Siracusa 2030 – Rivoluzione/ RegenerazioneApril 14, 2021
Daniele AliffiApril 15, 2021
© Regione Siciliana PH. Giuseppe Mineo
The view from the upper terrace of the Greek Theatre is one of the most breath-taking moments of any visit to Greek Siracusa, but if you turn your back on the view you’ll see a large grotto behind you with - rather surprisingly - a sparkling waterfall of clear spring-water.
This is the so-called "Grotto of the Nymphs", identified by scholars as the “Mouseion”, a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Muses. On either side there are four arched niches of different sizes which must have been plastered, and which probably contained statues. The two larger ones were later transformed into sepulchres. In the better-preserved part of the external wall are traces of a Doric frieze which decorated the upper area before the building of the theatre portico.
At the centre of the back wall of the grotto is another niche linked to an aqueduct called ‘of the nymphs’ that crosses the Epipole quarter to the north of the city, leads to a rectangular basin waterproofed with cocciopesto, and continues along a channel cut into the rock before pouring into the water system of the theatre.
Who were the Muses to which the sanctuary was dedicated?
Hesiod identifies them as the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who as the mother of the muses was included amongst the Titans and was considered the divinity of memory. As their mother's offspring, the Muses were considered the protectors of memories, and it was with their repeated songs of the deeds of the Greek gods and heroes that they helped to preserve the memory of the past in mankind. Initially, the Muses were not considered separately as individuals but as a single unit like a chorus.
In a lost hymn to Zeus, Pindar tells the story of the birth of the Muses: Zeus, having defined the order of the cosmos, asked the gods if they thought he had forgotten anything. They replied that the only thing missing was a voice with words and music to praise creation, so Zeus lay with Mnemosyne for nine nights and the Muses were born.
Dettaglio di Parnaso,1510-1511, Raffaello
Dettaglio di Parnaso, 1761, A.R. Mengs
In the Hellenistic period (323 a.C.-31 a.C.) each Muse was associated with a particular art form:
Clio, “she who makes famous”, muse of divination and history;
Euterpe, “she who cheers”, patron of song accompanied by the flute and monodic song;
Talia, “the festive one”, who represents a joyful feeling so inspires comedy and satirical drama.
Melpomene, “she who sings”, protector of music, in particular with the bàrbiton or the lyre. She was also associated with tragedy and funeral songs.
Terpsicore, whose name derives from τερπέω (“I like") and χoρός ("dance") and is patron of dance.
Erato, “she who awakens desire”, patron of choral singing.
Polimnia, “of the many hymns”, protector of narrative.
Urania, from “Ouranos” or the heavens, patron of astrology and philosophy, both of which were recited in poetry which is why they were considered arts.
Calliope, “of the beautiful voice”, patron of poetic activity in its most illustrious form and to heroic song.
These attributions are not always strictly adhered to and there can be notable variations or contradictions.
© Regione Siciliana PH. Giuseppe Mineo
The Muses were also considered the advisors of wise and fair government and were often imagined as the courtiers of more important gods. The oldest sources stress the links of the nine sisters with Zeus, Apollo and Olympus; in fact in the Iliad their home is on Mount Olympus, and led by Apollo, they dance and sing at the feasts of the gods and heroes. The god Apollo, because of this close link to the Muses, is called Musagete.
According to Hesiod, all singers and players of the cetra descend from the Muses and Apollo.
It was believed that the Muses lived on hillsides and near clear spring-water which they drank to find inspiration. Their main dwelling-places were on two important mountains, the Elicona and Olympus.
They were also the protective divinities of actors and their sacred places were often near theatres.
Ph. credits - Daria Di Giovanni
How can we claim that the Grotto of the Nymphs was a sanctuary dedicated to the Muses?
There are a few clues which have been preserved over time. We know that there was a cult-site dedicated to the Muses at Siracusa at least since the rule of Dionysius I (405-367 BCE); literary sources describe how the tyrant Dionysius gave a tablet and the cetra of Euripides to the Mouseion of Siracusa, paying one talent.
Three female statues in marble were found in the area in front of the grotto, today in the Paolo Orsi Regional Archeological Museum. It has been suggested that these statues represent the Muses.
During excavations in the second half of the 19th century, two fragmentary inscriptions in marble from the Hellenistic period were found. These fragments tell us that honours were granted to certain benefactors by the council of dionysian actors or artists.
These councils of dionysian actors developed around the IVth century BCE but became much more widespread in the IIIrd Century BCE; these were not only limited to a single theatre and a single resident theatre company, rather, they were more like centres for the preparation and organisation of plays, and often served a large number of theatres. Siracusa appears to have been a training and supply centre for artists.
This council of theatrical artists must have had a place in which to carry out their sacred rites and where the anathèmata, the offerings to the gods, were displayed, alongside the public acts of the corporation. This makes it highly likely that the grotto overlooking the theatre was indeed the Mouseion of Siracusa, the small sanctuary dedicated to the Muses.
La Grotta del ninfeo è un sito del Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.
Ha studiato e lavorato in Sicilia e in Lombardia. Specializzata in Archeologia Classica, con una spiccata passione per l’Egittologia e un forte interesse per la Mitologia che ama trasmettere attraverso il suo impegno nei servizi educativi. Divide il suo tempo libero tra la natura e i libri e adesso scrivendo per SiracusaCulture.