A Historical Overview of Our Topic—"Women and Inspiration"

"Inspiration"’s beginnings:

        Though the lives of men and women in the ancient world seem to have been rigorously defined by gender roles, both could be poets. The ancient world's understanding of creativity tended to be deeply bound up with its religious practices, particularly its "pneumatic" theory of spirit possession. A tiny, powerful entity, the Greeks called a daemon, entered our bodies with the breath and "inspired" our minds to creative activity. This process was thought to account for everything from singing to cooking to creating effective war strategies. Chants, charms, spells, laments, and praise-songs accompanied most daily activities, so the poetic daemon was particularly of interest.

        Over time, the daemon's gender became important and their hierarchy was described as a kind of divine "court," with ranks of deities descending from the highest to lowest spheres of human experience. Particular gods and goddesses were given dominion over particular fields of human activity (e.g., Aphrodite for erotic behavior; Apollo for ascetic artistic design), and, in Western European cultures, a separate subset, called the "Muses" and "Graces" were assigned to the arts. They always were female, and they appear to tend the needs of male poets. The Three Graces, daughters of Zeus and Eurynome (wide-wandering or wide-ruling), were more generalized representations of the state of mind conducive to creation: Aglaia (brightness), Euphrosyne (happy-mindedness), and Thalia (festiveness). The Nine Muses, perhaps later inventions, had several "birth" stories (Zeus and Mnemosyne [memory], Zeus and Harmonia [concord], Uranus and Gaia [heaven and Earth]). Eventually each had a name and an art: Clio (history), Urania (astronomy), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia ("borrowed" from the Graces, comedy), Terpsichore (dance), Calliope (epic poetry), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (divine poetry), and Euterpe (lyric poetry). Christianity persecuted the worshipers of these pagan agents of inspiration and replaced those (now) "demons" with a male Holy Spirit (also "the Paraclete" and "Spirit of Truth"), by which the prophets, apostles, and first translators of the Bible were inspired. However, the process still mainly seemed to serve male writers’ needs.

Women writers and the "inspiration" model of creativity:

        Women writers were faced with two obvious problems. Most obviously, from Classical Greece through late medieval times, they were under strong social pressures to abstain from public activity, though those pressures could be and were resisted by women of strong character and independent wealth. But upon what power might they call for their inspiration? The first solution seems obvious--women could imitate male poets' work, but this creates surprising problems because of the imitator's gender difference from the models. This "silent period" lasted until the 12th century CE, when social changes we only recently have understood brought about a kind of early "renaissance" in which women could write as women, about things that mattered to them and their social roles. At about this time, the battle narratives and religious meditations that had been the dominant literary forms were supplanted by the romance, a genre in which the individual consciousness became a common subject of literature again, women suddenly emerged as major characters and as important members of elite court society, and women writers began to refer to their own sense of authority. They still often appear to be addressing male audiences, however. It takes almost 600 more years before comparable progress in the 16th to 17th centuries CE made women (in England and America) routinely literate and enabled women to discover a female tradition of authority.

How we’ll explore the results of this process:

        The first four weeks of the course will trace the development of the "Muse" doctrine of poetic inspiration from its earliest sources in Greek literature to the Classical era's codification of male and female roles. Many women involved, including poets and female characters, challenge the subjects poetry traditionally has addressed, and actively participate in visionary experience that inspires them to speak by interacting with the gods, but the results (especially when described by male poets) are not always fortunate. The inspired woman became associated with madness and monstrous deception, and from the status of goddess she fell to a mere witch or malevolent "succubus," an erotic demon who comes to men in their sleep.

        The post-Classical era’s suspicion of female inspiration persists for roughly a thousand years, but we will explore some Medieval and Renaissance women's attempts to find inspiration in existing literary genres, the Breton lai, the mystic vision, the sonnet, and various other lyric forms. These works also represent their world differently from those produced by male poets, and the role of supernatural visions remains extremely important to their expression, whether as sincerely reported personal experience or as metaphors for other forms of experience.

        Finally, in the works of modern novelists and essayists, we will find women self-consciously searching for a poetic tradition of their own, sometimes taking on male pseudonyms to "pass" as authors, and at other times being inspired to make new myths from their lives to find modern inspiration. Often, the modern "muse" becomes a friend or parent who has been silenced or struggles to speak, and whose voice inspires the author.