Patrons of writing and teaching: The Muses

Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses
Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses, by Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536)

As I reviewed my list of writing patrons today, I realized that most of my patrons are women.  I don’t know why this is, or what this might mean for my writing.  A few years ago a friend pointed out The Gender Genie, an online gender analysis tool for prose–just paste in a chunk of text and it would tell you, based on (dubious) algorithms and (probably outdated) psychological linguistics, whether the text was “masculine” or “feminine.”  According to the Gender Genie, this post was written by a man.  But when I plug in a passage from my novel, which is narrated in the first person from a woman’s perspective, the computer tells me my narrator’s voice is authentically female.  And maybe I have my female patrons to thank for that.

March is Women’s History Month in the US, so I’ve been thinking about my patronesses lately, and I figured there’s no better way to start the month than with the Grandes Dames of lady patrons:  The Muses.

I could spend hours writing about which Muses I’m claiming here, because scholars disagree (surprise surprise!) as to who they were or how many existed, and the debate’s been going on for millennia.  Two thousand years ago the Roman Varro and, later, the Greek Pausanias claimed three Muses, with Pausanias naming them for their attributes:  Aoidē (“song” or “voice”), Meletē (“practice” or “occasion”), and Mnēmē (“memory”). In Delphi, the three Muses went by the names of lyre chords, while elsewhere they were named after Apollo as his daughters (see the pic above).

But later still, the Muses bumped up to four and became daughters of Zeus and Plusia.  Pierus, who was sometimes called the father of the Muses, claimed seven Muses, while Homer and Hesiod set the number at nine.

Calliope, from Neil Gaiman's Dream Country
Cover of Sandman #17, Dream Country 1; "Calliope" (1990). Art by Dave McKean.

In general, I like simplicity and the literary Rule of Three, but in this case I’m a sucker for the more complicated system set up in the Neoclassical era, which describes nine Muses and gives each guardianship over a specific aspect of the performance and literary arts.  And queen among them, as any Neil Gaiman fan knows, is Calliope.  (In the haunting self-titled short story from Gaiman’s third Sandman volume, Dream Country, Calliope is a tortured sexual prisoner passed around from one frustrated writer to the next.)*

In the Neoclassical tradition, Calliope is the oldest of her sister Muses, and she is usually counted as the smartest and most assertive, too.  And because the Neoclassical system liked associating icons with ideas (one innovation Steve Jobs can’t claim), each Muse got a symbol; Calliope’s was an emblem of writing, usually a writing tablet or a roll of paper, though sometimes (if she was lucky) she’d get a published, bound book to carry around.  We all should be so lucky!

Calliope
Detail from Les Muses Uranie et Calliope, by Simon Vouet (c. 1634)

Calliope isn’t alone, though, and as much as I rely on music for inspiration while writing, I should give a respectful nod to Euterpe, Muse of music.  In fact, our word “music” comes from the Greek mousikê, related to mousa, Greek for “song” or “poem,” and most of the Muses’ various incarnations are related to sound, song, or lyrical verse.  Three of the nine Neoclassical Muses are associated with music directly, and a fourth represents dance and is accompanied by a lyre.  Even Calliope, whose purview is strictly the written word and epic poetry, bears a name that means “beautiful voiced” and is today a word for a musical instrument.

I also admit a soft spot for Clio, Muse of history, whose emblem is the scroll; and for Melpomene, Muse of tragedy, who is often depicted carrying the theatrical mask of tragedy in one hand and a deadly weapon in the other.  In fact, all the Muses deserve our admiration and gratitude (the others are Erato, Muse of lyric poetry; Polyhymnia, Muse of choral poetry; Terpsichore, Muse of dance; Thalia, Muse of comedy, and Urania, Muse of astronomy).  And however many Muses there are, I’m grateful for all of them in all their guises.

* Full disclosure: I agree there’s a kind of latent sexism in the Muses being women, inspiring men to great art but rarely permitted to create or share their own great art.  This was in many ways the horror and the tragedy at the heart of Gaiman’s excellent Sandman story.  But we are here to celebrate, and the world is not without brilliant women who inspired themselves–Plato once complemented the poet Sappho by calling her the “tenth Muse,” for instance.  I intend to follow this Patrons post with my own musings on great women authors and poets.  Feel free to beat me to the punch, though, and comment here and list your own.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

4 thoughts on “Patrons of writing and teaching: The Muses

  1. I love this post! I have recently become intrigued by the muses, so found this very interesting. Am looking forward to your upcoming posts on women authors and poets!

    1. Thanks, Lori! Expect a shout-out for Second Story Press, because I’ve been perusing their mission statement and catalogue, which are impressive. I’m going to put out the word for friends and readers to chime in, too, so if you find my list lacking in any way, be prepared to add to it! 🙂

  2. What a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Also, I love where you are going with this blog.

    1. Thanks, Crystal! Glad you dropped by–I’ve been wondering what you thought about the things I’ve been up to.

      PS: Shout out! You’re the friend who pointed out the Gender Genie to me! Thanks again for that–it’s a fun tool even if I doubt the authenticity of its algorithms. (Just for fun, I plugged in all my most “masculine” and male-centric stories, and they all came up as a feminine voice. All my blogs and essays, though, rate masculine. Go figure.)

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