In Greek mythology, the Muses (Greek Μούσαι, Mousai) are nine archaic goddesses who embody the right evocation of myth, inspired through remembered and improvised song and traditional "music" and dances. They were water nymphs, associated with the springs of Helicon and Pieris. They are sometimes called Pierides from their association with the spring of Pieres. The Olympian system set Apollo as their leader, Apollon Mousagetes.
According to Hesiod's Theogony, they are the daughters of Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. For Mimnermus, they were even more primordial, springing from Uranus and Gaia. Pausanias supports that there were two generations of Muses; the first being daughters of Uranus and Gaia, the second from Zeus and Mnemosyne. Another rarer belief is that they are daughters of Harmonia (the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares) which contradicts with the myth in which they were dancing in the marriage of Harmonia and Cadmus.
Muses in myth
According to Pausanias there were three original Muses: Aoide ("song", "voice"), Melete ("practice" or "occasion") and Mneme ("memory") (Paus. 9.29.1). Together, they form the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art in cult practice. In Delphi three Muses were worshipped as well but with other names: Nete , Mesi and Hypate which are the names of the three chords of the ancient musical instrument lyre
In later tradition, the fourth Muse, Arche, was also considered.
The canonical nine Muses are:
- Calliope (epic poetry)
- Euterpe (music)
- Clio (history)
- Erato (lyrics/love poetry)
- Melpomene (tragedy)
- Polymnia (sacred poetry)
- Terpsichore (dancing)
- Thalia (comedy)
- Urania (astronomy)
Together, they form a complete picture of the subjects proper to poetic art in the archaic period. However, the association of specific muses with specific art forms is a later innovation.
In Roman, Renaissance and Neoclassical art, Muses depicted in sculptures or paintings are often distinguished by certain props or poses, as emblems. Euterpe (music) carries a flute; Calliope (epic poetry) carries a writing tablet; Clio (history) carries a scroll and books; 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 (dancing) is often seen dancing and carrying a lyre; Thalia (comedy) is often seen with a comic mask; and Urania (astronomy) carries a staff pointed at a celestial globe.
Function in Society
Greek mousa is a common noun as well as a type of goddess: it literally means "song" or "poem". In Pindar, to "carry a mousa" is "to sing a song". The word is probably derived from the Indo-European root *men-, which is also the source of Greek Mnemosyne, Latin Minerva, and English "mind", "mental" and "memory".
The Muses were therefore both the embodiments and sponsors of performed metrical speech: mousike, whence "music"; was "the art of the Muses". In the archaic period, before the wide-spread availability of books, this included nearly all of learning: the first Greek book on astronomy, by Thales, was set in dactylic hexameter, as were many works of pre-Socratic philosophy; both Plato and the Pythagoreans explicitly included philosophy as a sub-species of mousike (Strabo 10.3.10). Herodotus, whose primary medium of delivery was public recitation, named each one of the nine books of his Histories after a different Muse.
For poet and "law-giver" Solon (fragment 13), 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.
The Muses judged the contest between Apollo and Marsyas. They also gathered the pieces of the dead body of Orpheus, son of Calliope, and buried them. They blinded Thamyris for his hubris in challenging them to a contest.
Function in literature
The muses are typically invoked at or near the beginning of an epic poem or classical Greek story. They have served as aids to an author, or as the true speaker; for which an author is only a mouthpiece. Originally, the invocation of the Muse was an indication that the speaker was working inside the poetic tradition, according to the established formulae. Three classic examples :
- Homer, in Book I of "The Odyssey":
- "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." (Robert Fagles translation, 1996)
- Vergil, in Book I of "The Aeneid":
- 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; [...]
- (John Dryden translation, 1995)
- Dante Alighieri, in Canto II of The Inferno:
- O Muses, o high genius, aid me now!
- O memory that noted what I saw,
- Now shall your true nobility be seen!
Cults of the Muses
When Pythagoras arrived at Croton, his first advice to the Crotoniates was to build a shrine of the Muses at the center of the city, to promote civic harmony and learning.
Local cults of the Muses were often associated with springs or fountains. They were sometimes called Aganippids because of their association with a fountain called Aganippe. Other fountains, called Hippocrene and Pirene were also important to the Muses. The Muses were also occasionally referred to as "Corycides", or "Corycian nymphs" after a cave on Mount Parnassus, called the Corycian Cave.
Muse-worship was also often associated with the hero-cults of poets: the tombs of Archilochus on Thasos and Hesiod and Thamyris (whom they blinded) in Boeotia, all played host to festivals, in which poetic recitations were accompanied by sacrifices to the Muses.