Greek Titan

Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne was the Greek Titan known as the source of all memory. An inspirational deity, she and her daughters the Muses were often called upon before giving speeches, poems, and memorials.

By Thomas Apel and Avi KapachLast updated on Nov. 21st, 2021
  • To whom was Mnemosyne married?

    Mnemosyne never married, but over the course of an affair with Zeus she gave birth to their nine talented daughters, the Muses.

  • Who were the nine Muses?

    Mmenosyne’s daughters were considered to be the sources of humanity’s inspiration for everything from poetry to history, dance to astronomy.

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, as most were simply not objects of worship.

Etymology

The name Mnemosyne is related to the ancient Greek noun mnēmē, meaning “memory” or “remembrance,” and the verb mimnēskō, meaning “to remember.” The etymology is likely connected to the Indo-European *mneh₂-, “to mention,” and possible also *men-, “to remember.”1

Attributes

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.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Mnemosyne

    Μνημοσύνη

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    nee-MOS-uh-nee, -MOZ-]

    /niˈmɒs əˌni, -ˈmɒz-/

Other Names

Mnemosyne’s name appeared in a few different variations in the different dialects of ancient Greek: these variations included Mnamosyna and Mnamona. Mneme, another Greek deity who personified memory, seems to have usually been identical with Mnemosyne.

Family

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—OceanusCoeusCriusCronusHyperionIapetus, Themis, TheaRheaPhoebe, and Tethys—as well as her more destructive brethren, the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires.

Vichten Mosaic Roman 240 CE National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg

The Vichten mosaic, depicting Mnemosyne's daughters, the nine Muses (240 CE). National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg.

Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0

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. According to most sources, their names were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.2 Eventually, each of muses would become associated with a different area of art or learning (Calliope with epic, Clio with history, Erato with lyric, Euterpe with music, Melpomene with tragedy, Polyhymnia with hymn, Terpsichore with dance, Thalia with comedy, and Urania with astronomy).

Family Tree

Mythology

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.13

Jupiter Disguised as a Shepherd Seducing Mnemosyne the Goddess of Memory Painting by Jacob de Wit 1727 Rijksmuseum

Jupiter, Disguised as a Shepherd, Seducing Mnemosyne by Jacob De Wit (1727).

Rijksmuseum / Public Domain

Pop Culture

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 visits Mnemosyne’s shrine hoping to forget tragedies that had befallen her. Mnemosyne also appears 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.

Worship

Unlike most of her Titan brethren, Mnemosyne was worshipped widely throughout the Greek world. She was commonly worshipped with her daughters, the nine Muses, for example at Athens,4 on Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia,5 on Mount Helicon,6 and at a spring near the river Hercynnum.7 She also seems to have been worshipped together with the healer-god Asclepius8 and the Boeotian hero Trophonius.8

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: The poet Homer invokes Mnemosyne to inspire his song in parts of his eighth-century BCE epic, the Iliad (Book 2). 

  • Hesiod: Mnemosyne’s genealogy and mythology are described in the seventh-century BCE epic, the Theogony.

  • Homeric Hymns: Mnemosyne is honored by Hermes in the 4th Homeric Hymn (seventh of sixth century BCE)..

  • Pindar: Mnemosyne is invoked as a source of inspiration in several of Pindar’s poems (fifth century BCE).

  • Plato: Mnemosyne is discussed as a metaphorical source of inspiration in several of Plato’s philosophical dialogues (fourth century BCE), including the Theatetus and Euthydemus.

  • Orphic Hymns: The 77th Orphic Hymn (ca. third century BCE–second century CE) is dedicated to Mnemosyne.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; an important source for local myths and customs.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: a work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). In Book 5 (at section 67), there is a rationalized version of Mnemosyne’s myth in which the Titan is actually the first to discover the uses of reason and language.

  • Apollodorus, Library: a mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with references to Mnemosyne (mostly in Book 1).

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) which includes sections on Mnemosyne.

Secondary Sources

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