John Milton’s Devil-Deities in William Blake’s Illustrations to the Nativity Ode, by David McIrvine

Milton’s Dark Materials: the Dissociations of the Human Brain

One of the aims of Blake’s work is to encourage integration of the various disconnected aspects of the human brain and body. Under Urizenic (left brain dominant) systems, these often become split off and psychotic – a form of dissociative identity disorder, presented in the Bible, Dante, and Milton as separate-headed ‘demons’ – the compulsive and obsessive nature of processes that are not properly integrated. The cause of this is usually a form of hyper-rationalisation, which McGilchrist and Louis Sass associate both with schizo-phrenia and modern forms of madness.

Introduction: The 6-headed Jupiter Heliopolitanus – Zeus Kasios, Asmodai, Beelzebub, Libyc Hammon, Serapis and Mammon

Figure 1: Detail from ‘Old Dragon’: William Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, aka ‘The Descent of Typhon and the Gods into Hell’

In this editorial labelling on a detail from Blake’s illustrations of John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” we can see each of the six large figures corresponds to one of the six deities named by the Nativity Ode in Stanza XXII of “The Hymn”: ”Peor” (197), Belus, the first of the “Baalim” (197), Dagon (199), “Ashtaroth” (200), “the Lybic Hammon” (203), and “Thamuz” (204). Blake selected most of the other devil-deities in this picture from evil spirits Milton names in the muster- and council-lists in Paradise Lost Books 1 and 2. The “architect” (PL 1:732) is here portrayed by Blake according to the speculation of John Callander’s edition of Book 1, as the Enochian watcher Azael.

Callander’s long note to Paradise Lost 1:462 – including translations from classical sources on the half-piscine, mermaid-bodied “Derceto” – argues that Milton had that goddess in mind when he named her city; Blake had previously included Derceto in a watercolour illustration for the same patron (the Reverend Joseph Thomas), of “Satan Rousing His Legions” from Paradise Lost Book 1. Blake’s only egregious inclusions to this illustration are a) Semiramis (Derceto’s daughter, not mentioned by Milton) and b) Plutus, whom Blake’s iconography, throughout his career, rigidly distinguished from Mammon.

Clockwise from bottom the figures are:


1. “Thamuz”;

2. The first of the “Baalim,” specifically Belus, the legendary inventor of the iron sword and, in some accounts, iron weapons; device on shield bears the thunderbolts (implicitly three of them) of Zeus Belus;

3. Belial (impersonating, as he is indicted for at 2:191, a “Silvan” or Silvanus);

4. Plutus (who is, in Blake’s art, depicted differently than Mammon; Plutus, in Blake’s art, always has one arm raised up);

5. The “Moon,” gazing on a fairy ring gone underground, Milton’s “Moon-lov’d maze” (Nativity Ode 236);

From top: Architect; Moon; Plutus; Belial

6. The gold is brought up to the “architect” (PL 1:732), an overseer and metalsmith identified by John Callander’s note to PL 1:732 as an Enochian ‘watcher’ named “Azael” (or “Azalzel”); also named “Mulciber” by Milton at PL 1:740;

7. “Ashtaroth” (Astarte);

8. Derceto, a goddess upward woman and downward fish (nowadays referred to as Derketo, or as Atargatis); not named by Milton, but Callander note to PL 1:462 adduces her presence in Milton’s Paradise Lost;

9. Semiramis (her head emerging above her mother, Derceto); not named by Milton – my only uncertain identification;

10. Six-headed figure, based on Jupiter Heliopolitanus; it is beardless, with heads of other deities on its breast; Blake added a serpent’s tail; its principal head is Zeus Kasios (to whom Rimmon was assimilated, and who vanquished Typhon at Mount Kasios), who holds a pomegranate scepter and is clean-shaven. See Figure 2 for an anatomy of the devil-deities Blake included in this figure;

“Peor, depicted with mouth gaping open”

11. “Peor,” depicted with mouth gaping open, consonant with the oldest onomastic interpretations of ‘Peor’; also depicted in the act of palpation, an old onomastic reading of ‘Chemosh’; Peor (the “other name” (PL 1:412) for “Chemos” (PL1:406)) is an “obscene dread” (PL 1:406) whose idol and rites were thought to have been priapic, which association Dagon’s hand and finger, just below waist-level on Peor, suggests;

12. and Dagon, “upward Man/And downward Fish” (PL 1:462-63), associated with Avarice, on whom Mammon looks down, and who looks up at the gold Plutus brings up to the “architect” Azael.

Figure 2: Six-headed Jupiter Heliopolitanus; Zeus Kasios (Jupiter Casius) with heads emerging from his breast (Serapis, Beelzebub, Jupiter Ammon, Mammon, Asmodai) and with non-traditional serpentine tail added by Blake.

Blake’s six-headed creature bears the heads of Zeus Kasios/Jupiter Casius (Milton’s Rimmon: PL 1:467-76): Serapis (PL 1:720); Beelzebub (PL 1: 81, 271; PL 2: 279-378); The Libyc Hammon (Jupiter Ammon) (Nativity Ode 203; also PL 4:277, 9:508; Elegy 4.26); Mammon (PL 1:678-90; 2.228-92); Asmodai (Asmadai; Asmodeus) (PL 4:168, 6.365; PR 2:151). I shall first address my argument to the identity of this figure as an imaginative variation (inter alia, serpent-tail added) on idols of Jupiter Heliopolitanus; I shall next explicate the principal head—Zeus Kasios, who replaced Rimmon at Pelusium. I explain the other five identifications in the late pages of this paper.


The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods

Pythian Apollo (central figure), Isis, Osiris, Horus, Anubis, Pan, and Thamuz

Across the entire series of six illustrations of Milton’s Nativity Ode for the Reverend Joseph Thomas, Blake seems to have aimed to illustrate all of the named pagan or evil spirits in Milton’s poem. One picture in the series accounts for Moloch, another for Pythian Apollo, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Anubis, Pan, and Thamuz.

The Nativity Ode’s catalogue of these spirits is extensive, but in the picture of ‘Old Dragon’, Blake added to it, including devil-deities from Paradise Lost , and using Paradise Regained to develop his portrayal of Belial. It is likely that Blake began to develop his ideas for these spirits’ portrayals when he did four previous paintings illustrating Satan calling up the fallen spirits, a subject from Paradise Lost, Book 1. Blake did a watercolour of this subject, also for Thomas, circa 1807, and in it depicted Derceto, who also appears as one of the extra-textual visitors in our illustration to the Nativity Ode, and whose presence probably derives, as I shall argue, from Blake having information peculiar to John Callander’s 1750 edition of Paradise Lost, Book 1.

The Thomas illustration of Paradise Lost Book 1 had a large number of figures in it – more than in Blake’s 1808 illustration for Thomas Butts, of Satan calling up his legions. Blake had also completed, probably not before 1806 but certainly by 1809, two tempera paintings of “Satan Calling up His Legions”: such details as the head of Mammon, or the scaly lower body of Dagon, were carried over from those tempera paintings into our 1809 illustration of the Nativity Ode.

Satan Calling up His Legions (tempera)

Blake also performed variations, in our illustration to the Nativity Ode, on certain strategies of composition in the tempera paintings – such as their portrayal of Thammuz having a physiological problem with one leg, and, most crucially, the exchanges of gaze between Dagon, Mammon, and the “architect” (PL 1:732), a grouping to which, in our Nativity Ode illustration, Blake added the figure of Plutus.

“the figure I label as Dagon”

With the exception of Bette Charlene Werner’s statement that the figure, which I identify as “Ashtaroth” (Nativity Ode 200), “may be the apocalyptic beast’s traditional associate…MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT” from Revelation 17:5; and Stephen C. Behrendt’s attempt to identify, as “Satan,” the figure I label as Dagon (Nativity Ode 199), I have not yet noticed that any of the individual figures and heads in this picture has been given a name or textual citation by critics, editors, or art historians. My identifications of them are original, as is my identification of the six-headed figure as an imaginative variation on representations of  Jupiter Heliopolitanus. Other writers have tried to associate it with one or more characters from Revelation – the seven-headed Dragon, the Beast from the Sea, and the Beast ridden by Mystery, Babylon the Great.



This six-headed, serpent-tailed, figure is by curators and critics variously identified with Milton’s “Typhon” (Nativity Ode, 226) and his “old Dragon” (Nativity Ode 168). Both are good associations; albeit my argument is that the Typhonian associations are antinomian and ironic, due to (as I shall argue) Blake’s depiction of the principal head as Zeus Kasios, legendary vanquisher of Typhon. Moreover, Blake here depicts, as the prime evil, an old Dragon that, as I shall also argue, incorporates various forms of Jupiter (Heliopolitanus, Kasios, Ammon). Jupiter, as we shall see from Blake’s letters of the early nineteenth century, was for him the principal evil pagan spirit. So while I have no quarrel with the critics’ labelling of this beastie as Typhon or as the old Dragon, I do reject their mistaken supposition that Blake modelled this figure on one of the seven-headed beasts from Revelation.

Blake did not intend this watercolour to represent the familiar seven-headed, ten-horned Beast of Revelation13:1 or 17.3; this is evidenced by his abandonment of an earlier plan to do so. In a preliminary drawing (Butlin 540; British Museum) for this illustration for the Reverend Joseph Thomas, Blake sketched this creature with seven heads, all coming out from between its shoulders; no heads protruded from its bare breast. But for the finished painting, Blake abandoned this approach, and decided to model his creature’s physiology after Jupiter Heliopolitanus, a celebrated, Imperial Roman, beardless form of Jupiter that wore a robe adorned, on its front, with the heads of multiple other deities.

It is crucial that the heads in the Thomas watercolour emerge from the creature’s breast: this is the peculiar effect of a front-view of any statue of Jupiter Heliopolitanus. And Blake never, illustrating Revelation, portrayed the seven heads of the Dragon, of the Beast from the Sea, or of the Beast ridden by Mystery, Babylon the Great, as protruding from its breast. In the series of illustrations to the Nativity Ode for Thomas Butts, Blake portrayed at this point a serpent-tailed creature with a naked breast, the seven heads all emerging from between its shoulders. This is also how the heads are configured when Blake portrays the seven-headed Beast from Revelation 17:3 in a watercolour; and Revelation’s seven-headed Beast from the Sea; and Revelation’s seven-headed Dragon – all five paintings done for Butts.

“Blake’s paintings of the seven-headed serpentine creature for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts

In five of Blake’s depictions of the Last Judgment – all those in which he portrayed “the Great Red Dragon with Seven heads & ten Horns” – there are seven heads emerging from between the shoulders of the dragon. The heads do not emerge from a breast in Blake’s paintings of the seven-headed serpentine creature, for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts and for Purgatorio Canto 32.

Figure 3: Statue of Jupiter Heliopolitanus that Sir William Hamilton gave to the British Museum in 1772

For our Nativity Ode illustration, Blake not only had heads emerging from the creature’s breast; he also portrayed only six heads: this is powerful negative evidence that our serpent-tailed creature is not the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea, or the Beast ridden by the woman in Revelation. Blake might then choose more, or fewer, heads: but six heads seem to have been chosen either because Blake knew he had six more of Milton’s evil spirits to include in the picture, or because he was making a positive statement of connection with one particular representation of Jupiter Heliopolitanus, which happened to reside in London. The number of heads arrayed on the robe of Jupiter Heliopolitanus vary, in extant sculptures of him, but I count one head on top, and five heads on the breast, of the statue of Jupiter Heliopolitanus that Sir William Hamilton gave to the British Museum in 1772 (See Figure 3.)

Blake’s choice of a form of Jupiter that would challenge most experts’ erudition is typical of his procedure in painting for Thomas, for whom he gave challenging historical-painting compositions that required deep knowledge of Milton and wide knowledge of the characters from Antiquity that Milton included in his poems. For Butts, Blake produced simpler compositions, with vastly fewer figures and fewer challenges to what may have been Butts’ limited religious erudition outside of the Christian Bible.

The ancient city where the main cult-idol had once resided – Baalbek, called ‘Heliopolis’ under Greek, then Roman, settlement – had been examined, described, and wondered at for centuries. After centuries of printed travellers’ accounts, eighteenth-century Europeans came to estimate a published study of the city according to the number and quality of its engravings of Baalbek’s awesome ruins. One sight at Baalbek that had excited awe and speculation in books of Levantine travels had, when Blake did our Nativity Ode illustration in 1809, been depicted in several famous and prominently-discussed eighteenth-century engravings. The worked masonry on which Blake’s six-headed figure’s right elbow rests likely refers to what was in 1809 the greatest building-stone ever discovered: in a quarry near the city walls of Baalbek lay a cracked rectangular monolith, smoothly finished on three sides and worn on the top side.

“in a quarry near the city walls of Baalbek lay a cracked rectangular monolith, smoothly finished on three sides and worn on the top side”

Measured by John Wood at about 70 x 14 x 14 feet, and depicted prominently by him in the right corner of the forefront of Plate II of his definitive 1757 study, The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Cœlosyria, the monolith in the quarry (as can be seen from other engravings and from contemporary online photos) was hewn to an imperfect finish (and pitted by time) on the top; but the stone was smooth, even, and perfectly finished on its other three faces. This seems to be the object Blake alludes to with his depiction of the stone in our picture. Blake’s picture should be situated in the extensive literature written by, or based on the accounts of, pilgrims and travellers in the Holy Land, geographers, historians, and religious scholars who had visited Baalbek: many of these travellers commented on this cracked and nearly-finished rectangular monolith.

“the cracked rectangular monolith depicted prominently in the right corner of the forefront of Plate II of his definitive 1757 study, The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Cœlosyria

Various speculations, legends, and lore had been associated with the monolith in the quarry. It shared some of these with other stonework – massive pillars that made up the finished construction at Baalbek, especially the three rectangular pillars (the ‘Trilithon’), also eye-poppingly large, that lay endlong at the base of one of Baalbek’s temples. The Trilithon reminded English travellers of ‘Druid’ stonework, which might have attracted Blake’s interest. These three stones, however, had nary a crack in them.

“the ground Astarte (top) sits on depicts the monolith’s situation, so that we see a cubical section of its end”

Notice was typically made of the ruined condition of all the ancient buildings, and of their surrounding fragments of stone from edifices damaged by the edicts of Christian emperors, by peacetime pillaging, by more than a thousand years of sieges, by earthquakes (even before the disastrous quake of 1759), and by the elements. But Blake has not depicted one of these accidental irregular fragments of stone; he has depicted a hewn and mostly-finished monolith, and only one such – the stone in a quarry – was described as emerging from the ground and not incorporated into a building. For this reason, and especially due to the crack in the 3/4-finished stone – I think Blake was referring to the monolith sticking up from the ground in the quarry. In Blake’s picture, this piece of incompletely-worked, damaged stone sticks up from behind the ground Astarte sits on – more vertically, however, than Wood, or the Comte de Volney, or now-available photography, depicts the monolith’s situation – so that we see a cubical section of its end.

Martin von Baumgarten noted the size and situation of this monolith in the quarry, along with local lore about it gathered during a 1508 visit; visitors thereafter remarked on it in books of their travels or pilgrimages; and, by the eighteenth century, manuscript accounts from hundreds of years previous to the printed book were being translated and/or printed in Europe. Accounts, both old and new, of the wonderful ruins at Baalbek were included in antiquarian studies, in the early mythographers’ attempts to grapple with the religious histories of the Levant, and in high-profile historical discussions of the Levant both with and without a Roman presence, including Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The monolith in the quarry attracted not only material-cultural speculation but also lore and legend, making it one of those mysterious ‘Oriental’ wonders that took on increasing value in the popular literature of the eighteenth century. The monolith in the quarry is now referred to as ‘The Stone of the Pregnant Woman’: when I discuss Blake’s depiction of Astarte, who sits alongside the hewn stone he depicts, I shall address historical reception in Europe of the monolith’s name and the legends surrounding the stone-workings at Baalbek.

“Blake placed a snake’s tail onto the non-serpentine god Jupiter Heliopolitanus”

While the stone under his elbow associates him with Heliopolitan architecture, anatomically the six-headed figure is Jupiter Heliopolitanus – but with a serpent’s tail added. Blake, who seems to have taken a cue from ophidian representations of Serapis and/or Jupiter Ammon, placed a snake’s tail onto the non-serpentine god Jupiter Heliopolitanus. This allows Blake to illustrate “old Dragon” and “Typhon” in the Nativity Ode with a form of Jupiter, and it allows him to exhaust a catalogue of Milton’s evil spirits. In two other illustrations from this series, other deities from the Nativity Ode – Moloch, Pythian Apollo, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Anubis, Pan, and Thamuz – are illustrated. The figure of Jupiter Heliopolitanus exhausts, in the Thomas series of illustrations to the Nativity Ode, the remaining six entries in a catalogue of the most important devils, pagan deities, and spirits in Books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost and in the Nativity Ode.

Blake’s Jupiter Heliopolitanus is one of six large figures in our picture which illustrates especially lines 197-204 of the Nativity Ode. Blake represents, in each of these six large figures, each of the six deities in that 22nd stanza of the Hymn.

Peor, and Baalim,

Forsake their Temples dim,

With that twise-batter’d god of Palestine,

And mooned Ashtaroth

Heav’ns Queen and Mother both,

Now sits not girt with Tapers holy shine,

The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn,

In vain the Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn

–  John Milton, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

Of the six heads on Blake’s Jupiter Heliopolitanus, all illustrate spirits who appear in Paradise Lost; however only one of them, the “Libyc Hammon,” (Jupiter Ammon) is mentioned in the Nativity Ode (line 203) itself: I suspect this was because Blake made an especially elaborate game out of the problem of finding this deity, who is, as I shall argue, teasingly alluded to in another picture from the series of Nativity Ode illustrations Blake made for Thomas.

Ranging outside the Nativity Ode, Blake loaded this picture with figures from the catalogues of evil spirits in Paradise Lost, apparently so as to present an opportunity for his customer Thomas to exercise his knowledge of comparative religion and mythology, and of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Blake had given Thomas a challenging puzzle with his 1807 illustration of Satan rousing his legions from Book 1 of that poem; now, for our Nativity Ode illustration, Blake clearly felt encouraged to go farther, engaging with Thomas on an even greater level of erudition. So, while the Nativity Ode’s roster of evil spirits is fully accounted for across Blake’s set of six illustrations to it, prominent evil spirits and devil-deities from Paradise Lost are included in our illustration from that set.

“a scepter with a finial topped with a pomegranate”

The principal head on Blake’s figure belongs to Zeus Kasios/Jupiter Casius, the legendary vanquisher of Typhon. Blake depicts him holding a scepter with a finial topped with a pomegranate (an attribute of Zeus Kasios, and of Rimmon), and Zeus Kasios, like Jupiter Heliopolitanus, was a rare, beardless form of Jupiter. Depicting Zeus Kasios, Blake depicted the god who supplanted, at Mount Kasios, the earlier god with the attribute of the pomegranate – Rimmon. Rimmon (PL 1:467-76) is of course one of the premier devil-deities in the catalogue of Paradise Lost.


Zeus Kasios, the god who displaced Rimmon, and the principal head on Blake’s six-headed figure

Blake portrayed this deity with an attribute and an appearance that were recorded in iconography and mythography: Zeus Kasios, or Jupiter Casius, holds a pomegranate scepter, and is beardless. This deity had temples and oracles at two mountains called Kasios or “Mount Casius,” one (now Jebel el-Akra) on the Syrian-Turkish border, just south of the mouth of the Orontes; and one, at Pelusium, on what Herodotus described as the ancient border of Syria and Egypt.

This deity held a pomegranate scepter, and was the form of Zeus, in the Interpretatio Graeca, that had usurped the place of the mountain’s older deity, Rimmon – whose name, as multiple editions of Milton and Bible dictionaries explained, in Hebrew means “pomegranate.” Jacob Bryant, for whose antiquarian magnum opus A New System Blake had engraved, observed that Zeus Kasios was identical with Rimmon, and that his attribute was a pomegranate scepter:

The ancient Persians used to have a pomegranate carved upon the top of their walkingsticks and scepters: undoubtedly on account of its being a sacred emblem … It was reverenced under this name in Syria: and was held sacred in Egypt. Achilles Tatius mentions an ancient temple at Pelusium, in which was a statue of the Deity, stiled Zeus Casius, holding this “mysterious fruit in his hand. We may from hence infer, that he was upon Mount Casius worshiped in the same attitude: and the God Rimmon, mentioned by the sacred writers, was probably represented in the like manner.

The ‘Pelusium’ (or ‘Pelousion’) Bryant mentions is in Egypt, and is recorded, inter alia, in Herodotus (2.158.4), in Strabo (Geography 16.2.33), in Pliny (Natural History 5.14.68 and 6.33.167), in Philemon Holland’s English translation of Pliny (5.12-13 and 6.29) and in Thomas Astle’s 1803 history of writing.

Zeus aiming his thunderbolt at a winged and snake-footed Typhon

While Zeus is almost always bearded, Zeus Kasios was beardless. Abbé Bernard de Montfaucon’s treatise on iconography has five instances of this Jupiter Casius, four holding a pomegranate scepter, and one of these (although questionably identified) is beardless. But we need not rely on the Abbé for authority: there was a long literary-historical tradition that Zeus Kasios was beardless, and there was available to Blake an English translation of the oldest surviving record of this deity’s appearance–Clitiphon and Leucippe, the Greek second/third-century CE romance (which Bryant cited) by Achilles Tatius. The narrator describes a visit by his unlucky heroes to the Egyptian Pelusium, and to the oracular statue there of Zeus Kasios:

There was at Pelusium an image of Iupiter Cassius, which was drawen so youthfull, that hee séemed to be almost like Apollo, holding out his right hande, wherein was a pomegranade, the meaning of which picture is not made knowne to all.

–  Achilles Tatius, The Most Delectable and Pleasaunt History of Clitiphon and Leucippe

Zeus Kasios was legended (in a tale variously set at either site of Mount Kasios) to have vanquished Typhon–by casting him into watery depths in most accounts. One account, Apollodorus’ famous story, sets the combat at the Syrian mountain near the Orontes river; in the case of the Egyptian Mount Kasios at Pelusium, Zeus Kasios drowned Typhon in the infamous Serbonian Bog (or ‘Marsh’).

The legend of this combat, at whichever site of Mount Kasios authors located it, may have suggested to Blake the use of Zeus Kasios, for an illustration of the Nativity Ode’s mention at line 226 of “Typhon.” Blake did not look at Zeus/Jupiter as a hero: therefore, he has illustrated Jupiter Casius, Typhon’s legendary vanquisher, as the principal head on a multi-headed, serpent-tailed creature. Jupiter, in various forms, is then the “old Dragon” that the Christian God reduces at the Nativity of Christ. This makes perfect sense, given Blake’s multiple overt statements, artistic and written, about the evil nature of the “spectrous Fiend” Jupiter, whom Blake stated in 1804 was his principal spiritual and artistic adversary.



“ASHTAROTH” (Nativity Ode 200)

Blake has made an unusual depiction of Astarte – with arms and hands in the hair-wringing posture familiar from representations of Venus Anodyomene, but with obtrusively short hair. The iconography of her hands and arms associates Blake’s Astarte with Venus; but if Blake intends to construe Astarte as a wave-born goddess, a geneology which was not unsupported, she lacks the long tresses from which the goddess wrings out water, and with which, in one philosophical interpretation of the iconography of Venus Anodyomene, she fertilizes the dry land. Blake seems here to give an instance of his opinion, repeated more than once, that a supposed fertility goddess is in fact sterile. Indeed when Blake illustrated this scene for Butts, Astarte’s hair is tied up in a bun behind her head: in that picture, too, Astarte’s hair is not configured to irrigate her surroundings; she is therefore a fertility goddess who is incapable of fertilizing. Astarte’s positioning next to the stone block does however suggest that Blake, here making another of his pictures of the Negative Feminine, associated her with deception and mystery, and that he did so with the archaeology of Baalbek/Heliopolis in mind.


Blake has not, however, depicted a saint: Astarte appears more to be a mountebank or a deceptive mystery-peddler. Her exaggerated, contorted posture suggests the gyrations and misdirections on which this sort of black magic must rely. This would not be the only time Blake depicted a goddess as a bad witch, and Blake’s Astarte certainly appears to be a goddess in Crone phase, for she is appropriately flanked by a maternal Derceto and by a circular-faced, silver-haired young woman who seems to be the Moon in her Maiden phase. Milton’s Nativity Ode names the dual identification Astarte had: “Heav’ns Queen and Mother both.” (201) As lunar  goddess, she is “Heav’ns Queen”; as a philosophically-understood Venus (or Astarte) who inaugurates creation when she wrings out her hair, she is Heaven’s “Mother,” too.


DAGON (Nativity Ode 199)

One of the easily-identified figures in this picture, Dagon is described in Paradise Lost as “upward Man/And downward Fish” (PL 1:462-63). He is the figure to our right, in the bottom rank of the picture. Blake depicted this figure with a body that is scaly below the waist; above the waist, it has a normal human skin.


“PEOR” (Nativity Ode 197)

Figure 4: Peor/Chemosh

Blake depicts “Peor ” from the Nativity Ode (line 197) with a gaping, wide-open mouth; Blake also depicted the deity with a gaping mouth in three illustrations for Paradise Lost, of Peor. Blake’s repeated depiction of this god with an open mouth derives (at whatever remove) from one venerable interpretation, that began with Philo Judaeus, of the name of this deity.

Perhaps the best formulation in English of this onomastic tradition is by Henry Ainsworth: “Peor, hath the signification of opening the mouth, and was the name of this idol,” as Ainsworth explains in his comment to Numbers 25:3.

In demonology, Belphegor (or Beelphegor, Hebrew: בַּעַל-פְּעוֹר‎ baʿal-pəʿōr – Lord of the Gap) is a demon, and one of the seven princes of Hell, who helps people make discoveries. Belphegor originated as the Assyrian Baal-Peor, the Moabitish god to whom the Israelites became attached in Shittim (Numbers 25:3), which was associated with licentiousness and orgies. It was worshipped in the form of a phallus.

Blake took this attribute of Peor from a commentary tradition deriving from onomastic interpretations of Numbers 25:3, as meaning ‘open’ or ‘opening’ (Latin “hians” and “hiatus”) and from interpretations of this word as referring to an open mouth. Philo Judaeus explained that Baal-Peor was a god whose name was recapitulated by the open mouths of his worshippers: “These are the men who have been initiated in the unholy rites of Beelphegor, and having widened all the mouths of the body to enable them to receive the streams which are poured into them from without, for the name Beelphegor is interpreted ‘the mouth above the skin.’”

Construing Baal-Peor as “dominus opertionis” (‘lord of the opening’), commentators on scripture also associated Peor with bodily openings elsewhere than the mouth. While Blake, in four of his five representations of Peor/Chemos for illustrations of Milton, preferred the etymology of ‘open mouth’ for the god’s name, he may also have availed himself, when he illustrated Paradise Lost for Butts, of a second line of interpretation: a few Protestant writers associated Peor with scatology, and their authorities for this were some rabbinical writings. Sanhedrin 106a says, about Hosea 9:10: “They devoted themselves to the disgrace of defecation, and detested the name of God.” Rashi comments on Numbers 25:3 “It was so named because they bared their anus and relieved themselves before it.”

“Blake depicts Peor/Chemos in an overtly scatalogical configuration”

Moses Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3.45.6) says that “The mode of worshipping Peor, then very general among the heathen, consisted in uncovering the nakedness. The priests were therefore commanded to make breeches for themselves to cover their nakedness during the service, and, besides, no steps were to lead up to the altar, ‘that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon’. Thus in Matthew Henry’s Exposition of Hosea 9:10, he refers to Peor as “that dirty dunghill deity.” Blake depicts Peor/Chemos in an overtly scatalogical configuration.

In “Satan Calling up His Legions,” Blake depicted an excremental chain depending from a devil’s arse. He did so again in the margin of page 55 of a copy of Francis Bacon’s Essays Moral, Economical, and Political (London: J. Edwards and T. Payne, 1798). In that drawing, the devil’s arse shits out “A King” at the end of a chain of excremental links.

Figure 5: Peor/Chemos, detail.

The posterior products of Peor/Chemos in the Butts illustration to Paradise Lost (Figure 5) are, however, evidence of a healthier digestion than is represented on Peor/Chemos in the tempera paintings (which recapitulate, as Martin Butlin notes, the figure in The Book of Urizen Plate 7), where it is reasonable to see the devil-deity’s contortions as his response to suffering distress of explosive, volcanic proportions. This is of course contamination, infection, distress, and contortion that is spiritual; we may then take the iconography of Peor, as the Rabbis and Church Fathers and Protestant divines took the semantics of his name, as scatological; as not so; or as not merely scatological.

Dicitur autem Beél-Phegor hebraicè, id est dominus opertionis, id est obscoenitatis; quasi dicat, Deus nuditatis.” The association of Peor with nudity or nakedness led St. Jerome, translating Eusebius’ Onomasticon, to add a gratuitous comment that identified Peor with Priapus; Jerome also draws this conclusion in his commentary on Hosea 9:10. This became the most frequent line of interpretation, especially among Patristic writers, and it was the prevalent theory in Blake’s day. But Protestant writers such as Owen, or John Selden, in De Dis Syris, rejected this idea. As McClintock and Strong observe: “from the time of Jerome downward it has been usual to compare [Baal-Peor] to Priapus …Selden and J. Owen (De Diis Syris, i, 5; Theologoumena, v, 4) seem to be the only persons who have disputed whether any of the passages in which this god is named really warrant such a conclusion.”

What Blake thought of kings: “Blake depicted an excremental chain depending from a devil’s arse. He did so again in the margin of page 55 of a copy of Francis Bacon’s Essays Moral, Economical, and Political

Blake’s depiction of Dagon’s hand and figure sticking up, just below Peor’s waist-level, certainly alludes to this commentary tradition that associated Peor with Priapus – whether or not Blake accepted it as accurate. Blake may have seen it as an extraneous superimposition, just as Dagon’s hand and figure do not properly belong to Peor’s physiology. Of course, it was possible to accept both the scatalogical and the priapic view of Peor’s ‘obscenity’: Matthew Henry, despite calling Peor in one instance a “dirty dunghill deity,” harped much also upon the deity’s association with improper sexuality. Certainly this last association with Peor—lust and licentiousness – was what in Paradise Lost characterized the god.

Blake’s depiction of Peor/Chemos holding his face in both hands, in our illustration of the Nativity Ode for Thomas and in the tempera paintings illustrating Paradise Lost Book 1, and with blank eye-sockets indicating blindness in our Nativity Ode illustration, may have been based on a definition of Chemosh in Philo Judaeus: “For Chemosh, being interpreted, means feeling with the hand.” Selden quotes this passage in Greek on page 165 of the 1629 edition of De Dis Syris, and gives the usual Latin translations of the verb ψηλάφημα — “contrectatio” and “palpatio.” Philo argues that the god’s name is an indirect way of saying that the god and his worshippers are blind; i.e., they have to feel their way through the world. The blank eye-sockets on Blake’s Peor, in our Nativity Ode illustration, may reflect this tradition of blindness in Peor/Chemos. Certainly the deity overtly palpates his face, in our picture, and in the tempera paintings.Neither Milton nor Blake seems to have taken up the traditions that identified Peor with Saturn, Pluto,or Horus.

Blake incorporated into his depictions of Peor the following elements: 1) both the physical obscenity and the two senses of “dread” (frightening/awesome and frightened/awed) that are invoked by Milton’s description of the god as an “obscene dread” (PL 1:406); 2) the etymologies and commentaries that construed Peor to mean “open mouth”; 3) in the Butts illustration to Paradise Lost, the etymologies and commentaries that associated Peor with scatology; 4) in the the Thomas illustration for the Nativity Ode, the association of Peor with Priapus, whether or not Blake thought this a specious identification; and 5) in the Thomas illustration for the Nativity Ode, the association of Peor’s ‘open mouth’ with prophecy, necessarily false or deluded prophecy.


“THAMUZ” (Nativity Ode, 204)

“Dagon’s left leg crosses in front of the right leg”

Dagon’s left leg crosses in front of the right leg of a pouty-faced, tousle-haired male who occupies the lower rank of the painting to our left of Dagon. This is pretty clearly “Thamuz ” (Nativity Ode, 204) reaching out to Astarte. His facial expression and his gesture express agonized appeal for succour, he reaches out to a female seated above him, and he looks more like a conventional Adonis. We would perhaps think of the Sumerian/Akkadian god as likely bearded, but our perspective is not an early 19th-century perspective: there was very little iconographic representation, or physical description, of the Tyrian “Thamuz” but he would have been thought of as the predecessor of the Greek and Roman Adonis.

Blake’s figure can also be identified as “Thamuz” due to his placement in a group of deities. Under and to the sides of his Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Blake depicted five large figures: these are almost identical to the catalogue in Milton’s Nativity Ode, lines 197-204. Blake, following Milton’s acceptance of John Selden’s agreement in De Dis Syris (Selden (1629), 165) with St. Jerome’s identification of “Peor” with “Chemos” (PL 1:412, 406), always refers in his own poetry to the deity as “Chemosh; we may say, then, that Blake has in clockwise order depicted Belus (one of the “Baalim”), “Ashtaroth,” Chemosh (”Peor”), Dagon, and “Thamuz.” In Blake’s own poetry, he begins a catalogue of devil-deities with these same five, in order:

  1. Baal (Milton: A Poem Plate 37[41]:20),
  2. Ashtaroth (37[41]:20),
  3. Chemosh/“Molech” (37[41]:20-21; these two form a double-deity in Blake’s poetry),
  4. Dagon (37[41]:25), and 5) Thammuz (37[41]:26).

“In Tyre & Sidon I saw Baal & Ashtaroth. In Moab Chemosh:/In Ammon Molech” – Milton a Poem

A representation of “Thamuz” need not have Adonis’ thigh-wound, but Blake’s figure is strange and unnatural physiologically, for he is entirely missing his left leg: no trace of it peeps out from behind his right leg. In the upper right sector of an accompanying picture from this series for Thomas, the statue (Figure 7) – seemingly a herm – of a bearded, mature male is a good candidate for Blake’s second representation of Thamuz within the series of illustrations. It seems to be mourned by three females, just as Milton’s “Tyrian Maids their wounded Thamuz mourn” (Nativity Ode 204). This figure has a different appearance – its beard makes it more predictably the physical type of a mature adult male who has some power – Zeus or a Greek chief, or a male ancestral figure such as the 1806 depiction of Hamlet’s father, also done for Thomas.

Figure 7: Detail of ‘The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods’

The accommodation we must make, then, would be to suppose that Blake illustrated Thammuz twice – once in Hell, supplicating “Ashtaroth”/Astarte, and once as a god of vegetation that achieves annual maturity, and that damsels “mourn” (204) on earth when the dog-star rises again in summer – as it does in Blake’s depiction of a summer thunderstorm gathering, with “the dog Anubis” (Nativity Ode 212) at the top of the picture, to the right.

Summer heat (not just Nile flooding) occurs when the dog-star rises again, and the high summer’s wilting of some vegetation was – according to annotated editions of Milton as well as general and biblical dictionaries – recapitulated in the annual rites to Thammuz/Adonis.

“a goddess on the concluding plate of Milton: A Poem

The statue in Figure 7 looks, in fact, very much like Blake’s depiction of vegetation gods who flank a goddess on the concluding plate of Milton: A Poem: the drapery on the statue in our picture, which resembles a full-length cloak or gown, could be the husk or covering that is more perspicuously represented on that plate of Blake’s own poem. Several details of this sector of Blake’s picture are consonant with information available to Blake; the salient features in these details derive largely from summaries, accurate and otherwise, of a treatise Milton relied on – Περὶ τῆς Συρίης Θεοῦ, given the Latin title “De Dea Syria – attributed to Lucian.

Blake’s pictorial suggestion that the women are scourging themselves, while not well-authorized by Lucian’s text (and never introduced into extant English translations of it) is however mentioned especially in discussions about Thammuz/Adonis’ cult by John Callander’s edition of Paradise Lost Book 1, by Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary, and by Augustin Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Bible.

The departure of the statue’s spirit into the air is claimed to be a feature of the summer rites of Adonis, by Calmet’s  Great Dictionary and by Rees’ Cyclopaedia.The seasonal cycle of the vegetation god Thammuz/Adonis–from winter to summer, from death and decay to fruition, from the underworld to the light of day on the earth’s surface – is then realized in Blake’s two depictions of Milton’s “Thamuz.”



Figure 8: Belus with his iron sword

Blake portrays an iron sword next to an overthrown Near Eastern god, who gazes straight upward. Blake depicts specifically Belus, also referred to as ‘Zeus Belus,’ legendary inventor at Babylon of the iron sword and instructor to the Babylonians of the science of the stars. Patrick Hume’s annotation to this line gives a brief identification of the legend surrounding this, the first of the Baalim: “Belus the Son of  Nimrod, second King of Babylon, and the first Man worshipp’d for a God, by the Chaldeans styled Bel, by the Phenicians Baal.”

The primitively-shaped gray, metal sword (at this figure’s right hip) was placed there by Blake to identify this figure as Belus, whom Hyginus stated was the inventor of the sword, (and, as later authors took the implication, of iron weapons), which legend was subsequently passed on and elaborated, by writers as various as Cassiodorus and Sir Isaac Newton.

Belus was a Babylonian hero-god – whose iron sword explicitly distinguished him, according to Hyginus, from an African or Egyptian warrior. An equation of Belus with Zeus/Jupiter an antiquarian commonplace, and the association of Jupiter with iron was on Blake’s mind when his letter to Hayley referred on 23 October 1804 to Jupiter as an “iron-hearted tyrant,” and in his recitation in a projected 1810 catalogue of the ancient tradition that Jupiter brought in an Iron Age. In our illustration for Thomas we see that Blake knew about the association of “Jupiter Belus” with the invention of the sword and of iron weapons.

Belus appears prominently in Paradise Lost 1.720: his temple at Babylon, with Serapis’ temple in Egypt, being two great works whose magnificence and glory cannot equal Pandemonium. Milton describes in that passage an emulative contest between Serapis’ worshippers in Africa and Belus’ worshippers in Asia, “when Ægypt with Assyria strove In wealth and luxurie” (PL 1:72I-22); I shall show from Blake’s choice of shape for Belus’ shield, that it depicts him as specifically ‘Asian.’

The most formidable Baalim were credited to have been thunderbolt-wielding, supremely powerful, sky-gods. While the device of triple-thunderbolts on the shield in Blake’s identifies this figure as a ‘Zeus Belus’ by associating him with Zeus, the Asian origin of Blake’s figure is confirmed by the shape of its shield. This was a shape used, in Greek and Roman art, to indicate that the warrior came from Asia. For Blake, who almost always portrayed circular shields, this was a singular choice for the shape of Belus’ shield – a small, lunated shield (Greek πέλτη or Latin pelta) that is incavated at the top. This shape of πέλτη was associated—by artists, poets, and historians – with warriors from Asia, such as the Trojan who is attendant on Priam on a bas-relief reproduced in Winckelmann.

Figure 10: Detail of figure of Polydamas from illustration to Book 12 of Homer’s Iliad: line engraving, Tommaso Piroli after John Flaxman, Plate 17 of The Iliad of Homer Engraved by Thomas Piroli from the Compositions of John Flaxman Sculptor Rome, 1793.

Flaxman seems to have had this figure from the Winckelmann engraving, or the original (a Roman marble sarcophagus lid in the Villa Borghese), in mind when he drew Polydamas for Plate 17 of his illustrations to the Iliad. The association of this shield with Asian tribes led to its frequent presence in representations of Amazons, where it is always a small lunated shield with several variations on the form of its incavated top edge. Blake’s depiction of Belus’ shield has one or two(the second is only implied) incavations, albeit their curve is very slight compared to the curves in some artistic representations of an Asian pelta. The image clearly represents an Asian Zeus – the Babylonian Belus, with the iron sword he invented, and with a distinctly‘Asian’ shield.




BELIAL: Above Belus, Blake depicted Belial. In Blake’s own poetry, Belial appears only once, he is an “obscure Demon of Bribes” associated with “secret Assasinations” [sic]. (Milton: A Poem 37 [41]:31) In our picture, Belial grasps what looks like the metal handle of some implement, which may be bronze, as it is a different colour than the iron sword and shield below it. Belial’s appearance—his spritely-dressed hair and his metal knife – seems to have been depicted by Blake with an eye on Paradise Regained 2.190-91, where “Pan,/Satyr, or Faun, or Silvan” are among the beings that, as Satan upbraids, are false identities Belial adopts for his way-layings of females.

As Blake depicts him in our picture, Belial impersonates Silvanus, who has as his attributes a cypress crown and a knife (as sculpture, and reproduced illustrations of it, from the collections of Townley and Sir John Soane, evidenced); of course, Silvanus holds a pruning-knife in his right hand, whereas Belial here handles what looks like an assassin’s blade. Available poetry and history asserted what still seems archaeologically true: until Imperial Roman times, Silvanus had no temple – just as Belial has none, according to his introduction in Paradise Lost, Book 1: “To him no Temple stood/Or Altar smoak’d.” (PL 1:492-93) It is possible that Belial’s positioning in the picture indicates that his sinister trick of impersonation involves infiltrating the column of deities from the Greek and Roman mythologies, for above Belial in the column are at any rate Plutus and Diana.

Blake included in his depiction of Belial another characteristic we learn about in Paradise Regained: in the diabolic council from Book 2 of that poem, Belial advises that Jesus Christ be tempted with women. Jesus, he counsels, might, like Solomon, be led astray by sexual attraction: “As the Magnetic hardest Iron draws” (PR 2:168). Belial, in our Nativity Ode illustration, seems overtly to be bending Belus, the iron man, backward. Belial takes, we know from Book 6 (lines 620-27) of Paradise Lost, sadistic pleasure in the physical effects of new military technology on its victims. He seems here interested in the application of electrical technology to produce a magnetic effect. His fingers are wrapped – in an unnatural grip with very wide and very regular interstices between them— around the metal handle of his dagger and, in conjunction with the cartoonishly-drawn zappy electric bolts on Belus’ shield, suggest that he wields a sensational innovation of Alessandro Volta.

By 1800, a reliable producer of electric current – the Voltaic Pile – had been described and illustrated in a major article published in London, and this device – which it seems to me is suggested by Belial’s fingers wrapped around the metal core of his dagger – was of course a great leap forward for scientific investigation, if not yet a boon to the average house-husband. Blake, in the left-hand column of our picture, has (as I shall elucidate) depicted alternating layers of different metals – from the Gold that Plutus holds up, down to the Iron sword and shield beside Belus. Blake’s organization of a hierarchy of different metals is here relevant to his suggestion of an electrical current, for Volta had shown that an electrical charge could be reliably produced if an electrolyte was situated between alternating layers of different metals.

Figure 13: Voltaic piles, illustration to Alexander Volta, letter to the Rt. Hon.Sir Joseph Banks in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1800).

It was hard to avoid encountering a Voltaic Pile, which was a social sensation that was demonstrated at multiple exhibitions in the first years of the nineteenth century. Blake was, moreover, a friend, and his wife Catherine both a friend and a patient, of a medical doctor from St. Thomas’ Hospital, John Birch, who was the innovator of electrical therapy in England. Blake had a great interest in electricity and in magnetism; in both the pseudo-science of Mesmerism, and in the medical or therapeutic application of electricity and magnetism. Blake in fact associated magnetism and electricity with diabolic possession, writing in his notebook about some Mesmeric ‘healers’ who were notable in London in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Blake’s interest in the subject of electrotherapeutics was personal, as well as artistic and intellectual, as has been noted since John Adlard’s 1969 article on the subject.

The medical doctor John Birch, whose contributions to electrical therapy and whose hospital practice’s use of electrical technology had already been recognized by George Adams’ 1785 Essay on Electricity, was a family friend of William and Catherine Blake, and he had by September 1804 successfully administered electrical therapy to Blake’s wife Catherine, a rheumatism sufferer.

From George Adams’ Essay on Electricity (1785)

But how, in 1809, do we get from electricity to magnetism? Can we speak of anyone having ideas of ‘Electromagnetism’ in 1809? We’d be using the word in a confusing way: not until 1820 is Hans Christian Ørsted credited with ‘discovering’ that electric currents generate magnetic fields, and a good mathematical theory of electromagnetism wasn’t enunciated until after Blake died. But by the late 18th century, the ability of an electrical current to create magnetic effects was recognized by multiple publications of scientific experiments, by magnetic theorists (such as Tiberius Cavallo) and by electrical scientists (such as George Adams). In fact, Adams – the scientist who first published the electrical research of the Blakes’ friend Dr. Birch – includes two experiments, in his Essay on Electricity, that describe how steel may be magnetized by communicating an electrical discharge to the metal.

(Electromagnetic) Energy Is Eternal Delight

Blake, in our picture, is representing an effect that was being reproduced experimentally and published – the use of electric current to magnetize metal. This observable and repeatable phenomenon had not, however, yet been well explained theoretically. For thousands of years humans, doing something as casual as playing with amber, had noticed that there was a relation between the phenomena of electricity and magnetism.

Before Milton was born, there were published ideas about the relation of electricity and magnetism, that were characteristically ‘scientific’; their empiricism was of the modern type, and the 17th century saw many works on Magnetism published in England. However, Milton was born at the outset of the period when electricity and magnetism had been successfully distinguished from each other, in William Gilbert’s 1600 De Magnete. Blake was illustrating Milton during the period when these two forces were again seen as related to each other – by experimental observation during Blake’s adult years, albeit a sound theoretical explanation had to wait until the later 19th century.

It’s Electrifying: Blake’s Apollyon

Blake had the necessary knowledge and experience to illustrate Belial using a Voltaic Pile to affect Belus: I have documented Blake’s interests in the fields of both magnetism and electricity; his personal friendship, and Catherine’s doctor-patient relationship, to John Birch; and the availability of recent publications, live demonstrations, and book illustrations, all concerning the technical innovation of the Voltaic pile and its empirical applications.

This illustration is, moreover, grounded in several places in Milton’s poetry: Belial’s own general interest in the sick comedy of military technology’s effects on its victims, in Book 6 of Paradise Lost; and his specific interest in the weaponizing possibilities of Magnetism applied to Iron, in Book 2 of Paradise Regained, suggest that Blake was in fact depicting Belial applying magnetic force to Belus’ iron; that the magnetism was thought by Blake to be produced by an electric current; and that the device used to produce the current was a Voltaic pile, resembling the device illustrated in Volta’s 1800 article, and operating by the arrangement of alternating layers of different metals, as Blake had depicted in his descent from Gold (Plutus and Azael the “architect”) to Iron (Belus, legendary inventor of the iron sword) in the left-hand column of our Nativity Ode illustration.

Blake’s figures often seem to operate as electrical conductors, crackling with field-like imaginative force. Like the other Romantics (Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe) Blake drew on the exciting new scientific discoveries of the “polar” universe: the idea that beyond matter there lay dynamic, ‘contrary’ forces in constant interaction.

Belial seems to employ a fiendish, negative abuse of magnetism (which Blake used to cast out “devils”) and the electrotherapy that cured Catherine Blake. Blake’s picture may even suggest that Belial is using the “Magnetic” according to his simile, in the diabolic council from Book 2 of Paradise Regained, for seduction in the service of counterintelligence. In Paradise Regained, Belial recommended that women be set to distract Christ’s eye and walk, but in our picture Belial is literally drawing the hard iron of the old soldier’s manly and resolute breast toward a magnet that, if a sex-magnet, is not female.

Blake may have associated Belial with sodomy: remembering that Milton called the Sodomites who sought sex with the angels “Sons of Belial” (PL 1:500-03), Blake in his own poetry added a gratuitous Sodomic epithet to this devil’s name- – “Belial of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Milton: A Poem 37 [41]:30), cities not associated in Scripture with Belial or his name. In our picture, Belial is doing something to Belus, from behind, that causes the Man of Iron’s back to arch and eyes to roll up in his head. Whether it is sex blurred with violence, or is just bad medicine, Belial is subjecting Belus to evil influence.

Belial’s activity, though evil because nonconsensual, may here abuse one of the procedures that my generation associated with Wilhelm Reich. This is conceivable if Blake speculated, or knew, that electrical or magnetic influence – applied to whatever area of the physique – could induce or improve orgasm, intentionally or as a ‘side-effect’ of the electrotherapy. Belus, despite his unusual posture and his blank eye-sockets, looks more relaxed and healthy than my verbal description tends to emphasize: perhaps the operations of Belial are causing the hard old guy to release some physical tension. Belial’s malice may just have resulted in the relaxation and health that is the end-product of Gargantuan physical comedy, in which the intended victim is too big or strong to take damage from a malicious assault.


Figure 14: Mammon, lowest of six heads on serpent-tailed figure

MAMMON: Blake, throughout his career, illustrated Mammon differently than the god Plutus – who neither appears in Milton’s poems nor in any of Blake’s paintings of Satan’s muster of his legions from Paradise Lost, Book 1. Plutus occupies a different slot in our  picture than does Mammon: Plutus is in the middle of the left-hand column of devil-deities, while Mammon’s head appears at the lowest position on the cluster of six heads on the serpent-tailed figure. This picture is a clear statement that Blake thought Mammon and Plutus to be distinct: in context with Blake’s other representations of Plutus, this distinction suggests to me that Blake associated Mammon with materialism generally, and Plutus specifically with coffined-up or buried precious rocks, stones, and minerals.

Blake was, across several illustration projects, entirely consistent in his depiction of the qualities – the least erected spirit, with gaze downward bent – that Milton attributes to Mammon in Paradise Lost. We can see this when we compare (see Figures 14 and 15) this Nativity Ode illustration with the depiction of Mammon in the tempera paintings illustrating Paradise Lost, Book 1. Mammon’s head occupies the “least erected” (PL 1:679) position on the six-headed serpent in our Nativity Ode illustration, just as he is the “least erected” body in Blake’s compositions of the Satanic muster in the Thomas and the Butts sets of watercolour illustrations to Paradise Lost (see the detail of Mammon from them in Figures 16 and 17).

Figure 15: Mammon, detail from “Satan Calling up His Legions”. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas.

In the two tempera paintings Blake did of this scene (see detail in Figure 15), Mammon – creeping like Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar – is, of all the devils in the first rank (PL 1: 376-476) of Milton’s catalogue, the devil Blake depicts in the least erected posture. In all five compositions, including our picture for the Nativity Ode, Mammon’s gaze is “downward bent” (PL 1:681), albeit in a strange, backward-thrown manner in the two watercolour illustrations of Paradise Lost (see Figures 16 and 17).

Figures 16 (above): Mammon, detail of “Satan Calling up His Legions” (1807); Figure 17 (below): Mammon, detail of “Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels” (1808)



Figure 18: Milton’s “architect” (PL 1: 732) as the metallurgist ‘watcher’ Azael (1 Enoch 8:1)

John Callander’s 1750 edition of Book 1 of Paradise Lost introduced, in footnotes, two readings that Blake uses in this illustration to the Nativity Ode:

DERCETO: Callander made the first association by an editor of Milton between the half-fish goddess “Derceto” (aka Derketo, or Atargatis) and Dagon.

AZAEL: Callander identified the “architect” (PL 1:732) – to whom the gold is brought up, and who oversees the creation of Pandemonium, as the Enochian ‘watcher’ “Azael” (1 Enoch 8:1), who introduced metal-working to humanity. Blake, in our picture, caricaturally exaggerates the “architect,” who has the gold brought up to him, so he appears as a ‘watcher’ in the upper left margin of the picture.

What makes the figure in Blake’s illustration for Thomas consonant with an Enochian ‘watcher’ are the huge eyes, their depiction (side-shifted like those on the Kit-Cat Klock), and the fact that only the head of the figure peeks out from behind the rock. Blake’s source for his depiction of Milton’s architect as a fallen angelic overseer from the first Book of Enoch would have to come from someone’s copy of Callander’s edition of Book 1 of Paradise Lost: the editorial speculation was peculiar to Callander, and his two footnotes pertinent to Azael had not been reprinted elsewhere by 1809.

Azazel is, according to the Book of Enoch, a fallen Angel. In the Bible, the Name Azazel appears in association with the scapegoat rite; the name represents a desolate place where a scapegoat bearing the sins of the Jews during Yom Kippur was sent. During the Second Temple period, he appears as a fallen angel responsible for introducing humans to forbidden knowledge.

Callander’s note to PL 1:732, on the identity of Milton’s architect, points out that 1 Enoch recorded a watching or overseeing spirit named “Azael” or “Azalzel” as the inventor on earth of metallurgy: “The fragment under Enoch’s name, attributes the invention of managing metals to one of the Εγρήγοροι, or Vigiles, whom he calls Azael or Azalzel” (Callander 155, note to “his hand was known,” Pl 1:732). Callander seems to have wanted to attribute metal-working to a more diabolic inventor than Mulciber: accordingly, Callander adduces the Enochian watcher as the bad angel that Milton had in mind for the architect, and then observes that Milton was in general both ready and able to change the names of beings from the Apocryphal books; this, for Callander, explains why Milton thought of the “architect” as Azael but named him “Mulciber” at line 740.

Blake of course was interested enough in the Enochian material to have produced a set of drawings illustrating Richard Laurence’s 1821 English translation of the Enochian books, which would term these angels “watchers.” If Blake thought of Milton’s “architect” as an Enochian watcher, the most suitable name for this figure in Blake’s picture is “Azael,” for the watcher’s name appears as “Αζαὴλ” in the quotation from 1 Enoch 8:1 (in our current editorial numeration) which Callander’s note to PL 1:732 provides. Callander quotes from Joseph Juste Scaliger’s transcription, in his edition of Eusebius’ Chronicle, of George Syncellus’ excerpts from the Greek 1 Enoch.

“Blake produced a set of drawings illustrating Richard Laurence’s 1821 English translation of the Enochian books”

Callander also, in a note on Satan’s standard-bearer “Azazel” at PL1:534, uses “Αζαλζελ” in his first quotation from Scaliger’s transcript of 1 Enoch (Callander 110). We should be clear that the Enochian watcher Azael or Azalzel is not the same being, or name, as Milton’s infernal standard-bearer “Azazel” from PL1:534. The latter name is not Apocryphal, for it occurs in Leviticus 16:8; this is the “scapegoat” of the King James translation. Callander clearly distinguishes Azael/Azalzel of 1 Enoch from the Azazel of Leviticus, and, explaining Milton’s decision to make Azazel a powerful devil (a fallen Cherub) cites the demonological use of “ Αζαζὴλ” in quotations from polemics of Epiphanius and Origen that use this as a name of a supreme devil (Callander, 110 & 111, note to PL 1:534); there had been centuries of different opinions, Rabbinical and Patristic, as to whether Azazel was an evil spirit, a goat, or a natural feature of the terrain.

One of Blake’s mysterious ‘Book of Enoch’ drawings, perhaps made in the last few years of his life. “On one of these a Watcher, shooting down from heaven touches the vulva of a naked woman, next to them two baby-giants are wabbling. On another an aroused Watcher is surrounded by four women. Most shocking is the one representing a ‘daughter’ flanked by two overtly priapic Watchers while the woman touches the impressive, radiating phallos.” What these figures – Belphegor, Mammon, Azazel, etc – represent therefore are disassociated aspects of the psyche and body, those seemingly linked to issues respectively of guilt (scapegoating and slaughter); greed (Mammon); and sexual openings and awakenings), that can become demonic – or as we would say today, “obsessive”.

Callander’s 1750 edition, then, makes a direct identification of the Enochian watcher Azael with the “architect” of Paradise Lost, Book 1, and seems to have been the only place Blake could have found this interpretation of Milton’s spirit. English prose had, however, long before Callander recorded the Enochian spirit Azael, his identity as a watcher, and his introduction of metallurgy to humankind. Without any reference to Mulciber (or, of course, to Milton), Samuel Purchas had by 1613 translated the relevant section of Scaliger’s transcript of the Greek 1 Enoch into English, calling the spirits “Watch-men”/”Watchmen” and naming their metallurgy expert “Ezael”: “Ezael  taught first to make swords, and weapons for warre, and how to worke in mettals. He taught to make womens ornaments, and how to looke faire, and Iewelling. And they beguiled the Saints: and much sinne was committed on the earth.” (Purchas his Pilgrimage (London: Henry Fetherstone, 1613), 31)

Azael’s tribe, which we now call ‘watchers’ (as would Laurence in 1821), had various names by 1809: Callander calls them Εγρήγοροι (Callander 110, 155) – literally ‘watchers’ or ‘overseers’ – whom he calls “Angels” in his note on “Azazel” at  PL 1:534. (Callander 110) Callander also refers to these spirits as Vigiles (155): this, like Purchas’ “Watch-men” or “Watchmen” (Purchas 31) is certainly a reasonable cognate for the Greek word in 1 Enoch, which literally means ‘watchers.’

Blake had, then, a fund of authority for depicting the “architect” as an Enochian spirit that watches – in the various senses of observing, of overseeing under-laborers (or prisoners), and of surveillance. Blake, to sum up, certainly alluded to, and apparently accepted (rather than lampooned) the information of Callander’s note on the name and identity of the architect of Pandemonium: scilicet that “Azael,” an Enochian spirit, introduced and taught metal-working to mankind. Azael’s metallurgical mischief, in Blake’s illustration of the Nativity Ode for Thomas, seems to have been transmitted down the left-hand column: Plutus, Diana, Belial, and Belus may each be associated with a metal used for evil purposes – avarice (gold), idolatry (the silver idols of “Diana” of the Ephesians in the King James translation of Acts 19:24), covert political operations such as assassination (Belial’s dagger) and physical attraction as a means of undue influence (Belial’s voltaic pile), and warfare (Belus’ iron sword).

Blake, however, did not see metal as evil, although it could be put to evil purposes (and here we see one facet of his rigid distinction between Plutus and Mammon). Blake, as a radical innovator in the artistic use of metal (relief etching in copper, the  reintroduction of the Medieval inclusion of pulverized gold in paintings), was well aware that metal had positive uses, too, and we shall see him literally using gold to make a representation of Azael, in a tempera painting of Satan calling up his Legions, from Book 1 of Paradise Lost.



Figure 19: Heads (from top) of Mammon and Osiris; and the “architect” (PL 1:732); detail from Blake’s tempera illustration of Paradise Lost Book 1

In two tempera paintings of “Satan Calling up His Legions,” from Paradise Lost, Blake also portrayed the “architect”: he is gazed at fixedly by Mammon, and is staring back at the viewer (see Figure 19). But in those pictures Blake made the “architect” an overt self-portrait in middle-age. In the later of these two pictures, the more complete tempera done for the Countess of Egremont, Blake added gold to the tempera, so he is (like Azael or Mulciber) in fact an artistic worker in gold. Less materially, but certainly intellectually, in our Nativity Ode illustration, as in the two tempera paintings, Blake has, like the “architect,” created a structure for *all* the evil spirits – literally a “Pandemonium,” and has portrayed the architect as the metalsmith ‘watcher’ Azael.

Blake’s mode of self-portraiture in the tempera paintings probably refers to his former years (1800-03) in Felpham, during which he met the Countess of Egremont, for whom he painted this subject from Paradise Lost Book 1. During those years, Blake did miniature portraits of people whom his patron William Hayley knew. Hayley intended, by giving this occupation to Blake, to steer Blake away from his artistic course of the 1780s and 1790s: writing, on 13 May 1801, to Daniel Parker Coke, Hayley states “I have recently formed a new artist for this purpose by teaching a worthy creature (by profession an Engraver) who lives in a little Cottage very near me to paint in miniature.”

The furnaces of Los. Blake was used to working in the daemonic mediums of fire, metal, and corrosive acid.

This was the mode of painting – a head-and-shoulders-length portrait, set into a niche – that Blake used for his self-portrait in the 1806-09 tempera of “Satan Calling up His Legions,” perhaps to define his work, his social position, and his effect (the creative artist, the watcher, the creator of Pandemonium) during his years in Felpham, when he met the lady he did the painting for.

In the 1807 Paradise Lost watercolour for Thomas, Blake is not thinking of Felpham or miniature painting at all, and he returns, for this self-portrait as Milton’s “architect,” to his earlier, idealized identity as Los, the creative craftsman in metal who is Blake’s analog, in his own illuminated books, to Mulciber.



About two years before Blake did our Nativity Ode illustration, he also portrayed the “architect” in his watercolour illustration for Thomas of Satan rousing up the devils in Paradise Lost Book 1. In this earlier painting, the architect is clearly Mulciber rather than Azael.

Figure 20: Milton’s “architect” (PL 1:732) as Mulciber (PL 1:740), Blake’s idealized self-portrait of himself as the architect of Pandemonium.

The architect is in this instance not apparently portrayed as the Enochian ‘watcher’ Azael–nearly all the devils in this picture stare at Satan, as he does. This architect who works amid fire is portrayed as a sooty Mulciber, who rests his hand on an anvil-like stone bearing Blake’s initials. The portrayal of the “architect” suggests the lame Mulciber: the muscles of his upper body are disproportionately massive, in comparison with his underdeveloped (or atrophied), visible left leg: Blake has here depicted the aftermath of the leg injuries that Mulciber suffered in the Greek legend of his fall to earth. Blake indicates in a second way that Mulciber has leg injuries – for one leg is strangely invisible, as is the case with Adonis/Thamuz in our Nativity Ode illustration, also done for Thomas.

The 1806-09 temperas’ depictions of the “architect” are more of a realistic miniature self-portrait of Blake; the 1807 Thomas watercolour for Paradise Lost does however appear to be an idealized self-portrait, due to the composition’s association of him with Blake’s signature-seal – which is only partly visible, for the sheet was cropped at some point. Placing the metalsmith’s hand on the signed anvil-shaped rock here, and placing in the two tempera paintings the hand of the ‘watcher’ on the red-gold coloured field before his cave, Blake identifies this figure as Milton’s “architect” whose “hand” can be identified on his artistic creations:

“…the work some praise

And some the Architect: his hand was known

In Heav’n…”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost 1:731-33

This 1807 watercolour illustration to Paradise Lost is likely an idealized self-portrait of Blake as Mulciber.

“Satan Calling Up His Legions” (1807)

In the 1809 Nativity Ode illustration for Thomas, the “architect” is Azael, not Mulciber, and–unless it is an idealized self-portrait of Blake as a youthful admirer of Milton’s poem, or as an absconded artist watching outside the picture he created—this ‘watcher’ may not be a self-portrait at all. Our Nativity Ode illustration is history painting done–in order to stress the idea that this figure is a ‘watcher’–in the style of caricature, although not the satirical caricature Blake was to use so often in the Dante illustrations from 1824-27. In our Nativity Ode illustration for Thomas, Blake’s caricature is more playful, and light-hearted: he indeed seems to have thought of our illustration as a puzzle-picture, a sort of “moon-lov’d maze” (Nativity Ode 236) that presents a playful, historical-painterly exercise to the viewer. Azael the Enochian ‘watcher’ is not so much a seriously-conceived Romantic Artist, which he is in Blake’s other depictions – all self-portraits (realistic or idealized) – of Milton’s “architect”; here in our illustration for the Nativity Ode, the ‘watcher’ is instead a mischievous creator/participant of the puzzle.



“in descending order the metallurgist (Azael), gold (held by Plutus), silver (the Moon/Diana), bronze (Belial’s assassin’s blade), and iron (the sword by the side of Belus, the legendary inventor of iron weapons)”

While there is a playful side, probably to please his customer Thomas, to Blake’s depiction of the ‘watcher’ in our picture, this ‘watcher’ also performs mischief of a horrible and evil sort, as he does in 1 Enoch, with his introduction of metal-working. In this sense, Azael is of two natures: he is no fairy, but he is playful like Milton’s more innocent “Fayes” (235); at the same time, he is the chief fallen angel in the most dreadful section of the spirits’ underground prison. The column on our left seems to be the metallum section – a mine shaft – of the devil-deities’ “infernall jail” (Nativity Ode 233): as I shall show, Blake on the left side portrays in descending order the metallurgist (Azael), gold (held by Plutus), silver (the Moon/Diana), bronze (Belial’s assassin’s blade), and iron (the sword by the side of Belus, the legendary inventor of iron weapons).

Making a composition of an infernal jail, Blake at the same time suggests his composition to have once been a “moon-lov’d maze,” and indeed this fairy ring is – if seen from the outside rather than inhabited – a kind of playful, puzzling maze to amuse a literate customer. While the innocence of the fairy-ring described by Milton has, in Blake’s picture, suffered a fall, here in Hell it still retains some of its old lineaments. The young Moon smiles on it from the left side, and Azael looks playful and mischievous; the composition, although irregular, suggests a dance breaking up, and some of the spirits’ expressions of broken enjoyment belong to a celebration that has suddenly lost its leaven and is starting to sour. No fairy of Milton’s seems to be among the heathen gods and the fallen angels that populate our picture.

But Blake considered Fairies and Heathen Gods to be the same beings: “Fairies of Albion afterwards Gods of the Heathen” (Four Zoas 4.3) are beings that have suffered a spiritual fall. So a fairy-ring, such as Milton describes in the Nativity Ode, can turn into a fallen, underground prison-labyrinth for Heathen Gods.

We should remember here how dangerous and deadly fairies, according to Blake, could be: “Shakspeare’s Fairies also are the rulers of the vegetable world, and so are Chaucer’s; let them be so considered, and then the poet will be understood, and not else.”

‘Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing’ by Blake (c. 1786)

I do not see why Blake would not have thought that Milton’s fairies, too, could transform into awful, sublime, terrible, or tyrannical beings – as indeed Blake portrayed Spenser’s fairies, and as indeed in later illustrations to “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” Blake portrayed Milton’s “Goblin” as huge and terrifying, along with some rather discomforting portrayals of certain other sprites.

‘The Gambols of Ghosts’ from Blake’s Illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave (1805)

In the Nativity Ode, Milton includes maze-departing fairies within his catalogue of spirits who must abandon the surface-world at Christ’s Nativity. In Milton’s poetic presentation, the fairies’ banishment seems less severe than that of the other non-Christian spirits: shadows are trooped off, fettered in a chain-gang, to their “infernall jail” (Nativity Ode 232-33), ghosts are drawn down to their  graves (Nativity Ode 234), and the fairies “Fly after the Night-steeds” (Nativity Ode 236).

But Blake, illustrating the poem, has – consonant with his own views on Fairies and Heathen Gods in both comparative mythology and in English poetry – pictorially given characteristics of the fairy-ring (albeit a fallen one that is breaking up) to the underground prison of evil spirits. Fairies degenerate into Heathen Gods, according to Blake’s poem; fairy-rings decay into infernal jails, according to Blake’s illustration of Milton’s poem.

The left column of this picture is an astonishingly exact layout of one section of the spirits’ prison: just as Rome sent some of the condemned to the mines, the spirits in this column are condemned ad metallum. In the row beneath Azael, Plutus’ gold may be used by the architect to create a wondrous complex structure, but it is also the source of avarice, for Dagon stares at it. The disguised Belial likely (given Blake’s characterization of him in Milton: A Poem as a political assassin) wields a concealed weapon, not a Silvan’s pruning-knife; and Belus made epochal advancements in warfare, with his iron weaponry. Greed, assassination, honey-trapping, black magic, and warfare literally descend from Azael’s introduction of metallurgy, as they do in a descending column below Blake’s ‘watcher’.

The head above Plutus belongs, really, to ‘The Moon.’ That is the name Milton uses in the Nativity Ode, and it is a sufficient identification without wandering into the maze of comparative religion and mythology, in which multiple names are associated with a lunar goddess. Blake has dispensed with an impressive or recondite identification here, and gone with the literal expression of Milton’s poem. She is simple; the maze is complicated, and she loves (in her more innocent aspect) play. The spirits in Blake’s picture, who form a fairy ring on the surface of the earth, have withdrawn underground, where they form, in Blake’s composition, a “Moon-lov’d maze” (Nativity Ode 236): it is looked at with an expression of love by this young female.

She seems a lunar female because her face is circular, and she trails strands of hair which, if their silver colour is not accidental in this picture, might remind us of the “silver threds” of the Goddess’ beams at Arcades 16. The countess-dowager in Arcades is a matron-goddess (Latona, Cybele), but this figure looks like, and probably is intended as, a young, ‘maiden,’ moon: in this picture, Astarte is overtly crone-like, and Derceto is the matron goddess, mother of Semiramis, wife of Rimmon (aka Zeus Kasios). These two other female depictions might remind us of a less innocent sportiveness to the Moon’s appreciation of elaborate puzzles: if in her young aspect she loves play, as a Matron she loves elaboration, and the Crone loves a tangled web of complexities.

‘The Wandering Moon’, by Blake (c. 1820)

At all events, our young female, as she is the Moon, is associated with silver. In this sense she may be associated with idolatry, for the silversmiths, in the King James translation of Acts 19:24-41, rallied the people to the defense of “Diana” of Ephesus against Paul. From the top of the left-hand column, Blake has portrayed an ordered array of spirits condemned ad metallum: the metalsmith Azael/Mulciber; Plutus’ gold; the Moon (who is visible only from the shoulders up, but may resemble Artemis of Ephesus below, for she looks admiringly in the direction of the multiple heads on Jupiter Heliopolitanus’ breast); Plutus; Belial with his bronze (which uses an alloy of copper, an exceptionally efficient electrical conductor) assassin’s blade, and Belus with the iron sword he invented. Enochian angels – like Azael, their overseer – were not as utterly evil as demons or devils; they had a mixed effect, in Azael’s case due to improving human civilization technically but introducing humans to capacities for causing greater harm. There seems also to be both a positive and a negative side to the figures under Azael in this column: Plutus supplies gold that can (as Blake well knew, and as Milton discussed) be used in artistic creation; the Moon has a loving and playful expression; and even Belial’s electrotherapy can be used positively, as the Blakes well knew. And Belus taught the Babylonians astronomy, which may counterbalance the unmitigated evil of his introduction of weapons made of iron.



The Moon may be a kindly, playful, innocent presence – if it is not associated with goddesses. The spirits, who on the earth’s surface form a fairy ring, have withdrawn underground, but they still form a “Moon-lov’d maze” (Nativity Ode 236) on which this young female looks affectionately. That is one of two recognized meanings of Milton’s compound adjective. The second meaning – that the spirits love the maze when the moon shines on it – is more ominous. The maze may, once it is banished underground, be a hateful prison for the spirits therein. Underground, there is no astronomical moon, no great light in the sky under which nocturnal sports, pastimes, and agricultural labor may go on.

Underground, the moon is the triple goddess, and the young female in the left-hand column is her Maiden form, which will develop into the serious Mother and the afflictive Crone. While the underground maze is a fun puzzle for a reader of history painting, it is more fun the farther outside it one is situated. Outdoors, the moon is not a participant in the maze; underground, she look on it admiringly, but has herself been drawn down into participating in, not just observing, the fairy ring. And she is not only an observer; she is also observed. The ‘watcher’ alone is a character outside her visual field, yet she is at least potentially visible to him. As the architect, the watcher is a creator, but he is not an absconded creator: this painted figure, like the character in Milton’s poem (or like the creator of the Brass Bull for Phalaris), must inhabit his own creation. The patron, Joseph Thomas, gets the gravy ride: he can look on the maze from the outside, in wonder and delight. As can we, if we are not blinded by the authorities of our fields, or by the fashionable neglect of history painting.

“The Goblin” from Blake’s designs for Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso

The moon is not the only luminary Blake’s picture addresses, in terms of innocence and of experience. Mere lights in the sky can be benevolent and innocent, but if they are religiously associated with gods or goddesses, innocence and happiness and good work are lost. That is Blake’s argument against religion; he has also an argument, in this picture, against magic – against what I was told in school was ‘primitive science.’ Mere lights can delude, especially if their locations are conceived to be, not in a sky, but in ‘heaven.’

Blake in this picture criticizes, not just astral worship, but astrological (and certain types of astronomical) science. In legend, and in sacred history according to the antiquarians, Belus did not just introduce the sword and iron weaponry to the Babylonians; he is also legended to have introduced them to the science of astronomy/astrology, and star-gazing is, in Blake’s depiction, a major occupation among the inhabitants of Milton’s underground prison for the spirits.

Star people: “Astarte and four of the six heads on the serpent-tailed figure have also inclined their gazes to the sky”

Belus gazes straight up into the sky and, with different emotional expressions, Astarte and four of the six heads on the serpent-tailed figure have also inclined their gazes to the sky, turning their faces to the vertical or near-vertical. As in Blake’s 1795-97 illustration to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts Book 9, page 81, the devil-deities stare at the stars with stupid wonder or with perplexity, envy, or alarm, but they are “too proud to praise” (Night Thoughts 9,1673).

“In Edward Young’s Night Thoughts Book 9, page 81, the devil-deities stare at the stars with stupid wonder or with perplexity, envy, or alarm”. The stars, for Blake, symbolise Urizen: the vast mills of predictable self-enclosed rationality, and the objective correlative to the left brain’s sense of alienation and extreme dissociation from embodiment.

The constituent personae that form the bases of Pagan natural science—the Agathodaemon and local genii – are depicted in flight by another Nativity Ode illustration; our picture depicts the exile of the constituent personae – the wizard/science-teacher and the witch/ritual-priestess – that form the bases of Pagan celestial science/superstition. The bases for Pagan celestial 1) science and 2) superstition, in Blake’s understanding of their context in Milton’s Nativity Ode are, 1) the Egyptian and Chaldean scientific study of the stars, brought to Babylon by Belus, and 2) the Near  Eastern star-worship of which we are reminded by the figure of Astarte in Blake’s picture.

The navigational science of the mercantile Phoenician cultures, represented by Dagon, is informed by reading the signs and patterns of nature and natural process, and by some amount of celestial navigation: Dagon looks at the gold, and is involved with Thamuz and with Belus. One psychoanalytic observation: Dagon and Peor/Chemosh, on the right side of the picture, represent the subconscious sexual component of what Blake called “Religious Terrors”: the overt terror of Peor/Chemosh becomes “obscene dread” by adjacence with the suggestive, signifying hand of Dagon, a spirit who half-belongs to the deep, to the world under the surface.



His Dark Materials: earth, water, fire, air

Blake seems to have noticed that Milton did not discard the theory of the four physical Constituents – Hot, Cold, Dry, and Wet (or ‘Moist’). This theory underlies some surviving records from, and accounts of, the Antique and Classical worldviews. The four classical constituents are in fact the store of “dark materials” (PL 2:916) from which the Almighty Maker might create new worlds. Such as are unused by him abide in the Abyss, “mixt confus’dly” (PL 2:913-14) in a condition of eternal war:

For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce

Strive here for Maistrie, and to Battel bring

Thir embryon Atoms…

…To whom these most adhere,

Hee rules a moment…

(Paradise Lost 2:898-900, 906-07)

The four classical Constituents cannot without Divine ordination form the four classical Elements (Water, Earth, Air, and Fire), for which they are the “pregnant causes”:

… neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,

But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt

Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,

Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more Worlds,

(Paradise Lost  2:912-16)

For Milton, the four classical Constituents are an evil only if they are left to the umpirage of Chaos and the governance of Chance. God in his wisdom and goodness can choose them, out of the Abyss or Gulf that lies between Hell and Heaven, as his dark materials for creating our natural world. Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry can then be ordained by God to form a natural world governed by Divine Providence. Blake, however, wants Divine Providence, come the Nativity of Christ, to *exclude* the four classical Constituents of Nature. Blake is systematic in his pictorial exposition of this view. Our picture represents the Cold and Dry conditions that obtain on the surface, when heat and moisture withdraw underground, their generative energies, that created crop-circles, having finished heir work.

“The fourth picture represents the Hot and Wet phase of the germinative cycle on earth – the action of the Agathodaemon or of a vegetative god like Thamuz at his peak, who, like John Barleycorn, has grown a long, long beard – and so become a man.”

The first picture in the Thomas series represents the Cold and Wet condition of nature into which Christ came. The fourth picture represents the Hot and Wet phase of the germinative cycle on earth – the action of the Agathodaemon or of a vegetative god like Thamuz at his peak, who, like John Barleycorn, has grown a long, long beard – and so become a man.

The fifth picture in the series, the furnace of Moloch, is a Hot and Dry scene. Blake may be overplaying these melds, but themes of the classical Constituents of natural process certainly pervade Milton’s poem. Blake the illustrator represents Good Angels as the agents who banish not only the pagan gods and spirits, but the four classical Constituents: in the second and in the sixth and last picture of the Thomas series, there is no room for these constituent natural conditions. In the second picture, the human forms of the angelic choir and the shepherds, not the environmental forces of both surface and atmosphere, are what is painted as subject. In the sixth picture, Blake decides to have astronomy banished along with the elemental forces: both temporal and spiritual vices have no place, for while on earth the Four Good Angels guard Christ and shut out the Constituents of the earthly and chthonic forces, meantime above the manger Truth and Justice clear the atmosphere for Mercy’s victorious career in a “Celestiall sheen” (Nativity Ode 145) that shines with no natural light from star or planet. Starless and bible-black, neither starlit nor dawnlit, Mercy has nothing to do with astronomical twilight.

‘The Flight of Moloch’.



Blake would take a different tack in his picture illustrating “Il Penseroso,” which he titled “Milton: Old Age”; in that very late picture, there is also an underground dweller gazing up at the starry heavens. Here, however, flowers bloom in the underground cave: these are late flowers for this, too, is a scene set in the last months of the year. How do we know it is set in the last months of the year? Just look at the constellations above Milton’s peaceful hermitage: the sign of Cancer, which the sun is in at the summer solstice, is in this picture visible at night. The sun cannot be in any of the constellations – Aries, Taurus, Gemini, or Cancer – that Blake depicts in this night sky; therefore this scene cannot depict any date from circa March 20th to circa July 20th. If Blake was attempting to be empirically accurate, then the terrain above Milton’s hermitage obscures a few of the constellations of the zodiac; this would mean that the sun could not be in Pisces and Leo, as the sky is dark and these constellations would be above the horizon: We are then looking at a scene set sometime between roughly August 20th and February 20th. While Blake was generally sensitive to the night sky in this series of 12 illustrations, he may have merely been attempting an allusive, not a mathematically precise, depiction of the night sky.

“Blake’s picture illustrating ‘Il Penseroso,’ which he titled ‘Milton: Old Age’. Blake wrote: “Milton in his Old Age sitting in his Mossy Cell Contemplating the Constellations. surrounded by the Spirits of the Herbs & Flowers. bursts forth into a rapturous Prophetic Strain”.

To what astronomical situation does Blake, in any event, allude? The title Blake wrote on this picture, mounted down and, I hear, only visible with the aid of a strong backing light, is a clear statement of Blake’s late view of Milton’s Christianity. Why? because the picture (which depicts four signs of the Zodiac in order), and its title (“Milton: Old Age”), refer to the precession of the equinoxes, and to the ‘New Age’ that occurs twelve times within a Great Year. Milton, depending on which party you are of, either prophecies the end of the “Old Age” or he strains to remain in it.

The apparent backwards rotation of the heavens is referred to in another Blake illustration of the same vintage, his illustration, titled by William Michael Rossetti “The Queen of Heaven in Glory,” of Cantos 31 and 32 of Dante’s Paradiso. In that picture St. Dominic and St. John the Baptist are in other positions on the Empyreal Rose than Dante’s text prescribes. This implies a rotation (clockwise in the heavens, anti-clockwise when seen from earth) of the celestial stations, and indeed Blake departed radically from Dante’s text by placing the figure of Isaiah at the base of the Empyreal Rose, praying for the shadow on the sundial to move backward ten degrees, to confirm Hezekiah’s recovery. So Blake, twice in the mid-late 1820s (in illustrations to “Il Penseroso” and to Paradiso), hoped or prayed or predicted that the precession of equinoxes would bring about a New Age.

“The Queen of Heaven in Glory”: Cantos 31 and 32 of Dante’s Paradiso.

But in our 1809 illustration, Blake has not yet adopted this view: he is comfortable with Milton’s mere, old-school, Christianity. He warns about the dangers of the energies and activities of the spirits of nature and the Pagan world, going even farther than Milton in what he wishes to discard – the theory of the four physical Constituents. But Blake’s entire series of illustrations of the Nativity Ode is emphatically conformable to the resolution of Milton’s poem – a Christ-dominated world.



Serapis: The figure’s head is cocked back, allowing Blake to play with the viewer’s information state. Those curved protrusions could be the base of a modius. They could also be ram’s horns: this head is a very good candidate for an illustration of Milton’s “Libyc Hammon” (Nativity Ode 203). However, there were multiple representations of Serapis with the horns/head of Ammon, so ram’s horns and a modius are quite possible, in an illustration of Serapis.

Serapis, like Belus, gazes up at true vertical: this suggests the emulation and invidious comparison of PL 1:717-22:


Not Babilon, Nor great Alcairo such magnificence

Equal’d in all thir glories, to inshrine

Belus or Serapis thir Gods, or seat

Thir Kings, when Ægypt with Assyria strove

In wealth and luxurie…

Albeit the terms have changed: whereas previously Belus’ tower and the Serapeum at (probably) Alexandria were unable to equal Pandaemonium, there is a new King in town, and Belus and Serapis gaze up from Pandemonium at the humble manger, with characteristic expressions of puzzlement and disappointed pride.

The hands do a lot of the talking in this picture, and it is possible that the hand of Zeus Kasios is meant to suggest a dynastic Egyptian hem-hem crown – in which multiple objects project vertically from between a representation of ram’s horns. The fingers on this hand may also suggest the stalks, or sheaves, of grain that are sometimes represented sticking up from a head of Serapis. An identity of Serapis (with or without ram’s horns), rather than Libyc Hammon, is strongly supported by the position of this head, the direction of its gaze, and its participation in a context of other positions/expressions/likenesses among the devil-deities in Blake’s picture.

Beelzebub: Beelzebub is a tough case: he is absent from the descriptive catalogue of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis (which Milton seems to have read) and from Reginald Scot’s translation of it into English, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft, albeit Scot does translate Weyer’s discussion of the extant traditions about Beelzebub’s nature and character.

Pictures of this devil or demon existed, but were almost always devoid of salient characteristics: the contemporary representations of Milton’s Beelzebub (Barry, Flaxman, Fuseli, Lawrence, Westall, etc.), are largely undistinguished, clean-shaven, humanoid; one exception is Stothard, who portrayed him in the council from Books 1-2 of Paradise Lost as bearded and mature:

Figure 22: From left: Belial, Moloch, Satan, Beelzebub, Mammon: Thomas Stothard, “The Council in Pandemonium,” Francesco Bartolozzi,sculpsit, illustration for John Milton, The First Book of Paradise Lost.

Blake, illustrating the rousing (not the council) of devils in the 1808 illustrations to Paradise Lost for Butts, has a bearded, mature Beelzebub; but Blake experimented widely with his portrayal of this figure, who is clean-shaven in the 1806-09 tempera and the 1807 Thomas watercolour versions of the rousing of Satan’s legions.

Searching the pictorial cupboard for distinguishing characteristics of Milton’s Beelzebub, Blake would not have found much to go on. There was the mature, bearded, princely Beelzebub in Stothard’s picture – which, distressingly, portrays Mammon as a Jew. Wait for it: James Gillray done worse – he had a habit, in his political cartoons, of portraying a French Republican Beelzebub, and his Beelzebub was an astonishingly racist caricature of a black African wearing the characteristic republican Phrygian cap, with a circular cockade mounted on it. Blake has, in his illustration for Thomas, portrayed the head of an African with noble character and powerful, dignified features, and the floppy headgear on Blake’s figure bears a circular badge.

Gillray’s ‘The Corsican-pest; – or – Belzebub going to supper’

Among Gillray’s many depictions of a black African Beelzebub, his 1803 depiction (“The Corsican-pest; – or – Belzebub going to supper”; redone, with the same racist caricature for Beelzebub, as “The Kitchen Below, or, Belzebub going to supper” – with the Gallic cock, rather than Napoleon, on the toasting-fork) was most notorious. If Blake’s illustration of the Nativity Ode was a Christmas delivery for Thomas, there was just time for Blake to have seen Gillray’s September 1809 Life of William Cobbett series with its two depictions of Beelzebub, who is even more racially caricatured.

“Osiris, who appears with a bull’s head and horns, and with huge, flaring nostrils, in the scene of departing theriomorphic Egyptian gods”

The headgear – the floppy republican cap with the circular cockade – is crucial to an identification of Beelzebub here, and that hat establishes that this African figure is not Osiris. I have noted that Thamuz, a slain-and-risen god who was in Blake’s time associated with Osiris, is twice represented by Blake in this series of Nativity Ode illustrations for Thomas, once in Hell and once on earth. But I think that Blake does not intend this figure in our picture as an iteration, in human-headed form, of Osiris – who otherwise appears with a bull’s head and horns, and with huge, flaring nostrils, in the scene of departing theriomorphic Egyptian gods.

The headgear on the human head in our picture is not headgear that I can find ever represented as, or described as, worn by Osiris. This is a French, not an Egyptian, cap. In Blake’s depiction of the African in this picture, the nobility and dignity of this face is overt. This tallies with Milton’s description, in Paradise Lost, of Beelzebub: “with grave/Aspect” (PL 1:300-01); “A Pillar of State; deep on his Front engraven/Deliberation sat and public care;/And Princely counsel in his face yet shon,/Majestic though in ruin…” (Pl 1: 302-04); “sage he stood” (Pl 1 305). Gillray’s politics, like his racism, were repugnant to Blake, but a politicized Beelzebub appears to have been an idea that interested Blake. But Milton’s Beelzebub, while he advocates sedition, is a seditious aristocrat, not a seditious commoner. I think Blake had understood Milton’s lesson in Paradise Lost, that secular politicians, whatever their stripe or their rhetoric, are interested only in power. This is evident in Beelzebub’s speech in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, wherein ideas of common weal, of right, and of the realpolitik of revolt (legitimate or illegitimate, from without or from within) are all in the end subordinate only to one end—to the lust for power. Milton’s Beelzebub is in fact a master politician: he is no democrat, but neither is he an imperialist, so he contemns “the popular vote” (PL 1: 313) along with the “vain Empires” (PL 1: 378), proposed by Mammon, that the vote acclaimed.

Detail from Blake’s 1808 depiction of ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’ in Paradise Lost.

Apart from its vain and dream-like unreality, Mammon’s proposed “Empire” (PL 1:315), Beelzebub points out, would be a “nether Empire” (PL 1:296), lower than (and still subordinate to) the “Empire” (PL 1: 327) of the “Sole King” (PL 1: 325) who will relinquish no part of his “high jurisdiction” (PL 1: 319). I hesitate to tread in an area sifted by my contemporaries who are better versed in Milton than I am: however, as I read Beelzebub’s appeal, it seems that he wants the devils to adopt the role of subversive aristocrats, not aiming for the monarchy, not forming an empire, and not forming a democracy. His malice toward the established order is the malice of an aristocracy excluded from power by a monarch, whose kingdom they will ruin and pervert. There is the irony – and the political comment – of Blake’s retention, from Gillray’s racist caricatures of Beelzebub, of the headgear of sedition: it is the aristocrats who will bedevil the common weal.

Beelzebub’s oration stresses, from beginning to end, the importance of position and place, and of rising from the “deep”—a word that occurs four times in Beelzebub’s speech and in Milton’s introduction of him (see PL 1: 302, 344, 382, 392). Beelzebub sells several features of Satan’s plan – quick satisfaction (rather than slow development), and the unlimited nature of revenge (a new Empire, however well built up, would always be limited by, for subordinate to, God’s “Empire” (PL 1: 327) to the fickle devils; after he wins their vote, he rallies them with his aspiration to rise again, wishing that their infiltration of Eden “from the lowest deep/Will once more lift us up, in spight of Fate,/Neerer our ancient Seat; perhaps in view.” (PL1:392-94) Getting higher up is important, but Beelzebub also exhorts the devils to aspire to better light: seizing Eden, the devils could a place “Re-enter Heav’n; or else in some milde Zone/Dwell not unvisited of Heav’ns fair Light/Secure, and at the brightning Orient beam/Purge off this gloom” (PL 1:397-400).

Upward looking, and light, are important in Blake’s depiction of this figure as Beelzebub, but these themes also show us that this figure cannot be the Osiris of Milton’s poem. In the Nativity Ode, Osiris’ eyes are darkened by the light from Bethlehem: “The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn” (Nativity Ode 223). In our picture, the African figure is one of seven faces looking up into a strong light that shines from the manger. This particular figure in no way appears to be blinded (in fact his eyes’ expression denotes intense, admiring interest); Peor and Belus alone, of the seven who face the glare from Bethlehem, have eyes that appear blank.The eyes on the figure I identify as Beelzebub are, moreover, in no way depicted as “dusky.”

In fact the wide-open lids and the intense focus of the eyeballs indicate that we are looking at a face of admiration, and at one that admires out of envious emulation: these are qualities of Milton’s Beelzebub, not the alternating defeated gloom/rage described in the Nativity Ode as characteristics of Osiris. Osiris is moody, Beelzebub not so much, and the figure I here describe has a composed, powerful countenance.

Libyc Hammon: This deity is frequently on Milton’s mind (Nativity Ode 203; PL 4:277, 9:508; also Elegy 4.26), and would be of interest to Blake, who had already accumulated a fair-sized catalog of representations of various forms of Jupiter. The diameter of this figure’s horns is reminiscent of representations of bull’s horns. However, bull’s horns do not point backward. Here again, Blake, acutely conscious that he makes in our picture a two-dimensional representation, plays with our information state. The background and shading make it impossible to assert that these horns do not point backward.

This figure definitely has a beard, as is evidenced by the thick black wavy line along his left jawline as well as the fact that the shady depression on his chin and the shape of his lower jaw would indicate an impossible/undocumented bone structure, if the deity was clean shaven. The beard, moreover, is grey-white, which is appropriate for a representation of Ammonian Jove. If that is a ram’s horn (ram horns vary widely in shape) on this figure’s head, Milton’s statement that “the Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn” (Nativity Ode 203) has been literalized by Blake, who has depicted this figure with only one visible horn – suggesting that one has been withdrawn out of sight. The horn is also ‘shrunken’ insofar as it is less thick than usual, in depictions of a ram-horned Jupiter Ammon. And the one visible horn is pulled back and likely points backward.

So much for the literal expression of “the Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn”: Milton’s figure of speech means, of course, that the god Jupiter Ammon, as a recent edition annotates this line, “withdraws from a position of prominence.” Milton named six gods in lines 197-204 of the Nativity Ode: all are represented in one of the six large figures in our Blake illustration for Thomas. The Lybic Hammon, however, must share that large figure with five other heads, and has ceded place of prominence to two other forms of Jupiter – the figure collectively forms a Jupiter Heliopolitanus, and the head of Zeus Kasios is the only one to top the figure’s shoulders. Jupiter Ammon’s head has been withdrawn from the position of prominence that we might, given Milton’s frequent references to this deity throughout his poetry, expect it to occupy.

Is there a good alternative identification for  this head? Such figures as “Bacchus” might suggest themselves from Milton’s poetry: Greek (and Roman) literature and coins, although no sculpture that survives, recognized a bull-horned Bacchus/Dionysus. It is unusual for Bacchus to be depicted as bearded: Montfaucon catalogued a few instances of “Bacchus à deux têtes,” janiform busts in which one head is bearded and mature, and asserted that a representation of Dionysus in India could be bearded. But, more crucially, Blake seems to have limited himself, for Thomas, to the devil-deities from the Nativity Ode and to the musterings of them from Books 1 and 2 of Paradise Lost and Book 2 of Paradise Regained. We would have to range out of those sections to find Bacchus, who is not in any muster of devil-deities.



“Mammon gazes at Dagon” (bottom, right)

Mammon: He is the “least erected” (PL 1:679) – the lowest of the six heads on Blake’s Jupiter Heliopolitanus – and his gaze is“downward bent” (PL 1:681). He gazes at Dagon, the devil, from the first rank of Milton’s catalogue in Book 1, who is most associated with Greed or Avarice. His head and facial expression are nearly identical to those of Mammon in Blake’s tempera paintings of “Satan Calling up His Legions.” His depiction across five Blake paintings illustrating Milton is discussed in one section of this essay. His leonine features may have seemed appropriate to Blake, due to the convention, in antique sculpture of Jupiter Heliopolitanus, of representing a lion’s face at the bottom, below the various heads on the ependytes.

Asmodai: Milton states that Asmodai is “the fleshliest incubus” (PR  2:151-52) of them all, so of course he and Mammon are the downward-facing devils in our Blake picture. Asmodai is described in Weyer and Scot, but neither Blake nor Milton seemed to have been interested in recapitulating the iconography of that catalogue. Milton gives a number of characteristics to Asmodai (a name he also writes “Asmadai” and “Asmodeus”), but Blake seems most interested in his armor (PL 6:364-68), which was of particular note in Milton’s description of him in Paradise Lost, as was the hideousness of the wounds he suffered in the battle in Heaven in Book 6.

Mangl’d with gastly wounds through Plate and Maile

(Paradise Lost, 6:368)

Blake’s Asmodai sports a visor, curiously worked into the shape of a Pan-like or satyr-like mask. All the other faces on the six-headed creature are portrayed with a distinct white, iris, and pupil in their eye-socket; that satyr’s face has neither, and those black holes in it should suggest the procedures of Renaissance sculptors (Michelangelo’s innovations in this line, especially) of drilling holes in the blank, unpainted, eye-sockets of their figures. Eye-holes had also to be drilled by plate-armorers – sculptors who, like Blake, worked in metal, not marble. In 1806, Blake had for Thomas, the same customer, represented such a face-covering plate—a bevor, for armored helmets the type of face-plate that swivels up and down. Blake depicted in one of the extra-illustrations he made to a volume of Shakespeare for Thomas, Hamlet’s father’s ghost with his bevor up.

‘Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost’, by Blake (1806)

HAMLET Then saw you not his face?

HORATIO O, yes, my lord, he wore his beaver up.

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet  I.2.244-45)

Here we have an instance of Asmodai wearing his bevor so it covers at least part of his face. Blake’s conception of Asmodai after his fall seems to have been that it was the devil’s face that was, in Milton’s description, mangled by an archangelic opponent in the war in Heaven: indeed the vanquished Asmodai intentionally hides his face in the tempera paintings (1806-09) Blake did of “Satan Calling up His Legions.”

Blake’s conception of Asmodai in our Nativity Ode illustration apparently is that the ghastly maiming (PL 6:368) he suffered in the fight in Heaven may have led his vanity to require a visor over his face. There is an open question of how much of his real face – if he has one, and however much he might have left after his archangelic mangling–this exposes: what is mask and what is behind it?

“Figure 23: Asmodai, detail of “Satan Calling up His Legions”.

Those could be two monstrous eyes peeking out above the satyr-visor’s eyes. Or they could be another pair of sculpted eyes, and we are confronted with the problem of whether what is visible above his lower bevor is a) Asmodai’s real face, b) a separate movable part of the helmet (a common, even usual, arrangement in face-protecting plates on elaborate helmets), or c) a mask beneath a mask. If Asmodai is associated with weak ghosts, such as larval personae, any of these mask-configurations might make sense. Blake may also have taken Milton’s use of the word “gastly” (PL 6:368) to pun on, or have a connotation of ‘ghostly,’ along with its primary meaning of ‘horrifying.’ Milton at least uses it with the connotation of ‘ghostly’ at PL 2:846, where Death’s “gastly smile” was annotated by Patrick Hume: “Gastly: dreadful, terrible, as if Ghostly.”

At the time of the Nativity, Asmodeus had already, according to Tobit, been bound by the Archangel Raphael: “and the angel bound him” (Tobit  8:3, AV). Blake had portrayed Asmodeus without a mask – concealing his face only with his arms – in the tempera scenes depicting him just after the battle in Heaven; here, while his face is still concealed, this is accomplished by a mask. Did Raphael, in Blake’s conception, bind Asmodeus by turning him into The Devil in the Iron Mask? This would certainly be a restriction that might be imposed on a degraded noble suspected of being a threat to usurp power. Theologians, chary of any reading of Tobit that tended toward dogmatic angelogy, had insisted that we imagine Raphael to have imposed no specific form of binding, captivity, or imprisonment on Asmodeus.

But Blake was a declared and devoted advocate of the particular appearance and circumstance of spirits, and his depiction of Asmodeus in an iron mask is no exception. That iron mask would then be the conterpass, administered by Raphael, to Asmodeus’ vanity and to the mangled devil’s desire to conceal his face. The ghastly wounds on his face would be concealed (as the fallen devil wished), but his identity would be lost in confusion. For Blake, confusion of identity like this was eternal damnation: had Blake betrayed his artistic talents, it would have been his own ghastly lot after death, as he wrote to Butts on 10 January 1803: “after death shame & confusion of face to eternity—Every one in Eternity will leave you aghast at the Man who was crownd with glory & honour by his brethren & betrayd their cause to their enemies.”



For this illustration to Milton’s Christmas poem, Blake seems to have suggested that the serpent-tailed monster’s six heads might each be associated with one of the spring and summer zodiacal constellations – these seasons being banished underground, apparently – and then problematized that suggestion.

The Nativity as Zodiacal allegory

There are enough hip-fakes in this arrangement to convince me that Blake intentionally teased us into trying to find a neat pattern of spring and summer constellations, then problematized this arrangement. It may be only coincidental that statues of Jupiter Heliopolitanus have puzzled connoisseurs who looked for a pattern in the heads on their breast: the statues sometimes have the seven planetary gods in the order of the days of the week; sometimes have them in a random order, sometimes do not represent the planetary gods, and sometimes have fewer than seven gods. However, one famous author on the subject of Helioplis – Volney – had in1791 published an astrological reduction of Jesus Christ and the Nativity story, explaining these away as a myth that represented the sun in the various seasons and signs of the zodiac. Les Ruines, published in its English translation as The Ruins by Blake’s employer Joseph Johnson in three editions through 1796, was a prominent, controversial Deist attack on the factuality of the Nativity story and of Jesus Christ. In Chapter 22, “Origin and Genealogy of Religious Ideas” (218-96 in the English editions), an orator for the Deists comes forth and explains away the Nativity myth in Section 13, “Christianity, or the allegorical worship of the Sun under the cabalistical names of CHRIS-EN or CHRIST, and Yès-us or Jesus.”

The Zodiac is represented in the top half of the South Rose Window of Christ at the Saint Maurice Cathedral of Angers, France (c. 1451)

The Nativity was, the orator argues, an allegory of the sun’s low position in the sky, and the ascendance of the Serpent constellation, at the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The Deists’ orator here quotes, then explicates by astronomy, traditions about the Nativity:

That from this virgin would be born, would spring up a shoot, a child, that should crush the serpent’s head, and deliver the world from sin.”

‘By this was denoted the Sun, which, at the period of the summer solstice, at the precise moment that the Persian Magi drew the horoscope of the new year, found itself in the bosom of the Virgin, and which, on this account, was represented in their astrological their astrological pictures in the form of an infant suckled by a chaste virgin, and afterwards became, at the vernal equinox the Ram or Lamb, conqueror of the constellation of the Serpent, which disappeared from the heavens.

That in his infancy, this restorer of the divine or celestial nature, would lead a mean, humble, obscure and indigent life.”

“Volney’s The Ruins was a prominent, controversial Deist attack on the factuality of the Nativity story and of Jesus Christ”

‘By which was meant, that the winter sun was humbled, depressed below the horizon, and that this first period of his four ages, or the seasons, was a period of obscurity and indigence, of fasting and privation.

“That being put to death by the wicked, he would gloriously rise again, ascend from hell into heaven, where he would reign for ever.”

‘By these expressions was described the life of the same Sun, who, terminating his career at the winter solstice, when Typhon and the rebellious angels exercised their sway, seemed to be put to death by them; but shortly after revived and rose again in the firmament, where he still remains.

‘These traditions went still farther, specifying his astrological and mysterious names, maintaining that he was called sometimes Chris or Conservator… (C.-F. Volney, The Ruins, or A survey of the revolutions of empires, English Translation, 2nd Ed. (London: Joseph Johnson, 1795),

The monollith from the ruins, and the god of the temple of Baalbek; the spring and summer constellations arrayed under a Nativity scene: Blake was thinking of Volney. Blake’s picture rejects Volney’s systematizing, by artistically confounding Volney’s neat patterns. Blake places on his Jupiter Helipolitanus an arrangement of heads that speciously suggests the constellations the sun inhabits in spring and summer, yet Blake makes this a false and failed zodiacal system that does not correctly identify the devil-deities from Milton’s Nativity Ode. In this way, Blake hits out at the Deistical calculations of Volney, the great scholar of Heliopolis and pioneer of the “Christ myth” explanation of the Nativity as a seasonal and zodiacal fable. We may note that Blake, attending to the argument about the ascendance of the serpentine constellation in winter, has given Jupiter Heliopolitanus a Typhonian tail. In Milton’s poem, unlike the mythography of Volney’s Deist, “Typhon and the rebellious angels” have not “exercised” unrestrained “sway” at the time of  the Nativity.

Th’ old Dragon under ground,

In straiter limits bound,

Not half so far casts his usurped sway

Nor all the gods beside,

Longer dare abide,

Nor Typhon huge ending in snaky twine

Our Babe, to shew his Godhead true,

Can in his swadling bands controul the damned crew

(Milton, Nativity Ode, 168-70; 224-28)

Blake is of Milton’s party, not Volney’s, and his history-painting directly rebukes Volney’s astronomical mythologizing of the Nativity story. Christ, for Blake, was real; any argument reducing him to an astronomical myth was razzle-dazzle, however systematic it might seem. Milton’s poetry gave a clear and powerful anatomy of evil; but the identities of its members are obscured and confused by an elaborate mythographic system such as Volney’s. Blake’s art embodies pictorially Milton’s distinct and vivid vision of evil, but his art also demonstrates how the overly-tidy system of Volney’s rationalizing criticism results only in loss of distinct identity, in vagueness, and in error.

‘The Old Dragon’ (Butts Set)

This is an edited version of John Milton’s Devil-Deities in a William Blake Illustration to the Nativity Ode by David McIrvine. To read the full article, please click here.

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