The Muses were the nine nymphs who were believed to inspire the artists of the Greek world to greatness.
They were primarily concerned with poetry and theatre, although over time their roles were expanded to include mathematics, astronomy, history, and dance.
As the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope was arguably the most prominent. Her name was invoked by writers from Homer to Ovid to inspire both beauty and accuracy in their words.
The Muses existed not only to inspire greatness, but to aid in memory as well. By inspiring singing and being linked to the goddess of memory, Calliope could help bards remember thousands of lines of poetry long before the written word became common.
Calliope was one of the nine Muses, Mousai in Greek. These goddesses were sisters and served as the sources of inspiration and knowledge for artists, historians, philosophers, and writers.
In early Greek mythology, the Muses worked as a group. Later, however, they became specialists and each was thought to influence a specific type of art, thought, or literature.
Calliope was the muse of epic poetry who gave inspiration to writers and singers. As such, she is one of the most frequently invoked goddesses in classical literature.
It was customary for the writers of epic poetry to invoke Calliope at the beginning of a work. The poet would ask the Muse to inspire his words to be both beautiful and accurate.
Occasionally, the writer would ask for more than inspiration from Calliope. He would invite the Muse to speak through him, essentially making him a conduit for the goddess to speak directly to his readers.
The most famous story of Calliope regards her son, Orpheus.
Calliope married a human king, Oeagrus of Thrace, and had two sons. The king died with the children were quite young, however.
Their son Linus was said to have been the first writer to rework Phoenician letters into Greek. Orpheus, however, was Calliope’s 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 tame savage beasts, cause the rocks and trees to dance, and drown out the call of the Sirens.
The most famous story of the musician was his descent into the Underworld. When his beloved wife Eurydice was killed on their wedding day, Orpheus traveled to the land of the dead in an attempt to bring her back.
He was nearly successful, thanks to the power of his music. The typically stoic Hades was so moved by the playing that he agreed to release Eurydice as long as Orpheus could lead her out of the Underworld without looking back at her.
As Orpheus stepped through into the world of the living, he turned around to celebrate his victory. Eurydice, however, had not yet stepped through the gate, so she was lost to him forever.
The Muses were often said to be the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Calliope and her sisters were often called upon to ensure that poems and songs were not only written with inspiration, but also retold with accuracy.
The Greek myths had been told for hundreds of years before they were written down. Before the 8th century BC, all the mythology of the area was passed on through oral tradition.
Homer and Hesiod are credited to have been the first poets to write their epics down, but they were products of this tradition. Their stories were recalled from memory and in their own time would have been performed as songs rather than recited as prose.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, the stories of the gods had been sung and set to music. Bards trained for years to memorize the poetic songs that both educated and entertained the people of the pre-literate Greek world.
Playing music along with the stories helped to make them more memorable. Bards could more accurately recall words when they were set to a tune and the performance made the stories more memorable to the audience.
Thus, Calliope did not just inspire written words. She inspired the songs that the stories were set to as well.
She was the goddess of epic poetry and singers because the writers and performers of epic poems would have been singers as well as poets.
In the oral tradition, therefore, it was important for the Muses to be linked to Mnemosyne. They could inspire accuracy as well as artistry because their mother was the personification of memory.
The invocation to the Muse was not important just for the original writer to receive inspiration. Its repetition ensured that the words and music that accompanied them would be remembered.
Long after written poetry had taken the place of memorized performances, 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 based on mythology.
The Muse of epic poetry was particularly important because her role was associated with this mythology.
Calliope’s sisters inspired writers and performers of other types of literature. Many, like Erato’s love poems and Thalia’s comedies, concerned much less serious topics.
The epic poems inspired by Calliope, however, told the stories of the gods and the history of the people. Their recitation was often the most accessible form of religious education for the common people of Rome.
Because the epics directly concerned the gods, it was even more important to ensure that they were accurate and well-written. A mistake in their telling could mislead the listener and, even worse, insult the gods.
Thus, Calliope was one of the most prominent Muses not just because the epic poems were widely-read. Her role was to ensure that the stories of the gods and the history of the Greek people were told in the best way possible.
Calliope was the Muse of epic poetry and singing.
The original epics of the Greek people would have been set to music, both to entertain audiences and to help the poets and bards remember thousands of lines of poetry.
This memorization was particularly important for epic poems because of the seriousness of the subject matter. Errors in retelling the stories of the Olympians could not only misinform the audience but could also anger the gods.
It was common for poems to begin with an invocation to both Calliope and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, to avoid such errors. Long after the myths were written, such invocations were still a traditional feature of Greek and Roman poetry.