The Nine Muses

By , Classical scholars Charles F. Baker and Rosalie F. Baker have created this tri-monthly feature especially for readers of The Christian Science Monitor.

In very ancient times, each part of the world had its own stories about the mysteries of the universe, the complexities of the human race, and the wonders of nature. As very few people knew how to read and write, these myths were not written, but rather were memorized by members of one generation and then taught to the next generation.

Individuals who told and retold these myths were the poets, considered by all to be very special because of their role in preserving the history and ideas of their nation. In fact, they were considered so important by the ancient Greeks and Romans that it was believed these poets not only were inspired by the gods themselves, but were under the constant protection of the gods.

One of the earliest poets to record these ancient myths was Homer. From him we learn that the ancient Greeks considered Mt. Olympus in northeastern Greece the home of the gods. Homer also wrote that on the northern slope of this majestic mountain Calliope and her eight sisters were born to Zeus, the king of the gods, and to the goddess Memory.

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The ancients referred to the nine goddesses as the Muses, and revered them as the special protectors of poets. Calliope was considered the chief Muse. As the goddess of poetry, dance, music, the sciences, and learning in general, the sisters received from their father, Zeus, and their mother, Memory, all that was needed for the creation of the arts. They sang and played at the weddings and festivals of the gods, judged musical contests, and helped make mankind happy with their music.

Ancient artists and sculptors, recognizing the belief that each Muse fostered and protected a particular branch of the arts, incorporated into their depictions of these goddesses the special symbol of each. The symbols of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry and eloquence, are the scroll, the laurel crown, the tablet, and the stylus.

The Muses were renowned for their beautiful voices. The very name Calliope is a combination of two Greek words which mean ''beautiful voice.'' Unfortunately today her name is used for the instrument that plays the high-pitched music we associate with merry-go-rounds and circuses. In ancient times, recitations and dramatic performances were accompanied by singing or by some instrument. Therefore, as the Muses were the patronesses of these arts, the accompanying sound was called ''music.''

Although the ancients erected few temples to the Muses, poets and writers called upon them for divine inspiration, a custom that still survives. The temples built in honor of the Muses and dedicated to learning were known as ''museums.''

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