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Definition: Mnemosyne from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The goddess of memory (Greek mnēmē) and mother by ZEUS of the nine MUSES of Greek mythology. She was the daughter of heaven and earth (URANUS and GAIA).

Summary Article: MNEMOSYNE
From Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

In Greek myth, Mnemosyne was the personification of memory. She played a personal role in only one story, that of her affair with Zeus, king of the gods, which produced nine offspring—the Muses, the goddesses of the arts. However, Mnemosyne's symbolic significance ensured that she was an important member of the Greek pantheon, since people recognized that storytelling and recorded history were impossible without memory.

Mnemosyne was one of the Titans, the 12 divine beings born from the union between Gaia (earth) and Uranus (sky). Some of the Titans personified aspects of the natural world—Oceanus (the world river), Hyperion (the sun), and Phoebe (the moon). Others represented abstract ideas. Mnemosyne belonged to the latter category, as did her sister Themis (justice), and—possibly, since the sources are not entirely clear—Coeus (intelligence) and Theia (sight).

Birth of the Muses

Unlike monotheists, who believe that creation was the action of a single god, ancient Greeks believed that the world was generated by a series of divine matings. Zeus, who became king of the gods after the Olympian deities defeated the Titans, fathered numerous divine beings through his affairs with a succession of female Titans, goddesses, and nymphs. He also sired many legendary heroes and demigods through a string of liaisons with mortal women. According to one story, after the Olympians defeated the Titans, they asked Zeus to create deities who would help them to celebrate their victory. In response to their request, Zeus went from Mount Olympus to nearby Pieria, where he disguised himself as a shepherd and seduced Mnemosyne. The couple slept together for nine consecutive nights. The result of their union was the birth of nine female children. These were the Muses, each of whom held sway over one particular artistic form: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flute playing), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Terpsichore (dancing), Polymnia (music), and Urania (astronomy).

The exterior of this sarcophagus, dated about 150 CE, is decorated with bas-reliefs of the Muses, the nine daughters of Mnemosyne.

Greek geographer Pausanias (143-176 CE) gives a different account of the origins of the Muses. According to him, the people of Sicyon in the northern Peloponnese believed that there were only three Muses, each of whom had responsibility for a different aspect of art in performance: Melete was the goddess of practice, Mneme of memory, and Aeode of song. Pausanias further related that it was a man named Pierus, from Macedonia, to the north of Greece, who established belief in nine such goddesses. Pausanias is the only source of this alternative version, and it is likely that for most Greeks the Muses were always nine in number.

Abstract concept

Except for the story of the birth of the Muses, the character of Mnemosyne does not really figure in Greek mythology. This is perhaps unsurprising, since she was the personification of an abstract quality. Nevertheless, ancient writers occasionally described Mnemosyne's physical appearance. One Greek poet, Hesiod (fl. 800 BCE), wrote that she had "beautiful hair"; another, Pindar (c. 522-c. 438 BCE), described her as "golden-robed." A surviving fragment of poetry by Alcman, a Spartan of the seventh century BCE, refers to Mnemosyne's big eyes, and this has been taken as a reference to the fact that memory allows people to "see" their past.

Although Mnemosyne had no other role than mother of the Muses, ancient Greeks still afforded the female Titan much significance. They believed that she was present in the recollection of every story told, since all narrators need memory to tell their tales. This was particularly true in oral cultures. By the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, writers such as Homer had begun to record stories by writing them down, but many people could still neither read nor write, so they relied on the tradition of oral storytelling to learn about gods and heroes.

Many sources reflect the symbolic importance of Mnemosyne, who not only personified memory, but also represented everything that memory made possible. An orphic hymn—from an undated collection of ancient Greek poems used by cult followers of the mythical musician Orpheus—describes how Mnemosyne freed the human mind from oblivion and, as a result, represented the joining of the soul with the intellect. In Critias—the title of which refers to one of the characters who take part in a series of dialogues—Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428-c. 348 BCE) discusses Mnemosyne's role in human intelligence. Critias explains that it is only because of his capacity to remember information and past events that he can participate in rational argument.

Language and history

Elsewhere in the work of Plato, Critias goes even further, suggesting that Mnemosyne played a major part in the development of human speech. This role was elaborated by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (90-21 BCE), according to whom Mnemosyne gave humans the capacity to name and remember everything they saw and felt, which therefore allowed them to hold conversations with each other. Diodorus did, however, acknowledge that not everyone assigned such a role to Mnemosyne. He suggested that some people believed the power of language was a gift to humans from Hermes, divine messenger and god of eloquence. Another source, the undated "Homeric Hymn to Hermes," establishes a connection between the two deities. The hymn relates that Hermes honored Mnemosyne and was one of her followers.

The importance of Mnemosyne reflects that of the mental capacity she represents. Memory is widely regarded as the foundation of everything that distinguishes humans from animals. It enables people to know who and what they are, and to retain that information. It is important at all times and in all cultures, but it was of particular significance in the ancient world, before scribes began to create and reproduce manuscripts. Memory remained crucial to the transmission of knowledge until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century CE. Henceforth, authors needed to remember information only until they had written it down.

Although memory is no longer so important to the survival and transmission of knowledge, it remains vital to human life. One of the ways in which people commit information to memory is with the aid of mnemonics—systems designed to assist or improve memory. Such aids—still important to modern people—were indispensable to ancient Greeks. Oral poetry was common in ancient Greek life; wandering bards and storytellers were able to entertain the Greek public using mnemonics to string together long recitals of tales they had learned or history they had experienced. In Lysistrata, Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 BCE) invoked Mnemosyne's importance to history with the lines: "Holy Memory, reveal/the glories of yore:/how Spartans and Athenians/won the Persian war." This is a reference to the series of wars between the Greek states and Persia between 492 and 449 BCE.

Ancient Greeks believed that the Muses inspired the writing and performance of songs that honored famous events and noble deeds. Pindar wrote that, if people were successful, they would hope that the Muses would see to it that their success was recorded in song. Like their mother, the Muses—whose name in Greek means "remembrances"—were regarded as patronesses of memory.

Honoring Mnemosyne

Pausanias, in his travels around Greece in the second century CE, observed images of Mnemosyne and the Muses on the altar of Athena, goddess of arts and war, at Tegea in Arcadia, a mountainous region in the central Peloponnese. This was not the only example of Greeks honoring the female Titan: in his biography of the first-century CE philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus (c. 170–c. 245 CE) recounted how Apollonius would chant a hymn to Mnemosyne. The hymn declared that, while everything is worn away by time, time itself does not age because of memory.

Pausanias also told of a ritual in honor of Mnemosyne that was held at the oracle of Trophonius in Lebadea, a town of Boeotia in east-central Greece. Anyone who wished to consult the oracle was taken by priests to two water fountains. Petitioners drank from the first fountain, which contained the waters of Lethe (Forgetfulness); thereafter they drank from the second, which contained the waters of Mnemosyne. They then consulted the oracle itself, and when they had finished they sat on a seat known as the chair of Mnemosyne, where the priests asked them to tell all that they had seen or learned.


Further reading
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.
  • Pausanias, and Peter Levi, trans. Guide to Greece. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
  • Plato, and Robin Waterfield, trans. Phaedrus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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