Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Amusing Series of Words

2010 Bee contestant Will recently suggested we add terpsichorean to the Bee word list. The word means “pertaining to dance” and it comes from one of the nine muses, the one named Terpsichore. Will’s suggestion got me to thinking about Muses and who they were and why we have them.

The Muses were a mythical set of nine sisters, born of a union between Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory). According to Hesiod, who credits them with breathing into him his [inspired?] work Theogony, “their nature is forgetfulness of evil and rest from cares”. Zeus, says Hesiod, makes kings, but the Muses make artists--and it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that Hesiod thinks the Muses have the better job. The Muses are more or less culture, personified. The Ancient Greeks assigned a variety of talents to these sisters, as follows:

Calliope: heroic poetry and epics
Clio: history
Erato: erotic poetry
Euterpe: flute accompaniments
Melpomene: tragedy
Polyhymnia: sacred songs
Terpsichore: Dance and choral singing
Thalia: festivity, music in general
Urania: the heavens, astronomy

According to my trusty and somewhat heretical The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Barbara G. Walker, Harper & Row, 1983—it’s a wonderful read, I absolutely recommend it), the Muses were initially a triune female goddess, the Ideas (that’s deas as in deities). I guess they had too many talents for only three goddesses.

It’s engaging to read the list and think that these are the categories into which ancient Greeks sorted their cultural activities. I can understand a muse for sacred songs, dance, and even erotic poetry, but really--a goddess of flute accompaniments? If Euterpe lived in my household, she’d probably be the muse of competetive burping.

You can read through the list and see some obvious relationships between the goddesses’ names and English words which describe their areas of expertise. There’s a hymn in Polyhymnia, and Mnemosyne must have given us mnemonics. Erato sounds like erotic. Euterpe has the “eu” that marks euphemism and Eugene (it means “good” or “well”). And although we cannot see her without a telescope and some knowledge of her art, Urania lives on in the sky with the planet Uranus.

But things get murkier from there on out. Why is the steam-powered musical instrument named the Calliope? Well, the calli in Calliope means “beautiful” (Bee players of the past will remember the bonus word callipygian which means “having beautiful buttocks”). Calliope has a beautiful voice, which the Greeks dedicated to heroic poetry and recitation. The Clio awards keep that muse in annual parlance, although--unless you are very cynical--the notion of awards for excellence in advertising is not exactly representative of the original Clio’s intentions.

The ones that stumped me are Euterpe, Thalia and Terpsichore. Theoi.com explains that Terpsichore means “delight of dancing” and Euterpe means “giver of delight”, and goes on to tell us that the ancient Greek word terpein meant “delight”.

Thalia has the best name, I think: theoi.com tells us that it comes from a word used to describe banquets, and means “luxurious, rich, plentiful and abundant.” Someone should name a shampoo after her!

The Muses give us the word amusing, and, seeing the body of knowledge that they represent, it’s no surprise. How many mothers and fathers have amused their children, and have sung, danced, recited stories and nursery rhymes, and in the process provided their offspring with a cultural framework in which to grow up?

It would be lovely to think that the Muses live in museums, a word which is fairly new to English, according to Charles Hodgson, coming via Latin from the Greek museion or temple of the muses. However, scanning the list, I have my own idea: I think these days the Muses are living (or are imprisoned, maybe) on Cable TV. Think about it: we have the History Channel, A&E, and Showtime (choral singing + dance = musicals). Melpomene has the soap operas sewn up, and—well, we’ve already talked about Clio and her namesakes. Think about that the next time you pick up the remote and mutter “200 channels and nothing to watch”!

Thanks, Will, for the amusing excursion.

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