The Muses in mythology
On Mount Helicon, a rustic farmer named Hesiod was tending his sheep when some Nymphs who presided over a nearby oracular spring approached him, and “taught him a glorious song.” (Theogony 22-23) These Nymphs – called Muses – were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, and Hesiod tells us that they were nine in number.
This glorious song was probably Works and Days which, with his genealogical account of the Gods and the creation of the world Theogony, is one of the best-known works of Greek poetry, in fame second only to the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. The Muses had kept their word, and though men far greater than Hesiod have passed into oblivion – heroes, kings, statesmen, priests, and generals – his name comes easily to our lips, for as long as we remember the Greeks, we will remember him. This is what the Muses bring to us – glorious song and longstanding memory among men.
Originally, the Muses were Nymphs who tended certain springs that were thought to give inspiration and prophecy. The most famous of these springs were Castalia, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, Aganippe and Hippocrene on Mount Helicon, and springs near the towns of Ascara and Thespiae. These springs became sanctuaries for the Muses, with temples and statues erected in their honor. There was an ancient festival held for them every five years, a musical competition which attracted the best players from all around. Their fame grew, and soon they were being honored in the schools of Athens, and in Sparta, where they inspired songs of battle. The Muses even came to be honored in Italy, with a sacred grove outside the Porta Capena – but the center of their cult remained in Boeotia: Pieria, near the foot of Mount Olympos, and especially Helicon, which in myth was often thought of as their special home.
The earliest sources are not specific when it comes to the exact number of Muses, and what their area of influence was. Homer sometimes speaks of one Muse, and then many. According to Pausanias, the giants Otus and Ephitaltes said that there were three Muses, whose names were Melete (meditation), Mneme (remembrance), and Aoide (song). Pierus, son of Magnes, was supposedly the first person to discover that there were nine Muses, and it was Hesiod who first supplies us with their names. But we would have to wait for some time to learn what each Muse presided over, for this was a late and artificial addition to their mythology – hence, no two poets seem to agree entirely on what those areas are.
But the most common associations run like this:
- Caliope (fair-voiced), considered the noblest of the Muses, presides over epic song, and was pictured with a wax tablet and pen.
- Clio (she that extols) is the Muse of history, and has a scroll.
- Euterpe (she that gladdens) is the Muse of lyric song, and has a double flute.
- Thalia (she that flourishes) is the Muse of comedy and bucolic poetry, with the comic mask, the ivy wreath, and the shepherd’s staff.
- Melpomene (she that sings) is the Muse of tragedy, and has a tragic mask, ivy wreath, and attributes of hero she is inspiring a song about e.g. the club for Herakles or sword for Perseus.
- Terpsichore (she that rejoices in the dance), is the Muse of dancing, with a lyre.
- Erato (the lovely one), is the Muse of erotic poetry, with a smaller lyre.
- Polymnia (rich in hymns), is the Muse of serious sacred songs, usually represented as veiled and pensive.
- Urania (the heavenly), the Muse of astronomy, with the celestial globe.
Although the Muses started out as Nymphs associated with springs, they soon became full-fledged Goddesses, who sang on Olympos for the enjoyment of the Gods. They were early on associated with Dionysos, as god of poetry, and with Apollon, who was called Mousagetes, or “leader of the Muses.” They are often depicted in the company of the Charities and Graces, and Hesiod said that they could be found with Himeros as well.
There are several stories told about the Muses, both together as a group, and as individuals. Euterpe was the mother of the Thracian king Rhesus, by the river-god Strymon. Melpomene was the mother of the Sirens. Clio was the the mother of Hyakinthos. Thalia, by some accounts – though not by all – was the mother by Apollo of the Korybantes. The two most famous children of the Muses were both said to be mothered by Calliope. Linus was a poet-musician who taught Herakles how to play the lyre, and whose death was bitterly mourned. A dirge in honor of him was sung at harvest time, and Pausanias found that it had spread as far as Egypt. It is thought by many modern scholars that this dirge, ailinon, was Phoenician in origin, and was a corruption of ai lanu ‘woe to us.’ Sir James G. Frazer said that Linus was a representation of the dying and resurrecting god, like Osiris or Adonis, and that the song was really about the harvest or dying crops. But Frazer is an idiot, so we needn’t consider anything he says.
Caliope’s other child would reach far greater fame, as a musician and as a founder of Mysteries. Apollo wooed Calliope for some time, promising her many fine things if she would lay with him. Finally, she consented – asking as her gift that her son find greater fame in the world than any other mortal. This the god consented to give, and the offspring of their union was the boy Orpheus, whose voice was so beautiful, and whose playing on the lyre so lovely, that it rivaled that of his father, the god Apollo. Orpheus could tame wild animals with his singing, and make trees and rocks dance. His songs were heard all over the world, and he became just as famous as Apollo had promised. But fame does not keep sorrow from our lives, and when the love of his life, the beautiful Eurydice, died, Orpheus went down into Hades to be with her. His song moved the cold heart of Persephone, and she granted that he might return to the land of the living with Eurydice – on the condition that he not look back. Just as they reached the top, the ill-fated musician looked back to see if his beloved was following, and she vanished. Orpheus was inconsolable, and he swore never to love again. He went on many adventures, traveling with the Argonauts, and founded special religious observances called Mysteries in honor of the gods Apollo and Dionysos. It was devotees of the latter who were responsible for Orpheus’ death – falling upon him for some minor slight, and tearing him apart. His severed head found its way to Lesbos, where it continued to sing and give out oracles. His lyre was taken up by his mother and placed among the stars as the constellation Lyra.
In many stories, some unlucky mortal or god challenges the Muses to a contest, inevitably loses, and is punished for their unremitting pride (hubris). Thamyris boasted of his singing, but when he lost was blinded, and had his memory taken away. The Phaeacian bard Demodocus was also blinded, but was given ‘minstrelsy’ in place of sight. The daughters of Pierus, son of Magnus, the man who first discovered that the Muses were nine in number, apparently did not share their father’s reverence for them.
The daughters grew proud and challenged the Muses to a contest, with forest Nymphs as the judges. Calliope appeared for the Muses, and of course they won, exacting their vengeance by turning the girls into chittering magpies. When Hera urged the Sirens to challenge them, it too ended badly, with the Muses plucking out the Sirens’ feathers and making a crown of them.
This tells us something profound about the creative process.
For when we honor the source of our inspiration, we are, in return honored. But when we lose sight of where that gift of beauty comes from, and begin to think that it originates within us, we incite the wrath of the Muses, who take back their gifts, leaving us blind, chittering, and empty shells.