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The Muses (Ancient Greek , hai moũsai : perhaps from the o-grade of the Proto-Indo-European root *men- "think") in Greek mythology, poetry, and literature are the goddesses or spirits who inspire the creation of literature and the arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture, that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths. Originally said to be three in number, by the Classical times of the 400s BC, their number had grown and become set at nine goddesses who embody the arts and inspire the creation process with their graces through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance.

In one myth, King Pierus, once king of Macedon, had nine daughters he named after the nine Muses, believing that their skills were a great match to the Muses (mousi). He thus challenged the Muses to a match, resulting in his daughters being turned into magpies and jackdaws. In Greek Mythology these nine daughters of the king usually are referred to as the Pierides.

Sometimes they are referred to as water nymphs, associated with the springs of Heliconmarker and with Pieris.

The Olympian myths set Apollo as their leader, Apollon Mousagetēs. Not only are the Muses explicitly used in modern English to refer to an inspiration, as when one cites one's own artistic muse, but they also are implicit in words and phrases such as "amuse", "museum"(changed from muselon—a place where the muses were worshipped), "music", and "musing upon".

According to Hesiod's Theogony (seventh century BC), they were daughters of Zeus, the second generation king of the gods, and the offspring of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. For Alcman and Mimnermus, they were even more primordial, springing from the early deities, Uranus and Gaia. Gaia is Mother Earth, an early mother goddess who was worshipped at Delphimarker from prehistoric times, long before the site was rededicated to Apollo, possibly indicating a transfer to association with him after that time. Pausanias records a tradition of two generations of Muses; the first being daughters of Uranus and Gaia, the second of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Another, rarer genealogy is that they are daughters of Harmonia (the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares) which contradicts the myth in which they were dancing at the wedding of Harmonia and Cadmus. This later inconsistency is an example of how clues to the true dating, or chronology, of myths may be determined by the appearance of figures and concepts in Greek myths.

Compare the Roman inspiring nymphs of springs, the Camenae, the Völva of Norse Mythology and also the apsaras in the mythology of classical Indiamarker.

Muses in myth

According to Pausanias in the later second century AD, there were three original Muses: Aoidē ("song" or "voice"), Meletē ("practice" or "occasion"), and Mnēmē ("memory"). Together, these three form the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art in cult practice. In Delphimarker three Muses were worshiped as well, but with other names: Nētē, Mesē, and Hypatē, which are assigned as the names of the three chords of the ancient musical instrument, the lyre. Alternatively they later were called Cēphisso, Apollonis, and Borysthenis, whose names characterize them as daughters of Apollo.

In later tradition, four Muses were recognized: Thelxinoē, Aoedē, Arche, and Meletē, said to be daughters of Zeus and Plusia (or, of Uranus).

One of the persons frequently associated with the Muses was Pierus. By some he was called the father (by a Pimpleian nymph: called Antiope by Cicero) of a total of seven Muses, called Neilo (Νειλώ), Tritone (Τριτώνη), Asopo (Ἀσωπώ), Heptapora (Ἑπτάπορα), Achelois, Tipoplo (Τιποπλώ), and Rhodia.

In one myth, the Muses judged a contest between Apollo and Marsyas. They also gathered the pieces of the dead body of Orpheus, son of Calliope, and buried them. They blinded Thamyris for his hubris in challenging them to a contest.

Though the Muses, when taken together, form a complete picture of the subjects proper to poetic art, the association of specific Muses with specific art forms is a later innovation. The Muses were not assigned standardized divisions of poetry with which they are now identified until late Hellenistic times.

Emblems of the Muses

Muse Domain Emblem
Calliope Epic poetry Writing tablet
Clio History Scrolls
Erato Lyric poetry Cithara(an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyre family)
Euterpe Music Aulos(an ancient Greek musical instrument)
Melpomene Tragedy Tragic mask
Polyhymnia Choral poetry Veil
Terpsichore Dance Lyre
Thalia Comedy Comic mask
Urania Astronomy Globe and compass


In Renaissance and Neoclassical art, the dissemination of emblem books such as Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (1593 and many further editions) helped standardize the depiction of Muses in sculptures or paintings, who could be distinguished by certain props, together with which they became emblems readily identifiable by the viewer, enabling one immediately to recognize the art with which they had become bound. Calliope (epic poetry) carries a writing tablet; Clio (history) carries a scroll and books; Erato (lyrical poetry) is often seen with a lyre and a crown of roses; Euterpe (music) carries a flute, the aulos; Melpomene (tragedy) is often seen with a tragic mask; Polyhymnia (sacred poetry) often is seen with a pensive expression; Terpsichore (dance) is often seen dancing and carrying a lyre; Thalia (comedy) often is seen with a comic mask; and Urania (astronomy) carries a pair of compasses and the celestial globe.

Function in society

Greek mousa is a common noun as well as a type of goddess: it literally means "song" or "poem". In Pindar, to "carry a mousa" is "to sing a song". The word probably is derived from the Indo-European root men-, which is also the source of Greek Mnemosyne, and English "mind", "mental" and "memory" (or alternatively from mont-, "mountain", due to their residence on Mount Helicon, which is less likely in meaning, but somewhat more likely to be associated linguistically).

The Muses, therefore, were both the embodiments and sponsors of performed metrical speech: mousike, whence "music", was "the art of the Muses". In the archaic period, before the widespread availability of books (scrolls), this included nearly all of learning. The first Greek book on astronomy, by Thales, was set in dactylic hexameter, as were many works of pre-Socratic philosophy; both Plato and the Pythagoreans explicitly included philosophy as a sub-species of mousike Herodotus, whose primary medium of delivery was public recitation, named each one of the nine books of his Histories after a different Muse, invoked at the outset.

For poet and "law-giver" Solon, the Muses were "the key to the good life"; since they brought both prosperity and friendship. Solon sought to perpetuate his political reforms by establishing recitations of his poetry—complete with invocations to his practical-minded Muses—by Athenian boys at festivals each year. It was believed that the muses would help inspire people to do their best.

Function in literature

The Muses typically are invoked at or near the beginning of an ancient epic poem or classical Greek hymn. They have served as aids to an author of prose, too, sometimes represented as the true speaker, for whom an author is merely a mouthpiece. Originally, the invocation of the Muse was an indication that the speaker was working inside the poetic tradition, according to the established formulas. Six classic examples are:

Homer, in Book I of The Odyssey:
:"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
:driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
:the hallowed heights of Troy." (Robert Fagles translation, 1996)


Virgil, in Book I of the Aeneid:
:O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
:What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate;
:For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began
:To persecute so brave, so just a man; [...]
:(John Dryden translation, 1697)


Catullus, in Carmen I:
:"And so, have them for yourself, whatever kind of book it is,
:and whatever sort, oh patron Muse
:let it last for more than one generation, eternally."
:(Student translation, 2007)


Dante Alighieri, in Canto II of The Inferno:
:O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
:O memory that engraved the things I saw,
:Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
:(Anthony Esolen translation, 2002)


John Milton, opening of Book 1 of Paradise Lost:
:Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
:Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
:Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
:With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
:Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
:Sing, Heavenly Muse, [...]


William Shakespeare, Act 1, Prologue of Henry V:
:Chorus: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
:The brightest heaven of invention,
:A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
:And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!


Geoffrey Chaucer, in Book II of Troilus and Criseyde:
:O lady myn, that called art Cleo,
:Thow be my speed fro this forth, and my Muse,
:To ryme wel this book til I haue do;
:Me nedeth here noon othere art to vse.
:ffor-whi to euery louere I me excuse
:That of no sentement I this endite,
:But out of Latyn in my tonge it write.


Modern invocations of the Muses have appeared in a variety of literary and adult video sources. The Muses are travestied in the 1980 feature film Xanadu (and its 2007 Broadway musical adaptation), which place Terpsichore and Clio, respectively, in the leading role under the pseudonym 'Kira'. The Muses were also reduced to five in the 1997 Disney film Hercules, and narrated the story through gospel music. Those five were Clio, Thalia, Melpomene, Calliope, and Terpischore. In modern English usage, muse (non capitalized but deriving from the classical Muses) can refer in general to a person who inspires an artist, writer, or musician.

Cults of the Muses to modern museums

When Pythagoras arrived at Croton, his first advice to the Crotoniates was to build a shrine to the Muses at the center of the city, to promote civic harmony and learning.

Local cults of the Muses often were associated with springs or fountains. They sometimes were called Aganippids because of their association with a fountain called Aganippe. Other fountains, Hippocrene and Pirene, also were important locations ascribed to the Muses. The Muses also occasionally were referred to as "Corycides", or "Corycian nymphs" after a cave on Mount Parnassos, called the Corycian Cave.

The Muses were venerated especially in Boeotia, in the Valley of the Muses near Heliconmarker, and in Delphimarker and the Parnassus, where Apollo became known as Mousagetes "Muse-leader" after the sites were rededicated to his cult.

Often Muse-worship also was associated with the hero-cults of poets: the tombs of Archilochus on Thasosmarker and Hesiod and Thamyris in Boeotia, all played host to festivals, in which poetic recitations were accompanied by sacrifices to the Muses.

The Library of Alexandriamarker and its circle of scholars were formed around a mousaion ("museum" or shrine of the Muses) close to the tomb of Alexander the Great.

Many Enlightenment figures sought to re-establish a "Cult of the Muses" in the eighteenth century. A famous Masonic lodge in pre-Revolutionary Parismarker was called Les Neuf Soeurs ("nine sisters", that is, the nine Muses), and it was attended by Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Danton, and other influential Enlightenment figures. One side-effect of this movement was the use of the word "museum" (originally, "cult place of the Muses") to refer to a place for the public display of knowledge.

The Muse-poet

Thalia, muse of comedy, holding a comic mask - detail of “Muses Sarcophagus”, the nine Muses and their attributes; marble, early second century AD, Via Ostiense - Louvre
The British poet Robert Graves popularized the concept of the Muse-poet in modern times. His concept was based on pre-twelfth century traditions of the Celtic poets, the tradition of the medieval troubadours who celebrated the concept of courtly love, and the romantic poets.

"No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident; just as no Apollonian poet can perform his proper function unless he lives under a monarchy or a quasi-monarchy. A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse...

But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument...

The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman...

The "tenth Muse"

The archaic poet Sappho of Lesbosmarker was given the compliment of being called "the tenth Muse" by Plato. The phrase has become a somewhat conventional compliment paid to female poets since. In Callimachus' "Aetia", the poet refers to Queen Berenike, wife of Ptolemy II, as a "Tenth Muse", dedicating both the 'Coma Berenikes' and the 'Victoria Berenikes' in Books III-IV. French critics have acclaimed a series of dixième Muses who were noted by William Rose Benet in The Reader's Encyclopedia (1948): Marie Lejars de Gournay (1566-1645), Antoinette Deshoulières (1633-1694), Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701), and Delphine Gay (1804-1855).

Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan poet of New Englandmarker, was honored with this title after the publication of her poems in Londonmarker in 1650, in a volume titled by the publisher as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America.... This also was the first volume of American poetry ever published.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican poet, is well known in the Spanish literary world as the tenth Muse.

Gabriele d'Annunzio's 1920 Constitution for the Free State of Fiumemarker was based around the nine Muses and invoked Energeia (energy) as "the tenth Muse". In 1924, Karol Irzykowski published a monograph on cinematography entitled "The Tenth Muse" ("Dziesiąta muza"). Analyzing silent film, he pronounced his definition of cinema: "It is the visibility of man's interaction with reality".

In The Tenth Muse: A historical study of the opera libretto Patrick J. Smith implicitly suggests that the libretto be considered as the tenth muse. The claim, if made explicit, is that the relation of word and music as constituted by the libretto is not only of significant import, but that the critical appreciation of that relation constitutes a crucial element in the understanding of opera.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 38 invokes the Tenth Muse:
"How can my Muse want subject to invent,

While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse

Thine own sweet argument?"

the poet asks, and in the opening of the calls upon his muse:
"Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth

Than those old nine which rhymers invocate."

References

  1. Modern Greek οι μούσες, i moúses.
  2. from which mind and mental are also derived; so OED
  3. OED derives "amuse" from French a ("from") + muser, "to stare stupidly" or distractedly.
  4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.29.1.
  5. TheoiProject: Muses
  6. Strabo 10.3.10.
  7. Solon, fragment 13.
  8. This is an ancient convention: the Mesopotamian epic Atra-Hasis is represented as dictated by the Goddess in a dream-vision.
  9. " muse". The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved February 15, 2009.
  10. Robert Graves, The White Goddess, a historical grammar of poetic myth.
  11. Smith, Patrick J., (1970) The Tenth Muse: A historical study of the opera libretto, New York, Alfred. A. Knopf
  12. Shakespeare, Sonnet 38.


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