INSPIRATION . As it appears in the general history of religions, inspiration may be defined very broadly as a spiritual influence that occurs spontaneously and renders a person capable of thinking, speaking, or acting in ways that transcend ordinary human capacities. Taken in this general sense, the term refers to a form of religious experience that is widely distributed and found in a great variety of forms. Taken more narrowly, the actual term (which derives from the Latin inspirare, "to blow or breath upon") implies the existence of a spiritus, or "breath," that is breathed into the soul and enlivens it. Although inspiration may often be conceived in this way, its specificity as a religious phenomenon should not be located in an explicit notion of spiritual breath or divine spirit, because such a notion may be absent in cases where one would still wish to speak of inspiration. In such cases, inspiration may be attributed to the direct action of a god, or even to the effects of a particular kind of food or drink. What is common to most forms of inspiration is its efficacy as an influence that motivates or facilitates action, very often in the form of inspired speech or song. An understanding of inspiration is thus closely related to questions of human agency and its transcendence.
The use of the term inspiration should probably be restricted to those cases where human agency is transformed but not totally displaced. This would make it possible to contrast inspiration with trance, because in the latter, human agency is simply canceled out, to be replaced in most cases by the action of a possessing god, spirit, or ancestor. The notion of possession itself, however, which need not always imply a state of trance, can sometimes be used to account for particularly intense experiences of inspiration. The essential point is that inspiration never leads to a state of complete dissociation of the personality and subsequent amnesia, as is the case with trance.
One of the earliest historical forms of inspiration is that experienced by the ṛṣis, or poet-seers, of the Ṛgveda. In composing their liturgical hymns, the ṛṣis often invoked their gods to inspire their songs. The gods Mitra and Varuṇa, the Aśvins, and in particular the god Agni were asked to stimulate the visions of the seers, to animate or impel their speech, and to set their songs in motion. The verbs used in these contexts convey a sense of power: cud- ("to impel, animate"); tuj- ("to strike, instigate"); hi- ("to set in motion, urge on"). One of the most famous verses in the Ṛgveda (3.62.10), the so-called Gāyatrī, is in fact a prayer addressed to the god Savitṛ, asking for such inspiration, a verse that is recited daily by traditional Hindus. This example of the inspiration of the Vedic seers may be taken as representative of the phenomenon of inspiration among the ancient Indo-European peoples generally. This is illustrated most clearly by the Indo-European root *vat- ("to blow," or more figuratively, "to inspire"). This root not only appears in the Ṛgveda and Avesta but also underlies the Latin word vates ("seer, prophet, poet") and the Old Irish term fáith ("prophet, seer").
The Vedic seers also sought inspiration by drinking a special beverage called soma, which was used in the Vedic sacrifice. Here again one finds Indo-European parallels, both in the haoma found in ancient Iran, and in the legendary mead of the ancient Scandinavians, a drink that was believed to make anyone who drank it a poet or a visionary.
Whatever its exact source, inspiration is experienced as an impulse that either comes from without, or, if it arises within, does so spontaneously, in independence of the individual's will. In principle this trait distinguishes it from the ecstatic experience that is the defining characteristic of shamanism, because once initiated the shaman is capable of acting on his own and controlling the inhabitants of the spirit world for his own ends. This autonomy is what gives shamans their importance as "technicians of the sacred." The inspired person is by contrast much more dependent upon a continuing source of inspiration.
In classical India an experience of spontaneous inspiration was sometimes referred to as pratibhā, a "flash" of insight that arose in an inexplicable way, free of any intentional cognitive act on the part of the subject. In Indian poetics, pratibhā became a common term for poetic inspiration. In early Mahāyāna Buddhism, it took on a distinctly religious value, referring to the inspired speech uttered spontaneously by a disciple in praise of the Buddha. It is, however, in later Hindu devotionalism (bhakti ) that are found the most striking Indian examples of inspiration. In inspired states that are often hard to distinguish from states of possession, the devotees of Viṣṇu and Śiva (the Ᾱḻvārs and Nayanars) composed thousands of hymns in honor of their god. One of the greatest of these, the Vaiṣṇava poet-saint Nammāḻvār (9th–10th century ce), spoke of being taken over by Viṣṇu, such that Viṣṇu himself sang through his mouth (Tiruvāymoḻi 7.9.1).
The connection of inspiration with poetry and song was also recognized in ancient Greece, where poets sought the inspiration of the Muses, much as their Indian counterparts might pray to Sarasvatī, the goddess of eloquence. Plato describes the inspiration of the Muses as a form of mania ("madness or frenzy") and makes the poet's art wholly dependent upon it. It is because the poet's mind is "taken away" by the gods that the reader knows that it is the gods who speak and not the poet himself. Poets are "simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them" (Ion 534).
Poetic inspiration was not the only type of mania that Plato recognized, however. In the Phaedrus (265a–b) he distinguishes four different types: Besides the poetic mania of the Muses there are also prophetic, telestic (ritual), and erotic forms of mania. All save the telestic are described as forms of inspiration (epipnoia ). In many respects the most important of these was prophetic or mantic inspiration, the type given by Apollo for purposes of divination, and most important in connection with the Delphic oracle. Although the famed "frenzy" of the Pythia at Delphi has been shown to be largely a product of the literary imagination (Lucian's in particular), there is no doubt that she was at all periods believed to be genuinely inspired by the god Apollo. Mention should also be made of those enigmatic, quasi-legendary figures of antiquity, the sibyls. Their inspired oracles were collected and consulted at Rome, while many later Christians looked upon some of them as pre-Christian prophecies of Christ.
The fact that Plato classified both poetic and prophetic inspiration as forms of madness is indicative of the Greek tendency to view inspiration in terms of possession, a tendency already noted in South India, and which is very widespread among tribal cultures the world over. Inspiration as a form of mania is conceived of as a manifestation of enthousiasmos, literally the presence of a god within the inspired person, that is, possession. It shall be seen that this theory exerted an important influence on some early Jewish and Christian theories of inspiration, only later to be rejected.
In the ancient Near East inspiration was closely associated with the phenomenon of prophecy. In its earliest form, the Near Eastern prophet served primarily as a counselor of the chief or king, giving advice in the form of inspired oracles. His role was distinguished from that of the cultic priest by the fact that the latter employed technical means of divination while the prophet relied primarily on inspiration. The more familiar figure of the prophet as the inspired critic of both king and cult derives from the later history of prophecy in Israel, where the prophet became the divinely elected spokesman of Yahveh. The ecstatic behavior and utterances of prophets such as Saul, Elijah, and Elisha were the effect of the powerful spirit (ruaḥ ) of God. In the later, so-called classical prophets the experience of inspiration is less violent and takes on the character of a close personal encounter.
In general the role of the prophet in this more familiar noncultic sense and the nature of inspiration as a religious phenomenon seem to be very intimately connected. The spontaneity and dynamism that characterizes inspiration achieve an almost paradigmatic realization in the figure of the itinerant prophet, who feels free to confront the established centers of power in the name of his god. It is surely not by chance that some of the clearest instances of inspiration among the peoples of Africa are found among the African tribal prophets who have appeared since the end of the nineteenth century in struggles against foreign domination. Prophetic inspiration, in one form or another, has historically been an important factor in a large number of nationalistic, nativistic, and resistance movements.
The experience of inspiration in the early Christian communities was interpreted as the outpouring of the Spirit predicted by the prophet Joel, and was dramatically symbolized by the descent of the Holy Spirit in a rush of wind and in tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts 2). The inspiration of the Spirit brought with it a variety of ecstatic experiences, which included speaking in tongues and a revival of prophecy. In the light of such experiences, and given the Christian belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit, it is not surprising that some early Christians found theories of inspiration congenial that were hardly distinguishable from theories of possession. Thus the apologist Athenagoras could say that the Spirit made use of the prophet as a flute player makes use of a flute. Justin Martyr also seems to have had a "mantic" view of inspiration. Such theories may well have derived from Philo Judaeus, who explicitly ascribed scriptural prophecy to divine possession, in this undoubtedly being influenced by Plato. As a whole, however, the Christian tradition resisted such notions, and from the time of Origen on affirmed the importance of the active involvement of the inspired subject.
The Christian theological concept of the Holy Spirit as a divine person gave the concept of inspiration a theological importance that it could not have in either Judaism or Islam, where the strong sense of divine immanence implied in such a notion was viewed with suspicion. This is made clear by the role ascribed to inspiration in the constitution of the scriptures of these three religions. While affirming the supreme authority of the Torah, the rabbis denied that it was inspired. Rather it was given directly to Moses by God verbatim. The intervention of an inspired author would have served only to weaken its authority. Only the Prophets and the Writings could properly be described as inspired. Similarly in Islam, a clear distinction is drawn between revelation (waḥy ), which is applied to the verbatim transmission of the Qurʾān to Muḥammad through the angel Gabriel, and inspiration (ilhām ), which is restricted to the inspiration of individuals on matters that are of primarily personal concern. In Christianity, by contrast, it is precisely the concept of inspiration that is traditionally invoked to account for the authoritativeness of scripture.
This should not be taken to mean, however, that the concept of inspiration is unimportant in either Judaism or Islam. The rabbinical notion of the ruaḥ ha-qodesh (lit., "holy spirit"), while not to be confused with the Christian notion, nevertheless fulfills some of the same functions. It was used by the rabbis to explain prophetic inspiration, and was also believed to be present to holy souls, and in particular to those who taught the Torah in public. According to a Midrash, "All that the righteous do, they do with the power of ruaḥ ha-qodesh " (Tanḥumaʾ Va-yeḥi 13).
In Islam the fact that the revelation made to Muḥammad is distinguished from the inspiration received by the individual believer should not prevent anyone from recognizing in Muḥammad an inspired prophet. Nor can one fail to note the similarity between the oracular structure of some of the earliest sūrahs of the Qurʾān and the inspired oracles encountered elsewhere in the history of religions, in particular among the kāhin, or soothsayers, of pre-Islamic Arabia.
The later Ṣūfīs recognized the validity of another type of ecstatic utterance, called shaṭḥ, which they believed to be divinely inspired. The saying of al-Hallāj, "Anā al-ḥaqq" ("I am the Truth"), is probably the most famous of such utterances, but one that unfortunately encouraged misunderstandings that eventually led to his death. Inspiration did not always take such a dramatic form, however. The experience of ilhām remained an essentially inner experience that was believed to be authoritative only for the saintly soul who received it as a gift from God.
These few examples must suffice to illustrate the variety of ways in which inspiration has been experienced from the earliest times down to the present day. Throughout human history are found such examples of men and women who are open to a form of experience that ultimately defies any attempts to explain, or even understand. Friedrich Nietzsche put it beautifully, in describing his own personal experience of inspiration: "One hears—one does not seek; one takes—one does not ask who gives: a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes with necessity, unhesitatingly—I have never had any choice in the matter" (Nietzsche, 1954).
A broad view of inspiration in its variety of forms in the history of religions is provided by N. Kershaw Chadwick's Poetry and Prophecy (Cambridge, U.K., 1942) and Edwyn Robert Bevan's Sibyls and Seers: A Survey of Some Ancient Theories of Revelation and Inspiration (London, 1928). A more recent work by Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (Chicago, 1985), while dealing primarily with possession trance, does have some interesting things to say about inspiration and is to be recommended.
Much information on inspired poets among Indo-European peoples can be found in Indogermanische Dichtersprache, edited by Rüdiger Schmitt (Darmstadt, 1968), although this book is aimed at the trained philologist. For a more accessible sampling of the hymns of the Vedic ṛṣis, see Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's The Rig Veda (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1981). The inspired speech of the Mahāyāna Buddhists is discussed by Graeme MacQueen in "Inspired Speech in Early Mahāyāna Buddhism," Religion 11 (1981): 303–319 and 12 (1982): 49–65. On Nammāḻvār, see A. K. Ramanujan's Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Viṣṇu by Nammāḻvār (Princeton, N.J., 1981), especially the very helpful afterword.
For a general view of inspiration among the Greeks, see E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, Calif., 1951). A more recent work by Joseph Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle (Berkeley, Calif., 1978), proposes a fundamental revision of traditional views of the inspiration of the Pythia at Delphi. On the inspiration of the Muses, one may consult Eike Barmeyer's Die Musen: Ein Beitrag zur Inspirationstheorie (Munich, 1968).
A wealth of information on inspiration among the Greeks, Hebrews, and early Christians can be found in the article on pneuma in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1968). Johannes Lindblom's Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, 1962) is also a rich resource. Johannes Pedersen's short study, "The Role Played by Inspired Persons among the Israelites and the Arabs," in Studies in Old Testament Prophecy (Edinburgh, 1950), is helpful for the attention it gives to early Arabic sources. For rabbinical theories of inspiration, see Paul Billerbeck's "Der Kanon des Alten Testaments und seine Inspiration," excursus 16 of the Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, by Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck (Munich, 1928). For inspiration in Islam, see Fazlur Rahman's Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy (London, 1958), Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975), and the articles on waḥy, ilhām, and shaṭḥ in the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers (Leiden, 1974).
Friedrich Nietzsche's account of his own experience of inspiration while engaged in writing his Thus Spake Zarathustra was included by his sister in her introduction to that work and is reproduced in the Modern Library edition of Nietzsche's major works, The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York, 1954), pp. xix–xxxiii.
Alexander, Anna, and Mark Roberts. High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity. Albany, N.Y., 2003.
Anthony, Brian Patrick. "Nature's Cathedral; The Union of Theology and Ecology in the Writings of John Muir." Ecotheology 7 (July 2002): 74–81.
Berger, Michael S. Rabbinic Authority. New York, 1998.
Pearce, Joseph. Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief. San Francisco, 1999.
Schniedewind, William Michael. The Word of God in Transition: From Prophet to Exegete in the Second Temple Period. Sheffield, U.K., 1995.
David Carpenter (1987)
A psychic state in which one becomes susceptible to creative spiritual influence or unwittingly lends oneself as an instrument for through-flowing ideas. It is the creative state of the artist, poet, and author, traditionally believed to be amenable to the wisdom of the muses or inspiring gods. In a state of inspiration, the prophets of various religions dictated scriptures or predicted future events. The term inspiration denotes a breathing in of the divine creative spirit, bringing perception of truth.
Numerous thinkers and artists have noted their own experience of inspiration. They describe states of outward passivity in which the mind becomes receptive to information that they cannot ascribe to their own intelligence. The inspiration of the muse in poets, painters, and musicians, when considered universally, resembles the experiences of mediums, channels, and psychics.
The philosopher Ferdinand Schiller wondered where his thoughts came from; they frequently flowed through him "independent of the action of his own mind." Mozart stated, "When all goes well with me, when I am in a carriage, or walking, or when I cannot sleep at night, the thoughts come streaming in upon me most fluently; whence or how is more than I can tell." Beethoven said, "Inspiration is for me that mysterious state in which the entire world seems to form a vast harmony, when every sentiment, every thought re-echoes within me, when all the forces of nature become instruments for me, when my whole body shivers and my hair stands on end."
Lord Beaconsfield, British statesman and novelist, admitted, "I often feel that there is only a step from intense mental concentration to madness. I should hardly be able to describe what I feel at the moment when my sensations are so strangely acute and intense. Every object seems to be animated. I feel that my senses are wild and extravagant. I am no longer sure of my own existence and often look back to see my name written there and thus be assured of my existence."
The two satellites of Mars were discovered in 1877 by Professor A. Hall. One hundred seventy-five years earlier, Jonathan Swift wrote in Gulliver's Travels of the astronomers of Laputa: "They have discovered two small stars, or satellites, which revolve round Mars. The inner one is three diameters distant from the centre of the planet, the outer one five diameters; the first makes its revolution in ten hours, the second in twenty hours and a half." These figures, cited at the time as a proof of Swift's ignorance of astronomy, show a striking agreement with the later findings of Hall. W. M. Thackeray in one of his "Roundabout Papers" (Cornhill Magazine, August 1862): "I have been surprised at the observations made by some of my characters. It seems as if an occult power was moving the pen. The personage does or says something and I ask: 'How did he come to think of that?'&43"
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) said his writing was done in "periods of hysterical trance." He said he saw and heard things that were not real.
Of the inception of the chapter "The Death of Uncle Tom" in Uncle Tom's Cabin, one biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe stated, "It seemed to her as though what she wrote was blown through her mind as with the rushing of a mighty wind."
Bogdan Hasdeu, the great Romanian writer, became a convinced Spiritualist after he automatically obtained messages from his deceased daughter. His father had been a distinguished linguist and was planning a standard dictionary of the Romanian language at the time of his death. Bogdan himself was a historian. When half through his History of the Romanian People, he suddenly plunged into the compilation of a vast dictionary, saying he felt that he was forced to do so. It is difficult to explain this case by ordinary psychological processes, since in a séance Bogdan later atteneded the medium (who could not speak Russian) passed into trance and wrote messages from his father in Russian urging him to complete the work.
The popular novelist and playwright Edgar Wallace wrote in the London Daily Express (June 4, 1928): "Are we wildly absurd in supposing that human thought has an indestructible substance, and that men leave behind them, when their bodies are dead, a wealth of mind that finds employment in a new host? I personally do not think we are. I am perfectly satisfied in my mind that I have received an immense amount of help from the so-called dead. I have succeeded far beyond the point my natural talents justified. And so have you—and you. I believe that my mind is furnished with oddments of intellectual equipment that have been acquired I know not how."
Sitting with W. T. Stead and Ada Goodrich-Freer, the medium David Anderson went into trance and gave the name of the hero and some incidents from a story that Goodrich-Freer had written but never published. A similar occurrence is recorded in H. Travers Smith's Voices from the Void (1919).
Hannen Swaffer interviewed a number of distinguished artists and writers on the method by which their work was produced. The majority of their statements, recorded in Swaffer's book Adventures with Inspiration (1929) attribute the imparting of creativity to a supernormal source.
According to ancient Hindu mysticism, there is a psychophysiological mechanism in human beings by which a condition of higher consciousness may be brought about by meditation or yoga practice, and in modern times there is some evidence that this condition—the raising of the kundalini —has occurred spontaneously in inventors and men of genius.
Clissold, Augustus. The Prophetic Spirit in its Relation to Wisdom and Madness. London, 1870.
Duchesneau, Louise. The Voice of the Muse. Frankfurt, Germany: P. Lang, 1986.
Gopi Krishna. The Biological Basis of Religion and Genius. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber, 1948.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longmans Green, 1902.
Kast, Verena. Joy, Inspiration, and Hope. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1991.
- Aganippe fountain at foot of Mt. Helicon, consecrated to Muses. [Gk. Myth.: LLEI, I: 322]
- angelica traditional representation of inspiration. [Herb Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 164]
- Calliope Muse of heroic poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 47]
- Castalia Parnassian spring; regarded as source of inspiration. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 52]
- Clio Muse of history. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 64]
- dove source of afflatus. [Art: Hall, 161]
- Dulcinea (del Toboso ) country girl, whom Quixote apotheosizes as guiding light. [Span. Lit.: Don Quixote ]
- Erato Muse of lyric poetry, love poetry, and marriage songs. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 97]
- Euterpe Muse of music and lyric poetry. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmer-man, 105]
- Hippocrene Mt. Helicon spring regarded as source of poetic inspiration. [Gk. Myth.: NCE, 1246]
- lactating breast representation of poetic and musical impulse. [Art: Hall, 161]
- Melpomene Muse of tragedy (tragic drama). [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 163]
- palm, garland of traditional identification of a Muse. [Gk. Myth.: Jobes, 374]
- Pegasus steed of the Muses; symbolizes poetic inspiration. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 32]
- Pierian spring fountain in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses, believed to communicate inspiration. [Gk. Myth.: Benét, 787]
- Polyhymnia or Polymania Muse of sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing, and rhetoric. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 216]
- Stroeve, Blanche her body inspired Strickland to paint nude portrait. [Br. Lit.: The Moon and Sixpence, Magill I, 621–623]
- Terpsichore Muse of choral song and dancing. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 260]
- Thalia Muse of comedy. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 261]
- tongues of fire manifestation of Holy Spirit’s descent on Pentecost. [N.T.: Acts 2:1–4]
- Urania Muse of astronomy. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 284]
in·spi·ra·tion / ˌinspəˈrāshən/ • n. 1. the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, esp. to do something creative: Helen had one of her flashes of inspiration the history of fashion has provided designers with invaluable inspiration. ∎ the quality of having been so stimulated, esp. when evident in something: a rare moment of inspiration in an otherwise dull display. ∎ a person or thing that stimulates in this way: he is an inspiration to everyone. ∎ a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea: then I had an inspiration. ∎ the divine influence believed to have led to the writing of the Bible. 2. the drawing in of breath; inhalation. ∎ an act of breathing in; an inhalation.