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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.
City of Boeotia, west of Thebes
Thespiæ was said to have been founded by Thespius, a son of Erechtheus, king of Athens. It is at the court of Thespius that Heracles undertook the first of his wondrous deeds (though not one of the 12 labors), the killing of the lion of Cithæron. Thespius had 50 daughters, the Thespiadæ, and wanted grand-children from Heracles. So, while the hunt lasted, each night, Thespius managed to have another one of his daughters sleeping with Heracles, who was so exhausted after he had run after the lion for a whole day that he didn't realize the change. The hunt lasted fifty days, and, as a result, each one of Thespius' daughters had a son from Heracles. Later, Heracles asked his companion Iolaus to take his children from the Thespiadæ along to Sardinia and to settle them there.
Thespiæ was also linked to one version of the story of Narcissus. In that version, Narcissus was an extremely beautiful young man from Thespiæ who despised the pleasures of love. He was loved by another young man of the neighborhood whom he kept turning down until one day, he offered the importunate lover a sword that the young man used to kill himself at Narcissus' front door, but not without cursing him before dying. And so it happened that, a little while later, Narcissus saw his reflection on the surface of a pond near a spring and fell in love with himself to the point that he too killed himself in despair. Where his blood fell on the grass, a flower grew that was called narcissus.. After that, the people of Thespiæ instituted a cult to Eros, the god of love, whose power had been so manifested.
Thespiæ was located next to Mount Helicon, the mountain of the Muses, where a temple was dedicated to them. The Muses were said to be daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (the Greek word for "memory"), herself the daughter of Uranus ("heaven" in Greek) and Gæa ("earth" in Greek), and were conceived during nine consecutive nights of love between them in Pieria, a region of Macedon close to Mount Olympus. Under the leadership of Apollo, whose temple at Delphi was not far away from Mount Helicon, they presided, not only over music in the usual sense, but over all activities of the mind. In the list that became classic over time, they were (their specific area of activity might change from one author to another) ;
Plato mentions the Muses in several dialogues, and uses the term "mousikos", whose original meaning is "relating to the Muses", innumerable times to refer to the quality of being, not only "musical" in the sense of "good musician", but well educated and versed in things of the mind, a vocabulary that goes along very well with his view of justice as an "harmony" of the soul with itself and with other souls.
His program of education balances "gymnastics" for the body, and "music (mousikè)" for the soul, both taken in a broad sense, especially "music", which encompasses all that relates to the mind (see eg :Republic, II, 376e), and philosophy is at times presented as the best "music" there is, as in the myth of the cicada at Phædrus, 259b-d.
This myth, created by Plato, describes cicadas (that are buzzing in the heat of a sunny summer day at noon in the countryside where the dialogue is taking place) as men who so fell in love with music after the Muses were born that they even stopped eating and died singing, and who were transformed in cicadas by the Muses at their death, and from then on, report to them which men best honor them.
In this myth, Plato mentions by name Terpsichore being shown the lovers of dance, Erato being shown those involved in "erôtika", that is, things having to do with love, and Calliope, presented as the oldest, and Urania, next to her, teaming together to represent the most beautiful heavenly voice, being shown those involved in "philosophia".
In the Cratylus (406a), when playing the etymology game, Socrates searches the origin of the word Mousai in a little used verb, "môsthai", meaning "to seek after", implying that the Muses are the protectors of those involved in "research". And in the Laws, the Athenian presents together the Muses under the leadership of Apollo, and Dionysus as the gods that should lead our festivals (Laws, II, 653d). He later goes on to insitute three choirs in these festivals, the choir of children dedicated to the Muses, the choir of grown ups up to 30, dedicated to Apollo, and the choir of elders dedicated to Dionysus (Laws, II, 664c-665b).
Yet, not all "muses" will do ! In the Cratylus, Socrates makes ironic references to "Euthyphro's muse" as inspiring him in his etymological inquiries (409d and 428c) ; and the Republic warns us against too "seasoned" a muse (Republic, X, 607a).
In the Academy, the school Plato founded in Athens, there was a shrine to the Muses, a Mouseion, that was also used as a library (the word "mouseion" is at the root of the English word "museum").
References to the Muses in the dialogues, except for one in the Alcibiades (108c12), are all found in dialogues from tetralogies 4 to 7 :