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        Invocations of the Muse in Homer and Hesiod: A Cognitive Approach
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Abstract

In this paper, I offer a cognitive analysis of the invocations of the Muse in earliest Greek epic poetry that is based on recent advances in cognitive science in general and the cognitive science of religion in particular. I argue that the Muse-concept most likely originated in a feeling of dependence on an external source of information to provide the singer with the subject matter of their song. This source of information is conceptualised as an ontological type (or template) ‘person’ by means of the hyperactive agency detection, and the Muse’s full access to strategic information, along with other characteristics, establishes her as a minimally counter-intuitive concept (that is to say a concept that conforms to most of our intuitive expectations and runs counter to a few of them), which, in turn, significantly increases the probability of the acquisition and transmission of the Muse-concept within the culture.

Over the past several decades, the invocation of the Muse in earliest Greek epic poetry has been studied in some detail and from various theoretical perspectives. 1 The main aim of the present study is to offer an interpretation of these invocations that is based on recent advances in the cognitive science of religion. A cognitive approach to some aspects of the Homeric epics has been fruitfully applied, especially by Elizabeth Minchin, who argued that ‘Homer’s narrative is for the most part founded and generated by cognitive structures which organise the memory storage not only for singers, like Homer, in an oral tradition, but of all individuals’. 2 Minchin, however, focussed predominantly on the function of memory and shares little more than some important methodological principles with the present study.

The argument shall proceed in three steps. Section 1 collates primary data for the analysis, presenting and commenting on all the most important mentions of the Muse in Homeric epics and Hesiod. Section 2 offers a critical review of the most important hypotheses concerning the origin and function of such invocations that have been formulated so far. Section 3 briefly introduces the cognitive science of religion, applies some of its theoretical concepts to the invocations of the Muse in the earliest Greek poetry, and opens a discussion of its relation to the hypotheses of mostly philological provenance that have been reviewed in the previous section. I will argue that a cognitive account helps to explain why the Muse-concept makes for a good candidate for religious worship as well as for an effective authority-enhancing and attention-generating device for the singer.

Primary Data

In Homeric epics, the Muse is explicitly mentioned 14 times. 3 The number of mentions grows to 15 if we include the very first verse of the Iliad, where the vocative θεά undoubtedly refers to the Muse. In Hesiod’s oeuvre, we find 17 direct references. 4 We may provisionally divide these into two distinct categories, ‘invocations sensu stricto’ (further subdivided into ‘major’ and ‘minor’ ones) and mere ‘mentions’. The presentation of primary data that follows is arranged by category (major invocations first, minor invocations second, mentions last) and, within each category, the material from Homeric epics is discussed first. I conclude this section with a more careful consideration of Phemios’ claim to be αὐτοδίδακτος (Hom. Od. 22.347) and the claim of Hesiodic Muses to have the capacity to speak ψεύδεα πολλὰ ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα (Hes. Theog. 28).

In invocations sensu stricto, the singer addresses the Muse directly, which is carried out grammatically using the vocative case of the nominal form and the imperative mood of the verbal form. Mere mentions always reference the Muse indirectly using the third person. Invocations sensu stricto are embedded within the proems introducing each Homeric epic (Il. 1.1-8; Od. 1.1-10). The central theme of each epic is introduced by the same formal phrasing: a noun in the accusative (μῆνιν, ἄνδρα) followed by a verbal form in the imperative mood (ἄειδε, ἔννεπε), an address to the Muse in the vocative (θεά, Μοῦσα), a relative proposition presenting the poem’s main theme, and the conclusion of a repeated direct address to the Muse, in the form of either a question (τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;) or a renewed invitation to sing (τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν). In both cases, the singer is portrayed as an intermediary, receiving instruction directly from the Muse and passing it to the audience. 5

An invocation sensu stricto is also found in both fully extant works by Hesiod. In Theogony, it is embedded within the larger frame of a hymn in which the Muse is not only directly addressed but also celebrated as a deity. It is probably impossible (and of dubious heuristic value here) to attempt an exact demarcation of the various elements in the first 115 verses of the Theogony (proem, hymn, invocation, etc.), 6 yet the beginning of the invocation is usually placed at verse 104, 7 or alternatively 114. 8 A significantly shorter invocation of the Muse is also found in the first few lines of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Op. 1-4). In both Hesiodic invocations, as in the two Homeric ones, the singer is described as fully reliant on the Muse in his endeavours.

The invocation narrowly defined is also present in several verses prefacing the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ (Hom. Il. 2.484-93) that establish a contrast between the κλέος of mortals and the divine knowledge offered by the Muse. The meaning of the term κλέος in verse 486 has been the subject of a lively scholarly discussion. For some, it denotes an inferior level of knowledge; 9 for others, it represents ‘oral tradition’ or ‘traditional poetry’ based on information obtained by hearsay (and therefore in opposition to information authenticated by the goddess); 10 for others still, the two lines contrasting human and divine knowledge are to be read as an expression of awe towards the goddesses via a rhetorical device in which ‘[a]n ascription (or an implied ascription) of a property F to the gods is coupled with a denial of F to humans’. 11 Regardless of the interpretation one might prefer, the invocation prefacing the Catalogue of Ships clearly amounts to yet another instance of the singer’s self-professed dependence on the Muse.

The Iliad also includes so-called ‘minor’ invocations, spanning no more than three lines in length and parallel in structure, with the formulaic ἔσπετε νῦν μοι Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι introducing most of them. 12 The singer always asks a specific question and invites the Muse to provide an answer (Il. 2.760-2; 11.218-220; 14.508-10; 16.112-13). In Hesiod’s Theogony, we find two instances of minor invocations (Theog. 965-8; 1021-2). It may be concluded that all invocations sensu stricto, both major and minor, depict the poet as heavily reliant on the Muse as a source of unerring information, this information being indispensable for his poetic activity.

In addition to the direct addresses to the Muses that have been discussed above, we find in the earliest Greek epic poetry several mentions commenting indirectly on the process of poetic creation and discussing the relationship between the singer and the goddess. In the Odyssey, this is accomplished particularly through the descriptions of Demodokos (Od. 8.62-75; 477-91), a blind singer at the court of Alkinoös, king of the Phaiakians, and Phemios, a bard working his art at Odysseus’ palace in Ithaka (Od. 1.325-7; 1.154; 22.330-77). In Hesiod’s poetry, we find valuable commentary in the famous Dichterweihe episode at the beginning of his Theogony. 13

The description of Demodokos in the Odyssey corroborates the presumed dependence of the singer on the Muse. It is she who grants the poet the song (Od. 8.63: δίδου δ’ ἡδεῖαν ἀοιδήν) and impels him to sing (Od. 8.73: Μοῦσ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸν ἀνῆκεν ἀειδέμεναι). Several hundred verses later, Odysseus repeats that it is the Muse who ‘taught’ the singers their songs (Od. 8.480-1: σφέας οἴμας Μοῦσ’ ἐδίδαξε) and the divine origin of poetry is further established by Demodokos’ capacity to sing about the events that occurred at Troy κατὰ κόσμον (Od. 8.489). 14

The emerging picture of the poet that is in one way or another substantially dependent on the Muse is, at least prima facie, somewhat put into question by Phemios. To defend himself in the course of the raging μνηστηροκτονία, Phemios begs Odysseus to spare him, as with his song the bard pleases both mortals and immortals. Yet the good singer continues with the words ‘I am taught by myself, but the god has inspired in me the song-ways of every kind’ (Od. 22.347-8: αὐτοδίδακτος δ᾽ εἰμί, θεὸς δέ μοι ἐν φρεσὶν οἴμας | παντοίας ἐνέφυσεν, transl. Lattimore).

How is it possible for Phemios to plausibly claim both that he is αὐτοδίδακτος – a term that would seem to imply complete independence – and that he is inspired by some divine entity? After all, the invocations sensu stricto, major and minor alike, as well as remarks on Demodokos’ modus operandi all make it very clear that the poet indeed is dependent on the Muse. Some scholars have accepted these lines in their apparent incompatibility with other claims found in Homeric epics and concluded that ‘Homer is ambivalent as to whether the poet is an independent artist or a medium of the Muses’, 15 while others have seen in Phemios’ assertion a ‘claim of artistic originality’ 16 or argued for a compromise view that takes the poetic art to be partly learned and partly granted by the Muse. 17

I believe that closer inspection of the context of Phemios’ utterance may well solve the apparent contradiction between Phemios’ claims to be ‘self-taught’ and the well-established dependence of the singer on the Muse. In 1963, Silvio Accame showed that αὐτοδίδακτος here could not possibly mean ‘self-taught’ in the sense of ‘independent of external influence’. 18 Phemios uttered these words under a direct threat to his life, facing an enraged Odysseus who had just murdered almost everyone else in sight. What sense would it make for Phemios to argue in this situation that he is ‘self-taught’? The adjective αὐτοδίδακτος is here better understood as meaning ‘not taught by other mortals’ (but by the immortal Muse), because it is precisely his special relationship with the divinity that provides him with a plausible argument for why he should be spared.

I now turn to Hesiod’s Dichterweihe (Theog. 22-34). In accordance with the evidence gathered from the Homeric epics, the Theogony shows that the Muses ‘breathed a divine voice into me [= Hesiod]’ (Theog. 31-2: ἐνέπνευσαν δέ μοι αὐδὴν θέσπιν, transl. Most) and ‘taught Hesiod beautiful song’ (Theog. 22: αἵ νύ ποθ’ Ἡσίοδον καλὴν ἐδίδαξαν ἀοιδήν). The perplexing part comes with the much-discussed lines ‘we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things’ (Theog. 27-8). That the Muse tells the truth (ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι) is of course unproblematic, but what of her capacity to lie – and to lie in such a particular way that the lie is indistinguishable from the truth (ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα)? What exactly is meant by the expression ψεύδεα ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα?

The question is an important one with regard to the reliability and veracity of the Muse’s message. Many scholars have argued that these ‘false things similar to genuine ones’ are, in fact, the Homeric epics, either because they contain some factually incorrect information 19 or because their main purpose (namely to celebrate the famous deeds of great heroes) is so distant from the world of Hesiod and his shepherd audience that it cannot be ‘genuine’. 20 Alternatively, the Homeric epics are not ‘genuine’, because they contain genealogies of ruling-class heroes and thus establish and perpetuate social divisions between aristocracy and ordinary folk (the latter including Hesiod and his audience). 21 Others have argued that the knowledge communicated by the Muse, a daughter of Mnemosyne (Memory), cannot possibly be false and consequently that the expression ψεύδεα ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα denotes not lies but the ‘memory’ of evil or insignificant deeds. 22 Some have read the lines in a religious context and claimed that the portrayal of the Muse as capable of speaking things both true and false is nothing more or less than an expression of the singer’s piety; 23 others have simply accepted the words at their face value and concluded that the Muse indeed sometimes lies. 24

I concur with the interpretation of Bruce Heiden, who recently studied all relevant occurrences of the adjective ὁμοῖος in Greek texts of the Archaic age and concluded that the term did not signify similarity but rather identity. For him,

the Muses did not tell Hesiod that they spoke two separate and different things, both lies (Theogony 27) and truth (Theogony 28). Hard though it may be to understand, the Muses told Hesiod that they spoke only the truth, because even their lies were somewhat equivalent to the truth. … [T]he Muses’ speech appears to broadcast a threat to listeners or readers who might find the Muses’ songs unbelievable and dismiss them as mere lies. 25

According to Heiden’s interpretation, then, Hesiod’s Muse (quite like the goddess of the Homeric epics) does not lie. Rather, what Hesiod signals here is that, at times, to an uneducated audience (such as shepherds) it might seem that the Muse is lying, but this is always due to a fault in the receiver, not the transmitter. 26 In other words, Hesiod’s concept of the Muse is similar, if not identical, to the concept introduced in the Homeric epics in its important aspects: the goddess is depicted as a source of unerring information and the poet is substantively reliant on this information in the process of poetic creation.

To prevent any possible misunderstanding, it is probably worth emphasising that my reconstruction of the singer as being dependent on the Muse does not (necessarily) convert ‘Homer’ or Hesiod to her witless, passive mouthpiece. 27 For the central argument of this paper to hold, one only needs to establish that the singer is unequivocally represented as being dependent on the Muse and the information she communicates to him and through him.

Interpretations

I now turn to a brief overview of the various interpretations of the invocations, as proposed mostly by classical scholars. The main point of the exercise is to provide a balanced but critical review. Some of the less fruitful approaches may be mentioned only in passing: Gilbert Murray argued that the invocations marked difficult or memory-heavy sections in the poem that required the singer to consult written notes; 28 the oral origins of the Homeric epics make this suggestion highly unlikely. 29 Occasionally, it has been asserted that the invocation of the Muse is best understood as a literary topos. 30 While this explanation might be at least theoretically applicable to the appeals to the Muses in the likes of Virgil (Aen. 1.8-11), Dante (Inf. 2.7-9), or Milton (Par. Lost 1.1-8), who worked in an already well established epic tradition, it is not readily applicable to Homer and Hesiod. The inner logic of topos (at least following Curtius’ use of the term) 31 dictates that for any topos T, the first occurrences of T cannot be topical in themselves, because a topos requires some pre-existing use of the theme that the author chose to adapt. Since Homeric epics and Hesiod’s works stand at the very beginning of European literature and are certainly the first to feature invocations of the Muse, it follows that those invocations cannot be explained away as mere topoi (but they certainly might establish a commonplace for the genre and thus influence later authors). 32

Etymological observations have their own intrinsic value, 33 but the conflation of etymology and ontology does not amount to a viable explanation. By way of an example, Calvert Watkins reconstructed the Indo-European basis of the Greek word Μοῦσα as *mon-tu-h 2 , itself related to the root *men-, signifying ‘active mental force, thinking, perceiving, remembering’. This much is uncontroversial, but one is left to wonder whether this observation warrants the conclusion that the ‘inspiration of the divine Muse is only a personification of the trained mind of the poet’. 34 The argument in its current form is a clear non sequitur since the premise ‘etymology of T is X’ does not, without additional argument, warrant the conclusion ‘T is X’.

Moving on to more promising approaches, some scholars have understood an invocation of the Muse to be a functional element addressed primarily to the audience and used to strengthen the singer’s social standing. The upside of this interpretation is that it finds support from within the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s works. For instance, Odysseus notes in the Odyssey that ‘with all peoples upon the earth singers are entitled to be cherished and to their share of respect, since (οὕνεκα) the Muse has taught them her own way and since she loves all the company of singers’ (Od. 8.479-481). The causal force of οὕνεκα makes clear that the social prestige and authority of the singers is due to their association with, and instruction by, the Muse.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, the poet depicts the Muse handing over to the poet a sceptre as a symbol of power and authority (Theog. 30) and the Muse is also portrayed as a patron of the rulers (or judges) (Theog. 80-103). This association has produced many different interpretations, 35 yet it seems unproblematic that the connection between the Muse and rulers (or judges) endows Hesiod in particular and the singer in general with additional authority. Kathryn Stoddard argued that the association of rulers (or judges) with the Muse is present already in the Dichterweihe and ‘what Hesiod has done in these two passages of the proem of his Theogony is to establish for himself a double legitimacy’. 36 The authority and legitimacy generated by associating the Muse and singers serves as an ‘excellent alibi for creative intervention’, since ‘each of the poet’s innovations automatically gains the status of divine truth in virtue of its origin in divine inspiration’. 37 Additionally, the association with the Muse shields the poet from any adverse reactions from the audience. 38 This functional aspect of the invocation is indeed plausible and ‘[i]t is not surprising poets should accept the doctrine of divine inspiration’, 39 yet the precise mechanism of why this should be the case is left unexplained.

A third approach to invocations, quite different from the previous two, claims that the invocation of the Muse served to alert the audience to specific parts of the song and to capture its attention. Of course, we shall not find any explicit confirmation of this functional hypothesis in the primary data (the Homeric and Hesiodic epics are not treatises on poetics), yet even some ancient authorities understood invocations in this way, as evidenced by Aristotle (Rh. 1415a11-16), a Hellenistic scholiast on Homer (Schol. Vet. in Hom. A b (be3) T ad Il. 2.484-7), as well as Quintilian (Inst. 10.1.48). Modern ‘rhetorical’ interpretations, heavily influenced by Aristotle and Quintilian, have argued that the invocation of the Muse operates as a captatio benevolentiae of sorts. 40 In this view, invocations mark sections of the song that are either technically demanding and require heightened attention from the audience 41 or contain important developments in the dramatic plot. 42 As is the case with the interpretation that reads invocations as a means to enhance the singer’s social standing, the interpretation of invocations as rhetorical devices is plausible, but it is not entirely clear how or why mentioning the Muse would be able to effectively raise the audience’s attentiveness, especially since Indo-European poetry also knew direct pleas for attentiveness from the audience. 43

The fourth and last approach to be discussed here is what I would like to term the ‘deflationist’ one, taking the invocations in the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s work at face value. Whatever other functions it might serve, an invocation of the Muse is, first and foremost, an expression of the singer’s subjective experience of interaction with a superhuman being, rather than a literary artifice introduced to raise the audience’s attentiveness or improve the singer’s social status and legitimise the contents of his work. 44 This possibility has been at times emphatically denied, as scholars have argued that ‘the invocation is only due to a sacred tradition and is not organically connected with the following epic tale’ and ‘is no longer connected with the cult of a special deity, nor recited at its festival’. 45 Invocations therefore ‘cannot be safely approached as genuine appeals, but only as the ossified remains of such appeals’. 46 Others have suggested that the genuineness of even the very first invocations of the Muse is ‘problematic’ and ‘we may doubt whether anyone ‘truly believed in’ the Muses or divinely authorised speech’. 47

In the second half of the 20th century, interpretations of invocations as authentic expressions of a singer’s dependence on a deity became more and more favoured, largely as a consequence of the rejection of post-Reformation Christianity as the canon against which all other religious traditions were to be measured. 48 Scholars slowly but surely started to consider the view that ‘Homer’s invocations of the Muse seem to be based on a real religious experience’ 49 and, while Hesiod’s Dichterweihe might seem slightly more artificial, recent scholarship defended the authenticity of religious experience found in the proem to the Theogony as well. 50 In this interpretation, then, invocations in the earliest Greek epic poetry ‘spring[s] from a real, religious belief’. 51

A Cognitive Interpretation

Following the review of primary data (Section 1) and some of the most common scholarly interpretations (Section 2), I shall now propose a cognitive approach to invocations of the Muse in the earliest Greek epic poetry. I will use recent findings from the cognitive science of religion in an attempt to shed some light on the possible origin of these invocations and investigate their relationship with some of the interpretations introduced in Section 2. As mentioned in the introduction, the interpretation outlined here does share some important theoretical assumptions with Elizabeth Minchin’s work, but, in contradistinction to her emphasis on memory (and therefore transmission), I would like to focus on the acquisition of the concept of the Muse and use specific conceptual tools developed by the cognitive science of religion. First, however, I must present in brief the basic theoretical assumptions of the cognitive approach in general.

For a large part of the twentieth century, humanities and social sciences were dominated by the culturally deterministic ‘standard social science model’ (SSSM). 52 The SSSM was based on an essentially behaviourist psychology which considered the mind to be a blank slate equipped only with a general-purpose associative-learning mechanism which passively internalises whatever cultural inputs the individual is exposed to. The creation, acquisition, and transmission of ideas and beliefs is therefore fully determined by the particular cultures the individual interacts with and, assuming the basic tenets of the SSSM, it is therefore futile to search for any universals in human behaviour and thinking. During the 1970s, several key figures challenged this predominant model of cultural determinism by highlighting the role of implicit knowledge and cognitive mechanisms in the acquisition and transmission of cultural concepts.

Dan Sperber analysed symbolism as a ‘cognitive mechanism’ and argued that ‘the basic principles of the symbolic mechanism are not induced from experience but are, on the contrary, part of the innate mental equipment that makes experience possible’; 53 Edward O. Wilson demonstrated the importance of our evolved biology in the study of social organisation and cultural representations; 54 and Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of the ‘meme’ as an analogue to the gene as a unit of cultural selection. 55 Setting aside obvious differences, what all three authors shared is an interest in explaining why and how cultural concepts, representations, and beliefs are created, acquired, and transmitted, as well as a strong conviction that one key to this explanation is the architecture of the human mind as shaped by evolution through natural selection. 56

Thus, in contradistinction to the SSSM, the cognitive approach assumes that the human mind houses a collection of domain-specific, maturationally natural systems shaped by evolution through natural selection. 57 These systems (or modules) have evolved to solve specific tasks presented to the individual by his/her environment with the single goal of increasing the individual’s fitness and assuring the replication of his/her genes in the next generation. The cognitive model therefore views the evolved architecture of the human mind as an active factor, significantly constraining the acquisition and transmission of cultural representations and actions. To put it simply, the architecture of our minds makes us more receptive to some ideas and less receptive to others; cultural input is significantly filtered by our cognitive equipment.

Now, if the ‘mind is […] what the brain does, and not even everything it does’ 58 and the brains of all neurologically healthy members of our species are roughly the same (simply because they have been subject to the same evolutionary pressures), then it follows that some features of cultural representations, namely those that are constrained the most by the architecture of our minds, should be cross-culturally recurrent, that is to say universal. 59 While a substantive account of the development of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) lies far beyond the scope of this article, 60 it will suffice to say that the CSR draws on the aforementioned general theories of culture (especially on Sperber’s ‘epidemiology of beliefs’) and seeks to account for the origin, acquisition, and transmission of religious beliefs and actions. In what follows, I will briefly discuss three specific concepts developed within the CSR: hyperactive agency detection, minimal counter-intuitiveness, and strategic information. I will then use these concepts to propose a cognitive account of invocations of the Muse in the earliest Greek poetry which clarifies the mechanism in a quite elegant way.

The hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) is an evolved cognitive module whose primary function – as the name suggests – is detecting agents in our environment. 61 An ‘agent’ is defined as an entity to which we ascribe mental states and teleological (goal-oriented) behaviour. Calling the agency detection module ‘hyperactive’ simply means that the module may often be triggered by minimal cues and that it generates many false positives – that is to say, human beings often detect agents when there are none present. It is also important to emphasise that the module’s hyperactivity is not pathological; agency detection in neurologically normal members of our species is hyperactive by default because the evolutionary cost of false positives (measured in the currency of the individual’s overall fitness) is, on average, much lower than the cost of a failure to identify an agent when one is present.

To illustrate this by way of a simple example, Stewart Guthrie compared the evolutionary costs and benefits of mistaking a bear for a boulder and vice versa. 62 If I mistake an oddly shaped boulder for a bear, I might get scared and I am immediately prompted to inspect the situation in more detail, eventually realising that I have detected an agent (bear) where there is none. I lost a few seconds of my precious time and some extra energy. If, on the other hand, I mistake a bear for a boulder and do not initiate the appropriate action (e.g. running for a tree or playing dead, depending on your preference), I might lose my life. Since the cost of a false positive in agent detection is low and a failure to detect an agent may often be fatal, evolutionary pressures in our environment have tuned our agency detection to a high sensitivity.

If we turn to specific types of agents, another concept developed by the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is relevant, namely ‘minimal counter-intuitiveness’. 63 We need to know two things about this concept. First, a counter-intuitive concept is a concept that violates our intuitive assumptions about how different classes of objects (or, to use Boyer’s term, ontological categories or templates) work. 64 For instance, by identifying an object in my environment as a ‘person’, I expect that object to behave as an agent. I expect it to have a mind and an underlying belief-desire psychology and I expect it to engage in purposeful behaviour. Similarly, if I classify an object as a ‘tool’, I expect it to be man-made and to serve a specific function (but I do not expect it to have a mind or agency).

Second, a minimally counter-intuitive concept is a concept that conforms to most of our intuitive expectations (generated automatically by virtue of belonging to a specific conceptual template or ontological category) and violates only a few of them. Justin Barrett sums it up thus: minimally counter-intuitive concepts

constitute a special group of concepts that largely match intuitive assumptions about their own group of things but have a small number of tweaks that make them particularly interesting and memorable. Because they are more interesting and memorable, they are more likely to be passed on from person to person. Because they readily spread from person to person, [they] are likely to become cultural (that is, widely shared) concepts. 65

As this brief outline of minimal counter-intuitiveness makes clear, the Muse in the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s works may be unequivocally categorised as a minimally counter-intuitive concept. She falls under the heading of the template ‘person’, since she is portrayed as obviously anthropomorphic: the Muse communicates with the singer, she is actively involved in matters of human beings and experiences emotional states (e.g. anger at Thamyris in Hom. Il. 2.591-600). All of this renders the Muse-concept intelligible and potentially inference-rich. What sets her apart from the most familiar members of the ‘person’ category, namely human beings, is her immortality, invisibility, and, most importantly, her full access to strategic information. 66 Put simply, strategic information is any sort of information that is relevant for any specific individual, whether socially or otherwise. For instance, I may be very interested in knowing whether my love interest or boss likes me (making the information strategic for me), but I might be much less interested in knowing whether my neighbours bought a new television or what my distant relative ate for dinner yesterday (making the information non-strategic). What counts as ‘strategic information’ is completely subjective and relational – piece of information I may be strategic for individual P and at the same time non-strategic for person Q.

Now that the concept of ‘strategic information’ has been outlined, we may, following Boyer, note that superhuman beings are usually conceptualised as having far greater epistemic powers than human beings have, with access to information that is not readily available (qualitatively or quantitatively) to us mortals. In some cases, these beings even have full access to the complete set of all information available, of which the entirety of strategic information forms a subset.

Turning to the Homeric epics and Hesiod, we can clearly demonstrate both that the Muse is portrayed as a key element in the transfer of information to the singer and that she has full access to information, as defined above. Unlike many other Olympian gods susceptible to lies and tricks, 67 the Muse is consistently portrayed by Homer and Hesiod as having access to all information tout court (Hom. Il. 2.485; Hes. Theog. 38). More importantly, one of the rare instances of a communis opinio in Homeric and Hesiodic scholarship is precisely the observation that the nature of the poetic inspiration bestowed on the poet by the Muse consists primarily of the transfer of this information. 68 Even in Homeric minor invocations (discussed above), we always find the poet asking the Muse to grant him specific factual information, not Alcman’s charms and dancing (frg. 27 Campbell).

Among classical scholars, Elizabeth Murray is one of the few to have considered seriously the possibility that the Muse in the earliest Greek poetry represents in some way the very nature of the creative process, which, as we have seen, may be characterised as a steady flow of information from the Muse to the poet. She wrote that ‘whatever else the Muses stand for they symbolise the poet’s feeling of the dependence on the external: they are personifications of his inspiration’. 69 It is important to emphasise here the fact that the source of information is deemed to be external to the poet, an observation made by other scholars as well – not only with respect to the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s works, 70 but also with respect to the nature of poetic creativity in general. 71 As Peter Carruthers explains, during the creative process ‘ideas seem to leap to mind unbidden’ and ‘it seems to us in such cases that we are passive receivers of our own thoughts, rather than agents who actively produce or control them’. 72

Given the predominantly oral context of the earliest extant epic Greek poetry, I consider it plausible to assume the following statements to be true: (1) the singer(s) of the Homeric epics and Hesiod felt during their performances that poetic inspiration came from outside themselves as a kind of external force; 73 (2) for the singer(s) of the Homeric epics and for Hesiod, this poetic inspiration is consistently described in terms of information transfer from the external source to themselves; (3) no written documents (books, notes, etc.) of any kind played a role in the process of poetic performance (this is a truism in oral poetry).

If these three propositions hold true, we may assume that the external source of information on which the poet depends belongs to the ontological category or template ‘person’. This is to say that the source is easily conceptualised as an agent exhibiting teleological behaviour and a belief-desire psychology through the operation of the hyperactive agency detection device or another similar cognitive system, which facilitates the identification of the external source of information as an agent. This agent further exhibits a handful of counter-intuitive features, chiefly full access to strategic information, immortality, and invisibility. The Muse as a concept therefore falls within the set of minimally counter-intuitive agents since she exhibits high inference potential coupled with several counter-intuitive elements. This kind of concept is salient (highly attractive to our cognitive systems) and not readily falsifiable, 74 which considerably increases its chance of being acquired and transmitted. In short, the Muse of the Homeric epics and Hesiod’s works may be understood as originating in the process of conceptualising the external source of information on which the singers felt they depended.

Conclusion

How does the cognitive take on the origin of the Muse-concept relate to the scholarly interpretations briefly described in Section 2? Since minimally counter-intuitive concepts are prime candidates for deities, it comes as no surprise that we find some attestations for their worship. Of course, not every minimally counter-intuitive concept is necessarily a religious concept, but there is some external evidence for a cult of the Muses in Greece 75 and the close connection between poetry and prophecy also lend some support to interpretations that argue in favour of the genuineness of the appeals. 76 According to one recent interpretation, the expression γαστέρες οἶον in Hesiod’s Dichterweihe might refer to mantic inspiration; 77 some have argued that such expressions as θέλξις attest to the ‘primitive connexion of poetry and magic’; 78 it has been observed that the formal structure of invocations of the Muse bears a striking resemblance to a prayer, 79 and a link between poetry and prophecy has been attested not only for earliest Greek poetry, 80 but also cross-culturally. 81

With respect to the ‘social’ and ‘rhetorical’ interpretations of invocations, the conclusions reached here suggest that the origins of the Muse-concept do not lie in the poet’s desire to enhance his social standing and authority or in his wish to enhance the audience’s attentiveness or signpost important changes in the dramatic plot. Invocations originate in the poet’s subjective feeling of dependence on an external source of information, namely the Muse, a minimally counter-intuitive agent. This does not mean, however, that the secondary effects of the invocations may not have been precisely what the ‘social’ and ‘rhetorical’ interpretations assume them to be. In fact, it has been demonstrated that the perceived presence of superhuman beings (or, in the parlance introduced in this paper, minimally counter-intuitive agents) is, quite literally, ‘attention-grabbing’ 82 and a claim to a special relationship with such agents helps with epistemic justification 83 and social standing. 84 The cognitive account of the origin of the Muse-concept therefore does not invalidate ‘deflationist’, ‘social’ or ‘rhetorical’ readings of the invocations. Rather, it presents an account of the origins of the Muse-concept that explains why the Muse in fact functions as (a) a potential candidate for religious belief and practice; (b) a boost for the authority of the singer; and (c) an effective device to focus the attention of the audience.

1 Pucci (1977) 1-44 and Arthur (1983) have examined invocations of the Muse in Hesiod (in particular the enigmatic verses of Theog. 27-8) by means of Derridean deconstruction, concluding that the poet’s aim was to emphasise the inability of natural language to describe reality objectively and without distortion. Ferrari (1988) 68, however, urges ‘caution (at the very least) in the use of their metaphysical presuppositions and of the blunt instrument they provide for the analysis of Greek thought’. A semiotic interpretation of Hesiod’s invocations has been offered by Calame (1982) (see also Calame [1983] for a semiotic analysis of archaic Greek poetry in general). Narratological approaches have been fruitfully explored by De Jong (2004) 45-53 (see also De Jong [2014] for a general perspective on narratology and classical studies).

2 Minchin (2001) 70 (see also 161-80).

3 Hom. Il. 1.604, 2.484, 2.594, 2.598, 2.761, 11.218, 14.508, 16.112; Hom. Od. 1.1, 8.63, 8.73, 8.481, 8.488, 24.60, 24.62.

4 Hes. Theog. 1, 25, 36, 52, 75, 93, 94, 96, 100, 114, 916, 966, 1022; Op. 1, 658, 662; [Sc.] 206.

5 Laird (1999) 300-1 considers this one-way transfer of information from the Muse through the poet to the audience ‘metafictional paradigm for the process of epic communication itself’. The role of the poet as a ‘mediator’ of divine truths to mortal humans is emphasised also by Minchin (1995) 33 and Strauss Clay (2011) 15.

6 Marg (1957) 8. Maehler (1963) 36-7 and Kambylis (1965) 35 argued that the entire introductory sequence (Hes. Theog. 1-115) is best understood as a hymn. Von Fritz (1956) 35 believed hymnal elements to be present only in the second part of the proem, while Lenz (1980) 186-92 denied that the proem could be simply equated with a hymn. Minton (1962) 192 considered the entire proem to be an ‘invocation in spirit’.

7 Falter (1934) 12. Lenz (1980) 131-81 differentiates the ‘inner’ (Hes. Theog. 105-15) and ‘outer’ (Hes. Theog. 1-104) proem, with the inner containing an invocation and the outer two separate hymns.

8 Van Groningen (1946) 290.

9 Krischer (1965) 8-9; Lenz (1980) 29-30.

10 Scodel (1998) 178; Scodel (2002) 72.

11 Zellner (1994) 312-13; Kirk (1985) 167. For further valuable discussion of κλέος in this section, see also Pucci (1998) 36-47; Nagy (1999) chs. 1 and 6.

12 As part of the ‘minor’ invocations, we may also add three sections of the Iliad (Hom. Il. 5.703-4, 8.273, 11.229-300) in which the singer asks a question without mentioning the Muse explicitly. Minchin (2001) 172-4 calls these ‘faded’ invocations.

13 The term is that of Kambylis (1965).

14 The discussion of what the expression κατὰ κόσμον exactly means would be prohibitively long (and immaterial to the argument I am making); for orientation, see, e.g., Ford (1992) 122-3.

15 Katz and Volk (2000) 128.

16 Verdenius (1983) 22.

17 Ritoók (1989) 342.

18 Accame (1963) 387. For similar conclusions, see already Setti (1958) 150. This interpretation of αὐτοδίδακτος is further accepted by Pötscher (1986) 12 and Ford (1992) 34. For further discussion, see now esp. Ready (2018) 181-2.

19 Sikes (1931) 6; Maehler (1963) 40-2; Kambylis (1965) 63; Verdenius (1972) 234; Neitzel (1980) 401; Arrighetti (1992) 47.

20 Setti (1958) 157.

21 Svenbro (1976) 65, 70-1.

22 Snell (1964) 20.

23 Barmeyer (1968) 106.

24 Stroh (1976) 112; Ritoók (1989) 340; Strauss Clay (1989) 328-9; Belfiore (1985) 57; Stern-Gillet (2014) 40.

25 Heiden (2007) 171.

26 A similar conclusion was reached already by Accame (1963) 407.

27 There has been a significant shift in the theories of Homeric (and Hesiodic) poetics from the poet-as-a-passive-mouthpiece view (espoused by Falter [1934] 3-4; Otto [1955] 31; Lenz [1980] 200; mostly based on ancient theories of poetics formulated by Democritus and Plato) to a more ‘collaborative’ enterprise between the Muse and the poet (see Marg [1957] 8; Pedrick [1992]; Podbielski [1994] 176; De Jong [2006] 191; Murray [2008] 207; Halliwell [2011] 55-77). The applicability of Democritus’ and Plato’s theory of poetics to ‘Homer’ or Hesiod has been met with serious criticism, among others by Tigerstedt (1970); Verdenius (1983) 38; Murray (1981) 87; Wheeler (2002) 34.

28 Murray (1924) 96-7.

29 Quite to the contrary, as De Jong (2006) 192 has argued persuasively, an invocation of the Muse may function as an ‘indirect advertisement of the narrator’s extraordinary ability to memorize long stories crammed with names and events’. Cf. above, n.26.

30 Maehler (1963) 38; Wheeler (2002) 37; Stern-Gillet (2014) 39.

31 Curtius (2013) 79, 228-46, specifically on the topos of Muses.

32 Kambylis (1965) 53; Barmeyer (1968) 10. For Notopoulos (1938) 474 and Lenz (1980) 64, the transformation of the goddess into an artificial literary device marks the transition from oral to written poetry.

33 Beekes (2010) 972-3; see also Setti (1958) 129; Barmeyer (1968) 53-4; Pötscher (1986) 15-17; Camilloni (1998) 5-8; Hardie (2009).

34 Watkins (1995) 73.

35 See, e.g., Solmsen (1954) 5; Barmeyer (1968) 150-1; Roth (1976) 337; Scodel (1998) 190.

36 Stodddard (2003) 13.

37 Finkelberg (1990) 296. For a connection of the invocations with epistemic justification of the singer, see further Sperduti (1950) 230; Murray (1981) 91; Minton (1960) 293; Ford (1997) 406; Kahane (2005) 17; De Jong (2001) 6; De Jong (2006) 192; Graziosi and Haubold (2010) 8.

38 This line of thought is defended by Svenbro (1976) 32-5, but only for the Homeric epics, as he argued that Hesiod was already somewhat autonomous of the audience or local ruler. See also Scodel (2002) 66.

39 Sperduti (1950) 237.

40 Marg (1957) 10; Setti (1958) 146-7.

41 Minton (1960) 293; Griffin (1980) 118; Murray (1981) 90; Latacz (1985) 91; Minchin (2001) 90-1; Brügger, Stoevesandt, and Visser (2010) 141.

42 Calhoun (1938) 162.

43 West (2007) 92-3.

44 However, as Calame (1982) 23 rightly surmised, ‘le caractère conventionnel du langage poétique n’était nullement exclusif de l’authenticité de l’éxperience dont il permet de rendre compte’.

45 Van Groningen (1946) 279.

46 Minton (1960) 292.

47 Wheeler (2002) 36-7.

48 Dodds (1951) 2.

49 Verdenius (1983) 38. See also Svebro 1976, 22; Accame 1963, 263; Zellner 1994, 314.

50 Falter (1934) 13; Méautis (1939) 579; Otto (1955) 32; von Fritz (1956) 32; Lenz (1980) 148; Podbielski (1994) 179. On a progressive ‘secularisation’ of the Muse in antiquity, see Spentzou (2002).

51 Murray (1981) 90.

52 For a detailed analysis of the SSSM and its juxtaposition with the cognitive and evolutionary approaches, Tooby and Cosmides (1990) remains essential.

53 Sperber (1975) xi-xii. Sperber (1996) provides a general theory of the ‘epidemiology of beliefs’.

54 Wilson (2000 [first edition 1975]).

55 Dawkins (2006 [first edition 1976]) 189-201.

56 Boyer (1994) 263-96 provides a well-informed (if slightly dated) discussion of the three theories of cultural transmission mentioned above.

57 For a general overview, see Pinker (1997). The term ‘maturational naturalness’ has been coined by McCauley (2011) 31-82, who defines maturationally natural systems in the following way: (a) they operate unconsciously, automatically, and unreflectively; (b) they are constituted early in human life; (c) they relate to the most fundamental cognitive challenges; and (d) they do not depend on anything that is culturally distinctive.

58 Pinker (1997) 24.

59 Brown (1991); Pinker (2002).

60 The origins of the cognitive approach to religious phenomena may be traced to Guthrie (1980) and especially Lawson and McCauley (1990). Among the best introductions to the CSR are Boyer (2001); Atran (2002); Pyysiäinen (2003); Barrett (2004); Tremlin (2006). In the field of classical studies, Burkert (1996) ranks among the first to have highlighted the importance to classics of recent developments in the nature-culture debate, but he does not deal directly with the CSR. Larson (2016) provided a pioneering and well-realised application of the central tenets of the CSR to ancient Greek religion, which also contained a very brief but useful bibliographical essay concerning the CSR; see Larson (2016) 379-84.

61 Hypertrophy of agency detection in human beings has been well-known for decades: see, e.g., the now classic Heider and Simmel (1944). The concept of hyperactive agency detection as a cognitive module was introduced by Barrett (2000) 31-2, who in turn drew from the wealth of material collected in Guthrie (1993). For detailed discussions of this device, see Boyer (2001) 144-8; Atran (2002) 59-63; Barrett (2004) 31-44; Pyysiäinen (2004) 5-7; Tremlin (2006) 75-86; Dennett (2006) 108-14; Pyysiäinen (2009) 12-22. Barrett (2012) 15-42 documented that agency detection develops very early in childhood.

62 Guthrie (1993) 45.

63 As in the case of hyperactive agency detection, it is impossible to give a full account of minimal counter-intuitiveness here. See Boyer (2001) 51-91; Atran (2002) 83-113; Barrett (2004) 21-30; Pyysiäinen (2009) 22-30 for standard accounts. An invaluable recent overview of this concept, containing a healthy dose of criticism, may be found in Purzycki and Willard (2016).

64 Boyer (2001) 60-1.

65 Barrett (2004) 23. It is interesting to note that, although she does not use the concept of minimal counter-intuitiveness, Minchin (2001) 18, 208 echoed the idea in the statement that a good narrator tells a story that is a) understandable and easy to follow for the audience (we could say that it is ‘intuitive’), and b) also contains ‘an element of the unexpected’ (we could say that it contains a ‘counter-intuitive feature’). Compare this with Atran (2002) 107, who argued that a ‘small proportion of minimally counterintuitive beliefs gives the story a mnemonic advantage over stories with no counterintuitive beliefs or with far too many counterintuitive beliefs’ and ‘such beliefs grab attention, activate intuition, and mobilize inferences in ways that greatly facilitate their mnemonic retention, social transmission, cultural selection, and historical survival’.

66 My discussion is a condensation of Boyer (2001) 150-67.

67 To use terms coined by Barrett (2002), fallible gods (e.g. Demeter eating parts of Pelops’ shoulder at Tantalus’ infamous dinner party) are ‘dumb gods’, while infallible gods with full access to information (such as the Muse) are ‘smart gods’. Much of this is, of course, dependent on the context and the narrative aims of each story.

68 Minton (1962) 190; Murray (1981) 91; Snell (1964) 19; Lenz (1980) 34; Stoddard (2003) 12; Accame (1963) 264; Roth (1976) 336; Redfield (1979) 98; Maehler (1963) 18-19; Minchin (2001) 166; Ledbetter (2003) 26. The only dissenting voice to the inspiration-as-information camp known to me is Pötscher (1986) 15, who, however, failed to present any substantive counter-arguments.

69 Murray (1981) 89. A more cautious formulation may be found in Murray (2005) 155: ‘Muses are, amongst other things, personifications of the psychological faculties that constitute inspiration, but this still leaves many questions to be answered’.

70 Russo and Simon (1968) 496; Neitzl (1980) 394; Lenz (1980) 47-8; Camilloni (1998) 11.

71 Otto (1955) 85-7; Barmeyer (1968) 16-37; Murray (1981) 88.

72 Carruthers (2015) 166. For an overview of the prospects and challenges of a neuroscientific understanding of inspiration in creative process, see Oleynick et al. (2014).

73 Composition and performance are both part of a single process in the context of oral poetry: see, e.g., Nagy (1996).

74 Boyer (2001) 160-4. Simply put, we often do not care about what is true but rather what is relevant for us. On confirmation bias, see Kahneman (2011) 80-1.

75 See, e.g., Pausanias (2.31.3; 9.29.1) or Plutarch (Mor. 149f8-150a2; 402c5-6). Kambylis (1965) 36 argued that Pausanias’ description of the cult of the Muses at Helicon was influenced by Hesiod and that its establishment postdates him. In contrast, von der Mühll (1970) argued that the cult is more ancient than Hesiod. Peek (1977) showed that the cult’s location was still active in the third century ce. On the cult and worship of Muses, see further Boyancé (1937); Schachter (1986) 146-79; Schachter (2016) 344-71; Hardie (2004); Hardie (2005) 14-20; Hardie (2016) (on Camenae).

76 Both epic poetry and most prophetic utterances share a metrical structure (dactylic hexameter) and it may be noted that Hesiod’s Muse knows both future and past (Theog. 32: τά τ’ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ’ ἐόντα), very similarly to Kalchas the prophet in the Iliad (1.70: τά τ’ ἐόντα τά τ’ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ’ ἐόντα). Tigerstedt (1970) 196 noted that, ‘like the mantic gods, the Muses teach the poet the truth about the past and the present’.

77 Katz and Volk (2000) 127.

78 Sikes (1931) 3; Falter (1934) 14-15.

79 Barmeyer (1968) 99; Minchin (2001) 166.

80 Accame (1963) 278; Vicaire (1963) 81.

81 Chadwick (1942) 14.

82 See, e.g., Pyysiäinen (2009) 26; Lane and Harris (2014) 152; Czachesz (2017) 134.

83 Franek (2016) 138-40.

84 Boyer (2001) 270-3.

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