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Plutarch of Chaeronea-Some Observations About The Number Of The Muses, Not Commonly Known.

Sarcophagus known as the “Muses Sarcophagus”, representing the nine Muses and their attributes. Marble, first half of the 2nd century AD, found by the Via Ostiense. At the Louvre Museum in Paris.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA, is from Plutarch of Chaeronea’s ‘Quaestiones Convivales’ (Table talk or Symposiacs, Moralia volume IX, chapter XIV). Translations edited by William Watson Goodwin (1831-1912), from the edition of 1878, a text in the public domain digitized by the Internet Archive and reformatted/lightly corrected by Brady Kiesling.



§ 743c  9.14. This discourse ended, we poured out our offerings to the Muses, and together with a hymn in honor of Apollo, the patron of the Muses, we sung with Erato, who played upon the harp, the generation of the Muses out of Hesiod. After the song was done, Herodes the rhetorician said: Pray, sirs, hearken. Those that will not admit Calliope to be ours say that she keeps company with kings, not such, I suppose, as are busied in resolving syllogisms or disputing, but such who do those things that belong to rhetoricians and statesmen. But of the rest of the Muses, Clio abets encomiums, for praises are called ϰλέα; and Polymnia history, for her name signifies the remembrance of many things; and it is said that all the Muses were somewhere called Remembrances. And for my part, I think Euterpe hath some relation to us too, if (as Chrysippus says) her lot be agreeableness in discourse and pleasantness in conversation. For it belongs to an orator to converse, as well as plead or give advice; since it is his part to gain the favor of his auditors, and to defend or excuse his client. To praise or dispraise is the commonest theme; and if we manage this artfully, it will turn to considerable account; if unskillfully, we are lost. For that saying, Gods! how he is honored and beloved by all, chiefly, in my opinion, belongs to those men who have a pleasing and persuasive faculty in discourse.

§ 743e  9.14.2 Then said Ammonius to Herodes: We have no reason to be angry with you for grasping all the Muses, since the goods that friends have are common, and Zeus hath begotten a great many Muses, that every man may be plentifully supplied; for we do not all need skill in hunting, military arts, navigation, or any mechanical trades; but learning and instruction is necessary for every one that Eats the fruits of the spacious earth. And therefore Zeus made but one Athena, one Artemis, one Hephaestus, but many Muses. But why there should be nine, and no more nor less, pray acquaint us; for you, so great a lover of, and so well acquainted with, the Muses, must certainly have considered this matter. What difficulty is there in that? replied Herodes. The number nine is in every body’s mouth, as being the first square of the first odd number; and as doubly odd, since it may be divided into three equal odd numbers. Ammonius with a smile rejoined: Boldly said; and pray add, that this number is composed of the first two cubes, one and eight, and according to another composition of two triangles, three and six, each of which is itself perfect. But why should this belong to the Muses more than any other of the Gods? For we have nine Muses, but not nine Demeteres, nine Athenas or Artemises. For I do not believe you take it for a good argument, that the Muses must be so many, because their mother’s name (Mnemosyne) consists of just so many letters. Herodes smiling, and every body being silent, Ammonius desired our opinions.

§ 744c 9.14.3. My brother said, that the ancients celebrated but three Muses, and that to bring proofs for this assertion would be pedantic and uncivil in such a company. The reason of this number was (not as some say) the three different sorts of music, the diatonic, the chromatic, and harmonic, nor those stops that make the intervals nete, mese, and hypate; though the Delphians gave the Muses this name erroneously, in my opinion, appropriating it to one science, or rather to a part of one single science, the harmonic part of music. But, as I think, the ancients, reducing all arts and sciences which are practiced and performed by reason or discourse to three heads, philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics, accounted them the gifts of three Gods, and named them the Muses. Afterwards, about Hesiod’s time, the sciences being better and more thoroughly looked into, men subdividing them found that each science contained three different parts. In mathematics are comprehended music, arithmetic, and geometry; in philosophy are logic, ethics, and physics. In rhetoric, they say the first part was demonstrative or encomiastic, the second deliberative, the third judicial. None of all which they believed to be without a God or a Muse or some superior power for its patron, and did not, it is probable, make the Muses equal in number to these divisions, but found them to be so. Now, as you may divide nine into threes, and each three into as many units; so there is but one rectitude of reason, which is employed about the supreme truth, and which belongs to the whole in common, while each of the three kinds of science has three Muses assigned to it, and each of these has her separate faculty assigned to her, which she disposes and orders. And I do not think the poets and astrologers will find fault with us for passing over their professions in silence, since they know, as well as we, that astrology is comprehended in geometry, and poetry in music.

§ 744f 9.14.4. As soon as he had said this, Trypho the physician rejoined: How hath our art offended you, that you have shut the Museum against us? And Dionysius of Melite added: Sir, you have a great many that will side with you in the accusation; for we farmers think Thalia to be ours, assigning her the care of springing and budding seeds and plants. But I interposing said: Your accusation is not just; for you have bountiful Demeter, and Dionysos who (as Pindar phrases it) increases the trees, the chaste beauty of the fruits; and we know that Aesculapius is the patron of the physicians, and they make their address to Apollo as Paean, but never as the Muses’ chief. All men (as Homer says) stand in need of the Gods, but all stand not in need of all. But I wonder Lamprias did not mind what the Delphians say in this matter; for they affirm that the Muses amongst them were not named so either from the strings or sounds in music; but the universe being divided into three parts, the first portion was of the fixed stars, the second of the planets, the third of those things that are under the concave of the moon; and all these are ordered according to harmonical proportions, and of each portion a Muse takes care; Hypate of the first, Nete of the last, and Mese in the middle, combining as much as possible, and turning about mortal things with the Gods, and earthly with heavenly. And Plato intimates the same thing under the names of the Fates, calling one Atropos, the other Lachesis, and the other Clotho. For he committed the revolutions of the eight spheres to so many Sirens, and not Muses.

§ 745c 9.14.5. Then Menephylus the Peripatetic rejoined: The Delphians’ opinion hath indeed somewhat of probability in it; but Plato is absurd in committing the eternal and divine revolutions not to the Muses but to the Sirens, Daemons that neither love nor are benevolent to mankind, wholly passing by the Muses, or calling them by the names of the Fates, the daughters of Necessity. For Necessity is averse to the Muses; but Persuasion being more agreeable and better acquainted with them, in my opinion, than the grace of Empedocles, Intolerable Necessity abhors.

§ 745d 9.14.6. No doubt, said Ammonius, as it is in us a violent and involuntary cause; but in the Gods Necessity is not intolerable, uncontrollable, or violent, unless it be to the wicked; as the law in a commonwealth to the best men is its best good, not to be violated or transgressed, not because they have no power, but because they have no will, to change it. And Homer’s Sirens give us no just reason to be afraid; for he in that fable rightly intimates the power of their music not to be hurtful to man, but delightfully charming, and detaining the souls which pass from hence thither and wander after death; working in them a love for divine and heavenly things, and a forgetfulness of every thing on earth; and they extremely pleased follow and attend them. And from thence some imperfect sound, and as it were echo of that music, coming to us by the means of reason and good precepts, rouses our souls, and restores the notice of those things to our minds, the greatest part of which lie encumbered with and entangled in disturbances of the flesh and distracting passions. But the generous soul hears and remembers, and her affection for those pleasures rises up to the most ardent passion, whilst she eagerly desires but is not able to free herself from the body. It is true, I do not approve what he says; but Plato seems to me, as he hath strangely and unaccountably called the axes spindles and distaffs, and the stars whirls, so to have named the Muses Sirens, as delivering divine things to the ghosts below, as Ulysses in Sophocles says of the Sirens, I next to Phorcus’s daughters came, Who fix the sullen laws below. Eight of the Muses take care of the spheres, and one of all about the earth. The eight who govern the motions of the spheres maintain the harmony of the planets with the fixed stars and one another. But that one who looks after the place betwixt the earth and moon and takes care of mortal things, by means of speech and song introduces persuasion, assisting our natural consent to community and agreement, and giveth men as much harmony, grace, and order as is possible for them to receive; introducing this persuasion to smooth and quiet our disturbances, and as it were to recall our wandering desires out of the wrong way, and to set us in the right path. But, as Pindar says, Whom Zeus abhors, he starts to hear The Muses sounding in his ear.

§ 746b 9.14.7. To this discourse Ammonius, as he used to do, rejoined that verse of Xenophanes, This fine discourse seems near allied to truth, and desired every one to deliver his opinion. And I, after a short silence, said: As Plato thinks by the name, as it were by tracks, to discover the powers of the Gods, so let us place in heaven and over heavenly things one of the Muses, Urania. And it is likely that those require no distracting variety of cares to govern them, since they have the same single nature for the cause of all their motions. But where are a great many irregularities and disorders, there we must place the eight Muses, that we may have one to correct each particular irregularity and miscarriage. There are two parts in a man’s life, the serious and the merry; and each must be regulated and methodized. The serious part, which instructs us in the knowledge and contemplation of the Gods, Calliope, Clio, and Thalia seem chiefly to look after and direct. The other Muses govern our weak part, which changes presently into wantonness and folly; they do not neglect our brutish and violent passions and let them run their own course, but by apposite dancing, music, song, and orderly motion mixed with reason, bring them down to a moderate temper and condition. For my part, since Plato admits two principles of every action, the natural desire after pleasure, and acquired opinion which covets and wishes for the best, and calls one reason and the other passion, and since each of these is manifold, I think that each requires a considerable and, to speak the truth, a divine direction. For instance, one faculty of our reason is said to be political or imperial, over which Hesiod says Calliope presides; Clio’s province is the noble and aspiring; and Polymnia’s that faculty of the soul which inclines to attain and keep knowledge (and therefore the Sikyonians call one of their three Muses Polymathia); to Euterpe everybody allows the searches into nature and physical speculations, there being no greater, no sincerer pleasure belonging to any other sort of speculation in the world. The natural desire to meat and drink Thalia reduces from brutish and uncivil to be sociable and friendly; and therefore we say ϑαλιάζειν of those that are friendly, merry, and sociable over their cups, and not of those that are quarrelsome and mad. Erato, together with Persuasion, that brings along with it reason and opportunity, presides over marriages; she takes away and extinguishes all the violent fury of pleasure, and makes it tend to friendship, mutual confidence, and endearment, and not to effeminacy, lust, or discontent. The delight which the eye or ear receives is a sort of pleasure, either appropriate to reason or to passion, or common to them both. This the two other Muses, Terpsichore and Melpomene, so moderate, that the one may only cheer and not charm, the other only please and not bewitch.

Mosaic disc with the symbols of the nine Muses and their mother Mnemosyne: Calliope (writing board), Urania (globe), Polyhymnia (pensive face), Erato (lyre), Terpsichore (cithara), Melpomene (tragic mask), Thalia (comic mask), Euterpe (flutes), Clio (scroll), and Mnemosyne (Mt. Pieria). Apollo’s lyre in the middle. 1st century BC, Archaeological Museum of Ancient Elis.


Source ‘Quaestiones Convivales’ (Table talk or Symposiacs, Moralia): 🌿More about Plutarch of Chaeronea: 🌿 For another edition and more modern translation: and
Plutarch of Chaeronea-Some Observations About The Number Of The Muses, Not Commonly Known.

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