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Who are the Muses?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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In Greek mythology, the Muses are the daughters of Zeus, the head of the Olympian Gods and Mnemosyne, or Memory, a Titan, and one of the three Elder Muses. The Muses are the goddesses of the arts and were often considered as a group by the Greeks, or called upon without being distinguished by name, particularly by poets. Homer, for example, opens the Odyssey with the line:

Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon

which means:

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways

"many ways" possibly meaning either “much-traveled” or “wily,” both of which apply equally to Odysseus. Poets since, such as Virgil in the Aeneid, Dante Alighieri in The Inferno, and John Milton in Paradise Lost have used an invocation to the Muses as an opening for their work.

The Muses were first named by Hesiod in Theogony, and their separate personalities were further developed by the Romans, but some of the roles of different Muses overlap, depending on the source: it’s not a clean and clear division of the arts into nine portions.

Calliope or Kalliope is the goddess of epic poetry. Her name means “beautiful-voiced,” and her symbols are wax tablets and a stylus. Clio or Klio is the goddess of history. Her name means “to tell,” and her symbol is a parchment scroll or tablet set. Erato is the goddess of lyric poetry and mime. Her name means “to love,” and her symbol is a lyre. Euterpe is the goddess of lyric poetry and music. Her name means “well-pleasing,” and she is often shown with the double-belled flute, which she is said to have invented.

Melpomene is the goddess of tragedy. Her name means “the Songstress,” and her symbol is the mask of tragedy. Polyhymnia (Polymnia) is the goddess of sacred music and pantomime, often shown resting her chin on her hand in thought. Terpsichore is the goddess of dance and choral singing. Her name means “dance-loving,” and she is sometimes shown with a lyre. Thalia is the goddess of comedy and pastoral poetry — not to be confused with the Grace of the same name. Her name comes from the Greek word meaning “enjoyment,” and her symbols are the mask of comedy and a shepherd’s crook. Urania is the goddess of astronomy. Her name refers to the heavens. Her symbols are a globe and a peg.

The word museum, an institution or place to conserve and display valuable objects from science, history, or the arts, comes from the word muse. The word music also comes from muse, as does the word mosaic, an art form in which a picture or design is developed from many small colored pieces, often of stone or tile.

Several of the Muses are honored by names of astronomical objects. Clio is a Venusian crater. 84 Klio, 22 Kalliope, 62 Erato, 27 Euterpe, 18 Melpomene, 33 Polyhymnia, 81 Terpsichore, and 23 Thalia, are main belt asteroids. The Muse Urania’s name has been chiefly used to name astronomical observatories.

But there are other notable uses of various Muses' names. Calliope is a type of steam organ used at fairgrounds and on riverboats. The Clio Awards honor creative excellence in the fields of advertising and design, and the Renault Clio — alternatively called the Renault Thalia — is a subcompact car. Polyhymnia O’Keefe, known as Polly, is the protagonist of several novels by Madeleine L’Engle. The Terpsichore Dances is a famous collection of 312 dances edited by Michael Praetorius. The Urania Award is an annual literary challenge given by an Italian magazine of the same name for Italian novels of science fiction.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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