The Muses, daughters of Zeus and the goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne, were charged with the responsibility of inspiring poets and musicians and promoting the arts and sciences.
No banquet on Mount Olympus was complete without them. Seated near the throne of their father, the nine sisters entertained the guests, singing not only about the greatness of Zeus but about the marvelous feats of the Greek heroes and the creation of the heavens and the earth with all its wondrous creatures.
Their influence was profound. By their praising valiant behavior, thereby etching their names in history, the Muses encouraged further heroism. Although they usually sang only for the immortals, they occasionally performed at events honoring heroic mortals, such as the funeral of Achilles, the fallen hero of the Trojan War.
The Power of Muses
They were described as “having one mind, their hearts set upon song and their spirit free from care.” The Muses often acted in concert, all were friends and followers of the god Apollo. On many occasions, their wise counsel, as well as their soothing diversions, kept him from making poor decisions.
Their gift, according to Hesiod, was that “though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, when the Muses sing, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles.” A precious gift indeed.
The Unforgiving Nature of Muses
This is not to say, however, that all was goodness and light around them. Like many of the other deities, they were particularly sensitive about being acknowledged for their superiority.
When Pierus claimed his nine daughters were better singers, the Muses were mightily offended and turned the upstarts into magpies, ducks, finches, and other birds.
When the minstrel, Thamyris, challenged them to a song contest, he paid dearly for the affront. He, of course, lost the contest, but they also blinded him and took his memory away, rendering him unable to remember the words to his songs.
The Generosity of Muses
However, the Muses were also generous with their skills and willing to teach others. They taught the nymph Echo to play music, instructed the Egyptian Sphinx in her riddle, and trained the great poet Musaeus.
Calliope, the eldest, often attended the birth of royal nobles and gave (or withheld if she wished) the gift of the Muses as the immortals deemed fit. Mortals who were blessed by the Muses could use the beauty of song or the spirit of dance to heal the sick and to comfort the heartbroken.
Division of Skills
Even though they were almost always together and acting as one, each of the muses had her own area in which she excelled.
A Muse of philosophy, epic poetry, and rhetoric, Calliope was the unofficial leader of Muses. She was often depicted wearing a writing tablet or a paper roll in her hand and with a golden crown on her head.
She gave birth to Orpheus and Linus, and both of them became famous musicians and bards of Ancient Greece. Calliope was also the Muse that inspired Homer to write Iliad and the Odyssey. Roman epic poet, Virgil, invokes Calliope in his most famous work, Aeneid.
A Muse of history and introduction of the alphabet in Greece, Clio was often represented holding an open parchment scroll or a book. Apart from being the Muse of history, Clio was also famous for playing the lyre and was often depicted holding one.
Clio’s name originated from the Greek word Kleio, which means “to make someone famous.” Indeed, this Muse had the power to make people famous and renowned by immortalizing their deeds.
She was a Muse of lyric poetry and music, especially the flute. As such, she was often depicted holding this instrument. Euterpe also discovered several other musical instruments, courses, and dialectics.
Music was an essential part of people’s lives, even in Ancient Greece. As a result, Euterpe’s name meant “delight” in Greek, and many poets and artists called Euterpe “the bringer of delight.”
A Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry, Thalia was usually depicted as a mischievous young woman. She would often be holding a comedic mask, an ivy crown, and boots. Her name meant “festive, joyous, and flourishing.”
Thalia inspired countless Greek comedic writers, such as Menander and Aristophanes. Oftentimes, Greek comedies contained various philosophical thoughts. This was a clever and safe way to talk about more serious issues. Masking them in comedy, just like Thalia liked to mask her face.
Melpomene is a Muse initially responsible for chorus and chanting. Later she became responsible for tragedy (theater), which is her main responsibility now. Her name means to celebrate through dance and song.
As a Muse of tragedy, Melpomene is often depicted wearing a tragic mask. Usually holding a knife or club in her hand, and wearing cothurnus (boots traditionally worn by Greek tragedy actors). Invoking Melpomene was a common practice among Greek and Roman writers and poets.
She was the Muse of dance and choral songs. One would expect Terpsichore to be depicted as dancing, but surprisingly enough, she is usually depicted as sitting down. With a lyre in her hands, Terpsichore accompanies dancers and provides music to which they dance.
Terpsichore was the mother of Sirens, also famous mythical creatures. She also gave birth to two Thracian kings: Boston and Rhesus.
One of the most famous Muses, and certainly the Muse that caused the most heartache, Erato is the Muse of love poems and mimicry. Often accompanied by the God of Love, Eros, Erato inspired poets and artists to create the most passionate works of art.
Erato was mentioned by Apollonius Rhodius in his work Argonautica. At the beginning of this story, Rhodius invokes Erato to tell him a story of the love between Medea and Jason.
A Muse of sacred music and eloquence in verse, Polyhymnia was depicted as a serious woman dressed in a long cloak and veil, holding a finger to her mouth. Apart from her main responsibilities, Polyhymnia was the protector of agriculture, pantomime, geometry, and meditation.
She inspired famous orators, the most famous being Demosthenes. He wrote Philippics, a famous speech that was supposed to unite Athenians and other Greeks against the upcoming invasion of King Philip of Macedonia.
A Muse that inspired not only arts but also scientific thought, Ourania was the Muse of astronomy, astrology, and prophecy. That’s why she was often depicted holding a compass or globe.
Many considered Ourania the eldest Muse, as she inherited the power and majesty from her father, the mighty Zeus. She also inherited beauty and grace from her mother, Mnemosyne.
Interacting With Other Deities
Although none of the Muses have an extensive mythology of their own, many of them are featured in other myths.
Calliope, for example, was called on by Zeus to arbitrate the dispute between Aphrodite and Persephone. After they both fell in love with the handsome Adonis. Her wise decision to allow him to spend part of the year with each of them seemed to satisfy everyone.
When Athena rescued Pegasus, the flying horse, shortly after his birth, the goddess entrusted the Muses with his care. The young colt, excited to meet the lovely Muses, kicked the side of the Mountain. Causing springs to gush out of the side of the mountain.
Springs and wells both became sacred symbols of the Muses. Coming to represent the fountains of inspiration that they provided. Ourania took the major responsibility for caring for Pegasus and prophesied his future heroism. She also foresaw his eventual place amongst the stars in the heavens.
The Muses remain among us today as the patrons of the fine arts and the inspiration for creative thought. Even if Mnemosyne herself ironically isn’t remmebered as well, her daughters of wit and charm are remembered. Their legacy lives on through popular culture, as they never stopped inspiring us.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post. Make sure to check out some of the other goddesses on here. as well. You can find the complete list of goddesses sorted across regions and religions here.
Featured Image Credit: Hendrick van Balen the Elder, Joos de Momper, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons