Polymnia: Muse of Sacred Song, Oratory, and Lyric Poetry

Lyric poetry is imagistic, highly personal, brief, and full of sensory detail.

By Molly Anderson | Posted 4/9/06 | 9/22/23

The Athenian Muse of sacred song, oratory, and lyric poetry is Polymnia. This elusive inspiratrice was tough to track down; I found hints, rumors, dreams, suggestions, and visions — but few hard facts.

Even her name is confusing — she is referred to in some texts as Polyhymnia; in others, simply Polymnia. Credited with inventing the lyre, she is the inspiration of lyric poets everywhere.

Not everyone is familiar with lyric poetry. Simply put, lyric poetry is imagistic, highly personal, brief, and full of sensory detail. This is the link between Polymnia's two sides. I have found that experiences of the sacred are also imagistic, highly personal, brief, and full of sensory detail.

Describing the sacred is akin to trying to catch a butterfly made of light. The challenge here is not to write a Christian hymn or a Buddhist chant, but to find out where and how you connect to the Divine in your own life, and record the experience honestly. What gives you hope? Where do you find faith when times are tough?

What is important is not the path you choose to seek the Divine, but the act of seeking itself. In this spirit, I hope to challenge you to examine your beliefs, inspire you to create sacred poetry and songs, and introduce you to Polymnia.

She appears to me as a very young girl, with huge sad eyes — wise and strange beyond her years. She is at turns joyful and frightened, old and young, wise and innocent. She ancient, but she still plays hopscotch like a little girl. She roller-skates and jumps rope — Double Dutch! — with the best of them.

As I sit struggling at my desk, Polymnia appears, giggling and reading over my shoulder. "I also invented the banjo," she whispers. "Everyone remembers the lyre, and forgets about the banjo. It was much more difficult to create, actually." I have three million questions I want to ask, but before I can open my mouth to form the words, she is gone again, with a loud "POP!"

Frustrated, I decide to go for a walk. As I cruise through my neighborhood, I spy a tiny fairy-door and window set into the trunk of a huge tree in front of a restored Victorian home. There's even a stone path for fairy-sized feet, and a little mailbox. Enchanted, I stop to gaze at this whimsical scene for a moment.

I hear Polymnia, giggling wildly. She peeks out from behind the tree, smiling. "Let's play," she says. She vanishes suddenly, with a "POP!" and instantly reappears on the sidewalk beside me.

"Hopscotch?" she asks, snapping her fingers. The plain sidewalk is suddenly transformed into a huge, elaborate hopscotch game. Animals, flowering vines, and fairies caper amongst the squares. She hands me a small, flat white stone and the game begins.

Polymnia tosses her stone first, then disappears as she skips after it. I throw my stone and it lands in the fifth square. I begin to hop towards it, looking down at the hopscotch squares. The fifth one is a jungle, with a lioness prowling and monkeys swinging from the trees.

When I look up again, I am inside the square somehow — instead of a sidewalk, I find myself skipping down a path through the jungle. The path is covered with beautiful designs made of shiny, rounded stones. They are cool beneath my bare feet.

Polymnia is waiting for me, a little distance up the path. "Where are we?" I ask.

"This is the jungle, at the beginning of man's time on earth many years ago. I brought you here, so that you might learn more about the origins of the sacred, and the poetry and songs I inspire. Long before the banjo, and even before the lyre, the first musical instruments were the voice, and the body. Singing, clapping, whistling, and body-drums paved the way for simple flutes, drums, and rattles.

"Music is an important tool for connecting to the sacred. Prayers, trances, vision-quests, and celebrations of the holy all incorporate musical and poetic elements. Religious and spiritual practices throughout history have woven sacred songs into ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations." As she speaks, we begin to hear wild music in the distance. "Let's take a closer look," Polymnia grins, beckoning me further down the beautiful stone path.

The music grows louder, wilder as we approach a small clearing. Tiny, dark-skinned men and women are gathered around a fire, singing and beating on large hoop-drums. Their eyes are beautiful, innocent; their smiles wide and trusting. We are welcomed into the circle, and given a strong, sweet liquid to drink.

Polymnia smiles, takes a large gulp of the frothy nectar, and then continues with her oratory.

"Humans worship and fear what they do not understand. Early man found wonder and sacred magic in the simple plants and stones near his home. Rivers and mountains were worshipped and revered. Animals were seen as powerful spirits, protective totems, and guides through the spirit world.

Later, as humans began to create their own gods and monsters, their kinship with the wild and the sacred changed. Science came along, and allowed humans to name and explain things, thus separating themselves from the web of life. Now most people only glimpse the sacred in brief, shining moments. Ancient people were surrounded by the Divine, and part of it. Modern man seeks that connection always, and is usually frustrated."

She eats a purple berry delicately, with the grace of a woman. She is much older than she first appears, and infinitely wiser than her childish laughter reveals. "When all life is a mystery, we no longer need to seek the Divine… for we realize then that the sacred is everywhere. Until then, drink deeply, dance hard, and sing your song as loudly as you can!"

The tiny people who have welcomed us so warmly seem to understand her words. They laugh loudly, toast her in their own tongue, and we all drink deeply together. I close my eyes, suddenly dizzy… the music fades… when I open them again, I am seated at my kitchen table, writing with a purple pen, these final words…

The End?

Next: Terpsichore: Muse of Music and Dance

©2006 Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.