The Muse Pt.1: A Planting Song an essay in mythopoetics by Stephanie Pope for
myth and poetry


The Muse Pt.1: A Planting Song
by Stephanie Pope

I first moved to the town I live in now about ten years ago. It was not the happiest moment in my life. That is because I never planned a move  nor dreamt of living where I do now. I had just remodeled the home we built shortly before the birth of our first child more than twenty years earlier and I was trying to settle to the notion of empty-nesting. I may have been wondering what the likeness in the likes of ‘golden years’ could mean.

We planted our first fledgling tree before we broke ground to build our house. Over the years we planted many more trees and gardens, fruit and flower. Funny I should move to a desert; even more so, funny to move from a landscape of trees to Fountain Hills, a town whose image centers around a fountain at the base of a mountain. Alas, I was still a stranger to the Muse in those days.

I thought of this again just yesterday when I went to witness the planting of a new tree, this one a Chaste tree. (agnus-castus) Maybe it is the name or maybe it is being with the three women in a difficult moment of one woman’s life. The new owner of the chaste has just undergone her second treatment in battling ovarian cancer. The tree seems a kind of muse in this tense interim while waiting to see if this second round of chemo will do the trick. Chaste leaves and bark and berry are herbals often used to assist women in keeping harmonic their monthly flow. I used it myself at the onslaught of menopause to avoid hysterectomy. Chaste regulates excessive blood flow and exceedingly long menses. It seems the Chaste plays nursemaid to trees of human life. The Chaste, a kind of fount, in-spires
finds there in the highland
where the heart lives
high above

where the heart lives
                              - Planting Song, unpublished  

Such is the song of a tree that is a fountain. Recall Plato.

Anyone whom Love touches becomes a poet, though a stranger to the Muse before.
                                                                                  -Symposium 196d

This morning I also began to think once more of “the little phrase”, the song heard in a harmony that plays beyond the mind and which remains ungraspable to the mind precisely where it opens and constellates soul. A life seems suddenly new when drawing near a synaesthesia that would cause to recreate the original song who stung the animal where matters mater soul. Images emerge shaped in states of matter where the matter acts upon what goes on in soul-making images.  

Fountain of MercuryAnd so, I find myself this morning thinking about fountains: the fountain of Mercury, which in alchemy is coniunctio, the font of Wisdom, which in philosophy is Sophia, the fountain of the Muses which in ancient Greece gathers at the base of Mt Helicon.

“Helicon” means spiral. The energies of an inspiration spiral up from the depths at the base of the mount. The source of these waters of inspiration are hippou krene, meaning waters of the horse. The horse is Poseidon’s gift. But, that is just one telling. Other traditions tell other things. What else is discovered says that the Muses are understood as goddesses and that they are like clouds. They belong to a middle path and a liminal ground, an imaginal dimension.

From The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion (297-298)…

The Muses are daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.…Other traditions claim they are daughters of Harmonia or Ouranos and Ge.

They are called goddesses from the earliest sources on, and their attitude to mankind is identical to that of the gods: they do not hesitate to destroy a mortal who dares to usurp their place (so Thamyris in Homer's Iliad, whom they maimed and deprived of his skill), and they are divinely contemptuous of humankind (it does not matter to them whether the poetry they inspire is true or false).  Muses appear both singly and in groups of varying sizes… The earliest sources locate the Muses at Pieria, just north of Olympus, and on Olympus itself; they are associated with the so-called Thracian bards, Orpheus, Thamyris, and Musaeus.  That region appears to have been their first home.  A southern group, the Muses of Helicon, is identified by Hesiod with the Muses of Olympia and Pieria, perhaps because of an underlying connection between the two regions (compare Mt. Leibethrion and its nymphs in the Helicon massif with Leibethra in Pieria in Macedonia), but possibly because the young poet himself saw fit to make the association as a means to enhance his own reputation.

Hesiod's influence led eventually -- but possibly not before the 4th cent. BC -- to the establishment of a formal cult and sanctuary below Mt. Helicon in the Vale of the Muses.

Claude Lorrain, Apollo and the Muses on Mt Helicon
Apollo And The Muses On Mt Helicon, 1628, -Claude Lorrain Painted when the artist was almost eighty, this work represents Apollo, god of poetry and music, surrounded by the nine Muses, embodiments of the arts. At the upper right, the winged horse Pegasus has dislodged a rock, thus releasing the waters of Hippocrene, the fountain of the Muses and the source of artistic inspiration. The running brook is the Castilian spring, which, like another, the Pierian,
was a source of inspiration and learning where we are advised to drink deep.

These discrepancies in genealogy relate to the presidium of Muses. They preside over the mind in thought through all its forms and preside in the wisdom of our thoughts whose philosophical twists remind the primacy of the rule in song in governing the soul of the world.

In Gods of the Greeks Kerenyi relays more regarding the Muses.

Hesiod told us of the marriage of Zeus with Mnemosyne.  For nine nights the two lay together in their sacred resting-place, far from the other gods.  When a year had passed, Mnemosyne bore nine daughters, all of the same nature, addicted to song and concerned with nothing else.  She bore the Muses at a place not far from the summit of snow-covered Mount Olympus; here they were thought to have their dancing-grounds and palace.  With the Muses dwelt the Graces and Himeros, the double of Eros.  From their dancing-grounds they would go in procession to Olympus, with immortal song.  The black earth echoed with their hymns, and lovely was the tread of their feet as they went to their father.  They also had a dancing-ground on the summit of Helicon, near the hippou krene, "the fountain of the horse", and the altar of Zeus.  Whenever they went thence in procession to Olympus, they were wrapped in clouds.  One could only hear their wondrously beautiful voices in the night.

The waters live in a spring at the base of the mountain and, as the story goes, the spring is where Zeus lay with Mnemosyne for nine nights to conceive the Muses. The passages reaffirm the spring dwelling at the base of the mountain is the source of the energy that comes spiraling up and manifests in Muse i.e. in what guides our thoughts, both true and false.

Pausanias (287) adds something more Kerenyi shares

a man named Pieros, a man of Macedonia, which lies to the north of Mount Olympus, came to the region of Mount Helicon and there instituted the cult of nine Muses, instead of the former three.  He himself, so the story goes, had nine daughters, the Pierides, who had the same names as the nine Muses, and in fact had originally themselves been these nine.  Or, in another story… they were only false Muses, but set themselves up as rivals to the true ones and, having been defeated in a singing contest, were turned into birds.  When they sang, all grew dark and nobody listened to them.  When the true Muses sang, everything stood still: sky, stars, sea and rivers.  Mount Helicon itself began in its rapture to grow up to heaven, until the winged horse Pegasus, on Poseidon's command, struck the mountain with its hooves: whereupon arose the fountain hippou krene.  This tale of a singing contest and of two sorts of Muses, the true and the false, may be of a late period.  From their very beginning the Muses could assume the shape of birds, as also could the Sirens, who likewise were beautiful singers.  In other respects the Muses were very close to the fountain-nymphs, just as their mother Mnemosyne was associated with springs, both in the Underworld and in the upper.(Antonius Liberalis Mythographicus,288)

And so, one can see Memory is the source through which all inspiration springs Muse, singly or sized, yet upon whose lips song pours forth harmony in play beyond the mind what remains ungraspable to it precisely where it has opened and constellates soul.

My friends choose well the spot they plant their new tree. Like the Muse, the song of the tree is singing water and hunts here its fount with deeper eyes blessed by a loveliness having yet to sing.

Next Week The Muse: Pt 2: Fountain of Youth



Muse Series
Part Two : Fountain of Youth


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