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Muses: Definition, Names & Greek Mythology

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While people often state that someone, often an object of their affection, is their 'Muse,' few have any knowledge of the history of the term. Even fewer know the Muses, or that there were actually two distinct sets.

Defining the Muses

To the Ancient Greeks, the Muses were the inspiration behind all that was creative in the world. According to the classical myths, they were the offspring of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, who was the deity of memory. The Classical Muses were nine in number and their leader was the god Apollo, whose wide-ranging remit of responsibilities ranged from music to medicine, fitting for the patron of the Muses.

Prior to the Classical period of mythology, the Greeks believed in a much smaller number of Muses. These three Muses, known as the Ancient Muses, were more closely aligned with the abilities of humanity, such as speech, memory, and habit, rather than any particular arts. So, technically, there were two sets of Muses.

The Ancient Muses

As the beliefs of Greek mythology evolved throughout its early period, the idea of personifying the creative talents as goddesses became commonplace. Originally, there were three personifications of these arts, worshipped at Boethia. These three Muses focused on those skills that all humans had, namely speech, memory, and habit, and their influence in combination to create art.

However, this system proved to be clumsy, with some writers going as far as to introduce new Muses when they saw fit. By the time of the greatest of Greek authors it was clear that a more unified approach was necessary to completely articulate whatever force was inspiring the arts.

The Muses
The Muses

The Classical Muses

The idea of nine Muses eventually won out, pressed on in no small part by the greatest minds of Greek literature, namely Homer. The fact that Homer saw nine Muses was enough to influence much of the ancient world to do the same. The nine Muses of Classical Greece, as traditionally led by the god Apollo, are as follows:

Calliope was the muses of epic poetry, especially important to a culture that produced the great works of Homer, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Throughout art, she is identified as having a writing tablet.

Clio is perhaps the most well-known of the muses, and was the muse of history. Some of the first historians in western history were Greek, and the field was elevated to an art form. That said, the fact that Greek historians did not always follow the stringent rules of modern historiography may be why Clio is partnered with other deities of a more creative nature. Drawing on the knowledge of the ancients, she often carries a scroll.

Euterpe was the patron of song and elegiac poetry, which were both vital for remembering the great men of the past. She is seen in art with a flute.

Erato also sponsored poetry, but this Muse spurred the creation of lyrical poetry. Instead of being used to mourn the dead, it instead was used to celebrate life. To help her keep time and proper rhythm, she carried a lyre.

Melpomene, along with her sister Thalia, is perhaps the easiest Muse to match with patronage, as she was often seen with one of the distinctive masks used in tragic theatre. Greek actors, all of them men or boys, could not project facial emotions in the vast amphitheaters, so instead they used exaggerated masks to do the job.

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