Memory aids and training techniques like the Memory Palace or Method of Loci don’t materialize out of thin air, but were they really the brainchild (pun intended) of Simonides of Ceos? And was he really the father of the Art of Memory and the mnemonics?
Let’s dive deep into who Simonides of Ceos was and the secret lessons about the Memory Palace no one else seems to have explored… not even Frances Yates, in her famed book, The Art of Memory.
On this page, we’ll bolster the record, clean up the misperceptions and improve how you use memory techniques to improve your studies, your performance at work and your every day satisfaction with life.
Who Was Simonides of Ceos?
The poet and famous lyricist Simonides of Ceos was a prominent member of the Greek society in the 5th century. He was often called ‘honey-tongued’ by his many admirers, especially after chanting his famous lyrics.
On one such occasion, he received a message that two men wanted to meet him outside the banquet hall he was performing in. When Simonides went outside, the roof caved in killing all the guests.
At least, that’s one version of the story… (I’ll give you a second, and much more powerful one at the end of this page.)
In this first version, the victims of the tragedy were so unrecognizable after the incident that no one could identify them… except Simonides. He was the only one who recalled their identities just by recalling where they had sat during the banquet feast.
Many have claimed that this account is the first recorded or written record we have of the art of memory.
Many people, including Frances Yates, point out the way Simonides recalled the information he needed to identify the victims.
The method he used demonstrates that logical arrangement is extraordinarily helpful for complete recall. By noting the memory of the places the guests were seated at, Simonides accurately named each unrecognizable body.
But there’s so much more to the tale.
The Art of Preparation
Even before recalling the locations of the guests before the collapse, this point is really important. Simonides was prepared.
He’d already primed his memory to observe, place and then recall each person. In other words, as Yates points out, the first step Simonides took was to imprint the memory of the series of places or ‘loci’ in his mind before attempting to memorize anything in his Memory Palace. And that’s what all the most successful students of memory do.
Additionally, the technique uses the order of stations in the Memory Palace based on the banquet hall to recall multiple memories. These visual prompts are crucial, but again, there’s more to it than that.
The key point is that without visually noting where the guests were seated at the banquet, Simonides would not have been able to recall their exact locations or identify the bodies.
In other words, the concept behind this version of the art of memory lay not only in his ability to categorize information, but also the fact that sight was a key sense to make it possible – but sight specifically matched with by preparation of the Memory Palace in advance.
Perception Is The Key
Of course, we know that Simonides was not the only one who emphasized preparation and pre-prepared mental imagery as a means of recollection in the future – especially during unexpected moments where recalling information might be useful.
Aristotle also valued it highly and was famously quoted for saying that no one could learn or understand anything without perception. Such observations were important since they served as the basis for forging the memory in the brain so that it can be recalled later.
But the question is… how exactly did the story of Simonides travel throughout time?
Even though this method was not recorded initially and is thought to have been shared across time completely on an oral basis. Yates isn’t sure, but imagines the Simonides probably taught these techniques in courses much like we still teach them today.
Yates also tells us it was eventually codified probably half a century after Simonides’ passed on in a treatise called the Dialexesis. The method was recorded in the form of basic principles, and it is the earliest work of its kind.
There are basically 3 rules that this concept is dependent on and which mirrors Simonides’s memory method:
Pay close attention to details.
Repeat what you see and hear as often as needed to make sure you memorize it.
Use what you hear with what you know to create a correlation.
The last part about visual imagery using ‘loci’ draws upon a Latin term which means ‘places.’ In the Magnetic Memory Method world, I prefer to call these spots “Magnetic Stations.”
They really aren’t like places in my imagination, but more like stops that serve multiple functions.
For example, a train station can be a place to get on a train, but also a place to ship goods or just stop in and get a newspaper and coffee. “Place” just doesn’t get that feeling across to me, and that’s why I personally prefer “station.” You don’t have to use my words, and as I’ve shown you in part one of Mind Palace Training Secrets, the words you use in your practice do matter. Choose them well.
Now, we know that serious students of memory techniques follow set rules. But why? Some people used the techniques to recite long speeches. Others used them to remember entire books.
And here is one person I’m a bit amazed Yates doesn’t mention:
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
Years ago, my first big hit on the Magnetic Memory Method blog was a review of the excellent book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence.
I’ve been deeply interested in Ricci ever since and have even visited his grave in Beijing.
The methods Ricci used were so influential that he was able to recite whole books from cover to cover. Many people in China thought he was a wizard at the time.
In fact, he was just using the same memory technique that Simonides used and many memory teachers share with students to this day. But back then, some people thought Ricci was a threat to their religion, and in fact, he probably was.
After all, as Spence demonstrates in his book, Ricci did seem to use his memory demonstrations as an attempt to draw the Chinese towards an interest in God.
I’ve translated the bulk of Matteo Ricci’s book and on memory techniques and will eventually release it.
It’s called the Xiguo Jifa 西國記法, and I’d like to share a few of his biggest tips for using the Memory Palace technique now by way of patching in a few things Yates misses by not including him in her book.
I’m doing this because in my assessment, he seems the closest to what Simonides may have been talking about in ways that differ from the Rhetorica Ad Herennium guidelines we talked about in part two of this video series on The New Art of Memory.
First, Ricci suggests we use familiar structures to ensure eloquence and ease.
As a Jesuit priest, Ricci grew up during an era where fortresses were more prevalent than religious cathedrals in Europe. However, he had access to both, including ships and the buildings in Asia.
Combined, this variety helped Ricci to use many types of structures to create his Mind Palaces. If you want to try this, you can use modern buildings for the same benefits. Just turn those structures into Mind Palaces of your own by following the same principle. Then, do as I do if you like:
Visit churches, temples, shopping malls, cafes, bookstores, casinos and any building you’re able to enter. Use them as Memory Palaces and stretch your skills. For more Memory Palace practice tips, also check out Method of Loci: 9 PRACTICAL Memory Palace Practice Tips.
And please understand this:
We actually have an advantage over Simonides and Ricci. Modern buildings are so well-structured.
In fact, we can often use the Internet to look up their blueprints. This can prime the mind even further as you prepare your Memory palaces.
Of course, you still want to sketch the plan out on paper after visiting the structures. This step is key and reduces the cognitive load of the mental rotation involved in effective Memory Palace creation and navigation.
Next, this is one of Ricci’s most powerful lessons:
Don’t create and use the Memory Palaces on your own.
Although memorisation is ultimately a solitary activity, you do need people and interactions to solidify your Memory Palaces in your mind. Ricci perfected his memory with the help of his friend and confidant, Lelio Passionei while they were both students in Rome. They shared Memory Palaces (or what they might have thought of as the Roman Room method). The point is that they created them together, and as a result, these memory tools held for decades.
Making them with a friend made them all the more memorable. And just look at my own use of the art of memory as a personal practitioner and teacher of the tradition: When people complete my free course at magneticmemorymethod.com/yt, thousands of the most successful students send in their Memory Palace drawings.
Year after year, I help ensure Ricci’s advice is passed on by encouraging you to make at least one friend in memory. And when you’re part of the Magnetic Memory Method Family, either here or in the Masterclass or the Mastermind group, you’re encouraged to make many more. There is much deep wisdom in this, and you can also make many friends at memory competitions too.
The shared learning component is also one of the reasons I’ve spoken to dozens of memory competitors, memory scientists and authors on the art of memory on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast. Ricci knew just how well dialog works, and so did Plato and Aristotle, which is yet another reason I think it’s a shame Yates didn’t include Ricci in her book.
Of course, to be fair, Yates saw her books as a means of opening further investigation so that people like us take it deeper and explore the tradition further. None of us can do it alone, so in other words, when you are creating your Memory Palaces entirely by yourself, you may be limiting their efficiency.
If you want to increase their potential, get friends and family involved. Have them quiz you on the features of each structure you memorized so that you can recall those loci or Magnetic Stations when needed. And get involved in the discussion we’re having in the Magnetic Memory Method community. Each little micro step of typing your thoughts and questions takes you one step further into the miracle of memory improvement.
There’s more to Matteo Ricci we’ll cover in the future, but before I go, let’s return to the story of Simonides of Ceos. Here’s the Magnetic Memory Method version of the story, as I tell it in The Victorious Mind.
Let me know if you find the additional details I’m adding for our purposes in The New Art of Memory series useful for your practice and send me your receipt if you get The Victorious Mind. I’ve got a special, readers-only study course I want to send you.
And so, my own version of the tale of Simonides. It’s round about the 6th century BCE, and Simonides of Ceos finds himself giving a speech at a banquet before a group of distinguished guests in a large and impressive building.
Perhaps Simonides performs a memory demonstration by naming each of the attendees during his talk, as many of us who teach memory techniques tend to do. Since he was known as a poet, he recites some of his own verse too.
After concluding his presentation, Simonides thanks Castor and Pollux, two mythical boxers who represented heroism, both given immortality by Zeus, a symbol of the enduring power of memory. Then, when Simonides asks the host to pay him the speaking fee, the host expresses annoyance that Simonides thanked gods instead of him.
“Go ask Castor and Pollux to pay you,” the host replies.
At that moment, a servant arrives and tells Simonides that two men are outside and ask-
ing for him.
“I’ll get back to this matter of the fee in a moment,” Simonides assures the host before exiting the building, where he sees two men on horses. They beckon him over.
“Closer please,” they say.
And as Simonides approaches them, he recognizes the two men as none other than Castor and Pollux themselves. Next, without warning, the building Simonides had just left collapses and everyone inside dies.
Later, as the dust from this shocking event settles, using his incredible memory abilities, Simonides helps the authorities identify all the bodies so they can be properly buried by the mourning families who would never have experienced closure otherwise.
Simonides does this by visiting his memory of the building in his mind and recalling where each guest had been sitting. His memory is flawless and useful for handling life’s ultimate challenge: loss itself.
Despite what we now know about the depth of pre-Ancient Greek usage of the Memory Palace from Lynne Kelly in The Memory Code, this parable still holds a worthy place as a legend about the art of tying information to location in order to “store” and “revisit” it.
But as I’ve been teasing you since the beginning of this post, there’s more to the story of Simonides than most renditions pull out of it.
The legend contains key elements of the memory techniques you’ll want to use in your own practice:
The legend takes place in an actual building, not one Simonides imagined. The banquet hall presented a number of locations, or “stations,” arranged in a certain order (the seating plan) on which to place memorized information (people’s names).
The memorized information—people’s names and features—was important to Simonides. He made it important and paid attention to these details.
The story contains exaggerated and dramatic action. Each of the Magnetic Modes are accounted for when you feel the building crumbling to the ground.
You can hear the rumble in your ears. Even if you don’t see pictures in your mind, you probably have an idea of what a collapsing building looks like.
Emotions are par for the course when something majestic is lost. The tale contains notions of squabbling over fees and the feeling of poetic justice.
You can almost taste and smell the food and wine, if not the dust coming up from the rubble. Even without knowing yourself where the attendees were sitting, you have a sense of people in rooms at tables, not to mention Simonides’ movement from the interior to the exterior.
Can you perceive the special tools I’m sharing now and why the real secrets of how Magnetic Imagery is made have always been hidden in plain sight? Rewind if you missed them, and please don’t blink because there’s one more, the most powerful technique that binds them all and most likely is our best bet if we’re going to ensure the survival of humanity.
Simonides put his memory techniques to the purpose of reducing suffering – which happens for many people around the world when you hit that thumbs up, share this around, get involved in the discussion below and make sure you’re subscribed.
You see, Simonides trained his memory not merely for himself, though there’s nothing wrong with doing it for yourself. You’re useless if you don’t. But the highest possible gains for yourself come when you also improve your memory specifically for the benefit of others.