January 20, 2009

#01-212: Who Are the Muses? - Part I

a nude youth stands holding a lyre; a winged woman embraces him from behind and seems to be guiding his hand on the strings
Hesiod being inspired by a muse

Note: The nine Muses are (mythical) women who have embodied the idea of artistic inspiration throughout the ages. The very word "muse" has affected our language in several ways.

Get Ready: Museum, music, amuse--how many words can you think of that contain the word "muse"?

As we continue to look at the Great Books of Western culture, let's visit the nine Muses, women who have inspired the arts through the ages.

The word "muse" shows up in many interesting places in modern English.

Have you heard of the verb "to muse"? You can say, "She was musing upon her future." It means "to think about, to ponder." Oddly, this comes from a root word meaning "nose" (we see another form of this when we refer to a dog's snout as its "muzzle"). A person who is musing might stand with his nose in the air; or, when a tracking dog loses the scent, he sniffs the air as he thinks about what direction to go in.

From this meaning of "muse" we get the word "amuse." These days "amusing" usually means "humorous," but originally to "be amused" was to be caught up in thought.

Although the absolute origin of this word is lost, scholars think that it may have been influenced by the Greek word mousa, referring to the sisters we're discussing. And, when referring to them, the word "muse" can certainly be found in the name of a place to go and ponder: a "museum." "Muse" also shows up in "music" (originally an adjective, "of the Muses").

The "Mother of the Muses" was Mnemosyne, from the Greek word for "memory." And in her name we find the root mna- which gives us "mind," "mental" and, more clearly, "amnesia" (forgetting--not having a memory). A "mnemonic" is a device for helping us remember something, as the "name" Roy G. Biv helps us remember the colors of the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). "Muse" itself also comes, ultimately, from the mon-/men-/mna- root.

Before we talk about the muses themselves, we need to talk about poetry. Five of the muses govern other areas of creativity: history, tragedy, religious music, dance, and astronomy. But four of them are involved in different kinds of poetry, namely, epic (or heroic) poetry; love (or erotic) poetry, including marriage songs; lyric poetry; and comedy and bucolic poetry.

How are these four different? Epic poetry often tells the story of a hero or some heroes, and is usually quite long. The Iliad and The Odyssey are epic poems. Love poetry is, I think, self-explanatory. This might also include some songs and lyrics. It's a little confusing, because lyric poetry-- short expressions of personal feeling not unlike some song lyrics today--is another category, and another muse. It should be remembered, though, that--like the Chinese gods--the Muses are not firmly fixed to any one attribute. They "float around" a little! Finally, one of the Muses is in charge of both comedy and "bucolic poetry." These are rustic poems set in, and regarding, the countryside, as opposed to "city life" and so-called "high culture."

And now you are ready to meet the Muses--in Lesson #01-213!


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muses

Practice: Match the related words to their definitions below:

  1. amnesia
  2. amused
  3. memory
  4. mental
  5. mnemonic
  6. muse (verb)
  7. museum
  8. music
  9. muzzle
  10. remember

  1. to think about something
  2. to have something in one's memory again
  3. entertained; also, caught up in musing
  4. of the mind
  5. a place to go and think deeply about things
  6. being without memories
  7. the ability to retain information
  8. the nose or snout of an animal
  9. originally an adjective meaning "of the muses," it is now something we enjoy listening to
  10. a "trick" for remembering something

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 20, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. c; 3. g; 4. d; 5. j; 6. a; 7. e; 8. i; 9. h; 10. b