Wouldn’t it be nice if every town had its own group of artistic cheerleaders who wander from gallery to studio to theater to ballet class to give a little nudge of inspiration to the struggling artists therein as they reach for the ideal word, image, move, emotion.“Hold it! Been there, done that millennia ago,” bellows Zeus from somewhere above. “We called them Moũsai, muse to you, mortal.”
Ahem. Of course. I knew that. But do you know the charming names of those nine muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne after nine nights of amor?
I present to you:
Calliope, traditionally the most important (beautiful-voiced and representing epic poetry and also rhetoric),
Clio (glorifying and representing history),
Erato (lovely and representing singing),
Euterpe (well-delighting and representing lyric poetry),
Melpomene (singing and representing tragedy),
Polymnia (many hymning and representing hymns to the gods and heroes),
Terpsichore or Stesichore (delighting in dance),
Thalia (blooming and representing comedy),
Urania (heavenly and representing astronomy).
Calliope usually is grasping a table and stylus. Clio peruses a scroll, Euterpe a flute, Thalia, the mask of comedy, Melpomene, that of Tragedy. They are thought to have inhabited the summit of Mt. Helicon in Boeotia, or possibly Mt. Olympus, or maybe Mt. Parnassus. In any cases, they were fond of heights.
They spread joy and amusement wherever they landed, but did not take kindly to competition. The nine daughters of Pierus challenged them to a musical contest and when they complained about losing were turned instantly into magpies. Muse on that for awhile.
For the most part these ladies comported themselves with much grace and panache, inspiring artists to strive for new heights and helping the gods, and the common folk, to forget their worries. They often were depicted on lekythoi, the graceful red and black funerary vessels which were included in graves to provide music for the loved one’s journey to the nether world. The images depicted the ideal woman of the 5th century Hellenic world, and why not?
Ovid considered Calliope, whose name means beautiful-voiced, the muse of epic poetry, the most important muse. It is thought that she fired up Homer as he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey. Calliope is also said to be the mother of Orpheus, the magical lyre player.
Dante praised her in his Divine Comedy:
“Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
And here Calliope, strike a higher key,
Accompanying my song with that sweet air
which made the wretched Magpies feel a blow
that turned all hope of pardon to despair.”
(Dante, Purgatorio, Canto I, lines 7 to 12)
Come to think of it, wasn’t Beatrice a major muse to Dante? And Fanny Brawne for Keats. Zelda for F. Scott? But those are special cases. Our original Nine are still the greatest–three million Greeks can’t be wrong!
And wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow conjure them up to appear on the streets of Belfast when the warblers return from Cancun in the glorious spring? After all, they were intimately connected with seasonal cycles. The play of shadow and light, scent of blossoms in the air, the deep roll of thunder from a summer storm. Watch, listen, feel, and they are likely to appear, say, right in the middle of the first art walk in May, bestowing laurels, reciting verses, and handing out pieces of dark organic chocolate to excited children (“Mom, the Muses have landed!”).
Lesser things have come to pass.
Let’s just muse upon it awhile…
Contemporary muses by José Luis Muñoz Luque.