So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse…

-Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXVIII

For millennia, artists have invoked the Muses to inspire them in their work. From Homer to Shakespeare to Chaucer. Even today, artists take measures to be inspired, from isolation and adventure to drugs. Anything for that special spark.

Inspiration is fleeting and ethereal. It almost seems to arrive in the form of a whisper, infusing the mind with an idea or impulse. It appears beyond the control of the recipient from a seemingly unconscious or external origin. This makes defining the source of inspiration difficult. This may explain why people believed it came from the breath of a god or Muse.

When an artist, or anyone for that matter, is performing at an optimal level, or an ‘inspired state’, there is a lot going on. There is knowledge, rules, feedback, and goals that are circling in an iterative process. This repeated process can lead to increasing intensity, greater enjoyment, and new results. In the field of positive psychology, this is referred to as flow. I feel that inspiration is a transcendent state of flow.

(Flow is defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and will be the topic of an article of its own on another day.)

Nevertheless, despite the ethereal quality of inspiration, the result of it can be very tangible, and wonderful. Art. Music. Scientific discovery. Religious experiences. All deeply meaningful objects and experiences to humans. So, this leaves us wanting more inspiration or at least wanting to figure out how to get it or where it comes from. Enter, the Muse.

Muses inspire or literally breathe into us a spark of special knowledge or energy. The term muse comes from the Greek word mousa and the Latin musa. Related modern words are museum (seat or shrine of the Muses) and muse (to meditate or think). Also, music comes from mousike translated as ‘art of the Muses’. I guess evidence of the ancient Greek Muses is still in our everyday life.

I get really excited about inspiration. If you didn’t already know this you can read more about it in my first article or my About page. But, that is the entire reason I am the Thinking Muse. I want to inspire you. Since I can’t whisper, breathe, or sing to you, which you probably don’t want anyway, I will provide you with little electronic nuggets of thought-provoking stuff and turn you loose on the world. Inspiration on-the-go.

That is why I picked the object, Apollo and the Muses, for this Exhibit article. I connect with the symbology of the Muses. So, enjoy.


Apollo and the Muses, the exhibit

The featured image for this article is Apollo and the Muses by Baldassarre Peruzzi. You may recognize it from my site. It pictures Apollo dancing in a circle with the 9 Greek Muses and it is the spark for this article on Muses and inspiration.

The artwork is dated to 1514-1523. It was made with oil paint on wood. Originally, it was created as part of a keyboard instrument case. Undoubtedly, the musician was hoping to play with inspiration blessed upon him by the Muses. Cool!

It is 35 x 78 cm (about 13.7 x 30.7 inches). Currently resting among other great artwork in the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.

Apollo and the Muses are shown dancing in a circle together. The relationship between the Muses and Apollo is up for debate. Some stories say the Muses were given to Apollo to raise, while others imply he is merely their leader. Regardless, the Muses are closely associated with Apollo, the “god of prophecy and oracles, healing, plague and disease, music, song and poetry, archery, and the protection of the young.” That is quite the job description, he must have been a busy guy.

The Muses are dancing in a circle in this rendering. Other artists also depict the Muses this way. It is believed that this signifies the close relationship between the arts and sciences. They all agree and are joyfully united.

They may be on to something, but we are still looking for the Theory of Everything as covered in this BBC article. This always astounds me when I learn about ancient cultures, they were so advanced that it makes me feel like we haven’t come that far. Then I think about the great leaps that technology has made and I feel better.


Baldassare Peruzzi

Baldassare Peruzzi was born in Ancaiano, Italy in 1481. As a child, he was a good student and excelled in math and engineering. He became an Italian renaissance artist accomplished in architecture and painting, particularly frescoes. He also had a passion for drawing. Famous artists he worked with were Raphael and Bramante.

His works include:

  • Farnesina, a villa on the banks of the Tiber in Rome
  • Massimi palace
  • Vidoni palace
  • Castel di Belcaro fresco
  • Church of Fontegiusta fresco
  • Siena Cathedral wooden organ-case, painted and gilt, rich with carved arabesques in friezes and pilasters; he also designed the high altar and the Cappella del Battista

To see images of his work, here is an online gallery to show off his talent at Web Gallery of Art.

In 1527 he just barely escaped the sack of Rome unlike a few of his works which were destroyed. He died in Rome in 1536 and is buried next to Raphael in the Pantheon.


9 Muses sarcophagus Louvre MR880

Muses sarcophagus, Louvre MR880 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Greek History

Ancient Greek history is fascinating. The first democracies, the philosophers, and the culture. It is just rife with interesting stuff.

Music and dance were important to Greek life. They were included in religious ceremonies, entertainment, and everyday life. It was even included in military exercises as they marched.

Music was believed to have special powers. So it is easy to understand how they would associate music with the gods.

Greek Mythology has many gods. Most people have heard stories of the gods and their antics. The tales recount how the god(s) interacted with other gods and mortals alike. It is entertaining to hear the anecdotes explain natural phenomena. It is also amusing to hear how ancient Greeks dealt with a lot of the same issues we deal with today. Some things never change.


The 9 Muses

There are various accounts of Muses, their lineage, what they represent, and where they live. Different sources all have their own interpretations. I think as far as the Greeks were concerned, the more the merrier. Other interpretations for Muses are:

  • 2 Muses representing the practice and theory of learning
  • 3 Muses representing the musical vibrations for lyre
  • 4 Muses representing the 4 dialects of languages (Attica, Ionian, Aeolian and Dorian)
  • 5 Muses representing the each representing one of the human senses
  • 7 Muses representing the the 7 chords of the lyre, 7 celestial zone, 7 planets

It appears the concept for 9 Muses came from The Theogony of Hesiod. This seems to be the recognized resource to establish the 9 Muses. According to Greek mythology, the 9 Muses are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne is the daughter of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Gaia). She is the goddess of memory, words, and language. This was important at the time when there weren’t books available, so poetry would have to be memorized.

According to the Greek mythology, Zeus and Mnemosyne lay together for 9 nights resulting in the 9 daughters. They were born at the foot of Mount Olympus. Zeus created the Muses to celebrate the deeds of the Olympian gods following the war with the Titans. Because they are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, they are goddesses. In other references, they are also considered water nymphs.

Each Muse ruled over a particular art or science and provided inspiration in that subject by whispering, breathing, or singing to their subjects. They each have their own qualities and characteristics that differentiate them from the others.

Every four years the Greeks would have a festival to honor the Muses. It was held in the Valley of the Muses in Thespiae near Mount Helicon. The music and theatrical games took place in an open-air sanctuary with statues featuring the 9 Muses. The festivals included competitions (Mouseia), likely in poetry and music. As time went on, games to honor the emperor were added and the festival was sponsored by the emperor. As monotheism spread, the festivals ceased.

Regardless of the disparity of information, the result is the 9 Muses pictured below.

9 Muses - Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1832).jpg

Nine Muses, Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1832), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Calliope or Καλλιοπη. Muse of epic poetry. Her name is derived from the Greek words kallos and ops meaning beautiful voiced. Often shown with a pencil and slate. She is also the eldest Muse and referred to as the leader.
  2. Clio or Κλειω. Muse of history. Kleos is the Greek word for heroic acts. Often shown with a roll of parchment.
  3. Erato or Ερατω. Muse of love poetry. Eros refers to the feeling of falling in love. Often shown with a lyre.
  4. Euterpe or Ευτερπη. Muse of lyric poetry. Eu– and terpô meaning giver of much delight. Often shown with a flute or other musical instrument.
  5. Melpomene or Μελπομενη. Muse of tragedy. Melpô or melpomeni means to celebrate with dance or song. Often shown with a tragic mask.
  6. Polyhymnia or Πολυμνια. Muse of song. Poly- and hymnos meaning many hymns. Shown with a pensive or meditative look on her face.
  7. Terpsichore or Τερψιχορη. Muse of dance. Terpsis and khoros meaning delighting in dance. Often shown playing a 7-stringed lyre.
  8. Thalia or Θαλεια. Muse of comedy. Thaleia refers to rich festivity. Often shown with a comic mask and crook.
  9. Urania or Ουρανιη. Muse of astronomy. Ouranios meaning heavenly. Often shown with a globe.

An article at Strange Sounds covers a recently found 2200 year old mosaic in Turkey of the 9 Muses. It is neat to see the revealing of art that hasn’t been seen for thousands of years. Can you imagine how exciting that would be?



Balen Minerva among the Muses (detail)

Minerva among the Muses, Hendrick van Balen the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t you think it is fun to think of a Muse whispering inspiration to you? Frankly, I will take inspiration however and whenever I can get it.

What inspires you? Nature? Reading? Adventure?

I am interested to hear your answers since that is what I am trying to accomplish!

Let me know in the comments.

Also, invoke a Muse by voting in the poll.




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