Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Muses

So you’re soaking in the bubble bath, singing “Do Wah Ditty Ditty” and washing between your toes. 

You’re thinking about what to make for dinner, broccoli or asparagus—you can’t make asparagus amandine without almonds, but the broccoli gives your husband gas—when suddenly it comes from nowhere. 

An idea. An idea not related to bubbles or bathtubs or dinner or Do Wah. 

Roman mosaic of a Muse
It’s an idea about how to fix the squeak in the ceiling fan.

Or how to redecorate your office with a steam punk theme.

Or, if you're a writer, how to end the story you've been working on for three years this April. It’s so obvious now. The tsar must die, but only after revealing the identity of his true heir. . .Boris, the one-eyed taxidermist from Smolensk.

Where do ideas come from--those moments when the light bulb goes on and the tumblers click? The ancient Greeks attributed inspiration to nine ladies called The Muses.

L to R, Clio (history), Thalia (comedy), Erato (love poetry), Euterpe (song), Polyhymnia (sacred music),
Calliope (epic poetry), Terpsichore (dance), Urania (astronomy), and Melpomene (tragedy)

The Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne,  Goddess of Memory, and they were said to inspire artistic creation. These gals, who apparently all had a hefty trust fund in the First Bank of Olympus, whiled away their hours playing instruments, watching dramas, and learning the latest dance steps. Whenever they took a notion, they would confer inspiration upon mortal men.

The Muses suggest that the ancient Greeks had these ideas about inspiration:

  • Ideas come from outside ourselves, from Heaven.
  • There is a feminine quality to inspiration.
  • Inspiration is related to memory.

The Muse of Poesey
by Konstantin Makovsky
The Muses also tell us which disciplines the Romans considered to be inspired, since the Romans later gave the Muses their names and assignments: history, comedy, love poetry, songs, hymns, epic poetry, dance, astronomy, and tragedy. What a fascinating list--both for what is included and what isn't.

Personally, I think the ancients were on to something with the Muses. As a story-maker, I know that stories are built partly from my memory and experience, but not entirely. There is something else. My experience is the kindling, but kindling needs a spark to set it ablaze, and that spark of inspiration is a gift.

Fool that I am, sometimes I try to light the creative fire all by myself. Did you ever rub two sticks together in a pouring rain? That's what it's like. 

Marc Chagall - Offering of Elijah
Kind of reminds me of the time the prophets of Baal were screaming and cursing and dancing around their altar, trying to call down fire. Result: epic fail.  Even when they cut themselves to prove their worthiness and desperation. But when Elijah prayed, it didn't  matter that the wood and the sacrifice were soggy as swampland. Zap! Pow! Whoosh! God sent the fire.

When you think about it, the kindling, the spark, and life itself -- all are gifts from God. When God grants to us or to others the privilege of using creativity, our proper response is not pride, but gratitude--not fear, but faith--not envy, but joyful celebration.

Nine Muses dancing with Apollo

EPILOGUE: The Muses liked to hang out at the sacred fountain of Hippocrene on Mt. Helicon. Hippocrene was said to be a fount of poetic inspiration. Maybe that's why we always get brilliant ideas in the bathtub!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aesop's Fables

Don't cry wolf.

You’ve got sour grapes.

He’s just a dog in the manger.

The little tales told by a Greek slave, centuries before the time of Christ, have had a big impact on our language and our culture. Nearly everyone knows the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” or “Pinning the Bell on the Cat.” And if they don’t, they should go straight to the nearest public library and check out a copy of Aesop's Fables.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf
According to Aristotle, Aesop was born about 620 BC, in the town of Thrace. He grew into a rather homely man--some have even said grotesque. I guess you could say he had "a good face for radio."

He was born a slave, but because of his clever wit, Aesop won the affection of his master Iadmon, who set him free. 
The ex-slave grew in wisdom and renown. He became an adviser to kings—and even to the famed Seven Sages of Greece.

The Fox and the Grapes
Aesop loved to tell stories to get his point across. But as it was for some of his story characters, his wit sometimes got him into a spot of trouble, and eventually, his bent for sarcasm proved fatal.

King Croesus of Lydia sent Aesop on a diplomatic mission to Delphi. In the course of negotiations, Aesop insulted the Delphians, who retaliated by falsely charging him with the crime of stealing a silver cup from their temple. 

The punishment? Alas, Aesop was sentenced to death and  thrown from a cliff. In years following, it is said that the Delphians were plagued with famine, warfare, and pestilence as a punishment for killing Aesop.

Illustration from Baby's Own Aesop

The Dog in the Manger
You can probably guess that at least some of this bio is balderdash—aka hogwash and poppycock. In fact, some scholars (Martin Luther among them) say that Aesop never existed at all—that one or more people collected popular animal tales under the name of Aesop. Who knows? Maybe Shakespeare wrote Aesop's Fables while Francis Bacon was writing his plays.

The fables are short, cautionary tales--most with animals as characters and the outdoors as a setting. They have morals or messages, such as "Slow and steady wins the race" or "Look before you leap." By their very simplicity and because of the truths they depict, the stories are timeless. Personally, I will be disappointed if Aesop turns out to be a "fable,” but it won’t change the value and importance of the stories one eensy bit. 

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Crow and the Pitcher
I don’t know if Aesop was a hunchback—as some sculptors have portrayed—or if he was an Ethiopian—as an alternate history recounts. But I do know that these stories delight me as much today as they did when I was a child. They are as valuable for our world as for the ancient Greeks. They still entertain, and they still illustrate good moral values and common sense. 

Thank you, Mr. Aesop, wherever--and whoever--you are.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cupid and Psyche

Psyche, by William
Adolphe Bouguereau
Through a prism of tears, the girl watched her parents walk away, leaving her chained to the side of the mountain. 

Her name was Psyche. All men praised her beauty, but no man wanted to marry her, for Psyche was cursed. In desperation, her parents had consulted an oracle, who declared that Psyche was too beautiful for mortal man. They must take her to the mountain, said the seer, and abandon her to the gods.

Leaves scattered and Psyche's hair whipped her face as the West Wind approached. The wind carried the girl away to a beautiful palace to become, at long last, a bride.

Cupid falls in love with Psyche.

But whose bride? 

At night, Psyche lay with her new husband, always in the dark. She never saw his face. And when the first rays of morning came, he was gone.

For her husband had made a law. She must never bring a light to the room where they met. She must never see his face. Her husband wanted to reveal himself in his own time, in his own way.

Psyche soon discovered that she was going to have a child, and somehow this news made her happy and sad all at once.

For Psyche was lonely. She missed her family. And so her husband allowed Psyche’s sisters to visit her in the palace for just one day, but he warned her not to listen to their advice. 

The sisters were overjoyed to see Psyche again, but they warned her that she was in great danger. What kind of a husband hides from his bride? She must discover the true identify of her husband at any cost. They told her that he was a hideous serpent who would devour Psyche and her unborn child.

Later that night, after her sisters had gone, Psyche crept into her bower with a lamp and a knife. She could stand the suspense no more. During the night she lit the lamp and looked on the face of the monster she had married. But instead of a serpent, she saw the handsome Cupid, and she fell deeply in love with him. She bent over to kiss him, but just then a drop of hot oil fell from her lamp onto his beautiful face.

It was the first time she had seen him, and now it would surely be the last time as well. She would never forget the look in his eyes—a look of bitter disappointment and betrayal. Then the light went out and he flew away.

Psyche Opening the Door
 into Cupid's Garden
by John William Waterhouse
How ironic that Cupid, the god whose arrows cause men and women to fall in love with each other, was so "unlucky in love." Or perhaps it was a kind of poetic payback! There’s more to the story, and Cupid and Psyche will go through much grief and torment before they are reunited. But if you really want to experience this myth. . . .

Orual, the heroine of C. S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, is Psyche’s sister. She is jealous of Psyche, but she also loves her and truly wants to save her from the “monster” she has married. The story of Cupid and Psyche is retold brilliantly in this masterwork of mythic fiction. 

In Till We Have Faces, Lewis likens the relationship between Cupid and Psyche to our relationship with an invisible God. Do we dare trust this God who hides Himself? The problem, according to Lewis, is not that God is faceless, but that we are. As Orual says about the gods, "How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"  In this story, we can begin to understand, along with Psyche's sister, what love is and who we truly are.

Happy Valentine's Day from the Stark Raving Mythopath.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Publishing Put-Downs of Biblical Proportions

Rejection is painful for any writer. But take comfort in knowing that even Bible authors may have faced those dreaded rejection slips.

Dear Solomon: To everything there is a season. Regrettably, this isn’t yours.

Dear Job:  Strong opening and conclusion. Cut the middle and resubmit.

Moses, posing for a book jacket
To David:  Sorry, there’s just no market for poetry—and your stuff doesn’t even rhyme.

Dear Moses: What? You think your words are written in stone? Lighten up.

To Whom It May Concern: Your writing has merit, but we don’t publish books anonymously. No exceptions. And since you failed to enclose an SASE, I will not be returning your parchment of “The Book of Hebrews.”

To Matthew:   Too many begats. We’ll pass.

To Jonah:  Quite a fish tale. Try Field and Stream.

Jonah on a book tour to Ninevah

To St. John the Divine: We can’t sell the “end times” to a contemporary audience. Get with it. . .or be left behind.

Apostle Paul gives a reading
To Solomon:  Your “Song” is too racy for our church-ladies demographic. Shame on you!

Greetings, Paul, Our Dear Brother in The Lord: The epistolary form is dead. Have you thought about doing your “letters” as a graphic novel? 

Dear Daniel: We have published three other dream books in the last year. But if you ever write a Travel Guide for Babylon, send it to us.

Daniel, dealing with rejection

Jerry: Bottom line: The working man won't put his money on the counter for a downer like "Lamentations." Can you rework it as "Ten Easy Steps to Health, Wealth, and Popularity"?

The prophet launches his publicity campaign
with "I Like Jeremiah" buttons,
available on

Dear Dr. Luke:  Your book does not meet current editorial needs. Sincerely, Pharisee Press.

Mr. Malachi:  Do the math. If people tithe, they’re going to have less money to spend on books. No sale. 

Dear James: We are rejecting your manuscript. Count it all joy.