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The Muses of Ancient Greece

Updated on January 8, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

People with artistic tendencies will often talk of their “Muse”, and will talk about their search for inspiration or their finding of it. The concept of the Muse is one which dates back to Ancient Greece, when the Muses were regarded as female deities, who would literally inspire.

In Greek mythology there were three distinct groupings of Muses, the Elder Muses (the Boeotian Muses), the Younger Muses, and the Muses of Apollo.

The Elder Muses of Greek Mythology

One of the earliest sources to talk of the Elder Muses was the Greek poet Mimnermus, writing in the 7th century BC, but the idea of the Elder Muses was still prevalent 800 years later in the time of Pausanius and Plutarch.

Mimnermus would tell of three Elder Muses being the three daughters of Ouranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). These three daughters would be named as Aoede, the muse of the song; Melete, muse of practice; and Mnema, the muse of memory. It was common, in antiquity, to see the name Mnema interchanging with that of the Titanide Mnemosyne.

The names provided by Mimnermus for the Elder Muses were not the only ones though, and famously Cicero, in De Natura Deorum, would write of four Elder Muses; Aoede, Melete, Arche and Thelxinoe. In addition to the roles played by Aoede and Melete, Arche was said to be muse of the beginning, and Thelxinoe, the muse of charming the mind.

The Elder Muses were also known as the Boeotian Muses, as the centre for their worship was to be found in Boeotia. In Boeotia, upon Mount Helicon, were two springs or fountains, the Aganippe and Hippocrene, which were said to be sacred to the Muses.

The basic role of the Elder Muses was to inspire artists to create and to undertake their work to the best of their ability.

Apollo and the Muses Dancing

Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1537) PD-art-100
Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1537) PD-art-100 | Source

The Muses and Hesiod

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100
Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

The Younger Muses of Ancient Greece

The prefix “Elder” is commonly used to distinguish the three, or four, Boeotian Muses, from a second set, the Younger Muses or Olympian Muses.

The Younger Muses are arguably more famous than the Elder Muses because they are the beautiful female deities talked of by Hesiod. Indeed, the opening section of the Theogony is dedicated to the goddesses. Hesiod would write of the visitation of the Muses to him, whilst he was working as a shepherd upon Mount Helicon, with the Younger Muses inspiring him to write. Hesiod claimed the information needed for the genealogy of the gods came direct from the Muses.

Hesiod named the nine Younger Muses as; Calliope (Beautiful voice), Clio (Celebrate), Erato (Beloved), Euterpe (Giving Much Delight), Melpomene (Celebrate with Song), Polyhymnia (Many Hymns), Terischore (Delighting in Dance), Thalia (Blooming), and Urania (Heavenly One).

These nine sisters were said to be the daughters of Zeus and the Titanide Mnemosyne; the god of Mount Olympus sleeping with Mnemosyne on nine consecutive nights.

Writers after Hesiod would ascribe individual roles to the Younger Muses to cover all elements of science and arts. Thus, Calliope became the Muse of epic poetry; Clio, the Muse of history; Erato the Muse of erotic poetry; Euterpe, the Muse of lyric poetry; Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy; Polyhymnia, the muse of sublime hymns; Terischore, the Muse of choral song and dance; Thalia, the Muse of comedy; and Urania, the Muse of astronomy.

The Younger Muses

Tintoretto (1518–1594) PD-art-100
Tintoretto (1518–1594) PD-art-100 | Source

Stories about the Younger Muses

The Younger Muses were often talked of as being present on Mount Olympus where they would entertain Zeus and the other deities with stories, music and dance. Away from Mount Olympus, the Younger Muses were also welcome guests at feasts and parties, as once again they would entertain.

These Younger Muses were often found in the company of Dionysus or Apollo, and it was the later who was said to have tutored the muses. The Younger Muses also had their own stories, and on several famous occasions the muses were challenged to performance contests; one challenge coming from the Sirens, one from Thamyris and one from the daughters of King Pieros.

On each occasion the Younger Muses were successful, with the muses having retribution for the impudence of their challenges. The Sirens had their feathers plucked, Thamyris was blinded and lost his skills, and the Pierides were transformed into a group of chattering birds.

Whilst welcome guests at festivals, the Younger Muses were also found at funerals; appearing famously when Achilles and Patroclus died. The Muses would then sing lamentations, telling of the greatness of the deceased, and ensuring that the period of mourning was brief. When Orpheus died, the Younger Muses had an even more direct role, as it was they who buried the musical hero.

The Muses on Mount Helicon

Attributed to Jan van Balen (1611–1654) PD-art-100
Attributed to Jan van Balen (1611–1654) PD-art-100 | Source

Muse with a Lyre

 Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) PD-art-100
Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) PD-art-100 | Source

Apollo's Muses

The third group of Muses from Greek mythology were the Mousai Apollonides, the Muses of Apollo.

The Muses of Apollo were the least famous of the ancient Muses, and were thought of as the daughters of Apollo, no mother is ever named. Considered to be three in number, they were named Kephiso, Apollonis and Borysthenis, or Nete, Mese and Hypate.

These three muses were particularly associated with music, and each was thought of a as a string of a lyre.

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