Muses and Memory

June 8, 2011

The Pastoral Concert. Attributed to Titian. c.1509. The Louvre *

Muses and Memory

All ancient myth exists in many versions in different places and it is naturally flexible and adaptable, never more so than in the case of the Muses. Pausanias, writing his Description of Greece under Roman rule in the second century CE, claims that there were originally three, Melete (meditation), Mneme (memory), and Aoede (song). These became the Nine Olympian Muses; Kalliope (epic poetry), Kleio (history), Ourania (astronomy), Thaleia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (religious hymns), Erato (erotic poetry), Euterpe (lyric poetry) and Terpsikhore (choral song and dance).

However, there are numerous different groups of Muses, all with slightly different names and functions. There are the three or four Titan Muses, the three Apollonides, the Pierides, the Muses of Helicon and numerous other groups in other regions. They are all always female and always concerned with the general area of music and poetry, but other details vary widely. The identity of their parents varies from version to version as well, sometimes given as Uranus and Gaia or their mother given as Harmonia, but most often, they are described as the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, Memory. This most frequent story is the key to their function in ancient thought and art.

The Muses are the daughters of memory – it is their job to preserve the memory of things, from the Olympian gods’ victory over the Titans onwards. All their other functions stem from this central concept. They are most strongly connected with music and with poetry because the main method of transmitting memory in archaic Greece was epic poetry. These long poems, sung by an oral poet who combined remembering the epic with a certain amount of spontaneous composition, were the core way for early Greeks to remember their mythic past.

This is a desire to preserve the memory of things that is a lot less connected to truth value than our understanding of ‘memory’ today. Epic poems were deliberately changed from poet to poet for artistic effect and contained clearly fantastical elements (Achilles has a talking horse in Homer’s Iliad, for example). It was only when Herodotus wrote his Histories in the fifth century BCE that the idea of recording the truth became more popular, and even then, Herodotus records many different versions of events, leaving his readers to decide which they think is most likely and in some cases, adding that he does not believe certain stories at all.

Muse with barbiton, c.360-340 BCE. Attributed to Asteas. The Louvre

The memory the Muses preside over, then, is at its heart an artistic, creative ‘memory’. This is why they are the patron goddesses of fiction-based art forms, as well as history and forms of memory concerned with myths of the gods, like religious hymns and astronomy (connected to memory through the gods and mythological figures commemorated in the constellations). Ancient religion was not about belief or dogma in the way some modern religions are, but about ritual, memory, thought and how you lived your life. The Muses gathered together all the many ways of remembering in the ancient world under one big umbrella. It’s no wonder epic poets rarely specified which Muse they turned to for their inspiration, tending to mention ‘the goddess’, ‘the goddesses’, ‘the Muse’ more often than ‘Kalliope’. The individual Muses and their own areas were less important, it was the combined power of all of them that artists really sought.

Later uses and adaptations of the Muses continue to play with their role as memory transmitters. From the ancient world, the poet Lucan chose a different Muse for his historical epic poem about the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. That war had resulted in Caesar becoming Dictator for Life, and his adopted son Augustus becoming the first Emperor, so Lucan called on the Emperor Nero as his Muse for a poem with no gods, only people bent on destroying each other (not that he left out the supernatural all together – there are witches and ghosts a-plenty!). The poem commemorates Caesar’s war, so its Muse is Caesar’s successor, Nero himself.

 A young Peter Ustinov memorably portrayed a Muse obsessed Nero in Quo Vadis

Redefining the memory-making Muses still goes on today as well. Disney’s Hercules re-imagines the Muses as Gospel singers, singing ‘the Gospel truth’. This is totally different from the ancient conception of the Muses, but it does reflect our modern preoccupation with ‘truth’ as a central facet of memory. We believe that memory should reflect and reveal truth, so that is what our modern Muses sing.

For more information, see the Muses entry at Theoi, a fabulous online resource for all things related to Greek and Roman mythology.  



Dr. Juliette Harrisson is a UK based lecturer in Classics and Ancient History. She specialises in Roman history, in particular, myth and religious history in the Roman world, studied through the theoretical framework of cultural memory. She also has an interest in the reception of Classics in popular culture. She is the author of Pop Classics, a weblog dedicated to exploring classical reception in popular culture.

*Similar descriptions of an original triad of Muses were present in older texts, such as Varro's Disciplinarum Libri IX which exists only in fragments related by Cicero and Saint Augustine - which were available to Renaissance scholars and artists. The Muse triad reading can be applied to The Pastoral Concert.  [HN]

16 comments:

Sedef said...

This is all very interesting. While reading it I was reminded of something from my own culture, Turkish tradition of the epic story telling that was a way of relating historical events for the people and the poets who were responsible for passing these stories down from generation to generation. Unlike the Western tradition of keeping records, our past and history was, for the most part, depended upon a verbal culture. Our muses then were literally, transmitter of memories.

Thanks for this enlightening essay.

Juliette said...

That was the Greek tradition until Homer - possibly the two traditions were linked at some point in the past!

Juliette said...

And you're welcome :)

H Niyazi said...

Many thanks for the comment Sedef!

This is an interesting point. The oral tradition is still strong in some indigenous cultures. The epic Greek poems that gave rise to the concepts Juliette describes started in this form too, until someone realised they should start writing it down!

The great thing about this was that the written form travelled further, including to the British Isles, Byzantium and the Near East whom managed to preserve some of this ancient knowledge for later scholars. Tracing the history of the spread of knowledge and literature is often as fascinating as the literature itself.

Kind Regards
H

Hels said...

I had assumed that female muses were there to inspire flagging (young, impoverished) male artists and to model for them (for precious little money). Which annoyed me intensely. Instead, the muses' real job was to preserve an artistic, creative memory of music and poetry.

I feel better now :)

H Niyazi said...

Hello Hels! This definitely seemed to be what the 18th and 19th Century writers and artists turned 'Muse' into. The most obvious culprits are the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with Millais submerging poor Lizzie Siddal in a tub when painting Ophelia - something I covered in a post from a while ago:

Lizzie Siddal - Pre-Raphaelite Muse

For Renaissance fans, the concept of the Muse was also explored in this post:

Simonetta Vespucci: A Renaissance Muse?

The reverence and treatment of these real-life Muses definitely seemed to go backwards between the 15th and 19th Centuries!

Kind Regards
H

M said...

Great post! I must admit, I knew that the Muses were associated with the mind, but it makes sense to have them associated more specifically with memory. There is a difference between those two words. :)

H Niyazi said...

Hi M! Thanks for popping in during your very busy marking period. I'm glad you enjoyed Juliette's post - the responses posted by art historians to this post are interesting - a great example of how an interdisciplinary outlook can broaden our awareness of the historical antecedents of concepts that re-occur time and again in art and literature.

Kind Regards
H

Anonymous said...

Lovin' the more frequent updates 3pp. Also very interesting post Juliette, although I must say I always just assumed there was a muse of painting and now as an artist I feel myself a little disappointed. :( Although I suppose painting at that time wasn't anywhere near as valued as a medium as it later became, especially when compared to poetry which has three(!!). Not that I'm bitter...

Juliette said...

I think it's more that the classical Muses are really all about literary art, with the possible exception of astronomy. Painting was mostly found in wall decoration but that doesn't mean it wasn't valued - though vase painting and sculpture were also major art forms and sculpture was probably the most prominent.

H Niyazi said...

@Anon - As Juliette mentioned, the Muses seemed to be more for the literary arts.

If you are really looking for an ancient deity to inspire your artwork, the artisans of Ancient Greece actually looked to Hephaestus and Athena - with the former being more relevant to metalworking and sculpture, and the latter to painting crafts.

Athena is hence a commonly depicted subject by painters, from Botticelli to Klimt - there is a great piece on Klimt's Pallas Athene at Stanford University's Philolog.

Kind Regards
H

Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting blog post! I've been reading in this blog for about a year already, and now time to comment. I love the blog...nice to have found 3PP.net!! Keep it up H. Niyazi!

H Niyazi said...

@anon > Many thanks for the kind words. I can promise more of the same, and to keep working hard to improve 3PP in all aspects, whilst keeping it interesting and relevant.

Kind Regards
H

gaetano catelli said...

re: "I had assumed that female muses were there to inspire flagging (young, impoverished) male artists and to model for them (for precious little money). Which annoyed me intensely."

but see Catullus 35, vs 8 & seq: http://www.vroma.org/~hwalker/VRomaCatullus/035.html

gaetano catelli said...

of Sappho in particular (vs. 16), Plato is said to have deemed her "the tenth Muse".

H Niyazi said...

@gaetano - Cheers for the references. I definitely agree with Plato's assessment of Sappho!

Kind Regards
H

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