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The Origin and Meaning of Poetic Inspiration in Ancient Greece


Seminar Presentation: The University of Sydney, November 10, 2011
Gerard Naddaf, York University

Abstract
The origin and meaning of “poetic inspiration” has always been the subject of
considerable controversy. What critics rarely ask are: what words or phrases did the early
poetic texts use to express the poetic genius or mousikê we associate with inspiration in
the early Greek poetry, and thus prior to the Classical period? In this presentation, I
examine both the terminology employed by Homer and Hesiod to express the poetic
experience and the role of the aoidos or singer/poet in their respective accounts. I argue
that not only are the physical and figurative notions of “inspiration” in Homer and Hesiod
confused, that is, they are not consciously distinguished for the poets, but poetry itself for
Homer and Hesiod must have been seen as a divine gift — as willed by the gods. I also
argue that a number of etymologies and contexts strongly suggest that a type of mania or
ecstatic possession was very much a part of the early poetic process. Finally, I argue that
there is evidence to suggest that an intoxicating substance and dance may have been
preconditions for poetic ecstasy and performance, and that these are also part of the
inspirational process for Plato in the Laws.

Some reflections on the original terminology associated with “inspiration”

The famous fifth-century Greek materialist philosopher and founder of atomic theory,
Democritus of Abdera, was so intrigued with the music or poetic genius of the great
bards, notably Homer, that he coined the word that we still use to account for this
phenomenon: enthousiasmos, that is, “possessed by a god” or “having god within” (en-
theos; see LSJ for first occurrences). “Whatever a poet writes with enthousiasmos and
divine breath is exceedingly beautiful” (poiêtês de hassa men an graphêi
met’enthousiasmou kai hierou pneumatos, kata karta estin, DK68B18); “By getting a
share in divine nature and breath, Homer constructed a cosmos of varied words/ verse)”
(Homêros phuseôs lachôn theazousês epeôn kosmon etektênato pantoiôn, DK68B21)

More precisely, enthousiasmos is an action noun that is indicative of nouns ending in


–smos (Smyth 1975, 230), and it thus means the action of having god within. It is derived
from the verb enthousiazô/enthousiaô, “to be inspired or possessed by a god” and both
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forms appear in the Tragedians.1 Plato, for his part, uses both forms (see LSJ and
Brandwood 1976), but it may be that enthousiasmos is better derived from the verb
enthousiazô, if we consider that verbs ending in –azô denote action, whereas verbs
ending in -aô denote to be or to have (see Smyth 1976, 245). The fact of being entheos,
that is, possessed by a god, is also first attested in Aeschylus (e.g., Agamemnon 248,
1209; Seven Against Thebes 26, 497). Aeschylus uses it to characterize divination or
oracles as the only true technê.

Enthusiasm, however, is not the word in English, if in any European language, to convey
this phenomenon. We use “inspiration,” which was originally a late Latin word. Although
the educated elite of the Roman world employed a number of Latin terms to convey the
meaning of the Greek word enthousiasmos,2 “inspiration” became, for religious reasons,
the word of choice in English.

Inspiration is an action noun derived from the Latin verb inspirare, meaning “to blow or
breathe into,” and it denotes the action of blowing, breathing or inspiring. The OED
indicates that “inspiration” was employed in the English language before “enthusiasm”.3
This is interesting if we consider that the Greek word enthousiamos and its cognates, as
suggested above, do not appear before the fifth century B.C. and only became popular
with Plato (for the occurrences in Plato, see below). Unlike inspiration, the term
“enthousiasm” and its cognates in ancient Greece, denote that a person—originally a seer,
that is, a mantis or theopropos (both words are employed in Homer, e.g., Il. 1.162 and
12.228 respectively), is possessed or inspired by a god or divine power,4 and/or, by
extension, is in a state of ecstasy (mantis like mania is derived from the root *men- and
designates one who is in a special mental state). More to the point, mantis conveys, as
Nagy (1989, 26) notes, “the altered mental state of a ‘seer’ or ‘prophet’ within the
framework of Greek religious institutions.” This would thus explain that what a mantis or
thespropos produces is later characterized as a theiazein (Thucydides 8.1) or entheazein
(Herodotus 1.63), that is, an inspired utterance (see Burkert, 1986, 112). The noun
“inspiration” like the verb “to inspire” has both a literal and a figurative sense (as with
many of its earlier Latin equivalents). The literal sense is the physical sense and, one
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would assume, the older or primary meaning: to breathe or blow into (air; life; soul, etc.)
and so, for example, “to inspire air into the lungs” or “inspiration of air through the
mouth.” In the figurative sense, on the other hand, the words denote the infusion of some
thought or feeling by a divinity or supernatural being into a person as if by breathing and
so, for example, “to be inspired by the word of God” or “views on the inspiration of
Scripture.” The OED indicates that the figurative sense preceded the literal sense in the
English language. This seems to suggest that Christianity (or the Church) was looking to
coin a new word to convey the pagan notion of “enthusiasm.” But, as we shall see, the
picture is more complex.

The terminology associated with inspiration in Homer and Hesiod

The first Greek texts are the great poems of Homer and Hesiod. They appear shortly after
the advent of writing in ancient Greece (c. 750 BCE) and are thus of paramount
importance for an understanding of the origin and original meaning of the notion of
inspiration. What words or phrases did the early poetic texts use to express the poetic
genius or mousikê we associate with inspiration in the early Greek poetry, and thus prior
to the Classical period? This demands some linguistic analysis.

For the Homeric Greeks, inspiration is synonymous with “breath,” and the most common
verbs and corresponding nouns (and cognates) in Homer (and early Greek poetry) to
convey this notion are derived from the root *pnu- (breathe).5 These include first and
foremost pneiô and pnoiê (the poetic forms of pneô and pneuma), which designate the
action of “breathing, blowing, breathe” and the cognates apopneiô, “breathe forth” and,
more importantly, empneiô, “blow or breathe upon or into.”6 The early Greeks were well
aware that physical life would be impossible without “breathing” and without “air” to
breathe.7 This, of course, is a physical fact, but in Homer there is no clear distinction
between the physical and the figurative meanings in the context of “inspiration.”

Let’ s look at a few examples beginning with the relation between breathing and might or
spirit (a point stressed by Aristotle in the Politics 1336a37). In Homer, we always hear of
a god or goddess “breathing menos” that is, might, spirit, or battle-rage, into a hero as air
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into the lungs prior to an important endeavour (e.g., menea pneiontes, Il. 2.536; 3.8;
10.482; 11.508; see also Hesiod, Theogony 319 and LSJ). A deep breath of air provides
the hero not only with might but also with a type of madness, which explains
Chantraine’s etymological connection between menos and mania!8 Thus at Iliad 10.482ff
(see also 13.77–82) Athena breathes into (empneuse) Diomedes strength (menos) as he
begins to slaughter his opponents. The same phenomenon and terminology is employed
at Odyssey 24.520ff when a goddess breathes great might (empneuse menos mega) into
old Laertes (Onians 1951, 51ff.)9 In sum, the hero who has the menos breathes it in, and
the god or goddess who gives it, “inspires” or “breathes” it into him and places it in his
thumos or phrenes.10 This is also the case with feelings and emotions. Thus in the episode
with the Cyclopes (Od 2.320; 16.529; Il. 4.24; 8.461 etc.), a god breathed a great tharsos
or high spirit into Odysseus and his comrades (tharsos enepneusen mega daimôn).11 In
fact, it is also the case with thoughts.12 Thus Penelope notes that some god breathed into
(enepneuse) her phrenes a stratagem that she should set up a great loom and weave a
robe. In sum, one who has an emotion, feeling, or thought, “breathes” or “inspires” it, and
the god who gives it, “inspires” or “breathes it into” one, and alternatively is said to
“place it in one’s thumos or in one’s phrenes.”

What all this suggests is that, in Homer, the physical and figurative notions of
“inspiration” are not clearly distinguished. It also suggests that Homer and Hesiod
understood poetry to be a divine gift. Indeed, it is by the will of Zeus, as we will see
further on, that the Muses (and thus the aoidoi) sing of his power and glory. This would
bode well with Snell’s highly influential but controversial thesis in The Discovery of
Mind that Homeric man has no sense of the self (or the whole personality) and was thus
incapable of making decisions. External forces, in particular the gods, are behind all
choices, and thus for Snell, the Homeric hero never sees himself as responsible for his
actions.13 Homeric gods are indeed “physical” entities, which explains their physical
descriptions and physical interventions, including sexual intercourse with humans (a
hero, by definition, must have one divine parent), and not mental processes or useful
poetic conventions as some suggest.

The Muses and inspiration


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As we saw above, the literal/physical and figurative/metaphorical notions of inspiration


are confused (or are one and the same) in the Homeric and Hesiodic poems. Indeed, there
seems little doubt that by definition there are supernatural “physical” entities that
“inspire” or “breathe” emotions, feelings, thoughts into the heroes, in addition to the “air”
strictly speaking that we breathe in order to survive. Homer and Hesiod could thus
understand the verses as being “breathed” into their thumos or phren by the Muse (or
Muses) via a material substance. This is in fact explicitly implied at Theogony 31 when
Hesiod states that the Muses breathed a divine voice into him (enepneusan de moi audên
thespin (Theogony, 31),14 and Homer implies the same thing at Odyssey 22.347–48 when
we are informed that the gods planted (enephusen) the pathways of song into the singer
Phemius’ lungs (phrene) before he began his song (Od., 8.539). Indeed, both Homer and
Hesiod see themselves (and other gifted singers) as having a privileged relationship with
the Muse. Homer is quite emphatic on this point: “for among all people of the earth the
singers are due honor and reverence, because it is them the Muse has taught (edidaxe) the
pathways, for she loves the tribe of singers” (Od. 8.479–81, trans. Foley). Hesiod seems
to imply the same thing at Theogony 103 when he states that “the Muses taught Hesiod
beautiful song” (Hesiodon kalên edidaxan aoidên) or again at Theogony 95 when he
contends that it is through the Muses and Apollo that there are singers (aoidoi) upon the
earth.

Now Homer treats the aoidos or singer as one of a handful of professionals who fall
under the category of dêmiourgoi, which does not mean “craftsmen” strictly speaking
but rather refers to people who mastered a public function (Od. 17.383–85; 19.135).15
Such dêmiourgoi were not attached to a particular polis but were rather migrant
professionals, and thus socially mobile unlike the resident peasants and landed nobility.16
Moreover, they were well compensated for their services because they were in high
demand. More importantly, they were seen as having a privileged relation with the gods,
and thus as practicing a skill (sophos) or excellence (arête) that was beyond scope of
ordinary mortals.17
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In the case of the aoidos, there appears to have been an ambiguous relation between his
technê or “skill” and the role of the Muses. Indeed, some scholars argue that the aoidos
saw himself as the “unconscious” mouthpiece of the Muses (e.g., Grube 1965, 2, 9)
despite the fact that both Homer and Hesiod appear to suggest that a technê or skill is
necessary in addition to a privileged relation with the Muse.18 Before examining the skills
required of a singer, it is important to examine more closely the origin, notion, and role of
the Muse.

While the etymology of mousa (Muse) is still unclear, a consensus seems to be emerging
that the word is connected etymologically with the roots *men- and mnê-, which are both
connected with mental states, that is, “have the mind connected with” (Chantraine 1968–
80, 665, 716; Nagy 1989, 26–31; West 2007, 34).19 Thus the muse is one who connects
the “mind” with the past, present, and future, a point explicitly made by Hesiod himself
(T. 38) and strongly suggested by Homer in the context of both poetry (e.g., Il. 2.484ff)
and divination (Il. 1. 69ff). From this perspective, “the Muses can assist by putting the
poet in mind of the relevant material” (West 2007, 34). This explains why Hesiod calls
them the daughters of Memory or Mnêmosunê, and why they have a special affiliation
with the aoidos (T.22, 92, 99–100; Homer, Od.).

Before examining the notion of a poet-singer for Homer and Hesiod and his relation to
the Muse(s) in more detail, let me say that I assume that it is axiomatic that the oral poets
were trained in an ingenious mnemonic and compositional technique based on rhythmic
words and formulae. The technique appears to have been widely used, both in Greece and
other nations (see also Trigger, 2003, 603–7). Although lost in time, it did have
antecedents in the form of chants and/or simple hymns and, prior to these, dance and, I
assume, the rhythmic beat of drums and/or other musical instruments. I also agree with
Havelock that in an oral culture “all memorization of the poetized tradition depends on
constant and reiterated recitation” that must also be performed in order to be effective
(1963, 42; also Gentili, 1988, 5; Vernant, 1965, 83–85; West 2007, 26–30). The
minstrel/aoidos is a specialist in the collective communication of the memorable, and we
are dealing with the collective memory of a society —although one ostensibly controlled
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by the upper classes (Trigger, 648). From this perspective, the song is a vital form of
discourse that not only conserves all the information that a community has of its past, but
also transmits that history from one generation to the next (Brisson 1998, 9). Both Homer
and Hesiod make it clear that the primary function of the poet/singer is to sing of the
glorious deeds of men of the past (notably, heroes) and of the gods (Homer, Odyssey
1.337–38; Hesiod, Theogony 100–101). They also seem to make it clear that through
divine inspiration, that is, through the his privileged relation and communication with the
Muses––the source of what the aoidoi know and say—the bard can have knowledge of all
things, past, present and future (Homer, Il. 1.70; 2.484–92; Od. 12.191; Hesiod,
Theogony 38).

This brings us to the notion of memory. It seems clear that the memory that presides over
poetic inspiration is impersonal, that is, it does not concern the past of the individual
aoidoi or singer-poet. Nor is this memory oriented toward remembering past
reincarnations. Homer is quite explicit that there is only a succession of human
generations: for each person, life ends in death (see Homer Il. 6.146ff). Thus the blind
seer Teiresias does not remember his past lives—he had, as with all other mortals, only
one.20 In sum, the kind of memory that Mnemosune inspires and over which she presides
is not the memory of chronological events in our past lives nor indeed historical events. It
is the collective memory of extraordinary events that occurred in a distant or mythical
past, in a world that no longer exists for the people narrating the story but that still
provides paradigms (or lessons) for the moral and social values that should be observed
in the present world—and over which the gods who established the order continue to
preside. This is why the memory in question is primarily, as Detienne (1999, 43; see also
Vernant 1965, 82–86) correctly notes, “a religious power that gave poetic
pronouncements their status of magico-religious speech.” Sung speech with its rhythmic
meter and formulas make the singer’s pronouncements all the more real. They have
nothing less than an incantatory effect (Naddaf 2005, 37–39). Moreover, the blindness
often associated with the poet represents a “second sight,” a power that enabled him to
apprehend reality itself—the events that occurred ab origine—and convey it in the form
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of sung speech. The stories he sung were thus sacred in origin, and while they could
entertain, they had primarily a didactic function.

In the famous invocation to the Muses at Iliad 2.484–92 that opens the catalogue of ships,
Havelock argues “that the Muses symbolize the minstrel’s need of memory and his power
to preserve memory, not a spiritual inspiration which would certainly be inappropriate to
a muster-list” (1963, 177 and n.15). What Homer is requesting, for Havelock, is the
psychic energy it requires to recollect the information (1963, 156; but see also 98).21 He
thus sees Homer and Hesiod as using the Muses figuratively.22 But there is no good
reason to believe (contra Havelock and others) that Homer and Hesiod did not have a
religious belief in the Muse and the inspiration she provides. As we saw, both Homer and
Hesiod draw a parallel between the poet and the mantis or seer and, by extension, I would
argue, that both were in a state of ecstatic possession, that is, they felt overpowered by
the Muses and Apollo (I’ll return to the ecstatic notion later).

The singer, muses and inspiration in Homer

Of particular interest in Homer is the reference to himself as singer on the one hand, and
his reference to other singers, notably Demodecus and Phemius, on the other. The latter
are part of this “distant” past of which Homer, the contemporary, sings. From this
perspective, Homer provides some insights into the notion and function of an aoidos.
Indeed, he provides more particular information on the poetic experience of past poets
than on himself, although some contend that his description of Demodecus is a self-
portrait (Powell, 2007, 167). So let us begin with Demodecus. He is a famous singer in
the court of Alcinous, the king of the idealized Phaeacians, which is the focus of book 8
of the Odyssey. It is said that the god granted Demodecus, above all others, the skill in
song (aoidên, Od. 8.45) to give delight (terpein) in whatever way his spirit (thumos)
prompts him to sing (aeidein, 45). Further on, we are told that the Muses love him
(mous’aphilêse) above all other men (8.63). And after all the participants at the feast had
enough to eat and drink, we are told that the Muse moved Demodecus to sing of the
glorious deed of men (mous’ap’aoidon anêken aeidemenai klea andrôn, 73). We are also
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told in the same scene that although the Muses gave him the gift of sweet song (didou
d’hêeian aoidên, 64) and agility with the lyre (99, 537), they also deprived him of his
sight (64). When Demodecus sings again toward the end of book 8, we are told that he is
held in high esteem by the people (his name means “accepted by the people”) and given a
seat of honour in the middle of the banqueters (472–73). It is here that Odysseus claims
that the Muses love the tribe of singer-poets above all others, for they taught (edidaxe)
them the gift of song and for this they deserve honour and reverence above all others
upon the earth (479–81). Odysseus again insists that Demodecus must have been taught
(edidaxe) by the Muses or Apollo (488) since he sings as if he were himself present or
heard it from another (ê autos pareôn ê allou akousas, 491). After this, Odysseus tells
Demodecus that he wants him to sing of the building of the horse of wood, and, if he can
sing the story correctly, Odysseus contends that he will declare to all that the god has
indeed granted (ôpase) him the gift of divine song (498). No sooner had Odysseus
finished his request and we are told that Demodecus, moved by a god (hormêtheis theou;
see also 539), took up the story (499).

There is no reference here, nor anywhere else in Homer or Hesiod, as to how the blind
Demodecus may have learned the art of song from a technical perspective (e.g., initially
belonging to an exclusive guild which specialized in memory techniques). On several
occasions, we are told that Demodecus was taught (edidaxe) and/or given the art of song
by a god/Muse. From this perspective, the permanent ability to sing professionally is a
gift of the gods, that is, the gods inspire certain individuals with this art. It is also
suggested that the exercise of this ability is the result of divine intervention (e.g. 8.498;
539), although when asked to sing a specific episode by Odysseus, Demodecus
accommodates his request; otherwise, we can assume that he will sing of what comes to
mind (e.g., 45). But when Demodecus does sing of the Trojan War, the events are still
almost contemporary for Odysseus himself is present. Odysseus suggests that there are
several ways Demodecus may have learned of the wooden horse episode: from someone
who was there; from the poet’s own presence at the event; or from divine inspiration
(8.491–98). From an oral poetic perspective, the three possibilities are not mutually
exclusive because whatever the case the story must be “poetized” and “performed” in a
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way that only one with the divine gift of song could do. Odysseus is well aware that
although he participated in the event, he could not perform it himself in a poetized
version. This is the exclusive specialty of the aoidoi. In fact, he is well aware that he is
dependent on aoidoi such as Demodecus for his own fame. In sum, there is no reason
here, in my view, to believe that Homer and before him all those present in the court of
Alcinous, including Odyssesus, did not believe that Demodecus was divinely inspired
just as they believed that the gods intervened in other human lives and events.

The example of Phemius (his name means “the famous one”) in books 1 and 22 of the
Odyssey complements what the account of Demodecus but does present some
differences. First, we are told that what charms mortals most is what also makes minstrels
famous: their songs of the deeds (erga) of men and the gods (1.334–35). At the opening
of book 1, Phemius is singing (1.154; 22.331) to the suitors of the woeful return of the
Greeks; this distresses Penelope, for it includes, I assume, the fate of Odysseus himself
(1.336, 341, 354). Athena has just inspired (thête) the spirit (thumos) of Telemachus with
strength and courage, and he reminds his mother that Phemius is not to blame, for he is
only moved (ornutai) by the pleasures of his heart and they are controlled by Zeus (1.
345–48). Telemachus also notes that Phemius is only singing of the most recent stories
and that men are always in praise of what is newest (neôtatê, 352). The domain of the
singer-poet is what happened in a distant past, but here we are dealing with a
contemporary singer. And it would seem that Phemius must have heard the story and put
it to verse. In my view, this is the meaning of Phemius’ famous contention at Odyssey 22
when he claims to be self-taught (autodidaktos, Od. 22, 347) and yet contends that the
god planted (enephusen) in his heart/lungs (en phresin) the many paths of song (348). In
sum, Phemius may be claiming that unlike other bards, he did not attend a special guild.
There are, as we all know, numerous examples of self-taught musicians, to cite but the
most typical group.23

What about Homer himself? Unlike Demodecus and Phemius, he is not a contemporary
of the events he narrates, but as a singer-performer, he is under the inspiration of the
Muses who know all things (iste te panta, Il. 2. 485; Od. 12. 191). From this perspective,
Homer is both a poet and a seer; like the mantis Calchas, he has access to knowledge
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(êidê) of all things past, present, and future (ta t’eonta ta t’essomena pro t’ eonta, Il.
1.70; 2.484–92; Od. 12.191; see also, Hesiod, Theogony 38). In Odyssey 11.99ff, the
blind mantis, Teiresias, skeptron in hand (91), is able to declare his prophecies (151) on
what Odysseus could anticipate in the future, but also reveal what happened to his
comrades and families in the past, and indeed their current fate in Hades. This correlation
may explain why Homer mentions the Muses and Apollo, the patron of divination,
together, as inspiring the aoidoi (Homer, Od. 8.488).24 In sum, through the Muses (and
Apollo), Homer has access to the mind of Zeus. Indeed, Homer is not only requesting
information from the Muses or the power to recall, as we see in the famous invocation to
the Muses before the catalogue of ships (Il. 2.484–92), but there is a sense in which
Homer becomes Zeus, for he is able to proclaim, from beginning to end, everything that
happened, happens, and will happen. From this perspective, Homer, like the seer
Teiresias, both receives and communicates the message. Once the performance begins,
the poet, as numerous examples suggest, is understood as moved and thus possessed by a
god. This is why the notion of time is so important. It is not chronological or historical
time, but a return to the original or primordial time, when these events, for the singer and
audience, actually occurred. The stories Homer sings are both sacred and didactic.
Despite the fact that Homer appears to criticize heroic excess, he produces positive and
negative paradigms of human behaviour, elucidating the causes and consequences of
particular acts. As such, he “raises the level of awareness among his listeners, he forces
them to think, he educates them” (Raaflaub 2004, 33). But this was not necessarily
Homer’s ultimate aim. If there were one thing that the audience was meant to retain, it
was the dependence of the community on the individual heroes and, of course, on the
interaction between gods and men.

Singer, muses, and inspiration in Hesiod

In the prelude to the Theogony (1–115), Hesiod relates the experience of his encounter
with the Muses. This encounter is not only the first but is also one of the most
informative descriptions of a particular inspirational process in the western poetic
tradition. I would like to begin by summarizing the prelude and then make some general
interpretative comments.
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At the opening (1–21), we are told that the Muses reside on a mountain, near springs,
around which they love to dance after washing their tender skin; at night, they leave the
mountain, and, shrouded in invisibility, with beautiful voices they sing of the immortal
gods, beginning with Zeus. One day, while Hesiod was pasturing his lambs under (hupo)
the holy mountain, the Muses taught (edidaxan) him beautiful song (kalên aoidên, 22),
that is, the art of singing. The Muses first remind Hesiod that he belongs to a class of
ignorant wretched shepherds (26). They then cut and gave him a staff (skêptron) of laurel,
a sacred symbol of authority, and breathe a divine voice into him (enepneusan de moi
audên, 31) in order to celebrate past and future events (32). He is subsequently
commanded (ekeloth’, 33) to sing of the immortal gods, but to begin with the Muses
themselves (34).

Hesiod’s written account of his epiphanic experience appears to be unique, that is, there
is no existing example of a pre-existing written work in the Greek tradition from which
he could have borrowed this description. This does not mean that texts outside of the
Greek tradition could not have influenced him. There are numerous borrowings in the
poems of Homer and Hesiod from Near Eastern culture and texts. Moreover, there is a
long and widespread tradition in all civilizations in which a god or spirit approaches a
mortal and teaches him what he must say or do. But this would not indicate that Hesiod
was following in the steps of a literary tradition, as some suggest (see West 1966 and
Rudhardt 1996 for some examples). While there can be common criteria (e.g., solitude
and isolation—and indeed intoxicating substances—are conducive to provoking dreams,
hallucinations and meditation), forms can vary from culture to culture.25 More important,
even if Hesiod’s account was influenced by previous themes, this does not detract from
his personal ability to reconstruct the common elements, nor again would they affect the
reality of his claim (in this, I agree with Rudhardt 1996, 27).

It can be considered as axiomatic that Hesiod believed in the existence of


anthropomorphic gods that intervened in human affairs. And given the timeframe, it may
also be considered as axiomatic that Hesiod believed that he could see the gods in which
he believed (lines 3–10, 63–71), that is, he would imagine them (Muses, nymphs and so
on) as they were represented in tradition. Moreover, his direct communication with the
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Muses is not unusual given the direct communication between gods and heroes in Homer.
As we saw above, the gods are seen as breathing emotions, feelings, and thoughts into
mortals. In sum, there is no good reason to consider Hesiod’s encounter with the Muses
as intentionally allegorical, as some scholars have claimed, or as some sort of literary
invention.26

His epiphanic experience with the Muses in the prelude still raises a number of
interesting questions and is open to various interpretations.

Hesiod claims that the Muses taught (edidaxan) him the art of beautiful song (kalên
aoidên, 22), that is, before the intervention of the Muses, he was not a “professional”
singer. The Muses then inform him that while they know both how to relate false things
that seen true (idmen psueudea polla legein etumoisin homoia, 27), they also know how
“to proclaim true things” (alêthea gêrusasthai, 27). The standard interpretation is that
Hesiod is denouncing falsehood in the poetry of his rivals, notably Homer.27 But, as we
saw above, the gods “breathe” into mortals whatever emotions, feelings, and thoughts
they wish. There is thus no good reason to believe that Hesiod does not intend the same
meaning here. The focus should be on the second part of the phrase, that is, the Muses
also know how “to proclaim true things” (alêthea gêrusasthai, 27).28 Given that the
events that Hesiod will relate in the Theogony have nothing in common with those
mortals could experience, e.g., the castration of Uranus, the Titanomachy, and so on, it
seems strange that these events are nonetheless what the Muses proclaim as true (alêthea,
2), unless the verb gêrusasthai “to proclaim” entails a speech act that is charged with a
special authority over which the poet, via the Muse, has control as a master of alêtheia or
truth.29 As we see further on, what Hesiod will proclaim and realize, is the will of Zeus.
There is a parallel in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (427). When Hermes sings (krainôn)
his theogonic hymn to the gods, he makes the gods “real” through his praise (see
Detienne 1999, 43). And at 559, in the same hymn, the Bee Maidens can bring all things
to pass (kai te krainousin hekasta) when they feed on honeycomb. In sum, true things are
realized when the poet speaks with authority. The poetic language revives the powers in
the invisible world, thus enabling the poet and his audience to relive a theogony; such
speech, as noted above, is magico-religious.
14

It is perhaps not surprising that the Muses then give Hesiod a skêptron or staff of laurel
(30).30 The laurel is sacred to Apollo, the leader of the Muses,31 and the skêptron, which
is associated with poetic inspiration, is the symbol of sacred authority “to proclaim the
absolute truth” (Nagy 1989, 23). Apollo, as we see in the Iliad (e.g., 1.69–72), is also the
god of seers, and the most famous oracles were those of Apollo. But since only Zeus
knows all, in this capacity Apollo’s function is to be the prophet of Zeus. Here again,
there is a special correlation between Apollo and the Muses, since both have a special
affinity with Zeus. From this perspective, Hesiod is presented as both a seer and a singer,
and the skêptron is the symbol that what he proclaims will be realized.

What is most controversial here is that Hesiod claims that the Muses cut and then gave
him a skêptron of laurel (30). Are we to take this claim literally or figuratively? If the
latter, then this would diminish, I believe, his claim to poetic inspiration in the strong
sense. If the former then his claim must be connected with a vision or dream and thus,
possibly, the effects of an intoxicating substance.

Immediately after receiving the staff of laurel from the Muses, Hesiod states that “they
[the Muses] breathed a divine voice into me” (enepneusan de moi audên, 31). As we saw
above, in early Greek poetry the gods are seen as breathing emotions, feelings, and
thoughts into mortals and that there is a confusion of sorts between literal and
metaphorical notions of inspiration. In this example, as in others, the poet appears to be
the mouthpiece of the Muses, that is, Hesiod sees himself as a passive recipient. Before
this epiphany, Hesiod was not an aoidos or at least, he not a “professional” aoidos. What
the Muses endow him with is a “divine gift” or “natural talent.” Hesiod would thus
appear to be implying that he had no previous technical training before the epiphany, and
his colourful description of his simple peasant existence at the opening of the Theogony
would appear to confirm this. From this perspective, endorsed by many scholars, Hesiod
understands the Theogony as the result of “extemporization.”32

A distinction must be made between technical training and natural ability, between initial
preparation and extemporization. The evidence suggests that the classes of professional
workers or demiougoi mentioned above—seers, heralds, physicians, carpenters, and
15

metalsmiths—were all connected with exclusive and secretive family guilds from which
they received their technical training. This does not mean that they were equally gifted,
but that they were all, in principle, equally well trained. An individual did not awaken
one morning knowing and exercising, say, the skill of carpentry, without the initial
technical training. As I noted above, there is a general consensus that the aoidoi or
singers would have received training in memory and oral-formulaic techniques in similar
schools. The Muses could thus be seem as possessing both the power to recall and the
ability to craft a poem based on a knowledge of the poetic conventions and techniques. It
is here that Hesiod would also have been introduced to a variety of competing theogonies
and other sacred hymns. The Theogony, one could reasonably assume, is Hesiod’s
amalgamation; the result of some “conscious” picking and choosing. There seems to be
some added evidence of this in the two lists that Hesiod seems to establish himself at
Theogony 43–52 and 104–15. That is, in both instances, Hesiod seems to request that the
Muses provide him with the ability to sing and praise the origin of the gods according to
a precise sequence. In both cases, the Muses should begin with Earth and Sky, and then
the gods born from these, but always ending with how and why Zeus is supreme among
gods and men.

The Theogony, as I have discussed elsewhere (Naddaf 2005), is really a hymn in honour
of Zeus. It is a poem in support of his royal power. In fact, this fundamental feature is
attested in theogonies all over the world; they are meant to solidify the authority of the
social group in power (see Trigger 2003).33 As we saw above, the Muses endow Hesiod
with the ability to proclaim truths (31–34) and what he proclaims is ultimately how Zeus,
after a series of socio-political power struggles, defeats his enemies and, as the new ruler,
dispenses privileges and obligations among the immortals, thus establishing and
guaranteeing the permanence of the present order of things (T. 69–75, 391; 885). In the
last analysis, Hesiod is an aoidos-seer, who brings about the truth he proclaims, and this
ultimately depends on “divine inspiration,” which only certain gods (for the case at hand
the Muses and Apollo) can bestow upon select individuals.

There is, as I mentioned above, considerable controversy on the notion of inspiration and
the role of madness in the poetic process. Havelock has famously argued that inspiration
16

was a fifth-century invention by philosophers (notably Democritus) in their attempt to


explain oral poetic performance, which they now saw as a nonrational product of ecstatic
possession (1963, 156 and n.28; 176–77). Others, notably Murray (2006) have argued
that, although Homer and Hesiod did indeed have a religious belief in poetic inspiration
(contra Havelock), the primary source of the poets’ inspiration was memory and memory
alone (2006, 48–51)—so that the fifth-century invention was the notion that the poets
were ever in a state of ecstatic possession when they performed.

I believe that the above analysis would be enough to dispel these entrenched positions on
early poetic inspiration in ancient Greece. Nonetheless, I would like to draw your
attention in concluding this talk to certain aspects of the muses that are generally ignored
and will, I believe, confirm to some degree, that ecstatic possession was a part of the
inspirational process in early Greek poetry.

Meli or “fermented honey” as a physical source of poetic ecstasy

First, the muses are “water-nymphs” (T. 1–7; 130; cf. Odyssey 17.240) and it is as water-
nymphs that they pour sweet dew (glukerên cheiousin eersên) upon the tongue (epi
glôssêi) of the chosen, the sine qua non of poetic power, since it enables song to flow
honeylike (meilicha) from the mouth (ek stomatos rhei) of the singer (T. 83–84, 92, 97).
What we have here is a “physical” source of inspiration, which bodes perfectly well with
our previous analysis that the gods transmit emotions, feelings, and thoughts via a
physical medium (visible or invisible). The potential aoidos must breath in/inspire the
vapours of the fountain or some other physical “intoxicating” medium of inspiration—
blood, water, wine, fermented honey (Onians 34ff).34 The Latin word for “spring water”
is lympha, which is an alteration of the Greek nymphe. In Latin, lympha and its cognates
(lympho, lymphatus, lymphatocus and so on) are connected with “madness,” and thus
those who saw a water-nymph went mad—which suggests that the word nymphe may be
etymologically connected with lussa (“rage,” “fury,” in Homer, and after Homer, a raging
madness caused by a god). In sum, what the muses qua nymphs inspire is frenzy, and this
bodes well with previous analyses of words connecting the poet and muses with frenzy
17

(see roots connected with mental states above). The source of this frenzy, and of the
sweet song that flows from it, may be a sort of fermented honey (meli).

In the Theogony (187), the nymphs are called Meliai or Ash-Tree Nymphs, and they
share a common origin with the Giants and Erinys. They are all born from the drops of
blood that fell to the earth from the severed genitals of Ouranos after he was castrated by
his son, Kronos (173–87). All three siblings are thus connected with blood and violence,
in sum, with frenzy! But ash trees are not only the source of the famous wood for the
spears of the warriors, they also exude a sugary substance from their bark and leaves that
the Greeks called meli, that is, honey! This explains why the Nymphai Meliai or Ash-
Tree Nymphs are sometimes called Honey Nymphs or Bee Nymphs (Callimachus, Hymn
1 to Zeus 42ff; Virgil, Georgics 4.1ff; 4.149ff). In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (560–
61), we learn that the Bee-Maidens,35 oracular powers that teach divination (manteiê),
must eat yellow honey before they are inspired (thuiôsin). Fermented honey and the
ecstasy it inspires enable them to tell the truth (alêtheia), but when deprived of it, they
speak falsely (561; see Detienne 1999, 84–85). It is when they feed on honeycomb, that
the Bee-Maidens bring all things to pass (krainousin hekasta 58–59).36 This honey from
the ash tree meanwhile was considered a divine intoxicant not only because it ferments so
easily but also because it was believed to fall from the skies before being collected by
bees—a point Aristotle seems to endorse (History of Animals 553b59).37 It is possibly
that this is the, or one of the, divine intoxicating substances that grace the tongues of the
Muses, and, by extension, the aoidoi, and that enable them to call to memory or “connect
the mind to” the past, present and future. This is consistent with the interpretation of the
third century BC poet/scholar Callimachus, who understood Hesiod’s Muses as a
metaphor for the Bees. They give him a laurel branch and sacred water to drink (entheon
hudôr 5) from the Helicon.38 It is only after he drinks the water (7), Callimachus
contends, that he can compose his poems (Origins 2 ed. Pfeiffer). But the sacred water in
question must be understood as fermented honey that puts him (the aoidos) in a state of
ecstasy, the condition without which he would not be able to proclaim the truth. The
evidence thus suggests that it is perfectly plausible that the early poets did indeed
consume an intoxicating substance like fermented honey—which would be considered
“sacred.” This consumption may have been understood as a catalyst, a preliminary
18

condition for mental preparation that would raise and/or initiate a level of mental
concentration that would (or could) in turn enable the muses to breath and/or implant into
the mind of the poet divine song, thereby facilitating inspiration.

But it seems that this is not the only preliminary precondition required for the poet to sing
a divinely inspired song. Hesiod’s muses (and nymphs) are pictured dancing, engaged in
choral dancing (or a ring dance), before the song begins on the top of Helicon (Hesiod,
Theogony 3–8).39 In Homer’s Odyssey (1.150–55; 4.17–19; 8.256ff), dancing also
precedes the singing of the aoidoi, Phemius and Demodecus. In the case of Demodecus, a
ring dance is performed by “skilled boys” before he begins to sing (and perhaps
thereafter).40 It has been recently argued in some detail that the meter of Homeric (and
Hesiodic) poetry demonstrates that it originated in dance; that is, dance supplies the
meter, and this explains why the dancers set the pace for the songs of Demodecus and
Hesiod (David 2006, 9). Hexameter line components are, as David reminds us, “feet,”
and these are derived from the rhythmic movement (strong and weak) of human legs (or
steps) when dancing (David 2006, 9–10).

Plato, for his part, was well aware of this. In the Laws (2.653d-e; 664e-665a; 700a-c;
790d-e; 795d-e), he contends that while rhythm and harmony, and thus song and dance,
are both divine gifts from Apollo and the Muses, dance precedes song.41 He seems to
understand this as an “evolutionary” phenomenon. He observes that all young creatures
(to neon) love to jump and dance with glee, and utter all sorts of cries. But unlike other
animals (zôia), the gods gave humans a natural sense of rhythm and harmony (rhuthmos
kai harmonia) and the power to perceive and enjoy them (653d-e; 665a). Plato defines
rhythm as “order of movement” and harmony as “order of vocal sounds,” and when the
two are combined, he contends, this is choreia, which he defines as a performance of
song and dance by a chorus. But he also contends that this was not always the case since
Apollo and the Muses42 were our “dance companions” (sugchoreutas) and choral leaders
before they inspired (kinein) us to combine song and dance.43 A crucial point here is that
while Plato suggests that dance and song should be combined in choral performance, he
insists that dance (or dance steps) and thus rhythm, should dictate the kinds of words (and
thus harmony) that should accompany it (Laws 669b-c; for the relation between war
19

dances and festival dance see Morrow [1960, 336–37]).44 Plato even goes a step further
and suggests that the god Dionysus is also part of our divine cohort (Laws 671a–672d).
He is best known as the god of wine and the leader of frenzied dances, and, as in the
Symposium, Plato appears to be suggesting, as Morrow notes (1960, 315), “that
‘enthusiasm,’ or intoxication with the divine, was the driving force underlying all insight
and achievement.” To be sure, Plato believes that Bacchic dancing has a curative effect
(790d–791a), just as wine is valuable as a way of training the young to resist pleasure
(643b–650b), but Plato is conscious of their primitive roots. In sum, he appears to be well
aware that dance, music, and the drinking of a fermented beverage are ritualistic
preliminaries that are part of an inspirational process.

What I am sharing with you today is part of my current research into the early notion of
inspiration (following some previous research on the origin and development of
allegoresis). I focused first and foremost on Homer and Hesiod, for they provide the
earliest recorded accounts on inspiration in the western tradition. We should now have a
better idea of what was understood by the sources of “poetic” talents and skills in early
Greece before the advent of philosophy. In my view, it is clear that Homer and Hesiod
had a firm, indeed religious, conviction that they were inspired by the certain gods,
notably the Muses and Apollo, and that this conviction was shared by their respective
audiences, nobles and commoners alike. In conjunction, there is no good reason to
believe that the iconic bards and their audiences did not have a literal belief in the stories
they told, in particular, the relation between mortals and immortals. With the advent of
philosophy, the belief in poetic inspiration was slowly contested by a small number of
intellectuals in pursuit of a new “truth.” Because their ideas were novel and convincing, it
appeared to other intellectuals that because Homer and Hesiod were divinely inspired,
they must have been speaking allegorically. It is at this crossroads that divine inspiration,
allegoresis, and philosophy converge. All three of these phenomena had a profound
overlapping effect on the entire Greek philosophical tradition from Parmenides onwards,
and they arguably continue to hold a spell over the minds of all cultures and civilizations.
I will have more to say on this during my public lecture tomorrow.
20

Notes
1
enthousiazô, is first attested in Euripides’ Trojans 184; enthousiaô in Aeschylus’ frag.
64a.
2
Cicero, who believed that “no man was ever great without inspiration” (On the Nature
of the Gods (2.167), used, for example, the Latin words afflatus; In On Divination 1.34,
Cicero uses the term instinctus; and in Tusc. 5, 48, he employs concitatio. The Latin
word, afflatus, from the Latin “breathing upon” or “to be blown into” and dating back to
Cicero to convey the notion of inspiration, was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries but
is rarely used today. It is worth noting the importance of the “literal” or “physical”
meaning in the adoption of the “figurative” meaning. For a list of Latin terms for
inspiration, see the results in Perseus word search under “inspiration.”
3
Inspiration was already employed in the early 14th century, while enthusiasm appears in
the late 16th century but more often than not in a pejorative sense.
4
An interpreted sign or prophecy in Homer is a thesphaton (e.g., Od., 11.151, 297).
5
In Homer, the noun pnoiê is used on a number of occasions to convey the notion of
breath as a way of characterizing a god’s direct intervention. Thus at Iliad 20.439,
Athena, by her “breath” (pnoiêi) is able to deflect Achilles spear from striking Hector.
6
apopneiô :”breathe forth” e.g., Il. 6.182; Od. 4.406; empneiô: “blow or breathe upon or
into” e.g., Il. 20.110; Od. 9.381; Od. 19.138 (in the later example we find a god breathing
a thought into a hero’s heart/lungs (phresi). Hesiod’s famous contention that the Muses
breathed a divine voice into him (enepneusan de moi audên thespin, Theogony, 31) will
be discussed in context below. Homer also used the verb ampneiô in the context of breath
as a life force derived from divine powers (Il. 5.697, 22.222). Epipneô, “to breathe upon”
in the context of inspire into, and the noun epinoia “inspiration” are first employed by
Plato (Phaedrus 262d and Timaeus 71c respectively). I will note in passing that verbs
ending in eô denote an activity. It is also important to note that the verb tithemi (to set,
put, place) was also used with a similar, I assume, understanding in Homer (e.g., Od.
1.320–21). Ironically, if unsurprisingly, the most common Greek words are thus almost a
literal translation of the much later Latin inspirare —albeit far more revealing.
21

7
The etymology of the word aêr is still in some dispute: some connect it with aêmi, “to
blow,” and others with aeirô, “suspension,” which in Homer and Hesiod means “mist or
haze”; that is, what is suspended below, but would also include the clouds. Contrary to
aithêr, aêr is connected with darkness, with invisibility (Il. 17. 169; 3656ff). It is thus not
yet understood strictly speaking as the air we breathe (although we find the noun aütmê,
“breath” at Il. 9.609–10, 10.89–90), but given Homer’s description of life-breath in the
context of a man’s phrenes, thumos and psychê (see below), there is already, as we shall
see, a correlation. For a good discussion of the role of aêr (air) in Homer, see Kahn
(1960.140ff).
8
See Chantraine 1968–80, sv. Memona. For an excellent passage that reflects this, see Il.
13.77–82. For a number of Homeric passages in context, see Barra-Salzédo (2007, 35–
43).
9
The notion of menos is often examined separately (see, for example, Bremmer 1983,
57–61). Dihle (1982, 34–35) sees menos as “something numinous which only appears
where the gods unpredictiably interfere with human affairs, thus disturbing the calculable
sequence of events.” Of course, this also explains the relation between consciousness and
breath; see below.
10
Once the divinity breathes menos into the warrior, we are told that at times it is difficult
to extinguish (e.g., Il. 13.59–61, 15.286–93, 16.621; 22.96)
11
See also Il. 18.108 where anger (cholos) in Achilles is described as “increasing/waxing
like smoke in the breasts of men.”
12
Although, as Bremmer correctly notes (1983, 55), thoughts are generally “charged with
emotions.”
13
See also Vernant (1965, 79–94). Gill’s fascinating study (1996) of the distinction
between the Greeks’ and modernity’s view of selfhood (“objective-participant”
conception versus the “subjective-individualist” conception) does not in my view
invalidate Snell’s primary point even if I agree that the Homeric poems do not always
reduce the heroes to mere puppets. There is already a major shift from Homer to the first
philosophers as it concerns the notion of the self. Indeed, the germs of what Gill
characterizes as the modern “subject-individualist” conception of the self was already
22

emerging, as we see in the use of reflectivity in Greek language and thought from Homer
to Plato (Jeremiah 2012).
14
Otherwise, Hesiod asks the Muses on different occasions (T.104–15) to “give him
(dote, 104) lovely song” or “to tell him” (moi espete, 114) from the beginning how the
present order of things emerged.
15
In addition to the aoidos or poet/singer, Homer lists the mantis, “seer,” the kêrux,
‘herald,’ the iatêr, ‘physician,’ and the tektôn, ‘carpenter/metalsmith’—all have a special
relation with a particular god.
16
See Vernant (1965, 60–61); Svenbro (1976); Burkert (1992, 23); Nagy (1989,18ff).
17
For the poet as craftsman, priest, and chronicer in the Indo-European tradition, see
West (2007).
18
Grube’s contention is famously claimed by Plato in the Ion, but also reiterated in other
texts (e.g., Apology 22a–c and Meno 99c–e).
19
The related roots connected with mental states or activities of the mind are numerous.
For example, R. *men- as in menos (spirit, strength, rage; but activities of the mind in
general as in Latin men-s, mentis, mind, thought, intention); *mnê- as in mnêmê
(memory), mimnêskô (remind, call to mind); *man- as in mania (madness); *mant- as in
mantis (seer). According to Nagy (1989, 27), “The very form mousa (<mont-ya: possibly
*month-ya) may well be derived from the same root *men- as in mantis and mania (citing
Chantraine 716, but see also West 2007, 34). If this etymology is correct, then the word
for ‘muse’ reflects an earlier stage where not only the one who is inspired and one who
speaks the words of inspiration are the same, but even, further, the type of mental state
marked by mania is not yet differentiated from the type of mental state marked by
formations with mnê-, ‘have the mind connected with, remember, remind’.” Indeed,
Chantraine, as noted above, also contends that there is an etymological relation between
mania and menos , both of which are associated with a type of “madness” or
uncontrollable possession. For the possible connection of the Muses with the mysteries
and thus etymologically with mustôn, see Hardie (2004, 11–12). Detienne (1999, 40–41),
for his part, seems to have a related, but different position.
23

20
Remembering for Pythagoras and Empedocles on other hand, involves remembering
their own past lives (see, for example, DK21B7 for Pythagoras and DK31B117 for
Empedocles). Such memory is associated with an ascetic purification which transforms
the individual and elevates him to the “rank” of the gods, an inconceivable notion for
Homer and Hesiod.
21
I agree with Vernant (1965, 84–85) that the 400-verse catalogue of ships and warriors
is a perfect example of the minstrel/poet-singer’s memory training.
22
Havelock argues nonetheless that Hesiod “marks the beginning of a great transition.” If
Homer was content to invoke the Muse as the source of his song, the Hymn to the Muses
with which Hesiod prefaces his Theogony is a conscious attempt to explain the origin of
poetry, on the one hand, and how the singer saw himself and his role in society, on the
other (1963, 98).
23
But another interesting feature here is that Phemius also begs Odysseus for his life
because he could be seen as collaborating with the suitors. Telemachus persuades his
father that this is not the case, suggesting, I assume, that Phemius was only following his
divine mission (22.330–53).
24
As we will see, Hesiod make the same contention at Theogony 94.
25
For example, the experience of a desert as opposed to a mountain or sea environment.
26
Indeed, Hesiod is a rural spirit, a seemingly impoverished shepherd (and peasant-
farmer in the Works and Days), which makes his claim all the more compelling (and
audacious!).
27
The classical passage in Homer is Odyssey 19.203 where we read: “he spoke, and made
the many falsehoods of his tale seem true” (iske psueudea polla gegôn etumoisin
homoia.) For a recent detailed discussion, see Arrigetti (1996, 53–70). For the references
to Homer here, see Rudhardt (1996, 30). Plato makes a similar point in the Laws when he
claims that when a poet is sitting on the tripod of the Muses, he cannot control his
thoughts (719c).
28
See Nagy (1996).
29
The noun alêtheia and the adjective alêthês, most often translated as “truth” and “true”
(hence alêthea as “true things”), imply an absence of lêthê or forgetting. Alêtheia and
24

alêthê are thus connected with the root mnê- “to remember” via the root lêth- “to forget.”
But mnê- means more than “to remember,” for it also implies the recovery of the essence
of being (see Nagy 1996, 46 and Vernant 1965, 80–107). Before the rise of philosophy,
alêtheia could be understood as a “non-failure of conscience” whereas lêthê would be
understood as a “failure of conscience.”
30
The skêptron, which is associated with poetic inspiration, is what authorizes Hesiod to
proclaim the truth (see Nagy, 1990, 79; on the rhabdos or staff as the symbol of authority
in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, see Nagy 1989, 24).
31
At Theogony 94 the sacred gift of song comes from both the Muses and Apollo; see
also Homer, Iliad 1.603.
32
In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, on the other hand, there seems to be an “historical”
awareness i.e., this is how the following “human” necessities were
invented/discovered/originated.
33
This explains, I believe, why Hesiod insists that the muse Calliope (Beautiful-Voiced)
is the most eminent of the nine muses because she also attends upon venerated kings
(80). The Muses at times endow certain kings at birth (geinomenon) with the same gift of
sweet-flowing speech as singers (81–84). The divine gift of eloquence is what enables the
king to arbitrate flawlessly and put a quick end to even the greatest disputes (86–87). This
is why he stands out and why the people (laoi) treat him like a god (88–92).
34
In the early philosophical tradition, moisture, connected with drunkenness, “hinders”
intelligence (e.g., Heraclitus DK22B118). See also Anaximenes on breathing in air; and
Diogenes of Apollonia on breathing in intelligence. It is worth noting that dry is also
associated with being unemotional.
35
They dwell under a ridge of mount Parnassus near Delphi.
36
On the importance of the verb kraiein, see Detienne (1999 70ff).
37
For a useful and stimulating analysis of the relation between the ash tree and the honey
in ancient culture, see Dumont (1992, 323–36).
38
Long before Callimachus. Pindar (see Pyth 4. 60ff) strongly suggests as much when he
contends that bees are endowed with a prophetic power and, at Isth. 6.74–75, Pindar
states that he drank from the sacred waters of the Dirce which the daughters of memory
25

caused to spring from the ground. In the case of Pindar, I would take this metaphorically
rather than literally. He is a product of the Classical period, of a literary tradition.
Whatever affiliation he contends to have with the Muses, he is consciously aware that his
poems are his compositions, his creations. They are not affiliated with a long oral
tradition or at least the same oral tradition with which the poems of Homer and Hesiod
are intertwined.
39
Note the dance muse is Terpsichore (lit. Delight in Dancing).
40
Gk: choreia, dance, esp. choral dance with music (LSJ); the verb choreuô means first
and foremost to dance a round or choral dance, indeed, any circular motion including the
movement of the heavenly bodies (LSJ); choreia is first found in the Tragedians; in
Homer and Hesiod, we find choros, dance, but also employed as the place of dance
(LSJ); Homer and Hesiod also use the verb orcheomai, dance, and the nouns
orchêthumos, dance, and orchêsthês, dancer. Chorus may have originally meant a sacred
ring dance.
41
At Timaeus 47d, Plato contends that the Muses gave us rhythm and harmony to assist
us, that is, to make the “orbits” or ours souls conform to, or imitate, those of the universe.
And at Timaeus 40c, Plato describes the planetary orbits as engaged in a divine choreia
or “ring dance” and that the motions of our souls should follow those of this choreia. In
the Laws, it is possible that Plato has such a choreia in mind for all three citizen choruses.
He is quite explicit that the motions of our souls must conform to those of the heavenly
bodies, although dance is but one educational tool (see David 2006, 23).
42
He also mentions Dionysus, which also suggests a role for intoxication!
43
In conjunction, he contends that these gods invented the word “chorus” (choros) after
the “charm” or “delight” (chara) it gives us (654a; see Cratylus on the relation between
chara and chorus).
44
In the Republic (400b-c) Plato insists that the musician Damon knows the “rhythms”
appropriate to social behaviour (e.g., 398d. 399eff) but suggests that the modes and
rhythms should fit the words of good men, rather than the words of good men should
conform to the rhythms and modes (see Gentili 1988, 30–31). But this does not mean that
words preceded song and dance. As David notes (2006, 23): what are people imitating
26

when they are dancing if not other dancing things? In the Philebus (17c-d), Plato is also
clear that rhythms and meters number motions of the body, not the voice. Meanwhile, at
Laws 795d-e, Plato describes, as David (2006, 159) observes, “a type of dancing as one
that belongs to those who ‘imitate the diction of the Muse’ (Mousês lexin mimoumenôn),
that is, the diction of epic hexameter; the other type of dance that Plato mentions here is a
gymnastic or athletic dance (both of which are mentioned in episode with Demodecus in
Homer). For more on the poetry of the dance, see David 2006, 160ff).

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