While Greek mythology has an abundance of gods and goddesses, none had the influence of the nine Muses. Revered by artists, they were the embodiments of literature, the arts and the sciences. They were nine beautiful women who, in the ancient culture, were believed to be the source of oral knowledge like myths and poetic lyrics. They were revered as the personification of knowledge concerning the arts, particularly that of music, dance and literature.
The Muses’ home was believed to be Mount Olympus, where they kept the Olympian gods entertained with their artistry. But later traditions place them either on Mount Parnassus or Mount Helicon. They were compared to Charites, Nymphs and Sirens since they were equally skilled in song and dance.
The Muses in Greek mythology
There were nine Muses in Greek mythology. Hesiod, in his Theogony (7th century BC), describes them as being Zeus’s and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. He narrates how they brought forgetfulness to people-forgetfulness of pain and sorrow and the cessation of obligations.
Sometimes, these beautiful women were referred to as water nymphs, linked to Peiris and the springs of Helicon. Some of the tales narrate how Pegasus, the winged horse, touched his hooves to the earth on Helicon, thus causing four holy springs to burst out. The Muses, also referred to as pegasides, are said to have sprung from the springs. Later on, Athena tamed the horse and he was presented to the Muses.
Classical writers, in their works, set Apollo as the leader of the Muses. According to one myth, the Muses served as the judges for a contest between Apollo and Marsyas. They also collected the pieces of Orpheus’s dead body and buried them in Leivithra. In another myth that comes later, they were challenged to a singing contest by Thamyris. And of course, the Muses won, and Thamyris was punished-they blinded him and robbed him of his singing ability.
That wasn’t the only time someone challenged the Muses. One myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses alludes to the connection between Pieria and the Muses. Pierus, who was the king of Macedon, had nine daughters whom he named after each of the nine Muses. According to him, his daughters’ skills were a great match for them. Thus, he challenged them to a match, only for his daughters to lose. The Muses changed his daughters into chattering jays because of their presumption.
Who were the Muses?
Calliope, which means ‘beautiful-voiced,’ was the Muse of epic poetry. She was also the goddess of eloquence. Calliope had two sons, Orpheus and Linus. In Greek mythology, Calliope was the most assertive and wisest among the Muses. Hesiod termed her as the most important of all the Muses. This was because she ‘attended to worshipful princes.’ Calliope is usually depicted adorned in a golden crown, carrying a scroll, a writing tablet or a book in her hand.
Clio was the Muse of history. Her name has the meaning, ‘to celebrate’ or ‘to make famous.’ She is depicted holding an open scroll or seated next to a set of books. Regarded as the ‘proclaimer, glorifier, and celebrator of history, great deeds, and accomplishments.’
The Muse of lyric poetry, particularly erotic and love poetry, Erato’s name means ‘beloved’ or ‘lovely.’ She is portrayed with a wreath of myrtle and roses, while holding either a kithara or a golden arrow. In Simon Vouet’s representation, two turtle doves are perched at her feet, eating seeds. In some versions, Erato is also shown to be accompanied by Cupid or Eros brandishing a torch.
Euterpe was the Muse of music. Her name meant ‘the giver of much delight.’ Euterpe was said to have entertained the gods on Mount Olympus. Later traditions placed her and the other Muses on two mountains. One of them was Mount Helicon, where there was an important cult center dedicated to the goddesses. The other mountain was Mount Parnassus, where the Castalian spring was located. This spring was a vital destination for poets and artists. Euterpe was the inspiration for many authors, poets and dramatists. She is portrayed as playing or holding an aulos (double flute).
Initially, Melpomene was the Muse of singing but was later the Muse of tragedy. Her name means ‘to celebrate with song and dance.’ It was traditional to call on Melpomene for inspiration and blessing to create beautiful lyrical phrases. Melpomene was also the mother of many Sirens. The Sirens were Persephone’s divine handmaidens, but they were cursed by Persephone’s mother when they failed to protect her when Hades abducted her. Melpomene is portrayed with a ‘tragic mask.’ She holds a knife or a sword in one hand, while the tragic mask lies in the other. Also, she wears the boots that were traditionally born by tragic actors.
The Muse of sacred hymns, sacred poetry and eloquence, Polyhymnia, is also credited to be the Muse of meditation and geometry. Her name means ‘one of many hymns.’ This Muse is portrayed to be extremely serious, pensive and in meditation, while holding a finger to her mouth, clad in a long cloak. She is one of the figures to be commonly referenced in modern works of fiction.
The Muse of dance and dramatic chorus, Terpsichore, is the mother of Parthenope and the sirens. Her name means ‘delight in dancing.’ Terpsichore is portrayed sitting down or standing up, holding a lyre.
The Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry, Thalia’s name means ‘the flourishing’ or the ‘joyous.’ This Muse is depicted as a young, joyous woman adorned in a crown of ivy, boots and holding a comic mask in her hand. Many of the statues erected in her honor show her holding a trumpet and a bugle or a shepherd’s staff. The trumpet and bugle were instruments that were used to amplify actors’ voices when performing).
The Muse of astronomy and astronomical writings, Urania’s name means ‘of heaven’ or ‘heavenly.’ It is believed that she can predict the future by studying the arrangement of the stars. With Zeus’s majesty and power and Mnemosyne’s beauty and grace, Urania is associated with universal love. She is portrayed as clad in a cloak which has stars embroidered on it. Her eyes are turned up to the skies, with her attention focusing on the heavens. In her hand is a celestial globe which she points to with a rod.
Sappho: The tenth Muse
Later history attributes Sappho, the Greek poet of Lesbos, as the tenth Muse. It was Plato who gave her this title. Most of Sappho’s poetry is lost. The only complete poem by Sappho that remains is ‘Ode to Aphrodite.’ But perhaps more than her poetry, Sappho is known as a symbol of love and desire between women. The phrase ‘tenth Muse’ has become a common term attributed to brilliant women poets.
In ancient Greece, there were several temples and shrines dedicated to the Muses. The two main cult centers of the Muses were Mount Helikon in Boiotia and Pieria in Makedonia. The cults were also linked to that of Apollo. Often, the local cults were linked with springs or fountains. Those who worshipped the Muses hosted festivals, during which poetic recitals were performed, followed by sacrifices made to the Muses. In the 18th century, there were many attempts to revive the cults of the Muses.
The dissemination of certain emblem books in Renaissance and Neoclassical art, like Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, aided in the standardization of the depiction of the Muses in paintings and sculptures. This was mainly because they could be distinguished by props. These emblems or props help the viewer to identify the Muses easily. Hence, the viewers were enabled to identify the Muses immediately and the art she was linked with. Calliope carries a writing tablet. Clio holds a scroll and is seated with books, while Euterpe holds a flute. Erato is portrayed with a crown of roses and a lyre. Melpomene carries a tragic mask. A pensive expression marks Polyhymnia, while Terpsichore dances carrying a lyre. Thalia holds a comic mask in her hand and Urania is seen with a celestial globe and a pair of compasses.
Why were the nine Muses important?
The Muses, with their gifts of dance, song, music and joy, helped both the deities and ancient Greeks to forget their sorrows and instead, focus on beauty and art. Being the embodiment of many artistic ideals, they were an inspiration for musicians, performers and writers to reach great intellectual and artistic heights.
In his work, Hesiod claimed to have spoken to the Muses on Mount Helicon. According to his tale, they gifted him a laurel branch and breathed into him their heavenly voice, so that he could proclaim the magnificence of the deities and their descendants. Hence, Hesiod went from being a simple shepherd to an important poet in antiquity. Hesiod stated that the very purpose of the creation of the Muses was to help people forget their pain and suffering.
The Muses were hence the embodiments of art, drama, inspiration, Science, Mathematics, Geography and Philosophy. During the archaic period before books became widespread and available, this included almost all learning. Many poets described them as the key to a good life, as they brought friendship and prosperity. Poets like Solon sought to put forward his political reforms by performing recitations of his poetry. These recitations always had invocations to the Muses. He believed that the Muses would inspire people to be and do their best.
While writing poetry, epic history or hymns, ancient writers and their imitators invoked Muses. The invocation is done at the beginning of the work. Through the invocation, the writers ask for inspiration or help from the Muses. Or they simple invite the Muses to sing through the writer. Originally, invoking the Muses showed that the writer was working according to the established formulas of poetic tradition.
Other than Homer and Virgil, there are other famous writers who included invocations of the Muses in their works. These include Metamorphosis by Ovid, The First of the Carmina by Catullus, Inferno (Canto II) by Dante, Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucer, Henry V by Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s 38th sonnet and Paradise Lost by Milton.
When Pythagoras came to Croton, the first thing he asked the Crotoniates to do was to build a shrine for the Muses. This was done at the center of the city, to promote learning and civic harmony. Local cults of the Muses grew to be linked with fountains or springs. The Muses, due to their connections with the fountains, came to be called by different names. These fountains include Aganippe, Pirene and Hippocrene. Some referred to the Muses as Corcyides or Corycian nymphs, named after the Corycian cave on Mount Parnassos. The Muses were referred to by their surnames by Pausanias, like Ardalides or Ardaliotides. This came from a sanctuary attributed to them at Troezen, which was believed to have been built by Ardalus.
The Muses were especially revered in Boeotia, in the Valley of the Muses, which lay near Helicon. Delphi and the Parnassus were also locations where the Muses were held in high regard. It was in these places that Apollo became known as the Muse leader, when the sites were rededicated to his cult.
Often, the worship of the Muses was linked to the hero-cults of the poets. The tombs of Archilochus (on Thasos) and Hesiod and Thamyris (in Boeotia) served as host to the festivals held for the Muses, which were accompanied by recitations and sacrifices. The famed Library of Alexandria and its group of scholars formed another around a mousaion (museum or shrine), close to Alexander the Great’s tomb.
During the 18th century, many enlightenment figures sought to bring back the cult of the Muses. In pre-revolutionary Paris, a famous Masonic lodge was named Les Neuf Soeurs, which meant ‘The Nine Sisters’, named after the Nine Muses. Influential figures who attended it include Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Danton and others. The word ‘museum’ arose as a side-effect of this movement-it came to refer to any public place that displayed knowledge.
The Muses in modern times
In modern English, the Muses are explicitly used to refer to any artistic inspiration, as when an artist cites their own artistic muse. Also, references are also implicit in certain words like ‘museum’ (a place where the Muses were worshipped), ‘musing upon’ and ‘music.’
Serving as guides and inspiration for artists, the Muses were called upon to guide their writing. The practice also had a practical purpose. Since literature is sometimes performed in song, conversing with the Muses would help the artist recall the next lines. Often, we see photographers calling their subjects their Muse. It could be either a person or a thing, whose beauty dazzles the photographer.
The Muses are credited for being the inspiration behind some of the greatest poetry, art and music created by women and men throughout history. But since they were minor goddesses in the Greek pantheon, they hardly ever had narratives of their own. Instead, they were more like background characters, serving as a major support for the main characters in Greek narratives. But even then, they made their mark. Today, people continue to regard Muses as the inspiration behind their creativity.