The Nine Muses of Greek Mythology
Who Are the Nine Greek Muses?
Greek mythology is rich with gods and goddesses, but none were as influential as the nine Muses who were created to give inspiration, knowledge, artistry, and music to the ancient world. Each of the nine Greek Muses are listed below:
The Nine Greek Muses
- Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry
- Clio, the Muse of history
- Erato, the Muse of lyric poetry
- Euterpe, the Muse of music
- Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy
- Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry
- Terpsichore, the Muse of dance and chorus
- Thalia, the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry
- Urania, the Muse of astronomy
The Muses were nine beautiful young women who were the goddesses and embodiments of science, literature, and the arts. In ancient culture, they were the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths, and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature and music.
The Muses were believed to live on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods with their artistry, but later tradition placed them on Mount Helicon or Mount Parnassus.
The Birth of the Nine Muses
The muses were the nine daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods, and the Titaness Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were conceived after the two slept together for nine consecutive nights. Sometimes the Muses are referred to as water nymphs having been born from the four scared springs on Helicon that flowed from the ground after Pegasus, the winged horse, stomped his hooves there.
Representation of the Nine Muses
It was not until the Renaissance and Neoclassical arts movements began that the representation of the Muses was standardized. From then on, each of the nine Muses could be readily identified by one name and image. They were represented in sculptures and paintings holding certain props, known as emblems, and were mentioned in literature, poetry, and song.
Cults of the Nine Muses
Local cults of the nine Muses were often associated with fountains or springs. Muse worshipers hosted festivals where poetic recitals were followed by sacrifices to the Muses. There were even attempts in the 18th century to revive cults of the Muses by many well know figures of the day.
Who Are the Nine Muses and What Do They Represent?
The following is a list of each of the nine Muses along with details of their origins and representations. This list also includes some information on the "Tenth Muse."
Calliope (Greek spelling, "Kalliope"), meaning “beautiful-voiced," was the Muse of epic poetry and the goddess of eloquence. She had two sons, Orpheus and Linus, and was said to be the wisest and most assertive of the Muses. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Calliope is the most important of the nine Muses because she "attends on worshipful princes." She is usually depicted wearing a gold crown and carrying a writing tablet, a scroll, or a book in her hand.
Clio (Greek spelling, "Kleio"), meaning “to make famous” or “celebrate," was the Muse of history. She had one son, Hyacinth, and is usually depicted with an open scroll or seated by a set of books. As the "proclaimer, glorifier, and celebrator of history, great deeds, and accomplishments," she is the namesake for various modern brands including the Clio Awards for excellence in advertising, the Cambridge University History Society, which is informally called Clio, and the Cleo of Alpha Chi society at Trinity College.
Erato, meaning the “lovely” or “beloved," was the Muse of lyric poetry, especially love and erotic poetry. She is usually depicted with a wreath of myrtle and roses and holding a kithara (lyre), or a golden arrow. In representations by Simon Vouet, two turtle doves are depicted eating seeds at her feet. Erato has also been shown accompanied Cupid or by Eros holding a torch.
Euterpe, meaning “the giver of much delight," was the Muse of music and was known to entertain the gods on Mount Olympus. Later on, tradition placed her, along with the other Muses, on Mount Helicon where there was a major cult center to the goddesses, or on Mount Parnassus where the Castalian spring was a major destination for artists and poets. She inspired poets, authors, and dramatists and is usually depicted holding or playing an aulos (double flute).
Melpomene, meaning “to celebrate with dance and song," was initially the Muse of singing but later became the Muse of tragedy. To create beautiful lyrical phrases, it was traditional to call on Melpomene for inspiration. This Muse is the mother of several of the Sirens, the divine handmaidens of Kore (Persephone), who were cursed by her mother when they were unable to prevent Kore's abduction by Hades. She is usually depicted with a “tragic mask” and wearing the boots traditionally worn by tragic actors or holding a knife or sword in one hand and the tragic mask in the other.
Polyhymnia, meaning “the one of many hymns," was the Muse of sacred poetry, sacred hymns and eloquence. She is also sometimes credited as being the Muse of geometry and meditation. She is usually depicted as being very serious, in meditation and pensive while holding a finger to her mouth and wearing a long cloak. She is mentioned in Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto XXIII, Line 56) and is commonly referenced in modern works of fiction.
Terpsichore (Greek spelling, "Terpsikhore"), meaning “delight in dancing," was the Muse of dance and dramatic chorus. She is the mother of the sirens and Parthenope, and is usually depicted sitting down or standing up while holding a lyre.
Thalia, meaning “the joyous" or "the flourishing," is the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. According to pseudo-Apollodorus, a compendium of Greek myths and heroic legends, she and Apollo were the parents of the Korybantes, armed and crested dancers who worshipped the Phrygian goddess Cybele with drumming and dancing. Other ancient sources give the Korybantes different parents.
Thalia is usually portrayed as a young woman with a joyous air wearing a crown of ivy, boots, and carrying a comic mask in her hand. Many statues also depict her holding a bugle and a trumpet (objects used to amplify actor's voices in ancient comedy) or a shepherd's staff.
Urania (Greek spelliong, "Ourania"), meaning “heavenly” or “of heaven," is the Muse of astronomy and astronomical writings. She is said to be able to tell the future by the arrangement of the stars. She inherited Zeus’ power and majesty and Mnemosynes’ beauty and grace, and is often associated with universal love. This Muse is usually depicted dressed in a cloak embroidered with stars with her eyes and attention focused on the heavens and a celestial globe which she is pointing to with a rod.
Who Was the "Tenth Muse?"
In later history there was a tenth Muse: the poet Sappho of Lesbos. She was given the title of the "Tenth Muse” by Plato. The phrase "the tenth muse" has now become a common tribute paid to outstanding female poets. Unfortunately, little is known of Sappho's life and her poetry has largely been lost to the destructive powers of time. Only one complete poem remains, titled, "Ode to Aphrodite."
Why Were the Nine Muses Important?
The nine Muses and their gifts of song, dance, and joy helped the gods and the ancient Greeks forget their troubles and focus on art and beauty. The Muses were the embodiment of certain artistic ideals, and they inspired musicians, writers, and performers to reach even greater artistic and intellectual heights.
Hesiod, in his Theogony, claimed to have spoken with the Muses on Mount Helicon. He said that the Muses gave him a laurel branch and breathed into him their divine voice so he could proclaim the glory of the gods and their descedents. As a result, Hesiod was transformed from a simple shepherd to one of the most important poets in antiquity. The poet has stated that the Muses were created to help people forget their troubles and their suffering, perhaps as a balance to their mother Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.
Who Is the Mother of the Muses?
The mother of the Muses is the Titaness Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. She conceived the nine Muses after sleeping with her nephew Zeus for nine consecutive nights.
Mnemosyne doesn't quite fit the distinction of a Titan, which were anything but worshipped in ancient Greece. Titans were considered historical figures of the ancient past, yet Mnemosyne appeared in the first few lines of epic poems like the Iliad and Odyssey, among others. She is thought to have been given the distinction of "Titan" because memory was so essential to the oral culture of the Greeks. Since memory was required to tell the stories from the past, they deemed Mnemosyne a building block of civilization in their creation myth.
Later, in written literature, Plato made reference to the old tradition of invoking Mnemosyne in Euthydemus when the character Socrates prepares to recount a story and says:
"Consequently, like the poets, I must needs begin my narrative with an invocation of the Muses of Memory."
What Is the Meaning of the Word "Muse?"
The word "muse" is both a noun and a verb. The definitions of "muse" according to the Oxford English Dictionary are listed below:
- (in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
- A person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
- Be absorbed in thought.
- Say to oneself in a thoughtful manner. ("I think I've seen him somewhere before," mused Rachel.)
- Gaze thoughtfully at.
What Does it Mean to Be a Photographer's Muse?
To be a photographer's muse is to be the love of a photographer because of one's beauty. A photographer's muse can also be a thing, but a muse, while traditionally a woman, is usually a person.
Because the photographer deals with physical beauty as a profession, the term "photographer's muse" is meant to connote something or someone that the photographer loves to take photos of. The photographer "muses" over this person or thing. It is a sublime experience for the artist to have such a perfect subject.
© 2013 Brian OldWolf