Mnemosyne in Greek Mythology — The Titan Goddess of Memory

Mnemosyne in Greek Mythology - The Titan Goddess of Memory

Who was Mnemosyne in Greek Mythology?

Mnemosyne, in Greek mythology, was the goddess of memory. A Titaness, she was the daughter of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth), and, according to Hesiod, the mother (by Zeus) of the nine Muses— Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. She gave birth to the Muses after Zeus went to Pieria and stayed with her nine consecutive nights.

Before the likes of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey—works that immortalised the Greek Heroes and gods—such stories were passed back and forth orally from person to person, allowing for variations in certain regions as is natural when a narrative is disseminated across a large area.

But the structures of the stories remained consistent for the most part, and this might be due to the earlier tradition of orators within societies, who would proclaim the tales of the gods and the heroes and spin such stories with the use of their memories—memories perhaps of much older age, from a previous generation long gone, when the gods and the heroes were believed to have once presided over the earth.

In ancient Greece, much of society could be owed to the gods, from the sun, the moon and the elements to the fundamental acts of trade, shelter, food, family and even love. So, it comes as no surprise really that one’s memories were also overseen by a deity, one who allowed the orators and the very people themselves to remember the gods as vividly as if they had never left.

In this instance, memory itself became a possession of one deity in particular, and something of a gift from this deity, allowing the Greeks to recall the past. This goddess was known as Mnemosyne, a Titaness from the times before the dominance of Zeus.

Origin of Mnemosyne in Greek Mythology

Mnemosyne was known as one of the 12 children of the primordial beings Ouranos and Gaia, the sky and the earth, respectively.

Her name, Mnemosyne, was derived from the Greek word – mnēmē, which means memory or remembrance, and so, we can see how she obtained her sphere of influence. She was naturally associated with the giving or facilitating of one’s memories.

The term mnemonic—a helpful phrase and or system created to help people retain information—was inspired by the Greek mnēmē and was possibly inspired by Mnemosyne for her relationship with the domain of memory the aiding of mortals with their memories.

In some ideas, she was also considered to be a goddess of time, for she represented the ability of memorisation within mortals that allowed them to preserve their stories and histories in a time before written records were kept.

Mnemosyne Role after the Titanomachy

In the golden age of the Titan rule, Cronus ruled supreme over the earth after having usurped his father Uranus, and there was said to be something of peace during this time, where humans and gods lived side by side in harmony. But all was not as it seemed, for when Cronus’ became paranoid that he would be usurped himself by his child, not unlike how he had usurped his father, he began to consume his children.

Eventually, this prophecy came true, for Zeus would slay Cronus in an epic war known as the Titanomachy. With this, the Titans were eroded by the dominance of Zeus and his Olympian siblings.

We understand that many of the male Titans were cast into the void known as Tartarus, whilst others were damned to gruelling fates. But for the most part, Zeus did not appear to harm the female Titans and would revere them to some degree, desiring them as wives and concubines but ultimately allowing them their freedom.

Whilst their roles within the cosmos were transferred to the new generation of gods and goddesses, and they were not thought to be persecuted in the same way the male Titans were.

Mnemosyne’s role during this time is unfortunately just as vague as her Titan brothers and sisters. Whilst she was considered the goddess of memory, it is unclear what side she took during the war between Cronus and Zeus, nor whether she had any involvement in the confrontation.

In fact, before Zeus, there does not seem to be much in the way of the relevance of this Titan, nor much in the way of detail as to what she used her influence over memories for—though some authors do propose some interesting ideas.

What we do know from the mythology, however, is that our randy supreme overlord, Zeus, was, of course, at it again. When he laid eyes upon Mnemosyne, as he had done with Dione and Asteria, he became infatuated with her and sought to pursue her.

But unlike his other attempts, it would appear that Zeus took some caution in his engagement of the Titan and probably cautious that she was aware of his concupiscent reputation; he disguised himself as a mortal shepherd.

The Daughters of Mnemosyne — The Muses of Greek Mythology

The Daughters of Mnemosyne — The Muses of Greek Mythology

With this disguise, he was able to approach Mnemosyne without raising her suspicions and with his predatory cunning and charm, he was able to sleep with her for nine consecutive nights.

As a result of their copulation, Mnemosyne gave birth to nine children on nine consecutive nights. These daughters were,

  1. Calliope (Cuh-lia-pee), who represented epic poetry
  2. Clio, who represented history
  3. Erato (Eruh-toh), who represented love poetry
  4. Euterpe (Eu-ter-pee) who represented music and lyrical poetry
  5. Melpomene (Mel-poma-nee) who represented tragedy
  6. Polyhymnia (Poly-hymn-nia) who represented hymns
  7. Terpsichore (Turp-Shic-oree), who represented dance
  8. Thalia, who represented comedy and,
  9. Urania, who represented astronomy.

These daughters would be known as the nine younger Muses and would possess their own influence within the creative arts.

Hesiod’s Theogony tells us Hesiod, Theogony 53 ff:

“Them [the Mousai (Muses)] in Pieria did Mnemosyne, who reigns over the hills of Eleuther [in Pieria, near Mount Olympos], bear of union with the father, the son of Kronos (Cronus) [Zeus], a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow.
For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished, she bares nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympos (Olympus).”

Theogony—Poem by Hesiod

With the birth of the younger muses, Mnemosyne slips out of the mythology, and the concept of memory within the stories is not something that becomes touched upon very often. It might be said that with the rise of Zeus and the Olympians, the mortals would never forget them, for the Olympians would rule forever.

With this, having memory of the gods would not be necessary given their eternal presence, so Mnemosyne and her service became largely redundant.

Mnemosyne’s Role in the Underworld

Mnemosyne’s Role in the Underworld

However, there exists an account of Mnemosyne serving a role within the Underworld and there somewhere in the depths of this dark land sat a pool that also shared her name.

This Mnemosyne pool would coincide with the River Lethe—Lethe being the goddess of Oblivion and also a goddess of forgetfulness, in essence, the antithesis of Mnemosyne.

In some telling, Lethe was believed to oversee her river that would see newly dead mortals who drank from it lose their memories of their former life. However, those who were proven to be worthy could find themselves at the pool of Mnemosyne, sometimes even dubbed as the river of memory, and hereafter, having drunk from her pool, their memories were restored.

The synchronicity of the Lethe and Mnemosyne rivers was thought to have been simulated at the Oracle of Trophonius in the ancient Greek town, Lebadeia. In this region, Mnemosyne and Lethe were considered goddesses of prophecy, and it was believed that by drinking from both waters, one could hear their future uttered.

Another more detailed account by second-century Greek geographer, Pausanias, tells us that the supplicant at the river Lethe was taken there by priests, where he was told to drink to forget.

With this, he enters a state of calm, having forgotten his prior thoughts, before being led to the waters of Mnemosyne. There he drinks, and there he begins to remember more of his thoughts. He then returns to the Oracle of Trophonius and is sat upon the chair of Mnemosyne, where he reveals everything he had learned.

After the priests learn of this information, the supplicant enters a state of paralysis and terror, for he becomes unconscious of both himself and his surroundings. In a few days, he recovers from this condition, however.

In other variations, it was believed that those seeking direction would appease Mnemosyne with gifts and tributes, which would allow them to remember their dreams when they awoke—those which were believed to hold glimpses of the future.

In fact, in the worship of the medicine god, Asclepius, his cult, who were thought to be able to cure various maladies and ailments, would often make offerings to Mnemosyne in the hopes that the sufferer experiencing various symptoms would remember any visions in their dreams that might assist them in their recovery.

Further ideas suggest that both Lethe and Mnemosyne appeared in Hades as physical representations of their rivers and that it was the souls of those who had possessed a neutral morality in life, by having done neither good nor bad, would be picked upon by Lethe.

These neutral souls could be found wandering the Asphodel Meadows in the afterlife, where they would be taken by Lethe and forced to drink from her rivers so that they would forget their former lives. But it was also thought that if one was righteous enough, they would find their way to Mnemosyne, who would replenish their memories of their past life by allowing them to sip from her waters.

In the religious practices of Orphism, meanwhile, believers were taught to ignore the offerings of Lethe when they reached the Underworld and to instead accept the offerings of Mnemosyne, which would prevent reincarnation and instead restore them as they were.

In Conclusion

Many Greek poets and storytellers would find themselves calling upon Mnemosyne themselves before reciting their works, perhaps to solidify their memory and assist them in recounting the tales accurately.

Perhaps most notably, Greek philosopher Plato in Euthydemus begins by invoking the Muses and Mnemosyne to help in the recital of his narrative. Furthermore, we also see authoritative figures receive a certain mastery over speech in Hesiod’s Theogony, where kings and poets attribute their prowess in articulation to Mnemosyne and the Muses.

But by the time written literature transcended the oral recitations of the stories, Mnemosyne, much like the other Titans, faded into the echoes of the past, for mankind became less reliant on their memories and more dependent or at least, appreciative of the certainty of written accounts.

Naturally, because memory was so essential in the oral culture of the ancient Greeks, Mnemosyne was considered, at least at some point, to have been a most crucial deity in the progression of early society. But indeed, like many of the Titans, she was relegated to becoming essences of an old, archaic world that had come long before and would soon come to bear little relevance in a world occupied by the new gods and the heroes.

Image Sources: Blendspace.

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