The Muse Urania in History and Mythology

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Greek mythology has inspired artists of all types from ancient times to our modern era; their myths, roles and names have become the subject of sculptures, paintings, architecture, poetry and literature. When many artists are asked, ‘where do you get your inspiration from?’ at one point or another in their answers they will reply, ‘from the Muses’.

In Greek mythology, there were two different groups of Muses, the elder Muses (Mnemosyne, Melete and Aiode) and the younger Muses (Calliope, Clio, Erato, Melpomene, Urania, Polymnia, Euterpe, Terpsichore and Thalia), who were the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Each of these Muses (both Elder and Younger) had their own attributes that they presided over.

Urania was one of the nine younger Muses whose name means ‘Heavenly One’. During the Classical Period, she became known as the Muse of astronomy and the writings regarding astronomy. Stratius states that, “Corymbus of Helicon . . . formerly the Musae’s friend, to whom Uranie herself, knowing full well his Stygian destiny, had long foretold his death by the position of the stars”. In art, Urania was frequently depicted with a celestial globe which she pointed to with what appears to be a small staff.

In excavations in ancient Gerasa (modern day Jordan), seven goddesses appear in inscriptions, these being Artemis, Hera, Nemesis, Dikaiosyne, Isis, Neotera and Urania. “From Herodotus, whom Origen and Arrian follow, it would be assumed that the chief goddess should have been called the “Heavenly Goddess,” Urania, for he implies that the Arabs had only two deities, Orotal and Alilat, whom he identifies with Dionysus and Urania”. However, this has been argued amongst scholars as Urania is anything but a chief deity.

We also have other inscriptions inscribed to the Muse. An altar set up by Marcus Ulpius Tibereinus in the year 160-161 CE was found in debris over the monastery between the Fountain Court churches and the Artemis temenos, where there was found also an altar to Pakeida, consort of Hera, whose temples apparently lie under the Christian churches. Another altar, found in a field southwest of the village (no. 132) was set up in the year 238 A. D. to “Zeus Kronos and Goddess Urania,” by one of the leading men of the city, a councillor, Marcus Aurelius Solon, son of Solon, on behalf of his son Solon”. However, this might not mean Urania the Muse, but refer to the goddess Aphrodite, who was also given the epithet ‘Urania’.

In more modern times, the great poet Milton uses Urania for his inspiration. Critics have detected ambivalence in the poet’s appraisal of Eve, and at the same time his dependence for inspiration on the muse Urania, a dependence on a further sexless deity best illustrated by the passionate invocation of Urania with which the seventh book of Paradise Lost opens.

Bibliography:

McCown, C. C. (1931 – 1932) The Goddesses of Gerasa, The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, The American Schools of Oriental Research.

Walcot, P. (1984) Greek attitudes toward Women: The Mythological Evidence, Greece & Rome, Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Classical Association.

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