In Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), Jan Assmann suggests that Mnemosyne is cultural memory:

Mnemohistory investigates the history of cultural memory. The term ‘cultural memory’ is merely a translation of the Greek name Mnemosyne. Since Mnemosyne was the mother of the nine Muses, her name came to stand for the totality of cultural activities as they were personified by the different Muses. But subsuming these cultural activities under the personification of memory, the Greeks were viewing culture not only as based on memory but as a form of memory itself. (15)

I really like this as it ties in well and extends what I already say about Mnemosyne in the introduction to my dissertation. Drawing from Small’s discussion of muses as representing various mnemonic functions (Wax Tablets of the Mind 72-78) and her argument that mnemosyne is more connected with oral culture and the muses more connected with literate culture, I want to include in my introduction a discussion to the myth of Mnemosyne along side the myth of Odin and his two ravens Hugin and Munin (which mean Thought and Memory respectively). In one we have memory as the mother of the muses (invention) which are themselves mnemonic practices, and in the other we have thought and memory intimately linked together. One represents the Classical tradition and the other represents the Germanic/Celtic tradition, and together they represent what we might call the Western tradition.

Now to this I can add Mnemosyne as cultural memory, which extends the discussion of these two myths even more. While Odin, who’s name means “frenzy,” is often best known to modern non-specialists as a god of battle and of the slain, he’s also connected to the origins of poetry and writing and to occult knowledge. In a draft abstract for a paper I’ll someday give, I have written:

While the ravens themselves are an interesting connection to memory, the mythological traditions which connect Odin to both the origins of poetry and of runes makes his connection to memory that much stronger. Poetry, especially as oral tradition, is a form of social memory. And runes, as symbolic (mnemonic) images or as an alphabet, also function as a memory system (see Carruthers, The Book of Memory and The Craft of Thought; Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record; Ong, The Presence of the Word and Orality and Literacy; Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind). And when we add to all this Odin’s connection to (occult) knowledge and wisdom in both the eddas and the fornaldarsögur, we find Odin as a nexus of memory issues.

Like Mnemosyne, we find Odin bringing forth mnemonic practices, and we find both of them connected to cultural memory. In both myths, I think, we find encoded complex and sophisticated conceptions of memory as something much more than mere memorization and recall.

[tags]cultural memory, Hugin, memory, mnemonic practices, mnemonic traditions, Munin, Mnemosyne, Muses, myth, Odin, social memory[/tags]