The Muses

December 24, 2020

In recent weeks it has occurred to me that I know next to nothing about the muses. Their enumeration — nine by most counts (also known as an ennead, a rare chance to use a rare word) — dates back to Hesiod’s Theogony,written in Greek epic verse around 700 BC. The Roman writer Ovid also wrote about them around 8 AD, for example the weird story of the Pierides.

I had a quick look through the Theogony but couldn’t find any relevant passages. I’m still learning about them but here is what I’ve gathered so far from wikipedia:

  • Calliope: Chief muse, responsible for eloquence and epic poetry, mother of Orpheus and Linus (musician/lyricist).
  • Clio: Muse of history (as in cliodynamics), possibly also lyre playing and fame. I’m wondering if she’s more of a prose muse than Calliope? Etymology includes “to recount,” “to make famous,” “to celebrate.” That makes sense for history, but could it also include non-lyric storytelling?
  • Euterpe: Muse of music, later of lyric poetry. “Giver of delight.”
  • Thalia: Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. “The joyous,” “the verdant,” from the verb “to flourish.”
  • Melpomene: Originally muse of the Chorus, later Muse of Tragedy. Etymologically, “to celebrate with dance and song.”
  • Terpsichore: Muse of dance and chorus; etymologically, “delight in dancing.”
  • Erato: The muse of love poetry. Etymologically, “desired” or “lovely.”
  • Polyhymnia: Muse of sacred poetry and dance, as well as (for some reason) agriculture and pantomime, sometimes also of geometry and meditation. “Many praises.”
  • Urania: Muse of astronomy. “Heavenly.”

I’m curious as to whether these muses correspond to real mental modules which produce the arts in question, or whether they represent anthropomorphic incarnations of the arts.

I also find it interesting that while we often think of art in terms of objects today (painting, writing, etc.), the muses are mostly concerned with performance. For verse this makes sense, since writing would have been rare before 700 BC, but it’s a bit surprising that there are none to do with painting, for example, given that painting probably dates back 44,000 years.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.