The Greek Muses

I was asked to if I could post a bit of Greek history, specifically about the Nine Muses – as the term ‘muse’ is still used today to represent a person, place or thing that inspires us. Not only are the Muses explicitly used in modern English to refer to an artistic inspiration, as when one cites one’s own artistic muse, but they also are implicit in words and phrases such as “amuse”, “museum” (Latinised from mouseion—a place where the muses were worshipped), “music”, and “musing upon”. In Greek mythology, poetry and literature, the Muses were thought to be the Goddesses from whom all inspiration came in literature, art and science. They are also seen throughout Renaissance and Neoclassical art.

But from where did they originate?

– In Boeotia, the homeland of Hesiod, a tradition persisted that the Muses had once been three in number. Diodorus Siculus, quotes Hesiod to the contrary, observing: “Writers similarly disagree also concerning the number of the Muses; for some say that there are three, and others that there are nine, but the number nine has prevailed since it rests upon the authority of the most distinguished men, such as Homer and Hesiod and others like them.” Diodoris also states (Book I.18) that Osiris first recruited the nine Muses, along with the Satyrs or male dancers, while passing through Ethiopia, before embarking on a tour of all Asia and Europe, teaching the arts of cultivation wherever he went.

– The Roman scholar Varro relates that there are only three Muses: one who is born from the movement of water, another who makes sound by striking the air, and a third who is embodied only in the human voice.

– Sometimes they are referred to as water nymphs, associated with the springs of Helicon and with Pieris. It was said that the winged horse Pegasus touched his hooves to the ground on Helicon, causing four sacred springs to burst forth, from which the muses were born.

– According to Hesiod’s Theogony (7th century BCE), they were daughters of Zeus, the second generation king of the gods, and the offspring of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory.

But just who are the Nine Muses?

Calliope

The oldest and most well-known of the muses, the muse of Epic Poetry. She is the wisest and most assertive of the muses. Her emblem is of a writing tablet, although she is also often depicted carrying a scroll or book and wearing a gold crown. She was Homer’s inspiration for the Odyssey and the Iliad.

Clio

The muse of history. She is often depicted with a parchment scroll of a set of tablets, and is also known as The Proclaimer. The name is from the root meaning “recount” or “make famous”. She is seen as a researcher, one who ignites the need for history to be recorded. She was concerned with recording the past in order to educate the future.

Erato

The muse of poetry, especially favoring love and erotic poems. From the root Eros, the name means “lovely” or “desired”. Her emblem is the lyre, though since the Renaissance she has often been depicted wearing a wreath of myrtle or roses, or carrying a gold arrow. She has also been depicted alongside the god Eros, holding a torch. It was said she had the power to turn men who followed her into those worth being loved.

Euterpe

The muse of song. Called the “giver of delight” as her name means “delight” or “rejoice”. She was depicted as holding a flute. She is believed to have invented the alos (a double flute).

Melpomene

The muse of tragedy, she is depicted as carry a tragic mask of theater, carrying a weapon and wearing a wreath of vines (alluding to Dionysis, the God of Theater). Her name means “to sing” “to be melodious”. It was traditional to invoke her in order to create beautiful lyrical phrases.

Polyhymnia

The muse of of sacred song and poetry, as well as agriculture and pantomime. Her name means “the one of many hymns”. She is depicted as very serious or pensive, and veiled. She is also associated as being the goddess of geometry and meditation.

Terpsichore

The muse of dance. and dramatic chorus, literally meaning “delight of dance”. However, she is usually depicted as sitting down and holding a lyre, playing music to accompany a chorus. She is said to be the mother to all Sirens.

Thalia

The muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. In this context, her name means “flourishing”, because ‘the praises in her songs flourish over time’. She is portrayed as a young woman with a joyous air, crowned with ivy and holding a comedic mask of the theater in hand. Many of her depictions also holds a trumpet or a bugle which was used to project the voice of actors to the audience.

Urania

The muse of astronomy, meaning “heavenly” or “of heaven”. She is usually depicted as holding a celestial globe with which she points to, and she is able to foretell the future by reading the stars. She dresses in a cloak of stars and keeps her attention towards the heavens. During the Renaissance, she became used as the muse for Christian poets. Her name has been used to name astronomical observations (such as Urania and the Urania asteroid belt).

The tenth muse!?
The archaic poet, Sappho of Lesbo, was given the esteem compliment of being titled “the tenth muse” by Plato. It has since become a conventional compliment paid to female poets.

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