Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone? Part 1

In this series of blogs, I'll talk about the ancient Greek idea of the muse, and whether there is anything writers can learn from that concept today.

You probably know that the concept of the muse as an inspiration for writers dates back to ancient Greece. But the muses then were not simply women whose presence sparked a poet to compose, as in this sentence: “Matilde Urrutia was Neruda’s muse and companion for more than a quarter of a century.” No, the muses in ancient Greece were viewed as goddesses, worshipped at shrines. Followers made sacrifices to them. People venerated them and believed in their immortality.
The muses of ancient Greece were always closely associated with liquid. They were water nymphs. According to mythology they inhabited two freshwater springs on an actual mountain in Greece: Helicon. One of the those fonts was the Hippocrene Spring. A myth recounts how the Hippocrene Spring first spouted when the winged horse Pegasus struck a rock with his hoof. Interesting that from ancient times creativity was associated with fluidity. We still talk that way. Think of the expression: “get your creative juices flowing.”
The muses, of course, were female, and poetic inspiration was not limited in ancient Greece to men. There was Sappho, but there were also other well-known women poets, including Nossis and Anyte, poets who were major influences on the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).
In Greek mythology, there were nine different muses, all of them sisters. I find it intriguing that the Greeks would recognize that inspiration has a completely different personality for different genres. Isn’t that the case, though? Each muse inspired a different sort of writing. I’ll list them, partly because I just like the sound of their names: Calliope was the source of epic poetry. Her sister Clio inspired history. Erato was the muse of love poetry or erotic writing. Euterpe was behind lyric poetry. Melpomene inspired tragedy. Polyhymnia guided sacred song, Terpsichore choral song and dance. Thalia sparked comedy and nature poetry. And lastly Urania was the muse of astronomy, which in ancient Greece was also written in metered verse.
The ancient Greek writer Hesiod said the nine muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Interesting that inspiration should be the child of memory and a thunderbolt, but writers know that is often the case. We rely on our memories to create or recall stories and images, even when we’re depicting fictional characters or situations. The thunderbolt could be that unexpected jolt of creativity that moves a project from random thoughts in our minds to something that speaks to a hunger or a common story in us and others. Of course in Hesiod’s time, the seventh century B.C.E., most literature was also memorized rather than written down, another connection between the muses and memory, as Eric Havelock points out in his book The Muse Learns to Write.
Hesiod, who described the muses in his book the Theogony, speaks of them always as singing: “Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus—the loud thunderer—delights in the lily voice of the goddesses as it spreads, as it echoes off the peaks of snowy Olympus…” Hesiod recounts how the muses are “telling of things that are and things that will be,” giving them prophetic sight as well. 

In my next blog, I'll talk about the muses and how to banish cliché language from your writing. 

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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