Mythology, muses, and the mind

Like the story of the unicorn, there is a certain kind of wisdom hidden in the mythology of the divine Muses and their role in inspiring mankind’s achievements in the arts and sciences. The names of the three original Muses suggest their most significant manifestations: Melete (meditation, mental practice), Mneme (memory), and Aoide (song, voice). Underlying these are the gifts of imagination, reflection, and vocalization, respectively, which together can be considered the seeds of higher level cognition.

How have these particular gifts served the evolution of cognition? Even though our perceptions are not reality it is the gift of imagination that gives us the ability to consciously experience of the world. The gift of reflection gives us the ability to understand relationships among what is present, past, and possible. And, for all language’s cognitive affordances, its usefulness depends upon our ability to generate and readily manipulate its primary medium: the spoken word. Which is to say, the power of language relies upon the gift of vocalization. Indeed, our capacity to perceive, associate, and conceptualize representations of information may all somehow be derived from these three highly unique and valuable gifts.

The idea is, quite appropriately, rather poetic. It seems that the Muses have been not only our sources of inspiration, but also symbols of the very qualities which truly distinguish humans from other animals. Metaphorically if not otherwise, their gifts have been the foundation of humanity’s cognitive development. With these gifts, they have — as muses are apt to do — helped us in our efforts to cultivate our greatest work: the realization of the potential of the human mind.


MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY | DEFINITION: MUSE

Muse (noun): a state of deep thought or dreamy abstraction; any of the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology presiding over song and poetry and the arts and sciences; a source of inspiration


WILLIAM SMITH | A CLASSICAL DICTIONARY OF BIOGRAPHY, MYTHOLOGY. AND GEOGRAPHY BASED ON THE LARGER DICTIONARIES

Musae, the Muses, were, according to the earliest writers, the inspiring goddesses of song, and, according to later notions, divinities presiding over the different kinds of poetry, and over the arts and sciences. They were originally regarded as the nymphs of inspiring wells, near which they were worshipped, and they bore different names in different places…

Originally there were 3 Muses worshipped on Mt. Helicon in Boeotia: namely, Melete (meditation), Mneme (memory), and Aoide (song).


MICHAEL FOUCAULT | THE HERMENEUTICS OF THE SUBJECT: LECTURES AT THE COLLEGE DE FRANCE 1981–1982, p. 356 (CHAPTER 18, 3 MARCH 1982, SECOND HOUR)

The Latin word meditate (or the verb meditari) translates the Greek substantive meletē, the Greek verb meletan. This meletē, this meletan, has a very different meaning from what we today, that is to say in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, call “meditation.” Themeletē is exercise. Meletanis very close to gumnazein, for example, which [signifies] “to practice,” “to train oneself,” but with a somewhat different connotation, however, a different center of gravity of the field of meaning if you like, inasmuch as gumnazein generally designates more a sort of test “in real life,”[…] whereas the meletan is a sort of mental exercise, rather, an exercise “in thought [.]”

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