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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
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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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Odin The Unknowable

English: The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleip...

The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir, featured on the Tjängvide image stone in Vallhalla. It also can depict a killed warrior on his way to Vallhalla greeted by Valkyries with horn goblet in their hands. Français : Le dieu Odin représenté sur la pierre de Tjängvide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Odin (also called Woden by Anglo-Saxon pagans) is the supreme Norse God who, according to most accounts, anticipates the German Wotan.

As head of the Nordic pantheon called the Aesir, Odin has many faces. He is the wise giver of laws, the author of mystical poetry, a fierce, even frenzied war god and the protector of heroes. He is also a shaman, magician and shapeshifter.

Like the Greek Zeus, Odin is an unfaithful husband. His wife Frigga tolerates his numerous affairs with goddesses and human women.

An 1886 depiction of the indigenous Norse God ...

An 1886 depiction of the indigenous Norse God Odin by Georg von Rosen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Odin is popularized in the Tarot deck as the god who hangs himself from the World Tree (Ydgrassil) for nine days and nights to gain the esoteric wisdom of the runes—that is, the secret of immortality. This has been compared to Christ hanging on the cross but, some think, spuriously so.

The ambient music artist Giles Reaves released a track called “Odin (The Unknowable)” in his 1986 album Wunjo.

Since this entry initially appeared, Wikipedia has blossomed. So I add the following. I could rewrite in my own words. But that seems a waste of time when it’s already clear:

Odin is a prominently mentioned god throughout the recorded history of the Germanic peoples, from the Roman occupation of regions of Germania through the tribal expansions of the Migration Period and the Viking Age. In the modern period, Odin continued to be acknowledged in the rural folklore of Germanic Europe. References to Odin appear in place names throughout regions historically inhabited by the ancient Germanic peoples, and the day of the week Wednesday bears his name in many Germanic languages, including English.¹

R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe seems to give more individualized treatment to Odin, Woden and Wotan than what we see at Wikipedia. I’m not sure if this or the Wikipedia view is more accurate. Probably an issue open to debate as the actual beliefs about this figure likely differed among peoples in that time (something Davidson mentions) and also, differed from recorded accounts (from which we have to do detective work to try to figure out what really happened).

Related » Achilles, Balder, Fenris, Freya, Hero, Thor

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odin


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Odo – Change is the name of the game

Image credit – Wikipedia

Odo is a character in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine played by actor René Auberjonois. He belongs to a race called “changlings.” Basically a shapeshifter, he can assume practically any form he likes.

This idea is similar to the changlings and shapeshifters found in mythologies and folklore pretty much around the world. The idea is also found in literature. Sometimes one changes shape against their will or by surprise, as in Franz Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, other times the change comes through choice or perhaps divine intervention.¹

¹ A good list here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapeshifting#Fiction


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Odysseus and The Odyssey

The Siren by Edward Armitage via Wikipedia

The Odyssey is an epic poem traditionally ascribed to the Greek poet Homer. As a sequel to The Illiad, also ascribed to Homer, The Odyssey relates the story of Odysseus (Ulysses), an archetypal hero.

During his return to Greece after the Trojan wars, Odysseus overcomes many daunting and life-threatening challenges. Gods and goddesses, especially Athena, provide otherworldly assistance while Odysseus takes on scary and bewitching creatures like the Cyclops and the Sirens

Upon returning home, Odysseus find a pack of suitors lounging around his estate. They had presumed him dead and were trying to win over his wife Penelope’s hand in marriage.

Odysseus outwits the suitors and ends up killing each and every one with the help of his son Telemachus.

Depth psychologists and mythographers say this tale provides a classic example of the hero‘s journey, often read in myth and folklore.

A scene featuring the siren Parthenope, the my...

A scene featuring the siren Parthenope, the mythological founder of Naples. “Center of Naples, Italy”. Chadab Napoli. 2007-06-24 . . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Generally speaking, the hero cycle involves a trip to the underworld. The hero must overcome an array of harmful beings as well as gain the maturity to discern unfamiliar, strange helpers.

At the very bottom of the underworld, the hero discovers (or wins through battle with a monster) some secret key to wisdom or immortality. Upon returning to the mundane world (as opposed to the underworld), he or she has gained new insights that are shared for the greater good of society.

In the poem the Greek pantheon is depicted as residing at Mount Olympus, home of the gods.

¹ The image (orange and black) shows Odysseus strapped to the mast of his ship as he sails by the dangerous bird-women, the Sirens. Odysseus had instructed his crew to bind him tightly to the mast so he would not be enticed by the Sirens’ irresistible song. If a sailor gets too close to the sirens, there’s no return and death is assured.

Related » Hermes, Hesiod


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The Old Testament – Timeless wisdom or old, outdated operating system?

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Old Testament is a Christian name for the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a problematic term because Jewish people could easily find it disrespectful of their holy scripture.

The designation comes from a Christian perspective with the unabashed implication that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament, rendering the latter imperfect and somewhat lacking. This way of viewing the so-called Old Testament is found within Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

In Christianity, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments seems confusing. I had one professor who argued that Christianity’s biggest mistake was to try to incorporate the Old Testament into the new religion. They should have just started afresh, he felt. I think this perspective lacks appreciation of the Jesus story. The “new” religion gains a certain depth and continuity by including the Old Testament. However, problems do arise, which theologians and preachers try to resolve in various ways.

The most notable difference between the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent encouragement of violence and animal sacrifice in the OT but not in the NT. Sometimes, that is. The OT God doesn’t approve of all sacrifices, as we see with Cain and Abel. And sometimes he punishes doers of violence, if that particular violence is not in keeping with his Holy Agenda.¹

Also, the NT says we should live by the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.² Living by the letter of the law “kills” it. The OT, by way of contrast, lays out strict and fairly detailed laws as to how the righteous should behave. This difference in rules and regulations also applies to what and when we eat. Somehow the Catholic Church forgot this, and started making new rules of regulations about eating. But many modern Catholics see this as unimportant.

As for adultery and sexual lust, Jesus of the NT raises the bar here. You can’t even think about it without being sinner; whereas in the OT actually doing it is the sin.²

A representation of Saint John the Evangelist in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on July 31, 2010 in New York City.

Some Christians make no apology for calling the Old Testament the Old Testament. For them, it’s just another instance of unwarranted political correctness to pretend that all religions are of equal value. The New Testament, again for them, is better. So why, they argue, water things down by pretending otherwise? But again, their Holy Bibles contain the Old Testament. So there’s a lot of room for debate here.

¹ Both the OT and NT, however, are sexist and often simplistic—especially in the NT with regard to nutritional needs.

² These are just some of the differences that came to mind while revising this entry; this is not an exhaustive list. The NT also emphasizes forgiveness while the OT prescribes the famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind of reactive punishment for wrongdoings. Follow this link for more perspectives.

Related » Adam, Bible, Book of Isaiah, Book of Job, Burning Bush, Daniel, Dead Sea Scrolls, Divination, Elohim, Eve, God, the Father, Heaven, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Jonah, Just War, Kabbala, Koran, Lilith, Lot, Lot’s Wife, Miracles, Moses, Pollution, Torah, Yahweh


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Ophelia – Victim of a twisted parent

Mary Catherine Bolton (afterwards Lady Thurlow...

Mary Catherine Bolton (afterwards Lady Thurlow) (1790-1830) as Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1813, opposite John Kemble’s Hamlet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ophelia is a tragic Shakespearian character whose twisted father asks her to reject her lover, Hamlet. Ophelia’s father exploits her misguided loyalty to him and manipulates her into agreeing to reject Hamlet.

Ophelia’s father also had been spying on her while she was seeing Hamlet.

Tormented by conflicted loyalties, Ophelia eventually goes mad. Ophelia represents the too many women (and men) pushed into insanity by a misguided sense of loyalty to an unscrupulous parent or parents.

Mary Pipher reflects on this dynamic in her book, Reviving Ophelia (1994):

Psychologist Mary Pipher named her non-fiction book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), after Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In it, Pipher examines the troubled lives of the modern American adolescent girls. Through her extensive clinical work with troubled young women, Pipher takes a closer look at the competing influences that lead adolescent girls in a negative direction. For example, Pipher attributes the competing pressure from parents, peers, and the media for girls to reach an unachievable ideal. Girls are expected to meet goals while still holding on to their sanity. These pressures are further complicated when young women undergo physical changes out of their control, like the biological developmental changes in puberty.¹

Actor Jean Simmons provides a classic performance of Ophelia in Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of the play. Simmons’ vacant stare and melodious voice give Ophelia a mystical, ethereal quality just before her demise.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia

Related » William Shakespeare


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George Orwell – Activist, author, visionary

Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...

George Orwell, 1984. This self-made image is based on a picture that appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Orwell (Originally Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-50) was a British novelist, journalist and poet was born in Bengal, India. A champion of democratic socialism, he fought and was wounded in the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell’s best known works satirize the Russian revolution, Animal Farm (1945) and critique Stalinism, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Orwell lived a fascinating life, plumbing the depths of his own psyche and health, at times existing on the margins of society in dire poverty. Not exactly a champion of Western Capitalism nor the elitism associated with powerful public figures, he nevertheless performed BBC radio broadcasts during WW-II for the Allied war effort and wrote favorably of Winston Churchill while the United Kingdom mourned his passing.

In contemporary parlance, the term “Orwellian” describes a society marked by an authoritarian lack of personal privacy and individual rights and freedoms—the core elements that arguably make life worth living. With the rise of information technologies, coupled with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, not a few folks today are concerned that we could enter into such a nightmarish scenario. And on a more personal level, all it takes is one unhappy, socially awkward person with the right hacking software and connections, and you could be stalked in a most odious fashion.

All this, Orwell foresaw. And that makes him a kind of visionary.

Related » Borg, David Bowie, Science Fiction

3 for the week: Inspirational quotes to get you through the week – 9th May 2016

George Orwell’s son Richard unveils plaque in Canonbury Square (this time with the correct dates)