Engraved by Blake for Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden |
The interpretation of the Portland Vase to which Blake was introduced found in it figures representing stages traversed in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The lesser mystery of the mortal journey was portrayed in one image, and the greater mystery of the journey through immortality in the image on the reverse side. On the handles there are two images of Pan who assisted in facilitating the return of Demeter to her life-giving function. One Pan displays his goat horns and the other shows him as he as he appeared with donkey ears. On the underside of the vase we see Atis, the great hierophant, or teacher of mysteries as the guide who leads one through the various episodes. To be initiated into the mysteries was an existential not a rational experience. What is known about the mysteries indicates that the initiate was led through a series of activities which impelled him deeper and deeper into incorporating psychic experiences of death and rebirth. To Blake this meant undergoing the experience of dying to the world of time and space and being born into the world of eternity.
Reading these myths enriches ones understanding of the images on the Portland Vase and of Blake's myth of creation, fall, wandering and return: Demeter (Earth mother), Persephone (Renewal), Pluto (Ruler of the underworld), and Pan (who located the hidden Demeter).
Four Zoas, Night IX, Page 117, (E 386) "VALA Night the Ninth Being The Last Judgment And Los & Enitharmon builded Jerusalem weeping Over the Sepulcher & over the Crucified body Which to their Phantom Eyes appear'd still in the Sepulcher But Jesus stood beside them in the Spirit Separating Their Spirit from their body. Terrified at Non Existence For such they deemd the death of the body. Los his vegetable hands Outstretchd his right hand branching out in fibrous Strength Siezd the Sun. His left hand like dark roots coverd the Moon And tore them down cracking the heavens across from immense to immense Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrill Sound of Loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven to heaven A mighty sound articulate Awake ye dead & come To judgment from the four winds Awake & Come away Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth"
As one looks at the minute details of Blake's engravings of the images on the Portland Vase, reads Erasmus Darwin's descriptive comments, and considers what is known about the Eleusinian Mysteries, one may see that, together, they contain archetypal themes which travel throughout Blake's work. We meet the garment, the portal between worlds, sleep and awakening, and contraries repeated with regularity. The traveller who journeys from one level to another, is with us throughout. Perhaps the lesser and greater mysteries of mortality and immortality were forever appearing in Blake's imagination. He may have written and illuminated Milton and Jerusalem as his own guidebooks through the mysteries as he encountered them.
A close reading of the import of the figures on the Portland vase as they relate to Blake's thought was published by Nelson Hilton in Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly as he reviewed Darwin's Botanic Garden.