The Nine Muses

In Greek mythology, the nine muses were the patron goddesses of the arts. Find out more about them!

In Greek and Roman mythology, the nine muses were the daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The muses were the patron goddesses of the arts, and over time each muse became associated with a specific art:

Calliope--the muse of epic poetry

Clio--the muse of history

Erato--the muse of love poetry

Euterpe--the muse of lyric poetry

Melpomene--the muse of tragedy

Polyhymnia--the muse of songs of praise to the gods

Terpsichore--the muse of choral songs and dance

Thalia--the muse of comedy

Urania--the muse of astronomy

Traditionally, a poet--especially an epic poet--would invoke the aid of the appropriate muse to guide and assist him in his creative endeavor. This invocation to the muse became a literary convention in epic poetry, usually coming at or near the beginning of the poem, as in the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," and "Paradise Lost."

In its earliest development, however, the invocation was essentially a prayer, a request that the goddess being invoked to inspire--literally, "breathe into"--the artist. The idea was that the artist did not himself "create" the work of art, but merely served as a mortal channel through which the divine voice of the muse could speak.

Traditionally, the muses were believed to reside on Mt. Helicon, in Boeotia, Greece, and in fact they were the center of a cult there. The muses as we know them today are of relatively recent origin. In their most ancient form they were probably not differentiated, or even named. Initially they were the patronesses of poets and musicians (since poets were also musicians and accompanied themselves on the lyre). Over the centuries they became associated with all of the arts and sciences, which is why the word "museum" is used for a repository of works of art or of scientific collections.

The eighth century BC poet Hesiod provides a list of the muses with specific names for each. Other lists from early times are not consistent with Hesiod's list, but the names he gives the muses have become standard. The association of specific muses with specific arts actually comes from Roman, rather than Greek, times.

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