(Essay) Memory: Mnemosyne by Susan Hawthorne

Mnemosyne. From Wikicommons

Memory. Memory is so important for feminists. We remember the struggles of previous generations, we remember the amazing women from prehistory through to the present. When we are forced to forget, women’s lives get harder. In the early 1990s I published a book called the Spinifex Quiz Book in which I ask questions – and give answers – about women’s achievements. For example, Who invented the wheel? My answer: Minerva (or Athena). She was credited with this in ancient times but these days that is forgotten.

In Greece, thousands of years ago they had a goddess of memory whom they called Mnemosyne. From her name we get the idea of mnemonics, tricks we all use to help us remember. Back in the days when print was not readily available – unless you wanted to carve it on stone or perhaps into clay or pots – memory was essential for keeping culture alive. And it still is. These days we are more likely to individualise memory through Facebook, Instagram or selfies. Mnemosyne’s role was one of collective memory.

In my novel Dark Matters, Kate is desperately trying to keep her mind alive while her body is violated and attempts are made on disorienting her through loud noises, bright lights and more. But Kate is determined to keep herself sane. To keep her mind which under siege by her tormentors.

To help you along here are the names and features of the daughters of Mnemosyne:

Euterpe: music

Terpsichore: dance

Polyhymnia: song

Erato: lyric poetry.

Kalliope: epic poetry

Melpomene: tragedy

Thalia: comedy

Klio: history

Urania: astronomy

The Tenth Muse is Psappha

The following is from Kate’s point of view:

Mnemosyne, mother of so many arts. Without her we could not have the world around us stored in memory. Memory is underrated these days. People think it exists in silicon chips. But memory is far richer.

Her daughters, Euterpe, Terpsichore and Polyhymnia are best friends. They are in constant movement. They mimic birds with their song. They are forever tapping this stick against that skin, blowing hollow tubes, humming and chanting, their bodies are in free flight. They are the eldest of the arts.

The poets inform them that they need some content, so along comes Erato to put words into the songs and her sister, serious-faced Calliope, who says if you are earnest about poetry you have to be prepared to stay up all night. The musicians cheer their night owl sisters.

Next come the twins, Melpomene and Thalia. They claim that their theatrical art draws together all the previous ones, adding that we need to cry and laugh. Melpomene is the older sister, but Thalia always has the last word.

What point is there, chimes in Clio, if you can’t organise your collective memory? History is what we agree on; it’s what we will pass on to the next generation. Finally comes Urania, who opines that all of this is pointless if you don’t organise time. The astronomical bodies, she says, are our best bet. They are regular in their movements; they outlive each small life and we can trace our stories through their motions.

A few pages on, Kate muses some more:

In this underworld, I am finding my way through the five rivers of my ancestors. They were not easy rivers to navigate but since those crossing them were dead, it could not get much worse. Except that paradise might not be reachable. And I ask, whose paradise is it?

Before I enter the underworld I have to talk to Charon, that old ferryman. But an equal opportunity program has been in place and it’s a ferrywoman this time. She’s taken the old name. Has to. It comes with the job. She ferries me across the Acheron. I weep and weep, and weep some more. A lake of tears. The woes of all who have died before me. Mercedes are you there? Does your underworld speak in Greek?

The Acheron is not enough. By the time Charon drops me on the bank between the Acheron and the Cocytus, I am wailing and lamenting everything I’ve done wrong. I am still calling out for Mercedes and for our beautiful Priya who was shot on the day I was arrested.

Who would have known I had so many tears in me. Tears like blood, bursting out of me.

We have gone round in a circle and returned to the Acheron which, in turn, meets its tributaries Phlegethon and Periphlegethon. The air is filled with a miasma of smoke. My eyes run, not with tears of sorrow, but as if tear gas canisters had been hurled at me. The way is slow as we circumnavigate these two endless rivers. I sleep for an unknown time.

The Styx is commanded by the goddess of the same name. She is a feisty one, so much so that an oath made to her is unbreakable, even if you are immortal or a deity. I make dozens of oaths of revenge. If Styx is on my side I’ll be like that misogynist Achilles, invulnerable. That’s if you believe it. For now, I will.

We are soon swooning along a swollen Lethe. I dunk my bottle into its waters. Drunk on oblivion, I forget my losses, my tears and lamentations, my oaths of revenge. Later, much later I will drink with Mnemosyne.


(Go to my book, Dark Matters.)

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Commented by Sara Wright: “Memory. Memory is so important for feminists. We remember the struggles of previous generations, we remember the amazing women from prehistory through to the present. When we are forced to forget, women’s lives get harder.” You also ask what point there is… if we cannot organize our collective memory. This is such an important point. We not only need to remember we need to remember together. And we can trace our stories through the stars… Your astonishing and terrifying book that I just finished brings it home on a visceral level just how critical it is… Read more »