by Karen Joslin December 04, 2020
Muses illustration from Illustrerad Verldshistoria, Volume I. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Ah, my heart, begin with the Muses who hymn father Zeus
and in the realm of Olympus gladden his great heart;
with sweet voices they speak of things that are
and things that were and will be, and with effortless smoothness
the song flows from their mouths. The halls of father Zeus
the thunderer shine with glee and ring, filled with voices
lily-soft and heavenly, and the peaks of snowy Olympus
and the dwellings of the gods resound.”
~ Hesiod, Theogony
8th century B.C.
(translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis)
“...the kindly Muses have furnished forth my mind
and have crowned me with the gift divine of song
and given me to mix a sweet draught
for your ears and for your mind.”
~ Oppian, Halieutica Book 4
2nd century A.D.
(translated by A.W. Mair)
When you think of a Muse, what image springs to mind?
I’d bet you picture a beautiful, young woman in an artist's studio, posing motionlessly. With fervent brush strokes, the artist paints her likeness on canvas. He is utterly devoted to her. Obsessed. Perhaps even teetering on the brink of insanity.
This Muse’s power lies mainly in her ability to captivate through desire. To inspire the artist, she needs to do nothing – merely existing is enough. The artist, in turn, needs little from her to be inspired. In fact, she can spurn him completely and he will still create works inspired by her.
Or maybe your idea of the Muse is amorphous, the state of creative inspiration that we often call “the flow.” This Muse is simply the creator’s own imagination.
Both of these concepts of the Muse developed during the Renaissance, more than 2000 years after the goddesses emerged in ancient Greece. To the ancient Greeks, our current ideas of the Muse would seem mostly foreign and inaccurate – bland shadows of the Muses’ true glory.
A kernel of these ideas can be seen in ancient Greece, though. The Muses did live next door to the Charites (the Graces) and Himeros (Desire; twin brother of Eros). The Charites and Himeros served as attendants to the supreme love goddess, Aphrodite.
More than neighbors, the Muses, the Charites, and Himeros socialized often as good friends. However, the Muses weren’t part of Aphrodite’s entourage.
So the Muses inhabited the same neighborhood as beauty, love, and desire, but they weren’t the hottest deities on the block. The romantic realm just wasn’t their specialty or their source of power.
Well, then, what was?
The Muses knew everything. Literally.
They knew how the world began, when Chaos emerged from the primeval cosmos. They knew the life stories of all the gods. They knew everything that was, is, and will be.
You’d think that some of the other gods would possess this same divine knowledge, but no – the Muses were the only ones who could see and remember it all.
And so, their main calling was to share their knowledge, in part to keep history alive.
One of the ways the Muses did this was by visiting poets and telling them stories to pass on in their works. Therefore, the Muses were often likened to bees, feeding poets honey. Poets invoked the Muse(s) in their poems to ensure inspiration, honor the Muses, and reassure their audience that their words held sacred truth.
The Muses’ favorite way to impart knowledge, however, was through song and dance, which they excelled at. They performed at any kind of festive occasion, including weddings and funerals.
Most frequently, they entertained at parties on Mt. Olympus, where they delighted their godly brethren with songs celebrating their lives. Apollo frequently accompanied them, both in performance and travel. Some considered Apollo to be their leader.
Or was it the other way around?
Apollo became known as the god who spoke through the Oracle at Delphi. Yet before Apollo appeared on the scene, cults at Delphi worshipped the Muses along with the Oracle.
It makes sense for the Muses to be associated with prophecies, since they knew everything about the future as well as the past. Even after Apollo ascended in importance there, their worship at Delphi continued.
Besides Apollo, the Muses liked to travel with bad boy Dionysus – a hint to their mostly-latent dark side. The one thing guaranteed to change the Muses’ disposition from cheery to vengeful? Challenging their singing prowess.
The Muses always won, and they always exacted revenge. They struck one challenger blind; others they turned into birds.
Even the Sirens, whose entrancing songs lured sailors to their deaths, lost a singing contest to the Muses. The Muses promptly plucked their feathers (for the Sirens were half-bird) and wore them in their hair as victory crowns.
In addition, Plato claimed that the Muses conferred to poets not only inspiration but madness. It should be noted, however, that many influential philosophers sought to co-opt the Muses as their own goddesses by negating poets.
Perhaps one can't blame them. The Muses had became increasingly important in ancient Greek society. Over several centuries, a complex performance medium incorporating poetry, called mousikae (the art of the Muse), had developed.
Mousikae transformed Greek culture and became the bedrock of society. It surpassed mere entertainment by encompassing social, political, and religious realms. By the 5th century B.C., mousikae governed academics, with the Muses honored as patron goddesses of education.
The Muses’ heyday also spawned the earliest instance of a real person likened to a Muse. The great poet Sappho (ca. 610-570 B.C.) was so revered that some contemporaries called her “the Tenth Muse.”
By the time Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city-states, mousikaē’s influence was waning. But Alexander introduced the Muses to a new continent – Africa.
The Museum of Alexandria (Alexander’s capital city in Egypt) was a great temple of the Muses. For centuries, scholars, poets, and scientists flocked to the Museum and its Library to study, innovate, and preserve earlier works. Thanks to the Museum, Alexandria became the most prominent Mediterranean city of its day.
This would not do for Rome. While Rome’s intelligentsia busied themselves in Alexandria, Roman armies battled their way across Europe, Asia, and North Africa to build a vast Empire.
Of course, ruling such a disparate, far-flung, and reluctant populace presented challenges. Roman rulers used religion to appease and attempt to assimilate the vanquished masses.
Since the Greek pantheon was already well-known throughout the Roman Empire’s new lands, Romans equated their deities with the Greek gods. The Muses became identified with the Roman goddesses the Camenae. In fact, they became more popular than the Camenae and eventually replaced them altogether.
When Christianity took hold, it stripped divine power from the Greco-Roman gods, though it kept their stories alive and sometimes correlated them with Christian ideas.
Conceptions of the Muses began to change drastically. No longer were they real goddesses who took an active role in the creative process. They became symbolic or decorative characters – mere nods to the past.
And that brings us back to the Renaissance, which ushered in the age of the personal Muse. In an era that valued reason, innovation, and personal development, representations of the Muses transformed and expanded further still.
The Renaissance preoccupation with love meant that the beloved often played the role of Muse. However, the Muse could now encompass anyone or anything that inspired the creative process.
And since Muses were no longer viewed as actual goddesses with the power to strike one blind or turn a person into a magpie, it became trendy to disrespect the Muse. Writers blamed the Muses for lackluster (or lack of) inspiration. Surely it was the Muses’ fault that they could only write sappy love poetry instead of something more “important”!
And so, our contemporary ideas of the Muse owe far more to artists like Raphael and writers like Shakespeare than to the ancient Greeks.
You probably have some questions now. Like:“How many Muses are there?”
It's complicated. Find out more about the Muses here:
“Homer and Hesiod”
by Ralph M. Rosen
University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, 1997
“Apollo and the Muses, or prophesy in Greek verse”
by H. W. Parke
Hermathena, No. 130/131 (1981)
Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City
by Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson
Oxford University Press, 2004
“The Muses and Creative Inspiration: Homer to Milton”
by Kathleen Pothoff McHugh
University of North Florida Digital Commons, 1993
“History of Museums”
by Geoffrey D. Lewis
Please join the conversation, and kindly treat others as if they were a friend you intend to keep.
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