Readings for reflection: the Mousai

Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 1.23-34
First then let us name Orpheus whom once Kalliope bare, it is said, wedded to Thracian Oeagros, near the Pimpleian height. Men say that he by the music of his songs charmed the stubborn rocks upon the mountains and the course of rivers. And the wild oak-trees to this day, tokens of that magic strain, that grow at Zone on the Thracian shore, stand in ordered ranks close together, the same which under the charm of his lyre he led down from Pieria. Such then was Orpheus whom Aeson’s son welcomed to share his toils, in obedience to the behest of Cheiron, Orpheus ruler of Bistonian Pieria.

Claudian, Letter to Serena XXXI
At the first kindling of Orpheus’ marriage-torch when festive Hymen filled the countryside of Thrace the beasts and gay-plumaged birds strove among themselves what best gifts they could bring their poet. Mindful of the cave whose sounding rocks had offered a wondrous theatre for his tuneful lyre, the lynxes brought him crystal from the summits of Caucasus; griffins golden nuggets from regions of the north; doves wreaths of roses and other flowers which they had flown to gather from Venus’ meadow; the swan bore from the stream of its native Padus amber broken from the boughs of the famed sisters; while the cranes, after their war with the pygmies, recrossed the Nile and gathered in their mouths the precious pearls of the Red Sea. There came, too, immortal Phoenix from the distant East, bearing rare spices in his curvèd talons. No bird nor beast was there but brought to that marriage-feast tribute so richly deserved by Orpheus’ lyre.

Busily Calliopea decked her son’s bride with her riches and all the treasures of Helicon, and, moreover, with a mother’s pride dared to invite to her son’s wedding the queen of starry heaven herself. The queen of the gods spurned not her request either out of respect for Calliopea herself or because she was drawn by a just affection for the pious poet who had so often in her honour chanted his songs before her altars, hymning Juno’s godhead with his sweet voice and telling of the battles of her lord the Thunderer waged on the plains of Phlegra, and of the menace of Enceladus and the Titans there broken. Straightway, counting the marriage-night worthy of her presence, she brought heavenly gifts to deck the bridal, gifts such as stoop not to adorn mortals, gifts that the gods alone may possess.

Euripides, Alcestis 962-72
I have flown aloft thanks to the Muse and although I have grappled with many doctrines, I have found nothing stronger than Necessity; no remedy in the Thracian writing tablets which the voice of Orpheus wrote down, nor in the drugs which Phoebus gave to the sons of Asclepius, cutting herbal antidotes for mortals who suffer much.

Euripides, Rhesos 941-948
And yet we sister Muses do special honour to thy city, thy land we chiefly haunt; yea, and Orpheus, own cousin of the dead whom thou hast slain, did for thee unfold those dark mysteries with their torch processions. Musaeus, too, thy holy citizen, of all men most advanced in lore, him did Phoebus with us sisters train.

Marsilio Ficino, On Plato’s Theology
Those who profess the Orphic theology consider a two-fold power in souls and in the celestial orbs: the one consisting in knowledge, the other in vivifying and governing the orb with which that power is connected. Thus in the orb of the Earth, they call the gnostic power Pluto, the other Proserpine. In Water, the former power Ocean, and the latter Thetis. In Air, that thundering Jove, and this Juno. In Fire, that Phanes, and this Aurora. In the soul of the Lunar sphere, they call the gnostic power Licnitan Bacchus, the other Thalia. In the sphere of Mercury, that Bacchus Silenus, this Euterpe. In the orb of Venus, that Lysius Bacchus, this Erato. In the sphere of the Sun, that Trietericus Bacchus, this Melpomene. In the orb of Mars, that Bassareus Bacchus, this Clio. In the sphere of Jove, that Sebazius, this Terpsichore. In the orb of Saturn, that Amphietus, this Polymnia. In the eighth sphere, that Pericionius, this Urania. But in the soul of the World, the gnostic power, Bacchus Eribromus, but the animating power Calliope. From all which the Orphic theologers infer that the particular epithets of Bacchus are compared with those of the Muses on this account, that we may understand the powers of the Muses, as intoxicated with the nectar of divine knowledge; and may consider the nine Muses, and nine Bacchuses, as revolving round one Apollo, that is about the splendor of one invisible Sun.

Hyginus, Astronomica 1.2
The Lyre was put among the constellations for the following reason, as Eratosthenes says. Made at first by Mercury from a tortoise shell, it was given to Orpheus, son of Calliope and Oeagrus, who was passionately devoted to music. It is thought that by his skill he could charm even wild beasts to listen. When, grieving for his wife Eurydice, he descended to the Lower World, he praised the children of the gods in his song, all except Father Liber; him he overlooked and forgot, as Oeneus did Diana in sacrifice. Afterwards, then, when Orpheus was taking delight in song, seated, as many say, on Mt. Olympus, which separates Macedonia from Thrace, or on Pangaeum, as Eratosthenes says, Liber is said to have roused the Bacchanals against him. They slew him and dismembered his body. But others say that this happened because he had looked on the rites of Liber. The Muses gathered the scattered limbs and gave them burial, and as the greatest favour they could confer, they put as a memorial his lyre, pictured with stars, among the constellations. Apollo and Jove consented, for Orpheus had praised Apollo highly, and Jupiter granted this favour to his daughter.

Leonidas of Tarentum, Greek Anthology 7.715
Far from Italy and from my fatherland of Taras I lie;
this to me is more bitter than death.
This kind of wandering life is lifeless,
but the Muses have looked kindly upon me,
and so instead of pains I have what is sweet.
The name of Leonidas will not dim:
the gifts of the Muses will herald me for all time.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man
These initiates, after being purified by the arts which we might call expiatory, moral philosophy and dialectic, were granted admission to the mysteries. What could such admission mean but the interpretation of occult nature by means of philosophy? Only after they had been prepared in this way did they receive Epopteia,’ that is, the immediate vision of divine things by the light of theology. Who would not long to be admitted to such mysteries? Who would not desire, putting all human concerns behind him, holding the goods of fortune in contempt and little minding the goods of the body, thus to become, while still a denizen of earth, a guest at the table of the gods, and, drunk with the nectar of eternity, receive, while still a mortal, the gift of immortality? Who would not wish to be so inspired by those Socratic frenzies which Plato sings in the Phaedrus that, swiftly fleeing this place, that is, this world fixed in evil, by the oars, so to say, both of feet and wings, he might reach the heavenly Jerusalem by the swiftest course? Let us be driven, O Fathers, by those Socratic frenzies which lift us to such ecstasy that our intellects and our very selves are united to God. And we shall be moved by them in this way as previously we have done all that it lies in us to do. If, by moral philosophy, the power of our passions shall have been restrained by proper controls so that they achieve harmonious accord; and if, by dialectic, our reason shall have progressed by an ordered advance, then, smitten by the frenzy of the Muses, we shall hear the heavenly harmony with the inward ears of the spirit. Then the leader of the Muses, Bacchus, revealing to us in our moments of philosophy, through his mysteries, that is, the visible signs of nature, the invisible things of God, will make us drunk with the richness of the house of God; and there, if, like Moses, we shall prove entirely faithful, most sacred theology will supervene to inspire us with redoubled ecstasy. For, raised to the most eminent height of theology, whence we shall be able to measure with the rod of indivisible eternity all things that are and that have been; and, grasping the primordial beauty of things, like the seers of Phoebus, we shall become the winged lovers of theology. And at last, smitten by the ineffable love as by a sting, and, like the Seraphim, filled with the godhead, we shall be, no longer ourselves, but the very One who made us.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 34. 3
At Koroneia in Boiotia is a sanctuary of Hera; in her hands she carried the Sirens. For the story goes that the daughters of Achelous were persuaded by Hera to compete with the Mousai in singing. The Mousai won, plucked out the Seirenes’ feathers and made crowns for themselves out of them.

Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 3.631
The Muses came to sing the dirge at the funeral of Achilles and to Thetis spake Calliope, she in whose heart was steadfast wisdom throned: ‘From lamentation, Thetis, now forbear, and do not, in the frenzy of thy grief for thy lost son, provoke to wrath the Lord of Gods and men. Lo, even sons of Zeus, the Thunder-king, have perished, overborne by evil fate. Immortal though I be, mine own son Orpheus died, whose magic song drew all the forest-trees to follow him, and every craggy rock and river-stream, and blasts of winds shrill-piping stormy-breathed, and birds that dart through air on rushing wings. Yet I endured mine heavy sorrow: Gods ought not with anguished grief to vex their souls. Therefore make end of sorrow-stricken wail for thy brave child; for to the sons of earth minstrels shall chant his glory and his might, by mine and by my sisters’ inspiration, unto the end of time. Let not thy soul be crushed by dark grief, nor do thou lament like those frail mortal women.’ So in her wisdom spake Calliope.

Strabo, Geography 10.3.10
Now most of the Greeks assigned to Dionysos, Apollon, Hekate, the Mousai, and above all to Demeter, everything of an orgiastic or Bakchic or choral nature, as well as the mystic element in initiations. And branch-bearing, choral dancing, and initiations are common elements in the worship of these gods.