At times, the Muses almost exist without any family and are named for the music they make. There are three Muses named for three different types of instruments (strings, winds and percussion usually). Other times, they are named for vocal, instrumental and dance music. And I once read that one Muse was born from the movement of water, one from the movement of air and one was embodied in the human voice.
Mnemosyne is sometimes called the first Muse and this is the only name that appears as a solitary Muse figure. She is considered the Goddess of memory and language partly because the first thing she did was to name everything in existence so they could be sung about.
Other times, there are three Muse sisters; Melete “practicing/meditation”, Mneme “remembering” and Aoede “singing.” Under these names, they are living versions of how poets and musicians work. This set is also described as the Titan Muses, the older generation. Mnemosyne was at times considered a fourth Muse of this group.
Another group of four Muses descended from either Gaia or a Nymph named Plusia and Ouranos or Zeus use the names Arche (beginning), Thelxinoe (the heart delighting), Aoede (song), and Melete (more practicing).
When their parents are Zeus and Mnemosyne (Goddess of memory, time and prophecy) there are usually 9 sisters. They were all born at once, were addicted to song and had dancing-grounds on mountains and near fountains and wells. Artemis led them in singing hymns and circle dances. At first, Apollo played the aulos, a double-reed instrument, with the Muses but switched to the lyre after Hermes invented it. They were also companions of Dionysus, the other God of music. The Muses traveled wrapped in clouds and their voices could only be heard at night. They lived with the Graces and are the patrons of poets and musicians.
Other traditions make the three Muses the daughters of Apollo. These three are sometimes named after the lowest, middle and highest strings on the lyre or are called Kephiso "of the river Kephiso", Apollonis "daughter of Apollo" and Borysthenis "strength."
And there are Muses whose names we have lost completely. Polymatheia "much learning/knowledge" is the only surviving name from a set of 3 Muses worshiped at Sicyon.
|The House of the Muses Today|
The number of Muses steadily increases (the 7 Muse daughters of Pierus are Neilo, Tritone, Asopo, Heptapora, Achelois, Tipoplo, and Rhodia; for more on them see The Muse Contest) until nine is the most accepted number. Eventually, a tradition developed of assigning specific forms of poetry, and the music that went with it, to individual Muses. The precise list of who was linked with which art form changes depending on which writer you are reading.
-Kleio “the giver of fame” took charge of history poems. She played horns and trumpets. Two other Muses in this group play brass instruments.
-Euterpe “the giver of joy” played the aulos, directed all instrumental music and was in charge of lyric poetry. Euterpe is called a flute player so often, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise and really, I like having a Muse connected to my particular instrument. But the aulos has no relation to the flute. It was a double-reed instrument with no true modern equivalent. I consider her the Muse of woodwind instruments.
-Thaleia “the festive or blooming” led the music of comedy and comic plays.
-Melpomene “the singer” had charge of music for tragedies and elegies and played horn.
-Terpsichore “enjoys dancing” danced and played the lyre. In some lists, she is in charge of choral songs.
-Erato “awakener of desire” inspired erotic poetry, danced and wedding music. In some lists, she is in charge of mimic imitation.
-Polymnia or Polyhymnia “many hymns” sang story-telling songs. Others say she is in charge of religious hymns and/or mimic arts.
-Ourania “heavenly one” studied astronomy and played a drum or a gong to keep time.
-Kalliope “beautiful voice” was awarded epic or heroic songs and played trumpet.
In the myths, the Muses are most often referred to as the musical accompaniment at celebrations and funerals attended by the Gods. Poets generally praised them at the opening and closing of any song, partly in hopes of performing well. There are stories of false Muses (sometimes nine daughters of a king) challenging the Muses either in a song contest or by setting up their own cult. Like most Greek Gods, the Muses do not take the challenge well. When the true Muses sang, the sky, stars, sea and rivers all stood still and a fountain sprang up on Mount Helicon. They then turned the challengers into birds, either magpies or nine different songbirds. Since the Muses themselves were able to turn into birds, this leaves the question of who the true Muses were open for debate. Sometimes one of the Muses is claimed as the mother of the Sirens, another group of singing bird women. The Sirens are also said to have challenged the Muses. The Muses then stripped their feathers from their wings and wore them as crowns. Nearly every singer, musician or poet in mythology is said to be a child of one of the Muses or at least raised and taught by them. And a shocking number of them are punished by the Muses for various offenses. Blinding is one of their favorite punishments, but considering the tradition of blind poets and musicians, one has to wonder...
Smile on my little song, Ladies of delight. Bring me foresight, sweet melodies, freedom from sorrows and a good memory.
For more info about the Muses, see my other Muse posts.