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.