The Muses were a beautiful idea the Boeotians might have originated some time before 700 B.C.E. The Boeotians were one of the peoples of what we now consider Greece, sort of southeastern, yet central to all of the Grecian realms in that era, but the poets Homer and Hesiod are the first persons to expound on the nine of them at any length. In Greek mythology, they were the daughters of Zeus (king of the Grecian gods) and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory, one of Zeus’s aunts; the Grecian gods sort of mirrored the relationship turmoil of their human inventors and were thus more relatable). The Muses were:
- Calliope (Epic Poetry)
- Clio (History)
- Euterpe (Music)
- Erato (Lyric Poetry)
- Melpomene (Tragedy)
- Polyhymnia (Hymns)
- Terpsichore (Dance)
- Thalia (Comedy)
- Urania (Astronomy)
- (Thank you, Wikipedia; for a more scholarly read, please see: http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Mousai.html)
It is pretty interesting on its surface that this list includes astronomy but does not include art, whether painting, drawing, or sculpture, although the Greeks were doing all three, but does include two kinds of poetry (three if you include “hymns,” devotional poetry set to music). It is also interesting that historians have their own Muse, although one might think that it was simply the duty of the historian to document what was known (or thought) to have occurred. Theatre gets two Muses, music and dance one each (although you have that crossover region for Polyhymnia, where it is music, poetry, and devotion). It is kind of striking that there is no Muse for philosophy, for non-poetic fiction, for science (although one for astronomy, which one would assume was a pre-existing condition and not one that required further inspiration). And you’d think that there might have been a Muse for mechanical contraptions, rudimentary as they might have been. We can forgive Z and M for not spawning a muse for photography or film, though. As immortal as they might have been, they did not imagine the 19th century.
I’m not sure whether the muses got up to pranks like many of their parents, siblings and descendants did. It is easy to imagine them conjuring naughty or insulting lyrics (or being blamed for them at least). But their job, their primary purpose in the lives of mortals was to inspire humans to rise above their mundane lot and create something (or at least try) that would last through the ages. I read somewhere that Aeschylus was known to have written over seventy plays; only seven survive into our time. If he and his fellow writers could have seen forward to a time when so few of their works survived, it would not have provoked a kind thought for whoever misplaced – or destroyed – them. So much inspiration, so little longevity for the works! Perhaps there should have been a muse for the arts of preservation and restoration… Oh well. We can’t go back in time and get Z and M to crank out a few more, so we’re stuck with those muses from so long ago.
I have to say that I don’t really believe in the muses. How inspiration occurs – how a perfectly sensible, normally functioning human being is compelled to write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance, create music, engage in science (which the Greeks saw, at least in astronomy, required some inspiration for whatever reason), or do anything else creative – lies in the realm that is beyond our intelligence to comprehend, at least for the time being.
There’s this weird duality to inspiration as well, which may be what the ancients were addressing when they dreamt up the Muses. One the one hand, an artist working in any medium starts creating because they are almost compelled to do so. There is a compulsivity to their behavior and while that word (and that syndrome) have a negative implication that is often serious (those behaviors can and do destroy lives), it is also true that an artist works to fulfill a drive to get better, go deeper, do new things with their tools that they have not done, work through visions that have not materialized, listen to the sounds their brains make and extrude those sounds onto instruments and into the air around us, or through a pen, pencil, keyboard (typewriter, for that matter), or even through their voice alone (storytellers, slam poetry, rap), through the way their bodies move in space and time and synchronize to music or images, or in science through the way in which the work of other scientists and their observations and data intertwine to create new thoughts, hypotheses, experiments, possible theories, and laws that had not yet been imagined during our existence.
And when the “inspiration,” whatever that mental gymnastic is, dries up the artist is left there, brush, pen, instrument, body, chisel in hand, gawping at what might be next and seeing nothing but a void, a place where inspiration once was and is no more – at least for a while. Some artists go the rest of their lives without another apparition turned flesh beneath their yearning fingers. Some die young, shattered by the sudden absence in their lives. Some figure it out and do something mundane that keeps them alive, hoping that the inspiration will return. What is this mad thing that sings to us one moment and clutches us with cruel talons the next? Why is the Muse so fickle, so generous one moment and parsimonious the next?
The only thing I know that works is work. Work at whatever it is you’re trying to see or do or make and work at it until it becomes what you need it to be. If it will not be, come to terms with that and move on. Don’t wait for those nine sisters, flirtatious and cruel, to visit you and provide their gifts. Find something to do and do it as well as you can. The kindest Muse for you will be Life and its enduring, bountiful joys.