African gods have snub noses, the Nordic gods are blond with blue eyes. If lions and oxen could paint we shd. doubtless see them also making Gods in their image
The heavily paraphrased quote from Xenophanses touches upon a long standing habit in human nature towards anthropomorphizing our gods. But this behavior goes a lot further than the heavens; people routinely assign human qualities to storms, computers, illnesses, volcanoes, to name just a few examples. What these all have in common is that they are inherently uncontrollable, and trying to make them more human in our way of trying to feel some measure of influence of them. From this perspective it is easy to see why creativity and inspiration, forces that feel like they come from outside out of us, would become personified in their own special way. The ancient Muses.
What are the Muses?
[The Muses] are all of one mind, their hearts are set upon song and their spirit is free from care. He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.
Goddesses of inspiration, the Muses were the embodiment of both art and knowledge, who remembered all things that had come to pass. The name Μοῦσαι, from ancient Greek, speaks of a possible proto-Indo-European origin, but the Muses quickly took root in Greek and later Roman mythology. Over time being assigned the qualities for which we know them today.
It is in their role of goddesses of knowledge where their true value to Greek culture can be seen. One tradition holds that the Muses were created by Zeus, who secretly laid for nine nights with the Titaness of memory, Mnemosyne. Their descent from the embodiment of memory, and ability to store the knowledge of all that came to pass were of a deep practical importance to a pre-literate culture that relied on oral traditions to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. The great bard Homer who gave us two of the most significant epic poems in Western literature, invoked the Muses at the start of the Odyssey several centuries before the poem would ever be first written down.
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book I
Since ancient times many authors and poets have similarly called for inspiration from these mythic keepers of knowledge.
And so, have them for yourself, whatever kind of book it is, and whatever sort, oh patron Muse let it last for more than one generation, eternally.”
Catullus, Carmen I
O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto II
How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument?
Shakespeare, Sonnet 38
The Top Three
It is the height of arrogance to select out some of the Muses ahead of the others in any kind of ranking. That being said, the 9 Muses that come down to us from Roman times do so having taken on different artistic provinces that they came to represent. The trouble for the modern mind is that ‘arts’ have come to mean something different from they did to ancient civilizations.
Muse – Province
- Calliope – Epic song
- Terpsichore –Dance
- Euterpe – Lyric song
- Melpomene – Tragedy
- Erato – Erotic poetry
- Polyhymnia – Sacred song
- Thalia – Comedy
- Clio – History
- Urania – Astonomy
The majority of these are clearly related to the arts as we know them, but Clio and Urania stand out. To the modern mind history and astronomy have become the province of scientists and academics. While they surely need inspiration of some kind, I doubt it comes from the gentle grace of the Muses.
Of the remaining seven I am singling out the three that I feel are more relevant to the state of modern arts. Tragedy, erotic poetry, sacred song, and comedy, have all come to mean something very different from the time when they were equally woven in the fabric of Greek cultural life.
Calliope The Muse of Epic Song
The eldest and wisest of the 9 muses, Calliope stands out as the Muse who accompanied respectable royalty along their way. She was also the favorite Muse of Homer, and is said to be the mother of Orpheus, a famous musician whose playing opened the doors to the underworld.
Epic song today stands in for all of music outside of the popular formats. Modern classical, new age, opera, and world music, all need to hear the call from somewhere, and I would hold that it comes from a different place than their other musical counterparts.
Euterpe The Muse of Lyric Song
The Muse of lyric song, also known as the ‘Giver of Please’. What better source of inspiration is there for all of the emotion driven pop, rock, and electronic music that fill the airways in our everyday lives. This music fills a different place in people’s lives than the ‘epic’ variety, and its inspiration comes from a different source.
Terpsichore The Muse of Dance
Music and dance are deeply connected in the human unconscious. These alone of the arts exist in a purely transient form, where each expression passes the present after it is expressed never to be recovered again in quite the same way. Muses of music cannot stand alone without dance to accompany them.
Terpsichore is said to have borne the Sirens with the River God Achelous, who were able to ensnare passing sailors with their enchanting music and voices.
So how do the Muses inspire, and why have they persisted over thousands of years?
Creativity is not well understood, at least not in a way that can be induced, influenced. Each person has to find their own path, and their own method of managing an uncontrollable part of their minds. Still, a common thread runs through the creative lives of many artists, and that is having another person, real or not, that personifies their source of inspiration.
By objectifying an internal process we can examine it, interact with it from the outside, seeing it from different angles. By humanizing something it becomes subject to the usual laws of moral consequences. It deserves our thanks and sympathy, or anger and frustration, depending on how it interacts with us.
Not only does this create an illusion of control, but it brings a measure of rationality to an irrational process. Those feelings of thanks or anger would be come anyway, but it is much easier to justify them if we believe we are interacting with a human-like entity.
Does this mean there is no value in the Muses? I would say no.
I have a measure of understanding of why humans behave this way, but I also know my Muse is jealous. If I share with you something I am working on before it is finished, my Muse will cut me off, and the creative spirit that drove that thing will never come back, and I dare not express any more about this and risk losing her forever.
All one can do is learn to live within the limits that are imposed, and work to keep the creative fires burning.