Muses (Camenae) & Memory (Mnemosyne, Moneta)

Category: Gods > Water Gods

1 Introduction

“A poet is like a priest of the Muses”, says Servius (On Georgics 2.476), and since the oldest works of Greek literature are poetry, they begin with invocations (Homer) or entire hymns (Hesiod) to these goddesses. “This is a poetic custom, an obligation nearly all of them have preserved, to call upon the Muses, i.e., the divine, in order to protect them” (Scholia on Iliad 1.1). In a very real sense, then, they stand at the beginning of all piety.

But who are the Muses, beyond something divine, and how are the majority of us, who are not poets, to honor them? They are, as everyone knows, “the overseeing gods and causes of (literary) speech” (Hermias, On Phaedrus, p. 213), and more generally, “causes of harmony and love” (ibid., p. 48). Ιn Platonic terminology, they are the overseers (éphoroi) of “poetic madness” (ibid., p. 4). Their name is in fact often synonymous with poetry, as in this passage from Galen, concerning something said by the poet Pindar:

“O Pindar, we entrust song and mythology to you, since we know that the poetic Muse requires wonder no less than its own proper adornments – for I believe that you wanted to awe, enchant and beguile your audience, not to teach them. But we, who are concerned with truth rather than mythology…”

—Galen, On the use of body parts, vol. 3, p. 170 (ed. Helmreich)

The poets often say that the Muses dwell on Mount Olympus, but they are also associated with other mountains, and especially mountain springs. “According to Varro, the Muses are the same as the Nymphs, because they are also said to dwell (or ‘consist’) in the water that flows from springs, as those who consecrated a spring to the Camenae¹ believed. For it is customary to worship them not with wine, but with water and milk” (Servius auctus, On Eclogues 7.21). Not everyone will agree with this (Scholia on Theocritus 7.92 are ambivalent on whether the Muses can be called Nymphs), but the advice on libations holds for Athens, at the very least (Scholia on Sophocles’ Oedipus Coloneus 100).

In animal sacrifice, “they say that a sow is sacrificed to them” (On Aeneid 1.8), while the bloodless fumigation assigned in the Orphic Hymns is frankincense (and the same for Mnemosyne). As for garlands, it was roses that were assigned to the Muses, according to a fragment of Sappho quoted by Plutarch (Table Talk 646e). And of course, they are offered literary works:

“Eurydice of Hierapolis dedicated this (poem),
To the Muses, because she has seized her intellectual desire in her soul.
For having become the mother of young children,
She accomplished to learn the letters, the memorials of words.”

—(Pseudo-)Plutarch, On the Education of Children 14b

In mythological terms, the Muses have received many different numbers, names, and genealogies, but most commonly, they are said to be the nine daughters of Zeus himself and Mnemosyne (gr. Mnēmosýnē), ‘Memory’ (lat. Monēta). Their usual names were first given by Hesiod, and later, each was assigned an art: “It is said that, of the Muses, Clio (gr. Kleiṓ) invented² history, Thalia (Tháleia) agriculture and work with plants, Euterpe (Eutérpē) mathematics, Terpsichore (Terpsikhórē) education, Erato (Eratṓ) dance, Polymnia (Polymnía) the lyre, Melpomene (Melpoménē) song, Ourania (Ouranía) astronomy,³ and Calliope (Kalliópē) poetry.” Once again, this list is not canonical, but only one opinion.

As (gods willing) I continue to work on this page, it will come to cover much more and much contradictory information, but what has been said so far is perfectly sufficient for devotional practice. It is, in fact, more than sufficient, because the offerings are all very ordinary – frankincense is offered to the gods in general, so most any incense offered to other gods should be right for them too; wine offerings may be discouraged but even that is hardly an unbreakable rule (especially if they are worshipped together with other, celestial gods); and we can be sure that not only roses but also other flowers were used to wreathe their statues and altars.

One does not need any names for them, nor is a hymn or formal prayer required, but simply any material, verbal or mental token of reverence. That said, there are surviving hymns from antiquity, such as that of Proclus and the Orphic Hymns to the Muses and to Mnemosyne, and there are no other deities to whom it is more fit to sing hymns.

1: The Latin name of the Muses (although they are more commonly called Musae even in Latin).
2: It is perhaps better to say ‘discovered’, in the sense of ‘discovering’ or ‘revealing’ something divine to humanity.
3: Including astrology.

To be expanded

Status: first draft completed (July 2022).