Muse was the first word I saw on my feed this morning, courtesy of The Daily Post. I think this daily prompt idea is wonderful, and to make it even better, this one happened to be a particularly interesting one for me.

My first association with the word were the Muses of Greek mythology (later adopted by Romans), which is unsurprising considering that I’ve studied Latin for the last 6 years and have a fairly good grounding in Classical mythology. Then the linguaphile in me piped up, pointing out that “muse” also has a second meaning: to ponder on something, or as the OED puts it –

1 Be absorbed in thought:he was musing on the problems he faced

     1.1 Say to oneself in a thoughtful manner:‘I think I’ve seen him somewhere before,’ mused Rachel

     1.2 (muse on) Gaze thoughtfully at:the sergeant stood, his eyes musing on the pretty police constable
(thank you Oxford English Dictionary!)
Deciding to combine both, I began to consider what I already knew about muses and musing.
Of musing I knew only the definition (seen above), but of muses I’d heard a bit more. Being associated with the arts, they were often invoked by those who practised them: poets and writers, artists, etc. Not only was this done in Classical times but also later, when the Renaissance brought the ancient Greek and Roman back into fashion, for example in the works of Pushkin. The frequency and widespread nature of such invocations lead to some interesting linguistic and literary phenomena: firstly, “muse” obtained a second, metaphorical meaning as a term for someone (or, more rarely, something) who inspired an artist or writer; secondly, it could be used in clever ways to subvert expectations and thus set the mood in pieces of text.
A wonderful example of this is in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, where instead of appealing to the Muses to help him describe the Underworld, he instead calls on Chaos and Phlegethon:
Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes,
et Chaos, et Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,
sit mihi fas audita loqui; sit numine vestro
pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas!
(Quote taken from Perseus)
Which translates (roughly) to:
O gods, in whose domain are souls, silent shadows,
and Chaos, and Phlegethon, the broad places of the silent night,
may you permit me to tell what I have heard; may your divinity
reveal things buried in the fog and deep earth!
This helps make the point that the Underworld is a different, alien place where the muses have no power, and darker entities reign supreme.
A bit of surface research, however, revealed a few more things to add into my bank of knowledge. “Green muse”, for example, is metonymic to absinthe, although this use is rare. I was also surprised to find out that the noun “muse” and the verb have slightly different etymologies. It was never really a question I had considered, but as inspiration and thinking are vaguely related as to do with the human mind it never occurred that the origins of the words could be quite different. Whereas the noun “muse” can be traced through French back to Latin to Ancient Greek μονσα (mousa), the verb “to muse” goes back to Old French muser (to meditate, think about), and possibly Medieval Latin, but from there the trail is cold.
On the other hand, Wikipedia suggests that μονσα is originally derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) stem *men-, which means “think”, and which underwent an o-grade ablaut (i.e. the e changed to an o). Therefore the Old French muser which went on to become the English to muse may also have come from this PIE stem, making the verb and the noun vaguely related – great-great-great cousins, so to speak.
As for the mythological muses themselves, I finally found out why I was never sure about their number: different authors recorded different ones, as well as describing different and contradictory familial ties to other gods! Most common, however, are depictions of 9 muses, of whom there is a wonderful list on Wikipedia along with their domains and associated symbols. It was also interesting to find out that the Greek μονσα referred not just to the goddesses but also to the arts in general, and that the word “museum” is originally from the Greek μονσειοη (mouseion), a place where the muses were worshipped. It also, although obvious, had never occurred to me that the word “music” also comes from the muses, while the words “mind”, “mental”, “memory” and “mantra” all also come from the same PIE stem *men-.
All that is left to me now is to await the next prompt word tomorrow and see what new knowledge that brings me.
Musa, me ad humanitatem ducat!
O muse, may you lead me to culture/kindness!

2 thoughts on “Musing on Muses and Etymology

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