Memes and the forgotten goddess of memory

Meme is considered to be a recently created word used to describe the cultural impact of the Internet in transmitting particular ideas. However, it has a much older relative that shows that it is a very old concept with a very old name.

According to Wikipedia, an Internet meme is:

… a catchphrase or concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet, largely through Internet-based email, blogs, forums, social networking sites and instant messaging.

A meme is an important concept for understanding and driving communications on the Internet. A meme can be carried by almost any electronic communication from viral videos or photos to chain e-mails or Facebook questionnaires. In marketing, Internet memes are essential in creating buzz for a product or service.

The word meme is generally claimed to have been coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He used it to emphasize the similarity between the way genes are propagated biologically and the way ideas are propagated culturally. He explained his derivation as a shortening of the Greek word mimema, meaning something imitated.

However, although Dawkins can probably claim the first usage using this spelling, the word mneme appears first in English in 1921 as a translation from a German term relating to the memory of feelings. Later in the decade it was used to describe a concept similar to Dawkins’. This word, mneme, is a direct borrow from the Greek word mneme for memory. It relates to the English word, mnemonic to do with the mind and memory.

But long before English started borrowing from the Greek language, and before Dawkins claimed to have coined a word for the transmission of ideas, the Ancient Greeks revered a goddess of memory and remembrance called Mnemosyne (from the Greek for memory, remembrance).

Ironically, Mnemosyne is now almost forgotten amongst the names of other Greek gods and godesses. She was the mother of the Muses (the goddesses that inspired poets and musicians and promoted the arts and sciences) and she was attributed with inventing language and words. Before the introduction of writing, she preserved the stories that became history. It was her role to ensure the cultural transmission of ideas across the ages.

So Dawkins cannot be given credit for the concept of the meme because the Greeks already had the concept epitomised in their goddess of memory, Mnemosyne. This forgotten goddess was the original carrier and protector of memes.

The image is an inset of Mnemosyne, also titled Lamp of Memory and Ricordanza. It is an oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti begun in about 1875. The model was Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris, who founded the Arts-and-Crafts movement). She embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty and modelled for several artists including Rossetti with whom she had a relationship.