The Muses: “goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes.”
Well, at least that’s what the 1997 Disney film, Hercules, makes you think. And honestly, they’re pretty on the nose with this one.
Foregoing the inaccuracies of the animated film, there is something to be said about the role the Muses played. In Greek mythology, the nine Muses are minor goddesses of art, literature, and sciences. They fuel an individual’s creative inspiration, being the ones to strike countless artists, scientists, poets, and writers with inspiration through the centuries.
What are the 9 Muses and What Do They Represent?
The nine Muses are ancient Greek personifications of the arts and knowledge. It is believed that without them, there would be a distinct lack of creation and discovery made by humankind. When all is said and done, it was the Muses that enabled inspiration.
No other deity was capable of provoking such creative advances. After all, there is a reason that not a single piece of Greek poetry has forgone at least an honorable mention of one of the nine Muses, if not more.
In short, it is thanks to these numerous goddesses that mankind has continued to discover and create. Whether a musician writes a hit new song; an astronomer formulates a new star-bound theory; or an artist begins their next masterpiece, we can thank the Muses for the bouts of inspiration.
With their blessings, the nine inspirational daughters of Zeus made legends out of common men by granting them incredible gifts of song, dance, intelligence, curiosity, and lyrical prowess.
Who are the Muses?
The Muses are daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, born at the base of Mount Olympus in a region called Pieria. The nine sisters are oftentimes referred as the Pierian Muses as a result. In lesser-known interpretations of the Muses, their mother is instead recorded to be Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, the god of war.
In the beginning, the Muses were thought to have resided on Mount Olympus, close to their birthplace, though the progression of time situated them instead as residing at their cult center at Mount Helicon, or on Mount Parnassus – a location dear to the god Apollo.
READ MORE: The Twelve Olympian Gods
The poet Hesiod attested that there were nine Muses and, while that became the standard, there was actually great variety to the Muses in ancient times. The changes to the Muses were regional, causing a complete shift in both name and number of the Muses.
For example, some locations worshipped only three Muses, as in Boeotia, while others acknowledged only five Muses. Names of alternative Muses includes Nete, Mese, and Hypate – alternatively Cephisso, Apollonis, and Borysthenis – in Delphi, and the four Muses Aoide, Arche, Melete, and Thelxinoe.
Are the Muses Water Nymphs?
In some recordings of Greek mythology, the Muses are instead water nymphs that had sprouted out of springs formed by the stamping of Pegasus’ mighty hooves rather than the nine daughters born from the union of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
In this iteration, Pegasus inadvertently created a number of springs when his hooves hit against the rocky ground. Most of the time, the springs connected to this particular myht are simply referred to as Hippocrene, meaning “Horse Spring.”
According to legend, four of these were springs on Mount Helicon in Boeotia. The nine Muses emerged from the springs and took up residency on the mountain as a result.
Their origins from the springs created by the winged steed gained them the collective name pegasides.
The Muse Calliope
Being the eldest of the Muses, Calliope is perhaps one of the most familiar of the familiar nine. She is known as the Muse of epic poetry and rightfully distinguished as the “Chief of all Muses” by the likes of Hesiod. Moreover, her name literally means “beautiful voice,” being made up of the Greek words kallos (“beauty”) and ops (“voice”).
Further, Calliope is the speculated lover of Apollo and the mother of the influential bard, Orpheus. By way of the Greek poet Apollonius in his epic, Argonautica, Calliope was married to the Thracian king, Oeagrus, of whom was Orpheus’ true father. She is also the mother of the masterful musician, Linus, who has also been reported to be the son of various other Muses, like her younger sister, the Muse Clio.
In most depictions of Calliope, she is shown to be holding a writing tablet close to her breast. If not a writing tablet, then she carries a scroll or book. To show her much-respected status, Calliope is also oftentimes shown donning a diadem.
According to popular legend, it was the Muse Calliope that the Greek poet Homer sought out when writing his epics, Iliad and Odyssey.
The Muse Clio
The Muse of history, Clio is known as “The Proclaimer.” She records heroic deeds and celebrates historical accomplishments. Her name originates from the Greek word, kleos, which means “glory.”
Even if she is not as assertive as Calliope in myths, Clio is believed to be one of the speculated mothers of the beautiful Spartan youth, Hyacinthus, a lover of Apollo for whom the hyacinth flower was named after his death. Additionally, in lesser known variations of the Adonis myth, it was the Muse of history who had felled Adonis after being wronged by the goddess Aphrodite.
In art, Clio is seen oftentimes with a trumpet in her left hand, or with a scroll. While a trumpet surely emphasizes her role as a herald, the scroll rather captures her position as Olympus’ very own divine chronicler.
The Muse Erato
Erato: the Muse of lyric poetry, erotic poetry, mimicry, and love poetry. Her name means “lovely,” and one can’t help but notice the similarities between the Muse and the god of desire, Eros. In her heyday, this Muse of lyric poetry was the go-to goddess for ill-fated lovers and romantic writers.
A prime example of Erato’s influence is from a long forgotten poem about star-crossed lovers, Rhadine. A story that echoes that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two central characters of Rhadine and Leontichus were killed in the end by Rhadine’s spiteful fiance and were eventually buried together on the island of Samos.
By the same token, the goddess is alluded to in Argonautica, when Apollonius speculates on the stability of the relationship between the characters of Jason and his love-interest, Medea.
This may leave you wondering: what about Aphrodite? Isn’t this her department?
Well, sure, Aphrodite may have owned the realm of love and of beauty, but when it came to the arts and literatures, it was the Muse’s territory.
More often than not, the Muse Erato is seen as wearing a crown of myrtle and holding a lyre, an instrument considered to be one of the symbols of Apollo. By the Renaissance, Erato’s symbols became conflated with those that would have been traditionally saved for Aphrodite.
The Muse Euterpe
Euterpe is the inimitable Muse of music and lyrical poetry. It is believed that Euterpe developed a wide variety of musical instruments, including the double flute known as the aulos. While her influence covers a breadth of noise-makers, Euterpe herself specialized in wind instruments.
Again, Euterpe is not as frequently mentioned in any known myths. However, Bibliotheca, a collection of Greek myths and legends, does happen to identify Euterpe as the mother of Rhesus, one of many Thracian kings.
Rhesus was mentioned in Iliad as an ally of the Trojans. He failed to arrive on time, facing his own battles back at his home of Thrace, and passed on unscathed by the disasterous Trojan War.
As far as looks go, the Moregine fresco of the goddess completed between 54 and 68 CE in the ruins of Pompeii depicts the Muse of lyric poetry in a gown of blue and gold; she holds a flute and wears a crown of laurel leaves. Similarly, a mosaic of her remains from Rome from the 2nd century CE where she is flanked by flutes.
The Muse Melpomene
With a name that means “to sing,” Melpomene became known as the Muse of the chorus and of tragedy. We can thank Melpomene for the tragic mask half of theater’s iconic masks symbol, with the other half belonging to her sister, the Muse Thalia.
Melpomene happens to be one of the Muses that are speculated to be mothers of the Sirens, monstrous half-bird sea-nymphs that lured sailors to their demise with their hypnotizing music.
In various images, the Melpomene is shown to be wearing a crown of laurel or of grapevine, with the latter intending to suggest imagery of Dionysus, who himself was the god of the theater. On another hand, Melpomene would be wearing a tragic actor’s ensamble, including the high-heeled shoe known as a cothurnus, and a patterned, long-sleeved robe. She also would be holding a tragic mask in her right hand, and the prop of a tragic hero in her left hand. These props would commonly be a sword, a club, or a knife.
Earlier renditions of Melpomene, prior to the Muses development into overseeing specific realms of the arts during the Hellenistic Period, was attributed to playing the lyre.
The Muse Polyhymnia
Polyhymnia is the Muse of sacred poetry, religious hymns, and of dance. Her name is originates from the combination of the Greek word poly (many), with the word hymn (praise), leading her name to mean “One of Many Praises.”
Besides Calliope, she is one of the Muses that could be the mother of Orpheus, depending on the exact source. Likewise, Polyhymnia is possibly the mother of Triptolemus, a figure found within Eleusinian Mysteries practiced by the cult of Demeter. Other myths establish the goddess as virginal, suggesting her significant role in religious worship.
In the mean time, most depictions of Polyhymnia show her to be veiled and modestly dressed, with a contemplative expression. Unlike her sisters, the goddess does not often appear jovial, forsaking a smile for a more serene facade.
The Muse Terpsichore
The Muse of choral song and dance, Terpsichore is featured in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Apollon Musagète. Her name roughly translates to “Delightful Dancing.”
Despite being one of the more well-known of the Muses, Terpsichore still is lacking in major myths. She is primarily believed to be one of the possible divine mothers of the Sirens, born from a relationship with the sea god Achelous. Similarly, she may be the mother of the musician, Linus.
In artworks, Terpsichore is predominately shown dancing or sitting and playing the Muses’ beloved lyre. In a statue from Hadrian’s Villa, Terpsichore has the lyre tucked beneath her arm and a crown of feathers in her pulled-back hair.
The Muse Thalia
Thalia is best known as the Muse of comedy, comedic relief, and of idyllic poetry. Alongside her sister, the Muse Melpomene, the daughters make up modern theater’s most iconic symbol of joined masks of tragedy and comedy.
Thalia has slightly more sway in mythology, having been the supposed mother of the Corybantes from her partnership with Apollo, whom she courted during Orpheus’ youth.
The Corybantes were proud worshippers that exalted the Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele, noted for the ruckus they made during worship. Notably armored, wielding spears, shields, and drums, the original Corybantes are the dancers that muffled the cries of infant Zeus.
She is shown to be holding the comic mask and – depending on the depiction – she also holds a trumpet or a shepherd’s crook. The crook was a symbol of her rule over pastoral poetry, where escaping the busyness of everyday life to escape into a more idyllic, simple lifestyle was admired.
The Muse Urania
Urania is the Muse of astronomy – later, the Muse of Christian poetry once Christianity became more widespread. Her name alone invoked the heavens, lending to her influence over the field of astronomy.
According to legend, the goddess would forsee the future by divining the stars, adding on to the long list of Greek prophetic deities. She is occasionally said to be the eldest of the Muses, replacing Calliope in the role. Likewise, with her knowledge of celestial bodies, Urania was thought to be the most powerful of the ennead.
With the passage of time, Urania became the Muse that guided Christian poets during the Renaissance.
Many of the images of Urania have her holding a celestial globe and wearing robes in varying shades of blue. The globe itself was reportedly constructed by Thales of Miletus and it showed the supposed placement of the stars; more than anything, the instrument functioned to highlight the goddess’ expertise.
On the other side of things, modern interpretations of the goddess appear on the seal of the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) and of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).
The “Original” 3 Muses
Everyone is familiar with the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, though before the reverence of the nine, there was recorded to be only three Muses. The earliest accounts come from Boeotia, where the claims of three muses – Aoide (song), Melete (practice), and Mneme (memory) – came to be. In ancient Greece, the trio is known as the Boeotian Muses, specifying them to that region.
In Boeotia, the three Boeotian Muses were worshipped on the area’s largest mountain: Mount Helicon.
Although there are countless crucial myths and legends that take place in Boeotia (particularly its largest city, Thebes), the most notable are the myths of Dionysus, Heracles, and the Niobid Massacre.
How is Apollo Related to the Muses?
Ask any ancient Greek and they will tell you: there’s no music without Apollo.
The guy literally plays the lyre and oversees the realms of music, poetry, and art. He’s certainly one of the popular of the gods, and poets were fond of singing his praises.
Although there were many hymns produced in his name, it is in the Homeric hymn, “To Pythian Apollo” that stands out, as it features Apollo making his mark on the House of Zeus with the entourage of the Muses, playing his lyre well enough to provoke the present gods to jovially dance: “he speeds from earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men…”
Thus, let’s explore the identity of Apollon Mousēgetēs, or Apollo, Leader of the Muses. He is undeniably close with the ennead – outside of possibly having children with two Muses, dating the son of another, and courting Thalia, the Muse of comedy – as he is shown working with them on a number of occasions.
Saying that, the relationship Apollo has with the Muses is akin to that between Artemis and her attendants, or of Aphrodite and her retinue. The goddesses of inspiration are simply members of his personal entourage, rarely being discovered outside of each other’s company. Indeed, even in the Orphic hymn “To Apollo” cites the god to be the “Leader of the Mousai.”
Furthermore, the relationship between Apollo and the nine Muses is examined in both the arts and in theater. “Apollo and the Muses” by John Singer Sargent displays this unique relationship that the god of light had to the nine muses. Meanwhile, the Moregine frescoes in the ‘A’ Triclinium of the Large Gymnasium shows the god alongside the Muses.
Meanwhile in theater, Igor Stravinsky composed a 1927 ballet titled Apollon Musagète that included the three Muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore.
How were the Muses Worshipped?
The Muses were worshipped across the Greek world, with significant temples and shrines established throughout the Mediterranean. Apollo’s close ties to the Muses as their “Leader” led to the nine daughters of Zeus being invoked by the cult of Apollo during some rituals and rites, and routinely worshipped.
Moreover, the Muses had notable temples in Boeotia and in Pieria, both of which are places that the goddesses are believed to routinely reside. One of the sanctuaries dedicated to the Muses near Mount Helicon are referred to as the Valley of the Muses and the Sanctuary of the Muses at Thespiai; here, festivals would be held annually to honor the Muses.
During the festivals, dedications would be brought to honor the Muses, including art and other unique or spectacular artifacts by those seeking favor. Of course, there would be theatrical performances, music, and opportunities to dance at the festivals as well.
Other evidence of temples constructed to honor the daughters of mighty Zeus can be found in the Roman ruins of Heliopolis, Baalbek in modern Lebanon, and at the Hill of the Muses in Athens.
Hesiod and the Muses
Hesiod: we know him, we love him, we know he wrote a lot.
Born in Cyme, Hesiod was an ancient Greek philosopher, poet, and part-time farmer. He wrote the all-too familiar poems Theogony and Works and Days during his life and his work contributed to religious customs, astronomy, and economics after his death.
Anyways, what’s up with Hesiod and the Muses? Are they like…besties, or what?
Well, sort of, not really. Although certainly not on casual “Let’s meet for brunch!” terms, the Muses did give Hesiod their seal of approval.
In the tale, Hesiod claimed to have come across the multi-talented nine goddesses in Boeotia while he was shepherding sheep near Mount Helicon. He had gone to Boeotia which, according to his piece Works and Days, was “a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant,” to visit his aging father.
Based on Hesiod’s account, the Muses presented him with a laurel staff, which established the man as one who weilded poetic authority and mastery. It is after this divine interaction that Hesiod felt inspired to write his most famous work, Theogony, thus abandoning his life as a meager merchant’s son in favor of one full of poetry and lifelong creative ventures.
Where do the Muses Appear in Greek Mythology?
The Muses are usually the minor characters in the myths of other Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes. Naturally, they are featured in an honorary fashion in their own respective genres of poetry, music, art, and in dance; their names are invoked as a blessing or as a request, with some creatives even posing queries to the Muses.
However, evidence of the inspirational goddesses having any significant roles in myths is scarce.
Featured below are two of the better known myths in which Zeus’ daughters play key parts, having direct influence over the events that unfold.
The Myth of Orpheus
Oh, where to begin with Orpheus?
The legendary Thracian bard has been to hell and back again (seriously), championed the Sirens in song, travelled the world with Jason and the Argonauts, and was ultimately unceremoniously murdered by some frantic worshippers of Dionysus in the woods.
Anyways, from the top, Orpheus was rumored to be the son of the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, which would explain his beautiful voice and poetic inclinations, and the god Apollo.
Talk about a power couple!
Of course, as with many figures in Greek mythology, the parentage of Orpheus was also argued amongst classical historians and theologists alike. In particular, if not Apollo, then the Thracian king Oeagrus would be named Orpheus’ father. Which, either way, it was said that Apollo had given a young Orpheus his first ever lyre, which the boy mastered with ease and even perfected from Hermes’ original design.
Generally, it is Orpheus’ paternity that is the largest familial disparity outside of rare sources listing Orpheus’ mother as the muse of hymns, Polyhymnia.
To sum it up, at some point in his life the ever-eloquent bard ends up joining Jason on his quest in search for the legendary golden fleece and ended up saving the entire adventuring party from the siren song by playing louder, more epic music to drown out theirs. Upon returning from the voyage, he married the nymph, Eurydice, and delved bravely into the Underworld after her untimely death to get her back – despite bargaining with the king, Hades, he did not successfully bring Eurydice home.
As time went on, Orpheus chose to only worship Apollo. After the loss of Eurydice, he became disillusioned with the other deities. He was soon confronted by raving maenads for his refusal to worship Dionysus, leading him to be torn apart and cast into the sea.
Following the death of Orpheus, his body was collected and subsequently buried by the Muses at Pieria.
Thamyris was a Thracian vocalist, whose role in Greek mythology has varied depending on the sources. He was frequently depicted as one of the lovers of Hyacinthus, son of Clio, and as an arrogant challenger to the nine Muses.
The event is referenced in Book 2 of the Homeric epic poem, Iliad: “he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him, and took from him his wondrous song, and made him forget his minstrelsy.”
Other versions of the legend specified that Apollo, in his jealousy for the affections of Hyacinthus, informed the Muses of Thamyris’ disrespect; or, contrarily, that Thamyris desired the gifts of the Muses and if he were to win, then he would enjoy their favors.
As punishment for his arrogance, Thamyris is traditionally quoted to be made blind, mad, utterly stripped of his musical mastery, or all three. Meanwhile, Thamyris’ demise appears to be a contrast itself to a legend mentioned in the later Odyssey, the blind minstrel, Demodocus, who was granted the gift of song by an unnamed Muse.
Unlike Thamyris, Demodocus was adored, being described as one “whom the Muse loved above all others, though she had mingled good and evil in her gifts, robbing him of his eyes but granting him the gift of sweet song.”
The Muses in Ancient Rome
Worship of the Muses did not end in Greece. In fact, as with many deities from the Greek pantheon, Roman occupation lead to the adaptation of the gods to the Roman religious lense. Unlike the additional gods integrated from the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the Muses and what they stood for remained largely intact at first. It would not be until later on that the nine Muses became loosely related with the Roman Camenae, or the four prophetic goddesses that were tied to wells, fountains, and childbirth. Each were named Carmentis, Aegeria, Porrima, and Postvorta respectively, with Carmentis being the leader of the quartet. Much like with the Muses of Greek mythology, the Roman goddesses are viewed as water nymphs.
In the Roman world, the Muses were a popular subject of a number of artworks. Their likeness was captured in the statues at Hadrian’s Villa, built in 120 CE in modern day Tivoli for the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE). It was there in the 1500’s that statues of eight of the nine Muses were unearthed. The seated forms likely decorated the stage of a small theater on the villa grounds.
Similarly, a white marble artwork known as the “Sarcophagus of the Muses” was completed in 180-200 CE in Rome. The nine Muses are shown to be in the company of Athena and Apollo, who were implied to be their patrons.