For other uses see Muse (disambiguation).
In Greek mythology, the Muses (Greek
Μουσαι, 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. 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 Alcman and Mimnermus, they were even more primordial, springing from
Uranus and Gaia.
Compare the Roman inspiring nymphs of springs, the Camenae.
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.
The canonical nine Muses are:
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, and has been called pedantic.
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 widespread 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 lawgiver 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 every 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 story. They have served as aid 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. Two 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)
- Dante Alighieri, in Canto II of The
- 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 Parnassos called the Corycian Cave.
The Muses were especially venerated in Boeotia, near Helicon, and in Delphi and the Parnassus, where Apollo became known as Mousagetes "Muse-leader".
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
The Library of Alexandria and its circle of scholars were formed around a
mousaion ("museum" or shrine of the Muses) close by the tomb of Alexander the
Many Enlightenment figures sought to re-establish a "Cult of the Muses" in the
18th century. A popular Masonic lodge in
pre-Revolutionary Paris was called Neuf Soeurs ("nine sisters", i.e. nine Muses), and was
attended by Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. One
side-effect of this movement was the use of the word "museum" (originally, "cult place of the Muses") to refer to a place for the
public display of knowledge.
The classical tradition
The poet Sappho of Lesbos was also paid the very great
compliment of being called "the tenth Muse".
The word muse is used figuratively to denote someone who inspires an artist.
In New Orleans the city has named nine streets after the muses.
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