Tuesday, May 8, 2012

We Are Not Amused

"All right, people. Our next lot is one Muse of fire, a bit late for Shakespeare but just in time for you lucky folks! Do I hear one thousand?

"What do you mean, what's she like? She's a Muse! Of fire! Isn't that all you need to know?"

Well, that's the thing. Muses are weird that way. They might be Greek mythology's greatest crossover success story. Countless modern artists invoke them, whether in blame or in thanks. We love the idea of patron goddesses of the arts, watching over those brave and reckless souls who dare to pursue art.

We just don't know a single thing about who the Muses actually are.

Apollo, Mnemosyne, and the Nine Muses, Anton Raphael Mengs

Sure, we know what they represent. Poetry, theater, dance, even history and astronomy. All cool, worthwhile things. But beyond each Muse's designated area of specialization, we know squat. They're the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, they hang out with Apollo (who got around with quite a few of them), they serve on occasion as jury and record-keepers for the Olympians. Calliope has a bunch of sons. That's about it.

Okay, so maybe they're the personifications of their individual arts, not just the patron goddesses. All well and good, except even in the arts that have definable personalities, they come off as extremely one-note and confusing. Is Thalia, Muse of comedy, an absurd gigglefest? Does Clio get frustrated with Terpsichore dancing away while she's trying to give a lecture on history? How does personifying epic poetry get Calliope all that action? Shouldn't that logically be the domain of Erato, Muse of love poetry? If a solution raises more questions than it answers, it's probably not the right solution.

Hesiod and the Muse, Gustave Moreau
There's another problem with the Muses and their lack of personality, related directly to the artists who call on them for help. Those artists consider the Muses their personal property. "Sing, Muse, of the rage of Achilles." "My muse isn't cooperating." "I'm blocked; I can't get to my muse." Shakespeare in Love uses the introduction of its title character to let him discourse on his need to "find" his muse. Did you check under the bed yet, Will?

From benevolent patrons who can withhold their needed assistance, the Muses become things that are owned. Part of it comes from the close identification of art with artist: it's "your" artwork, after all, and it's easy to see where the muse that inspired it could become "your" muse. But it's easy to do precisely because the Muses lack personality. Can you imagine anyone owning Zeus, or Poseidon, or Aphrodite? Artemis turns a guy into a deer and has him slaughtered by his own hounds for nothing more than the implication that he might want to possess her. The Muses don't even put up a fight. Instead they take on the personality of the artist who claims them.

The Nine Muses, wegs
There are no Muse-centric stories. In the stories where they feature, it's always as side characters, and always in a group. They judge the music contest between Apollo and Marsyas (three guesses as to who wins); they gather Orpheus' strewn limbs; they get super-vindictive when a prize idiot named Thamyris tries to do a rerun of the Apollo-Marsyas contest, except with himself as Marsyas and the Muses as Apollo. When he fails to outsing them, they blind him and strip him of his skill with the lyre. But here's the kicker: yes, it's excessive punishment, but it's completely par for the course among the Greek gods. It only strikes us as over-the-top because the Muses, unlike the Olympians, have no personality to justify their harshness. Apollo, let's not forget, flayed Marsyas and made a drum out of his skin. The Muses were merciful in comparison. So we still don't know anything about them as characters.

It may well have something to do with the fact that the "traditional" nine Muses took a while to show up. For quite some time there were only three - Melete, Aoide, and Mneme (kind of like the equally character-less Three Graces, who receive Aphrodite on Cyprus and do basically zip for the rest of the mythology). It's tricky to make up lasting stories when no one can even agree on the number and names of your prospective characters. But even after the Romans cemented their names, number and specialties, no one had any Muse stories to tell. They stayed as they always had: benevolent but shadowy figures, popping in and out of the narrative.

The Muses, Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
It's a tricky business, looking for inspiration to an unknown quantity. You never know what she'll bring you, if she brings you anything at all. Artistic narcissism raises the uncomfortable question: is your muse actually you, an idealized you who only has good ideas? And why ask for help from someone randomly designated by some clown in a toga?

The Muses, Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
If the Muses have personality, it comes from the artists who supplicate them, who see in them the personification of inspiration, that rush of excitement and energy in which nothing bad can be created. But they're not individuals. In a pantheon full of living, breathing characters, the Muses are as three-dimensional as a line. And it's very weird to have nonentities presiding over humanity's greatest form of individual expression.


  1. I really enjoyed this one, especially the first half where you let yourself have some fun with it. Lots of really valid points.

    It makes me wonder if the modern day Muse isn't the artist, but the agent/manager/executive: Stays in the background, gets stuff done, has no skills of their own. Muses are like a vessel so it makes sense they themselves don't get to shine in their own stories. I wonder if there are any Muse fan fics out there.

    Great stuff.

    1. "Vessel" might be the perfect word to use when describing the Muses. I'm kicking myself for not using it first. It's a really weird chain of command: through the Muse comes the inspiration, which still needs to be filtered through the artist before it can be fully realized as the art. But "vessel" is appropriate.

      I'm not sure there are modern-day Muses, though. It's two jobs in one - a sort of mystical inspiration, plus the ability to facilitate turning that inspiration into art. Which comes back to the narcissism thing - who else but the artist can provide both?

      You know, I bet there are indeed Muse fics. Not many, but I can see how the chance to create personalities for them would be very appealing. (And if I'm wrong, and there are no Muse fics, I will write one. Because it would be a ton of fun.)

    2. Can I write that Fan Fic with you?

      I have your next blog (Bc that's how I roll!): You are writing it from the perspective of Hera and Zeus' divorce lawyers and both sides are are trying to prove who has better grounds for a separation:

      "My client has been emotionally scarred by his wife's constant, vindictive, homicidal nagging!"

      "Objection! My client isn't the one who boned the cow, the swan or the fly!"

    3. Yes. Yes, you can. :)

      The Hera/Zeus divorce sounds more like a fic than a blog post, but I'll write it anyway. Because that would be great fun. And oh, how I'd love to be a (non-bonable) fly on the wall during those proceedings.

  2. I wouldn't say you own a muse. You don't own a king when you call him "My Liege". 'My' is associative.

    'My friend', 'My Lady', 'My God'. All can refer to people you simply know or who are actually stationed above you in life.

    These Benevolent beings can deny you inspiration when you need it most and force it on you to keep you going when you just want to sleep.

    We're just mouth pieces; mere puppets on their strings.

    Children being fed answers and pretending we figured it all out on our own.

    So from my point of view I wouldn't call 'having' a muse Narcissism. I'd call it poor confidence. An artist shelling their failures and success on something else, perhaps rightfully so.


    Sorry for commenting on something a year later and with a 'in character' account. I don't have any that aren't.

    1. *I'm* sorry for just now getting around to replying! I've neglected this blog shamefully all year. But comments always make me happy, even if I'm appallingly bad at getting to them.

      It's true that the Muses are mostly benevolent - certainly they're always referenced as desirable - and I quite like the idea of the artist being fed something good without even realizing it wasn't his or her own idea. But a muse very rarely gets the credit for a good idea, regardless of whether the muse or the artist had it. Failures, yes, absolutely - as you say, a frustrated artist can very easily blame a lack of ideas or a badly executed idea on an uncooperative muse, and from there it's a downward drop into the pit of self-doubt. But when an artist knocks it out of the park and knows it, that's all the artist (at least in his or her mind/presentation). "I had this great idea." "Finally I got it to work." "I agonized over this for months, but I figured it out eventually." An artist who blames a muse for failure might even be more likely to credit himself or herself for success, just because that confidence boost is so needed.

      (And then the muse sighs and gets coffee with her friends and shares another irritating work story. "Oh, honey. Again? I'm sorry.")

    2. Oh wow. I didn't think I'd get a response. Wondrous day.

      Its not as if we never proclaim thanks when we accomplish something. You hear people thank god, the lord, Jesus, and their luck when they pull things off. I would believe in Greek times, they got a lot more credit for their gifts of inspiration. But as you said, modernly we only really refer to them as a passive joke when we want to blame something because they aren't really our goddesses anymore.

      At least not for most of us.