Mnemosyne: Titan Goddess of Memory

Mnemosyne, one of the original Titans, daughter of Gaia (earth) and Uranus (Sky), was the ancient Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Nine Muses. Each of the Muses represented a form of Greek art and knowledge.

Mnemosyne was a personification of both individual and collective memory. She was often considered the source of language and writing but, mainly, of memorization, which was the foundation of the early Greek oral tradition. 

She stood apart from all the other Titans, was worshiped long after they were forgotten, and was probably considered one due to her exceptional role in managing memory.

Key facts

Family tree

ParentsGaia and Uranus
Partner(s)Zeus
SiblingsTitans Cronus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Oceanus, Iapetus, Titanides Rhea, Phoebe, Theia, Themis, and Tethys, as well as half-siblings: one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.
OffspringClio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhimnia, Urania, Calliope.

Names & Others

Roman NameMoneta
Ancient GreekΜνημοσύνη
The Goddess ofMemory
SymbolsFountains and springs

Origins

Goddess Gaia, the Earth, married the god of sky Uranus, and they produced three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires. Uranus loathed the monstrous Cyclops and Hecatonchires and feared being overthrown by the Titans. He banished all his children to Tartarus, or the Underworld, causing Gaia great pain. Gaia came to her children’s rescue. 

Mnemosyne origin
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She created flint and made a scythe from it, urging her children to raise this weapon against their father. The youngest of the Titan brothers, Cronus, was the only one of her children to agree to use the scythe. He castrated Uranus with it, forever separating the Sky and the Earth. All the children of Uranus and Gaia were freed from Tartarus.

The liberation of the Titans by Cronus started the Golden Age, a time of prosperity for gods and men alike. Cronus and his consort Rhea ruled the universe, while other Titans were their court. The period of peace and prosperity was cut short by Cronus. The head Titan had been warned by Uranus that one day he was going to be overthrown by his own children, just like he had overthrown his father. 

Zeus and the Titanomachy

Cronus wanted to render Uranus’s prophecy impossible to fulfill. He would swallow each one of his children as soon as they were born. The last one, Zeus, was hidden in a cave by his mother Rhea and grandmother Gaia. He reached adulthood and started a war against Cronus and other Titans, or Titanomachy. Most Titans sided with Cronus. Mnemosyne was also mentioned as one of Cronus’s supporters, although myths contain no reference to her active participation in Titanomachy.

Zeus and his siblings won the long war with the help of Cyclopes and Hecatonchires. The Titans that had fought against him were banished for an eternity to the pit of Tartarus. Mnemosyne, however, was saved from this fate. Two reasons could have played a role in this. Firstly, Mnemosyne did not have an active role in Titanomachy. The second, and probably more weighty reason for the exemption was that, like Themis, Mnemosyne was the lover of Zeus and the mother of his daughters.

Zeus came to her for nine consecutive nights disguised as a shepherd, and nine months later Mnemosyne gave birth to nine daughters, the Muses. The daughters possessed the gifts of song, thought, and intuition and inspired various domains of art and culture. Each of the Muses became associated with a different art or science. Calliope was responsible for epic, Clio for history, Erato for lyric; Euterpe was the Muse of music, Melpomene of tragedy, Polyhymnia of the hymn, Terpsichore of dance, Thalia of comedy, and Urania of astronomy.

Name and Epithets

The name Mnemosyne is related to the ancient Greek noun mneme meaning “memory” and the verb “mimnesko”, to remember. This etymology is probably connected to the Indo-European word “mneh”, to mention, and “men” – remember and, therefore, the English word “memory” can be traced back to the same route! Mnemosyne got transformed into the deity Moneta in Roman mythology. Isn’t it amazing that the words “memory” and “money” are related?

The Greek deity Mnenme that personified memory was normally regarded as the same figure as Mnemosyne. 

Family tree

Mnemosyne belonged to the old generation of Titans and was the daughter of Gaia, goddess of earth and mother of all life, and Gaia’s son Uranus, the god of Sky. She had five female siblings, Titanides, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea and six male siblings: Cronus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, Oceanus and Iapetus. She also had half-siblings which included one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.

Zeus, disguised as a shepherd, became Mnemosyne’s lover and she bore him nine daughters, Muses Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhymnia, Urania, Calliope, of which Calliope was the head Muse. 

Domains of power

Mnemosyne power
Jacob de Wit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mnemosyne, who, according to the beliefs of Ancient Greeks, knew everything in the past, present and future, was regarded by them as one of the most powerful goddesses. They considered memory a divine gift that distinguished people from animals. The art of memorizing was of crucial importance in the absence of literacy. Mnemosyne possessed supreme authority over it and, as the goddess of memory, was also regarded as the inventor of language and words. 

With her divine authority over memories, it was thought that Mnemosyne also controlled those of the dead, allowing them to regain memories of their past lives. The Titanide was often referred to as the first philosopher, one that gifted humankind the power of reason. She was also deemed responsible for the naming of all objects.

The worship of Mnemosyne continued for a long time after all of the other Titans were forgotten, which was due to her key role in ancient Greek culture. Greeks would pray to her and ask for her assistance in preserving the stories and sagas. This culture-preserving role linked Mnemosyne to her daughters, the Muses. The Muses were initially patron goddesses of poets of the oral tradition, but afterward, all the key arts and sciences were shared out between them.

Being the daughter of Uranus, Mnemosyne was, like other Titanides, also the goddess of Time. She also presided over the underground oracle in Boeotia.

Mnemosyne impersonated a river of the same name in Hades, the Underworld, which flowed parallel to the river Lethe (river of Oblivion). The souls of the dead had to drink the water of Lethe so that they would forget their past lives when they were reincarnated. The souls of the novices were to drink from the spring of Mnemosyne. 

Symbolism

Fountains, springs and rivers were symbols of Mnemosyne. The springs, or fountains, of Lethe (oblivion) and Mnemosyne (memory), were the key part of the cult of Mnemosyne in Livadia Boeotia). However, other fountains featured in her story were real rather than mythical. 

There were numerous ones dedicated to Mnemosyne and the Muses in ancient Greece and Rome. It was thought that fountains dedicated to the Muses brought inspiration to poets, while their mother, Mnemosyne, was often regarded as the first Muse.

Classical literature on Mnemosyne

  • Most mentions of Mnemosyne occur in the myths where action takes place after the fall of the Titans. She was still worshiped by the Ancient Greeks long after the Titans had long been forgotten. 
  • Ancient authors often appeal to Mnemosyne as a source of inspiration. Homer invokes her in the Iliad, Pindar in his poems, and Plato, in several of his philosophical dialogues. The goddess is honored in Homeric and Orphic Hymns. Apart from that, she is rarely mentioned in the myths, and mostly in passing references. We should, however, mention Hesiod’s description of Mnemosyne’s genealogy and mythology in the Theogony.
  • Orpheus, the legendary musician, bard, and prophet of the ancient Greek religion, claimed to have found a way to overcome the forgetfulness of the Lethe. When talking about his journey to Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice from death, he described a pool there that allowed the dead to retain their memories. This pool, or spring, was called Mnemosyne.
  • Pausanius, who had himself descended into the sacred cave in Boeotia in the second century AD and watched the initiation ceremony involving the throne of Mnemosyne, left a first-hand account of the rite:

They returned through the same opening by which they had entered, and the priests now placed them on the throne of Mnemosyne, asked them what they had seen, and led them back to the sanctuary of the good spirit and good luck. As soon as they had recovered from their fear, they were obliged to write down their vision on a little tablet which was dedicated in the temple”.

Place in ancient Greek religion

Unlike most other Titans, Mnemosyne was worshiped widely throughout the ancient Greek world. Both alone and alongside her daughters, the nine Muses. There were major sites of her worship in Athens, Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia, and Mount Helicon. Statues of her were placed in the sanctuaries of other gods, such as the shrine of Dionysus and the temple of Athena Alea at Athens. 

She was also worshiped in the cult of Asclepius, a healer said to be capable of bringing the dead back to life. An offering was made to Asclepius, then the last prayer was said to Mnemosyne when the supplicant moved to the most sacred part of the Aesclepion to incubate. This was done in the hope that Mnemosyne would help them to remember any vision that they had.

Ancient people prayed to Mnemosyne hoping the secure her help in memorizing whatever they saw or heard. Offerings to Mnemosyne were often made by those hoping to receive visions in their dreams. They hoped to remember those visions after waking up.

Gnostics initiation rites and Mnemosyne

Greek poets and storytellers often called upon Muses before the recital, and sometimes also included their mother Mnemosyne. There were rivers and fountains in Mnemosyne’s name.

The myth of souls of the dead having to drink from the Lethe in order to forget and from Mnemosyne in order to remember could have been part of a small mystic cult. Such was the esteem for memory, Gnostics were required to consult with an oracle as part of their initiation rites. They were first taken to a place with two springs located next to each other. 

The initiates first had to drink from the spring of Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness and oblivion. This was so that they would forget their previous lives. Then they were to drink from the spring of Mnemosyne so that they never forgot all that the oracle would teach them. The initiate was then placed in a secluded place regarded as the tomb of the earth god Trophonios, a procedure referred to as “buried alive”. 

In this manner, they were to wait for the arrival of the oracle. If the initiate was thus properly prepared and deemed worthy, the oracle would open to him the mysteries of life. Once the initiate was brought back into the realm of the living, the priests would install him on a special seat, the Throne of Mnemosyne. While seated on the throne, he would remember and retell all that he had learned from the oracle.

In Classical Art and Pop Culture

Mnemosyne in culture
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mnemosyne was always a popular theme in art, from the ancient Greeks to modern western culture. His images, initially rather vague (as, for example, in the famous Antioch mosaic from c. 100 – 400 AD), grew more defined and precise as time passed. The goddess was painted by some of the world’s most famous artists.

Marco Liberi depicted her as a beautiful nude around 1670, with Zeus (Jupiter), confusingly, in the form of an eagle. Dutch painter Jacob de Wit was closer to the story portraying Zeus as a shepherd next to Mnemosyne in 1727.

In more modern depictions, Mnemosyne is usually true to her principal role as the personification of Memory. For example, Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti called his 1876 allegorical painting “Mnemosyne (The Lamp of Memory or Rocordanza). Depicting the goddess as a woman with lush hair whose face is beautiful but stern and sad. She is holding a lamp that is a symbol of memory.

The statue of Mnemosyne in Plymouth, New Zealand, is a striking memorial to the lives lost in WWI.

In Pop Culture 

From ancient times until today, Mnemosyne has given names to many of the objects and concepts used for memorization and communication.

Due to the goddess’s association with memory, Mnemosyne’s name is often mentioned in connection with memory aids such as, for example, flash cards. The Mnemosyne brand of fountain pens alludes not only to Mnemosyne being the goddess of memory but also to her symbol, a fountain.

Mnemosyne features in several modern interpretations of Greek myths, for example, in the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, and in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. 

Myths where Mnemosyne plays a part

Mnemosyne and Zeus

Zeus established himself as the leader of the Olympians. Despite being immortal, he feared that all his victories were soon going to be forgotten.  Longing to find a way to preserve the memories of his great feats, he sought out Mnemosyne with her “beautiful hair” and seduced her in the disguise of a shepherd. Zeus spent nine consecutive nights with Mnemosyne in her sacred bed. 

A year passed, and the seasons came around. Mnemosyne delivered nine daughters on nine consecutive days in a sacred place on Olympus. Her daughters, nine Muses, were all of one mind, with hearts set upon song and their spirit free from care. No festival on Mount Olympus was complete without the Muses. They were seated near the throne of their father and entertained the guests by singing out the greatness of Zeus and the marvelous feats of the Greek heroes and the creation of the heavens, the earth, and all its creatures. 

The Rivers Mnemosyne and Lethe

When a person died and crossed into Hades or the Underworld, they were given a choice. If they drank from the river Lethe, they would forget all their pain. They could also drink from the river Mnemosyne, the source of memory. Those that chose to forget had to be reborn in order to return to earth and learn the lessons that they needed. Those that chose to remember traveled on to Elysian Fields where they would spend eternity in comfort, peace and happiness.

The Asphodel Meadows were the realm for souls that had been neither good nor evil in life. The dead that wandered in them were not given any choice and had to drink from the river Lethe in order to forget everything that had happened in their life.

Those That Dared to Compete with the Muses

Classical authors were sure that talent is something that a person is born with. When a chosen one was born, the Muses would immediately start treating them to ambrosia, the heavenly food. They brought divine inspiration to poets and storytellers. They would also sing for their father Zeus and Greek heroes, and were generally regarded as benevolent deities. However, anyone who got on the wrong side of them was severely punished. According to myths, attempts to compete with the Muses ended in disaster. 

The Thracian minstrel Thamyris, son of Philammon and the nymph Argiope, was so proud of his singing that he boasted that he could outsing the Muses. He competed with them and lost. The Muses punished him by blinding him and taking away his ability to make poetry and play the lyre.

Sirens were infernal counterparts of the heavenly Muses. Charming the souls of the dead in Hades with their song and escorted them from this world to the next. While Muses inspired poetry, Sirens charmed only to destroy. When Sirens dared Muses to a contest, Muses won it. They punished the Sirens by plucking their feathers out (Sirens were a combination of a woman and a bird). The Muses then used Sirens’ feathers to make crowns for themselves.

The Pierides, or the nine daughters of King Pieros of Emathia, each given the name of one of the Muses, also challenged the Muses to a contest of song. They lost it, and the Muses took revenge on them by turning them into magpies.’

As for King Pyreneus of Daulis, he attempted to seduce the Muses. The Muses led him to his death for that:  the King jumped after them off the top of a tower.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Mnemosyne symbolize?

Mnemosyne, in Greek mythology, the goddess of memory.

What is Mnemosyne’s Roman name?

The Roman name for Mnemosyne was Moneta.

What is Mnemosyne’s pronunciation?

‘Mnemosyne’ can be broken down into sounds: [NI] + [MOZ] + [I] + [NEE]

Featured Image Credit: National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons