For this insight writing an examination of the concept of the muse has been an interesting task to undertake; I have trawled through a range of dusty old tomes and consulted the Delphi Oracle, as well as using the modern technology lying at my fingertips in order to gather enough information and research to meditate on thoroughly and to write a post about.
The main reason for my investigation of the muse is to better understand the history of the idea, in order to better understand my own personal interpretation of my muse. This undertaking will provide some scope on the subject but I don’t intend to write an entire book about it, so it may be brief in parts.
To begin this short pilgrimage through the philosophy and ideology behind the muse, it’s probably best to start at the beginning, or the beginning of the concept of muses anyway.
The place of origin of a vast number of ideas, stories, philosophies and much more, in fact too many things originated from this age and location than is even possible for me to list in one place at one time. For now though, we’re going to focus on one of these ideas; Greek mythology and the Nine Muses.
Ancient writers tended to disagree on the number of muses in their mythology, some claimed that there were three muses whereas the more distinguished writers such as Homer and Hesiod said there were nine, therefore nine is the prevailing number.
The Nine Muses are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified) and they were believed to be the deities ruling over the arts and sciences offering creative inspiration in those subjects; they each had a particular function assigned to them which varied as time went on, even once the Romans transferred them into their own mythology, their attributes and names still varied depending upon the writer that was writing about them.
The Nine Muses and their Attributes
By the late Hellenistic times, these are what seemed to be the most agreed upon attributes assigned to each muse.
Calliope – Epic Poetry
Clio – History
Euterpe – Music, Song and Elegiac Poetry
Erato – Lyric Poetry
Melpomene – Tragedy
Polyhymnia – Hymns
Terpsichore – Dance
Thalia – Comedy
Urania – Astronomy
Renaissance and Neoclassical Art
By the time of the Renaissance and through to the Neoclassical era, emblem books were created in order to provide visual artists with the means of showing the viewer who they were depicting with the use of an emblem, symbol or prop; viewers became acquainted with which emblems belonged to which characters whether mythological, biblical or otherwise, and thus immediately identified the characters created by both painters and sculptors alike.
The emblems associated to each muse vary between artists and as in the painting above, not all of the muses have their associated prop but are still identifiable as a group. The emblems usually assigned to each muse are:
Calliope – Writing tablet, Stylus, Lyre
Clio – Scrolls, Books, Cornet, Laurel wreath
Euterpe – Aulos (an ancient Greek musical instrument like a flute), Panpipes, Laurel wreath
Erato – Cithara (an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyre family)
Melpomene – Tragic mask, Sword (or any type of blade), Club, Kothornos (boots)
Polyhymnia – Veil, Grapes
Terpsichore – Lyre, Plectrum
Thalia – Comic mask, Shepherd’s crook, Ivy wreath
Urania – Globe and compass
This painting is a much better example of the Nine Muses each represented with their recognisable emblem. Also present in this painting are Apollo and Mnemosyne.
Over the course of time since the ancient Greek days, many writers and artists as well as many others such as philosophers and psychologists have delved into and explored the concept of the muse in a singular form; it is probably the foremost of the ancient Greek myths that live on strongly in modern society and life.
Throughout the history of art, there have been a great many artists that have had their own personal muse in the sense of always working with one particular model; one that inspires and incites them to create and they are often also lovers. As was the case between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse and wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti is said to have created thousands of paintings and drawings of Elizabeth, eventually culminating in Beata Beatrix which shows a praying Beatrice from the poetry of Dante Alighieri. He began this painting in 1863, a year after Siddal died aged 32 from an overdose on laudanum.
This painting is a perfect example of an artist’s personal muse, painted beautifully and full of meanings, hidden meanings and symbolism, a piece of work that is ripe for an in depth analysis which I certainly intend to tackle in a future post.
The origins of the museum and where the word comes from are something else that I’ve stumbled upon whilst researching this subject and have found interesting; museum basically meant Shrine of the Muses and later Cult of the Muses.
From what I can find about this, one early example was when Pythagoras visited Croton, he advised the people there to build a shrine to the Muses, promoting learning and civic harmony; another aspect to these ancient musaions were the festivals that were held, where sacrifices were made to the Muses alongside poetic recitations.
Another example of a shrine to the Muses was the Library of Alexandria, an ancient place of learning and enlightenment modeled after the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens. The Library of Alexandria was the greatest single archive of knowledge in the ancient world. This amazing building held a vast amount of ancient books and writings, estimated at over half a million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations.
It was a place of study containing lecture areas, gardens and shrines to each of the Nine Muses as well as the library itself. There were also a large number of scholars living there researching, writing, lecturing, translating and copying documents. A kind of ancient world university as well as a library; a place extraordinarily true to its purpose of being a shrine to the Muses.
In the 18th century, many enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones sought to re-establish a Cult of the Muses; as a result of this movement the word museum which originally meant Cult of the Muses, came to refer to a place for the public display of knowledge and thus came to be the museum as we know it today.
I see my muse as something else entirely in comparison to the concepts I’ve written about so far, for me my muse is neither a goddess nor group of deities, nor is it a specific person; for me it’s more of a feeling, my creative inspiration is personified but in more of a psychological manner. She is a part of my mind, still referred to with feminine pronouns such as she and her, but not a literal flesh and blood person.
There are many people who when feeling uninspired, refer to the fault being that their muse has up and left for a while, only returning at certain times of the day or night to inspire them to write or create in whichever medium they use.
I read one such blog post the other week, it was very well written and for the life of me I can’t find it now to link to which is a shame as I would also like to read it again, but the point of it was giving ideas, methods and techniques that one can use to bring back their muse, a summoning of sorts I suppose. That’s how I use to view my muse, she could be summoned at any given time I needed her, there was no waiting around for the right moment or when she decided to grace me with her presence. However, that soon changed slightly, I would mostly only feel her inspiring presence as I was ready to go to sleep, then began an insanely creative form of insomnia.
The best nights of sleep I never had.
Things had to change; metaphorically speaking I waited for her to come home late, sneaking around the labyrinthine network of my mind and as soon as she crept past my mind’s eye I captured her elusive form, holding her now forever bound and kept prisoner, chained within the depths of my inner sanctum like Prometheus, being pecked at for creative inspiration as and when it is needed.
Coming to the end of this post now, I thought that I would share an image of possibly my favourite of the Nine Muses, Clio the muse of history. Slightly throws me because she has the writing tablet, usually associated with Calliope but she is also wearing her laurel wreath and I imagine the writing tablet and stylus are still representational of history and the recording of it.
I’m also intrigued to know how other creative people view their muse, whether as singular or a group, a deity or more of a psychological idea or maybe something else entirely. The Muse is a very broad and interesting concept and one that can be well and truly examined and picked apart for years.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and I thank you for taking the time to read it, please feel free to leave any comments!
Featured Image – The Nine Muses on a Roman Sarcophagus (2nd Century AD) – Edited by Myself on Photoshop