Biographies of the Muses

by Karen Joslin September 18, 2019

ic: Calliope teaches music to her son Orpheus. Painting by Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch.

[Note: This is my second article about the Muses. For an overview of the Muses through history, see The Muses.] 

If you ask, “How many Muses are there?” the answer you’ll probably get is “nine.” Similarly, “Who are the Muses’ parents?” will likely yield the answer, “Zeus and Mnemosyne.”

In the ancient world, though, details about the Muses varied greatly, including their genealogies, their numbers, and their names. There are a few reasons for this.

For one, the Muses originated when storytelling was an oral tradition. Myths passed down orally could easily adapt to local customs and changing times.

For another, ancient Greeks thought they could always discover something new about the gods.

And while myths formed the basis of religion, they also served as entertainment. At large, public events like the panhellenic festivals, poets competed fiercely.

Would crowds truly be entertained hearing the same stories over and over again? And how would poets distinguish themselves without making their epics unique?

The one thing poets generally agreed upon was descriptions of the Muses, which frequently involved violets.

The Muses loved to wear violets in their hair, a popular style for festive occasions. Sometimes violet was also used to describe the color of the Muses’ eyes and their sacred springs.

Secondary descriptions refer to roses (again, usually worn in the hair) and golden head adornments.

General Genealogy and Numbers of the Muses

At least several different lineages existed for the Muses. Most often the goddesses were considered daughters of Olympian gods, with the most common parentages in this order:

* Zeus, usually with Mnemosyne (Memory)
* Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth)
* Apollo

These gods were all part of the same bloodline. Ouranos and Gaia were Zeus’ grandparents, while Zeus was Apollo’s father.

Non-Olympian parents included the mortal Pieros, nymphs, and possibly rivers/river gods.

Pieros was a Macedonian who founded Pieria, the region that includes Mount Olympus. The Muses reputedly were born in Pieria, and it was one of their major cult centers.

The connection with nymphs and river gods isn’t surprising, given the Muses’ predilection for frolicking in sacred springs.

Whether the Muses were virgin goddesses was another disputed topic. However, only the nine Muses appear to be credited with offspring. Naturally, the genealogies of their children are also convoluted.

When it comes to the number of Muses, surviving ancient Greek texts rarely mention an exact number. They tend to either reference the Muses as a general group or invoke a singular Muse.

(Although whether anyone assumed that only one Muse existed is questionable. According to the poet Rhianos [3rd century B.C.], “if you mention the name of one of the Muses, all of them listen to you.”)  

Various sources number the Muses anywhere from two to 10. The best evidence is for three, four, seven, and nine Muses. The other numbers all come from second-hand sources with insufficient information.

At some point, even some ancient Greeks found the discrepancies in genealogy and number of the Muses to be a bit too much. They explained these discrepancies by saying that two or three generations of Muses existed:

* Daughters of Ouranos and Gaia (Titan Muses)
* Daughters of Zeus 
* Daughters of Apollo (Apollonian Muses)

In case you’re wondering why we haven’t talked about the Muses’ names yet, it’s because they depend on exactly which set of Muses you’re referring to. So let’s explore those now.

Three Muses

The earliest works of art featuring the Muses depict only three, each holding an associated musical instrument. A number of ancient authors also state that originally three Muses were worshipped.

References to the three Muses sometimes omit names and identifying details. Most likely, this is because initially people thought of the Muses as a general collective, so their individual identities weren’t important.

The cult at Sicyon (near Corinth) worshipped three Muses, one of them named Polymatheia, meaning “thoroughly educated.” From her name derives the word “polymath,” a person of great and varied learning.

Among the named groups of three Muses, one set was conceived by Ouranos and Gaia (Titan Muses) and two sets were fathered by Apollo (Apollonian Muses).

Three Titan Muses

According to Pausanius (2nd century A.D.), Ephialtes and Otus brought worship of the Muses to Mt. Helicon in Boeotia when they founded Ascra there.

(Hesiod the poet hailed from Ascra, and Mt. Helicon was a major cult center for the Muses. We’ll talk more about Hesiod in the section on nine Muses.)

Daughters of Ouranos and Gaia, these Muses were:

* Melete (Practice)
* Mneme (Memory)
* Aoede (Song)

Pausanias further relates that later on, Pieros migrated from Macedonia to nearby Thespiae, established worship of nine Muses, and changed the Muses’ names.

Apollonian Muses 1

These three Apollonian Muses were worshipped at Delphi, where Apollo spoke through the Oracle. The Muses’ shrine sat by a spring, and worshippers used its water for libations to the Muses.

Plutarch recorded conceptions of these Muses in Chapter 14 of Quæstiones Convivales (a.k.a. Table Talks). His brother, Lamprias, states that many believe the ancient Delpians named their Muses after the strings or sounds in music, being:

* Nete (Lowest note of lyre)
* Mese (Middle note of lyre)
* Hypate (Highest note of lyre)

However, Lamprias believes they were erroneous in doing so. In his opinion, the Delphians considered philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics to be the “gracious gifts” of the three goddesses.

Plutarch disputes this, claiming that the Delphians themselves say that they named their Muses for the three parts of the universe. Which makes the three goddesses:

* Nete (“Those things that are under the concave of the moon”)
* Mese (The planets)
* Hypate (The stars)

In terms of Nete’s realm, he seems to be referring to everything in space between the moon and Earth, and possibly Earth itself.

He attributes Mese with smoothing the transition between the earth and the cosmos, as well as dealings between gods and mortals.

It’s important to note that the Muses originated at least 800 years earlier than Plutarch’s day. However, Plutarch did serve as a priest at Delphi for 30 years so he may have had reliable knowledge of their history there.

Apollonian Muses 2

Byzantine poet and scholar John Tzetzes (12th century A.D.) wrote of another set of Apollonian Muses ascribed to Eumelus of Corinth in the 8th century B.C.

Modern scholars consider Tzetzes’ work to be riddled with inaccuracies, so this set of Muses should not be considered authoritative, though it is interesting:

* Kephiso (Of the Kephisos, four ancient Greek rivers and their god)
* Borysthenis (Of the Boresthenes river and its god)
* Apollonis (Apollo’s daughter)

Some scholars consider the name “Apollonis” to be a translation mistake, more likely to be “Achelois.”

Achelois appears as a Muse in a play by Epicharmus. Like Kephiso and Borysthenis, her name is associated with a river (Achelous) and its eponymous river god.

Although this accounting of the Muses doesn’t state who their mothers were, it’s reasonable to assume that they were born of their associated rivers/river gods. (Ancient Greek religion considered geological features and their dieties to be one and the same.)

Four Muses

The four Muses are usually also Titan Muses (daughters of Ouranos and Gaia):

* Arche (Beginning)
* Melete (Practice)
* Thelxinoe (The heart delighting; mind charmer)
* Aoede (Song)

Illustrating the lack of consensus on the Muses, the Greek poet Aratus (c. 315-245 B.C.) reportedly wrote about these four Muses as daughters of Zeus and Plousia (a nymph) in Book V of his Astrika, which no longer survives. 

A few other ancient authors make general references to worship of four Muses, but since they omit names they could be the same set of Muses, or not.

Seven Muses

According to several ancient sources, cults on the Aegean island of Lesbos (off the coast of modern-day Turkey) worshipped seven Muses.

The most-often cited evidence comes from Myrsilus of Methymna, a historian and paradoxographer writing in the 3rd century B.C. (Think of paradoxography as the ancient world’s version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!)

Myrsilus relayed a story of the Muses’ origins. The first king of Lesbos, Makar, was a hot-tempered man who constantly picked fights with his wife.

Their bickering annoyed their daughter, Megaklo. Hoping to improve Makar’s disposition, Megaklo taught seven serving maids to play music, sing historic tales, and dance.

Makar enjoyed their performances so much that over time he became good-natured. As thanks to the seven maids, Megaklo dedicated bronze statues to them and ordered they be worshipped in all the temples.

The maids hailed from Mysia (now in Turkey), yet Megaklo called them “Moisai” (Muses) instead of Mysian. And so, that’s how the Muses came to be.

Although this reads like an apocryphal tale, it clearly indicates that worship of seven Muses was widespread on Lesbos.

Seven Muses also appear in the farcical play Hebe’s Wedding (4th century B.C.) by Epicharmus.

In the play, the Muses attend the wedding of Hebe and Heracles, who’s portrayed not as a hero but as a glutton gorging on a massive wedding feast of seafood.

Epicharmus amplifies the satire by making his Muses daughters of Pieros and the nymph Pimpleis, whose names can be translated as “Fat” and “Fullness,” respectively.

He also names them after rivers full of fish:

* Neilo
* Tritone
* Asopo
* Heptapore
* Achelois
* Titoplo
* Rhodia

With the possible exception of Achelois, these names don’t appear in any other Muse mythology.

Hebe’s Wedding shows that although the ancient Greeks took their religion seriously, they also had a good sense of humor about it.

Nine Muses

Theogony, written around the 8th century B.C. by Hesiod, offers the earliest surviving record of the nine Muses. According to Hesiod, the Muses are daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

(Most agreed with him, though a few, like the poetess Praxilla of Sicyon, believed their parents were Ouranos and Gaia.)

Hesiod named his Muses according to each one’s general attributes. It’s unclear whether he invented these names or whether they had already been established through oral tradition.

He considered Calliope the most important Muse, because she “attends upon worshipful princes,” whom she imparts with eloquent speech, fairness, diplomacy, and wisdom.

Many academics believe that Hesiod’s Muses may represent a typical female chorus, with Calliope as their leader. (Although theater as we know it developed after Hesiod’s day, poetry at that time was performed for an audience and could include a chorus.)

Over time, Hesiod’s nine Muses became the most generally accepted version of the goddesses. Later Greeks and Romans expanded on their mythologies and symbols.

Personal profiles of the nine Muses:

Calliope (Beautiful voiced)
The Muse of epic poetry and eloquence, Calliope carries around a scroll or her tablet and stylus. She also plays the lyre and salpinx (a long wind instrument similar to a trumpet).

Clio (Glorifying)
As Muse of history, Clio always has something to read. If she’s not holding a half-opened scroll, she’s sitting with a chest of beloved books.

Melpomene (Singing)
The Muse of tragedy, Melpomene loves costumes and props. Her favorites include: tragic masks, the club of Heracles, swords, vine wreaths, and cothurni (hunting boots, part of the tragic actor’s costume).

Thalia (Blooming)
Counterpart to Melpomene, Thalia serves as Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. Her accoutrements are a comedic mask, shepherd’s staff, and ivy wreath. Lots of farmers think she’s the bee’s knees and worship her above all other Muses.

Erato (Lovely)
The Muse of love poetry and erotic poetry, Erato enjoys crafting wreaths of roses and playing the kithara, a seven-stringed lyre.

Terpsichore (Delighting in dance)
While Terpsichore is the Muse of choral poetry and dance, she also plays her lyre expertly, picking the strings with a plectrum.

Euterpe (Delightful)
You’d think Euterpe, the Muse of lyric poetry, would be even more enthusiastic about the lyre than her sisters. Yet she prefers the aulos, a wind instrument that usually has two reeds.

Urania (Heavenly)
Stars surround Urania, Muse of astronomy, who uses their position to foretell the future. She likes to keep a globe and either a compass or rod handy.

Polyhymnia/Polymnia (Many hymning)
True to her character as the Muse of sacred hymns, Polyhymnia is a pensive goddess who meditates regularly. She encourages others to embrace quietude by holding a finger to her lips. Occasionally she carries a scroll.

Children

Almost of the nine Muses mothered at least one child in a myth or two.

Both gods and noble mortals tempted the Muses into romantic escapades. Their offspring, also a mix of gods and mortals, often inherited their musical gifts.

Naturally, myths disagree as to which Muse mothered which child with which father. And almost all of their children were also attributed to other mothers in certain myths. The only undisputed children were Orpheus and Kleopheme.

It’s a confusing mess, which I’ve tried to make more comprehensible in the table below. (I haven’t listed parentages that don’t include the Muses.)

Table showing genealogies of the Muses' children

Sources/Further Reading

Between Tradition and Innovation: Genealogy, Names, and the Number of the Muses
by Tomasz Mojsik (trans. Marcin Fijak)
Akme. Studia Historica, 2011

“Mousai”
Theoi.com

“Borysthenes”
Theoi.com

“Kephisos”
Theoi.com

Description of Greece
Boeotia 9.29.1, 9.29.2, 9.29.3
by Pausanius

Quæstiones Convivales  9.14.3, 9.14.4
by Plutarch

“Plutarch”
by Frank W. Walbank
Encyclopædia Brittanica

“John Tzetzes”
by the Editors of Encyclopædia Brittanica
Encyclopædia Brittanica

“Placing the Muses: Eumelus fragments 34–35 (West)
by Christos Tsagalis
CHS Research Bulletin 2, no. 2 (2014)

“About Paradoxography”
by Rachel Hardiman
Paradoxographorum Reliquiae, 2009-2014

On Heroes 28.8 - 28.10
by Philostratus

Image Credit

Calliope Teaching Orpheus, 1865 
by Alexandre-Auguste Hirsch [Public domain]
Wikimedia Commons



Karen Joslin
Karen Joslin

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