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The Muse Problem


Ten years ago I made a series of essays for an ezine. This may not be my best. But in some ways it is my favorite.


The Muse Problem

When the subject of this article first presented itself, and having thought about the question for 16 years or so, I thought it would be an easy matter to address. But over the last several weeks I have conducted an informal survey in poetry venues. The question has been: what is a Muse, who are the Muses, do Muses exist? Not surprisingly the answers have varied. Some say yes, some say no. Some say their Muse is a man, some say their Muse is a woman. Some say their Muse is inspiration itself, others have shared the names of their Muses. And some say, in so many words, the question is passé, irrelevant, and that to posit a Muse amounts to an abrogation of artistic responsibility. This is pretty much the range of responses I expected. But what took me by surprise was the force of the negative response on the part of those who say Muses do not exist. They are not only certain their position is the correct one, they are damn certain. In every case the speaker has been a woman poet. This last finding caused me to reconsider my approach.

What follows is a series of citations followed by comments. It starts with indicating the historical context of the Muses’ origins, followed by the observations of some few thinkers working in the Jungian tradition, as well as drawing from other sources. In order to reduce the textual drag on this article, I will only mention the authors quoted. Anyone interested in the names of the works cited can request the same by email.

1, “The Muses (‘Mountain goddesses’), originally a triad…are the Triple-goddess in her orgiastic aspect. Zeus’s claim to be their father is a late one; Hesiod calls them daughters of Mother Earth and Air.” (Robert Graves) So the name means ‘Mountain goddess.’ It seems possible, bordering on likelihood, they originated in the mountain caves of Crete. If such is the case a Minoan provenance is also possible. It is certain they predate the arrival of the Greeks into the eastern Mediterranean. Before the Greeks the area’s religious practices were matrifocal.

2. “Who are the Muses? Who but the Maenads repentant, clothed, and in their right minds.” (Jane Ellen Harrison) Now we are getting somewhere. The Muses are these same Maenads in a different, decidedly calmer mood.

3. “Maenad means of course simply ‘mad woman,’ and the Maenads are women worshippers of Dionysus of whatever race, possessed, maddened, or, as the ancients would say, inspired by the spirit.” (Harrison) The worship of Dionysus was orgiastic. Report has it that, as late as the 7th C. B.C., women worshippers, when in his possession, would rampage through the countryside, causing much consternation, tearing apart wild animals, until they found the god himself and he, or his human stand in, would meet with the same fate, torn limb from limb. The ritual was intended as a religious sacrifice and Dionysus was originally son to the Great Mother. Greek vases depict Maenads dragging wild animals and holding snakes above their heads.

4. “The Maenads then are the frenzied sanctified women who are devoted to the worship of Dionysus. But they are something more; they tend to the god, as well as suffer his inspiration.” (Harrison) Not only were the Maenads, when possessed, murderous, but they were also his nurses, specifically nurses to the god’s human stand in. They cared for him from birth. They nurtured him. That he is associated with the Egyptian god, Osiris, suggests his was a fertility cult; and that he, like Osiris, was associated with the ‘principle of moisture.’ The sentence also makes it clear that Maenads were real women, not mythical creatures. They were priestesses devoted to a fertility cult.

5. “The shift of Maenad to Muse is like the change of Bacchic rites to Orphic; it is the informing of savage rites with the spirit of music, order, and peace.” (Harrison) Now enters Orpheus onto the scene. Just as the Muses are real women, are, in fact, priestesses, Orpheus is a real man. He was a poet, a magical musician who played the lyre, and a religious reformer. (Harrison calls his zeal for religious reform protestant.) He was also inspiration for that first school of philosophical inquiry, the Pre-Socratics. Imagine that: philosophy’s origin in poetry.

6. “He (Orpheus) comes later than Dionysus, he is a man not a god, and his work is to modify the rites of the god he worshipped…The story of the slaying of Orpheus by the Thracian women, the maenads, Bassarids, is of cardinal importance…Orpheus, because he was the leader in the rites of Dionysus, is said to have suffered the like fate of his god.” (Harrison) What is it about these Maenads/Muses? They seem to take their religious observances seriously. How to account for the disconnect between the picture-image of a muse met with now, an image as often as not a bit static, even passive, dare I say anorexic, and those historical women who acted out passionate pursuits in religious seizure?

7. “Tradition says that Orpheus was buried by the Muses…the head of Orpheus reached Lesbos and dwelt in a cleft of the island and gave oracles in the hollow earth.” (Harrison) Also according to tradition, Sappho is supposed to have been walking the beach the day his head arrived on Lesbos. She heard singing, she looked out, and she saw his head bobbing on the waves. It was his singing that inspired her to create her Sapphic school of poetry, Orphic in character and devoted to the goddess, Aphrodite.

8. “The Orphic quality of the Sapphic muse accounts for the sacred character the ancients ascribed to the poetess…Singing both nature and womanhood, Sappho encompasses all the sides of the goddess she serves…she becomes one with her.” (J.J. Bachofen) With Sappho brought into the discussion, there is clearly something more to the Muse question than just a partner dance between Muse and poet. Orpheus may have been her inspiration, but her material sources were women, her love for her daughter, nature, politics, and, ultimately, her worship of Aphrodite. This leads one to suspect the Muses do more than inspire, that they actively play out the selfing-drama.

9. “In his elaborate book, The White Goddess, Robert Graves explains that women who are poets write out of the experience of themselves as ‘source.’” And again “The muses are gossips when described as the ‘reedy-voiced daughters’ of Memory.” Still again “Poets, artists, muse(r)s…and children move between world of dream and walking reality as if there were no boundaries.” (Nor Hall) Perhaps the only real obstacle to answering the Muse/poet question is in positing a dichotomy in the relationship of the two. Maybe there is no boundary to speak of.

10. “Anima and Animus: Personification of the feminine nature of a man’s unconscious and the masculine nature of a woman’s. This psychological bisexuality is a reflection of the biological fact that it is the larger number of male (or female) genes which is the decisive factor in the determination of sex. The smaller number of contrasexual genes seems to produce a corresponding contrasexual character, which usually remains unconscious…As regulators of behavior they are two of the most important archetypes.” (Aniela Jaffe) A classic Jungian definition of a psychological complex, Jung called it the soul complex, that may give a small lead into the Muse and poet (poet and Muse) situation. I have always been a little suspicious of Jung’s dialectical approach to the human psyche. But the model of anima and animus does suggest an internalized situation in which may exist an inside-receptor, a responder to a certain Muse image. An alternative, somewhat amplified, possibly fanciful, explanation is to suggest there is an atavistic memory in the tribe of poets, of a historical time when there were real life Muses who were sometimes wild, sometimes tame, who were dancers, singers, seers, holy women, and whose dramatic play was as much incitement as response to poetic actions.

11. “As power of inspiration she may appear singly, in the triad with which we are familiar, or in an indeterminate plural. The Graces, nymphs, wood spirits, Muses, Fates, and innumerable corresponding figures are the singing, dancing, and prophetic forces of this inspired and inspiring woman to whom, in time of need, the male, farther removed as he is from the origin, appeals for wisdom. And over and over again we find this mantic woman connected with the symbols of caldron and cave, of night and moon.” (Erich Neumann) No comment needed.

12. “Originally, the poet was the leader of a totem-society of religious dancers…All the totem societies in ancient Europe were under the dominion of the Great Goddess, the Lady of the Wild Things; dances were seasonal and fitted into an annual pattern from which gradually emerges the single grand theme of poetry: the life, death, and resurrection of the Spirit of the Year, the Goddess’s son and lover.” (Robert Graves) If Graves is right, and the record suggests there is meat to his thesis, then this may be the proper context for setting the Muse/poet dynamic.

So there it is. One thing is for certain. The Muses did exist. They were real women. Whether or not they exist now, whether or not a Muse is always and only a woman, whether or not a man poet finds his inspiration in such a figure, and whether or not women poets have Muses, are Muses, or create from “their own sources,” makes for a situation requiring the individual poet’s solution. To the Modern way of thinking, what always seems to have the features of the disconnect, a poet might think he or she has outgrown the need for such questions. Then again it is possible that all traditions, and poetry is a tradition, need to keep in touch with, tethered to, their origins while pushing against edges of perception and experience. After all, the mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne: memory.

On November the 13th, 1985, in a seaside tourist town, while crossing a street congested with tourists and unstuck pilgrims, and in high daylight on an early afternoon, I encountered a face so close there could be no mistaking who she is. Call it a moment in one poet’s road to Damascus. It is a good thing the passing cars were considerate enough to veer to the side where I stood in their paths and were satisfied with honking their horns. She was there all right. There is still no mistaking who she is.


Terreson

Last edited by Terreson, Feb/5/2012, 2:00 pm
Feb/4/2012, 3:24 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: The Muse Problem


Hi Tere,

Lots of historical background I was not familiar with. In light of the essay's ending, I can't help but read this in conjunction with your field note "Slippages":

http://bdelectablemnts.runboard.com/t1628
Feb/15/2012, 9:34 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: The Muse Problem


Such a careful reader you are, Kat. Answer would be yes.

Tere
Feb/15/2012, 1:53 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 


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