In ancient Greek religion and mythology, the Muses are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts.

They are considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these ancient cultures.

In current English usage, “muse” can refer in general to a person who inspires an artist, musician, or writer.

Mythology

According to Hesiod’s Theogony (seventh century BC), they were daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory.

For Alcman and Mimnermus, they were even more primordial, springing from the early deities Ouranos and Gaia. Gaia is Mother Earth, an early mother goddess who was worshipped at Delphi from prehistoric times, long before the site was rededicated to Apollo, possibly indicating a transfer to association with him after that time.

Sometimes the Muses 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.

Athena later tamed the horse and presented him to the Muses (compare the Roman inspiring nymphs of springs, the Camenae, the Völva of Norse Mythology and also the apsaras in the mythology of classical India).

Classical writers set Apollo as their leader, Apollon Mousagetēs (“Apollo Muse-leader“). In one myth, the Muses judged a contest between Apollo and Marsyas.

They also gathered the pieces of the dead body of Orpheus, son of Calliope, and buried them in Leivithra. In a later myth, Thamyris challenged them to a singing contest. They won and punished Thamyris by blinding him and robbing him of his singing ability.

According to a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses—alluding to the connection of Pieria with the Muses—Pierus, king of Macedon, had nine daughters he named after the nine Muses, believing that their skills were a great match to the Muses.

He thus challenged the Muses to a match, resulting in his daughters, the Pierides, being turned into chattering magpies for their presumption.

Pausanias records a tradition of two generations of Muses; the first are the daughters of Ouranos and Gaia, the second of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

Another, rarer genealogy is that they are daughters of Harmonia (the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares), which contradicts the myth in which they were dancing at the wedding of Harmonia and Cadmus.

Cult

The Muses had several temples and shrines in ancient Greece, their two main cult centers being Mount Helikon in Boiotia and Pieria in Makedonia. Strabo wrote:

“Helikon, not far distant from Parnassos, rivals it both in height and in circuit; for both are rocky and covered with snow, and their circuit comprises no large extent of territory. Here are the temple of the Mousai and Hippocrene and the cave of the Nymphai called the Leibethrides; and from this fact one might infer that those who consecrated Helikon to the Mousai were Thrakians, the same who dedicated Pieris and Leibethron and Pimpleia [in Pieria] to the same goddesses. The Thrakians used to be called Pieres, but, now that they have disappeared, the Macedonians hold these places.”

The cult of the Muses was also commonly connected to that of Apollo.

Some Greek writers give the names of the nine Muses as Kallichore, Helike, Eunike, Thelxinoë, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Eukelade, Dia, and Enope.

In Renaissance and Neoclassical art, the dissemination of emblem books such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593 and many further editions) helped standardize the depiction of the Muses in sculpture and painting, so they could be distinguished by certain props.

These props, or emblems, became readily identifiable by the viewer, enabling one immediately to recognize the Muse and the art with which she had become associated.

Here again, Calliope (epic poetry) carries a writing tablet; Clio (history) carries a scroll and books; Euterpe (song and elegiac poetry) carries a flute, the aulos; Erato (lyric poetry) is often seen with a lyre and a crown of roses; Melpomene (tragedy) is often seen with a tragic mask; Polyhymnia (sacred poetry) is often seen with a pensive expression; Terpsichore (choral dance and song) is often seen dancing and carrying a lyre; Thalia (comedy) is often seen with a comic mask; and Urania (astronomy) carries a pair of compasses and the celestial globe.

In society

Greek mousa is a common noun as well as a type of goddess: it literally means “art” or “poetry”. According to Pindar, to “carry a mousa” is “to excel in the arts“.

The word derives from the Indo-European root men-, which is also the source of Greek Mnemosyne and mania, English “mind“, “mental” and “monitor“, Sanskrit mantra and Avestan Mazda.

The Muses, therefore, were both the embodiments and sponsors of performed metrical speech: mousike (whence the English term “music”) was just “one of the arts of the Muses“.

Others included Science, Geography, Mathematics, Philosophy, and especially Art, Drama, and inspiration. In the archaic period, before the widespread availability of books (scrolls), this included nearly all of learning.

The first Greek book on astronomy, by Thales, took the form of dactylic hexameters, as did many works of pre-Socratic philosophy. Both Plato and the Pythagoreans explicitly included philosophy as a sub-species of mousike.

The Histories of Herodotus, whose primary medium of delivery was a public recitation, were divided by Alexandrian editors into nine books, named after the nine Muses.

For poet and “law-giver” Solon, the Muses were “the key to the good life“; since they brought both prosperity and friendship. Solon sought to perpetuate his political reforms by establishing recitations of his poetry—complete with invocations to his practical-minded Muses—by Athenian boys at festivals each year.

He believed that Muses would help inspire people to do their best.

In literature

Ancient authors and their imitators invoke Muses when writing poetry, hymns or epic history. The invocation occurs near the beginning of their work. It asks for help or inspiration from the Muses or simply invites the Muse to sing directly through the author.

Originally, the invocation of the Muse was an indication that the speaker was working inside the poetic tradition, according to the established formulas. For example:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. — Homer, in Book I of The Odyssey (Robert Fagles translation, 1996)

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate; What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate; For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began To persecute so brave, so just a man; […] — Virgil, in Book I of the Aeneid (John Dryden translation, 1697)

Besides Homer and Virgil, other famous works that included an invocation of the Muse are the first of the Carmina by Catullus, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Amores, Dante’s Inferno (Canto II), Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (Book II), Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act 1, Prologue), his 38th sonnet, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (openings of Books 1 and 7).

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.