John Howe

Musings, Museums & Bemusements

Or A Few Musings of a Studiously Random Nature

I confess to spending quite a lot of time in museums. I also confess to taking them for granted, though of late, I have vowed to make a rather greater effort to use them more profitably. To do this, I’ve been thinking of removing the final two letters. Simple arithmetic: museum – um = muse.

Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. All nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

Zeus, disguised as a shepherd, sought out the Titaness Mnemosyne in her domain in the hills of Eleuther, and slept with her for nine successive nights. From this union, Mnemosyne gave birth to the nine Muses. While Zeus was notorious for fathering offspring of all sorts, Mnemosyne’s nine daughters were her only children. Goddess of memory, she also invented language and words, and taught humanity how to remember them before writing came into existence. Her parents were Gaia and Ouranos, Earth and Sky.

In all fairness, Zeus’ energetic dilly-dallying was far more than just a succession of willing or reluctant mistresses. By slaying his father Kronos (who in turn had similar designs on his father Ouranos, about which Freudian implications more than enough has indeed been written to fill a library), and conquering the Titans, Zeus puts an end to the primeval age of myth, the age where there is no room for men or heroes. He acquires wisdom by swallowing Metis (sagacity or counsel) and gives birth to Athena (wisdom and warfare) from his head. (He also snatches Dionysus from Semele’s womb and sews him into his thigh until the proper time for his birth.) After Metis, Zeus marries Themis (custom or law); their children are the Seasons and the Fates. He sleeps with his sister Demeter, who bears him a daughter, Persephone, who will symbolize the renewal of spring. Finally, Mnemosyne completes the trio that forms the cornerstones of civilization: wisdom, law and memory. (Afterwards Zeus marries the long-suffering Leto, to whom he will be unfaithful for eternity.)

Was Mnemosyne the earliest, original Muse? The Elder Muses were three: Mneme, Melete and Aoede: Memory, Practice and Song. Mnemosyne also abides by a pool (sometimes a river) in Hades; those who do not wish to drink the waters of Lethe, to forget tragic lives before seeking eternity, would drink there instead.

The firstborn of the nine Younger Muses is naturally Calliope (translation: the most important of the arts) the muse of philosophy and epic poetry. She is depicted with a tablet and stylus, and sometimes with a roll of parchment. Tragic Orpheus is her son. Then comes Clio, the muse of History, who appears seated, with an open roll of parchment (or a wax tablet and stylus) or an open chest of books. Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, is pictured with a tragic mask, the club of Heracles or a sword. Her head is surrounded with vine leaves, and she wears the kothurnos, the high open-toed boot worn by the Greek and Roman tragedians. Euterpe is the muse of lyric poetry; her instrument is the flute. Next is Erato, the muse of lyric art; poets who write love songs are granted her especial favour. The lyre is her instrument. Terpsichore is the muse of dance and choral song; she appears with the lyre and the plectrum. Like her sister Melpomene, she gave birth to the Sirens, fathered by the river god Achelous. Urania, muse of astronomy, is said to see the future in the stars. She carries a staff pointing to a globe. Thalia, comedy’s muse, appears with the comic mask, a shepherd’s staff, or a wreath of ivy. Youngest is Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song and oratory, and the mother of dance and mime. She has no attributes, and is often depicted in a pensive pose. Sculpture and painting have no muse, neither being considered worthy enough.

They are named in Hesiod’s Theogony, written in the 8th century BC: “The Mousai sang who dwell on Olympos, nine daughters begotten by great Zeus, Kleio and Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene and Terpsikhore, and Erato and Polyhymnia and Ourania and Kalliope.”

Diodorus Siculus has this to say of the Muses six centuries later: “Hesiod even gives their names when he writes : `Kleio, Euterpe, and Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsikhore and Erato, and Polymnia, Ourania, Kalliope too, of them all the most comely.’ To each of the Mousai men assign her special aptitude for one of the branches of the liberal arts, such as poetry, song, pantomimic dancing, the round dance with music, the study of the stars, and the other liberal arts . . . For the name of each Mousa, they say, men have found a reason appropriate to her: . . . Melpomene, from the chanting (melodia) by which she charms the souls of her listeners.”

The Muses were to be sought in regions with plentiful wells and springs, though they were worshipped throughout Greece. Originally nymphs in Western Thrace, they were brought by the giants Otus and Epfhialtes (the Aloadae, or sons of Aloeus), to Boetia, near Helicon, where they were especially venerated. Two wells there, Aganippe and Hippocrene, were dedicated to them. The Lacedaemonians considered themselves their disciples, and went to war not to the sound of a trumpet, but to the music of flute, lyre and harp. The Muses taught the Thracian Sphinx her riddles, and the nymph Echo the music she played. They also appreciated Delphi and Mount Parnassus, but otherwise sat near their father’s throne, singing of the origins of the world and the deeds of great heroes.*

Since Muses are by nature generous, they have left us with a good number of words. Music, of course, via Old French from Latin musica, from Greek mousike techne “art of the Muses,” from feminine of mousikos “pertaining to the Muses.” According to the unavoidable Pliny, mosaics “work of the muses” were first created in their honour, though the Greek word for “mosaic work” was mouseion. Curiously, muse, amuse and bemuse have a less direct connection, and possibly derive from Gallo-Roman musa, which also gave us muzzle; Old French muser meant poking one’s nose into things. But the influence of the Muses has contributed a connotation of wonderment and inspiration, sometimes puzzlement and disorientation, or a certain disembodiment when the mind wanders. To muse or be absorbed in thought, comes to us directly from 12th century French muser “to ponder, loiter, waste time,” lit. “to stand with one’s nose in the air”. Amuse: from Middle French amuser “divert, cause to muse,” from a “at, to” + muser “ponder, stare fixedly.” Bemuse: “to make utterly confused,” from be- + muse.

But, my favourite word from the muses is museum. Museums dotted the landscape of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds. While they weren’t museums in the sense we have come to know, they were dedicated to the glorious past, and must have fired the imagination of early tourists. (While mass tourism was invented only a short while ago, tourists – people who travel to see the sights – have been around possibly for longer than recorded history.) An avid seeker of the sights certainly had no shortage of choices.

He might journey to Delphi, to see the poet Pindar’s iron chair, and admire the colonnade with the prows and figureheads of enemy warships from the Peloponnesian War. In Rhodes, he could see the jewelry of Artaxerxes of Persia, or the linen corselet of Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt. Or, since the exploits of the heroes of myth far outshadowed those of mere mortals, he might prefer to admire the bracelets Helen of Troy wore, which were displayed at the temple of Athena. (Delphi had a stool upon which she had sat, and one of her sandals could be seen in south Italy, along with the tools Epeius used to fashion the Trojan Horse.)

Aeneas’ shield was in Samothrace, Achilles’ spear was on display at Phaselis, in Asia Minor. Lesbos could boast of possessing Orpheus’ lyre, and Odysseus had strewn relics throughout his wanderings: a shield and ship’s prow in Spain, a goblet in Circei, an altar built by his hand in Djerba (land of the Lotus Eaters) off the coast of Tunisia. The Palladium was on display in half a dozen different locations, rather like the True Cross millennia later.

The tusks of the Eurymanthian Boar were in a temple near Naples, Tantalus’ bones were in a bronze jar in Argos (nearby there was a mound under which the gorgon Medusa’s head was prudently buried.) An enormous sea-monster’s skull was kept at the sanctuary of Asclepios at Sikyon. The bones of Titans, evidence of the Titanomachy, were on display throughout Greece. They were most likely mammoth bones. The bones of large prehistoric mammals were also taken to be human, as common consensus agreed that men in the age of heroes were much larger than modern humans. (“There were giants in the earth in those days…”)

The Romans also displayed artifacts, both in private and public museums. Marcus Aurelius Scaurus brought with him to Rome the bones of the monster Theseus had killed at Joppa. It was the centerpiece of his sumptuous victory celebrations in 58 BC. Emperor Augustus established a museum in his villa on the island of Capri. In the words of his biographer Seutonius, it displayed “a collection of huge limb bones of immense monsters of land and sea popularly known as giant’s bones, along with the weapons of ancient heroes.” (Augustus also exhibited the bones of a giant and a giantess in Rome.  Pliny notes that they were 10 feet tall and that their names were Pusio and Secundilla.)

Emperor Claudius even possessed a centaur, completely submerged in honey to preserve it, in his Egyptian palace. It had been captured and sent to him as a gift from Arabia, where centaurs still roamed wild. In AD 150, the indefatigable Pausanius, having already observed a smaller specimen in Rome, went to Tanagra in Boetia to see a pickled triton. Of tritons, he wrote that they were “certainly a sight, with their sleek froggy green hair and bodies bristling with very fine scales like sharkskin.” Unfortunately, it was lacking a head, though he notes the one in Rome had gills behind its ears, greenish-grey eyes and a wide mouth filled with fangs.

The Middle Ages would see an explosion of artifacts, marvels and relics of every sort all over Europe (my favourite is the skull of Saint John the Baptist at the age of twelve some enterprising if gullible crusader fetched back from the Holy Land). The museum as we know it would grow from the Cabinets of Curiosities or Wunderkammer that flourished with the discoveries of new worlds and the dawning age of science. (That is putting it all in a rather cramped nutshell, but it’s a subject I do hope to revisit properly one day.)

The earliest recorded use of the word museum dates from 1610, and refers to “the university building in Alexandria,” from Latin museum “library, study,” from Greek mouseion “place of study, library or museum,” originally “a seat or shrine of the Muses.” Earliest use of museum in the sense of “building to display objects” dates from the 1680s.

Nowadays, of course, they represent a surprising presence in almost every city; from dusty provincial collections of the same things you threw out last year to the most bewildering avant-garde experiences. But what I want from a museum is a little time spent with in company of the Muses.

Now, “ideal museums” are rarely satisfying flights of fancy, but I’d like to illustrate my thoughts with a few objects.


Lion-headed rhyton, Mycenaean, 16th century BC, National Museum, Athens

When Agamemnon returned triumphant from the conquered city of Troy, what a tremendous victory feast it must have been. We know so little about the people we call the Mycenaeans that myth and history are still intermingled.

They must have been a barbaric and colourful lot, with their helmets made of boar’s tusks and their curious high-collared breastplates, their long spears and slim galleys. They built sumptuous palaces, paved roads and thick-walled fortresses, and laid their dead in beehive tombs. They embody the heroic age of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, a rather wilder, more rugged world than we generally imagine. The collapse of their kingdom in the 12th century BC marks the end of the Bronze Age. Their sudden (and much debated) disappearance ushered in the long centuries of darkness from which what we call Ancient Greece was to emerge, while kingdoms rose and fell on the stage of the Middle Sea and ships ferried goods and warriors in a never-ending ballet of trade and conquest.

I can’t look at the lion-headed rhyton that the energetic and monomaniacal Schleimann unearthed from Grave IV of Grave Circle A in Mycenae, without pondering on how close to myth history still remains. Schleimann, for all his faults (and they were many) literally dug his way onto the Iliad with his fingernails. Homer became his touchstone and his Bible; everything he discovered was automatically assigned to some mythological hero. So why not imagine the rhyton (if indeed it is one, and not a mask or a helmet; there is some debate) in Agamemnon’s hand as he was cut down in his bath by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus? (It is an exquisite example of Mycenaean embossed work, dated to the 16th century BC, certainly fit for a king.)

(If you’ll pardon an aside, rhytons come in such a multitude of shapes, materials and themes they would deserve a museum of their own. Popular in Persia, they came back with the victor’s spoils to Greece, where Greek artisans immediately adopted the form and it spread throughout the Mediterranean. From rhytons, it’s a short hop to their medieval cousins, the aquamaniles, another category of exquisite vessels. One object always leads to another when Muses are involved. Oh, and lions of course! Rare creatures in early European art. Another subject to pursue, though with caution…)

After all, it’s not so much a flight of fancy as a short leap of faith. Troy, or rather the rebuilt city of Ilium, was one of the prime tourist destinations of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar went there; he could hardly take a few paces without being cautioned not to step on some sacred spot. To quote Robert Payne, in The Gold of Troy: ”… He was crossing a stream which meandered through the sand when someone said “This is the famous River Xanthus!”. He stepped on a patch of grass, and someone cried: “This is where they brought Hector’s body! Be careful not to offend his ghost!” And when he came to a pile of loose stones, someone plucked his sleeve and said: “Do you not see the altar of Hercaean Jupiter?”

Caesar wasn’t the first. According to Herodotus, Xerxes paused there (was he pondering victories or defeats?) He made sacrifices for the spirits of the heroes of old, but his troops spent an uncomfortable night, troubled with ill dreams.

Alexander paused there also, even trying some of the arms and armour preserved there in the temple of Athena, and made plans to restore the city. Emperor Julian stopped there as well, and had made a new grave for Ajax’s bones. Constantine toyed with the idea of making it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, before choosing Constantinople instead. Ilium slowly declined, pagan altars were abandoned for the Christian’s God, stones were taken away for other uses, weeds and bushes thrived.

Around 1100 A.D. the the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Saewulf passed nearby, and Sir John Mandeville, who was far less real than Priam’s proud city, states that nothing remained. Under the Ottoman rule, weeds and bushes continued to thrive, sheep grazed the low hill, and in 1870, only two people on earth, Heinrich Schliemann and Frank Calvert, the Englishman who owned half of the modest tell, believed that Troy was a real city.

Schliemann approached all the sites he excavated with the same desire: to find the physical traces of mythical heroes. He relied on intuition and carried his dog-eared copies of Homer like divining rods. He returned several times to Mycenae, (he passed on Crete, missing a truly unique opportunity for an archaeological Homeric Grand Slam: Troy, Orchomenus, Mycenae and Knossos) and began in earnest in August 1876, digging by the Lion Gate and then inside the citadel walls. He unearthed five shaft graves, containing 16 bodies (Schliemann believed he had identified the graves of Agamemnon and Clymenestra) and a large treasure of gold, silver, bronze, and ivory objects, notably four gold masks, including the famous “Mask of Agamemnon”. He published his finds in his Mykenä in 1878. (One feels some sympathy for poor Schliemann despite it all, ever since he published his finds, he has been under attack by those who accuse him of having the mask fabricated and slipping it into the shaft. Depending on your point of view, the mask of Agamemnon is either one of the most beautiful works of art in existence, or a lurid fake done clandestinely in the back room of a Greek shop. If it is indeed a forgery, then Schliemann was a grand artist. The mask is truly extraordinary.)

His monomania leaves him open to legitimate criticisms of unscholarly (and dishonest) practice, but his approach is not for far different from euhemerists the world over, who wish to reduce myth to measurable fact. Schliemann wished to do the opposite: raise fact to the realm of myth.


Seashell cosmetic case, Phoenician, 7th century BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Left: Shell cosmetic BC. Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Right: Shell cosmetic BC. British Museum, London

Over one hundred engraved seashells have been found in the Mediterranean and the Near East, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Ionian, the Greek island and mainland, and even as far west as Etruria on Italy’s west coast.

Images are often engraved on the shell’s smooth interior and the umbo carved in the likeness of a female human head (a few examples have a bird’s head in the place of the siren). They share a common style, which it is convenient to call Phoenician, and have been securely dated from the 7th century BC.

Prosaically, they are make-up containers; other bivalves have been discovered with cosmetic paste still filling them. But, “engraved Tridachna squamosa, used to hold cosmetics” does precious little justice to the pure visual poetry they represent. Looking at them, I can’t help but wonder how it happened that the first one was carved, how the sudden inspiration occurred to a craftsman, to turn his hand to something with such grace and so skilled and light a touch. Perhaps they were a modest industry, perhaps they were, for a time, very much in fashion, perhaps thousands were made, packed in bales carefully wrapped to ship across the sea, or sold at quayside to sailors seeking a gift at the end of a long voyage home. It’s not likely we will ever know, and in the end, it’s not important.

The sculptor’s delicate intervention transcends both sculpture and nature. Such a subtle marriage of form imposed and form transposed is rare; to achieve such grace requires a wholly unselfconscious breed of artist, one unfettered by the need to excel or innovate. Unhindered by the necessity to be original or individual. Only art brut achieves that today, albeit in a paradoxical manner.

I’m wholly at a loss to express my feeling when I look at them. A sense of soaring, perhaps, a curious weightlessness of spirit. They are two and a half millennia old. Time exists only for us, we who are bound to it. Objects like this briefly set us free.


Pawprint of a dog in clay, Roman, Museum of London

The direct traces of people long dead are always moving. Pottery and ceramics are the perfect vehicles for these traces and gestures; few tools between the artisan’s hands and his work. Stray fingerprints, a gesture gone awry can end up fired and preserved for millennia. Curiously even more moving than human traces are animal prints, not the swaggering or ponderous prints from prehistoric times, but the modest marks left by animals who lived in the company of men.
Roman bricks, those bricks that built an empire across the known world, millions upon millions of them, often carry traces of their makers. Other than those deliberately crafted – marks of legions, maker’s marks – many bear the more spontaneous impression of hobnailed shoes, bare feet, fingers and hands… or pawprints.

When I look at one of these bricks, I can’t help but wonder what the dog’s name was. (Then my mind goes into overdrive: what were the commonest dogs’ names in Ancient Rome?† What would they tells us about their society, in the way pets’ names can tell us today?)

Did the owner not notice (perhaps the dog was a stray, with no name, only shouted imprecations attached to his flight.) or did he give a bit of a grin and stack the brick to be fired anyway. “Here’s one for you, Sticte.” Or might he have deliberately gripped his pet’s paw and carefully pressed it into the clay, as a joint signature?

According to the Museum of London, dogs are not the only creatures that have left their prints on history. Cats, goats, foxes, deer, ducks and rodents have also left their marks on the blocks of clay left to dry at the workshops before being fired. It is impossible to tell if the prints are deliberate or accidental, though where both cat AND dog prints appear on the same brick, there is certainly a story as familiar as the marks we find everywhere in the cement pavements of modern cities.

Sometimes such gestures are all the more significant for their insignificance. They are snapshots, and all the more precious for their unprepossessing nature, when the individual emerges parallel to the culture. Another modest linking of the past and present.


Pazyryk griffin breastplate, Scythian, 5th century BC, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
From left to right: breastplate decoration in the shape of a griffin from Pazyryk.
Scythian saddle blanket from Pazyryk, Russian Altai mountains, 4th century BC. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
Two sculpted griffin profiles, 4th century BC, Russia.
Terminal Depicting a Griffin Holding a Deer in Its Beak, Pazyryk Burial Mounds, 5th Century BC.

At 1600 meters above sea level, in a dry valley above the Bolshoy River valley amongst the peaks of the High Altai in Kazakhstan, five large and nine smaller burial mounds, or kurgans, mark the site called Pazyryk. These fourteen mounds contained (or once contained, since grave robbers visited them in times past) much of what we know of the Scythians before their westward migrations into Western Asia and Europe. The mounds date from about the 5th to the 3rd century BC.

Horse-riders and pastoral nomads, they lived in tents, travelled by horseback and wagon, and traded with their neighbours to the east and west – wool from the south, silk and mirrors from China. When warriors or their wives died, they were buried in a log tomb under a small tumulus with at least one horse beside or above them. Men were buried with their weapons, women with a mirror and a knife. Dressed in rich clothing, food for the journey to the afterlife was placed in jars by their sides.

Scythian decorative arts are amongst the most inspiring of any of the ancient peoples. Animals inhabit every conceivable object: weapons, horse trappings, clothes, ornaments, jewelry and everyday objects were decorated with zoomorphic motifs. Nor are they simply decorative, every object thus decorated becomes a point of contact, an amulet, each imbued with magical power to help with the hunt, to protect from illness or harm. Griffins seem to be particularly popular in Scythian art, along with real creatures.

Herodotus tells us of the Arimaspians, a one-eyed people of Scythia who vie for gold guarded by griffins to put in their hair, the result being bloody strife between the two races, though he is paraphrasing Aristeas and modestly skeptical besides. “This Aristeas, possessed by Phoibos, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspoi, beyond whom are the Grypes that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreoi, whose territory reaches to the sea. Except for the Hyperboreoi, all these nations (and first the Arimaspoi) are always at war with their neighbors…”

Ctesias says that griffons are “about as large as wolves”, Aelian that “They engage too with other beasts and overcome them without difficulty, but they will not face the lion or the elephant.” Philostratos adds that ”…they get the better of elephants and dragons… and the tiger alone is beyond their powers of attack…” Nor is Sir John Mandeville going to pass over such a subject; he depicts the Gryphons’ strength with all the conviction of an eyewitness: “But one griffin hath the body more great and is more strong than eight lions: of such lions as be on this half, and more great and strong than an hundred eagles such as we have amongst us. For one griffin there will bear, flying to his nest, a great horse, if he may find him at the point, or two oxen yoked together as they go at the plough. For he hath his talons so long and so large and great upon his feet, as though they were horns of great oxen or of bugles or of kine, so that men make cups of them to drink of.”

Recently, it seems to be popular to pin the existence of griffins on the humble remains of the Protoceratops, common in the region, in the same way that the existence of dragons is purported to be a traumatic proto-memory of man’s earliest ancestors, combining the attributes of his three principal predators: leopard, eagle and snake. Neither is particularly convincing.
The origins of the griffin (or gryfon, gryphon, griffon) seem to be from times far more ancient – and elsewhere – than a Kazakh hillside; the griffin may have a family tree with roots in the Nile Valley, intertwined with those of the Lotus and the Tree of Life. In every ancient culture, they are principally guardian spirits; they support or carry thrones of kings, as do sphinxes and their cousins the cherubim. As for the Scythians themselves, they left no testimonials, but griffins were clearly protective spirits, if possibly savage ones that had to be treated with respect.

The breastplate with a griffin decoration was unearthed in barrow no. 1. The tomb, excavated in 1929, had already been ransacked by robbers; no bodies were found, the log coffin was empty. Ten horses were found untouched under the mound, indicating that the man buried there was likely an important chief.

But, I can’t help wondering; did the griffin protect him in battle? Did it work for the wearer in his life, or did it fail? Surely he hoped it would protect him in the life after life. Much more than just another amulet or piece of protective armour in a glass case – and goodness knows museums are crammed to the rafters with such things – this seems more like a remnant of a life. Likely it would have a poignant story to tell, whether heroic or tragic. The griffin-bird is now in whatever realm for which its owner thought he was bound, since myth is the eternity in which we carefully label and place all those sacred things which are no longer sacred. Somehow, contemplating the griffin watching over the spirits of the departed feels much more apt than bickering over its inception. A glimpse of a hereafter not ours, a hint of what might have been the Scythians’ relationship to the universe.
Why all this? Just that ruling out any avenue of reflection in the name of establishing clear limits to a discipline is a shame. Connections need to be sought where they occur, like the vein of ore that wanders through interdisciplinary strata of all kinds. Besides, it’s how musing is supposed to be. An equilibrium between the eye and the mind’s eye. Shame we don’t have more places where we can indulge.
*For a far more thorough examination of the Mousai, I would suggest the excellent site Theoi.

Of course, there’s a web site for everything nowadays: Names for Roman dogs.

Much of the historical information was taken from Travel in the Ancient World, by Lionel Cosson, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, by Adrienne Mayor and The Gold of Troy, by Robert Payne. (In case you are thinking of getting them, the former is a fantastic book; the second contains much of interest, and though there are many flawed conclusions and much unsupported speculation, it is a very worthwhile read. Last but not least: The Gold of Troy is harder to find, but a very inspiring read, and one that lets the reader see Schliemann in less harsh a light.)

Special thanks to Irene Fanizza & Ann Carling. Thank you to Adam Corsini and curator Steve Tucker of the Museum of London  for replying so helpfully to our queries about Roman bricks. (Photo of brick with pawprint © Museum of London, used with permission.)