Greek Muses of Tragedy & Comedy: Melpomene & Thalia

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson sheds light on the Greek Muses of Tragedy and Comedy, known as Melpomene and Thalia. Within, you'll learn about the iconic masks of theater, the Muses, their depiction in art, and how they gained their realm of dominion.

Comedy and Tragedy

If you are familiar with theater at all, you are likely familiar with the iconic masks of comedy and tragedy, but do you know where they come from? These masks, a symbol of opposing themes in literature, theater, and song, come from two of the Greek Muses, Melpomene and Thalia. Melpomene is the Muse of tragedy, thus the sad face on one mask, while Thalia is the Muse of comedy, represented by the smiling face. To better understand these two, we must first look at who the Muses were, where they came from, and their important role in the lives of ancient Greek artists, musicians, and writers.

Masks of Comedy and Tragedy
Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

The Muses

In Greek mythology, the Muses were nine talented women, born of the union between Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Stories say Zeus came to the Mnemosyne and laid with her for nine nights in a row. Each night, they conceived another child. Other stories claim the beautiful, young women were water nymphs born from four springs on Helicon. These sacred springs first flowed when Pegasus, the winged horse, struck the ground with his hooves and water flowed from each spot.

Apollo and the Muses by Robert Sanderson
Apollo and the Muses

Regardless of how they were born, the Muses were seen as the goddesses of inspiration, bringing forth genius in the sciences, literature, and the arts, and were the embodiment of all artistic knowledge. Each possessed her own sphere of expertise within the fields of art, drama, geography, mathematics, music, philosophy, and science.

Melpomene

Melpomene is one of the nine Muses, charged with dominion over tragedy. Unlike the common use of the term today, her realm of tragedy refers to the literary and theatrical genre of drama, rhetoric, and serious subjects. This also included today's idea of tragedy as a profoundly unfortunate or sad circumstance, but we must remember that as a genre it includes much more.

Melpomene Mural by Edward Simmons - Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building
Melpomene Mural

Originally, however, Melpomene was the Muse of singing. However, the overlap of domains with the other Muses of musical expression, such as Clio, Euterpe, and Polymnia, likely influenced her reassignment to tragedy. Her original assignment to singing relates well to the myths that she is the mother of the Sirens, wicked temptresses who lured sailors to their death with song.

The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty
Sirens

Depictions of Melpomene usually showed her holding the mask of tragedy, the one we still see today in contemporary theater, and a sword or club. She also wore cothurnus boots, a style of boots common to tragic actors in Greek theater, and a wreath of ivy or grape vines on her head.

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