Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Birth, Love, Death and Muses

Originally there were nine Muses, or sometimes three, though always a three-fold number, or a three-faced element. Much of mythology embraces the three-folded cycles of life. Even Robert Graves' White Goddess is a muse of three aspects: birth, love and death. Or to put it more simply, the three aspects of womanhood; maiden, mother and crone. But I'm getting carried away.

So, originally there were nine muses. There is Calliope, the muse of writing, Euterpe, the muse of music, Clio, the muse of history, who is perhaps the most dangerous, because she's the one who will inspire you to achieve feats of fame that are remembered, and of course there are the six others.

The word muse is generally understood in Western culture to mean "a woman who inspires an artist". At her highest echelon she is the White Goddess, at her lowest a groupie. Almost always though there is the implication that she only invokes the power that is already somehow within the artist; and also that there is something sexual about her power. The artist after all, is a man, the muse a woman. There is a reluctance to acknowledge that the source of creative power could be female, that somehow the world is organized and attuned to the feminine.

So in the vein of my many feminist art rants, I shall stop speaking in abstracts and introduce you, dear reader to some female artist-muses who inspire me constantly.

The Muse of Literature is Tove Jansson, who's work, as small and intricate as it, opens up the universe every time you browse one of her books (and who's also been with me the longest):
(Tove's in the middle surrounded by her lover and partner Tuuti, and her mom Hamm)

The Muse of History is Emily Dickinson, who proved with her life (and death) that history is indeed made in the back kitchen corners of the world sometimes and fame indeed is fickle food upon a shifting plate.

The Muse of Poetry is Mary Oliver, perhaps the finest (and oddly most universally loved) American poet in my mind (along with her male companions Gary Snyder and Walt Whitman, and of course the afore-mentioned Emily Dickinson)

The Muse of Music certainly is a coveted spot with many many suitable candidates, but in my particular case I shall yield the honor to none other than Björk Gudmundursdottir, a musical innovator and free spirit without comparison.

The Muse of Tragedy is Sylvia Plath, who taught herself and us how sometimes great art is created trough great pain, though most pain is in the labor and not the source of it.

The Muse of Children is Astrid Lindgren, who world-wide maybe known for creating Pippi Longstocking, the beautiful anarchist child, but in Scandinavia her fame rests on her other books equally; The Cheerful books about children roaming islands, as well as the haunting tales of afterlife and euthanasia/suicide (yes in a kids book, look up The Brothers Lionheart).

The Muse of Dance and Ritual is Maya Deren, the daredevil filmmaker, anthropologist, priestess and dancer, who's work was so ground-braking and breath-taking that the world then scarcely understood its many meanings.

A muse of a more recent vintage is Tina Fey, a funny lady who scarcely needs introduction as The Muse of Comedy. She may seem a little light in such heavy-hitting company, but frankly female comedy is anything but light work. Women, you see, are apparently not quite as funny as men, and have to work thrice as hard to get screen time.

Finally there is the Muse of Stars, astronomy of art if you will, the fearless Melissa Silverstein has kept an honest log of their movements in her blog, Women&Hollywood, and even if she hadn't been tremendous help to my theses, her sheer insight and efforts are worth commending. In an age where Diablo Cody can win an Oscar and book publishing has become an art so obsolete that it can't keep up with the rapid changes in media, Silverstein's work is invaluable to any film-fan.

Your turn. Muse.


  1. Wonderful topic and fascinating post! Hmm, I'll have to give this one a little thought...

    Great choice for muse of comedy, we've been watching lots of 30 Rock lately.

  2. Thanks for the great words you said about my work. It is great to know that the work is resonating with others.

    Melissa Silverstein

  3. Great post, what an awesome topic! Hailing from New Orleans, Muses are very important there, as Greek mythology is tied in with the Mardi Gras krewes. There's a wonderful all women's krewe dedicated to the Muses that's full of festivity and inspiration. Thanks for posting this, and great choices!

  4. This is such a beautiful post. Maya Deren is an amazing woman.

    Love Grace.

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