The Muse Project—She who Praises

Polyhymnia

“Polymnia (Polyhymnia), because by her great (polle) praises (humnesis) she brings distinction to writers whose works have won for them immortal fame.”

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 7. 1 (trans. Oldfather)

Polyhymnia (poli-HIM-niə) is the Muse “of many hymns.” In our society a hymn is considered a religious song in praise of the Christian God, but the word comes from the Greek hýmnos, meaning a song in praise of gods or heroes which is why they are called the Homeric Hymns and the Orphic Hymns.  Polyhymnia is the muse of many things besides religious hymns, including geometry, oratory and rhetoric, grammar, meditation and pantomime dance.


“[At the wedding of Kadmos (Cadmus) and Harmonia:] The nine Mousai (Muses) too struck up a life stirring melody: Polymnia nursing mother of the dance waved her arms, and sketched in the air an image of a soundless voice, speaking with hands and moving eyes in a graphic picture of silence full of meaning.”

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5. 88 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic 5th Century A.D.)

Some other Indo-European gods who have similar functions are the Hindu Brihaspati, Guru of the gods, bestower of knowledge and eloquence, and the Roman Fabulinus, the god who teaches children to speak.

I have found two websites including the Encyclopedia Britannica that state Polyhymnia may be the mother of Triptolemus who spread agriculture throughout the world. Other sources say she is the mother of Orpheus. Both these men are connected to the Underworld, named after its Lord, Hades. I think this underworld connection is interesting. To explore it, first, I will discuss Triptolemus.

Triptolemus is connected to the Underworld through his association with Demeter whose daughter Persephone became the Queen of the Underworld. The tale told by Homer can be found here.

Zeus agreed that Poseidon could have his daughter Persephone in marriage, so Hades captured her in his chariot while she was picking flowers in a field. Her mother Demeter wandered the land looking for her, but no one knew what had happened. Finally, she found Hekate who had heard Persephone’s cries. She took Demeter to Helios, who can “look down from the bright upper air over all the earth and sea.” He told Demeter what he had seen and she was heartbroken.

Demeter wandered the land foregoing food and drink until she became as an old woman. She came to the land of Eluesis and at the well met the daughters of Celeus, who brought her to their home where she became the nursemaid of Demophoon. Demeter tried to make Demophoon immortal by putting him in the fire, but his mother saw and freaked out.

Demeter than grew angry, became her god-like form again, and said that the people of Eleusis must do “as the lovely-crowned goddess Demeter charged them. So Celeus called the countless people to an assembly and bade them make a goodly temple for rich-haired Demeter and an altar upon the rising hillock.” This still did not appease Demeter and she would not allow anything to grow.  This was calamity for the gods as well as humans, for who would give them sacrifice?

Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone
ca. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14. Roman. Marble.

Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone. The hitch was, she had eaten pomegranate seeds while there, and eating in the Underworld means you stay there. In order to keep the peace, Zeus decreed that Persephone would stay part of the year with Demeter on Olympus and part of the year in the Underworld with Hades, as she had eaten only 6 seeds. Demeter would not let anything grow while her daughter was not with her. It was after this that Demeter gave Triptolemus, who was a prince of Eleusis and helped build her temple, a serpent-drawn chariot to spread agriculture to the world.

Demeter and Persephone are honored with their own mystery tradition at the site where Demeter ordered the people of Eleusis to build a temple for her. These are the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries (Eleusinia Mustheria ta micra) in February/March and the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries (Eleusinia Mustheria ta megala) which this year is September 15-21.

Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes
ca 480 B.C.

The tale of Orpheus also involves the Underworld. His wife Eurydice died from a snakebite and, using his musical skills, Orpheus goes to the Underworld to persuade Hades to give her back. His incredible music does the trick; the only condition is he must not look at her until they are both out of the Underworld. Orpheus looks back a moment too soon, and Euridice is gone. This tale has been retold many times, including in music.

The moral drawn from the Orpheus story by most people is that love is stronger than death. What I see is that you really can’t cheat death. I think the same can be said for the Demeter story. Persephone must go back to Hades over and over again. Death must happen for life to happen. Already in the land of Black Bear Grove I can see the leaves in the trees are thinner and some are falling and the grass is not growing as fast. It appears that Persephone has already gone. Perhaps that is why Polyhymnia is the muse of religious poetry, for religion is the medium that mankind has used and still uses to try and understand death.

Polyhymnia,

goddess who grants to the poet the shining spark of

divine inspiration,

whose gift guides us to speak of the mighty ones

with love and with reverence.

With prayerful lips we approach the gods,

with words of praise and devotion given us by you,

O ever-mindful one.

Polyhymnia, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.

To the Muses I by Hester Butler-Ehle
Polimnia, probably by Franceso del Cossa (c. 1430 – c. 1477)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *