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Definition: muses from Philip's Encyclopedia

In classical mythology, nine daughters of the Titan Mnemosyne (memory) and Zeus. Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, Clio of history, Erato of love poetry, Euterpe of lyric poetry, Polyhymnia of song, Melpomene of tragedy, Terpsichore of dance, Thalia of comedy, and Urania of astronomy.

Summary Article: Muses
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The Muses are goddesses and teachers of divine wisdom evoked in dance, music, and poetry. Late sources suggest that they invented the alphabet (Diod. Sic. 7.74.1) and the arts and sciences (Anth. Lat. 1.1.88; 1.2.664). Above all, the Muses inspire poets who, since Homer, regularly invoked and adapted Muses to their own needs. As daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory) and Zeus, the Muses are divine agents of memory (Hes. Theog. 53–61; Apollod. 1.3.1), but not personifications; the etymology of their name was even a problem for ancient writers (Pl. Crat. 406a; Diod. Sic. 4.7.3–4). Hesiod is our earliest source for their canonical number and names (Theog. 60–79). While his Muses work as one, in Hellenistic times each was given her own sphere of influence – epic (Kalliope), history (Kleio), lyric (Erato), flute music (Euterpe), tragedy (Melpomene), hymns, mime, and geometry (Polyhymnia), choral dance and lyric (Terpsichore), comedy (Thaleia), and astronomy (Ourania) – and relevant attributes, which have lent themselves to artistic representation of the Muses throughout the ages (Cohon 1991-1992 Bottini 2006).

As musagetes, Apollo leads the Muses in song and dance, and in their evocation of order and truth (Pind. Ol. 10.3–4). In this vein Muses are also arbitrators, as at the contest between Apollo and Marsyas, famously depicted on the base of a statue by Praxiteles in Mantinea (Paus. 8.9.1), now in Athens.

The oldest cult of the Muses, perhaps, is attested on Olympos in Pieria (Hom. Il. 11.218). Hesiod conflates the Pierian and Helikonian Muses, for whom a sanctuary was built by the third century BCE (Schachter 1986: 156) in the "Valley of the Muses" in Boiotia, at the foot of Mount Helikon in Thespiai. Here and elsewhere in central Greece the Muses – perhaps originally spring nymphs – are connected with springs and celebrated in festivals called Mouseiai (Paus. 9.31.3; Schachter 1986: 14). The Muses came to be important in private cults and reverence of the dead, perhaps through their connection with memory, which plays a role in their appearance on Roman sarcophagi (Paduano Faedo 1981). In Roman tradition, they became identified with the native Italian spring goddesses, Camenae (Livius Andronicus Odusia fr. 1 Mariotti). By the imperial period, they had lost their religious importance, yet continued to serve allegorical purposes in literary and visual arts (Ternes 2003).


Allegory; Apollo; Camenae; Olympos mountain; Orpheus and Orphism; Zeus.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Bottini, A., ed. (2006) Musa pensosa. L'immagine dell'intellettuale nell'antichità. Rome.
  • Cohon, R. (1991-1992) "Hesiod and the order and naming of the Muses in Hellenistic art." Boreas 14-15: 67-83.
  • Frieslander, E. (1999) "Dancing Muses?" Assaph 4: 1-20.
  • Paduano Faedo, L. (1981) "I sarcofagi Romani con muse." ANRW II.12.2: 65-155. Berlin.
  • Schachter, A. (1986) Cults of Boiotia 2: 146-79. London.
  • Ternes, C. M. (2003) "Muses on mosaics." In Ancient Roman mosaics. Paths through the classical mind. Acta of the conference held in March 2000 in Luxembourg: 167-95. Luxembourg.
  • Amy C. Smith
    Wiley ©2012

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