What Is The Muse – And How Can You Meet Yours?

Just as anyone who listens to the muse will hear, you can write out of your own intention or out of inspiration. There is such a thing. It comes up and talks. And those who have heard deeply the rhythms and hymns of the gods, can recite those hymns in such a way that the gods will be attracted. – Joseph Campbell

Anyone writing a creative work knows that you open, you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself. To a certain extent, you become the carrier of something that is given to you from what have been called the Muses, or, in biblical language, ‘God.’ This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone. So when one hears the seer’s story, one responds, ‘Aha! This is my story. This is something that I had always wanted to say but wasn’t able to say.’ There has to be a dialogue, an interaction between the seer and the community. -Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

Since I started gathering creative types and those in need of healing together in our Healing With The Muse community (join us here), people have been asking me to define what I mean by “the muse.” So let me take a stab at describing the numinous, ineffable wafts of inspiration that can float in and out like the smell of jasmine blooming in spring.

First let me describe what I don’t mean. When I’m talking about healing with your muse, I’m not talking about some hot chick who lies on a fainting sofa with naked breasts and inspires you to paint her, like Kate Winslet’s character does for Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. Maybe you have one of those kinds of muses- and if she turns on your creative juices, by all means, paint away! 

I’m also not quite talking about the Nine Muses from Greek mythology. The Nine Muses are considered the goddesses of inspiration, calling forth the great impulses of literature, science, music, poetry, and the arts. 

The Nine Muses of Greek mythology are as follows:

  1. Calliope (epic poetry)
  2. Clio (history)
  3. Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry)
  4. Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry)
  5. Melpomene (tragedy)
  6. Terpsichore (dance)
  7. Erato (love poetry)
  8. Polyhymnia (sacred poetry)
  9. Urania (astronomy)

Maybe you have Nine Muses chirping in your ear, and if so, count your blessings and carry on! Don’t let me discourage you with my own personal definition of the muse. But just to be clear, the muse I’m talking about with our Healing With the Muse community is inside of you. Or maybe to be more accurate, the muse may come to visit you periodically- if you’re lucky. And you can cultivate a relationship with her /him /it /they, almost like you’re earning the trust of a timid foster child. Over time, this relationship can become a kind of love affair- or at the very least, a special friendship. 

Your Elusive Creative Genius

I really like the way Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert describes the source of creativity in her TED talk Your Elusive Creative Genius. She says, “In ancient Greece and ancient Rome, people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. 

The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work… And then the Renaissance came and everything changed.  We had this big idea, and the big idea was- let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism.  People started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.”

Liz Gilbert expounds upon this thread in her book Big Magic.

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal…I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along — something powerful and generous— and that something is decidedly not me. You may know this feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful, or done something wonderful, and when you look back at it later, all you can say is: ‘I don’t even know where that came from.’ You can’t repeat it. You can’t explain it. But it felt as if you were being guided. 

I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means “well-daemoned”- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide. (Modern commentators, perhaps uncomfortable with this sense of divine mystery, simply call it “flow” or “being in the zone.”)

But the Greeks and Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity- a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius- your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.

It’s a subtle but important distinction (being vs. having) and, I think, it’s a wise psychological construct. The idea of an external genius helps to keep the artist’s ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work. If your work is successful, in other words, you are obliged to thank your external genius for the help, thus holding you back from total narcissism. And if your work fails, it’s not entirely your fault. You can say, “Hey, don’t look at me- my genius didn’t show up today!”

Either way, the vulnerable human ego is protected. Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive influence of shame.

That’s the kind of muse I’m talking about- the Dobby the house elf kind, the genius kind, the kind that all of us can connect with in ways that offer healing, fill us with divine inspiration, and make us remember why it’s awesome to be alive in a body and able to lose ourselves in creative flow, even in the midst of a lethal pandemic, political divisiveness, the aftermath of the childhood trauma we all endure, and the horrors of this culture and this planet. 

You Have A Muse!

People who join Healing With the Muse get an introductory video of me talking about Internal Family Systems as it relates to this muse, the creative genius house elf, and parts that have had their creativity hurt. Healing those hurts can be a powerful activator of the muse in ways that can restore magical child parts who just love to play and offer inspiration. I liken the muse to your Inner Pilot Light, that umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God,” as poet Mark Nepo describes it in Unlearning Your Way Back to God.

Whether you identify your muse as God, a creative genius, a house elf, your Inner Pilot Light, or Santa Claus, you have a muse. I promise!

If you’re interested in deepening your connection to your muse and learning to receive inspiration from it in ways that can improve your physical and mental health, we welcome you in Healing With The Muse.

We’ll be discussing this elusive relationship between you, your muse, and the parts that might inhibit your connection to the muse- so we can heal those rifts and open your channels to divine inspiration. We hope to see you there!

Join Healing With The Muse