Muses: Nine Goddesses From Greek Mythology
Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon
Zeus and Mnemosyne
Zeus never had to ponder about what he wanted. He always knew exactly what he wanted and did not hesitate to follow through on his desires, whatever they may be. Mnemosyne, the Titan goddess of memory, was what he wanted to create the nine goddesses of the arts, literature and science - the Muses.
For nine nights Zeus did lay
With Mnemosyne in secrecy
From this union nine they say
Beautiful, lovely the Muses be— Phyllis Doyle Burns
The Nine Muses in Greek mythology have been an inspiration to artists since antiquity. They are (in alphabetical order): Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. They are the daughters of Zeus, the Greek father of all gods, and Mnemosyne.
Muses in Raphael's Parnassus, 1511
Embodiments of the arts
A poet is often heard to say something like, "My Muse inspired me to pick up my pen." People with other artistic talents will make similar statements. What does it mean? What is a Muse and how do they inspire artists?
The Muses are minor goddesses of the Greek pantheon. They are the personification of literary arts, music, visual arts and science. We all have that spark of a Muse within us to aid in our creative endeavors.
Clio, Euterpe and Thalia
To Forget Evils of the World
Zeus brought the Muses to life to celebrate victory of the Olympian gods over the Titans, to forget evils of the world. Their lovely voices and dancing helped to relieve sorrows of the past. Each Muse had her own domain over a particular gift in the arts. Apollo, the god of music, art and poetry, is their teacher. He is a complex god and a very important deity of the Olympian pantheon. Healing, light and sun, oracles, truth, knowledge and prophecy were under his ever watchful domain. He was an oracular god, the patron of Delphi and the prophetic deity of the Delphi Oracle. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto.
The Muses followed Apollo, sang and danced joyfully as he wandered through the beauty of Nature on Mount Helicon where they lived and worshiped.
According to Pindar (c. 522 - 443 BC), Greek lyric poet, to "carry a mousa" is "to excel in the arts". Mousa is a common Greek noun or goddess. Its meaning is "arts" or "poetry".
The Muses inspire creation. It is believed by many that the inspiration they acquired to write literature, a poem, or any artistic creation was beyond their control, since it came from the Muse they called upon.
Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!— William Shakespeare, Act 1, Prologue of Henry V
A poet, or any artist of today, will often search for inspiration from a Muse, just as this woman does in the 1898 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, titled Inspiration:
Inspiration is not always there for us when we need it. It is defined as "the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative." A spiritual teacher may receive the inspiration to create sacred revelations. A poet is often struck with inspiration to write a poem that came from he knows not where - and may be amazed when he reads what was written. Quite often an author is asked, "Where did you get such a great idea for your story?" Well, quite often the answer is, "It just came to me out of the blue," - or, "I had a dream about it."
Do we summon our own inner thoughts and creativity, or, does the inspiration truly come from a mystical source, the Muses? Many believe it is the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who open and inspire us.
Inspiration is a burst of creativity usually from the subconscious. The ancient Greeks believed inspiration, or enthusiasm, came from one of the Muses. The Greek Hesiod (c. 750 - 650 BC), who was a simple shepherd, was inspired by the Muses to write Theogony, a famous epic poem still widely read and referred to today by scholars as a major source of Greek mythology. Hesiod was inspired by the Muses.
Domain and Emblems
Each Muse was assigned expertise in a particular domain of human abilities. The following chart shows their emblems and attributes.
Cithara (Lyre Family)
Song and elegiac poetry
Aulos (Similar to a Flute)
Globe and compass
- Calliope is the superior Muse. She inspired Homer as he wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. She accompanied kings and princes to help them impose justice and serenity. Calliope is the protector of poetic works, the rhetoric arts, music and writing. Calliope holds laurels in one hand and two Homeric poems in the other.
- Clio is the protector of history and the guitar. In ancient Greece the name for history was clio (derived from Kleos which was the Greek word for the heroic arts). Clio holds a clarion in her right arm and a book in her left hand.
- Erato is the protector of lyrical and love poetry. She holds a lyre and love arrows with a bow.
- Euterpe is the protector of song and poetry of death, love, and war. She created several musical instruments and inspires beautiful music. She holds a flute with her other instruments surrounding her.
- Melpomene is the protector of the Tragedies. She created rhetoric speech and the melodies of tragedy. She holds a theatrical tragedy mask.
- Polyhymnia is the protector of divine hymns. She created geometry and grammar. She wears a veil as she looks up to the Heavens.
- Terpsichore is the protector of the dances, which she created. She also created the harp and education. With a wreath of laurels on her head, she holds her harp and dances.
- Thalia is the opposite of Melpomene. She is the protector of comedy, and the sciences (geometry, architecture,agriculture) and symposiums. She holds the theatrical comedy mask.
- Urania is the protector of celestial bodies. She created astronomy and is bearing stars, a celestial sphere and a compass.
The Nine Muses
The Parnassus was painted by Raphael in 1511. It is a fresco in the Palace of the Vatican in Rome. Pope Julius II commissioned four frescoes to represent the four areas of human knowledge, which are philosophy, religion, poetry and law. The Parnassus represents poetry.
Apollo is shown on Mount Parnassus, the place of his dwelling, with nine Muses surrounding him in the center. To Apollo's right are nine poets from antiquity and on his left are nine contemporary poets.
Calliope, seated next to Apollo, is the Muse of epic poetry - she and Apollo are the great inspiration of poets.
Which Muse is the one you invoke most often?
© 2015 Phyllis Doyle Burns