Mnemosyne: Goddess of Memory, and Mother of The Muses

Mnemosyne is one of the Titan gods, the great gods that existed before the more famous Olympian gods. Sister of Cronus and aunt of Zeus, her relationship with the latter produced the Muses, who inspire all the creative endeavors ever produced by humanity. While rarely worshiped, Mnemosyne plays an essential role in Greek mythology thanks to her connection to Asclepius, and her role as mother to the Muses.

How Do You Pronounce Mnemosyne?

In phonetic spelling, Mnemosyne can be written as /nɪˈmɒzɪniː, nɪˈmɒsɪniː/. You can say the name “Mnemosyne” as “Nem” + “Oh” + “Sign.” “Mnemo-” is a Greek prefix for memory and can be found in the English word “mnemonic,” an exercise “intended to assist memory.”

What is Mnemosyne Goddess Of?

Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory and knowledge, as well as one of the keepers of the waters in Hades. Praying to Mnemosyne would grant you memories of your past life or help you remember the ancient rites as the highest acolytes in a cult.

According to poet Pindar, when the Muses were unable to sing of the success of men’s work (because they did not succeed), Mnemosyne would be able to provide songs that “grant recompense for their labors, in the glory of music on the tongues of men.”

Diodorus Siculus pointed out that Mnemosyne “gave a designation to every object about us by means of the names which we use to express whatever we would and to hold conversation one with another,” introducing the very concept of naming. However, he also points out that some historians say that Hermes was the god involved in doing this.

As keeper of the “pool of memory” in the underworld Hades, often connected to or found instead of the river Lethe, Mnemosyne would allow some who crossed the ability to regather their memories of past lives before they were reincarnated. This was seen as a special boon and only occurred rarely. Today we only have one source for this esoteric knowledge – special tablets that were created as part of funeral rites. 

Who Were the Parents of Mnemosyne?

Mnemosyne is the daughter of Uranus and Gaia (Heaven and Earth). Her siblings, therefore, included the Titan gods Oceanus, a Greek water god, Phoebe, Theia, and the father of Olympians, Cronus

This lineage also means that Zeus, who she later slept with, was her nephew. Mnemosyne was also an aunt to the other Greek gods and goddesses that made up the Olympians.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, after Gaia created Uranus, the hills of the earth, and the Nymphs that inhabited them, she slept with Uranus, and from her came the Titans. Mnemosyne was one of the many female Titans and is mentioned in the same breath as Themis, the Titan goddess of wisdom and good counsel.

What is the Story of Zeus and Mnemosyne?

The short story of the supreme god, Zeus and his aunt Mnemosyne can be mostly drawn from the works of Hesiod, but small mentions are made in several other works of mythology and hymns to the gods. From the collection of mentions we are left with the following story:

Zeus, having recently slept with Demeter (and conceiving Persephone), then fell for her sister Mnemosyne. In Hesiod, Mnemosyne is described as “with the beautiful hair.” In the hills of Eleuther, near Mt. Olympus, Zeus spent nine consecutive nights sleeping with Mnemosyne, “entering her holy bed, remote from the immortals.”

What Kids Did Zeus Have With Mnemosyne?

As a result of those nine nights with Zeus, Mnemosyne fell pregnant. While the works of Greek mythology are not entirely clear on the matter, it seems that she carried all nine of her children at once. We know this because one year after being with the king of Greek gods, she gave birth to the nine mousai. These nine daughters were better known as “The Muses.”

Who Are The Muses?

The Muses, or Mousai, are inspirational goddesses. While they play very passive roles in Greek myths, they inspire great poets, guide heroes, and sometimes offer advice or stories that others may not know.

The earliest sources of Greek myth offer three Muses bearing the names Melete, Aoede and Mneme. Later records, including those of Pieros and Mimnermos, nine women made up the group, all of which were daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. While the names Mneme and Mnemosyne are quite similar, it is unclear if one became the other, or if they were always separate beings in Greek mythology. 

In ancient Greek literature and sculpture, it is the nine Muses who are mentioned, the other three having fallen out of popularity by worshippers and audiences alike.

Calliope

The Muse of epic poetry (poetry that tells stories), Calliope is known as “the chief of all Muses.” She is the mother of the heroic bard Orpheus and the goddess of eloquence. She appears the most in written myth, almost always in reference to her son.

Clio

The Muse of history and “giver of sweetness.” According to Statius, “all the ages are in [her] keeping, and all the storied annals of the past.” Clio is one of the Muses most represented in art, representing the past, or the historical significance of a scene. According to some sources, she is also the Muse of lyre playing.

Euterpe

The Muse of music and lyric poetry, Euterpe was known in the Orphic hymns to be the Greek goddess who “ministered delight.” Diodorus Siculus said that poets could obtain ‘the blessings which education bestows,” which appears to suggest that it is through this goddess that we can learn through song.

Thalia

It could be considered quite ironic that Thalia, the Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry, is never mentioned by any of the first comedy writers in the ancient world. That is unless you include Aristophenes’ Birds, in which the line, “Oh, Mousa Iokhmaia of such varied note, tiotiotiotiotiotinx, I [a bird] sing with you in the groves and on the mountain tops, tiotiotiotinx.” In this, “Mousa Iokhmaia” means “Rustic Muse,” Thalia’s sometimes-title.

Melpomene

The goddess Muse of tragedy, Melpomene was the mother of some of the Sirens cursed by Demeter for failing to protect Persephone (and later attempting to waylay the great Odysseus). In the Imagines of Philostratus the Younger, Sophocles is berated for not “accepting the gifts” of the beautiful Muse. “[Is it] because you are now collecting your thoughts,” the dramatist is asked,  “or because you are awe-stricken at the presence of the goddess.”

Terpsichore

The Muse of dance and choruses, little is known about Terpischore except that she too bore Sirens, and is imagined by the philosopher Plato as giving love to the dancing grasshoppers after they die. Despite this, modern culture has always been fascinated by the Greek goddess, with her name appearing in the works of George Orwell and T.S. Eliot, as well as having been played by both Rita Hayworth and Olivia Newton-John in film. Yes, Kira from “Xanadu” mentions that she is this very Muse.

Erato

While her name is not connected to that of Eros, this Muse of erotic poetry is more closely connected to Apollo in mythology and worship. While rarely mentioned without her sisters, her name does appear once or twice in poems about star-crossed lovers, including the lost story of Rhadine and Leontichus.

Polymnia

Polymnia, or Polyhymnia, is the Muse of poetry devoted to the gods. These texts inspired by the goddess would include sacred poetry only used in mysteries. It is by her power that any great writer might find immortality. In Fasti, or “The Book of Days,” by the epic poet Ovid, it is Polymnia who decides to tell the story of creation, including how the month of May was created.  

Urania

It might be considered that Urania, the goddess of astronomy (and the only Muse related to what we now call Science) was most like her grandfather, the Titan Uranus. Her songs could guide heroes on their journeys and, according to Diodorus Siculus, it is by her power that men are able to know the heavens. Urania also bore two famous sons, Linus (prince of Argos) and Hymenaeus (the Greek god of weddings) 

Why Is It Significant That the Muses Are Daughters of Mnemosyne?

As the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Muses are not simply minor goddesses. No, by her lineage, they are of the same generation as Zeus and all other Olympians. While not Olympians themselves, they were therefore considered by many worshippers to be just as important.

What Is the Connection Between Mnemosyne and Asclepius?

Mnemosyne was rarely worshiped on her own, but she played an essential role in the cult of Asclepius. As pilgrims would travel to the healing temples of Asclepius, they would find statues of the goddess. It was tradition for visitors to drink water called “the water of Mnemosyne,” which they believed came from the lake she oversaw in the underworld. 

What Is the Connection Between Mnemosyne and Trophonios?

In worship, Mnemosyne’s greatest role was as part of a series of rituals at the underground Oracle of Trophonios, which was found in central Greece. 

Pausanias, fortunately, recorded a lot of information about the cult of Trophonius in his famous Greek travelogue, Description of Greece. The details of the cult included several of the rites involved for supplicants to the gods. 

In his descriptions of the rites, followers would drink from “the waters of Lethe” before sitting on “a chair called the chair of Mnemosyne (Memory), [before asking] of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned.” In this way, the goddess would provide answers to the questions of the past, and allow the follower to be entrusted to his relatives.

It was tradition that acolytes would then take the follower and “carry him to the building where he lodged before with Tykhe (Tyche, Fortune) and the Daimon Agathon (Good Spirit).” 

Why Wasn’t It Popular to Worship the Greek Goddess Mnemosyne?

Very few Titans were worshiped directly in the temples and festivals of ancient Greece. Instead, they were indirectly worshiped or connected to the Olympians. Their names would appear in hymns and prayers, and statues of them might appear in the temples of other gods. While Mnemosyne’s appearance was made in the temples of Dionysus and other cults, there was never a religion or festival in her own name.

How Was Mnemosyne Depicted in Art and Literature?

According to the “Isthmians” by Pindar, Mnemosyne wore a golden robe and could produce pure water. In other sources, Mnemosyne wore a “splendid headdress” and her songs could bring rest to the weary. 

In both art and literature, the Titan goddess was recognized as someone of great beauty. As the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne was a beguiling and inspiring woman, and the great Greek dramatist Aristophanes described her in Lysistrata as having a tongue “stormy with ecstasy.”

What is Mnemosyne’s Lamp of Memory?

In modern artworks, other important symbols are also associated with Mnemosyne. In Rossetti’s 1875 work, Mnemosyne carries “The Lamp of Remembrance” or “Lamp of Memory.” Inscribed into the frame are the lines:

Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul

Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.

How to Cite this Article

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