“Kalliope (Calliope), who is the chiefest of them all [the Mousai (Muses)], for she attends on worshipful princes:”Hesiod, Theogony 75 ff (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)
Kalliope (or Calliope) is the Muse most often mentioned in ancient literature and is the Muse of epic poetry. Her name means “beautiful-voiced” from the Greek words kallos and ops. She is usually portrayed holding a tablet and stylus or a scroll, though in older art she holds a lyre.
“Kalliope, because of her beautiful (kale) voice (ops), that is, by reason of the exceeding beauty of her language she wins the approbation of her auditors.”Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 7. 1 (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
Epic poetry is the most known of poetic forms and the greatest Greek epic poems are the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer. Hesiod is another great epic poet who wrote Theogony and Works and Days. The Illiad and the Odyssey have been retold many times and in many media, including television and graphic novel. In each of these epics, the Muses are called, usually as a group, but when one goddess is called, as in the Illiad, that goddess is understood to be Calliope.
The Illiad tells of some of the events of the last year of the Trojan war, though it doesn’t go to the end of the war as epic poems usually begin in media res, in the middle of things. The Odyssey follows Odysseus as he tries to get home to his island home of Ithaka, which, thanks to Poseidon, takes ten years.
Epic poetry is about gods and heroes and is in an elevated style of language, very formal with figurative speech such as “the wine-dark sea,” “rosy-fingered dawn,” “white-armed Hera,” and “grey-eyed Athena.” These poems embody values important to the culture. According to Joseph Campbell, hero epics are all the same story, a monomyth called the hero’s journey.
Sing, Muse, dear to me, and prelude my own song,Mesomedes of Crete, a freedman and court musician to the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 CE)
let a breeze, come forth from your groves,
make my soul tremble
Oh wise Calliope who directs the gracious muses
and you whose wisdom initiates the mysteries,
Son of Latona, Delian, Paean,
help me with your favor.
Epic poems of other cultures include: Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC) and Enuma Elish (1894–1595 BC); Vedic/Indian Mahābhārata (8th or 9th century BC); Roman Aeneid (29-19 BC); Old English Beowulf (975-1025 AD); and Germanic Poetic Edda (c. 11thC AD). As we approach Imbolc and honor Brigid, the goddess of bards and poetry, let us remember the great Old Irish tale Táin Bó Cúailnge or the Cattle Raid of Cooley (7th & 8thC AD), the most famous tale from the Ulster Cycle. It is about the demigod hero Cú Chulainn, who is visited by the Morrigan and his own father, Lugh.
These epics not only inspire us with the feats of these heroes, but they also tell us of our Gods, or at least how they were perceived by our ancestors, and Calliope continues to inspire people today, as evidenced by the publications of Bibliotheca Alexandrina and others. May Calliope, Brigid, and other deities of epic poetry inspire all of us in the coming year.
elder muse, wise-hearted sister,
mother of silken-voice Orpheus, friend of Homer,
whose gift of mighty words for noble deeds inspired
tales undying, fame everlasting.
Granter of fine voice and fair speech,
of a swift wit and a ready tongue,
of the skill to shape legends.
Calliope, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.To the Muses I by Hester Butler-Ehle