[Home] [About Us] [What's New] [Site Map] [Contact Us] [Search]
by John Emslie

THE WORD ZOA is Greek. It means 'living one'. In the Book of Ezekiel, zoa is the name of the four creatures who pull the chariot of God's Spirit.

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north... Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings... As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle... And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went....

The four animals materialize again in the Book of Revelation. John of Patmos sees the four in a vision of the Apocalypse. No longer in transit, their chariot has become a throne upon which sits Christ in judgment.

This ends the visions of the four Zoas in the Bible. But another visionary saw the four Zoas and wrote of what he saw in books of poetry. His name was William Blake. This visionary seemed to be conscious of two traditions in his interpretation of the Zoas. One is a medieval tradition, prevalent in illuminated manuscripts, that associated Ezekiel's four Zoas with the four Gospels and so symbolized the Word of God as the means or vehicle of divine revelation. The other tradition is a pagan and mythological one, and concerns the use of an animal chariot to symbolize the particular power of the gods. Venus, for instance, is pulled by a chariot of doves, a symbol of love. The question of what such unusual creatures could mean as symbols of the power of God is at the heart of Blake's understanding of the Zoas.

1. Although it was left in manuscript, Blake named his longest poem The Four Zoas: The Death and Judgment of Albion The Ancient Man. It is a symbolic recreation of the story of revelation - the drama that speaks of the fall and redemption of humanity with the divine - the human spiritual journey. The epic story is told about a giant man named Albion, Blake's symbol of universal humanity, who fell from his divine station and "whose real humanity [was] slain on the stems of vegetation." Albion, Blake says, "was originally fourfold but was self divided" and "[how] he became self divided is a subject of great sublimity and pathos."

Albion's fall represents a division of his four primal faculties: the four Zoas. Blake gives each of the Zoas a fallen name (a name in time) and an eternal name. Their eternal names are Tharmas, Urizen, Luvah and Urthona.

he is instinct and power - the labourer. In the world of time and generation he holds the power of reproduction.

Urizen: intellect, mind, form, reason. Writing in the shadow of the Age of Reason, Blake sees reason, science and experiment as becoming the new symbols of truth. Urizen is a God to the new age, the God of reason. Urizen's name is a pun on his limited vision - it sound like your reason or horizon.

emotion, passion, the God of Love. In a perverted form on Earth he is the spirit of revolution and repressed desire - a demon named Orc.

The last Zoa is Urthona: imagination, inspiration and wisdom - "the eternal prophet". In Blake poetry, Urthona is more often called "Los" because Los is his manifested form in time - what Blake calls his "vehicular form". Los is the form he appears as on earth: art - poetry, painting, music. It is Los who holds the key to the recovery of Albion's humanity and to the reunion of the Zoas. In the Fall, Urizen usurped the place of Los. Urizen speaks:

We fell. I seiz'd thee, dark Urthona. In my left hand falling. I seiz'd thee, beauteous Luvah, thou are faded like a flower.... Then thou didst keep with Strong Urthona the living gates of heaven but now thou art bow'd down with him, even to the gates of hell.

Of all the Zoas it is only Los who "keeps the vision" of Albion's divinity and through whom God's Spirit still speaks to direct Albion to history. In the poem Jerusalem, it is Los who unceasingly hammers his way through chaos trying to awaken his friend Albion. (There is a particularly Blakean moment in the final vision of Jerusalem when Albion and Jesus meet wherein Albion says that Jesus resembles his friend Los.)

In Blake's vision of the Apocalypse, all the Zoas lie as in the Book of Revelation. We may see in this vision of humanity's resurrection that the Zoas are the members of the mystical body of the God-Man - the "human form divine" - whose head is Christ and whose body is humanity.

"Four Mighty Ones are in every Man" says Blake and in light of another kind of symbolism, Tharmas is the hands, Urizen the mind, Luvah the heart and Los the Spirit. For as much as Blake's Zoas tell a spiritual history they also represent an order of the soul, a "perfect unity". Hence, they may also represent the spiritual state of each person and be a guide for a journey of self-understanding.

You can respond to the author here (responses may be posted)
or on our messageboard. John Emslee's "Gates of Purgatory" website can be found here.