The word muse is related to the Latin word mens and the English mind. Centuries ago a poet had no books to hold his words, so he relied on his memory to tell his stories, which is how these beings were given the collective name Muse. Born in the village of Piera at the foot of the majestic Mount Olympus in Greece, the Muses are the daughters of Zeus, king of the Ancient Greek Gods, and Mnemosyne, a titaness who represented memory. They had a nurse called Eupheme, who looked after them with her own sun, the hunter called Crotus.
In keeping with their inspirational roles sacrifices to the Muses included honey, milk and water. The Muses also had many famous friends amongst the Greek mythological characters. The goddess Athena gave them the winged horse Pegasus, while Apollo was the head of their choir. The Muses appear throughout Greek mythology, guiding and teaching many different characters. The riddle the Sphinx used at Thebes was supplied by the Muses. They taught the tragic nymph Echo how to sing and play music, and are associated with the three Charities.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a brief outline of the nine Muses:
The oldest Muse, she is the muse of Epic Poetry, and was Homer’s inspiration for The Illiayd and The Odyssey. Apollo fathered her sons Orpheus and Linus. She’s usually pictured carrying either a writing tablet, a roll of paper or a book. She wears a golden crown.
The muse of History, she is said to have introduced the Phoenician alphabet to Greece. She carries a parchment scroll or a set of stone tablets. Her name means “make famous”, which probably accounts for her other name: The Proclaimer. A relationship with Pierus, King of Macedonia, produced her son Hyacinth
Considered the most beautiful muse, she is responsible for the rather unusual combination of Love Poetry and Mimicry. She’s usually pictured with a lyre, and had a son called Azan with Arcas, a character who was turned into the constellation Ursa Minor.
Known as the muse of pleasure, she is actually the muse of Music. Later in Greek mythology she was given the title of muse of lyric poetry and depicted holding a flute. Her son Rhesus was fathered by the river Strymon – only in mythology! He died fighting at Troy.
Despite her beautiful voice, she is known as the muse of Tragedy, and is often depicted wearing the actors’ mask of tragedy. She wears a crown of cypress, and holds the actor’s mask of tragedy in one hand and a club or knife in the other.
This is one busy lady! Known as the muse of geometry, agriculture, mime and meditation she is also the muse of Sacred Poetry. Her many responsibilities are perhaps the reason she’s usually depicted with a thoughtful face, dressed in a cloak and wearing a long veil and leaning on a pillar! She brings distinction to writers whose work has won them immortal fame.
Although she’s the muse of Dancing, she usually portrayed seated and holding a lyre. This is the character Olivia Newton John portrayed in the film Xanadu. Her liaison with the river god Achelous supposedly resulted in the birth of the Sirens.
She wears the actor’s mask of comedy – the opposite of the one worn by Melpomene. She is the muse of Comedy and Playful and Idyllic Poetry. She’s often pictured holding a shepherd’s crook, a tribute to her role of a rural goddess. A relationship with Apollo produced the Corybantes, priests loyal to the goddess Cybele.
She uses the position of the stars to foretell the future, which is why she’s the muse of Astrology as well as Astronomy. She wears a cloak covered in stars, and is usually depicted staring thoughtfully at the heavens. She’s patron of those concerned with the heavens and philosophy, and is associated with the Holy Spirit and universal love.
Although synonymous with good thoughts and artistic interpretation, the Muses had an unpleasant side. One myth claims that jealous Hera arranged a singing contest between the Muses and the Sirens, who had bird bodies and beautiful faces. The Muses won, and promptly plucked all the feathers from the Sirens’ bodies and made themselves some rather fine crowns. This seems to negate the suggestion that the Sirens were born of the muse Terpsichor!
The musician Thamyris learned the hard way not to challenge the Muses. So confident was he of his prowess that he arranged a contest with them, with the agreement that he would have his wicked way with them all after he won. Of course he lost, and the Muses took two dreadful prizes from him – his sight and his musical ability. So enamoured were the king and queen of Emathia of the Muses they named their nine daughters for them. The inevitable contest came up, and naturally the Muses won. They promptly punished the losers by turning all nine daughters into birds.
When one considers how many Greek Myths and legends are alive today these nine girls obviously did a good job. So perhaps they’re more important than we originally thought. Sources of encouragement and inspiration throughout the ages… just don’t enter any contests featuring the Muses!