The Muses, daughters of Zeus and the goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne, were charged with the responsibility of inspiring poets and musicians and promoting the arts and sciences.
No banquet on Mount Olympus was complete without them. Seated near the throne of their father, the nine sisters entertained the guests, singing not only of the greatness of Zeus, but about the marvelous feats of the Greek heroes and the creation of the heavens and the earth with all its wondrous creatures.
Their influence was profound. By their praising valiant behavior, thereby etching the names in history, the Muses encouraged further heroism.
Although they usually sang only for the immortals, they occasionally performed at events honoring heroic mortals, such as the funeral of the Achilles, the fallen hero of the Trojan War.
They were described as "having one mind, their hearts set upon song and their spirit free from care".
The Muses often acted in concert, all were friends and followers of the god Apollo. On many occasions their wise counsel, as well as their soothing diversions, kept him from making poor decisions.
Their gift, according to Hesiod, was that "though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, when . . . the Muses sing, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles." A precious gift indeed.
This is not to say, however, that all was goodness and light around them. Like many of the other deities they were particularly sensitive about being acknowledged for their superiority.
When Pierus claimed his nine daughters were better singers the Muses were mightily offended and turned the upstarts into magpies, ducks, finches, and other birds.
When the minstral Thamyris challenged them to a contest of song, he paid dearly for the affront. He, of course, lost the contest but they also blinded him and took his memory away, rendering him unable to remember the words to his songs.
However, the Muses were also generous with their skills and willing to teach others. They taught the nymph Echo to play music, instructed the Egyptian Sphinx her riddle, and trained the great poet Musaeus.
Kalliope, the eldest, often attended the birth of royal nobles and gave (or withheld if she wished) the gift of the Muses as the immortals deemed fit. Mortals who were blessed by the Muses, could use the beauty of song or the spirit of dance to heal the sick and to comfort the heartbroken.
Each of the goddess had her own area in which she excelled.
Calliope, philosophy, epic poetry, and rhetoric
Clio, history and introduction of the alphabet into Greece
Euterpe, lyric poetry and music, especially the flute
Thalia, comedy and pastoral poetry
Melpomene, tragedy (theater) and chanting
Terpsichore, dance and choral song
Erato, love poems and mimicry
Polyhymnia, sacred music and eloquence in verse
Ourania, astronomy, astrology, and prophecy
Although none of the Muses has an extensive mythology of her own, many of them featured in the stories of the major deities. Calliope, for example, was called on by Zeus to arbitrate the dispute between Aphrodite, the goddess of romance and beauty, and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, when both fell in love with the handsome Adonis. Her wise decision, to allow him to spend part of the year with each of them, seemed to satisfy all of them.
When Athena rescued Pegasus, the flying horse, shortly after his birth, the goddess entrusted the Muses with his care. The young colt, excited to meet the lovely Muses, kicked the side of the Mountain, causing springs to gush out of the side of the mountain. Springs and wells both became sacred symbols of the Muses, representing the fountains of inspiration that they provided.
Urania took the major responsibility for caring for Pegasus, and prophesied his future heroism as well as his eventual place amongst the stars in the heavens.
The Muses remain among us today as the patrons of the fine arts and the inspiration for creative thought, Mnemosyne's daughters of wit and charm.