Saturday 16 March 2013

How Not to Do Cultural History

Euterpe & Klio (Lyric Poetry & History)

I haven’t done much tourism in Germany, but these eight Muses on the external frieze of the Renaissance art gallery in Erfurt are too good not to show.  Eight fat little boys inscribed with the Greek names of the Muses.

Thalia & Erato (Comedy & Love Poetry)
I have never seen any muses with Y chromosomes before, and don’t recommend googling on “male muses” unless you like your porn very soft indeed. Nor have I ever seen Muses as a group of eight. Where is Kalliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, eldest and most beautiful of the Muses, mother of Orpheus, and (according to Plato) one of the few who had access to heaven and divinity?

Polymnia & Melpomene (Hymns & Tragedy)
Nothing daunted,  I set about postulating explanations like a good academic. When was the frieze made? In 1562. Nothing I know much happened that year  except that the transatlantic slave trade was started by the disreputable English merchant John Hawkins who abducted the first shipload of Africans to the Caribbean. 

Were the 16th-century Germans allergic to the number nine or prime or uneven numbers? No. Japanese don’t like the number nine, but German myth is full of it. 

Did the 16th-century Germans despise epic? No, they had some fun male psychodrama epics like Herzog Ernst and The Lay of Hildebrand, although it is true they had mislaid the Nibelungenlied for a few centuries.

Terpsichore & Urania (Dance & Astronomy)
It struck me as possibly relevant that the Cherubim are the second rank of the nine biblical Choirs of Angels. This took me on a long detour via the Hebrew Torah, the terminally tedious Dionysius the Areopagite, Catholic Neo- Platonism and the baby boys in Italian Renaissance art called putti. But no solution emerged.

In desperation I asked a German friend. He had no idea. But he did mutter, fast and sing-song, “KLIO ME TER THAL EU ER PO KAL.“ This, he told me, is the not very catchy German mnemonic for the Muses’ names taught to schoolchildren. Clio, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Thalia, Euterpe, Urania, Polymnia, Kalliope. Kalliope comes last. The sculptor had started his frieze at the beginning of the mnemonic but ran out of space between his triglyphs before he got to the end.

Why Did Erfurt Axe Epic Kalliope?
This is an important reminder that history is usually determined by daft accidents. Moreover, individuals who create art never expect that someone centuries later will batter their brain cells trying to explain the details of what is often a spontaneous and disorganised process. 

A psychiatrist once told me that I over-intellectualised everything.  I snorted at him at the time. But the Case of the Missing Kalliope suggests that he was actually right. 

[Pictures of puerile Muses kindly supplied by the Father of My Children]


  1. 'I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.' Quoth Joyce. (Richard Ellmann. James Joyce. Oxford, 1959, revised 1982. 525).

  2. Not to sound thick, but why are their only eight entries in the mnemonic anyway? And (different ones?) in the following list? I want to presume accident but feel like I'm getting more into the spirit of things if I try to rationalise it.