Who/What are the Muses?

The famous inspiration goddesses, the Muses (Μοῦσαι, Moûsai, Μόσες, Múses), are patrons of poetry, the arts, and science. Their leader is Apollo. According to the Boeotian (Thracian) tradition, they were originally worshiped by the giants Oth and Ephialtes, worshiping three muses: Meleta (μελετη – “learning, experience”), Mnema (μνιμη – memory) and Aoida (ωδή – “song”).

Later, various traditions and authors such as Homer and Hesiod classified the Muses as nine in number with father Zeus and mother Mnemosyne: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Urania (astronomy), Erato (love poetry), Euterpa (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Terpsichore (dances), Polyhymnia (hymns and pantomime).

The Dispute – Three or Nine Muses

Gustave Moreau: Hesiod and the Muse (1891) – Musée d’Orsay, Paris

There is an interesting dispute as to how many the Muses originally were. Some records have 3, others 4, still others 7, and later 9.

According to the earliest records of the myths, the Muses came from Boeotia and were three: Meleta (μελετη – “learning, experience”), Mnema (μνιμη – “memory”) and Aoida (ωδή – “song”). According to various scholars, the three Muses are of Thracian origin, with the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus adding:

“Writers also disagree as to the number of the Muses; for some say that they are three, and others that they are nine, but the number nine prevails, as it rests on the authority of the most eminent men, such as Homer and Hesiod, and others like them.’

According to Diodorus, the Egyptian god Osiris, together with the satyrs, recruited the nine Muses when he passed through Ethiopia; according to Hesiod the nine Muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne; the Roman scholar Varro (116-27 BC) claimed that there were only three muses: one born from the movement of water, the second from the sound of hitting the air, and the third formed from the human voice – Meleta (” learning, experience’), Mnema (‘memory’) and Aoida (‘song’).

In Plutarch’s work Quaestiones Convivales, three Muses are also spoken of; Pausanias (110-180 AD) also wrote of three Muses worshiped on Mount Helicon. In Delphi, three named after the three chords of the lyre were honored: Nethe, Mese and Hypat – later considered to be daughters of Apollo and named: Kephiso, Apollonis and Borysthenes.

An embellished version of the myth of the Muses can also be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the king of Macedonia (Perdiccas, 700-678 BC) had nine daughters (the Pierides) who, due to their conceit and competition , that they were equal to the Muses in talent and performance, repented and were transformed into chattering jays (κίσσα).

There were several temples dedicated to the Muses, two important ones being on Mount Helicon in Boeotia and Pieria in Macedonia. In the words of Strabo:

“Helicon, not far from Parnassus, rivals it both in height and girth; for they are both rocky and covered with snow, and their circumference covers no great territory. Here are the temple of Musai and Hippocrene, and the cave of the nymphs called Leibetrides; and from this fact it may be inferred that those who dedicated Helicon to the Musae were Thracians, the same who dedicated Pieris, Leibetron, and Pimpleia [in Pieria] to the same goddesses. The Thracians were called Pieres, but now that they have disappeared, the Macedonians hold these places.”

Myth of Apollo and the Muses

In spring, he flies on the slopes of the wooded Helicon – where the sacred waters of the Hippocrene spring mysteriously flow, and on high Parnassus, by the clear waters of the Castal spring, Apollo leads the dances of the nine muses. The young beautiful muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are constant companions of Apollo. He also leads the choirs of the muses and accompanies their songs with his golden lyre. Apollo majestically steps before the crowd of muses with a laurel wreath over his forehead, followed by the nine muses: Calliope – muse of epic poetry, Euterpe – muse of lyricism, Erato – muse of love songs, Melpomene – muse of tragedy, Thalia – muse of comedy, of history, Urania – muse of astronomy, and Polyhymnia – muse of sacred hymns. Their chorus resounds solemnly, and all nature listens as if enchanted to their divine singing.

When Apollo, accompanied by the muses, appears in the midst of the gods of bright Olympus and the sounds of his lyre and the singing of the muses are heard, everything on Olympus falls silent. Ares forgets the noise of bloody battles, no lightning flashes in the hands of the cloud-chaser Zeus, the gods forget strife, peace and tranquility reign on Olympus. Even the eagle of Zeus folds his mighty wings and closes his keen eyes, his fearful scream is not heard, he meekly slumbers on the staff of Zeus. In the complete silence, the strings of Apollo’s lyre sound solemnly. And when Apollo merrily strums her golden strings, Then a bright, glittering chorus rolls In the feasting hall of the gods. Muses, Harites, the ever-young Aphrodite, Ares with Hermes, all participate in the merry dance, led by a strong maiden – Apollo’s sister, the beautiful Artemis. Bathed in streams of golden light, the young gods play to the sounds of Apollo’s lyre.

A myth based on the anthology of A. Kuhn

The Nine Muses on a Roman Sarcophagus (second century AD) — Louvre, Paris