In the archaic Greece, the Muses were simply regarded as goddesses associated with song and dance. Originally, there were only three Muses. However, during the Classical Age, the number of Muses increased to nine. During that period, each of the Muses was also assigned to a literary sphere: Calliope the Muse of epic poetry, Clio the Muse of history, Euterpe the Muse of song and poetry, Erato the Muse of love poetry, Melpomene the Muse of tragedy, Polyhymnia the Muse of hymns and sacred poetry, Thalia the Muse of comedy, Urania the Muse of astronomy, and Terpsichore the Muse of choral music and dance.
According to mythology, the Muses are descended from Zeus by Mnemosyne, a Titaness and the goddess of memory. The legend says, Zeus and the Titaness coupled for nine days in a row, and each of these nine days resulted in the conception of one of the Muses. The Muses used to dwell in the land of Pieria in the foothills of Mount Olympus, which was watered by springs from the mountain and they would go up from Pieria to the slopes of Olympus to entertain their father Zeus, ruler of the universe, by their songs.
In later mythological stories, the Muses were compared to the Sirens. Both were female figures known for their rendition of beautiful songs. However, there was a basic difference between the two. While the Muses were associated with Olympus and sang to enrich men’s souls, the Sirens were infernal and sang to trap men and destroy them. The Muses are often referred as unmarried, but they are repeatedly attributed as the mothers of famous sons, such as Orpheus, Rhesus, Eumolpus and others connected somehow either with songs and poetry or with Thrace and its neighbourhood or both.
In ancient Greece, music was considered as the mark of a civilized person and music also covered dance and poetry, in addition to the instrumental music and singing. These all together were considered to nourish the soul. It was believed by the Greeks that, the Muses were the source of all the sections of arts, including the skills of writing poems, interpreting the stars, and proficiency in singing. Gradually, as the Romans adopted elements of Greek mythology, they also embraced the story of the muses.
Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, was portrayed holding a tablet and stylus or a scroll. In older art forms, she was depicted as holding a lyre or wearing a gold crown. The name is originates from two Greek words ‘Kallos’ and ‘Ops’ and its literal meaning is, ‘having a beautiful voice’. Calliope was the mother of Orpheus. When her son was dismembered by the Bacchantes, she recovered his head and enshrined on the island of Lesbos.
Clio was named the Muse of history and was represented holding an open scroll or seated beside a chest of books. She was believed to be the source of inspiration to the poets, dramatists and authors, such as Homer, who lived in Ancient Greece.
Euterpe, defined as the Muse of song and poetry, was called as the ‘Giver of delight’ by ancient poets. Her attribute was the double-flute and other wind instrument as well. She is often depicted holding a flute in artistic renditions of her.
Erato, the Muse of lyric and love poetry, is most often shown wearing a wreath that is made from myrtle and roses and is also considered to be both passionate and erotic. The meaning of ‘Erato’ is either ‘beloved’ or ‘desired’ and this is evidenced in how she is usually depicted. Like the other Muses, Erato is depicted as being a young and beautiful maiden whose very appearance inspires the love poetry.
Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, was portrayed holding a tragic mask or a sword, and sometimes wearing a wreath of ivy. According to some later traditions, the bird-woman Sirens were born from the union of Melpomene with the river god Achelous. The sirens were the infernal counterparts to the heavenly muses and they also sang their haunting songs in the underworld, just as the muses gathered on the mountain tops to sing for the divine realm. However, the muses sang to tell stories of gods, men, and their deeds, while the sirens used their songs to lure men to destruction.
Polyhymnia was named Muse of religious hymns and portrayed as a woman in a pensive or meditative mood. She was also portrait wearing long cloaks or veils, and holding a finger to her mouth.
Thalia, the Muse of comedy, was portrayed with the attributes of comic mask, shepherd's staff and wreath of ivy. Her name means, ‘flourishing’, as the praises in her songs flourish through time.
Urania, the Muse of astronomy, was obsessed with the sky and the study of the stars. She is depicted as a beautiful woman and generally draped in a flowing cloak. The globe and the compass are used to identify her in ancient art.
Terpsichore was the Muse of dance and choral music and her name means ‘delighting in dance’. Usually, she is depicted sitting down, holding a lyre, accompanying the ballerinas' choirs with her music.
In ancient Greece, the Muses were regarded as the goddesses of the arts, which often lead to inspiration and today, the term ‘Muse’ has almost become synonymous with inspiration.