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Magnificent Muses

By Kevin Carrel Footer

It is without a doubt one of the great pleasures of our existence. Certainly it separates man from beast. Doubtless it is one of the highest faculties of both the human mind and spirit. It is capable of bringing together a plowshare and a harpsichord, a demure smile and a seething mob. It is both entirely insignificant and absolutely central. Of course, I am talking about musing.

One can take decisions or resolve differences, but this cannot compare with the exquisite satisfactions to be found in contemplating things of such little import that they enter the category of “musings.” One muses when the outcome is immaterial. It presumes a pleasant detachment, the sort of celestial calm for which meditation strives. Indeed, to muse and to meditate can be synonymous.

Of course, little would come of musings if it weren’t for the muses themselves. Idle contemplation of insignificant and irrelevant items – whatever its delight – would be poor company were it not for the presence of those goddesses themselves who through their dispensations transform the commonplace of our careless thoughts into art. Though the roots of the words are different (the verb “to muse” is of Old French or Germanic origin while the noun “muse” comes, as you might expect, from the Greek “mousa”) and while their similar sounds are merely coincidence – though isn’t all coincidence just veiled destiny? – these days, the two words cannot be separated.

At least since the Greeks, the muse has been summoned by artists desperate for her favors.

Homer invoked the muse in The Odyssey, Virgil in The Aeneid. Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.”

Robert Graves believed that all poetry descended from the muse and that access to that muse came through love for a woman. In The White Goddess, he wrote “No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident; just as no Apollonian poet can perform his proper function unless he lives under a monarchy or a quasi-monarchy. A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse.”

There are nine muses, all daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory: Clio is the muse of history; Calliope the Muse of epic poetry and eloquence; Euterpe, of music or of lyric poetry; Erato, of the poetry of love; Polyhymnia, of oratory or sacred poetry; Melpomene, of tragedy; Thalia, of comedy; Terpsichore, of choral song and dance; Urania, of astronomy.

If the muses have survived thousands of years while other Gods fell by the wayside, it is because they give a face to something that remains an absolute mystery to us. We may know now that the earth revolves around the sun or how to harness the electromagnetic spectrum, but we still cannot pinpoint the source of inspiration.

And that, I mused, is why we are still calling out to them.

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