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Chasing inspiration

On the care and feeding of daemons and muses

River 1

"If we go all the way back to the ancient world," writes Lewis Hyde in Common Air (2012), "to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak. Norse legends tell of a spring at the root of the World Tree whose water bubbles up from the underworld, carrying the dissolved memories of the dead. Odin drank from it once; that cost him an eye, but nonetheless empowered him to bestow on worthy poets the mead of inspiration. Homer is not the 'author' of the Odyssey; he disappears after the first line: 'Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story....' Hesiod's voice is not his own; in The Theogony he has it from the muses of Mount Helicon and in Works and Days from the muses of Pieria. Plato presents no ideas that he himself made up, only the recovered memory of things known before the great forgetting we call birth.

"Creativity in ancient China was not self-expression but an act of reverence toward earlier generations and the gods. In the Analects, Confucius says, 'I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own. I have been faithful to and loved the Ancients.' "

River 2

As Hyde explained in an earlier book, The Gift (1983):

"The task of setting free one's gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person's tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. Apuleius, the Roman author of The Golden Ass, wrote a treatsie on the daemon/genius, and one of the things he says is that in Rome it was the custom on one's birthday to offer a sacrifice to one's own genius. A man didn't just receive gifts on his birthday, he would also give something to his guiding spirit. Respected in this way the genius made one 'genial' -- sexually potent, artistically creative, and spiritually fertile.

Riverside 3

"According to Apuleius," he continues, "if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit that brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.

River 4

"An abiding sense of gratitude moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon," Hyde concludes. "The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change. An age in which no one sacrifices to his genius or daemon is an age of narcissism. The 'cult of the genius' which we have seen in this century has nothing to do with the ancient cult. The public adoration of genius turns men and women into celebrities and cuts off all commerce with the guardian spirits. We should not speak of another's genius; this is a private affair. The celebrity trades on his gifts; he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemurs, the spooks of unfulfilled genii."

River 5


Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in "The Writing Life" (2006):

"There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer's imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It's drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it John D Battenon) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.

"There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it. This may explain the extraordinarily long pause between Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 and the follow-up, years later. That was called Something Happened. I always thought that what happened was Mr. Heller finally cleared away the muse repellant around his particular clearing in the woods.

"On good days, that creature comes out of the thickets and sits for a while, there in one's writing place. If one is in another place, it usually comes there (often under duress; most writers find their muses do not travel particularly well, although Truman Capote said his enjoyed motel rooms). And it gives. Some days it gives a little. Some days it gives a lot. Most days it gives just enough. During the year it took to compose my latest novel, mine was extraordinarily generous, and I am grateful.

River 6

"Okay," King admits, "that's the lyric version, so sue me. You'd lose. It's not untrue, just lyrical. It's told as if the writing were separate from the writer. It's probably not, but it often feels that way; it feels as if the process is happening on two separate levels at the same time. On one, at this very moment, I'm just sitting in a room I call my writing room. It's filled with books I love. There's a Western-motif rug on the floor. Outside is the garden. I can see my wife's daylilies. The air conditioner is soft, soft -- white noise, almost. Downstairs, my oldest grandson is coloring, and cupboards are opening and closing. I can smell gingerbread. Laura Cantrell is on the iTunes, singing 'Wasted.'

River 7

"This is the room, but it's also the clearing," writes King. "My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.

"But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing, waiting for Scruffy to come and sit by your leg. Or bite it and run away."

River 8

River 9Words: The passages by Lewis Hyde are from Common As Air: Revolution, Art, & Ownership (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and The Gift: Imagination & The Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 1983). The passage by Stephen King is from "The Writing Life" (The Washington Post, October 1, 2006). The poem excerpt in the picture captions is from "October" by Audre Lorde, Chosen Poems, Old & New (W.W. Norton, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932). The photographs were taken a couple of weeks back on a walk with Howard & Tilly by the River Teign, near Fingle Bridge. 

Related posts: "Mud and the Muse," "On Artistic Inspiration," and "One of Those Days."


This is a good reminder to me not to be so frustrated when I walk into the "clearing" after a long time away (as I did last night) and the beast doesn't just run to me and wag it's tail in greeting. I have to go there more often if I hope to make anything. We must work together and I must be patient (sigh).

I love the idea of making a sacrifice to your daemon on your birthday. I think I will need to give that a try.

It's like someone grasping your hand and then lifting you up to a higher place where you get a much better view.

"Your timing couldn't have been more perfect," Dumpling pulled the window shut, well nearly. Even with the pouring rain a sliver of opening called for the fresh air. Let us breathe said the walls. They were used to the feel of Saratoga Pass against their enduring coat of pale lavender milk paint."- from Spider Season a gift in the making

Sacrifice is intimate in my Hawaiian tradition as well. Woven into the understanding through the language, the words; and left as reminders in the everyday if I notice.The quotes you leave here add to the ones I needed today. Reminding me of sacrifice's role.

Thank you so much Terri!

Hi Terri

Mr Hyde's perspective on how the muse or genius is a spirit on to its own that comes to us ( at birth) with gifts of inspiration and creative energy is not only fascinating but also slightly reminiscent of Celtic or Druid belief in the power of "Awen". I discovered this concept when watching a program on the history of word, shamans and the origin of Merlin. I wrote a poem about the subject and put together these notes. I think it parallels some of the ideas expressed today in this fabulous posting. Love, Love the pictures of the woodland and Tilly. They present an extraordinary place --

Awen is a Welsh word for poetic inspiration. In the Welsh tradition, awen is the inspiration of the poet bards; or in its personification, the inspirational muse of creative artists. The word literally means "flowing spirit" and defines spirit energy as the main flow or the essence of life. In this poem, the name alludes to the seductive muse, Nimue, who enslaved Merlin, with her beauty and beguiling ways. Her presence sends him into a state of rapturous frenzy that totally absorbs all his senses and infuses him with the extraordinary powers of perception and imaginative creativity. When she leaves him, he is both mentally and physically depleted. His magic, his art, has been diminished to a lover's lament, a longing for the one thing that allowed him to breathe and exist in a mundane world.

In Celtic and Druid tradition, language when spoken, became an invocation, a prayer, a casting of a spell. It was the release of the imagination's voice, a messenger sent to embody the world with song and prophecy. And so we come back to the idea of poetry being this gift, this enabler of visionary insight. Awen is the perpetual energy, the unstoppable muse that possesses the artist, at her will, and allows for this to happen. She becomes the individual's passion/ obsession to shape and form, to change and enlighten those around him. In short, she is the breath of his creative being and furnishes his ability and reason to create.


Cold water washes over the rocks
stirring leaf and branch
moss and sediment.
Everything at the bottom
swells and swirls into swift turmoil.
Frenzy has left the poet
and leaps into this stream
lending Spring –
her pulse, her power.

Near an oak, her lover
lingers in despair. His shadow
spreading over the branches
like tarnish over an old candelabrum.
Drained of breath and light
he leans into memory, the first
sighting of his lost rapture.

She did not appear in a garden
of blossoms or a wood of vine-tangled roots
but on cliffs overlooking the tide. Her long hair
the slanting rain
his body absorbed with a thirst
for inspiration; and her figure gowned
in the blue of slate and sea, its curves
holding mysteries he hungered
to probe, decipher. Magnetized
by her presence, his tongue
drew words from stone and grass,
sand and river, star and cloud.
His jointed fingers
turned to lightning in seconds
inserting his will in the ways
of fin and wing, hoof and claw.

And though his ancient name
meant fortress by the sea,
he became pregnable, beguiled
by a force that would render him
addicted to magic. Her spirit cast
into the scrolls of his lungs – and locked
behind gates of bone

until she unlatched the cage
letting herself loose. Now free
to stimulate the thaw, possess another.
Again, thank you for this wonderful and extraordinary look at how our intellectual, spiritual and creative forces/gifts exist and behave. I love the idea of us being given this source at birth and
our will to either accept or reject it. I choose to accept and honor it.

Many Thanks
Take care

Oh, this is so important. What will I sacrifice, on my birthday, to give thanks?

He deserves all thanks, my Beloved who rises in my dreams as soon as the white summer sky goes autumn-blue.

He has been rough, in past years. But this year, his eyes are the color of that autumn-blue sky, though his hair is as curly as ever, with twigs in it. He seems happy to see me this year.

I love him I love him.

This is my own creative experience. I wrote about it for years, albeit shyly and tentatively because few others seemed to have the same experience (probably all as shy as me about it) and I thought I was at least a little strange ... some people would insist that my creativity came from within my own mind, and that I simply personified it ... until the famous Elizabeth Gilbert video on the subject, after which many writers began to speak openly about their daemons or muses. It's great. I really love the idea of offering a sacred gift to the muse on your birthday. Something I have to remind myself over and again is that the muse doesn't just give to me, I give to him; my creative action imbues him with what he needs. It is a mutual relationship, rather than him just being a source of words and ideas. Thank you for this wonderful post.

Such an interesting post and refreshing walk by the river. The last two pictures of 'the care and feeding of the muse' made me laugh.

I don't know which I love better, the poem or the introduction to it. I thought I knew my Welsh myth, but I was unaware of Anwen as a personification of the muse. That you so very much this gift. Now I'm off to learn more....

I've always assumed that Elizabeth Gilbert must have known Lewis Hyde's book The Gift, published back in 1983, when she composed her TED Talk. I love her talk, and a quoted a piece of it in today's post (Wednesday).

I love the fact that your daemon/genius/muse is male. Mine has always been female, I don't know why. And probably four-footed, toothy, and shaggy, like Stephen King's.

My personal daemon/genius/muse, I mean. The muse of the Bumblehill Studio is Tilly, who is also female and four-footed, but not quite so wild....

Tilly swimming! Happy pup. And that excerpt from Lorde... goodness.
When I was younger, and angrier, I found the idea of a muse frustrating. Why would some people be so lucky as to have a clever muse and others not? What made one "favored" by the Muse? Why were some people so gifted? Why couldn't I be a prodigy? But as I've aged, and done the hard work of writing novels, I've come to understand that yes, creation is not all up to me. Will and imagination and even energy come and go as they will and all I can do is try and tend to them, patiently, as I tend to my loved ones, and try to take care of myself too. And I do believe that we all have an elusive creative spirit that guides us if we can hold still (or dance) and listen. Thank you for another meaningful post.

Hi Terri

So glad you enjoyed both!! I learned this from a special episode of shaman/Arthurian Lore on our discovery channel in the Time-Warner cable line-up. It was an excellent show and so fascinating. Thank you so much for the kind words toward the poem and intro! I sincerely appreciate them!

take care,

The way Steven King expressed himself, his room and the way it faded away and all else, brought me to a single tear.

So glad I read your side bar, Terri Windling. You are a gift.

Who sketched that sweet mystical figure at the top left?


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