While praying to the Mousai and Mnemosyne yesterday, I reflected a bit on my relationship with them and how it has evolved over several decades: I am nearly 30, and a relationship with them goes back to when I was 3 or 4.
This is, again, one of those liminal situations. I didn’t leave Christianity until I was 9, and my family came with me a year later, at 10, when we joined the Quincy Unitarian Church and started going to pagan events held in Hannibal, MO. I think of myself as generation 1.5 most of the time — yes, I was raised in paganism and polytheism, but I was also baptized when I was a baby and raised in Christianity for several years as a young child. A lot of the internal issues with adult converts to paganisms or polytheisms don’t apply to me, but others do — primarily because I was bullied in middle school by Christians for not being Christian. My mother also attempted to send me to Bible camp one summer for cultural enrichment. I acted out in the hopes that they would send me home. They didn’t, but she never tried that again. An ex-Catholic also took over the UU RE for kids for two years and tried to educate us about our Christian heritage and the Bible, and I was having none of that, either. Once I was out of Christianity at 9, I was completely over it, and preteens/teens can be assholes. I was no exception.
But let’s go back to the Mousai. If anyone remembers Pegasus, the 1990 animated film narrated by Mia Farrow, you may recall that it had Urania as the pivot/perspective person. We bought it right after it came out, and it was likely my first real exposure to the gods. I rewound and replayed Pegasus obsessively. The film is about Pegasus, but it’s also about Urania coming into her divine power because there is a subplot in which Urania, the Holder of the Celestial Spheres and Muse of Astronomy, learns how to sing via the blessings of a sacred spring. Beyond the Mousai, Zeus and Athene are also in the film — at once compassionate and lovely and authoritative and vengeful. Zeus’s characterization is actually quite good. Urania shines.
I dressed up as Urania one year at preschool for Halloween. I don’t remember it, but there are photos. I have a vague memory of white sheets, though, and a concrete mental image of the spheres in my parents’ house growing up. My parents met at an amateur astronomy convention. We had beautiful, fragile astronomical and terrestrial spheres up above my reach that I coveted every time my dad took them down to show me. We had inflatable ones of the moon. I don’t remember what I used at Halloween that year — perhaps an inflatable one, or perhaps a balloon dotted with the vaulted sky.
Previously on this blog, I have said that the gods come into people and build relationships with people as each turns towards the other. With the Mousai, I think that this is somewhat true. After formally becoming Neopagan in fifth grade, I moved back towards them (and started worshipping Apollon, too). My parents bought me Neopagan books, so I had a ritual framework to use. Most of my worship was devotional because the spell sections of the books just didn’t entice me. I started worshipping Mnemosyne.
I wear a ring on my left middle finger for Apollon as a reminder of my conversion to Hellenism and my obligations to the gods. The ring is a serpent. What drew me to the ring is the image in my head of the myth of Cassandra, specifically the version in which she sleeps in a temple, and serpents lick her ears. In my mental image, Cassandra is not a young woman yet, but a child, and it is long before the rest of Cassandra’s tragic story unfolds.
Some of how I think about my relationship with the Mousai and Mnemosyne is like my mental image of that story. It goes back to questions of nature and nurture: Do you have certain traits because you were born with those genes chugging away, or does something happen in nurture to make that so? What about children who knew gods when they were young? What happens then?
Was I a deeply imaginative and storytelling child because I knew the Mousai at such a young age, or was it something about me specifically that made me able to play alone for hours engrossed in stories? To be unable to stop storytelling because there is a fire in the back of my head whose vividness can sometimes drown out other things? Was I born like that, and did I choose the Mousai because I needed to express devotion for goddesses who make stories? Do I have a strong memory because the Mnemosyne blessed me or cursed me with it, or do I love and respect Mnemosyne because I have a strong memory and acknowledge where it came from?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Humanity is about stories. These were our first agalmata, the images that we make of our gods. When you take out all of the bullshit, the stories — and their architects, the Mousai, and Apollon, and Athene, and Hermes, and all of the gods of civilization — bring humanity together through these narratives and these grasps at meaning in a chaotic universe. Building worlds and telling stories is a sacred act, and one that our communities desperately need beyond the excellent devotional hymns and stories that we already do.
Stories are how one builds culture. Stories are how Rick Riordan is somehow an expert on Hellenic and Kemetic myths and religion despite being woefully underqualified to tell these stories, and it’s why those kids who read it and who are looking for gods decide that they are half-blooded children within that worldbuilding system Riordan has developed. (Imagine how awesome it would be if these teens had access to real information about devotional polytheistic religions.) To actually change culture and to have impact, we need polytheists writing secular stories in which characters are polytheists and do polytheistic things in the world at large. We need to control our own narratives and our own epics, to dig deep into the narrative implications of things like miasma and kharis and agos in space-age and industrialized worlds. Kids won’t do it for themselves. In that year when I was 9 counting towards 10, I was floundering through polytheism and attempting devotion to Bastet without really having any system. It was my parents’ decision to have us start going to Circle that saved me and taught me real ritual language.
These issues are bigger than lighting frankincense and reading hymns to the Mousai and Mnemosyne on the 9th day of the lunar month. What matters, ultimately, is the feeling of connection when praying, of saying that I have known them for this long, of feeling that deep-rooted reciprocity and gratitude when I read from the Orphic Hymns and honor them and their mother. It is a deep honor to know the Mousai. It is a deep honor to know Athene and Hermes and to be sensitive to the politics of stories.