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Muses, goddesses upon whom poets—and later other artists, philosophers, and intellectuals generally—depended for the ability to create their works. They were goddesses, not lesser immortals, not only because of their pedigre (s) and their home on Olympus (1). They are called goddesses from the earliest sources on, and their attitude to mankind is identical to that of gods: they do not hesitate to destroy a mortal who dares to usurp their place (so Thamyris, whom they maimed and deprived of his skill: Hom.Il. 2. 594–600), and they are divinely contemptuous of humankind (it does not matter to them whether the poetry they inspire is true or false: Hes.Theog. 26–8). Muses appear both singly and in groups of varying sizes (West, on Theog. 60). Homer, for example, addresses a single goddess or Muse but knows there are more (the Thamyris story). The canonical nine and their names probably originated with Hesiod (West on Theogony 76). They were: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flute-playing), Terpsichore (lyric poetry and dancing, esp. choral), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Polyhymnia (hymns and pantomime), Urania (astronomy). But their names, functions, and number fluctuated.

The earliest sources locate the Muses at Pieria, just north of Olympus, and on Olympus itself; they are associated with so-called ‘Thracian’ bards, Orpheus, Thamyris, and Musaeus (1). That region appears to have been their first home. A southern group, the Muses of Helicon, is identified by Hesiod with the Muses of Olympia and Pieria, perhaps because of an underlying connection between the two regions (compare Mt. Leibethrion and its nymphs in the Helicon massif with Leibethra in Pieria in Macedonia), but possibly because the young poet himself saw fit to make the association as a means to enhance his own reputation (on the introduction to the Theogony, see Thalmann (below), 134–52).

Hesiod's influence led eventually—but possibly not before the 4th cent. bce—to the establishment of a formal cult and sanctuary below Mt. Helicon in the Vale of the Muses. This may have been the first ‘Mouseion’ (Museum: it housed, in the open air, statues of both legendary and historical notables, and possibly contained an archive of poetic works), and it is not surprising that a Ptolemy (probably Ptolemy (1) IV Philopator, whose queen Arsinoë III was worshipped as the Tenth Muse) was among the benefactors when part of the musical agōn, the Mouseia, was reorganized towards the end of the 3rd cent. bce (for the Heliconian cult, see Schachter, 147–79).

Philosophers, traditionally beginning with Pythagoras (1), adopted the Muses as their special goddesses, in some cases organizing their schools as thiasoi under their patronage (Boyancé, esp. 229–351). From Hellenistic times they were a popular subject, individually or as a group, in sculpture (especially sarcophagi) and mosaics.

There is no satisfactory etymology (see Frisk, Chantraine, and Camilloni).


P. Boyancé, Le Culte des Muses chez les philosophes grecs (1937).Find this resource:

    P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque 3 (1974).Find this resource:

      H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1963).Find this resource:

        A. Schachter, Cults of Boiotia 2 (1986).Find this resource:

          W. G. Thalmann, Conventions of Form and Thought in Early Greek Epic Poetry (1984).Find this resource:

            Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 7. 1 (1994), 991–1059.Find this resource:

              M. T. Camilloni, Le Muse (1998).Find this resource:

                E. Spentzou and D. Fowler (eds.), Cultivating the Muse (2002).Find this resource:

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