For other uses, see Mnemosyne (disambiguation).
Mnemosyne (alternately titled: Lamp of Memory or Ricordanza, c. 1876-1881), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation of the Greek goddess by Dante Gabriel Rossetti[1]

Mnemosyne (/nˈmɒzn/ or /nˈmɒsni/; Greek: Μνημοσύνη, pronounced [mnɛːmosýːnɛː]), source of the word mnemonic,[2] was the personification of memory in Greek mythology. A Titanide, or Titaness, she was the daughter of the Titans Uranus and Gaia. Mnemosyne was the mother of the nine Muses, fathered by her nephew, Zeus:

In Hesiod's Theogony, kings and poets receive their powers of authoritative speech from their possession of Mnemosyne and their special relationship with the Muses.

Zeus and Mnemosyne slept together for nine consecutive nights, thus birthing the nine Muses. Mnemosyne also presided over a pool[3] in Hades, counterpart to the river Lethe, according to a series of 4th century BC Greek funerary inscriptions in dactylic hexameter. Dead souls drank from Lethe so they would not remember their past lives when reincarnated. Initiates were encouraged to drink from the river Mnemosyne when they died, instead of Lethe. These inscriptions may have been connected with Orphic poetry (see Zuntz, 1971).

Similarly, those who wished to consult the oracle of Trophonius in Boeotia were made to drink alternately from two springs called "Lethe" and "Mnemosyne." An analogous setup is described in the Myth of Er at the end of Plato's Republic.

Appearance in Oral Literature

Although she was categorized as one of the Titans in the Theogony, Mnemosyne didn’t quite fit that distinction.[4] Titans were hardly worshiped in Ancient Greece, and were thought of as so archaic as to belong to the ancient past.[4] They resembled historical figures more than anything else. Mnemosyne, on the other hand, traditionally appeared in the first few lines of many oral epic poems[5]—she appears in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, among others—as the speaker called upon her aid in accurately remembering and performing the poem he was about to recite. Mnemosyne is thought to have been given the distinction of “Titan” because memory was so important and basic to the oral culture of the Greeks that they deemed her one of the essential building blocks of civilization in their creation myth.[5]

Later, once written literature overtook the oral recitation of epics, Plato made reference in his Euthydemus to the older tradition of invoking Mnemosyne. The character Socrates prepares to recount a story and says “ὥστ᾽ ἔγωγε, καθάπερ οἱ (275d) ποιηταί, δέομαι ἀρχόμενος τῆς διηγήσεως Μούσας τε καὶ Μνημοσύνην ἐπικαλεῖσθαι.” which translates to “Consequently, like the poets, I must needs begin my narrative with an invocation of the Muses and Memory” (emphasis added).[6] Aristophanes also harked back to the tradition in his play Lysistrata when a drunken Spartan ambassador invokes her name while prancing around pretending to be a bard from times of yore.[7]

Cult of Asclepius

Mnemosyne was one of the deities worshiped in the cult of Asclepius that formed in Ancient Greece around the 5th century BC.[8] Asclepius, a Greek hero and god of medicine, was said to have been able to cure maladies, and the cult incorporated a multitude of other Greek heroes and gods in its process of healing.[8] The exact order of the offerings and prayers varied by location,[9] and the supplicant often made an offering to Mnemosyne.[8] After making an offering to Asclepius himself, in some locations, one last prayer was said to Mnemosyne as the supplicant moved to the holiest portion of the asclepeion to incubate.[8] The hope was that a prayer to Mnemosyne would help the supplicant remember any visions had while sleeping there.[9]


See also


  1. Collection of the Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, the painting's page at the Rossetti Archive.
  2. Memory and the name Memnon, as in "Memnon of Rhodes" are etymologically related. Mnemosyne is sometimes confused with Mneme or compared with Memoria.
  3. Richard Janko, "Forgetfulness in the Golden Tablets of Memory", Classical Quarterly 34 (1984) 89–100; see article "Totenpass" for the reconstructed devotional which instructs the initiated soul through the landscape of Hades, including the pool of Memory.
  4. 1 2 Rose, H.J. (1991). A Handbook of Greek Mythology : including its extension to Rome (6th ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Inc. ISBN 9780415046015.
  5. 1 2 Notopoulos, James A. (1938). "Mnemosyne in Oral Literature". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. 69: 466. doi:10.2307/283194.
  6. Burnet, James, ed. (1903). Platonis Opera. Oxford University Press. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  7. "Aristophanes, Lysistrata,line 1247".
  8. 1 2 3 4 Ahearne-Kroll, Stephen P. (April 2014). "Mnemosyne at the Asklepieia". Classical Philology. 109 (2): 99–118. doi:10.1086/675272.
  9. 1 2 von Ehrenheim, Hedvig (2011). Greek incubation rituals in Classical and Hellenistic times. Stockholm: Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. ISBN 978-91-7447-335-3.
  10. Hesiod, Theogony 132138, 337411, 453520, 901906, 915920; Caldwell, pp. 811, tables 1114.
  11. Although usually the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, as in Hesiod, Theogony 371374, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4), 99100, Selene is instead made the daughter of Pallas the son of Megamedes.
  12. According to Hesiod, Theogony 507511, Clymene, one of the Oceanids, the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, at Hesiod, Theogony 351, was the mother by Iapetus of Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus, while according to Apollodorus, 1.2.3, another Oceanid, Asia was their mother by Iapetus.
  13. According to Plato, Critias, 113d114a, Atlas was the son of Poseidon and the mortal Cleito.
  14. In Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 18, 211, 873 (Sommerstein, pp. 444445 n. 2, 446447 n. 24, 538539 n. 113) Prometheus is made to be the son of Themis.


Further reading

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