Objective Art



The Nine Muses

Above is a drawing of the Roman Sarcophagus of the Muses (for high resolution photo, see below).  This bas relief sculpture is of marble and dates from about 150 A.D.  It depicts the nine Muses with their symbolic attributes. Measuring about 3 feet by 7 feet, the sarcophagus was found near the Via Ostiense in Rome. It was originally part of the Collection of Cardinal Albani, at the Musei Capitolini in Rome. However, it was seized by Napoleon, exchanged in 1815, and is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.  The muses depicted are (from left to right):  Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, and Melpomene.

The Nine Muses are the Greek goddesses of inspiration, learning, the arts, and culture. According to Hesiod's Theogony, Zeus lay with Mnemosyne ("Memory") for nine days, and she gave birth to the Muses.  These goddesses were said to reside on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece; however, some sources claim that Mount Helicon in  Boeotia deserves that honor. Their leader is Apollo, the god of music and harmony.  Their frequent companions are the Three Graces and Desire.

The ancient Greeks believed that all learning was under the patronage of the Muses, and that they were the inspirers of poetry, music, and art.  It was common for schools to have a shrine dedicated to the Muses, and any place dedicated to them was known as a "mouseion," -- the source of our word "museum."  Plato and the Pythagoreans explicitly considered philosophy to be a sub-set of "mousikę."  The historian Herodotus, whose primary medium of delivery was public recitation, named each one of the nine books of his Histories after a different Muse.

When Plato founded his Academy at Athens, he dedicated a shrine to these goddesses of learning.  Subsequently, Aristotle founded a school in Athens called the Peripatos.  His school also possessed a shrine which contained statues of the Muses. The famous Museum at Alexandria, founded by King Ptolemy I, was a temple of learning dedicated to the Muses. Before poets and storytellers would recite their work, it was customary for them to first invoke the inspiration and protection of the Muses.


The following table provides summary information regarding each Muse:

Name Meaning of Name in Greek Artistic Domain Most Common Symbol
Calliope The Fair Voiced Epic Poetry Writing Tablet
Clio The Proclaimer History Scroll
Erato The Lovely Love Poetry Lyre
Euterpe The Giver of Pleasure Music and Lyric Poetry Flute
Melpomene The Songstress Tragedy Tragic Mask
Polyhymnia She of Many Hymns Sacred Poetry and Geometry Pensive Look
Terpsichore The Whirler Dancing Dancing with Lyre
Thalia The Flourishing Comedy Comic Mask
Urania The Heavenly Astrology and Astronomy Celestial Globe


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