In mythology and the epics we encounter three different female characters: the Muse, the Siren, and the Echo. But these three women are more than just characters; they are three distinct Voices, each singing a different song—some to destruction and some to life.
At the heart of every myth is the Muse. She is the divine source of every story, and Homer does not utter a word before he calls upon her. We moderns are tempted to view the formulaic invocation of the Muse as solely a literary device—a nod to creativity and imaginative inspiration. Perhaps we might even admit that the invocation is a prayer whereby the poet is asking for divine help to tell a good story. But that is not how the ancients would have thought about it all.
For the modern, the story comes from the storyteller. The poet conjures a tale from his own imagination. We expect our stories to be original works, appearing like phantoms. But the ancient poet had a completely different understanding both of the function of the poet and the purpose of story. For the ancient, the primary function of the poet is not to create, but to remember.
The mother of the Muses is Mnemosyne, memory. When the poet calls out for the aid of the Muse, he is issuing a prayer asking for help to remember. Creation, then in this regard, is a recreation of memory. The poet is remembering via divine aid and passing down that memory to his audience. As William Blake put it, the imagination brings to life the specters of the dead who inhabit the memory, creation thus being to memory what resurrection is to death (Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye).
To follow the call of the Muse is to avoid both the temptation to become enamored with the present and the temptation to become enamored with the past.
Therefore the Muse herself is a character in the story. It is her voice calling us to remember. To remember the past and our cultural traditions, to remember where we came from, to remember who we are, and to ultimately remember where we want to go. This memory, this voice from the past, does not call us back to remain in the past, but guides us forward–creating for us a vision of the future rooted in the past. When we know from where we have come, we know how to move forward. So many voices call us to forget where we want to go; the Muse calls us to remember. So the Muse is the Voice from the Past that calls us forward, to continue in the stream of living memory.
The Muse therefore stands in contrast to the Siren. In mythology the Sirens are universally understood as destructive voices. Whereas the voice of the Muse is the voice of Resurrection and life, the voice of the Siren brings death. But what exactly does that voice sing? What precisely is the nature of this particular lure to destruction?
In the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus that to safely return home, he must avoid the temptation of the Sirens. She tells him that whoever listens to the Sirens’ singing has no prospect of coming home, and she instructs him that the only way to resist the enchantment of the melody is to stop the ears of his men. Odysseus obeys.
As the deafened men sail safely past the Sirens, we hear the exact nature of this melody: “Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing . . . for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ despite.”
Like the Muses, the Sirens sing a song of the past, recalling the memory of Odysseus’ past in the Trojan War. But in contrast, the Sirens do not sing a memory to help Odysseus remember, they want him to forget. They tempt Odysseus to abandon his journey home, to forget his wife and child and kingdom, and to live in the glory of the past. Of course this is a deceptive promise for if he abandons his quest and attempts to live in the past memory of the Siren song, he will crash his ship and be destroyed.
The voice of the Siren is the voice that calls you to forget. The voice that tempts you to live in the past, to dwell on your past glory. Do not move forward, it sings. Forget where you want to go. Try to live in the memory and die.
Homer shows us that the voice of the Siren is destructive. The only defense against it is to ignore and resist those voices. They cannot be debated or reasoned with, they must be silenced. Put the wax in your ears and stay on the path forward.
Yet another voice is Echo who was cursed by Hera and had her voice taken from her. No longer could she speak anything except to repeat the last few words spoken to her. Unlike the Muse and the Siren, the Echo is not a voice from the past. It is a voice trapped in the present. No call to remember. No call to forget. But a voice to keep you stuck in the moment.
Fittingly, Echo is attached to Narcissus, the man who is trapped in the moment. He stares at his own reflection–neither focused on the future nor his past. He is infatuated with his present in a destructive way. Ultimately his enslavement to the present leads to his death. Echo watches helplessly, unable to save the man she loves because she cannot call him out of the present. She cannot, like the Muse, help him remember who he is. He is entrapped in a moment, and Echo can only keep him in the present, another mirror, reflecting back his own words to him—to the destruction of both of them.
The lesson then for us as we navigate our own lives is: Which of these three voices are we heeding? Are we trapped in the present without any concern for where we have come from or where we are going? Are destructive voices tempting us to forget what we know is important and true and abandon our callings unto our destruction? Or do we ask for the guidance of the Muse and heed her call, the call to remember.
Likewise we have to ask ourselves, what voices come from our mouths. Especially as classical educators we must regularly ask what voices we are speaking into our students. Are we so focused on present concerns that we ignore the voices and wisdom of the past—the voices that can save our lives? Are we teachers who echo the wisdom of the day without reflection and contemplation? On the other hand, do we sing the melody that tempts our students to become so enamored with the past that they lose their way forward and crash upon the rocks of an illusory past golden age? Or do we speak with the wisdom of the Muse and bring all the collective wisdom of the past memory to our present lives in a way that allows us all to move forward and remember our calling?
TO FOLLOW the call of the Muse is to avoid both the temptation to become enamored with the present and the temptation to become enamored with the past. Both the Siren and the Echo will make you forget and lead you to destruction. But the Muse will teach you to honor the past in a way that brings forth life to both our present and our future. It is a living memory of the past, not a dead end.
This is why John Milton, the great Christian poet, makes the connection between the Muse and the Holy Spirit. For Milton, when we ask for the guidance of the Muse, we are really asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help us to remember all which we have forgotten and to remind us of the way forward. To help us, like Odysseus, to make the journey home.
Sing, O goddess, and help us to hear.