Category Archives: Mythology

The Nine Muses

Have you ever wondered where does the word ‘museum’ come from? No? Ok… I’ll tell you anyway: It’s connected with the Muses! The Nine Muses were deities who ruled over the arts and sciences and gave humans the necessary inspiration for creation.

According to Hesiod, Zeus slept with the young and beautiful Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne (the Greek word for ‘memory’) held a special importance in ancient times, when there were still no written records and manuscripts, so poets had to carry their work in their memory.

The offspring of the love affair between Zeus and Mnemosyne? The Nine Muses. God Apollo took them under his protection and when the Muses grew up they showed their tendency to the Arts. An epithet of Apollo was ‘Mousagetes’, meaning ‘leading the Muses’ and those young deities soon decided to dedicate their lives to the Arts:

1. Calliope : Epic poetry
2. Clio : History
3. Euterpe : Lyric poetry and flutes
4. Erato : Love poems
5. Melpomene : Tragedy
6. Polyhymnia : Sacred hymns
7. Terpsichore : Dance
8. Thalia : Comedy and pastoral poetry
9. Urania : Astronomy

Ancient writers, as early as Homer, appeal to the Muses at the beginning of their work. Homer appeals to the Muses both in the Iliad and Odyssey and until today, the Muses are symbols of inspiration and artistic creation. In the Ancient Graeco-Roman world, authors, statesmen, artists, philosophers they all believed they were successful because one or more of the nine Muses were guiding them.

Every learning institute with respect for itself had an altar to honor the Muses. The Ptolemies in Egypt dedicated the famous Library of Alexandria to the Muses. The word “museum” literally means a shrine dedicated to the Muses and you must have guessed by now the origins of the word “music”, too.
In modern times we tend to call someone who inspires an artist “a muse”!

9 Muses
The famous ‘Dance of Apollo and the Muses’ by the Italian architect and painter, Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi.

The Flight of Icarus

Stories told in Greek Mythology are just that: stories. They’re not parables. You can read it or hear it and then you draw your own conclusions. Maybe even change your mind later.  You may conclude that the moral of a myth applies well to your own concerns but this may not be the case for someone else. The reader / listener is never presented with a ‘moral lesson’ at the end. The story ends. Period. You understand and see the myth through your own eyes.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is still super-famous because they were the first humans that managed to fly! Not by using magic or through the grace of God. They did it through their human ingenuity.

Pre-WW2 stamp issued to fund the Greek Air Force

Icarus is considered to be even more famous than his father today, even though it was Icarus that perished. This seems a bit odd… Well, people since the ancient times, interpreted Icarus’ death as caused entirely by his own hubris.

For most people the moral of this story can be summarized in just 3 words:

Obey the rules.

That’s it. Simple. If you don’t, this will lead to your demise.

The vast majority of people from Plutarch to the latest YouTube creator believe that the story of Icarus teaches us one or all of the following:

  • Listen to your parents or you will fail
  • Respect the Gods or you will be punished
  • Restrain yourself or you will perish
  • Hear the warnings or you will die

At first glance, this meaning seems to make sense.

Some others believe that’s just the surface of the myth.

Delving deeper, I see Icarus as a symbol for people of action… Adventurers dare,  they impulsively rush into the unknown. They go further and higher where everybody else thinks is foolish to do so. That is the spirit of great explorers.

Imagine if James Cook said… “Nah… I’d rather not do this. Sailing into the unknown is not such a good idea.” It wasn’t. But he sailed anyway! Roald Amundsen could have said “On second thoughts the Antarctic is way too cold. Humans can’t live there anyway, so screw this… I’m stayin’ home” Well guess what: he didn’t.

It’s this characteristic that only a tiny percentage of the population possesses. Not to heed warnings of danger and to follow temptation, even if you know that you may perish. To chase dreams and achieve the impossible. Yes, we can learn by the mistake of Icarus and at the same time be inspired by his daring legendary flight.

The owl of Athena

When in Athens, you know you’re in the favorite city of goddess Athena.
Athena is accompanied by an owl, which over time became her symbol and one of the symbols of Athens too.
The exact reason why the owl became a bird sacred to Athena is lost in time. No story survives that gives us a clear explanation but we can piece together bits from ancient sources to understand why Athena chose the owl as her favorite animal.owl 4
The owl was meant to reveal unseen truths to the goddess (having also the ability to light up Athena’s blind side) and it enabled her to see and speak the whole truth. This was fervently believed by the Romans too -who called her Minerva. Let’s not forget that Athena frequently appeared to mortals by night – giving them advice and guidance- which made the owl a fitting companion to have by her side. The Ancient Greeks saw the bird’s ability to see in the dark, representing watchfulness, wisdom and even omniscient!
Going further into Greek Mythology, Athena was also known as a storm and lightning goddess. In Homer’s poems she’s described as “the bright-eyed goddess” linking once again the owl to Athena, due to the owls’ eyes being so distinctively large and shiny that it instantly reflected Athena with her stare of knowledge that seemed to bore into you.

Athena_owl
There were large numbers of owls scattered all over Athens for centuries. There were so many, that the rest of the Greeks had a saying to tease the Athenians. When something was in abundance the saying was: ‘bring owls to Athens’ much like the English ‘carry coal to Newcastle’.
Surprisingly enough, there’s still a population of owls in the 21st century huge metropolis that modern Athens is nowadays!
The owl in flight was also a symbol of good luck: the sudden appearance of such an owl before the naval battle of Salamis, instantly boosted the morale of the Greek fleet.