There are several myths of the origin of inspiration that I have found are quite revealing (at least to me). These are the story of the creation of poetry by the Norse god Odin and the founding of Delphi by the Greek god Apollo. Both seem to show traits which, it seems to me, are reflective of inspiration and traits of inspiration.
Often, we think of inspiration of ‘something that just appears, usually from nowhere’ almost like pulling a rabbit from the inside of a hat. This is a very general perspective which does not reveal much about the traits of inspiration. Both of these myths describe specific aspects of this process. In a way, they bring up an interesting aspect to this phenomena.
These two myths seem to have similar themes which seem to reveal some insight about inspiration, almost as if reflecting the same truth in differing words and stories. Odin refers to poetry as inspiration. Apollo refers to inspiration by way of an Oracle.
ODIN AND THE CREATION OF POETRY
This story of Odin and his creation of poetry is found in the ‘Gylfaginning’ by Snori Sturluson:
There was a dispute between the Aesir and Vanar (two types of Norse gods). After awhile they decided to make peace. They had a peace conference and each side spat in to a vat (which is how they made mead back then). From it they made a man called Kvasir. He could answer anyone’s questions. He travelled about the world. When he came to the home of two dwarfs they killed him. They poured his blood into two vats and a pot.
A giant then came and stayed with the dwarfs. They invited him to go in a boat out to sea. They ended up rowing the boat onto a shoal and capsized the boat. The giant drowned but the dwarfs were all right. They told his wife about it and she wept loudly. They killed her too.
The giants son found out about this and grabbed the two dwarfs and threatened them. They gave him the mead as compensation for his fathers death. His name was Suttung and that’s how he got the mead.
One day, Odin set out on a journey. He came upon nine slaves who were mowing. He offered to sharpen their scythes and they accepted. The whetsone he used so impressed them that they offered to buy it. Odin then threw the whetstone up in the air. All nine slaves jumped up and slit each other with their scythes.
Odin then went to the home of the owner of the slaves, who was the brother of Suttung, who had the mead of Kvasir. Suttung felt things were bad as his slaves had killed each other. Odin offered to do the work of the nine slaves. As payment he was to receive one drink of the mead. But Suttung pointed out that he had no say in the dispensation of his brothers mead. Despite this, they decided to go to his brother and see if they could get the mead.
Suttung refused! Odin said he’d have to use other means. He got an auger and instructed Suttung’s brother to start drilling into the mountain. After a while he said that he had bored all the way through the mountain. Odin blew into the hole and bits and pieces came out . . . obviously, he had not bored all the way through. Odin told him to bore again. After some time he said that he had bored through and Odin blew into the hole and the pieces went into the hole. Odin then turned himself into a snake and went in the hole. Suttung’s brother then put the auger into the hole trying to kill Odin.
But Odin made it into the mountain where Gunnlog was, Suttung’s daughter. Suttung had put her in charge of the mead, which was kept in the mountain. Odin was with her three nights. She let him take three drinks of the mead. In the first drink he drank up all that was in the pot. In the second drink he drank up one of the vats. In the third he drank up the third vat. He now had drunk up all the mead.
After having all the mead he turned into an eagle and started to fly away but Suttung saw him and also turned into an eagle and flew after him. As Odin approached Asgard (where the gods live) all the gods put out a multitude of containers. When he flew over them Odin spat out all the mead so they landed in the containers.
This mead is the source of poetry and it is believed that all poets drink from it.
APOLLO AND THE FOUNDING OF DELPHI AND ITS ORACLE
I’m inclined to think that the oldest, and probably the purest, story of Apollo and the founding of Delphi is found in the so-called “Homeric poems of Apollo”. Many of the later stories, which bring in all these other elements, appear to be additions caused by the increasing power, wealth, and importance of Delphi. As a result, it seems that they are more reflective of the times the story was created than by a concern over the origin of Delphi. As a result of this, I am not inclined to feel that they cannot be relied upon to tell the “pure” story. This is at least as I understand it at this time.
Zeus was to have a child by Leto (the future Apollo). Hera, the wife of Zeus, was infuriated. She decided to keep Eilithyia, who helps in childbirth, in Olympus so as to prevent Leto from giving birth. After some time she was helped to get away from Olympus. She then made her way to Delos where, when she immediately set foot on the ground, Leto gave birth to Apollo.
Apollo then went searching for a place to set up a temple for his Oracle. He went to many places. Finally, he went to Telphus and asked her if he could build a temple there. She said that the noise of horses and mules will always bother him. She suggested she build below Parnassus (where Delphi is located).
Apollo then travelled there and set up his temple there. Near there, though, he had to kill a great dragon called Python. This dragon was created by Hera as a plague upon men. She created him when she was angry with Zeus because he, by himself, had given birth to Athena, who was prized by all the gods, whereas she had given birth to Hapaestus who was a weakling among the gods. She then went away from the Olympus and prayed to other gods to allow her to give birth to a child by herself. She gave birth to Python, who would work great problems for humanity. After Python’s death by Apollo, it sat and rotted there. This is why the Oracle at Delphi is called the Pythian.
After having to kill Python Apollo grew mad and went to Telphusa and told her that she had deliberately deceived him, so that she could keep the place she was at. Apollo then pushed her over a crag.
THEMES IN THE TWO MYTHS
Themes found in both myths include:
The theme of ‘difficulty in being productive’.
- This is seen in how Odin had to go through so much effort to get the mead of poetry.
- This is seen in Leto’s difficulty in giving birth to Apollo. Its also seen in the difficulty Apollo had in finding a place for the Oracle.
The theme of ‘being pursued’.
- Odin is chased by Suttung’s brother down the hole in the mountain. He’s also chased by Suttung after he gets the mead.
- Apollo is “pursued” by being prevented from being born. This makes him a “target” of Hera and that someone is after him.
The theme of the ‘alternate pathway’.
- Odin had to use the brother of Suttung to get the mead of poetry.
- Telphus made Apollo go to some other area than he intended to found his Oracle.
The theme of ‘deception’.
- Odin had to deceive the brother of Suttung of his real intentions.
- Apollo was deceived by Telphus to go to Delphi.
The theme of a ‘killing’.
- Odin had the slaves kill each other. In addition, dwarfs kill Kvasir.
- Apollo killed Python and also Telphus.
The theme of the ‘element of inspiration’.
- Odin had the mead which gave poetry.
- Apollo had the rotting flesh of Python to, supposedly, give the Oracle inspiration.
An important point is that both of these elements originated from the body of something that had to be killed: poetry=Kvasir, oracle=Python. This shows, in a way, that inspiration is a manifestation of “life”, and is reflective of “life”, making it more than something one just ‘does’.
The theme of ‘something gained’.
- Odin gained the mead of poetry.
- Apollo gained Delphi for his Oracle.
INTERPRETATIONS OF THE THEMES
These themes tend to show some interesting qualities of inspiration:
The theme of ‘difficulty in being productive’ – This reveals the natural difficulty in gaining inspiration. It is not something a person just ‘wills’ to happen. In many cases, a person must have a ‘knack’ at inspiration or develop an ability in order to achieve it.
The theme of ‘being pursued’ – This refers to an ‘innate need’ that, in a way, ‘pursues’ a person to do inspiration. In this way, inspiration as if ‘finds a person’. Another aspect of this is that inspiration is also ‘pursued’ by the person making it something like a questing, a something that needs to be found.
The theme of the ‘alternate pathway’ – This refers to the need to ‘NOT be in our normal self’. In this way, the ‘alternate pathway’ refers to the fact that inspiration requires another path or, rather, it requires another self to happen.
The theme of ‘deception’ – This shows how we cannot use the techniques of our normal self, that we must ‘move away’ from our normal self. In this way, we must ‘trick’ or ‘deceive’ our normal self in order to find inspiration.
The theme of a ‘killing’ – This shows how our normal self must be “killed”, so to speak, so the inspiration self can take over. In many ways, its a continuation of the purpose of deception, of getting our normal self out of the way.
The theme of the ‘element of inspiration’ – This shows that something specific must be done to have inspiration. That is to say, inspiration requires a medium to manifest, it must have a form or way to appear. This could be thought, poetry, music, etc.
The theme of ‘gaining something’ – This refers to how a person must gain or achieve something new, namely inspiration. In this way, a person ‘achieves’ inspiration.
THE MYTHS, INSPIRATION, AND THE SELF – THE ‘SELF-BEFORE-TECHNIQUE PERSPECTIVE’
These interpretations tend to show that inspiration requires a specific quality or aspect of the self. In other words, it describes an inspiration self. This is a self separate and set apart from our regular self. Only in achieving the inspiration self does inspiration take place. In that way, its showing that it is not our normal self. In addition, it is describing some qualities of that self. The emphasis on this new ‘self’ shows its importance and relevance in inspiration. This is significant in that it shows that inspiration is a product of a self, not a ‘skill’, an ability, or an act as is normally supposed. Its for this reason that the myths place emphasis on the self’s battles to achieve inspiration and not in the achieving of ability or skill. In this way, it refers to the fact that inspiration is a ‘natural ability’ not an ‘acquired ability’ or something anyone can learn. That is to say, real inspiration is within a person, not something a person learns.
The themes seems to describe a process in achieving inspiration:
- A difficulty. This difficulty, no doubt, refers to the natural difficulty to begin any inspiration. Generally, inspiration is hard to begin, particularly at first. If one does not overcome the difficulty then no inspiration comes. In that sense, the myths are describing the traits of overcoming the difficulty of inspiration.
- An alternate path, one that tends to entail deception. This is a reference, really, to the utilization of a different self – the inspiration self – that takes one away from ones normal tendencies. The deception is a reference, really, to the deception of ones normal self so that it will ‘find’ the inspiration self. In that way, inspiration requires a deception of the normal self and the discovery of the inspiration self.
- A death. No doubt, this is the ‘death’, so to speak, of the normal self with the result of the inspiration self taking control. In other words the inspiration self ‘takes control’ and the normal self ‘dies’. In this way, it refers to the ‘victory’ of the inspiration self over the normal self.
- A ‘something gained’. This, of course, is inspiration, what a person has achieved. This is, in reality, the inspiration self.
Overall, these myths describe inspiration from a self perspective, as a manifestation of self. In other words, it takes a ‘self-before-technique perspective’. This, of course, is not the normal stance taken. Typically, we are taught “how” to do something. We’re taught technique, something we must learn. In some ways, placing technique first can be compared to programming a computer, you’re just telling a person how to do something. Because of this, it tends to be mechanical and devoid of the ‘person’. Accordingly, it is lacking in inspiration. In fact, it seems to me, that the overemphasis on technique tends to hamper a person. It puts emphasis on learning, repeating, imitation, and such . . . nothing but technique. This is why I often jokingly speak of people being ‘modern robots’, nowadays. These are basically people who know how to do things but have no inspiration or connectiveness to an inner sense (the inspiration self) . . . all that they do is based in what they’ve ‘learned’ which they repeat. As a result of this, their self is as if detached from what they do and they develop a mechanical-like way. This fact shows a number of things about the “self”:
- That the “self”, itself, is a form of inspiration. This is because the “self” is a union of ones normal self and inspiration self. Because of this, the “self” is actually an act of inspiration: the inspiration self changes the normal self . . .
- That the ‘self” is continually transforming. This is because the continual discovery of the inspiration self causes a change in the normal self. Since this happens all ones life it means that transformation is ongoing throughout ones life. In many ways, inspiration is a transformation.
- That inspiration reaches deep into a person. This is because the inspiration brings up the depths of ones self through the inspiration self. No doubt, the power of inspiration is in its bringing up the depths of who one is.
- That living is an act of the “self” and is, therefore, a form of inspiration. In other words, the “self” gives us the means to live, and being closely associated with inspiration, it makes living an act of inspiration.
- That there are many forms of inspiration. Since life entails many different ways of doing things it means that there are many forms of inspiration in life. Some are dramatic – like painting a scene – and some are not – such as a simple attitude in life. Because of this, we can speak of formal inspiration which entails things like art, music, poetry, etc. and informal inspiration, which entails following little subtleties, natural tendencies, and inclinations in daily life, of allowing our self to “be”. Informal inspiration is ‘everyday inspiration’ or ‘personal inspiration’. Because of this, inspiration is a part of everyday life. In this way, inspiration is life. Without it, our life would be devoid of the inspiration self and we would turn into dead robot-like people.
- That the “self” is closely associated with what one does. In other words, a person can do things “with the self” or “without the self”. The former is really inspiration. The later is mechanical, robotic . . . something ‘learned’, which can be described as the ‘modern way’.
An emphasis on learning and technique, so prevalent nowadays, prevents the “self” from happening and growing. As a result, too much learning and technique is not good, hindering inspiration, the “self”, and life.
Because the ‘self-before-technique perspective’ (inspiration) focuses on the self it shows that inspiration tends to exist based in other things than learning and technique. Some of these include:
- A natural ability. This, in many ways, is paramount with inspiration. Its because of this that a big part of life, really, is finding our natural abilities. By following natural ability, inspiration comes easily. And since inspiration is life, finding natural ability leads to life. This is why following natural abilities and inclinations are so important.
- A connectivity to ones inner sense and inner self. This is very paramount to inspiration. In many ways, inspiration is nothing but a connectivity to ones inner sense and inner self. Some people have a natural connectivity. Some people don’t.
- A means of discovering the inspiration self. I tend to feel that many people do not find inspiration because they have no way to discover it. In addition to that, many people cannot find it because they are using the wrong means of discovery, such as by learning or technique.
- Something to put inspiration into context and meaning. Many people may display inspiration but have nothing to give it value. For inspiration to be successful it must have a worth. Otherwise, it as if ‘goes off into space’.
- A way to practice the inspiration. Inspiration needs a medium or form in which to manifest itself. Because of this, “something needs to be done”. Some cultures, and ways of life, do not offer this to any great length. Not only that, a person may have a form of inspiration but because their culture has no value in it there becomes no way to practice it. This shows that inspiration is closely associated to ones culture, belief systems, and way of life.
So we can see that a inspiration requires some things to be effective:
- It must appear naturally.
- It must have a means of discovery.
- It must be practiced.
- It must have value to ones self.
- It must have relevance in relation to ones culture, belief systems, and way of life.
In this way, inspiration is associated with life in general. In fact, inspiration often “makes life” and can give life the “great stamp of ones self”. So we see that inspiration has gone way beyond the ‘dramatic’ formal inspiration as seen in art, music, and such. Inspiration, in fact, is a manifestation of everyday life and living. In this way, we can speak of an ‘inspired life’ and that a life “lived” is one that is inspired. Its for this reason that I consider inspiration a “life issue”, one that has great impact and value for life. Because of this, it is something that should be sought and achieved. But, as the myths tell us, one must not seek for something to “learn to do” (such as art, poetry, etc.) but, rather, one must seek a ‘new self’ (the inspiration self) for only in that self is inspiration found.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen