Pierian Spring

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In Greek mythology, the Pierian Spring of Macedonia was sacred to the Muses. As the metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science, it was popularized by a couplet in Alexander Pope's poem "An Essay on Criticism" (1709): "A little learning is a dang'rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."

The Pierian spring is sometimes confused with the Castalian Spring.

Classical sources[edit]

The sacred spring was said to be in Pieria, a region of ancient Macedonia, also the location of Mount Olympus, and believed to be the home and the seat of worship of Orpheus.[1] The Muses "were said to have frolicked about the Pierian springs soon after their birth".[2][3] The spring is believed to be a fountain of knowledge that inspires whoever drinks from it.

Ovid provides the tale of the origin of the Pierian Spring in Metamorphoses V.[4] The Muses - in particular Urania - tell Minerva how Pegasus struck the earth with his hoof, from whence the spring arose:

″And where a path, high over the deep sea, leads the near way, she winged the air for Thebes, and Helicon haunt of the Virgin Nine. High on that mount she stayed her flight, and with these words bespoke those well-taught sisters; “Fame has given to me the knowledge of a new-made fountain—gift of Pegasus, that fleet steed, from the blood of dread Medusa sprung—it opened when his hard hoof struck the ground.—It is the cause that brought me.—For my longing to have seen this fount, miraculous and wonderful, grows not the less in that myself did see the swift steed, nascent from maternal blood.” To which Urania thus; “Whatever the cause that brings thee to our habitation, thou, O goddess, art to us the greatest joy. And now, to answer thee, reports are true; this fountain is the work of Pegasus,” And having said these words, she gladly thence conducted Pallas to the sacred streams. And Pallas, after she had long admired that fountain, flowing where the hoof had struck, turned round to view the groves of ancient trees; the grottoes and the grass bespangled, rich with flowers unnumbered—all so beautiful she deemed the charm of that locality a fair surrounding for the studious days of those Mnemonian Maids."[5]

The name of the spring comes from the Pierides, the gaggle of girls (daughters of King Pierus) who sought a contest with the Muses. When they lost, they were turned into magpies. Ovid tells this tale after explaining the origin of the spring in Metamorphoses V. The metamorphoses into magpies comes at the end of the book:

[662] "The greatest of our number ended thus her learned songs; and with concordant voice the chosen Nymphs adjudged the Deities, on Helicon who dwell, should be proclaimed the victors. But the vanquished nine began to scatter their abuse; to whom rejoined the goddess; `Since it seems a trifling thing that you should suffer a deserved defeat, and you must add unmerited abuse to heighten your offence, and since by this appears the end of our endurance, we shall certainly proceed to punish you according to the limit of our wrath.’ But these Emathian sisters laughed to scorn our threatening words; and as they tried to speak, and made great clamour, and with shameless hands made threatening gestures, suddenly stiff quills sprouted from out their finger-nails, and plumes spread over their stretched arms; and they could see the mouth of each companion growing out into a rigid beak.—And thus new birds were added to the forest.—While they made complaint, these Magpies that defile our groves, moving their stretched-out arms, began to float, suspended in the air. And since that time their ancient eloquence, their screaming notes, their tiresome zeal of speech have all remained.″[6]

An early reference to the Pierian spring is found in the Satyricon of Petronius, from the 1st century AD, at the end of section 5 (available online *[1])

"His animum succinge bonis: sic flumine largo
plenus Pierio defundes pectore verba.”

In one English translation (by W.C. Firebaugh, available online *[2]):

"Come! Gird up thy soul! Inspiration will then force a vent
And rush in a flood from a heart that is loved by the muse!"

Sappho, too, refers to the roses of the Pierian spring, in her poem "To One Who Loved Not Poetry," in the mid-600 B.C. (Available online *[3]):

"κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσῃ οὐδέ ποτα
μναμοσύνα σέθεν
ἔσσετ' οὐδὲ †ποκ'†ὔστερον· οὐ
γὰρ πεδέχῃς βρόδων
τῶν ἐκ Πιερίας· ἀλλ' ἀφάνης
κἠν Ἀίδα δόμῳ
φοιτάσεις πεδ' ἀμαύρων νεκύων
"But thou shalt ever lie dead,
nor shall there be any remembrance of thee then or thereafter,
for thou hast not of the roses of Pieria;
but thou shalt wander obscure even in the house of Hades,
flitting among the shadowy dead."


Lines 215 to 232 of Pope's poem read:

"A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospects tire our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!"

In Greek mythology, it was believed that drinking from the Pierian Spring would bring you great knowledge and inspiration. Thus, Pope is explaining how if you only learn a little it can "intoxicate" you in such a way that makes you feel as though you know a great deal. However, when "drinking largely sobers" you, you become aware of how little you truly know.

Later references[edit]

The opening stanza also appears in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, as Fire Captain Beatty chastizes Guy Montag, the protagonist, about reading books, which are forbidden in the society of the novel.

In his poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," Ezra Pound refers to Pierian "roses" in a critique of the cheap aesthetic of his time, which in his opinion has replaced a true appreciation of art and knowledge:

"Conduct, on the other hand, the soul
'Which the highest cultures have nourished'
To Fleet St. where
Dr. Johnson flourished;

Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses."

Sir William Jones (1746–1794) also made reference to "the fam'd Pierian rill" (a brook or rivulet) in his poem about the origin of chess, "Caissa".

Henry Miller also made mention of it in his MOLOCH.

In the David Cronenberg remake of The Fly, the protagonist Seth Brundle succumbs to madness and disease as the result of a hubristic science experiment. During his descent into fanaticism in the movie's second act, he rants at the short-sightedness of his lover, proclaiming "drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring!". The usage is ironic; Brundle's inability to recognise the shortcomings of his knowledge - and his experiment - ultimately leads to his destruction.


  1. ^ Orpheus and Greek Religion (Mythos Books) by William Keith Guthrie and L. Alderlink, 1993, ISBN 0-691-02499-5, page 62
  2. ^ Classical Mythology in Literature, Art, and Music (Focus Texts: For Classical Language Study) by Philip Mayerson,2001, page 82: "... the Muses who were said to have frolicked about the Pierian springs soon after their birth. The Castalian spring on Mount Parnassus ..."
  3. ^ E.C. Marchant, Commentary on Thucydides: Book 2,Πιερίας—between Mt. Olympus and the Thermaic Gulf, the original home of the muses and birth-place of Orpheus.
  4. ^ http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses5.html#3
  5. ^ http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses5.html#3
  6. ^ http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses5.html#6

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