The Muses – Then and Now

Hesiod and the Muse
Hesiod and the Muse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those of you who have been following this blog might remember that I’m now updating the very oldest entries. This means I’m finally giving attention to entries that

  • no longer interested me too much
  • I didn’t know a lot about nor feel qualified to update
  • I knew a fair amount about but didn’t have the time, energy or desire to spell out all the complications
  • didn’t seem too important to the overall purpose of this blog

Before making it my policy to update the oldest entries, I sometimes skipped over those “difficult” topics and just updated the fun, personally interesting stuff.

I’m not sure where the Muses sat in all this. I suppose I had a moderate interest but was still educating myself in ancient Greek and Roman lore so didn’t feel qualified to say too much about them. I’m still no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m going to follow my plan and keep updating the very oldest, ignored entries here. And today it’s the Muses.

So here’s my skimpy entry from September 20, 2007:

Muses – In Greek myth these are nine patron goddesses of the arts, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory) and worshipped in the area of Mt. Helicon. Ancient bards and artists believed their inspiration came from them.

Related Posts » Boethius, Sappho

A representation from the 1500s of the Muses d...
A representation from the 1500s of the Muses dancing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To begin my update, I should note that the Muses were not only inspirational to artists. They also spurred on scientists and writers to achieve beyond the ordinary. Also, the actual number of the Muses has been contested since ancient times. Some believed there were three, others nine.

In the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus quotes Hesiod:

Writers similarly disagree also concerning the number of the Muses; for some say that there are three, and others that there are nine, but the number nine has prevailed since it rests upon the authority of the most distinguished men, such as Homer and Hesiod and others like them.¹

Moreover, the origin of the Muses is open to debate. Again from Wiki:

According to Hesiod‘s Theogony (seventh century BC), they were daughters of Zeus, the second generation king of the gods, and the offspring of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. For Alcman and Mimnermus, they were even more primordial, springing from the early deities, Uranus and Gaia. Gaia is Mother Earth, an early mother goddess who was worshipped at Delphi from prehistoric times…

Sometimes the Muses are referred to as water nymphs, associated with the springs of Helicon and with Pieris. It was said that the winged horse Pegasus touched his hooves to the ground on Helicon, causing four sacred springs to burst forth, from which the muses were born.¹
Muse playing the lyre. The rock on which she i...
Muse playing the lyre. The rock on which she is seated bears the inscription ΗΛΙΚΟΝ / Hēlikon. Attic white-ground lekythos, 440–430 BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most things in life, the Muses are not a clear-cut phenomenon. To add to the challenge of revising this entry, my thinking about the muses needed updating. And for that I had to double check some data about ancient Greek spiritual beliefs.

You see, until recently, when people told me they were inspired by their “muse” or (as one person once claimed) they were my muse,  I would usually have an inner reservation.

Let me explain.

As a believing Christian, I find that attending Catholic Mass and receiving the Eucharist does wonders for not only my creativity but also for endurance while creating. You might think that all the holiness and formality of attending Mass would squelch my electric guitar playing or ability to create edgy EDM music on my PC. But for me it’s the opposite. I am inspired by the Eucharist. It’s like a kind of overriding, elevating power and light that frees up my creativity.

So maybe you can better understand the apparent conflict – or maybe I should say ambiguity – that I used to have with my personal experience of Christ, on the one hand, and the idea of the Muses on the other hand.

Christianity generally teaches that the Muses are pagan ideas. And although some Christian leaders might diplomatically dance around it, the general implication is that this kind of non-Christian inspiration is lower or inferior to that of the Holy Spirit.²

But is this fair? Does not the Church also teach that Jesus as God exists through all time?

Hmm. Now things get complicated.

How do we discern non-Christian influences that might ultimately come from God vs. those that do not come from God? Further, how do we discern those Christian influences that come from God vs. those that do not come from God? Here I’m thinking of the various medieval horrors institutionally legitimized and carried out in the name of Christ.

c. 1640-1645
Clio, Euterpe et Thalie c. 1640-1645 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Get the point?

Many religions tend to carve up reality into tidy conceptual and behavioral categories and encourage believers to adhere to those structures.

Even though many of the structures do change over time and place, most religious authorities take great pains trying to convince us (and maybe sometimes themselves) that their religion just happens get it totally right in the 21st century.

They rarely take a long historical view and accordingly modify obligations for adherents. Or if they do happen to take a long historical view, it’s often like a patchwork quilt or, perhaps, ancient mosaic made by religious hands. Everything fits according to the ongoing religious story. Anomalous pieces that don’t fit are either left out or re-cut and re-tinted to fit with the longstanding religious narrative.

Another metaphor would be an elaborate building made out of sticks without glue. Remove any stick within the structure and the whole thing falls down. So orthodox theologians tend to leave the existing sticks where they are, only adding new ones that maintain the overall balance. In short, the entire structure keeps standing according to previously set limitations.

It may seem like I’ve strayed a long way from the original topic. But not really. The question remains: Where does inspiration come from?

Helicon or Minerva's Visit to the Muses
Helicon or Minerva’s Visit to the Muses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With regard to the ancient Greeks, it would not be fair to suppose that their view of the Muses was just as restrictive as some modern religious ideas about inspiration.

The Greeks also held beliefs about familiar spirits, ancestor spirits, nature spirits and household spirits—which not only protected but also could have inspired.³

So the Muses were not the only type of supernatural inspiration for ancient Greeks. And whether or not some ancient Greeks had access to the same kind of experience that I associate with the Holy Spirit, who can say?

In modern usage, the idea of the muse generally refers to artistic inspiration. But the idea has also entered into politics and sports. Wikipedia notes that the words museum, music, musing, and amuse all owe a debt to the ancient Greeks and their Latin translators.4

² See this link  (Google Books)
4 op. cit. Muse

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