by Karen Joslin February 27, 2020
Muse with kithara, detail of lid of Paestan red-figure pottery. Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, January 1992.
To truly understand the Muses, we first need a general understanding of ancient Greek theology.
Early Greek civilizations worshipped amorphous deities. Over time, deities acquired distinct traits and identities.
Dionysus, for example, became personified by about 2000 B.C. (Despite this, Greeks continually presented him as a “new” god.)
Rather than omnipresent, invisible beings, the gods were corporeal. The lived on Earth just like humans, and therefore could only be in one place at one time. (Though they could travel instantaneously through thought if they wanted to.)
However, ancient Greeks viewed their deities as more than immortal humans with superpowers. In addition to their anthropomorphic nature, gods simultaneously and literally encompassed the physical realities and psychological principles they represented.
For instance, the Muse Urania, whose name means “Heavenly” and who in later times came to represent astronomy, not only specialized in cosmic and spiritual affairs.
She WAS the entire universe. If you looked deeply into the night sky, at all the stars stretching far out into the galaxy, you were gazing directly at Urania.
And she WAS spiritual enlightenment, sparked by the infinite imagination. If you had an idea so profound it felt transcendent, that was Urania.
Despite their ideas of the gods, ancient Greeks believed they could always learn new things about them, including from other cultures. And so the stories and specifics of the gods could change, varying from place to place and time to time.
Evidence points to the Muses first being worshipped in Thrace (an area overlapping modern-day borders of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) and Pieria, where Mt. Olympus sits.
Like earlier deities, the Muses began as amorphous goddesses, with distinct identities evolving gradually. Local cults that worshipped them varied in their conceptions of the Muses and their ritual practices.
Several ideas stayed constant, however:
Their association with springs began with the original conception of them as daughters of nymphs.
That’s why their cults often worshipped them at sacred springs, especially on Mt. Olympus, Mt. Helicon (near Corinth), and Mt. Parnassus (near Delphi).
Of course, as goddesses, the Muses counted a number of other deities as their friends. Their most important compatriots included:
Some believed Apollo was the Muses’ father. Most frequently, though, Apollo was their half-brother, all having been fathered by Zeus.
In any case, the Muses often traveled with Apollo, himself a skilled musician. Together, they sang and danced to entertain the other gods.
While a few stories tell of the Muses teaching Apollo to play the lyre, many considered Apollo to be their leader, earning him the nickname Musagetes (Leader of the Muses).
* The Charites (Graces)
The Muses spent quite a bit of time with these goddesses (their half-sisters by Zeus), who lived next door to them on Mt. Helicon.
Grace and beauty were the Charites’ primary attributes, and they served as attendants to Aphrodite and Hera.
They shared many of the Muses’ favorite pursuits, including singing, dancing, and festivity. So naturally, they sometimes joined the Muses and Apollo in entertaining.
The Muses were particularly chummy with Aglaia (a.k.a. Charis, Kale), goddess of glory and splendor. This connection could be partly due to the Muses’ lesser-known duty of singing laments at heroes’ funerals, to glorify their names for all eternity.
* Himeros (Desire)
Another neighbor of the Muses and the Charites, Himeros (god of sexual desire), joined them all in their revelries in his spare time.
However, as one of the Erotes (winged love gods), he spent most of his time attending on his mother, Aphrodite. He and his twin brother, Eros (Cupid), often carried out her will.
* Dionysus (Bacchus)
Surprise, surprise – Dionysus is yet another half-sibling of the Muses. (Zeus really got around!) The goddeses were occasionally credited with having raised Dionysus.
They happily performed at his wild parties, which utterly delighted him. Sometimes they accompanied him in his travels as well.
Besides partying, both were instrumental in the development of dramatic poetry and the theater.
(For more specific details on different sets of the Muses, read Who Were the Muses of Greek Mythology?)
Even though history books exclude the Muses from the top 12 Olympian gods, their influence was arguably greater than any other deity. For about four hundred years, mousikaē (music) formed the basis of Greek culture.
Ancient Greeks loved music.
During Greece’s Dark Ages (ca. 1100 - 800 B.C.), when civilizations collapsed and populations plummeted, most arts regressed and writing ceased. Yet music survived.
Greek civilizations started to flourish again in the 700s B.C. Writing suddenly reappeared, and Greek culture began to revolve around mousikaē.
Mousikaē literally means “the art of the Muse.” Through performance, its practitioners expressed the divine knowledge and wisdom of the Muses.
This art, therefore, surpassed mere entertainment. It served as a major medium for:
* Practicing religion
* Remembering the past
* Enforcing social mores
* Conveying political ideals
* Educating citizens (mostly boys and men)
It also incorporated a far broader range of performance than our modern concept of music.
“In its commonest form, mousikaē represented for the Greeks a seamless complex of instrumental music, poetic word, and co-ordinated physical movement. As such it encompassed a vast array of performances, from small-scale entertainment in the private home to elaborate festivals in which an entire polis [city-state] was involved.”
~ Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson (editors)
Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City
Poetry was an essential component of mousikaē, with poets performing publicly and competing at festivals. The widespread adoption of writing led some poets to write down their poems for posterity as well.
In fact, the Muses’ literary debut occurs in poems by Homer and Hesiod. Scholars disagree on the exact chronology of the two, though both seem to date to the 700s or 600s B.C., and they may have been contemporaries.
In order to appeal to a wider audience, Homer and Hesiod depicted more general aspects of the Muses, though Hesiod gave his Muses names.
Homer and Hesiod also both invoked the Muse(s) in their works, claiming their tales came directly from the goddesses.
“….And they breathed into me
A voice divine, so I might celebrate past and future.
And they told me to hymn the generation of the eternal gods,
But always to sing of them, the Muses, first and last.“
~ Hesiod, Theogony
8th Century B.C.
(translated by Stanley Lombardo)
Whether either of them originated this convention or whether it was an earlier, established oral tradition is unclear. However, other poets followed suit.
Hymn to Muse Kalliope and Apollo, ancient Greek lyrics sung to lyre accompaniment, by Thanasis Kleopas.
In the 400s B.C., mousikaē reached its peak. The transformation of poetic performance into theater in Athens put the city at center stage.
Playwrights, poets, musicians, and spectators flocked to Athens from all over Greece and beyond.
At the same time, mousikē governed education in Athens, with the Muses considered patron goddesses of learning.
Plato argued that philosophy, rather than poetry, was the rightful realm of the Muses. Many other philosophers, such as Aristotle, agreed.
And even though Plato considered all gods to be fantasies, when he established his Academy around 387 B.C., he nevertheless included a shrine to the Muses.
Over the next 50 years, however, mousikaē as a cultural phenomenon began to unravel.
Musical study shifted toward more technical disciplines and theories. New styles of music developed that sometimes excluded poetry and made no pretense to godliness.
Much like parents in the 1950s who were alarmed by Elvis’ gyrating pelvis, conservatives decried the new music as degenerate and threatening to socio-political order.
But returning mousikaē to its formerly exalted role would not have preserved the status quo. Because in 338 B.C., King Phillip II of Macedonia (aided by his son Alexander III, soon to be “the Great”) conquered the Greek city-states, ending the democratic era that had allowed mousikaē to flourish.
The end of mousikaē was definitely not the end of the Muses, however. The goddesses continued to thrive in the great city of Alexandria, the Roman Empire, and beyond.
Curious to know more about the Muses? Read my other articles on them:
The Gods of Olympus: A History
by Barbara Graziosi
Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City
by Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson
Oxford University Press, 2004
Homer and Hesiod
by Ralph M. Rosen
University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, 1997
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