Mnemosyne: Mythology, Symbol & Facts

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson, you will learn about Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother of the muses. You'll explore her family tree, her importance to the Greeks, and some places built in her honor.

Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory

This lesson explores Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of artistic inspiration. Mnemosyne was a titaness (a female titan) who had children with Zeus. She was so important to the Greeks that there were rivers and fountains with her name. Let's look at her genealogy, how she was represented and some of the situations in which she intervened.

Mnemosyne represented in a mosaic
mosaico

Family Tree

Mnemosyne had famous parents, a famous lover, and famous children.

Mnemosyne's Parents and Siblings

According to Hesiod's Theogony , a poem about the origins of the Greek gods, at the beginning there was only Chaos. From this primeval Chaos came the sky and the earth (Uranus and Gea), who engendered the twelve titans, six male and six female. Mnemosyne was one of the female titans. In other words, she is the daughter of Uranus (the sky) and Gea (the Earth), the first Gods.

Mnemosyne's siblings include:

  • Tethys
  • Theia
  • Phoebe
  • Rhea
  • Themis
  • Oceanus
  • Hyperion
  • Coeus
  • Cronus
  • Crius
  • Iapetus

Mnemosyne's Daughters

Mnemosyne spent nine nights with Zeus, and on each of these nights, he fathered a child. The nine children were born in the same birth and were known as the nine muses, the goddesses of artistic inspiration.

The nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus were:

  • Calliope, muse of epic poetry
  • Clio, muse of history
  • Euterpe, muse of music, song and lyric poetry
  • Erato, muse of love poetry
  • Melpomene, muse of tragedy
  • Polyhymnia, muse of hymns
  • Terpsichore, muse of dance
  • Thalia, muse of comedy
  • Urania, muse of astronomy

Zeus and Mnemosyne
zeus

Mnemosyne, the Symbol

For the ancient Greeks, memory was a fundamental gift. It was what differentiated man from animals. Indeed, memory served not only to remember, but also to reason and foresee the future. That's why Mnemosyne was a very important goddess. She was the one who knows everything, what was, what is and what will be.

In the days of Hesiod (about 700 B.C.), it was believed that kings and the powerful had the protection of Mnemosyne and therefore they could speak with more authority than other people. We can see the importance the Greeks attributed to Mnemosyne by looking at her family tree and interpreting it as a symbol.

  • Mnemosyne was the daughter of the primordial gods. This means that she belonged to the first generation and was one of the first goddesses. This make sense because without memory there can be no order or reason in the world.
  • Mnemosyne was the sister of the titans. Most titans are personifications of abstract ideas. Thus, memory is a sister of law (Themis), or time (Cronus) among others.
  • Mnemosyne had children with Zeus, the supreme god of Olympus. Because power needs to rely on memory, it is necessary that the powerful have Mnemosyne nearby - that they have her help; only this way they will have the necessary authority to be able to command. We must remember that in ancient Greek society, the authority of kings was born of tradition. Hence the union between Zeus (power) and Mnemosyne (memory).
  • And finally, Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses. This is a very important point in Greek thought. For the ancient Greeks, art was fundamental, almost divine. But artistic inspiration is born of memory, which allows us to know and then create.

However, despite her great importance, Mnemosyne does not have her own symbol, that is, she is not represented in a specific way like other goddesses are. This may be because she represents a very abstract concept that is very difficult to represent with concrete objects.

Picture of Mnemosyne, 19th century
rosetti

The Springs of Mnemosyne

The Greeks gave the name of Mnemosyne to several springs and fountains. According to tradition, anyone who drank from these waters could remember everything. To counter this, there were also the springs of Lethe (oblivion) that were usually next to the waters of Mnemosyne. There is a spring of Mnemosyne in the real world and another in the mythological world.

Mnemosyne, the second from the right
mosaicmnemo

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