“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas A. Edison
A friend of mine is currently researching the ancient origins of the Muse: the divine power, often seen as female, that inspires an artist or writer. Of course, the common image of Muse is derived in part from the nine Muses, those daughters of Mnemosyne that govern specific arts in Greek myth. Originally, there were only three and they weren’t divided up into history, astronomy and love songs, as three of the nine subject areas go. Their mother, the goddess of memory, may be seen as the original Muse, as she was often invoked by poets and bards before recitations. In an oral culture, this seems quite understandable. Memory is less often invoked in cultures where all information is a Google-click away.
Our current view of the Muse, however, seems more closely tied with Jungian archetype and Romanticism. The Muse is often viewed as a lover: sometimes jealous or fickle, sometimes generous or downright erotic. It presupposes a male writer, which would make the Muse perhaps the best example of Jung’s anima, a man’s feminine reflection of the unconscious. This would, then, define a female writer’s Muse as a male animus, and perhaps homosexual artists’ Muses as same-gender. In truth, however, I’ve never met a Muse-believing writer who described the spirit as male.
Probably this is due to the assumptions behind the Muse: that she is fickle, touchy and won’t tell you when or why she will give you the silent treatment. Misogynistic cultures associate these unflattering traits with women. A male Muse, sexists would say, would actually show up on time and git ‘er done. Sadly, he would probably have less aesthetic appeal, as our current culture doesn’t expect men to dress well or be pretty. This wasn’t always the case, of course; a time-travel visit to the court of the Sun King in France would prove otherwise. As seen through the lens of American culture, a male Muse would be strong and ruggedly handsome: the archetypal John Wayne.
Which is besides the point anyway, because we don’t make cultural room for male Muses. It would seem ridiculous for female artists, and threatening — at least in terms of cultural heterosexual insecurity — for male ones. (Obviously, it wouldn’t be threatening to gay male artists. When I speak of American culture, I am using the traditional — and currently changing — norm of upper-class white, male, heterosexual Christian.)
Never mind that one of Shakespeare’s two Muses for his sonnets was a man. (Or that males played the female roles, since acting was considered a disreputable occupation for women, who were properly restricted to Kinder, Küche, Kirche.)
This brings us to the next manifestation of a Muse: as an actual woman who inspires an artist. Sometimes — and understandably so — she is the model for a visual artist. Such models can have dual roles as the artist’s wife or mistress; in these cases, the implied sexualization of the Muse is fulfilled. Other times — and particularly with poets — she is the unattainable object of obsession, in effect turning the poet into the original stalker. In a positive light, one could see the Muse as a human avatar of the original Muse-goddess, whether seen as one of the nine sisters, Mnemosyne herself or a minor nymph.
All too often, however, the pedestal alternates with the pit when it comes to the cultural perception of women. The Muse — and the woman who embodies her — is either generous lover or cold-hearted whore, abandoning the artist for others. She may inspire fantasies of abuse, particularly when the artist encounters roadblocks or finds her to be fickle. Woman, whether real or imagined, must give all and forever without question, or she is the reviled Other: whore, hag, witch and bitch.
As you can imagine, I don’t care too much for the Muse, as least as how she’s traditionally viewed in Western European-influenced cultures. The Muse is a relatively modern concept, modern in this case as being defined as a product of the past several hundred years.
How would the ancients have viewed things?
Certainly, the spirits would have inspired the poet or artist. A bard may pray to a personal matron or patron deity before a recitation, or to one appropriate for the occasion. In the Celtic system, Brighid is often seem as the “muse of poets,” but invocations could understandably be directed toward Ogma (the honey-mouthed, a likely patron for orators), Aonghus Og (love poetry!), Lugh (god of all skills) or others. The dead are often seen as passing on tales long after all participants in said tales have died; in this manner, Fergus mac Roich relayed the events of the Táin Bó Cúailnge to the poet Muirgen.
Overall, though, the poet’s skill — or the smith’s, or the visual artist’s, or the cheesemaker’s — is not seen as a direct pipeline from the spirit. Rather, Druids studied for twenty years to perfect their craft, memorizing many tales and the occasions during which they were sung. Craftspeople grew up in their trades, perfecting their arts through long hours and years of work, apprenticeship and just being around said art all the time.
The spirits — Gods, ancestors or, yes, even Muse — may inspire on particular occasions, but probably not most. What inspires is the work itself, the long years spent on boring tasks or mastering basics.
What matters is showing up.
Not every piece of art will be a masterpiece, but each is an offering — to the Gods of skill and the ancestors, certainly, but also to yourself. You become the testament to your own dedication, and dedication confers spiritual worth.
So, don’t wait for the Muse; she’s probably doing her hair, or visiting some high-end store with a French name I cannot pronounce. That’s okay. You don’t need her. You just need you.