Adventures in Wortcunning: The First Groupies

Adventures in Wortcunning: The First Groupies February 5, 2016

Sex, and drugs, and rock and roll. I grew up in a generation that pretty much believed we invented all that. We were wrong.

And the other night I chanced upon a live musical performance – a rare treat outside my living room, where my husband plays guitar and sometimes I will join him on fiddle and electric bass. It is part of his secret weapon, and I fall for it almost every time.

So this time, I am not at home and I am listening to music being played live, and very well, in a setting intimate enough that asking for an autograph afterward was a bit awkward. I did it anyway, and you can blame Apollo, that bringer of light himself, and the daughters of Mnemosyne. I do.

a relief sculpture of the muses on a the side of a sarcophagus
The nine muses — Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, and Melpomene — on a Roman sarcophagus (2nd century AD, from the Louvre).

These gals are collectively known as the nine Muses, and each is a specialist in her own field of the arts and sciences. These nine have another sister whom is seldom connected with them, although she, the mighty Athena, is the Goddess of Wisdom herself in that pantheon. I bet their mom was amazing.

Mnemosyne, mother to all these lovelies, was a goddess in her own right, yet her story ended tragically as she was consumed entirely by Zeus. I’ve been in those sort of relationships.

Zeus was jealous that women had the power of creating life or death so he decided to give it a try. He was also a little miffed about Hera his wife birthing Ares on her own after touching a magic herb. He ate Mnemosyne so he could birth Athena “on his own”, too. Revenge is never pretty and being a goddess, Athena split his skull as she emerged, fully-formed, from his forehead.

Good girl. And I can’t believe Hera got away with that story.

But this is about Athena’s sisters, the nine lovely Muses who were also the first vestal virgins, keeping the light in Apollo’s temple alive devoting their lives to this and other sacred things. Being goddesses, their virginity was considered continual and their duty to Apollo sacred.

Okay, Apollo is the golden child and all, being built like a Greek god and with a fancy-dancy chariot, too. And, sure all the girls love him, but we’re talking about goddesses here, nine of them. And very smart cookies too. What’s the big draw?

Music. Apollo is the god of music. But even that seems odd. Apollo is so bright and sunny dispositioned, forthright, and driven. Most of all, Apollo is consistent. Music isn’t always like that, and the character qualities of Apollo are not a standard set among musicians at large, either. But there he is, the God of Music. And there they are, the Muses.

This all started with a little lyre, or liar as it were, named Hermes. Yes, Hermes, the trickster god of Magic, the quick little messenger of the gods. And like magick, Hermes is a little dangerous and unpredictable, with a wicked sense of humor, too.

Now, that sounds like someone Music would know. Digging deeper we find that even though Apollo is the god of Music, he is not its father. Hermes turns out to be more closely related than at first glance, and Music is the original postman’s red-headed child after all.

The story is good enough to make a song about. A babe is born to papa Zeus, bright and bonny, quick and sharp as any blade. Hermes the hermaphrodite, the first, both man and woman- a natural walker between the worlds.

Not one day old, the babe is left asleep in his/er cradle, and soon crawls away unseen.

Hermes being hungry, and a resourceful child, is off to catch one of brother Apollo’s cattle for dinner. Along the way, the babe meets a tortoise. Being hungry (remember?) Hermes makes turtle soup of it.

Waste not, want not, Hermes thinks, and so fashions a useful thing from the shell of the tortoise. Hermes creates a lyre, the first musical instrument. Then Hermes toddles off to slaughter his brother’s cattle and cook a barbeque. How adorable is that?

Apollo is annoyed and whines to papa Zeus, who calls the babe before him.

“You killed the sacred cow and ate it. Explain yourself,” said Zeus.

Realizing he cannot bring the cow back to Apollo, Hermes remembers the lyre he has made and gives this to his brother instead. Thus Apollo is the god of Music, but Hermes is its father.

So, music is connected to magic and slightly naughty behavior? I can believe that.

There weren’t always nine muses, long ago there were only three. And even the nine names have changed over time. Reading over the names and occupations I imagine an all-night impromptu theater where conversation is lively and the ladies keep good care of our golden-haired boy… and the star of his very own solar system (the crowd cheers) the bright ball of fire we all warm up to, Apollo! (the crowd goes wild) and the Muse-ics!

And just who were these Muse gals, and why are they the first groupies anyway? I have a photo of the statue above the entrance to the Monte Carlo Hotel in Las Vegas. It is a reproduction of a European classic.

In the piece, Calliope (epic poetry) carries a writing tablet; Clio (history) has a scroll; Euterpe (song and elegiac poetry) holds a flute; Erato (lyric poetry) wears a crown of roses; Melpomene (tragedy) is seen with a tragic mask; Polyhymnia (sacred poetry) carries a pensive expression; Terpsichore (choral dance and song) is often dancing; Thalia (comedy) holds a comic mask; and Urania (astronomy) carries a pair of compasses and the celestial globe. It reads like the cast and crew of a theater company, including the Astrologer.

No wonder everyone wants to hang out at their place.

Then reviewing the tapes of my favorite music shows I see the Muses again and again. The designated priest of Apollo appears on stage. The music begins. He sings, Love me tender… no problem! I wanna hold your hand… sure! Even Stairway to Heaven will precipitate showers of panties, yes ladies underwear, from a normal looking crowd if the performance is worthy. Ask Jim Morrison. Oh, wait – you can’t.

And looking deeper at their virtues I see the knowledge that these goddesses offer even as their names changed through time, these subjects are the cornerstones of classical learning. I also notice that their little sister Athena, Goddess of Wisdom as she is, isn’t at the party.

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