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!

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