One of the first twelve children of Gaia and Uranus, Mnemosyne was a Greek Titan whose name meant “memory.” An inspirational deity, Mnemosyne controlled speech and rhetoric of all sorts. Kings, poets, and philosophers would call upon her whenever they wished to craft powerful and persuasive oratory. Like her sister Themis, Mnemosyne did not rebel against Zeus and the Olympians during the Titanomachy; she eventually became one of Zeus’s many consorts and birthed the nine Muses of Greek thought.
In ancient Greece, Mnemosyne was worshipped alongside the Muses. She was also celebrated in the cult of Asclepius, the divine source of medicinal arts venerated by the physician Hippocrates. Such recognition was rare for a Titan; most were viewed as irrelevant.
The name Mnemosyne was derived from the ancient Greek noun mnēmē, meaning “memory” or “remembrance.”
A goddess of memory and inspiration, Mnemosyne was called upon in speeches, memorials, and all art that sought to preserve memories. She was invoked—as in the Iliad and the Odyssey—whenever the speaker required her rhetorical abilities. Through her children, she was associated with the various forms (history, poetry, philosophy, etc.) used to record knowledge and preserve thought.
In the mythologies of Hesiod and the countless others who followed him, Mnemosyne was presented as a child of Gaia and the Uranus. Her brothers and sisters included the other Titans—Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Iapetus, Themis, Thea, Rhea, Phoebe, and Tethys—as well as her more destructive brethren, the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires.
In later life, Mnemosyne mated with Zeus and had nine children. Known as the Muses, Mnemosyne’s offspring possessed gifts of song, thought, and intuition that inspired the various domains of art and culture. Altogether, they were Calliope, the muse of epic poetry; Clio, the muse of history; Euterpe, the muse of music; Erato, the muse of lyric poetry; Melpomene, the muse of tragedy; Thalia, the muse of comedy; Polyhymnia, the muse of the hymn; Terpsichore, the muse of dance; and, Urania, the muse of astronomy.
While Mnemosyne was first mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony as a daughter of Gaia and Uranus, the epic poet devoted far more attention to her courtship with Zeus and her daughters, the Muses. Lengthy passages praising Mnemosyne’s daughters were common at the time, for the writers of the ancient world loved to celebrate the Muses as the source of their craft. According to Hesiod, Zeus (possibly in the form of a shepherd) sought out Mnemonsyne with her “beautiful hair,” and seduced her:
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 bare 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 Olympus.1
According to a later tradition, Mnemosyne created a stream or small pool of water in Hades where the dead could drink so they might not forget their past lives. In the Orphic tradition, initiates were taught to drink from these sacred waters to protect their souls from reincarnation.
Mnemosyne has appeared in several modern interpretations of Greek myth. In an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess entitled “Forget Me Not,” a character named Gabrielle visited Mnemosyne’s shrine hoping to forget tragedies that have befallen her. Mnemosyne also appeared in an episode of Hercules: Legendary Journeys; in this appearance, however, she was presented inaccurately as a daughter of Cronus who detested Zeus.
Due to its association with memory, the name “Mnemosyne” has been appropriated by a software manufacturer that produces flash-card programs for children’s learning. In English, the term “mnemonic” is commonly used to describe teaching strategies or devices that facilitate memorization. For example, the mnemonic “ROYGBIV” is used to help learners memorize the seven basic colors.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on March 2, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
Pausanias. Description of Greece. Translated by W.H.S. Jones. Theoi Classical Texts Library. Accessed on March 3, 2020. https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias1A.html.
Wikipedia contributors. “Mnemosyne.” Wikipedia. Accessed on February 29, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mnemosyne.
Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 53–74. ↩