Other divinities, too, lived on Mount Olympus, most notably the Muses, daughters of Zeus by the Titan Mnemosyne. One of their homes was on the mountain’s northern flanks, in Pieria, near Dion. Pausanias says that originally there were three Muses, though by Hellenistic times their number had expanded to nine, and specific roles were assigned to each. Thus Calliope became the muse of epic poetry, Clio of history, Terpsichore of dance and so on.
The Muses, too, were swift to punish rivals.
When Hera persuaded the winged Sirens to compete with them in song, the Muses tore out the Sirens’ feathers and crowned their own heads with them. Another time, the nine mortal daughters of Pieros (king of Pieria) challenged the Muses to a contest. When the Muses sang all creation held its breath in wonder; but when the mortal girls performed vast darkness cloaked the world. Triumphant, the Muses changed them into birds as punishment. Another musician, an accomplished Thracian lyre-player Thamyris, issued his own challenge: if he defeated them in song the Muses must let him sleep with each of them in turn. He lost.
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The Muses blinded him and removed his musicality. Hesiod claimed to have experienced a more benign encounter with the Muses on Mount Helicon near Thebes, where they commanded him to sing of the birth of the gods (in his poem Theogony). He describes them: delighting the great spirit of their father Zeus on Mount Olympus, singing in harmony of things that are and things that still shall be and things that came before. Their sweet voice pours untiring from their lips, and the house of father Zeus the thunderer smiles, filled with the Muses’ voice, as fragrant as a lily, and the snowy peaks of Mount Olympus echo back, and the palaces of the immortals.
The Muses’ inspiration was invaluable. It was only thanks to them that poets could speak with any confidence about the gods and heroes of the distant past.
The Muses appear at many of the great communal events of Greek mythology. Accompanied by Apollo on his lyre, they sing and dance at the weddings of Cadmus and Harmonia in Thebes, and Peleus and Thetis on Mount Pelion. They regularly perform at funerals, too, most memorably mourning Achilles in the Iliad, while in a tantalizing fragment from Pindar’s Dirges: They lulled to rest the corpses of their sons. The first sighed her lament for Linus; the second sang the song of grief for Hymenaeus, whom Fate despatched when first he lay in wedlock; and the third performed her threnody for Ialmenus, whose strength was drained when he was stricken by a merciless disease. But for Orpheus of the golden sword.