Calliope: The Muse of Poetry and Song
Calliope was one of nine sisters in Greek mythology. The Muses were goddesses of the arts who bestowed the gift of inspiration on artists, poets, dancers, and philosophers.
Among the nine sisters, Calliope was held in particularly high regard. As the deity of epic poems and songs, she was the patroness of writers like Homer, Ovid, and Hesiod.
The writers from whom modern readers learn about the beliefs of ancient Greece made sure that their Muse had a special place in the works she inspired.
There is more to Calliope’s story than just the invocations of the great poets of the ancient world, though. Calliope was given a distinct mythology that separated her from her sisters.
By inspiring epic poems that combined the stories of the gods and the past with beautifully crafted words, Calliope was credited with making sure the stories important to her were preserved forever.
This included one of the most tragic romances in ancient literature; the story of her own son.
Far more than just another nameless nymph, find out why Calliope was considered the greatest of the Muses!
Calliope was one of the nine Muses, Mousai in Greek. These sister goddesses were the sources of inspiration and knowledge for artists, historians, and writers.
The Muses were depicted as nine beautiful young women, each with an attribute that corresponded to a type of work they inspired.
The earliest Muses were said to be water nymphs who lived near the wells that gave inspiration. Eventually their mythology grew until they became an independent class of goddesses.
At this time, there were probably only three Muses; deities in Greek mythology often appeared in groups of three. Over time, though, the triple goddesses were tripled for a total of nine.
It is thought that the idea of nine Muses, as opposed to a variety of nymphs, began in the region of Boeotia. This was the homeland of Hesiod, one of the oldest writers whose works survive, so the Muses are well-documented from the earliest days of written mythology.
The Muses continued to be associated with water long after they stopped being thought of as nymphs. Mount Helicon, also in Boeotia, was said to be their home and the springs there flowed with the waters of inspiration.
There was no consensus among the Greeks as to the parentage of the Muses.
Early in Greek history, the Muses worked collectively. Later they were each assigned a different area of influence.
Calliope was particularly important to ancient poets. She was the Muse who inspired their work.
Calliope was the muse of epic poetry who gave inspiration to writers and singers.
The Greek myths existed long before they were written down. Before the 8th century BC, all the mythology of the area was passed on through oral tradition.
Even after poets like Hesiod and Homer began to record the legends, they were not read or recited for audiences. They were sung.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, singing had been the primary way of passing on the stories of the gods. Bards trained for years to memorize the songs that told the illiterate populace important stories while also entertaining them.
Playing music along with the stories helped to make them more memorable, both to those who shared them and to the listeners. When Hesiod and Homer wrote their works, they wrote in poetic verse so that the stories could be set to music.
The works of the great poets were added to the repertoires of the many travelling singers and court bards whose job it was to tell the stories of their religion and history.
Thus, Calliope did not just inspire written words. She inspired the songs that the stories were set to as well.
Her name, in fact, reflected the tradition of oral history. Calliope comes from the Greek words kallos and ops, meaning “beautiful voice.”
While Calliope was said to inspire the poets, she also appeared in their works. Often these were hymns of praise to the goddess of poetic inspiration, but sometimes the stories themselves were about Calliope and her family.
The most famous story of Calliope is the one regarding her legendary son, Orpheus.
While many of the Muses were virgin goddesses, Calliope was married. Her husband was King Oeagrus of Thrace.
The Thracian king was a follower of Dionysus who, according to Nonnus, joined that god’s war in India when their son was still an infant. He was described as a skilled harpist and expert at archery.
She was said to have had at least two sons with Oeagrus, although some sources claimed that the god Apollo was their father instead. Both the king of Thrace and the god of light were archers and musicians.
Her son Linus was said to have been the first to transfer Phoenician letters to Greek and to have been the first leader of lyric songs.
Orpheus, however, was her most famous child.
He was said to have been the greatest poet and musician to ever live. His music was so powerful that it could cause the rocks and trees to dance, hold vicious beasts in sway, and even charm Hades.
The legendary Orpheus travelled with the Argonauts and playing his harp so wonderfully that it drowned out the dangerous song of the Sirens. He was a devoted followed of Apollo and, as such, was given the gift of prophecy.
The most famous story of the musician, however, was his descent into the underworld. When his beloved wife Eurydice was killed on their wedding day, Orpheus travelled to the land of the dead in an attempt to bring her back.
He was nearly successful. His music was so powerful that Hades agreed to release Eurydice as long as Orpheus could lead her out of the underworld without looking back at her.
As Orpheus stepped through the gates to Hades’ realm and back into the world of the living, he turned around to celebrate his victory. Eurydice, however, had not yet stepped through the gate.
Because he looked at Eurydice before she had left the land of the dead, Orpheus lost his wife forever.
As the son of the goddess of epic poetry, Orpheus was said to be a prolific writer in addition to being a skilled musician. The hymns attributed to him often discuss the secrets he learned during his trip to the underworld.
The story of Calliope’s son, however, ended tragically.
After losing his wife, Orpheus turned his back on all the gods except Apollo. He had once been a companion of Dionysus, but the death of Eurydice had been the end of his enjoyment of the god’s hedonistic ways.
Angry that he had turned his back on Dionysus, a group of Maenads attacked Orpheus one morning.
They began by throwing sticks and rocks at him, but the poet was so beloved that the things they threw refused to hit him. Finally, the Maenads ripped the great musician to shreds with their bare hands.
According to legend, his head and lyre continued to make music as they floated downriver and into the sea. They eventually landed on the island of Lesbos, where the disembodied head of Orpheus continued to give Apollo’s prophecies for many years.
Roman poets claimed that the Muses gathered the pieces of their nephew’s body for burial. They placed his lyre in the stars as a constellation, a memorial Zeus readily agreed to in honor of the many hymns Orpheus had written in his honor.
Some writers imagined the pain Calliope felt over the death of her son. In one story, Calliope spoke to Thetis after the other goddess’s son was killed in the Trojan War:
From lamentation, Thetis, now forbear, and do not, in the frenzy of thy grief for thy lost son, provoke to wrath the Lord of Gods and men. … Immortal though I be, mine own son Orpheus died, whose magic song drew all the forest-trees to follow him, and every craggy rock and river-stream, and blasts of winds shrill-piping stormy-breathed, and birds that dart through air on rushing wings. Yet I endured mine heavy sorrow: Gods ought not with anguished grief to vex their souls. Therefore make end of sorrow-stricken wail for thy brave child; for to the sons of earth minstrels shall chant his glory and his might, by mine and by my sisters’ inspiration, unto the end of time.
-Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy 3. 631 ff (trans. Way)
Calliope offered Thetis a bit of hope that although her son had died he would not be forgotten. By inspiring great works in his honor, she and her sisters would ensure that the heroes of the age were remembered forever.
Calliope was widely revered as the goddess who inspired epic poems and songs. She was often considered, at least by the writers who prayed to her, the most powerful of the Muses.
But Calliope’s eight sisters each had their own spheres of influence and were important in their own ways.
The other Muses, as they were named by Hesiod, were:
- Clio – The Muse of history, she inherited the memory of past events from her mother, Mnemosyne.
- Erato – Her name meant “desired” or “lovely” and was related to that of Eros. She was the goddess of love poetry.
- Euterpe – She was, like Calliope, associated with music and poetry. Her speciality, though, was lyric poetry that told personal stories instead of epic tales of the past.
- Melpomene – One of the two Muses of theatre, she inspired the playwrights and actors of tragedy.
- Thalia – The counterpart of Melpomene, she inspired theatrical comedies.
- Urania – She gave inspiration to astronomers. In the later years of the Roman Empire she was said to inspire Christian poetry.
- Polyhymnia – Hymns, or poems of praise, were her speciality. She was also a mathematical muse who inspired work in Geometry.
- Terpsichore – She was the Muse of dance. She also gave inspiration to the chorus in Greek theatre.
The nine Muses were often pictured with emblems of their fields. Calliope carried a lyre in early representations, but as written poetry became more common her symbol became a scroll.
Ancient writers nearly always included the Muses in their works. For the great epic poems, Calliope was the one called upon.
Typically, Calliope would be invoked at the beginning of a work. The poet asked the Muse to inspire his words.
At times, the writer would ask for more than basic inspiration. He would invite the Muse to speak through him, essentially making him a conduit for direct communication from a goddess.
The inclusion of the invocation of Calliope not only served as a request for inspiration. It also established that the poet was working within a long tradition.
Before the stories were written down and more widely codified, singers would ask Calliope to speak through them as a guarantee of the accuracy and validity of their retelling. Although writers like Homer were working with established words, they included the invocation to tie their poems back to the long oral tradition that existed before them.
Long after the written word had become the standard, poets continued to invoke Calliope in this tradition. Virgil and Ovid, both writing during the early Roman Empire, continued to invoke the Greek Muses, particularly Calliope, when telling stories from Greek sources.
The invocation continued to be used by writers who wrote on Greek themes, even after belief in the mythology had faded.
Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost both used the classical invocation in tales that were inspired by ancient sources.
Chaucer’s Troilus and Creseyde, set during the Trojan War, included an invocation to the Muses to establish its validity as a Greek tale. Shakespeare also called upon the Muses in some of his plays and sonnets to link the histories he told of English kings to the great legends of the past.
The Muses were often associated with Apollo and Artemis, particularly as the former was the god of music.
Like Calliope, Apollo was identified by his lyre. While it was invented by Hermes, some ancient writers said that Calliope taught Apollo how to play it properly.
To be successful as a musician or storyteller, a Greek player had to have the favor of both the Muses and the god of music. No poet could hope to sing and play beautifully if both Calliope and Apollo did not give their blessings.
The link between Apollo and the Muses resulted in some of the most well-known stories about the nine goddesses.
When Apollo’s son Aristaeus was born, he was fostered by the nymphs and the wise centaur Chiron. When he was old enough for a proper education, however, the Muses took him in to teach him their arts.
One of the most frequently depicted scenes of the Muses was the music contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. Many historians believe the vase paintings that show the scene portray a work of theater rather than the actual event, with the nine Muses as the chorus and judges of the contest.
As companions of Apollo, the Muses were also associated with his holy site at Delphi.
They were said to dance at Delphi, often with Apollo accompanying them on his lyre. Their dancing was so joyful and beautiful that Artemis would put aside her bow and quiver of arrows to join in.
The god also joined them at their home on Mount Helicon. One account said that they always danced beside their sacred springs, but that they put more of their heart into their movement and singing when they saw that Apollo was coming to join them.
They danced to Apollo’s music at the feasts of the gods as well. They were often joined by the Charites, the Graces, as well as Artemis.
As goddesses of dance and glorification, the Charites were frequent companions of Calliope and her sisters. Hesiod claimed that the Muses kept a home near the snowy peak of Mount Olympus which they shared with the three Graces and Himeros, the goddess of desire.
As the Muse of poetry, Calliope inspired the words that the great writers of the ancient world used to tell the stories of her fellow gods and goddesses.
Through their mother, Mnemosyne, the Muses were granted perfect memories. Calliope could ensure not just the beauty of the poets’ words, but also their accuracy.
A poem inspired by Calliope, therefore, could be considered the absolute truth. By invoking the Muse a poet ensured that the stories he sang about the gods and events of the past were correct.
For many Greeks, this was one of the best ways to learn the details of their mythology. While temples dealt with rituals and ceremonies, the bards told stories of the lives, loves, and adventures of the gods.
Calliope, therefore, also inspired the poets to tell stories about her own life. In them, she stood apart from her sisters.
While many of the Muses were virginal goddesses, or at least never married, Calliope married an earthly king. She had sons and a domestic life away from her sisters and Mount Helicon.
She also inspired the stories told about her son Orpheus. The greatest musician in history was remembered, thanks to his mother’s divinely-inspired words, forever.
Calliope was, on the whole, a much more well-rounded and fleshed-out character than many other minor goddesses, including her own sisters. While the Greeks held the belief that she inspired the poets to write great epics, in truth it was the devotion of these poets that made Calliope, their patroness, a singular being among the nine Muses.