Do you believe in the gods?
Let’s get back today to our subject from a few weeks ago—the Muse.
We were talking about Homer’s Invocation of the Muse at the start of the Odyssey and the Iliad. This was the great poet’s prayer for divine assistance as he set about creating his masterworks.
Here’s another (slightly lesser but still very interesting) example of the same principle. It’s from Xenophon’s short treatise The Cavalry Commander. I cited it in The War of Art, page 103.
The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words, and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends, and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage.
The ancients really believed in the gods. It wasn’t a joke or a quaint exercise to them. The historical records cite numerous occasions upon which the Spartan army (to cite one example) marshaled, armed, provisioned itself, and marched off to battle, only to reach the frontier of their territory, offer sacrifice, and discover that the omens were bad.
They turned around and marched home. Not once. Many times.
Most of us have read the Iliad in college. We remember Achilles and Hector and Odysseus and all the spearing and hacking and fighting. What we often forget is that in Homer’s tale, the Olympian gods were everywhere on that field of battle. Athena routinely batted arrows and spears out of the air to protect the mortal warriors she favored. Thetis, the Nereid goddess mother of Achilles, soared to Olympus to plead with Zeus on her son’s behalf. Aphrodite produced a great mist on the battlefield to save her favorite, the Trojan prince Paris.
Crazy, isn’t it? It’s 2021. We all know the gods don’t exist—and certainly not these colorful and charming but ultimately preposterous Olympian deities.
Or do they?
I myself recite Homer’s prayer every morning before I sit down to work. And you know what?
Maybe “the goddess” isn’t a female entity gowned in a white peplos who zips back and forth between her home in the clouds above Mount Helikon and Mount Olympus and your house and mine.
But SOMETHING exists … and that mysterious something has SOMETHING to do with the ideas and impulses that come to you and me as we labor to produce our work.
The ancients anthropomorphized. They gave human faces and names to these occult and unknowable forces. That can seem kinda silly to our modern minds.
All I know is SOMETHING is “out there” (or possibly “in here,” inside us.) And that something is positively, actively, intelligently engaged in assisting us in our enterprise as artists. Just like Athena and Aphrodite and Thetis on “the plain of windy Troy,” these unknowable entities intercede on our behalf and guide us on our way.
They are real and they haven’t lost a step.
I love it! Thank you Steve, and welcome back.
I only have one small thought and it’s this. That whenever I’ve been hiking in the hills somewhere, Scotland, Cumbria or Derbyshire, and I’ve injured myself, I noticed that my graze/bruise/sprain healed faster when I gave it attention. Just a little self-massage, exposing to the air to dry, or even merely looking at the injury and wishing it well, made a great deal of difference.
Sometimes the modicum of attention I paid the injury made the difference between it healing and not healing at all.
I believe I gave the inner genius of the body the encouragement and permission it required to get to work. Who knows what the biological process actually was, but there was something not-easily-fathomable that responded.
And isn’t it like that with creative work too?
PS. Steve, when you take time away, I wonder if it would be feasible that you could ‘auto-post’ some sort of blank post, so we could all still chime in and chat? The silence from the tribe last week felt strange. It was odd not being able to air thoughts and high-five in the usual manner.
Sorry about last week, Peter. We’ve had tech glitches where 5000 members got “bounced” and we’ve been struggling to recover. There was a post last week but it didn’t go out, Even I have not been getting posts for a month.
I was just emailing Joe, and it occurs to me that a paragraph I wrote might fit in here. Paradoxically, at risk of controversy, let me put this out there:
“I’m slightly bewildered by the quasi-religious tone the comments are taking. Not that we should try to second guess Steve, but he may not literally believe in Calliope hovering invisibly over him while he writes, but believes instead in the richness of his own unconscious mind, his experience, and innate ability to connect the dots. And that we should realise that we have no conscious control over that, and ought therefore to be humble before, and respectful to, that process, and know when to get out of its way.”
Steve has said he believes in God. And God can’t be only a part of myself; He is in us but also greater than us. So Calliope may not be hovering, but the Holy Spirit may. –Leila
Yes, that resonates with me as well. I believe there is an energy field as close to us as our own breathe; when we pay attention to it, we are in sync and there is a sense of peace that “passes all understanding”. Thank you for the post.
“All I know is SOMETHING is “out there” (or possibly “in here,” inside us.) And that something is positively, actively, intelligently engaged in assisting us in our enterprise as artists.”
Yes. I agree! It is hard to gauge what that “something” is, but I felt it so strongly during my personal hero’s journey in the pit. It was a like beautiful song soothing me in the dark night of my soul to keep going!! Keep working!! Do it for YOU. I follow my intuition. Growth is rarely comfortable though. I regularly go through bouts of OUCH, WTF is this?!
Steve, thank you for sharing your back story with all of us. My sister gave me a copy of The War of Art in 2015 and it has truly helped me get passed a lot of self-destructive tendencies and procrastination (one in the same if I may say so myself!).
I like what Anonymous said. “I believe there is an energy field as close to us as we breathe” Pranayama breath exercises in yoga can release tension, trauma, and increase energy.
Your post also has me thinking of yoga & meditation. Sometimes showing up to the mat and allowing myself to pay attention to my thoughts and my intentions for being there is all I need to shift my frame of mind.
Modah ani (modeh ani for men)..Grateful am I. I come second. I stopped asking God for favors, help, etc for myself many years ago. But I am forever grateful. It’s a morning prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, but I say it when the breeze rustles the leaves, the birds trill, I awaken with a marvelous phrase, put to paper a remembered moment, capture glory with my camera, or when the slow poke in front of me turns right.
As a follower of Jesus (the ‘love your neighbour” Jesus, not the ‘storm the Capitol’ Jesus), I pray before difficult writing assignments, asking for wisdom, clarity of mind, creativity and insight. Inevitably, inspiration strikes, the clock fades into the background, and I step away with a draft that I often barely remember writing. The ‘muse’ for me is as tangible as my laptop or the desk it sits on. Thanks, Steve, for your always intriguing reflections.
I think you have missed something – your ‘Jesus’ isn’t all love and goo – he drove the money changers from the temple – not a lot different from storming the capitol is it?
The reason for unreason, you are right in that he drove the money changers out of the temple by asking that they widen their perspective and face the truth. He did not drive the money changers out of the temple by beating them with his flag or crushing someone’s head under a door or chanting to hang another human being.
It takes real backbone to take beatings, hate, humiliation and offer forgiveness in return. It blows my mind every time I think about how much love he was capable of giving when he was treated with hate.
But…he wasn’t human!
I love you! This part, right here sums up a very positive truth, especially the “in here” part. “All I know is SOMETHING is “out there” (or possibly “in here,” inside us.) And that something is positively, actively, intelligently engaged in assisting us in our enterprise as artists. Just like Athena and Aphrodite and Thetis on “the plain of windy Troy,” these unknowable entities intercede on our behalf and guide us on our way
Thank you for putting it so succinctly and making it digestible.
All I know is I ignored these Gods and Muses for a period of my life that was very dark …. wholly consumed by amateurism and Resistance. When I finally “went pro” and answered their call the light returned.
I offer my writing daily to a higher power.
When I feel stuck, I offer it again and go for a walk, and the right thought, word, idea comes.
If it was good enough for Milton…
Amen. And, wonderfully, not as unknowable as in the days of Homer. Paul discussed this very topic with the ancient Athenians in Acts 17: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul goes on to proclaim his belief that the UNKNOWN GOD revealed himself to him on the road to Damascus in the person of the resurrected Jesus Christ. Paul writes to the Colossians, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form.”. Similarly, best-friend to the Christ, John, wrote, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us …” The author of Hebrews in the same vein: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son … the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being …”
May our hearts stay soft towards the SOMETHING. He rewards those who earnestly seek.
“All I know is SOMETHING is “out there” (or possibly “in here,” inside us.) I’ve spent years looking at this along with studying what science now claims to know about brains. Turns out that in Dr. Gershon’s book Your Second Brain, published over twenty years ago, the smelliest most discussing part of our anatomy may provide the best clues as to what is going on in our inward parts. The gut brain, as I like to call it, is not a thinking brain – it’s a feeling brain. It feels everything from our greatest joys to our deepest sorrows. But here’s the kicker: our nerve cells (neurons) don’t physically connect with their neighbours. There is a tiny space, called the synapse, that all messages, electrical or physical, must jump across. If there is “SOMETHING… inside us” then wouldn’t this little space give it a chance to listen in to whatever the communications are saying? And wouldn’t it also give it the ability to ‘add in’ info messages of its own? Ideas, especially creative ones, must come to us in some mechanical way other than just via some general term like ‘muse’. At least it would be cool to consider it so.
I love the MYSTERY that this post invokes. We all wish we knew exactly what is “out there” or “in there” but honestly, not knowing is the dramatic irony we need to compel us to experiment and find out. Faith isn’t faith if it is simply a solid, known fact. It’s based on belief, and beliefs are tended by actions, thoughts and, most of all, will.
The part I find most intriguing about Steve’s method here, is the element of sacrifice. Whatever is going on out there/in there, the act of sacrifice is our way of humbling ourselves, opening ourselves to discovery, to something new. If we don’t submit, we don’t open and see. If we only *know* then we never learn.
I am going to give myself the assignment today of honing in on just what that sacrifice looks like for me in my writing practice.
Wonderful post. But really, is it so hard to say it is God? All the same, simply named differently. We can use YHWH. This is the source.
In defiance of the gods, particularly claiming to be their equals, the ancients committed the sin of hubris. Their arrogance was punished in various ways. Arachne, a talented weaver who belittled Athena, was transformed into a spider. Remember what happened to Atlas, Tantalus and Sisyphus? Do your duty and praise the gods!
I faced my mortality in 2009. The prognosis wasn’t good. But then something indescribable happened. The closest description I can share is that some people describe a sense of peace. For me it was much more, a sense of complete absence of fear. This feeling was in me and around me at the same time. I felt it in everyone. I should have been terrified, but found myself smiling. I knew without doubt all would be fine. And it was. Since then my path has been clear. Every time I sit down to write, it is there, always there in and out. Do I believe in higher power, God, muses, magic? Hell yes!
I absolutely believe in the gods. They exist and every day I show up at my table so they can work their magic through me.
Thank you for the reminder.
The gods of Greek mythology have always fascinated me. Often, they act as the divine personages by which they are depicted (such as the beauty pageant between Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis – the far catalyst for the fall of Troy). More often, they are simply the personification of the forces of nature and circumstance; fog and friction given agency.
However, as just characters in a story, the gods are outshined by enigmatic figures such as Prometheus, Odysseus, and Pandora. Simply as elemental forces, the gods are basically celebrity nymphs and dryads.
At their best, the gods are both: While Achilles is sulking in the Iliad, Diomedes takes the spotlight with Athena as his charioteer; she is both the jealous goddess and the all-too-human spirit of brazen and berserker hubris as she guides her champion (against his better judgment) to wound the very god of war and to charge the sun.
The Muses represent a slightly different combination of the divine and the personal. From the modern artist to Homer and his peers, these goddesses represent more than just an external agent of inspiration…. for the artist who invokes her is simultaneously summoning his own best talent from within. The efficacy of such is apparent in the work then created.
Of course, the concept of the Muse can also be found outside of classical myth: For Robert E Howard, Kull was his great and timeless hero; yet Kull was far from his most successful. When describing the process of writing Conan, Howard claimed the Cimmerian appeared physically and menacingly stood behind him – threatening violence if Howard failed to do him justice.
Interesting comment. Certainly the Greco-Roman deities are layered as you suggest, it seems to me. Probably because the pantheon was successively expanded as mankind became more culturally sophisticated.
I don’t think it’s a matter of the pantheon so much expanding as society advanced. Often, as time marches on, we see earlier gods and minor deities being subsumed into the identities of the better-known ones.
My theory is that the Greek gods (as well as their counterparts in Roman, Iranian, Norse, etc. mythology) developed relatively organically in comparison to the more recent religions.
Sure, there was a cultural assimilation between many of those societies – which is how we see phenomena like the Roman military cult of Mithras – but the elemental/animistic nature of the gods allowed a fluidity to their character, which could then be manipulated as the individual storyteller saw fit. It’s also how we see the same family of gods giving support to both sides in the Trojan War (Greek cosmology stands out in that the pantheon holds no significant ethnic ties to any particular race or society).
In contrast, the major religions today all were unveiled in full and absolute detail by people claiming sacred insight. Of course, there are still changes and unique interpretations among unique cultures – but these tend to be fringe movements that can be ignored, absorbed, or shut down by the mainstream authority.
Great clarification, thanks Mike. I concur with you that those earlier deities evolved organically, and that is more interesting and illuminating I find.
Thank you, Steve.
I love this bit…But SOMETHING exists … and that mysterious something has SOMETHING to do with the ideas and impulses that come to you and me as we labor to produce our work.
…we all labour to produce our work…now there’s Something in that.
When I write, I forget to eat.
I am incredibly jealous. I have reached flow state while writing before, but never enough that I forget to eat. When will it happen to me?
Sorry I missed you all yesterday (head down on things).
I’ve always liked this quote from WH Murray (from his 1951 book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition”), on the idea of some nonphysical energy that moves in response to our intent and our action. I think Steve has quoted this a number of times:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Some of this stuff is beyond the reach of “human language” to describe it, beyond our minds’ ability to even comprehend it. A creative intelligence, god(s) by the innumerable names we’ve used to label, Providence, “the muse,” guardian angels, spirit guides… Our little three-pound primate brains having an intuition of the creative force of being, trying to understand it. In one of Sam Harris’s talks, he said something about being thrown into the sun, able to carry out only a thimble’s-worth of what exists there.
I think you may like this article, Joe. Science cannot explain consciousness yet. Humans attach narratives to better understand. I particularly love this line from your post: “Our little three-pound primate brains having an intuition of the creative force of being, trying to understand it.” 2D, 3D, 4D, mind inversions (think the movie TENET), perception of time (space-time continuum), or other perceptions that offer us a glimpse into understanding our experience here. I promise you, I haven’t dropped Acid with this post, I’m just saying: we can’t know! That’s faith/love/hope. It hurts like hell to have those because they don’t always work out, but what’s life without them? They persist, timeless, when the flesh is rotting in the dirt!
“Boldness has genius, power, & magic in it”–my mantra for this week! As Pressfield says, “put your ass where your heart wants to be!!!”
I’ll read that, Kate. I like Annaka Harris (“Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind”). On this topic of “panpsychism,” she said: “If there is something of consciousness down at the atomic layer, it would be something like a stream of instantaneous memoryless moments of experience.”
Kate, I just listened to this with Annaka Harris….
I’m intrigued, Joe! I’ll listen soon!
The ancients committed the sin of hubris by defying the gods and pretending to be on par with them. Their hubris was retaliated against in a variety of ways. Arachne, a gifted weaver who sneered at Athena, was turned into a spider. What happened to Atlas, Tantalus, and Sisyphus, do you recall? Do your job and give thanks to the gods!
The Greek gods never liked humanity, anyway.
We’re the creation of Prometheus, a Titan like Atlas. Zeus wanted to destroy us, but was outwitted by Prometheus and settled for raping our women (who are somehow turned on by cuttlefish – have you ever seen a cuttlefish?).
To quote Miyamoto Musashi, “Respect the gods, do not depend on them.”
Thank you dear Steve! Although I can only feel the wonder of infinity, I know that you mean a very certain existence. Please let us know more about it in the future!! The shape and size of the angels in the abstract.
Maybe the gods hear stories about us and, likewise, think we are silly and preposterous creatures that couldn’t possibly exist…
Awesome article. Thank you.
I enjoyed this article.
Although I can only feel the wonder of infinity, I know that you mean a very certain existence. Please let us know more about it in the future!! The shape and size of the angels in the abstract.
Awesome article. Thank you.
Awesome article. Thank you.