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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
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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Sappho of Lesbos

English: Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet...

Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. From Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey. Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sappho (610-580 BCE) was a Greek lyric poetess, born of a noble family on the island of Lesbos. She wrote within the context of the cult of Aphrodite and the veneration of the Muses. Because it was unusual for women to write, she is one of the few known women poets of the Greek archaic period.

Only 8th and 9th century copies and fragments or her work and one complete address to Aphrodite remain, along with more fragments obtained from papyrus discoveries since 1898 and as recent as 2004.¹

Sappho was married and wrote verse and songs for weddings, usually performed by young girls. She also arranged poetic gatherings where she and other women composed and read poetry, as was the custom of women of good standing in Lesbos. From this she developed several close relationships.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-call...

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her extant work reveals no clear evidence of physical intimacy with these women. She was exalted in antiquity, appearing on a list of the 9 best lyric poets and often called “the 10th Muse.”

But politics changed, as they always do, and other ancient figures caricaturized her and the entire island of Lesbos as a center for lesbianism. As such, she went into temporary exile in Sicily, later returning to Mytilene, the place of her family home on Lesbos.

She is often cited today as an inspiration for lesbian love. Speaking about herself and her associates, she once wrote:

I think that someone will remember us in another time.

¹ See A Brief History of Ancient Greece, Oxford 2009, pp. 93-95.

Related » Goddess vs. goddess

On the Web:

  • “Sappho (Σαπφώ) was born in the seventh century BC, in the island of Lesbos. Her love of women reflects a deeper love for civilization.”

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Cronus (Saturn) castrates his father Uranus, t...

Cronus (Saturn) castrates his father Uranus, the Greek sky god (before Zeus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Titans were the first generation of Greek gods, being the 12 children of the primordial Uranus and Gaia.

Massive and powerful, the Titans were the first to be differentiated from their primordial parents. When the Titans were cast out of heaven, Zeus became the head of a second generation of Greek gods.

Titan is also the name of the planet Saturn‘s largest satellite.

Related Posts » Tyche

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Winged youth with a sword, probably Thanatos, ...

Winged youth with a sword, probably Thanatos, personification of death. Detail of a sculptured marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, ca. 325-300 BC. Found at the south-west corner of the temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanatos is a Greek word meaning death. In Greek myth he is the personification of death. Mentioned often, he doesn’t visit mortals too regularly—otherwise there would be few alive to tell his tale.

According to the poet Hesiod, Thanatos is a son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness), and the twin brother of Hypnos, the benevolent god of sleep who lives in the underworld

Sigmund Freud used the term Thanatos to symbolize a hypothesized death instinct, which counterbalances Eros, Freud’s hypothesized life instinct.

Freud’s theories have been routinely challenged by depth psychologists, transpersonal psychologists and by spiritualists. At the other end of the spectrum, his ideas also have been questioned by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

But Freud still looms large in the humanities, mostly because he arguably was the first to try to systematically (some say scientifically) explore the hidden workings of the mind. So like him or lump him, he does deserve some respect.

¹ With help from –

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. Česky: Foto z Clarkovy univerzity roku 1909. Dole (zleva) Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung, nahoře (zleva) Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Related Posts » Civilization and its Discontents, Dreams, Id, Libido, Repression




Tantalus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek myth Tartarus is a deity, son of Aither (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). Over time, Tartarus came to be regarded as the lowest abyss in Hades. The philosopher Plato wrote of Tartarus as a dreadful place of afterlife punishment.

The Greek poets say that the Kings Ixion and Tantalus were condemned to Tartarus for offending the gods. And King Sisyphus was sent to Tartarus for murdering his guests, seducing his niece, and spilling the beans on Zeus’ sexual practices. The ruler of the Titans was also sent to Tartarus.

Concerning Tantalus, we see again how ancient myth is adapted to modern times. In the original Star Trek TV show, Tantalus is the name of a Penal Colony where people’s minds are blanked out as part of their psychiatric treatment.¹

The Tartarus Gate

The Tartarus Gate (Photo credit: Wikipedia) – The Tartarus Gate is the season 7 opener of the Doctor Who audio spin-off series of Bernice Summerfield. Released by Big Finish Productions in July 2006 and written by Stewart Sheargold.

This is a captivating episode and runs counter to those existential or, perhaps, postmodern pundits who claim that ancient myth has “died” in a supposedly vulgar void of contemporary meaningless. I think people who say that just don’t get Western culture. Or their own culture or subculture is so messed up that it taints their entire outlook, makes them cynical, etc.

Digital Dame adds:

Another ST tie-in for Tantalus: In the episode “Mirror, Mirror” where they transposed with their evil counterparts in an alternate universe, Mirror-Kirk’s girlfriend, Marlena, shows good Kirk the Tantalus Device, or Tantalus Field, that vaporizes his enemies. » See in context

Further Reading:

David Sacks, A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World, Oxford 1995, pp. 8-9.


On the Web:


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Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias. Sid...

Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias. Side A from a Lucanian red-figured calyx-krater, 4th century BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek myth Tiresias is a Theban, the son of a shepherd and a nymph, who unintentionally sees the chaste Athena bathing. She immediately punishes him with blindness but he is compensated, to some extent, with the gifts of wisdom and prophecy, along with a lifespan of seven generations.

In another mythic cycle Tiresias becomes blind after seeing two snakes coupling. Killing one of the snakes, he is transformed into a woman. Seven years later he again sees two snakes coupling. In one variant of the myth he kills the snakes, in another he leaves them alone. But in both versions he’s changed back into a man.

At this point Zeus and Hera ask him who enjoys sex more, men or women. Tiresias, having experienced both, says women receive nine time more pleasure than men. Hera doesn’t like this answer and strikes him blind. But Zeus gives him the gift of prophecy to compensate for his loss.

Two strange sounding stories, they point to the idea that losing things in life is often replaced or rewarded by something else of a higher or subtler nature.

In Homer‘s Odyssey, the seafaring hero Odysseus asks Tiresias, who’s departed and in the underworld, about his return sea journey home. Tiresias warns Odysseus of many dangers, facilitating his safe return.¹

In pop culture the British progressive rock band Genesis speaks of “father Tiresias” in the song, The Cinema Show (1973):

Take a little trip back with father Tiresias,
Listen to the old one speak of all he has lived through.
I have crossed between the poles, for me there’s no mystery.
Once a man, like the sea I raged,
Once a woman, like the earth I gave.

On the Web:

¹ See Wikipedia for more variations and depictions in art »

Related Posts » Hephaestus, Seer, Wisdom



Muse tuning two kitharai. Tondo from a white-g...

Muse tuning two kitharai. Tondo from a white-ground Attic cup, 470–460 BC. From Eretria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Xenophanes (c. 570 BCE) was an incredibly advanced ancient Greek thinker, born in Colophon, an Ionian coastal city.

Xenophanes challenged the cosmology of other luminaries like Homer, Hesiod. And he critiqued the pre-Socratic view of religion and mythology, which was popular at the time.

From his surviving fragments – and from writers commenting on his work – it’s clear that Xenophanes satirized the anthropomorphic nature of the Greek pagan gods, arguing that God must be unmoving and changeless.

5. But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man’s clothing and have human voice and body. [Zeller, 524, n. 2. Cf Arist. Rhet. ii. 23; 1399 b 6.]

6. But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Zeller, 525, n. 2. Diog Laer. iii. 16; Cic. de nat. Deor. i. 27.]¹

Likewise, the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (2nd – 3rd CE) wrote in his Miscellanies 5. 109:

Xenophanes of Colophon puts it well indeed in teaching that god is one and without a body (asomatos): “There is one god, greatest among gods and men, who is not like human beings either in form (demas) or in thought (noema).”²

Poseidon’s Wrath by GBrush via Tumblr and deviantART

With his piercing criticisms of the pre-Soctratic mindset, Xenophanes nevertheless believed that we cannot be certain about anything. As such, he said that his observations were necessarily conjecture.

E. L. Hussey says that Xenophanes made the “first known attempt at philosophical theology.”³ In a nutshell, he thought about faith instead of mindlessly reproducing its cultural and historical aspects, a practice that sometimes proves to be awkward, embarrassing or harmful.

In addition, Xenophanes was something of an ancient social critic. He saw through and beyond the Greek glorification of sports and warfare. How many of us can say the same thing today?

¹ Arthur Fairbanks, ed. and trans. “Xenophanes: Fragments and Commentary,” The First Philosophers of Greece (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), p. 67.

² “XENOPHANES of Colophon”

³ Ted Honderich, ed., Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995, p. 920.

Related Posts » Comparative Religion