Clio: The Greek Muse of History
Clio was the muse of history in Greek mythology. Read on to learn why she was important, and why she wasn’t the most famous of her sisters!
The Musai, or Muses as they are known in English, were a group of nine nymphs in Greek mythology. Usually considered to be the daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne, the sisters gave inspiration to artists.
They were particularly revered by poets and musicians, who believed that each of the nine Muses inspired a different genre of their art.
Many of these writers hailed Clio as the muse of history. They believed that she inspired poems, plays, songs, and other works that were rooted in the past.
Clio recounted famous events and people of the Greek past. While many of the stories she inspired are thought of as myths today, others had more basis in historical fact.
Because so many of the well-known Greek books, poems, and plays were said to have been based in history, it would seem likely that Clio would be the most frequently invoked goddess in them. The muse of history, however, was often less prominent than other goddesses even when Greek writers talked about the past.
The Role of Clio
In Greek mythology, Clio was one of the nine Muses. These nymph sisters were thought to be sources of inspiration for artists and other creative thinkers.
Early in their history, the Muses were all thought to work together to provide the same type of inspiration. They generally gave ideas and insight to writers and poets but none had any special purpose or importance above the others.
Gradually, the idea emerged that each of the Muses had a specific domain within the arts. As Greek culture flourished, the Muses became more individualized.
While Clio was initially recognized as a muse of poetry, this became more exact over time. By the Classical era, she was thought of as the muse of history.
The two domains overlapped in the Greek world. While later historical texts disassembled the academic studies modern readers would be familiar with, many Greeks still learned what they knew of history from poet-musicians.
For this reason, Clio was also associated with lyre playing. Like her sisters, the muse of history inspired words that were set to music.
In later art, each of the Muses were given attributes that made her stand out from her sisters. As the muse of historical poems, Clio was often pictured with a scroll, tablets, or, much later, a stack of books.
In one Roman mosaic, for example, her scroll identifies Clio as one of the two Muses standing beside the famous poet Virgil. Because his works were considered historical, she would have been one of his patrons.
While some of the Muses eventually developed their own mythology that was unique from their sisters’, Clio was not one of the most widely-discussed Muses. There were very few legends that discussed her outside of general invocations of the Muses.
There were, however, a few stories that claimed Clio was the mother of some notable men in Greek mythology.
One writer in the 5th century BC claimed that the muse of history and Apollo were the parents of Hymenaeus, the god of marriage ceremonies. Others, however, said that another of the sisters was his mother.
A few sources also said that she may have been the mother of the mythical poet Linus. Songs of mourning, or ailines, were said to be named after him.
One of the most famous possible sons for Clio was Hyacinthus.
According to one version of his myth, Aphrodite made Clio fall in love with a human prince because she was jealous of the muse’s attraction toward Adonis. Clio’s son Hyancinthus became a prince of Sparta.
He was a beautiful young man and was loved by many of the gods. He favored Apollo, however, and they spent much of their time together hunting in the mountains around Sparta.
During a friendly competition, however, a discus that Apollo threw was blown off course. It struck Hyacinthus and killed him, so Apollo made beautiful flowers grow where his blood had been spilled in his memory.
Interestingly, there seems to be some evidence that the legends of Clio’s possible children had a common root. At least one older source names Apollo’s lover as Hymenaeus instead of Hyacinthus, making it seem possible that there was once a single legend in which Clio was the mother of a well-known character in Greek mythology.
My Modern Interpretation
Like the other Muses, Clio was originally given a general and broad domain. Her identification as the muse of history did not come about until the Classical era, long after she was first mentioned by writers.
Hesiod named Clio and her sisters, for example, but did not give them any specific roles. All were thought to give inspiration to poets and musicians but did not favor writers of any particular genre.
The idea that each of the Muses inspired something slightly different may have been at least partially recognized from the beginning, however.
While Hesiod and other early writers did not give each muse an individual domain within the arts, their names indicate that they may have been thought of as having a specific function from an early time.
Erato’s name, for example, is related to the Greek word for love. While Hesiod did not give her this function, she was almost certainly associated with love poems long before the people of the Classical Era specified that role for her.
Clio’s name comes from the Greek verb kleo, “to make famous” or “to celebrate.”
The use of this name may have once been more broadly applied than it was at later times. It could have been thought that Clio’s poems could celebrate or make famous any person, place, or event mentioned within them.
It may also be the reason that she was associated with Hymenaeus in some myths. While his role as the god of marriage ceremonies has little to do with history, it does involve celebration.
An alternative translation of kleo, however, is “to recount.” This is probably what led to Clio being associated with history.
Rather than celebrating contemporary events or making the poet and his words famous, Clio came to be thought of as the goddess who helped writers recount events and people of the past.
Many of Greece’s most well-known writers therefore had reason to invoke Clio in their works. Although their stories are thought of as myths today, the people of the past believed that they were accurate retellings of historical events.
Even so, the Greeks acknowledged that history was not always purely factual. While Clio’s name lent some legitimacy to stories of the past, she did not guarantee that the writers’ works were entirely unbiased or accurate.
The muse of history, however, was not the goddess most often associated with works of poetry set in the past.
One reason that Clio is not as well-known as some other Muses is that many of the works the Greeks believed to be historical fell under the purview of one of her sisters, as well.
Calliope was the muse of epic poems. Thus, while works such as the Iliad and the Argonautica were considered to be based in history, Calliope was more often invoked by their writers because of the scope of the works.
Similarly, Melpomene and Thalia were the goddesses of tragedy and comedy, respectively. When plays were based on events of the past, one of them would more often be credited with inspiring it than the muse of history.
Clio’s fame also suffered from the fact that her domain overlapped with that of her mother, Mnemosyne.
As the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne granted similar abilities to recount the events of the past. Because she was a Titaness, she was more prominent and powerful so she was invoked often.
Mnemosyne’s name also gave more legitimacy to historical stories. While history in general could be seen from different perspectives or have different interpretations, the Titan goddess of memory was thought to inspire unerring recollection of events.
While Clio was important to many ancient writers, therefore, she is not as well-known or prominent as her mother or some of her sisters.
Clio was one of the nine Musai, or Muses, in Greek mythology. She was the muse of history.
Clio had little mythology of her own. She was occasionally mentioned as the mother of Linus, Hyacinthus, or Hymenaeus, but other goddesses were sometimes given as the mothers of these characters instead.
Her association with history is evident in her name, which comes from the Greek verb make “to celebrate,” “to make famous,” or “to recall.” While it may have been taken more generally in earlier times, by the Classical Era it was taken to mean that she inspired works that celebrated great men and events of the past.
While many famous books, poems, and plays from ancient Greece were set in the past, Clio was not always the first muse invoked by their writers. Writers of epics and plays had specific Muses for those fields and their mother, Mnemosyne, was often invoked as the goddess of memory and perfect recall.
Thus, while many works of Greek literature could be seen to fall under Clio’s domain, she was not the most prominent muse. The muse of history was often overshadowed by more specific or powerful goddesses.