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]