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  • Jo-Anne Blanco

Origins of Morgan le Fay: Morgan and the Muses

The Nine Muses of Antiquity
The Nine Muses of Antiquity

Ancient Greek mythology and literature tells of the Muses, the nine goddesses who

originally, like Nymphs, were deities of springs – associated with water. Later they became

goddesses of memory, of poetic inspiration, of arts, sciences, music and dance. In ancient

times their numbers varied. There were three muses first worshipped at Mount Helicon:

Melete, Mneme and Aoide. At Sicyon and Delphi there were also three: in Delphi, their

names – Nete, Mese and Hypate – were the three strings of the lyre. Seven muses were

worshipped in Lesbos and Sicily; eight in the early days of Athens. Eventually, their number

was made up to nine. They are as follows:

  • Calliope, first of her sisters: Muse of Epic Poetry and Eloquence. Her attributes are the stylus and tablets.

  • Clio, Muse of History. Her attributes are the heroic trumpet and the clepsydra (a time-measuring device using the flow of water).

  • Erato: Muse of Love Poetry. Her attributes are the lyre or the kithara (an ancient Greek instrument in the lyre family, from which the word “guitar” is etymologically derived).

  • Euterpe: Muse of Music. Her attribute is the flute.

  • Melpomene: Muse of Tragedy. Her attributes are the mask of tragedy and the club of Heracles.

  • Polyhymnia: Muse of Sacred Poetry and Mimic Art. Interestingly, she has no material attributes like her sisters, but is often portrayed in an attitude of meditation with a finger on her mouth, which may be why she is also regarded as the Muse of Meditation.

  • Terpsichore: Muse of Lyric Poetry and Dance. Like her sister Erato, her attributes are the lyre and the kithara.

  • Thalia: Muse of Comedy. Her attributes are the mask of comedy and the shepherd’s staff.

  • Urania: Muse of Astronomy. Her attributes are the celestial globe and the compass.

Detail from Parnassus, Andrea Mantegna (1497), showing the Nine Muses dancing.

So what do the Ancient Greek Muses have to do with the Morgan le Fay of Celtic, Arthurian,

and medieval European legend?

There were traditions in early Welsh literature of nine goddesses or maidens who wielded

great magic, such as the nine priestesses in the Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) who

guard a great cauldron. However, Morgan’s first appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita

Merlini seems to owe less to Celtic legend than to Greek mythology – not just to Ancient

Greek island goddesses but also to the nine Muses of antiquity. Morgan is depicted as

‘Morgen’, the leader of nine sisters, fays or fairies, who live with her on the Isle of Avalon

where she rules as Queen. Morgan’s skills are those of island goddesses and muses combined, and her sisters all have Greek-sounding names – Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten,

Glitonea, Cliton, Tyronoe, and either Thiten or Thiton or two sisters named Thitis. The Vita

Merlini describes them thus:

“The Island of Apples gets its name Fortunate Island, from the fact that it produces all

manner of plants spontaneously. It needs no farmers to plough the fields. There is no

cultivation of the land at all beyond that which is Nature's work. It produces crops in

abundance and grapes without help; and apple trees spring up from the short grass in the

woods ... That is the place where nine sisters exercise a kindly rule over those who come to

them from our land. The one who is first among them has greater skill in healing, and her

beauty surpasses that of her sisters. Her name is Morgen, and she has learned the uses of all plants in curing the ills of the body. She knows, too, the art of changing her shape, of flying through the air, like Daedalus, on strange wings. At will, she is now at Brest, now at

Chartres, now at Pavia; and at will she glides down from the sky onto your shores. They say

she had taught astrology to her sisters - Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Cliton, Tyronoe

and Thiten – Thiten, famous for her lyre. It was there we took Arthur after the battle of

Camlan, where he had been wounded. Barinthus was the steersman because of his knowledge of the sea and the stars of heaven. With him at the tiller of the ship, we arrived there with the prince. Morgen received us with due honour and placed the king in her chamber on a golden bed, uncovered his wound with her noble hand and looked long at it. At length she said he could be cured if only he stayed with her a long while and placed himself in her hands. Rejoicing therefore, we committed the king to her …”

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edmund Burne-Jones (1881-1898). Morgan is the figure in white in whose lap King Arthur’s head rests. They are surrounded by her sisters.
The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edmund Burne-Jones

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