It is with some trepidation that I begin accounting for poetry gods from throughout cultures and history, not because I am in awestruck fear, but because I am only from one time and culture.
First, I went searching for a list of gods of poetry, and came upon one at Encyclopedia Mythica. It may take me a few nights to pick through the list of the 38 results for “poetry” there, but I was pleased to begin tonight with Bragi, a Norse god, as I have had the pleasure of reading Edda, albeit not living Edda. Tonight, I stop at the Irish faeries Leanan Sidhe. And in the next post I make on poetry gods, I begin again with Norse mythology, with Saga. Any input is most welcome.
Bragi is the Norse god of both poetry and music. He is thought to be a son, stepson or some kin to Odin. And there is a chance that he was originally the poet Bragi Boddason, whose story, altering through time’s telling, elevated him to a god. Whether this is true, seems to tell us that Bragi the god is thought of as the pen-ultimate poet. He has runes on his tongue, so it must be true, and awesomely so, to be sure.
The inspiration for poetry comes through mead, that was accidentally dropped onto earth during a godly getaway above. The runes on Bragi’s tongue are shaved, and mixed with the mead, which poets have been allowed to drink. Also, in order to be worthy of having great poetry written about one’s life, one should drink mead. Kings, therefore, before ascending the throne, would have a Cup of Bragi.
Bragi’s wife is Idunn, goddess of eternal youth, which is tied in with her being the custodian of apples. (An apple a day?) This marriage brings with it that sense of eternity about poetic inspiration, and supports the idea also, that one would need to be worthy to have poetry written about one’s life and deeds. Great poets achieve this elevated level of acceptance, as well as great kings.
Bragi is also known for his long beard. This brings the ancient, albeit patriarchal, association of poetry with wisdom. He has also been depicted with a harp.
Erato is one of the nine muses in Greek mythology, and therefore daughter to Mnemosyne and Zeus. If Odin is to Norse mythology what Zeus is to Greek, Erato and Bragi have similar relation to the mightiest god. We know Erato’s mother, however, and she was the goddess associated with memory and thought. Of the nine muses, Erato was specifically the muse of lyric and love poetry, in addition to such music. Again similar to Bragi, she is depicted with a lyre.
Significantly different, however, is that she is female. This can change a poet’s association, with how one thinks about from whom the inspiration derives. In one usage of the term “muse”, a poet may have a real person in mind, such as Petrarch had with Laura. Where does this leave the heterosexual female poet?
In Liddi’s painting shown, Erato is there with a swan, a perfect symbol for the lyric and love poetry. And she favors men who write great love poetry. On the other hand, the swan song is the song before one dies or leaves for good. There seems to be more inevitability here with Erato, than we find with Bragi, and more accent on inclusivity, than poetry of worthiness. And where Bragi comes from wisdom, Erato’s works may come in tandem with The Charities, bringing with them the beauty of life.
by William Butler Yeats
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Aengus, like Eros, the god of love, youth, and beauty, was also a god of poetry, and thus seems to be the Irish answer to Erato for poets. Like Bragi and Erato, his father is the mighty god, Dagda. His mother, however, is Boann, goddess of the river Boyne. Here we have eternity represented in its passing and wandering, and its finite moments.
Boann’s affair with Dagda was adulterous. She cheated and she ultimately lost her limbs for it, casting herself into that river.
Aengus, who has four birds circling his head, himself has a wanderering nature. He had fallen in love with a girl he had seen in his dreams, and went looking for her, enlisting his father, mother, and the king in his search. Aengus found her in the form of a swan, among 150 others, all in gold chains. She is Caer Ibormeith. Because he could pick her out, she was able to be released. He transformed into a swan, and they flew off, and got married, making the most beautiful music.
In the depiction by John Duncan, we see Aengus singing, even looking like a swan. He could “calm troubled seas and sooth human hearts.”
Leanan Sidhe are more precisely the Irish answer for Erato. Except they are many, they are sidhe of a kind, beautiful female muses or elves, as enchanting as Aengus. As with all sidhe, their derivation comes less from great gods, and more from the earth, earthen mounds.
A Leanan Sidhe is true to one man, but he can be tortured in her absence, into premature death. Here we have a muse that may define for us a Dylan Thomas. I think of Sylvia Plath, but she was a woman. Instead of being “out there somewhere” able to inspire just about anyone at any time, a Leanan Sidhe shapes a poet or artist’s life, not just the poem.
These female muses have been depicted as vampirish. But I will fall onto the side of not being anti-woman, as I am not sure there is a functional reason to blame sidhe for being so godly attractive to men. Being beautiful is enough to bring premature death. Yes there is a dark side to being a poet, and these faeries bring this negative aspect out of poets. Recent studies show that poets in general die younger than other writers.