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The literary and philosophical tradition
From Homer to Neoplatonism, literature and philosophy provide us with a more or less distinct idea of these mediators between the gods and mankind, and confer upon them a role that has to do with understanding the meaning of the world.
It was Hesiod who established that there were nine Muses and gave them their names. Little by little, their roles were defined, although with certain variations depending upon the author concerned.
Homer employs a generic term (Odyssey, Book I:1, "Muse", Iliad, Book II:91, "the Muses"). He only refers to them as " the nine Muses" in a passage of book XXIV of The Odyssey, in verse 60.
The Alexandrine grammarian Aristarchus emphasized this point. The Bude edition puts this passage in square brackets, indicating the possible presence of interpolation.
According to Hesiod, the Muses ("Mousai" in Greek) are the nine daughters resulting from the nine nights the Titan Mnemosyne spent with Zeus (Hesiod, Theogony, 53-57 and 915-917).
They were born in Pieria (a region of Macedonia), but, though often in Olympus where their father lived [ibid. v. 76], they normally stayed on Mount Helicon in Boeotia. They were the companions of Apollo and the Graces, with whom they formed choirs. Crowned with violets, they had outstanding voices and their songs were so beautiful that Mount Helicon swelled up one day with so much pleasure that it nearly reached heaven. Pegasus the horse, with a kick of its hoof, caused the Hippocrene spring to flow and the mountain to resume its shape.
These divine songstresses brought joy to mankind and also the gifts of poetic inspiration and knowledge. It is Hesiod who first tells us their names (Theogony, v. 77-79). We do not know whether these names come from an ancient tradition or whether the poet invented them.
In Plato's dialogue, Ion, he describes the channel that exists between a god and the human receiving the vision or message, which passes via the Muse, the poet, the rhapsode (a reciter of epic poems) or the actor: "None of them can compose successfully except in the genre for which the Muse inspires them" (Ion, 534c).
Poets are the "interpreters of the gods" (534e); a poem is the indication of gleaning in the little valley of the Muses (534b), just as the bee randomly collects what he needs to make honey. The poem is the result of "inspiration from the Muses": "heurema ti Moisan".
This idea of the transcendence of self, which Plato called possession - the poet is possessed, transfixed by the god - remained current until undermined by the classicism of Boileau, the 'Art for Art's sake' movement and Paul Valéry's praise of effort.
The Pléiade, romanticism, surrealism and contemporary "flash" poetry (Char, Deguy) again took up this idea that without otherness, there could be no authentic creativity.
For ring theory, refer to Robin Delisle's lecture.
Heirs to the Platonic tradition, seeing Muses as mediators between a god and a poet or any other intellectual artist, the Neoplatonists helped to perpetuate this idea of the Muses as the ones who heave mankind into the world of the spirit, of beauty and immortality.
They often appear in funerary art in this precise "ferrying" role.
The cult of the Muses blossomed in Magna Graecia among the followers of Pythagoras. In their view, the Muses were less concerned with poetic creativity than with an exercise of the memory (anamnesis) that allows the individual to escape the passage of time : the Muses allowed the individual to go back through the cycle of his previous existences and thus to arrive at a god-like form of existence, escaping the limits of human frailty.
Further, the Muses provided access to knowledge about the world: music, derived etymologically from Muse, is a doorway to knowledge about the structure of the universe; it leads to arithmetic and astronomy, and allows the individual to perceive the harmony of the spheres.
The cultural heritage of this philosophy stretches from the Timaeus of Plato to the Blue Flowers of Queneau. .