Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Glasgow University Library
Copy B, 1794
Probably the best known image created by Blake was the Frontispiece for his illuminated book Europe A Prophecy. He reprinted and recolored the image numerous times to be sold as a separate print. But like most of Blake's work it was susceptible to multiple interpretations. At the two extremes, some see it as a picture of benevolent God providing a protective space for man to enjoy; others see it as hostile God limiting man and dividing him from the glories of Eternity. Depending on perspective, some see Yahweh, some the Elohim, some Urizen, or some the Demiurge. Viewing the image contrarily forces the viewer to penetrate more deeply into the wisdom of creation.

In this account presented by Wisdom, the compass was the instrument used by the Lord in commanding the establishment of the structure in which the sons of man may find a habitation.   

Proverbs 8

Wisdom speaking:
[22] The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
[23] I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
[24] When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
[25] Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
[26] While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world.
[27] When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:
[28] When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:
[29] When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:
[30] Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;
[31] Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

[32] Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.
[33] Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.
[34] Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
[35] For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the LORD.
[36] But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.

The passage in Proverbs, by featuring the role of Wisdom (Sophia), points us toward looking at Gnostic thought for the meaning of the image. Milton Klonsky in William Blake: The Seer and His Visions makes this comment relating the picture to an alternative to Hebrew/Christian tradition of interpretation.

"The Passage from Proverbs illustrated by this picture, it should be noted, is a direct address to 'the sons of man' by Wisdom (or Sophia or Ennoia, as she is called in Gnostic theosophy), the first emanation of the true but hidden and nameless God. From the gnostic point of view, therefore, it may be interpreted as a rebuke to the malevolent demiurge, Ialdaboath, Blake's 'Old Nobadaddy,' shown creating the universe. He is shown holding the compass in his left hand, which according to Blake's symbolism, is 'sinister' in both senses [Two definitions: productive of evil, ill omen] of the word." (Page 40)

Although Blake could not have been acquainted with the Gnostic literature which was discovered in the twentieth century, there is little doubt that he read Gnostic material incorporated by early church fathers such a Valentinus.

Here is a sample from the creation myth included in the Nag Hammadi Library and referred to as On the Origins of the World.

"Now, when Pistis Sophia wanted to cause the thing that had no spirit to be formed into a likeness and rule over matter and over all its powers,  a ruler first appeared out of the waters, lionlike in appearance, androgynous, with great authority within himself but ignorant of whence he came into being.

When Pistis Sophia saw him moving in the depth of the waters, she said to him, “Youth, pass over here,” which is interpreted as “Yaldabaoth.”  Since that day, the first principle of the word that referred to the gods and angels and people has appeared. And the gods and angels and people constitute that which came into being by means of the word. Moreover, the ruler Yaldabaoth is ignorant of the power of Pistis. He did not see her face, but he saw in the water the likeness that spoke with him. And from that voice he called himself Yaldabaoth. But the perfect ones call him Ariael because he was like a lion.  And after he came to possess authority over matter, Pistis Sophia withdrew up to her light.


When the ruler saw his greatness, he saw only himself; he saw nothing else, except water and darkness. Then he thought that he alone existed. His thought was made complete by means of the word, and it appeared as a spirit moving to and fro over the waters.  And when that spirit appeared, the ruler separated the watery substance to one region and the dry substance to another region. From matter he created a dwelling place for himself and called it heaven. And from matter the ruler created a footstool and called it earth."

By using the same countenance for the Creator and for Urizen, Blake points us toward envisioning two aspects of the process of creation and the impetus which began it. Blake had a name for the sinister God who was hidden, vengeful and distant; Blake called him 'Nobodaddy.'

Blake's Notebook, (E 471)
"To Nobodaddy 

Why art thou silent & invisible
Father of jealousy
Why dost thou hide thyself in clouds
From every searching Eye"

Book of Urizen, Plate 23, (E 81) 
"Why darkness & obscurity     
In all thy words & laws
That none dare eat the fruit but from
The wily serpents jaws
Or is it because Secresy
Gains females loud applause  

3. Most Urizen sicken'd to see
His eternal creations appear
Sons & daughters of sorrow on mountains                 
Weeping! wailing! first Thiriel appear'd
Astonish'd at his own existence
Like a man from a cloud born, & Utha
From the waters emerging, laments!
Grodna rent the deep earth howling                  
Amaz'd! his heavens immense cracks
Like the ground parch'd with heat; then Fuzon
Flam'd out! first begotten, last born
All his eternal sons in like manner
His daughters from green herbs & cattle                  
From monsters, & worms of the pit.

4. He in darkness clos'd, view'd all his race,
And his soul sicken'd! he curs'd
Both sons & daughters; for he saw
That no flesh nor spirit could keep                       
His iron laws one moment.

5. For he saw that life liv'd upon death"

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