Friday, September 28, 2012


Tomasz Mojsik, Between Tradition and Innovation: Genealogy, Names and the Number of the Muses. Akme. Studia historica, 9. Warszawa: Instytut Historyczny, Uniwersytet Warszawski, 2011. Pp. 134. ISBN 9788390459692. Contributors: Translated by Marcin Fijak.

Reviewed by Penelope Murray (

Version at BMCR home site

This monograph is part of a larger project on the Muses in antiquity and deals specifically with questions relating to their genealogy, names and number in the Archaic and Classical periods. Mojsik's central thesis is that the image of the Muses at this time was far more fluid than standard accounts would have us believe. We all know that there were nine Muses, Clio, Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania and Calliope, born from the union of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Variations from this canonical Hesiodic version, of course, existed, details of which can be found in M. Mayer's classic article in the Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft 16 (1933), pp. 687-91. But, as Mojsik points out, the obligatory reference to Mayer consigns alternative versions to a footnote and handily dispenses with the need to investigate the source material from a critical perspective for oneself. What is needed, he contends, is a shift from philological and historical approaches to an anthropological viewpoint so that we set aside what we think we know about the Muses from the later tradition and pay proper attention to the cultural conditions which pertained in the oral society of early Greece: we cannot evaluate their image according to the norms of subsequent historical eras. With this in mind, Mojsik sets out to re-examine the evidence, taking into account not only the usual major authors —Homer, Hesiod and Pindar —but also the testimony of lesser, often later, sources in order to understand the image of the Muse as a product of the Greek mentality of the Archaic age.

Key to his study is the undoubtedly correct assumption that the plurality and diversity which characterises Greek myth at this period applies as much to the Muses as to any other mythological figure. It follows, then, that we should resist the temptation to think in terms of a standard account from which this or that poet might deviate and accept that conceptions of the Muses vary, depending on context and place of performance, as poets adapt to the needs of different audiences, or seek to compete with rivals. The inherent fluidity of early Greek myth and the agonistic context in which so much poetry was performed suggests a state of 'permanent inventiveness' (p. 42) in which all versions have equal validity: from the point of view of the contemporary audience, one genealogy, for example, will be as authentic as any other. The fact that Hesiod's account of the Muses' parentage became the dominant one should not blind us to the existence of competing genealogies, the best known of which is that from Ouranos and Ge, which featured in the works of Alcman and Mimnermus, both of whom, it seems, also refer to Zeus and Mnemosyne. According to Pausanias (9.29.4) Mimnermus distinguished between two generations of Muses, the older the daughters of Ouranos, the younger the children of Zeus. But such rationalisation, Mojsik argues, is typical of a later period when the apparent contradictions of early Greek mythology were systematised, and quite probably results from a misreading of Mimnermus' work. Given the narrative pluralism that characterised early Greek poetry there is every reason to believe that the diverse genealogies existed in parallel (together with other lesser known versions which Mojsik discusses) and that poets used one or another in accordance with circumstances and context of performance. The problem, of course, is that in most cases we have no knowledge about the factors involved in any given choice.

As far as names are concerned, those which Hesiod uses and may well have invented (though this cannot be proved), reflect the functions of the Muses as a chorus who collectively embody the pleasures of music and song. Like other groups of female deities, their features and attributes are interchangeable, as are their names, which do not define them as individuals. Indeed some are not exclusive to Muses, and the names Thalia, Clio, Ourania and Erato, are shared by Nereids, Charites, nymphs or maenads. The iconographical evidence also gives apparently one-off names unknown in literary texts, for example, Stesichore, in place of Hesiod's Terpsichore, on the François vase. Such flexibility suggests, as Mojsik puts it, that 'the name of a figure, especially a secondary and female one, and additionally a member of a group, was not ascribed to that figure permanently' (p. 61). It is no surprise, therefore, to find that invoking an individual, named Muse is far less common in Archaic and Classical poetry than a general appeal to the Muse or Muses. In extant texts we find references to Calliope, Ourania, Clio and Terpsichore (the latter only twice before the end of the fifth century, in Pindar and Aristophanes), but no mention of any other of the Hesiodic Muses. Even in the Rhesus, as Mojsik observes, where a Muse, the chief protagonist's mother, is one of the crucial figures in the play, she has no name, but appears as one of the sisterhood of female deities (Rhes. 890-92). The image of the Muses here remains that of an archetypal female chorus without distinctive individual functions or names. Despite the dominance of Hesiod's nomenclature from the Hellenistic period onwards, the Muses' names are by no means fixed, as is clear from the evidence that Mojsik discusses. Aratus fr. 87, for example, refers to Archē, Meletē, Thelxinoē and Aoidē, four daughters of Zeus and a nymph, not dissimilar to the three Muses recorded by Pausanias (9.29.2-3), Meletē, Mnēmē and Aoidē. As Alex Hardie has argued,1 such names reflect a concern with the practical components of song, illustrating the flexibility of conceptions of the Muse which change according to circumstance.

As with names, so with numbers: the allegedly canonical nine is in fact quite rare in the literature and iconography of the Archaic and Classical periods, and the number of Muses remains fluid throughout antiquity, ranging from one to ten, but with only one reference to five, and no certain mention of six. Three is well attested, particularly in relation to cult (at Sicyon and at Delphi, for example), though there is no secure evidence for how far back these go. But attempts to ascertain an 'original' number of Muses are not only doomed to fail through lack of evidence; more importantly, they are misguided in their desire to impose order on the regionally and historically varied image of these deities which emerges from individual sources. The urge to systematise is, of course, not just a modern phenomenon, and part of the problem in studying the Muses is that so much of the material comes from late sources which no longer understand the plurality and diversity of early Greek mythology, let alone the mind-set of the oral culture in which the Muses have their origin.

The picture of the Muses that emerges from this study is richly varied, and one that shows how difficult it is to arrive at any general conclusions. A synoptic view inevitably oversimplifies, and an author by author or vase by vase approach may be enlightening in relation to individual cases, but can only be part of an investigation into the meaning and significance of the Muses in Greek culture as whole. Mojsik points out that the flexibility of the Muses' image is typical of early Greek society in which there is no such thing as a standard myth. And the fluidity concerning their genealogy, names and number is one that they share with other groups of female deities, such as the Charites or Hyades. What seems unique to the Muses, however, is their metapoetic function, which enables the poet to envisage the goddesses more or less as he likes in any given performance. How this metapoetic function fits together with what one might call the religious reality of the figure is a question which I hope will be considered in Mojsik's forthcoming work on the Muses in Greek culture. In the meantime we can be grateful for this monograph on their genealogy, names and number, which should become standard reading for anyone interested in the Muses.


1.  . A. Hardie, 'The Aloades on Helicon: Music, Territory and Cosmic Order', Antike und Abendland 52 (2006) 42-71.

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