The Nine Muses in Greek Mythology – Inspirational Goddesses of the Arts, Literature, and Science
In ancient Greece, it was believed that the Muses were the source of inspiration. According to the myths, the Muses had a guiding hand in the creative and scientific endeavors of humanity, frequently assisting others on their way to great achievements. Who were the Nine Muses? And what fields of study did they exemplify?
Below, World History Edu presents the origin story, symbols and meaning of the Nine Muses in ancient Greek religion.
The Origin Story
According to ancient Greek poet Hesiod, the Muses are the children of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Zeus is the king of the Greek Olympians, while Mnemosyne is considered as the personification of memory. A Titan goddess, Mnemosyne was born to Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth). This makes her the aunt of Zeus.
It was believed that the nine Muses were all born in the region of Pieria, at the foot of Mount Olympus. This explains why the nine sisters are sometimes collectively referred to as the Pierian Muses.
In some alternative accounts, Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, is seen as the mother of the Muses.
It was originally believed that the Muses lived on Mount Olympus, close to their place of birth; however, over time, other locations, such as Mount Helicon (where their shrine was located) and Mount Parnassus (which is near and dear to the god Apollo), were proposed as more likely dwelling places.
Although Hesiod’s claim of there being nine Muses came to be the commonly accepted account, the ancient Greek world genuinely celebrated a far wider range of Muses.
The Muses underwent a complete name and number change as a result of regional changes over time. For example, in the ancient Greek region of Boeotia (located in present day Central Greece), only three Muses were recognized – Mneme, Aoede, and Melete.
Who are the Nine Muses in Greek Mythology?
The Muses were revered as a wellspring of ideas and knowledge, ranging from the arts to science. From Clio, the Muse of history, to Thalia, the Muse of comedy, the following are the Nine Muses in Greek mythology:
Calliope: The Muse of Epic Poetry
Calliope is the muse with the longest history; hence she is one of the most well-known of the nine original muses. Hesiod and other ancient Greek poets recognized her as the “Chief of all Muses” because of her role in inspiring epic poetry and her being the eldest.
She was not the kind to be trifled with. This was evident when she turned the daughters of King Pierus of Thessaly into magpies.
The Greek aspects of her given name, kallos, which means “wonderful voice,” provide a unique name known as “The One with a Beautiful Voice”. This feature of her is the reason why she was believed to preside over eloquence as well.
When a fierce conflict broke out between Greek goddesses Persephone and Aphrodite over the handsome youth Adonis, Zeus dispatched Calliope to resolve the dispute. It was then ruled that Adonis spend a third of the year with each goddess.
Like many of her sisters, Calliope was associated with the Greek god Apollo. In some accounts, she is believed to be the mother of Orpheus and Linus, by either Apollo or the Thracian king Oeagrus. In other accounts, she is the mother of the Sirens by Achelous, the god of the Achelous River.
Many representations of Calliope have her clutching a stone tablet to her chest. Calliope is also sometimes depicted with a headpiece on her head to emphasize her royal status.
The Greek poet Homer is said to have sought inspiration from the Muse Calliope before composing his famous work the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Clio: the Muse of History
Clio is the historian’s muse and is also known as “The Proclaimer.” She documents acts of valor and honors past achievements of many accomplished soldiers and great warriors in history.
In Greek, kleos means “glory,” which is where her name comes from.
Hyacinthus, the handsome young Spartan who was a lover of Apollo and after whom the hyacinth flower was called after his death, is thought to have been the son of Clio.
Furthermore in some less well-known versions of the popular Adonis myth, Clio was the one who killed Adonis over a dispute involving the goddess Aphrodite.
Clio is typically seen in artworks with a trumpet in her left hand or a scroll in her right. Instead of a trumpet, which would stress her function as a messenger, she was given a scroll, which more accurately depicts her duty as Olympus’ own divine chronicler.
Erato: Muse of Love
The Muse Erato used to be worshiped by cursed lovers and sentimentalists in hopes for a better love life. Erato’s influence is especially clear in the forgotten poem “Rhadine”, which talked about the tragic end of two lovers. Ultimately, Rhadine and Leontichus were killed by Rhadine’s spiteful fiancé and were buried together on the island of Samos, creating a tragic ending comparable to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
You might be wondering how this is not Aphrodite’s job. Aphrodite may have ruled the world of love and beauty, but the Muse reigned supreme in the fields of art and writing.
The muse Erato is frequently depicted with a lyre in her hands and a myrtle wreath atop her head. The lyre is typically interpreted as a representation of Apollo.
Erato’s insignia became confused with those that were more typically reserved for Aphrodite throughout the Renaissance.
Since they share the same meaning, “beautiful,” Erato and Eros, the god of desire, are often confused with one another.
Euterpe: Muse of Music
To the ancient Greeks, Euterpe was the unrivaled Muse of song and poetry. Many musical instruments, notably the aulos, a type of double flute, are attributed to Euterpe.
Euterpe’s influence extends to all types of sound, however, she herself is best known for her expertise with wind instruments.
In some sources, the Thracian king Rhesus is believed to be the son of Euterpe. In Homer’s Iliad, Rhesus is identified as a fierce warrior who fought on the side of Troy during the Trojan War.
Melpomene: Muse of Tragedy
Melpomene, whose name means “to sing,” is the inspirational goddess in charge of both the chorus and the tragic arts.
Melpomene’s tragic mask is half of the mask symbol that has come to represent the theater; the other half was created by her sister, the Muse Thalia. Together, they form the mask of tragedy and happiness.
Melpomene is one of the Muses thought to be the mothers of the Sirens, the monster half-bird sea-nymphs whose hypnotic singing lured sailors to their deaths.
She is sometimes depicted with a laurel or grapevine crown; the latter is meant to evoke her association with Dionysus, the deity of the theater.
Often times, she she is seen decked up in a tragic actor’s set, complete with the high-heeled shoe known as a cothurnus, an elaborately patterned, long-sleeved gown, and a tragic mask in her right hand.
Melpomene’s association with the lyre dates back to before the Hellenistic Period, when the Muses began to be seen as overseeing certain branches of the arts.
Polyhymnia: Muse of Hymns and Sacred Poetry
Polyhymnia is the inspiration behind religious music and dance. The Greek words poly (many) and hymn (praise) come together to form her name, which translates to “One of Many Praises.”
Polyhymnia is typically shown as a veiled, modestly dressed woman who is deep in thought. The goddess, in contrast to her sibling deities, typically maintains a calm demeanor.
There is also an asteroid which bears the name of the muse. It was discovered by Jean Chacornac, a French astronomer, in 1854.
Terpsichore: The Muse of Dance
Terpsichore, the Muse of Choral Music and Dance, appears in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Apollon Musagète”. Her name means “Delightful Dancing” in the crude translation.
Terpsichore is one of the more well-known Muses, however, she has few significant mythologies associated with her.
She is often considered to have had a sexual relationship with the sea deity Achelous, making her one of the probable divine mothers of the Sirens. In some sources, it is stated that the muse might just as easily be the mother of the musician Linus.
Terpsichore is typically depicted either dancing or seated while playing the lyre, which is an important symbol of muses in general. On a statue found in Hadrian’s Villa, she is depicted with the lyre tucked under her arm and a feathered headdress.
Thalia: Muse of Comedy
As the name implies, Thalia is the patroness of humorous writing and lighthearted poetry. She is the most recognizable symbol of tragedy and comedy in modern theater, together with her sister, Melpomene.
Thalia had a little more influence in mythology than most other women because she is said to be the mother of the Corybantes through her union with Apollo, whom she courted while Orpheus was young.
She’s usually depicted with the theatrical mask in one hand and either a trumpet or a shepherd’s crook in the other. The crook represented her dominance in the genre of pastoral poetry, which praised simpler ways of living as a kind of relief from the stresses of modern existence.
Urania: Muse of Astronomy
Urania is the Muse of astronomy. However, as Christianity expanded, she also became known as the Muse of Christian poetry. Her influence on the astronomy community was aided by the fact that her name alone conjured the heavens.
Legend has it that the goddess would use star divination to foretell the future, adding to the long list of Greek prophetic deities, which includes Apollo.
Sometimes she is referred to as the oldest Muse, taking Calliope’s place. Furthermore, Urania was regarded as the strongest muse due to her understanding of heavenly bodies. She is frequently seen carrying a celestial globe and donning blue robes in artworks.
The American national seal features contemporary renditions of the goddess. Her depiction also appears on the seals of the Canadian Royal Astronomical Society and the United States Naval Observatory.
What did the Muses represent?
In ancient Greece, the nine Muses represented the various fields of study and artistic expression. They are essential to human progress, as it was believed that without them, humanity would not have made nearly as many innovations or discoveries.
At the end of the day, it was the Muses who opened the door to creativity. To induce such innovative breakthroughs, no other god could possibly compete when it came to inspiration. Since the nine Muses were so integral to the creation of all Greek poetry, it’s almost impossible to find a creative work that fails to pay tribute to at least one of them.
In a nutshell, it is all because of these many muses that humankind has kept on making progress and finding new things to discover. We owe our gratitude to the Muses for the sparks of creativity that allow us to create new works of art, write new songs, and discover new scientific truths.
The nine mysterious daughters of Zeus bestowed extraordinary talents in music, choreography, intelligence, curiosity, and lyrical skill upon ordinary men in exchange for their favor. They transformed these individuals into figureheads and legends in the process.
The Muses were revered throughout the Greek world, and notable temples and shrines were built all across the Mediterranean. The nine sisters were frequently invoked and worshipped by the cult of Apollo, who was seen as their leader.
Additionally, the Muses possessed prominent temples in the regions of Boeotia and Pieria, where the goddesses are thought to regularly reside. The Valley of the Muses and the Sanctuary of the Muses in Thespiai were two sanctuaries devoted to the Muses.
Close to Mount Helicon, celebrations in their honor would take place every year. People seeking favor would bring dedications to the Muses at the festivals, including works of art and other unusual or impressive things. Of course, there would also be theater productions, musical performances, and dance opportunities at the festivals.
The Roman ruins at Heliopolis, Baalbek in contemporary Lebanon, and the Hill of the Muses in Athens all include traces of temples built to commemorate the daughters of almighty Zeus.
Hesiod’s encounter with the Muses
Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet, philosopher, and occasional farmer, was born in Cyme. During his lifetime, he produced the all-too-familiar poems known as “Theogony and Works and Days”. After his passing, his work influenced astronomy, economics, and religious practices. You might be wondering how Hesiod got mixed up in the history of the Muses.
According to the story, Hesiod claimed to have encountered the nine mysterious goddesses in Boeotia while tending sheep close to Mount Helicon. In his poem “Works and Days”, he described Boeotia as “a wretched region, brutal in winter, hard in summer and never pleasant.” He had traveled there to see his ailing father.
The poet goes on to say that the Muses gave him a golden staff, establishing him as a person who possessed poetic authority and control. Hesiod was motivated to produce “Theogony”, his most renowned work, as a result of this encounter, leaving behind his life as a poor merchant’s son in favor of one filled with poetry and lifelong creative endeavors.
Did you know?
Before writing a poem, it was not uncommon for poets to call on the help of the Muses. Some of the famous authors to invoke the names were Virgil and Homer. Famous Athenian lawmaker and poet Solon stated that the Muses brought good life and brought out the best in every individual.
Pythagoras of Samos, the famous Greek mathematician and philosopher, entreated the city of Croton (present day Crotone) to erect a shrine in honor of the Muses. The mathematician believed that muses could enhance not just learning but the unity and peace in the city.
The word “museum,” which was derived from the Latin word for “muse,” is an accurate title for a building where artistic achievements can be proudly displayed.
How the Muses inspired Osiris
According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, ancient Egyptian god Osiris interacted with the nine Muses and the Greek satyrs. Having being inspired by those creatures, Osiris travelled the world, spreading his knowledge of agriculture and other important arts of civilization.
Other interesting myths
In Roman scholar Varro’s account, the Muses emerged from the air, water, and human voice. Those three muses were: Melete (“practice”), Mneme (“memory”), and Aoede (“song” or “voice”)
Over the centuries, classical scholars proposed an explanation why the three original muses became nine. It was said that each of the three muses tripled.
In the region of Delphi, the place which was famous for the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle of Delphi, the muses were three – Nete, Mese, and Hypate. Those three muses represented the three chords of the lyre, i.e. the lowest, middle, and highest of the seven notes, respectively. It is for this reason they came to be sometimes known as the Three Muses of the Lyre.
In some accounts, the three main muses were seen as the daughters of the Greek god Apollo. Those muses were Apollonis, Cephisso, Borysthenis.
According to ancient Greek poets like Mimnermus and Alcman, the muses emerged from the primordial beings Gaia and Uranus. This connection comes as no surprise, as Gaia was once in charge of the oracle at Delphi before it was bequeathed to Apollo.
“carry a mousa”
To the Greeks, the word “mousa” meant a particular type of goddess. It could also mean ‘art’ or ‘poetry’. Ancient Greek poet Pindar explained the meaning of “carry a mousa” as “to do brilliant”.
Orpheus and the Muses
In some sources, legendary Thracian musician and prophet Orpheus was believed to be the son of Calliope, one of the muses, and the Thracian king Oeagrus.
This would explain why Orpheus came to seen as the greatest of all musicians and poets by some ancient Greek authors. The Thracian was so good at playing the lyre and writing poems that no living thing could resist his works, not even Hades, the ruler of the Underworld.