to the right is a fine reproduction of a portion of the ruins at Persepolis, taken from a travel account as is its fellow. Eagle-like wings, the god’s perched hat, the symbolic ring, and—most notably—the circle or cincture, which encloses the god’s waist, with its curving lower arms or appendages, are faithfully copied as we can see by comparing the engravings to two photographs of the ruins. The first is the palace doorway of Darius the Great (illus. 15); the second is an earlier, better preserved example from the same ruin (enlarged detail, illus. 16).
I particularly wish to call attention, again, to the cincture about the waist of Ormazd and its two swirling appendages, for there is a precise analogue to this structure in plate 100 of Jerusalem. I believe Ruthven Todd was the first to notice that the serpent temple, in front of which we see Los or Urthone, his Spectre and Emanation (illus. 17), is quite similar to a drawing of a Druid temple at Averbury, reproduced (or “reconstructed”) in Stukeley’s Abury, A British Druid Temple (1743).14↤ 14 Ruthven Todd, Tracks in the Snow (London, 1946), pp. 31 ff. Surely it is also clear that we have here another direct influence, for Blake’s serpent temple is exactly like Ormazd’s serpentine girdle, as it is shown in Bryant and in the photographs of the ruins of Persepolis.
Analogues can be vexing, for once they have been produced they sometimes seem little more than curiosities. With Blake, however, it is usually true that they are integral both to his aesthetics and to the practice of his own art, because of his interpretations of the artist, be he poet or painter, and of human nature, which he believed to be a miracle of infinite variety founded on primal, universal patterns and processes. Thus, as we know, it was his conviction that the truth and beauty the artist creates are in a very real sense “discovered.” For they represent that rare state of grace in which the artist is in touch with the source of his own being, which is itself a reflection of the soul of the Eternal Man who is the cosmos. And thus whatever an artist[e] produces can be and almost always has been discovered by others before him, with a greater or lesser accuracy and fullness depending upon the freedom from fetters of individual poetic genius and the sureness of individual craft. The existence, for example, of the coincidences we have discussed would only prove to Blake that his beliefs about art, vision and human nature are right. It is accurate though tautological to observe that for him the abundance of correspondences of ideas and visual forms in art and architecture demands his theory of poetic genius as a guide to Truth (Marriage, plate 11), which in turn sensitizes one to perceive still more of these fortunate affinities: Ahriman’s and Tornado’s wings and those of the Elohim and Raphael, of Satan and Moloch; Ahriman’s serpent coiling, awesome symbol of the power and terror of corporeality and touch, and the falling soul’s taking on a body or Adam and the Lady emerging; the mistaken attempts at a natural renovation of the world through the bull slaying, the Druids’ human sacrifices, and the sacrifice of Albion in Jerusalem, plate 25; Ahura Mazda’s fiery serpentine girdle, Abury’s Druid temple, and Jerusalem’s serpent temple—these must have been to Blake a wondrous concordance, proof of the sublime unity and universality of genuine myth or vision, the golden string threaded mercifully through the labyrinth.