Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
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 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.
Polyhymnia's sponsorship is apparent from her name, in that this Muse helped writers create and perform the hymns necessary to worship the pantheon of Greek gods. Obscuring her face in particularly modest fashion is the sort of veil that women would wear upon the (relatively rare) instances they would freely visit a temple.
Terpsichore patronized dance, and as testament to this, her name has become the root for many specialist terms involving the love of dance. Like her sister Erato, she too carried a lyre.
Thalia is the counterpart to her sister Melpomene, and as the Muse of comedic theatre, carried a mask that exaggerated a person laughing.
Finally, Urania was the Muse of Astronomy. Curiously, she is portrayed with a globe, which not only proves that the ancient Greeks understood that the world was round, but also that it was known to be such by a majority of the population.
The Muses' impact on art and literature would go on to reach far beyond the time of their worship. Throughout history and even today, the Muses themselves (Calliope for epic poetry, Clio for history, Euterpe for song and elegiac poetry, Erato for lyrical poetry, Melpomene for tragedy, Polyhymnia for hymns, Terpsichore for dance, Thalia for comedy, and Urania for astronomy) would eventually become symbols for their chosen fields. For the ancient Greeks, however, the perceived good graces of a Muse were enough to make or break a brilliant career in the arts.
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