Musae Muse, Muse of all Inspired and Inspiring Artes
“The gods have given to men cunning arts and have put in them all wisdom. Other god is namesake of other craft, even that whereof he that got the honourable keeping . . . The gifts of the Mousai (Muses) and Apollon are songs.”
[Oppian, Halieutica 2. 16 (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd A.D.)]
Nymphs & Wraiths of inspiritus, the indwelling genius loci of all sacred water sources, grottoes, and wells. Mountains too were typically connected with their worship and all sacrificial devotions there were likewise transferred from the northern regions of Mount Helicon in Boetia (Thrace) to those more southerly. First,
as three, namely, Melete (meditation), Mneme (memory), and Aoede (song), they eventually became nine distinct forces, as they travelled to Mount Olympus, with no set virtue or name originally ascribed to them, excepting that which rang out the ‘repasts of the immortals.’
“The Mousai (Muses) who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the homes of the immortals. And they uttering their immortal voice, celebrate in song first of all the reverend race of the gods from the beginning, those whom Gaia (Gaea, Earth) and wide Ouranos (Uranus, Heaven) begot, and the gods sprung of these, givers of good things. Then, next, the goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men and strong Gigantes (Giants), and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,–the Mousai Olympiades (of Olympus), daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.”
[Hesiod, Theogony 36 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)]
Revered as feminine virtues, these deified goddesses of all inspired word, movement and voice, generated the creative stimulus of poets and authors, musicians and dancers. Yet they were also the champions of memory and wisdom, of all things past and yet to be. The Greeks listed these beautiful and uniquely gifted women as follows: Kalliope, epic poetry; Kleio, history; Ourania, astronomy; Thaleia, comedy; Melpomene, tragedy; Polyhymnia, religious hymns; Erato, erotic poetry; Euterpe, lyric poetry; and Terpsikhore, choral song and dance.[i]
Great poets and sages, bards and artists, if they be wise, dedicate their art to their Muse; and many, in times past, have professed to be the ‘son of’ (hence the recension within faerie lore to d’arte), often claiming an ethereal bonding, as devotees to their beloved Muse. Rather than Mothers, they are better known as virginal nymphs. Eventually, these divine ladies became the nine ‘Mothers’ of Apollo, whose prophetic qualities inspired the Pythia at Delphi. On Mount Helicon, they formed the mantic companions of Dionysus.
Grand statuary adorned the Temples of the Mouseia, and their followers, known as Thespians celebrated a solemn festival of the Muses on Mount Helicon and Mount Parnassus, even within the Academy in Athens. Spartan warriors offered sacrifices to these great spirits sacrifices previous to battle. Yet another Cult revered their influences in the dream world of Hypnos.
“Apollon journeys to] Olympus, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Mousai (Muses) together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men, all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods, and how they live witless and helpless and cannot find healing for death or defence against old age. Meanwhile the rich-tressed Kharites (Charites, Graces) and cheerful Horai (Horae, Seasons) dance with Harmonia (Harmony) and Hebe (Youth) and Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, holding each other by the wrist.”
[Homeric Hymn 3 to Pythian Apollo 186 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th – 4th B.C.)]
Apuleius, relates to us in his second century Roman novel, ‘The Golden Ass’ [ii] how the gods & muses danced at the wedding feast of Cupid and Psyche:
“At the wedding of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche (Psykhe):] Vulcanus [Hephaistos] cooked the dinner, the Horae (Seasons) brightened the scene with roses and other flowers, the Gratiae (Graces) diffused balsam, and the Musae (Muses), also present, sand in harmony. Apollo sang to the lyre, and Venus [Aphrodite] took to the floor to the strains of sweet music, and danced prettily. She had organized the performance so that the Musae sang in chorus, a Satyrus played the flute, and a Paniscus [a Pan] sang to the shepherd’s pipes. This was how with due ceremony Psyche was wed to Cupidos [Eros, Love.”
They were often accompanied by the Kharites (Charites, Graces), goddesses of dance, glorification and adornment, as Sappho eloquently expresses here:
“Apollon, the Leader of the Mousai (Mousagetos) himself as he appears when Sappho and Pindar in their songs deck him out with golden hair and lyre and send him drawn by swans to Mount Helikon (Helicon) to dance there with the Mousai (Muses) and Kharites (Charites, Graces).”[iii]
Homer similarly flavours his great epic with exploits of the graceful Artemis, here at play with the Kharites.
“Artemis goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoibos Apollon, to the rich land of Delphoi, there to order the lovely dance of the Mousai (Muses) and Kharites (Charites, Graces). There she hangs up her curved bow and her arrows, and heads and leads the dances, gracefully arrayed, while all they utter their heavenly voice, singing.”[iv]
It is therefore quite remarkable that Plutarch (l. c.), in contradistinction, records the stoic tradition that persisted, which regarded the Nine Muses especially as the Mneiae, or ‘Remembrances.’ But this may be due to their association with the mourning of the dead in elaborate funereal dances of lamentation and dirge. They were frequently referred to as ‘Judges’ too in this capacity. Certainly, the power most commonly assigned to them is of inspirational insights for poet and choreographer alike. Homer cites the presence of the Nereides, the nine daughters of Nereus, in his Odyssey, the grand funeral of the mighty hero Achilles, equating them with the Mousai.
“The daughters of the ancient sea-god [the Nereides daughters of Nereus] stood round about you [Akhilleus], wailing piteously, and clothed you with celestial garments; and nine Mousai (Muses) sang your dirge with sweet responsive voices. Not one Argive you have seen there who was not weeping, the clear notes went to their hearts. For seventeen days and seventeen nights we lamented for you, immortal beings and mortal men; on the eighteenth day we committed you to the flames.”
Hubris before the gods, was met swiftly and assuredly with divine retribution, deformity and blindness spiting those whose vanity breeched the mark. The bird-like Sirens lost their striking plumage to the Muses after losing a contest for their beautiful song who thereafter wore them as bright decoration, others were yet transformed from mortal (the nine daughters of Pierus) to bird.
Pausanias records the brutal contest between the Muses & Sirens:
“At Koroneia in Boiotia] is a sanctuary of Hera . . . in her hands she carried the Seirenes (Sirens). For the story goes that the daughters of Akheloios (Achelous) were persuaded by Hera to compete with the Mousai (Muses) in singing. The Mousai won, plucked out the Seirenes’ feathers and made crowns for themselves out of them.”
Ovid too, finds room to record an equally dramatic musical contest on Helikon:
“Whenever the daughters of Pieros began to sing, all creation went dark and no one would give an ear to their choral performance. But when the Mousai sang, heaven, the stars, the sea and rivers stood still, while Mount Helikon, beguiled by the pleasure of it all, swelled skyward till, by the will of Poseidon, Pegasos checked it by striking the summit with his hoof. Since these mortals had taken upon themselves to strive with goddesses, the Mousai changed them into nine birds. To this day people refer to them as the grebe, the wryneck, the ortolan, the jay, the greenfinch, the goldfinch, the duck, the woodpecker, and the dracontis pigeon.”[v]
“The Musa (Muse) was speaking [to Athena] when in the air a whirr of wings was heard, and from high boughs there came a greeting voice. Jove’s [Zeus’] child looked up to see whence came the tongue that spoke so clear, thinking it was a man. It was a bird: nine of them there had perched upon the boughs, lamenting their misfortune, master-mimics, nine magpies. As Minerva [Athena] gazed in wonder, the Musae began (one goddess to another) to tell this tale. ‘Not long ago these, too, worsted in contest, swelled the tribe of birds. Their father was rich Pierus, a squire of Pellae, and Euippe Paeonis their mother. To her aid nine times she called Lucina [Eileithyia goddess of childbirth] and nine times she bore a child. This pack of stupid sisters, puffed with pride in being nine, had travelled through the towns, so many towns of Haemonia [Thessaly] and Achaea and reached us here at last and challenged us: “Cease cheating with that spurious charm of yours the untutored rabble. If you trust your powers content with us, you Deae Thespiades [Mousai, Thespian Goddesses]. In voice and skill we shall not yield to you; in number we are equal. If you lose, you leave Medusaeus’ [Pegasos’] spring [Hippokrene on Mt Helikon] and Aganippe Hyantea [spring of Thebes], or we the plain of Emathia up to Paeonia’s snowy mountainsides; and let the judgement of the Nymphae decide.”
‘Of course it was a shame to strive with them but greater shame to yield. The choice of Nymphae was made; they took the oath by their own streams, and sat on benches shaped form living stone. Then, without drawing lots, the one who claimed to challenge sang of the great war in heaven, ascribing spurious prowess to the Gigantes, belittling all the exploits of the gods: how Typhoeus, issuing from earth’s lowest depths, struck terror in those heavenly hearts, and they all turned their backs and fled, until they found refuge in Aegyptus and the seven-mouthed Nilus. She told how Typhoeus Terrigena (Earthborn) even there pursued them and the gods concealed themselves in spurious shapes; “And Jupiter [Zeus] became a ram,” she said, “lord of the herd, and so today great Ammon Libys’ [Zeus-Ammon] shown with curling horns. Delius [Apollon] hid as a raven, Semeleia [Dionysos] as a goat, Phoebe [Artemis] a cat, Saturnia [Hera] a snow-white cow, Venus [Aphrodite] a fish and Cyllenius [Hermes] an ibis.” So to her lyre she sang and made an end.
“Such was the song Calliope our leading sister sang; she finished and the Nymphae with one accord declared the goddesses of Helicon the winners. As the losers hurled abuse, “So then it’s not enough,” I said, “that your challenge has earned you chastisement; you add insult to injury. Our patience has its limits; we’ll proceed to punishment. Where anger calls, we’ll follow.” Those nine girls, the Emathides, laughed and despised my threats and, as they tried to speak and shout and scream and shake their fists, before their eyes their fingers sprouted feathers, plumage concealed their arms, and each of them saw in the face of each a heard beak form, all weird new birds to live among the woods; and as they beat their breasts their flapping arms raised them to ride the air.”
And so, our divine ladies, of wisdom, grace and death, of three and nine are of the earth beneath and around, the living waters, that flow through and between and the skies above and beyond………… there’s a mystery here………
[ii] 6. 24 ff (trans. Walsh)
[iii] Fragment 208 (from Himerius, Orations) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I) (C6th B.C.)
[iv] Hymn 27 to Artemis 14 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th – 4th B.C.)
[v] Metamorphoses 5. 294 & 662 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)
Henrietta Rae (1859-1928), “The Sirens”