Some thoughts on what Blake meant by say­ing that when he looked at the sun he saw a choir of angels singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, and how it relates to his depic­tion of a per­son­al apocalypse.

They and only they can acquire the philo­soph­ic ima­gin­a­tion, the sac­red power of self intu­ition, who with­in them­selves can inter­pret and under­stand the sym­bol, that the wings of the air-sylph are form­ing with­in the skin of the cater­pil­lar; those only, who feel in their own spir­its the same instinct, which impels the chrysal­is of the horn fly to leave room in its invol­ucrum for anten­nae yet to come. They know and feel, that the poten­tial works in them, even as the actu­al works on them.
Col­eridge, Bio­graph­ia Lit­er­ar­ia1

In the year that king Uzzi­ah died I saw also the Lord sit­ting upon a throne, high and lif­ted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the ser­aph­ims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto anoth­er, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
Isai­ah 6:1–3

Corporeal Friends

We all have water­shed moments, when we arrive at a real­isa­tion that changes the course of our lives. One such moment occurred to me in an argu­ment with a friend in the back garden of my house over ten years ago. The two of us were involved in run­ning a rad­ic­al pub­lish­ing com­pany. We were dis­cuss­ing Blake, and I men­tioned what Blake said about per­cep­tion in his notes to the paint­ing A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment:

I assert for My self that I do not behold the Out­ward Cre­ation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me. What it will be Ques­tioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round disc of fire, some­what like a guinea?’ Oh! no, no! I see an innu­mer­able com­pany of the heav­enly host, cry­ing Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty I ques­tion not my Cor­por­eal or Veget­at­ive Eye any more than I would Ques­tion a Win­dow con­cern­ing a Sight I look thro it and not with it.
Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment
2
My friend, who has pub­lished on Blake, said he agreed, but that it was nev­er­the­less “import­ant to remem­ber that the sun is fun­da­ment­ally a pro­cess of nuc­le­ar fusion.”  There was a pause of a few moments that felt longer, and in those moments I guessed we would soon have to part ways. 3

We need to train that muscle which allows us to get a grip on the ten­or of Blake’s thought, even where we can­’t know the details

I could­n’t explain why, but I felt it just the same: any­one who responds like that has not grasped what Blake was saying—but what was Blake say­ing, and why should it mat­ter? I real­ised there were two aspects of Blake’s idea at stake. First is the account he offers of ima­gin­at­ive per­cep­tion, about how he sees through ‘the veget­at­ive eye’ to some­thing bey­ond. This was what my friend and I were per­haps dis­agree­ing about. But bey­ond this there is the par­tic­u­lar real­ity Blake refers to as his example—the sun as a choir of angels prais­ing God. It was this image that pulled me in. What did Blake mean? From everything I knew about him I was con­vinced that he had seen these angels, and con­vinced they were real. But what was this reality?

My friend’s response heightened my interest in Blake’s image, and was the start of a deep­er involve­ment with Blake’s work, which I began to study. I did­n’t want to become a ‘Blake schol­ar’: I wanted to become Blakean. It does­n’t make sense when you say it out loud, but I felt I had to under­stand this idea of Blake’s because I already knew that under­stand­ing it would change my life. And I had the sense that this image of Blake’s I had in mind (angels in the sun) was only the flick­er­ing on the sur­face of a much deep­er well of mean­ing that I wanted to jump into.

It is now ten years later. In the mean­time, I don’t claim to have found a defin­it­ive answer to the ques­tions I star­ted with, but I have assembled what I believe are some of the main sup­ports of a solu­tion; those images and con­nota­tions that swarm in turn around Blake’s image of the sun as a choir of angels cry­ing “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

This essay is not an attempt to out­line ‘what Blake really meant’ by what he said, because Blake did not believe in that kind of pel­lu­cid trans­mis­sion. To the con­sterna­tion of his more mod­est friends, Blake would talk freely about his vis­ions, but he under­stood that acquir­ing vis­ion itself required ima­gin­a­tion rather than lit­er­al know­ledge he might either absorb or impart. He invites us, there­fore, to read him instead ‘in the spir­it’, without the use of crib sheets or mech­an­ic­al props and wires. Nev­er­the­less, many of the ideas I present below will have been under­stood as such by Blake. Some he may have been only par­tially aware of, per­haps as sub­si­di­ary aspects of anoth­er image he was more cru­cially engaged with. With oth­er ideas there is an ele­ment of myth­ic objectiv­ity, where ideas and images are implied by the struc­ture of the myth­ic com­pon­ents involved, quite apart from wheth­er they are under­stood by this or that per­son. Of some of these con­nec­tions we can infer Blake’s views with some cer­tainty, but we can nev­er know the pre­cise con­stel­la­tion of Blake’s thoughts. We need to exer­cise and train that men­tal muscle which allows us to get a grip on the ten­or of Blake’s thought, even where we can­’t know the details. To do that requires exer­cising the ima­gin­a­tion. That hav­ing been said, let’s jump in the water.

Fourfold Vision and Newton’s Sleep

The first part of the prob­lem is the easi­est to deal with, super­fi­cially, at least. It con­cerns what Blake meant when he said that he saw “thro… and not with… the veget­at­ive eye.” I don’t take this to mean that Blake was acci­dent prone because he could­n’t see the fur­niture as he walked around a room. Instead, his first point is that our per­cep­tions are determ­ined by our nature and being, so that “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees“4, and “As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers.“5 Secondly, and cru­cially, the dif­fer­ences in our vis­ion are not just mat­ters of the detail of what we see—you notice one thing while I am cap­tiv­ated by another—but determ­ine the type of real­ity we perceive.

Blake believed there was a hier­archy of per­cep­tion. In mod­ern terms we might say that the nature and qual­ity of one’s per­cep­tion depends on the extent of the indi­vidu­al’s psych­ic integ­ra­tion. In Blake’s terms, it depends on the extent of the rein­teg­ra­tion of the Four Zoas.
Now I a fourfold vis­ion see
And a fourfold vis­ion is giv­en to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beu­lahs night
And two­fold Always. May God us keep
From Single vis­ion & New­tons sleep
Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts6
Blake’s own vis­ion moved between these states. He val­ued ‘fourfold vis­ion’ as the highest attain­able state, and it was in this state that he saw the sun as he described it in A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment. At the oth­er extreme of per­cep­tion is ‘single-vis­ion and New­ton’s sleep’, embody­ing the most reified and dis­en­chanted sense of the space in which vis­ion takes place, where that vis­ion is of the mere arrange­ment of the phys­ic­al objects with­in that space and the sur­faces they present to us. Such vis­ion is per­fec­ted in the lin­ear per­spect­ive codi­fied by Leon Bat­tista Alberti in De pic­tura (1435), in which the world is con­struc­ted math­em­at­ic­ally and logic­ally entirely from the point of view of the indi­vidu­al. This is also the abstract geo­met­ric space required by the equa­tions of New­ton’s Prin­cipia to cal­cu­late the motions of the heav­ens and the tra­ject­ory of heavy artil­lery alike.

Tom­maso Mas­ac­cio, The Holy Trin­ity (1426, Left), fresco for the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Sal­vador Dali, Cor­pus Hyper­cubus (1954, Right)
Mas­ac­cio’s fresco is often cited as the first paint­ing rendered in sys­tem­at­ic lin­ear perspective.

Fourfold vis­ion is vis­ion in the strongest sense, har­ness­ing the full power of the esem­plast­ic ima­gin­a­tion.7 Blake him­self reg­u­larly exper­i­enced such vision(s). They clearly involve a more rar­efied and unusu­al state of being than New­ton’s sleep—so we speak of sin­gu­lar ‘vis­ion’ as our nor­mal mode of per­cep­tion, but of ‘vis­ions’ in the plur­al when we refer to those moments in which a high­er mode of vis­ion is, per­haps fleet­ingly, achieved. These moments are rare and dif­fi­cult to describe, but they are the goal of Blake’s proph­et­ic art.So, while Blake ima­gines a hier­archy of per­cept­ive states, we need to know more about Blake’s ulti­mate, ima­gin­at­ive vis­ion in par­tic­u­lar, in order to know what is at stake in this hier­archy. I believe that his image of the sun as a choir of angels is not merely a cas­u­al example of such expan­ded vis­ion, men­tioned only to illus­trate the point about dif­fer­ring modes of per­cep­tion, but is in fact the paradig­mat­ic case of what Blake means by ‘vis­ion’. So per­haps we can bet­ter under­stand this state of heightened vis­ion by diving deep­er into Blake’s image of the sun as a choir of angels. What was he thinking?

Chariot Mysticism and the Face of God

Rabbi Akiva said:
Who is able to con­tem­plate the sev­en palaces
and behold the heav­en of heav­ens
and see the cham­bers of cham­bers
and say “I saw the cham­ber of YH”?
Ma’aseh Merkava, Syn­opse 554

Blake’s image of the angels prais­ing God in the midst of the blaze and heat of the sun rests on Isai­ah’s account of his encounter with God, in which he “saw also the Lord sit­ting upon a throne / Above it stood the ser­aph­ims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly / And one cried unto anoth­er, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” [Isai­ah 6:1–3]. The chant ‘holy, holy, holy’ appears pre­cisely twice in the Bible, here in Isai­ah, and then again in Rev­el­a­tion when Isai­ah’s vis­ion is reprised. So Blake must have had these vis­ions in mind. This chant, the trisagion, is a fea­ture of wor­ship in both Ortho­dox Chris­ti­an and Jew­ish ser­vices. In Rev­el­a­tion too it is chanted in the pres­ence of God and his six-winged ser­aph­im. The author of Rev­el­a­tion describes the throne of God, sur­roun­ded by “four beasts… each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes with­in: and they rest not day and night, say­ing, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” [Rev­el­a­tion 4:8] Clearly, Blake in his vis­ion of the sun is think­ing of these meet­ings with God, but has used the sun in place of ‘the Lord sit­ting upon a throne’ in his image. Why does he shift the focus of the image this way?

Ezekiel's Wheels

Blake, Ezekiel’s Wheels
Water Col­or Draw­ings Illus­trat­ing the Bible (c. 1780–1824), But­lin 468.1
The Blake Archives

Because of the pro­hib­i­tion on idol­atry and images of God, it is rare in the Bible for any­one to be con­fron­ted with God, and rarer still for them to see his face. And yet here in Isai­ah, and in par­al­lel texts in Ekez­iel and Rev­el­a­tion, and per­haps also in the story of Jac­ob’s Lad­der, that is exactly what hap­pens. Between around 200 BCE and 1100 CE there was a tra­di­tion with­in Juda­ism, called merka­bah mys­ti­cism after the Hebrew for chari­ot, מרכבה, which focused on these moments when the proph­ets ascend to see God on his throne or, in the case of Ezekiel, his chari­ot. The tra­di­tion centres on a per­son­al con­front­a­tion with God, like that ima­gined by gnostics in the early Chris­ti­an church. Oth­er key facets of this tra­di­tion worth not­ing here are that, first, accord­ing to merka­bah tra­di­tion, even if it is not always explict in the ori­gin­al texts, not only does man see the face of God, but the face of God is that of a man. The second fea­ture emphas­ised is the pres­ence in this con­front­a­tion of God and man of winged beings whose role is cent­ral, even if it var­ies between dif­fer­ent tellings. We will return to these points later.

apo­ca­lyptic vis­ion is centred on the belief that a per­son dir­ectly, imme­di­ately and before death can exper­i­ence the divine

I don’t know of any evid­ence that Blake was even aware of the merka­bah tra­di­tion, let alone influ­enced by it, but I have no doubt that he focussed on the same aspects of this encounter with the divine as did the merka­bahists. Isai­ah and Ezekiel were always Blake’s ‘go to’ proph­ets. It is with them that he con­verses in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell.8  He asks them “how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them”, to which Isai­ah replies “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organ­ic­al per­cep­tion; but my senses dis­cov­er­’d the infin­ite in everything, and as I was then per­swaded. & remain con­firm­’d; that the voice of hon­est indig­na­tion is the voice of God.“9 Blake’s later rejec­tion of the “Veget­at­ive Eye“10 is surely based on Isai­ah’s demo­tion here of “finite organ­ic­al per­cep­tion”. Nev­er­the­less, while say­ing that “the voice of hon­est indig­na­tion is the voice of God” is to strongly identi­fy with Isai­ah and Ezekiel in their role as proph­ets, it does not mean that Blake rejec­ted that they had ‘seen God’ in their vis­ions, though it changes our per­cep­tion of what it is to ‘see God’. Isai­ah’s faith in the authen­ti­city of his own voice, its ‘hon­esty’, is pre­dic­ated on the cleans­ing of his lips by the ser­aph­im in his vis­ion. No per­son­al vision—no proph­ecy. Blake repeatedly returned to the key moments of merka­bah literature—from Isai­ah and Ezekiel—and from the related texts of the New Test­a­ment, prin­cip­ally Rev­el­a­tion, in both his writ­ing and in his art. They were cent­ral to his under­stand­ing of apo­ca­lyptic vis­ion: for early Jew­ish and Chris­ti­an mys­tics the word most com­monly used for divinely inspired dreams, vis­ions and audi­tions, and proph­et­ic inspir­a­tion,  was apokalypsis, which means both apo­ca­lypse as we now think of it, but also rev­el­a­tion. Not only that but as April DeConick argues, this sense of apo­ca­lyptic vis­ion is “centred on the belief that a per­son dir­ectly, imme­di­ately and before death can exper­i­ence the divine“11 For Blake too, vis­ion and apo­ca­lypse are sim­il­arly entwined, and it is this sense of vis­ion that Blake uses in A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment, where our story began. Once again we are on ter­rain shared by merka­bah mys­ti­cism and per­son­al gnosis.

THe Angels

We need now to take a detour to look at the role of angels in our story. Cen­tur­ies of West­ern art have accus­tomed us to an image of angels as pale, shaved, haloed human fig­ures with dove-like wings, in white robes. But the Bible itself is as ambi­val­ent as it is pos­sible to be about the status, form, appear­ance and role of the angels, not only between texts, but often with­in a single text. For example, the story of how Abra­ham and Sarah were blessed with a child in old age begins with the vis­it of a group of angels;

And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lif­ted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed him­self toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy ser­vant.
Gen­es­is 18:1–3, KJB.

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity

Andrei Rublev, The Trin­ity, 15th cen­tury CE

In a single, short para­graph, we are told that ‘the Lord’ appeared to Abra­ham, but that he some­how took the form of three indi­vidu­al, unre­mark­able men, while Abra­ham nev­er­the­less imme­di­ately recog­nised and addressed these men in the sin­gu­lar as ‘my Lord’ (‘ădōnāy). The three mes­sen­gers / angels are not described as such, and yet that is what they are, because they are mes­sen­gers of God—the Hebrew mal’āk and Greek angelos are terms used spe­cific­ally to describe mes­sen­gers, albeit that the terms were later gen­er­al­ised to refer to all of God’s super­nat­ur­al assist­ants, in any capa­city. Yet these mes­sen­gers to Abra­ham, although divine, appear entirely human: there is no men­tion of wings, fly­ing, mira­cu­lous appear­ances and dis­ap­pear­ances or any oth­er godly accoutre­ments. The Rab­bin­ic tra­di­tion iden­ti­fies these angels at Mamre as Gab­ri­el, Michael and Raphael. The Ortho­dox icon paint­er, Andrei Rublev, pro­motes them to become the Trin­ity of God the Fath­er, Son and Holy Ghost. But all these iden­ti­fic­a­tions come later. The Bible itself is typ­ic­ally ambi­val­ent. This ambi­val­ence is expressed in the very gram­mar of the texts. When Abra­ham is about to sac­ri­fice his son Isaac, at the com­mand of God;

The angel of the Lord called unto him out of heav­en, and said, Abra­ham, Abra­ham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, see­ing thou hast not with­held… thine only son from me.
Gen­es­is 22:11–12, KJB.

Here the sub­ject of speech shifts, so that ‘the angel of the Lord’ appears to be both a mes­sen­ger and yet some­how also God him­self, say­ing that Isaac is saved because Abra­ham has shown that “thou has­n’t not with­held… thine only son from me.” The angel here is not so much a sep­ar­ate entity work­ing at God’s behest, but rather an avatar of God, a mode of his appear­ing. This blend­ing togeth­er of God and his hosts—the choirs of angels, spir­its, dai­mons, etc.—is typ­ic­al of the Bible, and reflects older, pre-mono­the­ist habits of thought typ­ic­al in the Near East—to the south in Egypt, to the North in Assyr­ia and Babylon, and in the lands in between—in which gods com­mingle, and act as both aspects and avatars of one anoth­er. And it is in this poly­the­ist­ic world that we will find the ori­gins of the Bib­le’s angels.

Space, Wind and Wings

The angels of Gen­es­is, the ones Abra­ham meets, have no wings. It was only in later times that they acquired them. There was a pat­tern in Assyr­ia and Egypt alike, at either end of Canaan, of using winged beings to rep­res­ent the winds, the car­din­al dir­ec­tions and the total­ity of divine power. This iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the wind and dir­ec­tions with the total­ity of power, and the choice of wings to rep­res­ent this space or dir­ec­tion­al­ity, makes good sense, just as long as you think like an ancient Meso­pot­ami­an rather than a mod­ern.12

The people of the ancient Near East did not share the mod­ern, New­to­ni­an ‘single-vis­ion’ sense of space dis­cussed earli­er. They did not ima­gine space to be an abstract con­cep­tu­al theatre, or a coordin­ate sys­tem. Rather, space for them was a mater­i­al aspect of the uni­verse, and you could feel it move in every gust of wind, even if they some­times also believed that wind emerged from gaps in the firm­a­ment. Looked at this way, wind becomes con­crete, ‘actu­ally-exist­ing space’. And what bet­ter way to rep­res­ent this wind-space than wings, which both gen­er­ate wind (space) when they beat, and also com­mand and con­trol the wind (space) in flight, becom­ing coex­tens­ive with it. With wind and space iden­ti­fied, and with wings viewed as the ele­ment’s primary tech­no­logy, it would then make sense to depict wind demons as hav­ing four wings, rep­res­ent­ing the four car­din­al directions.

Thus the Egyp­tian gods of the winds all have four wings to rep­res­ent the four dir­ec­tions. Not only that but they some­times have four heads, and for the same reas­on. The North wind has four ram-heads, the South wind has a lion’s head, the East wind has the head of a ram, and some­times the body of a scarab, while the West wind has the head of a snake.

Egyptian Wind Gods

Wind Gods of Ancient Egypt
E Wal­lis Budge, The Com­plete Gods of Ancient Egypt

Sim­il­arly, to the North of Canaan, the wind demons of Assyr­ia had four wings. The Assyr­i­an wind demon, Pazuzu, for example, is depic­ted as hav­ing four wings. And once again, wings are asso­ci­ated with the power of the wind and the dir­ec­tions of space. Pazuzu speaks of him­self as “the son of Hanbu, King of the evil Lilû-Wind Demons, I ascend to the mighty moun­tains that quake. The winds, in whose midst I pro­ceeded, were dir­ec­ted towards the West, I alone have broken their wings.“13 Like the Egyp­tian snake gods men­tioned above, Pazuzu begins his career as an ‘evil’ spir­it of destruc­tion, a Lord of the under­world, broth­er to the demon Hum­baba who is killed by the her­oes of the Epic of Gil­gamesh. How­ever, in accord­ance with the (per­fectly reas­on­able) myth­o­lo­gic­al logic which says that if you want a spir­it to pro­tect and defend you, a fierce demon might be a good choice, Pazuzu soon begins to appear more sys­tem­at­ic­ally as a god of pro­tec­tion. Pazuzu, incid­ent­ally, is the demon that pos­sesses Linda Blair’s char­ac­ter in the film The Exor­cist, a role in which he is def­in­itely cast in his earli­er demon­ic, rather than his later pro­tect­ive, aspect.14

The Jews in Canaan and there­abouts at the turn of the first mil­leni­um BC incor­por­ated aspects of the loc­al reli­gions into their own wor­ship. Cer­tainly they were famil­i­ar with four-winged dai­mons and spir­its, as can be seen, for example, from the pro­tec­tion seals below, all from the area of Judea and Israel at that time.

Egyptian Wind Gods

Pro­tec­tion Seals from Judah and Israel
Ben­jamin Sass, The Pre-Exil­ic Seals: Icon­ism vs. Anicon­ism.15

The four-winged icons on the seals above have the heads of snakes, and are pro­tect­ive in intent—features which will make more sense once we have factored in the cult of the uraeus in ancient Egypt. But first let’s note that not only did the Judeans and Irael­ites of the early Bib­lic­al age use the imagery of wind-demons in their seal, but the asso­ci­ated ideas made it into the Bible too. Scott Noe­gel notes that “the con­cep­tu­al over­lap between wings, winds, and the four corners of earth finds par­al­lels in a num­ber of bib­lic­al texts.“16 He offers the examples of lsaiah’s proph­ecy con­cern­ing the gath­er­ing of Judahites… “from the four ‘wings’ of the earth” [Isai­ah, 11:12], and of Ezekiel’s warn­ing that God’s wrath means that “The end has come upon the four ‘wings’ of the earth” [Ezekiel 7:2].17 In both cases, trans­la­tions of the Bible uses terms such as ‘all four corners of the earth’ and ‘east, south, north and west’, but the ori­gin­al Hebrew uses the idio­mat­ic ‘wings’ in line with the cos­mo­logy described above. Noe­gel con­cludes that “The ‘wings’ of the earth thus rep­res­ent the ordin­al dir­ec­tions from which the winds hail, and thus, they express a total­ity… they essen­tially mean ‘every­where’… Indeed, the con­nec­tion of ‘four-ness’ with the car­din­al winds and a total­ity of power finds addi­tion­al sup­port in Daniel’s vis­ion of a four-headed leo­pard with… ‘four wings of a bird’ [Daniel 7:6]”.18 More gen­er­ally, “in Egypt and Meso­pot­amia, the creatures with four wings can rep­res­ent the total­ity of power com­prised of the major deit­ies of the pan­theon. In Israel, they rep­res­ent the total­ity of Yah­we­h’s cre­at­ive and life-sus­tain­ing power and his con­trol over the cos­mos.“19

Hav­ing estab­lished the wide­spread use in the ancient Near East of images of four-winged, often four-headed beings rep­res­ent­ing space/wind and the total­ity of divine power, let’s look at Ezekiel’s vis­ion of the chari­ot, before God actu­ally speaks to him, to see just how much of it rests on these con­nota­tions. Ezekiel’s four-winged beings are bet­ter known today as the cherubim.

Ezekiel's vision

Mat­thäus Meri­an, Ezekiel’s Vis­ion (1670)

Now it came to pass… as I was among the cap­tives by the river of Chebar, that the heav­ens were opened, and I saw vis­ions of God… And I looked, and, behold, a whirl­wind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infold­ing itself, and a bright­ness was about it, and out of the midst there­of as the col­our of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst there­of came the like­ness of four liv­ing creatures. And this was their appear­ance; they had the like­ness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings… Their wings were joined one to anoth­er; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight for­ward. As for the like­ness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle… And they went every one straight for­ward: whith­er the spir­it was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went… Now as I beheld the liv­ing creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the liv­ing creatures, with his four faces. The appear­ance of the wheels and their work was like unto the col­our of a beryl: and they four had one like­ness: and their appear­ance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
Ezekiel 1:1–12, KJB.

In sum­mary, we have our four ‘liv­ing creatures’, the cher­ubim, each with four wings (instead of the six winged ser­aphs of Isai­ah) and four faces—of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. They sur­round the chari­ot and appear to move it. I take the expres­sion that “they went every one straight for­ward… and they turned not when they went” to indic­ate some spe­cial type of motion involving a mas­tery of the space they moved in (like the wind itself). The new ele­ments here are the four faces, the wheels and “the great cloud and fire… and a bright­ness”. The four ‘liv­ing beings’ (Greek: ζῷον, zōion) become Blake’s Four Zoas—Urizen and Urthona, Luvah and Tharmas—the basis of his ana­lys­is of the human con­di­tion, images of which appear through­out his work. But the major innov­a­tion con­cerns the ‘fire infold­ing itself’, and it is to this fire, and the related mat­ter of ‘fiery angels’, that we now turn.

A Detour Through the Desert with Some Burning Snakes

The six-winged ser­aph­im that sur­round God in Isai­ah’s vis­ion “are now gen­er­ally con­ceived as winged ser­pents with cer­tain human attrib­utes“20 The word śārāp in the Bible is under­stood to be a deriv­at­ive of the verb śārap—to ‘burn’, ‘incin­er­ate’, ‘destroy’—and there­fore the ser­aph­im are ‘those that anni­hil­ate by burn­ing’. At the same time, the root word is repeatedly asso­ci­ated in the Bible with snakes, or ‘fiery ser­pents’. In Num­bers 21:6, YHWH sends “the fiery ser­pent” among the people; in Deu­ter­o­nomy 8:15 the desert is described as the place of “fiery ser­pents”; in Isai­ah 30:6 the desert is the abode of “the fly­ing ser­pent” (śārāp mĕ’ôpēp). Taken togeth­er, what we have here is the idea of the ser­aph­im as fiery, fly­ing snakes that anni­hil­ate by burn­ing.21

The seals with the four-winged fly­ing snakes pic­tured above among the Pro­tec­tion Seals from Judah and Israel, were par­tic­u­larly pre­val­ent in 8th cen­tury BCE in Judah, which is where and when Isai­ah was writ­ing. Regard­ing Isai­ah’s vis­ion of the ser­aph­im, a few fur­ther points can be made. First, the ser­aph­im are said to be posi­tioned “stand­ing above” Jah­weh, which is exactly where the fly­ing snake / uraei are found in friezes in Egyp­tian and Pheon­ician chapels of the time, in the area above the altar. And while Isai­ah does not say how many ser­aph­im are present, read­ing between the lines of the text it is gen­er­ally assumed that there are two. The Book of Enoch argues that there were four ser­aph­im, arguing as fol­lows; “How many are the ser­aph­im? Four, cor­res­pond­ing to the four winds of the world” [3 Enoch 26:8]. The argu­ment fits well with what we know of the loc­al cos­mo­logy con­cern­ing the wings, but I believe Isai­ah was more likely to have two ser­aph­im in mind, cor­res­pond­ing to the two pro­tect­ors of the sun disc (see below).

More sig­ni­fic­antly, when Isai­ah declares to God that he is unworthy of the proph­et­ic role being thrust upon him, one of the ser­aph­im takes a burn­ing coal from the altar and “he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” [Isai­ah 6:7]. This power­fully con­firms the role of the ser­aph­im as those who ‘anni­hil­ate by burn­ing’, except that what is being anni­hil­ated is not the sup­plic­ant’s enemies, but their sins.

UraeusOth­mar Keel has traced the use of uraeus icon­o­graphy in Palestine from the Hyskos peri­od to the end of the Iron Age, and this has led to “an emer­ging con­sensus that the Egyp­tian uraeus ser­pent is the ori­gin­al source of the ser­aph­im motif.“22 The uraeus is the rear­ing cobra depic­ted on the Pharao­h’s crown, poised and ready to strike his enemies. The uraeus, there­fore, is a pro­tect­ive deity, and a sym­bol of regal power and legit­im­acy. While uraeus sym­bol­ism is cer­tainly an import­ant aspect of the imagery of the ser­aph­im, the iden­ti­fic­a­tion with the cobra is not essential.

The ‘fiery snake’ imagery of both Egypt and Isreal derives ulti­mately from the anim­al life of the deserts of Africa and Ara­bia. From the vari­ous descrip­tions in the Bible of the attrib­utes of the fiery snake, the most likely candidate—if we were to insist on there being only one—is the saw-scale viper or car­pet viper (ech­is col­oratus), though oth­er can­did­ates include the horned viper and the black desert cobra. The saw viper is of a red­dish, ‘fiery’ col­our, and has a light­ning fast, fly­ing strike and an espe­cially pain­ful, ‘burn­ing’ bite, with which it injects a deadly venom that causes death by intern­al bleed­ing.23 The spit­ting cobra pro­jects venom from its fangs by fir­ing it into the eye of its vic­tim over a dis­tance of up to two meters. This venom can cause per­man­ent blind­ness if not rap­idly treated.

Blerpharospasm

Eye of a vic­tim of cobra venom opthal­mia, with char­ac­ter­ist­ic red glow

The uraeus has its ori­gins in the ancient Egyp­tian snake god­dess, Wad­jet, tutelary deity of lower Egypt. Evid­ence of the wor­ship of Wad­jet goes to before the Old King­dom of the third Mil­leni­um BC. Nekh­met was the sim­il­arly ancient pro­tect­ive god­dess of upper Egypt, and appears depic­ted as a vul­ture along­side Wad­jet in the full uraeus crown of the Pharao­h’s of a united Egypt. This ulti­mate pro­tect­ive role was trans­ferred over to the pro­tec­tion of Ra him­self, as the god of the sun and of the sol­ar disc and Lord of all. Wad­jet and Nekh­met are seen in Egyp­tian icon­o­graphy flank­ing the winged sol­ar disc. Their role is to pro­tect Ra, shoot­ing a con­sum­ing fire at his enemies that threaten to destabil­ise Ra in guid­ing the sun in its daily course. Egyp­tian theo­logy even makes a dis­tinc­tion at points between Ra as such and the ‘Eye of Ra’, the sol­ar disc, as an eman­a­tion of Wad­jet, so that Wad­jet becomes ‘the Eye of Ra’. Ulti­mately in Egyp­tian theo­logy, all the oth­er gods become aspects of Ra, and thus the winged sun disc becomes emblem­at­ic of ulti­mate divine sovereignty. 

SOlar discx of King Hezekiah

The winged sun disc as a roy­al emblem of King Hezeki­ah of Judah, C8th BCE. Note ankh symbols.

This winged sol­ar disc, rep­res­ent­ing Ra, then becomes the sym­bol of sec­u­lar lord­ship and regal power more gen­er­ally. The use of the winged sun disc as a sym­bol of roy­al power appears not only in Egypt, but on Hebrew seals of the 8th cen­tury BCE asso­ci­ated with the roy­al house of the King­dom of Judah. Spe­cific­ally, it was used by King Hezeki­ah of Judah (c. 715–686 BCE).24 Imme­di­ately pri­or to that, it was in use by mem­bers of the court of Kings Ahaz and Uzzi­ah of Judah.25 King Uzzi­ah is estim­ated to have lived from 783–742 BCE, while Isai­ah’s account of his vis­ion begins, “In the year that king Uzzi­ah died I saw also the Lord sit­ting upon a throne” [Isai­ah 6:1]. I think it is reas­on­able to con­clude that Isai­ah, as the author of one of the canon­ic­al vis­ions of YHWH as ‘the Lord’, would have been famil­i­ar with the images of the winged sol­ar disc of Ra as rep­res­ent­ing such ulti­mate author­ity of Kings. And it is almost cer­tain that he would have been famil­i­ar with the icon­o­graphy of winged, fiery snakes —the seraphim—as uraeus snakes pro­tect­ing the divine power. As this divin­ity is being exper­i­enced in its sol­ar aspect, it is easy to under­stand how this would cre­ate an image of YHWH and the ser­aph­im alike as burn­ing, con­sum­ing forces.

The image of the sol­ar disc, hav­ing ori­gin­ally been an image of Egyp­tian roy­al power, was pro­jec­ted onto the divine (Ra) and then spread across Judah and Israel in par­tic­u­lar dur­ing the Hyskos peri­od. On this basis it became part of Isai­ah’s vis­ion of his ‘Lord’. This sec­u­lar image is expli­citly pro­jec­ted onto the divine, onto JHWH, as can be seen not only in Isai­ah but in the writ­ings of the proph­et Amos, writ­ing in Judah only a few years before him.

Behold! The one who forms moun­tains
the one who cre­ates wind
and the one who tells man­kind what his thoughts are
the one who makes the winged disc appear at down
the one who treads upon the high places of the earth
— YHWH, God of the hosts is his name.

Amos 4:1326

Ancient Aramean six-winged deity, from Tell Halaf (10th century BCE)One aspect of the ser­aph­im yet to be addressed is the fact that they have six wings, unlike the cher­ubim, who have only four, and oth­er angels, who have only two, or none at all. The first thing to be said is that there were cer­tainly oth­er deit­ies of the Near East with six wings. Such fig­ures are found through­out the region on seals, statu­ary and oth­er rel­ics. There are coins from the 1st cen­tury BCE from Byblos, Phoene­cia, show­ing the god El as a six-winged being: the coin­cid­ence of names (El) is strik­ing, as these people were neigh­bours of Israel and Judah. But these are late images, and do not neces­sar­ily reflect the situ­ation at the time of the proph­ets. How­ever, a strik­ing 10th cen­tury BCE Ara­mae­an black basalt statue of a six-winged deity has been found at Tell Halaf, in mod­ern north­ern Syr­ia (see left). Sim­il­ar six-winged fig­ures can be traced back as far as the 3rd mil­leni­um BCE.27 With a lack of any oth­er evid­ence, the obvi­ous thing to do would be to take what we know about the cor­rel­a­tion between wings and aspects of move­ment and dimen­sion­al­ity and see if that helps explain the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­ist­ics of angels (two wings), cher­ubim (four wings) and ser­aph­im (six wings). Scott Noe­gel applies this logic and claims to find a good fit. Beings with two wings “share in com­mon great speed, uni­direc­tion­al move­ment, and a sin­gu­lar pur­pose,“28 where­as with four-winged cher­ubim, “their move­ment is both ver­tic­al and lat­er­al in all the car­din­al dir­ec­tions, but nev­er unres­tric­ted.” This is because they act like draft anim­als for YHWH, and thus the con­stric­tion of these great angels by the great­er power of YHWH rep­res­ents “a dis­play of the total­ity and reach of divine power.“29 The six-winged ser­aph­im, on the oth­er hand, are uncon­strained in all dir­ec­tions such that, unlike the cher­ubim, they can even ascend above YHWH, as Isai­ah describes. The only con­straint on the move­ment of the ser­aph­im is that they are lim­ited to move­ment with­in lim­nal space; “the ser­aph­im func­tion as exten­sions of the divine spir­it and there­fore, they remain out­side the world of domest­ic­a­tion.“30 They are purely transcendent—hence per­haps later claims that they are beings of ‘pure light’.

A Commodious Vicus of Recirculation back to Blake, London and its Environs

My approach has been to take Blake’s ori­gin­al quote about see­ing the sun as a body of angels prais­ing God, and relate it to the texts of Isai­ah, Rev­el­a­tion and Ezekiel, in which it is rooted. I’ve then unpacked the sym­bol­ism of those texts by reach­ing back to the myths and sym­bols of the ancient Near East at the time when the char­ac­ter of JHWH was being developed in Judah and Israel. The aim in doing this is to cre­ate a super­sat­ur­ated solu­tion of the com­bined vis­ions of Isai­ah, Ezeki­al and John, full of poten­tial res­on­ances. The next task is to try to crys­tal­lize out of this solu­tion the par­tic­u­lar image Blake had in mind when he appro­pri­ated the imagery of Isai­ah and Ezekiel for his own pur­poses, just as they appro­pri­ated and repur­posed the imagery of Pazuzu, Wad­jet as the Eye of Ra, and the Egyp­tian wind gods. Bear in mind that Blake was not a schol­ar or philo­lo­gist. He was deeply read in Bible lit­er­at­ure, of course—the Bible itself, pseud­epi­grapha, apo­crypha and commentary—but he did not read these works in order to make a com­par­at­ive study of winged tutelary spir­its of the ancient Near East. Instead, all of those influ­ences would have incub­ated in his mind, to be put to work in his own sys­tem. It is a mat­ter of work­ing out which aspects of all this sym­bol­ism would, or would not have res­on­ated with Blake, know­ing what we know about his beliefs and demeanour.

We know that Blake looked to the ima­gin­at­ive art of the Near East as his mod­el of any art worthy of the name. It is pre­cisely to the mod­els of Egypt, Israel and bey­ond that he is look­ing. He is also clear that he absorbed such influ­ences through his own acts of ima­gin­a­tion and vis­ion. He tells us all this, for example, in the Descript­ive Cata­logue for his exhib­i­tion of 1809, when he describes his por­traits of Lord Nel­son and Wil­li­am Pitt as; 

… 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 into the ancient repub­lics, mon­arch­ies, and pat­ri­arch­ates of Asia, has seen those won­der­ful ori­gin­als called in the Sac­red Scrip­tures the Cher­ubim, which were sculp­tured and painted on walls of Temples, Towers, Cit­ies, Palaces, and erec­ted in the highly cul­tiv­ated states of Egypt, Moab, Edom, Aram, among the Rivers of Para­dise, being ori­gin­als from which the Greeks and Het­ruri­ans copied Her­cules, Farnese, Venus of Medi­cis, Apollo Bel­videre, and all the grand works of ancient art.
Blake, Descript­ive Cata­logue31

As to how Blake would have trans­figured these myth­o­lo­gic­al images of God and the cher­ubim in absorb­ing them, my first thought was that he was unlikely to have been much impressed by an image of God as an all-power­ful ruler. He des­pised the way that such grov­el­ling to power deformed people, and he excor­i­ated the church for mak­ing that its mod­us operandi. So, where­as he would have shared Isai­ah’s awed response, he would not have been cowed. In some senses, Isai­ah was with Blake in this, at least part of the way: in his depic­tion of the ser­aph­im it is made clear that neither they nor YHWH him­self are a threat to Isai­ah. Neither are the ser­aph­im there to pro­tect YHWH as Wad­jet pro­tects Ra—JHWH’s majesty is so effort­lessly super­i­or to any­thing else that he does not require pro­tec­tion. Instead, one of the ser­aph­im’s con­cerns seems to be to pro­tect them­selves from JHWH’s radi­ant glory. This nov­el depic­tion of the role of the ser­aph­im under­lines JHWH’s spe­cial status, and is a major innov­a­tion in Isai­ah’s use of the imagery of the fiery snake motif com­pared to how it was gen­er­ally used through­out the region. So, in Isai­ah’s vis­ion, he is in awe of God’s majesty, but he is not mor­tally afraid in the way his Egyp­tian neigh­bours would have been if they’d idly stumbled across the deadly Wad­jet and Nekh­bet guard­ing Ra in his daily path across the sky. The ser­aph­im do not attack Isai­ah, instead they use the burn­ing power of YHWH to puri­fy Isai­ah (with the coal from the altar—too hot even for the flam­ing ser­aph to handle, he uses tongs [Isai­ah 6:6]). If the ser­aph­im play a pro­tect­ive role, it is with regard to Isai­ah, not YHWH.

The biggest shift of emphas­is between Blake and Isai­ah is that, where­as in Isai­ah the sym­bol­ism of the sol­ar JHWH is subtly incor­por­ated (a radi­ant power, the burn­ing coal), in Blake it is per­fectly expli­cit-the angels them­selves (ser­aph­im or oth­er­wise) form the hot cluster of the sun, pre­sum­ably sur­round­ing the deity, as in the renais­sance images of choirs of angels sur­round­ing God. This image even­tu­ally became a  com­mon­place of reli­gious art, for example in the paint­ing A Vis­ion of Angels, by Edward Burne-Jones, from 1870 (below). Hav­ing said that, the choirs of angels depic­ted in such works gen­er­ally exist to illus­trate the celes­ti­al hier­archy that is required to con­nect an inef­fable deity to a palp­able world. The idea of such a hier­archy was first worked out in detail by Pseudo-Dionysi­us the Areo­pa­gite in the late 5th or early 6th cen­tury CE, and so can­not have been part of the vis­ion of Isai­ah or Ezekiel, over a mil­leni­um earli­er. The assump­tion behind the celes­ti­al hier­archy is that God is a hid­den and unknow­able deus abscondit­us—an idea dia­met­ric­ally at odds with Blake’s (merka­bah-like) belief in per­son­al gnos­is and the imman­ence of God (“God only Acts & Is, in exist­ing beings or Men”).32 More than that, this hier­archy was used to jus­ti­fy sec­u­lar reli­gious author­ity at its lower levels, and as such would be ali­en and repel­lant to Blake’s entire cast of mind. So, while it is not unusu­al to see the angel­ic choir arranged in a sol­ar form­a­tion around God in reli­gious imagery, Blake will have had oth­er reas­ons for ima­gin­ing his angels clustered togeth­er in this sol­ar form­a­tion. What were they?

A Vision of Angels, by Edward Burne-Jones 1873

Edward Burne-Jones, A Vis­ion of Angels
Mosa­ic, St Paul’s With­in the Walls, Rome.

Blake’s Annihilation by the Eye of Ra

One way of approach­ing the ques­tion of why Blake ima­gined the sun as a choir of angels—or, to put it anoth­er way, why he emphas­ised the inflam­mat­ory, sol­ar aspect of the divine—is to ask what all this heat rep­res­en­ted. What is this radi­ance or con­flag­ra­tion that is so fierce that even the ser­aph­im have to pro­tect them­selves from it?

The ‘burn­ing’ of the ser­aph­im has often been thought of as a heightened ‘warmth’, express­ing the ardour that the ser­aph­im feel in the pres­ence of God. It may also be thought of as a res­ult of the ser­aph­im’s cease­less activ­ity in prais­ing God, this activ­ity gen­er­at­ing a kind of warm­ing energy. In his Summa Theo­lo­gica, Aqui­nas offers a num­ber of explan­a­tions for the heat gen­er­ated by the ser­aph­im. He speaks of the heat as pro­duced by an “excess of char­ity”.33 He also makes the com­par­is­on with the flames of a fire, in that the flame’s “move­ment which is upwards and con­tinu­ous. This sig­ni­fies that [the ser­aph­im] are borne inflex­ibly towards God” (though this does not relate to the heat of the flame, only its motion).34 He makes a sim­il­ar com­par­is­on regard­ing the ‘bright­ness’ of the flame; “the qual­ity of clar­ity, or bright­ness; which sig­ni­fies that these angels have in them­selves an inex­tin­guish­able light, and that they also per­fectly enlight­en oth­ers.“35 In his Ora­tion on the Dig­nity of Man (1487), Pico della Mir­an­dola picks up on this idea of the enlight­en­ing, cla­ri­fy­ing aspect of the flame, turn­ing the ser­aph­im into mod­els for the new men of the Renais­sance; “If we burn with love for the Cre­at­or only, his con­sum­ing fire will quickly trans­form us into the flam­ing like­ness of the Ser­aph­im.“36

Not­with­stand­ing earli­er cri­ti­cism of the idea of celes­ti­al hier­archy (from Blake’s point of view), the notion of a ver­tic­ally-arrayed hier­archy does sug­gest to Aqui­nas a fur­ther explan­a­tion of the heat of the ser­aph­im which is at least some­what com­pat­ible with Blake’s vis­ion. Fol­low­ing Pseudo-Dionysi­us, Aqui­nas arugues that the heat of the ser­aph­im is used to ‘draw up’ those mem­bers of the lower circles of the hier­archy toward God, such that “the action of these angels [is] exer­cised power­fully upon those who are sub­ject to them, rous­ing them to a like fer­vor, and cleans­ing them wholly by their heat.“37 The ele­ment of hier­archy here makes the heat sound like a man­age­ment tool for the train­ing-up of subordinates—those lower down the divine chain of command—but it only takes a small twist to unshackle this notion from the leg­acy of the Aero­pa­git­e’s semi-feud­al love of organ­isa­tion­al charts. All you have to do is ima­gine that the heat is gen­er­ated by the ser­aph­im burn­ing them­selves up, rather than sub­or­din­ate angels, etc., in self-anni­hil­a­tion as they approach God. There is no need for a hier­archy here, all that is needed is the notion that, as you approach God, you are anni­hil­ated and burned up, just as Isai­ah’s iniquit­ies were burned up by the burn­ing coal on his lips. And self-anni­hil­a­tion was the stuff of Blake’s apo­ca­lypse, or at least “Anni­hil­a­tion of the Self-hood of Deceit and False For­give­ness“38

Remov­ing the ver­tic­al hier­archy in this way leaves us with a mod­el of the divine encounter which is not struc­tured around the height of the altar and move­ment below and above it, but instead has the divine as the centre of a sphere, to which everything is drawn in every dir­ec­tion. This is the vis­ion of the celes­ti­al choir in Dante’s Para­diso, ima­gined as a white rose;

Gustav Dore

Gust­av Dore, illus­tra­tion to Dante, Para­diso XXXI

In fash­ion, as a snow-white rose, lay then
Before my view the saintly mul­ti­tude,
Which in his own blood Christ espous’d. Mean­while
That oth­er host, that soar aloft to gaze
And cel­eb­rate his glory, whom they love,
Hov­er­’d around; and, like a troop of bees,
Amid the ver­nal sweets alight­ing now,
Now, clus­ter­ing, where their fra­grant labour glows,
Flew down­ward to the mighty flow’r, or rose
From the redund­ant petals, stream­ing back
Unto the stead­fast dwell­ing of their joy.
Faces had they of flame, and wings of gold;
The rest was whiter than the driv­en snow.
And as they flit­ted down into the flower,
From range to range, fan­ning their plumy loins.
Dante, Divine Com­edy: Para­diso XXXI39

This idea of the ser­aph­im burn­ing in self-anni­hil­a­tion is reflec­ted in Kab­ba­l­ah, in which the ser­aph­im are part of the world of Ber­i’ah, the second level of mani­fest­a­tion, the level of divine under­stand­ing, and the ‘realm of the throne’, in which the ser­aph­im rise and fall like sparks dan­cing over a fire. A Hekhalot com­ment­ary on Isai­ah’s vis­ion (part of the Merka­bah tra­di­tion) gives a sense of how this pro­cess of puri­fic­a­tion and self-anni­hil­a­tion might be imagined:

The Holy Liv­ing Creatures do strengthen and hal­low and puri­fy them­selves, and each one has bound upon its head a thou­sand thou­sands of thou­sands of crowns of luminar­ies of divers sorts, and they are clothed in cloth­ing of fire and wrapped in a gar­ment of flame and cov­er their faces with light­ning. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, uncov­ers His face. And why do the Holy Liv­ing Creatures and the Ophan­im of majesty and the Cher­ubim of splendor hal­low and puri­fy and clothe and wrap and adorn them­selves yet more? Because the Merka­bah is above them and the throne of glory upon their heads and the Shekh­i­nah over them and rivers of fire pass between them. Accord­ingly do they strengthen them­selves and make them­selves splen­did and puri­fy them­selves in fire sev­enty times and do all of them stand in clean­li­ness and holi­ness and sing songs and hymns, praise and rejoicing and applause, with one voice, with one utter­ance, with one mind, and with one melody.40

Here I think we have all of the ele­ments of Blake’s vis­ion of a con­front­a­tion with the divine: the ‘holy liv­ing creatures’ (the Zoas or Tet­ra­mprphs, formerly the ser­aph­im and cher­ubim, and before that, fiery snakes pro­tect­ing the sun disc) per­petu­ally extin­guish and anni­hil­ate them­selves in acts of puri­fic­a­tion as they stand before God, face to face, and recog­nise them­selves. To describe this as being anni­hil­ated by the Eye of Ra is not to say that Blake wor­shipped a sol­ar deity, but the viol­ence of self-anni­hil­a­tion in the con­front­a­tion with God is nev­er­thess a leg­acy of Wad­jet’s fiery attack, except this time the fire gen­er­ated is strictly one of self-immol­a­tion. To exper­i­ence this par­tic­u­lar apokalypsis is as good as four-fold vis­ion gets. This, I believe, is some­thing like what Blake had in mind in talk­ing of the sun as a choir of angels exalt­ing God.

Andy Wilson
2021-03-12

The Sun at his Eastern Gate

Blake, The Sun at his East­ern Gate
Illus­tra­tion for Milton’s L’Al­legro (1816–20), But­lin 543.3
The Blake Archives

Notes

  1. Samuel Col­eridge, Bio­graph­ia Lit­er­ar­ia, Vol. 1, pp241‑2.
  2. Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment (1810), Erd­man p565
  3. Every Time less than a pulsa­tion of the artery / Is equal in its peri­od & value to Six Thou­sand Years. / For in this Peri­od the Poets Work is Done”, Blake, Milton I 28/30:52–29/31:2, Erd­man p126‑7. For what its worth, I would­n’t break up a friend­ship with someone based on their mis­taken under­stand­ing of Blake. There were much more press­ing issues involved. But this dis­agree­ment was much more than a straw in the wind.
  4. Blake, Vis­ions of the Daugh­ters of Albion 5:10–20, Erd­man p48‑9.
  5. Blake, Let­ter to Rev’d Dr Trusler Aug 23 1799, Erd­man p702.
  6. Blake, Let­ter to Thomas Butts, 22 Novem­ber 1802, Erd­man p722.
  7. “ ‘Esem­plast­ic’ is a qual­it­at­ive adject­ive which… Samuel Taylor Col­eridge claimed to have inven­ted. Des­pite its ety­mo­logy from the Ancient Greek word πλάσσω for ‘to shape’, the term was mod­elled on Schelling’s philo­soph­ic­al term Ineins­b­ildung–the inter­weav­ing of opposites–and implies the pro­cess of an object being moul­ded into unity. The first recor­ded use of the word is in 1817 by Col­eridge in his work, Bio­graph­ia Lit­er­ar­ia, in describ­ing the esemplastic—the unifying—power of the ima­gin­a­tion.” Wiki­pe­dia < en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esemplastic >
  8. Blake, The Mariage of Heav­en and Hell 12, Erd­man p38.
  9. Blake, ibid.
  10. Blake, A Vis­ion of the Last Judge­ment , ibidp565
  11. April DeConick, ‘What is Early Jew­ish and Chris­ti­an Mys­ti­cism?’, quoted in Chris­toph­er Row­land, ‘Wheels with­in Wheels’: Wil­li­am Blake and the Ezekiel’s Merka­bah in Text and Image, Mil­wau­kee: Mar­quette Uni­ver­sity Press, 2007, p12.
  12. For a dis­cus­sion of these ideas and their devel­op­ment in the Near East, see Scott B Noe­gel, ‘On the Wings of the Winds: Towards an Under­stand­ing of Winged Mis­chwesen in the Ancient Near East’, Kaskal: Riv­ista di stor­ia, ambi­enti e cul­ture del Vicino Ori­ente Antico, Vol 14 2017, Florence: Logisma, 2017.
  13. Scott B Noe­gel, p17.
  14. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exorcist_(film), accessed 2021-03-11.
  15. Ben­jamin Sass, ‘The Pre-Exil­ic Seals: Icon­ism vs. Anicon­ism,’ in Stud­ies in the Icon­o­graphy of North­w­est Semit­ic Inscribed Seals; Pro­ceed­ings from a Sym­posi­um Held in Fri­bourg on April 17–20, 1991, ed. B. Sass and C. Uehlinger; Göt­tin­gen: Vand­en­hoeck & Ruprecht, 1993, fig. 79., online in Taylor Gray, The Ser­aph­im Through the Eyes of Isai­ah, Trans­pos­i­tionswww.transpositions.co.uk/seraphim-eyes-isaiah > accessed 2021-03-11.
  16. Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p19.
  17. Scott Noe­gel, ibid.
  18. Scott Noe­gel, ibid.
  19. Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p39.
  20. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Beck­ing and Pieter van der Horst (eds), The Dic­tion­ary of Deit­ies and Demons in the Bible, Brill Aca­dem­ic Pub­lish­ers / Erd­man’s Pub­lish­ing Com­pany, 1999, p742.
  21. Curi­ously, when the Israel­ites com­plain to Moses about the fiery snakes that leth­ally attack them, God com­mands Moses to make the Nehushtan—a bronze snake on a cross. The Israel­ites who pray to the ser­pent on the cross are saved from the leth­al bite of the desert ser­pents. Later proph­ets des­troyed the Nehushtan as the wor­ship of it had become idol­at­rous. Later still, in the Chris­ti­an era, the snake on the cross was seen as a pre­curs­or of Christ’s sac­ri­fice on the cross. This iden­ti­fic­a­tion in turn no doubt encour­aged those gnostics who ven­er­ated the ser­pent as the bring­er of wis­dom to man­kind. There is clearly a par­al­lel here with the Greek god, Asclepi­us, who car­ried a rod with a ser­pent wreathed around it, which he used to heal sick­ness, and even to resur­rect the dead.
  22. Noe­gel, ibid.
  23. See Wiki­pe­dia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiery\_flying\_serpent >, accessed 2021-03-11.
  24. Robert Deutsch, ‘Last­ing Impres­sions: New bul­lae reveal Egyp­tian-style emblems on Judah’s roy­al seals’ (2002). Bib­lic­al Archae­ology Review 28:4, pp 42–51, < archaeological-center.com/en/monographs/m13/> accessed 2021-03-11.
  25. Daniel Sarlo, ‘Winged Scarab Imagery in Judah: Yah­weh as Khepri’ (2014). East­ern Great Lakes Bib­lic­al Soci­ety Annu­al Meet­ing, Erie, PA. < academia.edu/5562359/Winged_Scarab_Imagery_in_Judah_Yahweh_as_Khepri >accessed 2021-03-11.
  26. My New Liv­ing Trans­la­tion bible renders the rel­ev­ant line as “He turns the light of dawn into dark­ness”, where­as KJB says that God “maketh the morn­ing dark­ness”. It is John Wit­ley who argues that the Hebrew involves the poet­ic invoc­a­tion of the sol­ar disc. See John Whit­ley, ‘עיפה in Amos 4:13: New Evid­ence for the Yah­wist­ic Incor­por­a­tion of Ancient Near East­ern Sol­ar Imagery’, in Journ­al of Bib­lic­al Lit­er­at­ure Vol. 134, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 127–138. Quoted in Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p22.
  27. Accord­ing to Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p28.
  28. Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p33.
  29. Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p34.
  30. Scott Noe­gel, ibid, p36.
  31. Blake, A Descript­ive Cata­logue of Pic­tures, Poet­ic­al and His­tor­ic­al Inven­tions, Lon­don, Ber­wick St: DN Shury, 1809. Erd­man p 530–1.
  32. Blake, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell 16, Erd­man p 40
  33. Aqui­nas, Summa Theo­lo­gica Q108 & < ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.FP_Q108_A5.html > accessed 2021–0312.
  34. Aqui­nas, ibid.
  35. Aqui­nas, ibid.
  36. Pico della Mir­an­dola, Ora­tion on the Dig­nity of Man, < history.mcc.edu/wordpress/history/2014/04/10/oration-on-the-dignity-of-man/ > accessed 2021-03-11.
  37. Aqui­nas, ibid.
  38. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem 15.
  39. Dante, The Divine Com­edy: Para­dise, tr. EF Cary, < owleyes.org/text/dantes-paradise/read/canto-31 > accessed 2021-03-12.
  40. Quoted in Ger­shom Scholem, Jew­ish Gnosti­cism, Merka­bah Mys­ti­cism, and Talmud­ic Tra­di­tion (1960), Jew­ish Theo­lo­gic­al Sem­in­ary of Amer­ica, Phil­adelphia: Maurice Jac­obs Press, p29.