The Muses’ Gifts

The words “music” and “museum” are connected by their common origin: the nine muses. In the ancient world the muses were the goddesses thought to be the source of artistic knowledge and inspiration, as well as history and astronomy. Nine sisters, each representing and inspiring an art or science, including different forms of poetry, drama, singing, and dance:


The Muses Sarcophagus (c.2nd century AD), Louvre Museum, Paris


Some of the muses were thought to be the source of rhythm and melody in poetry, singing and instrument playing. Hence the word “music,” the art of the muses.


Antonio Canova, Terpsichore (1816), Cleveland Museum of Art


The musical muses are usually represented holding an instrument. It can be a string instrument, such as the lyre above or a kithara, which is the origin of the word “guitar,” or a wind instrument, such as a single or double flute:


Johann Heinrich Tischbein, The Muse Euterpe (1782), Neue Galerie, Kassel


Since the muses are goddesses, they were worshipped at a temple or shrine, which came to be known in Greek as a “mouseion,” a “seat of the muses,” which became “museum” in Latin.

So museums are not just places where objects are kept. They have always been places of inspiration, where knowledge and creation go hand in hand.


Claude Lorrain, Apollo and the Muses (1680), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


In addition to being sources of inspiration themselves, the muses had a special friend, which can be seen in the top right-hand corner of the painting above — the winged horse Pegasus. Among its many attributes, Pegasus was said to have created a water spring on Mount Helicon by striking the ground with his hoof. This spring, which can be seen flowing in the paintings above and below, became the source of inspiration for all writers.


Joos de Momper the Younger, Minerva’s Visit to the Muses (17th century), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp


So, if you find yourself looking at a female form holding a tool of art or science in painting or sculpture, you may be looking at a muse. If there are nine of them, you can be sure they are the nine sisters, whose gifts are many.

One response

  1. Pingback: The Muses in Paris « the westologist

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