Melpomene: Muse of Tragedies and Elegies

The Athenian Muse Melpomene is a guide for the lost.

By Molly Anderson | Posted 4/9/06 | 9/23/23

Melpomene is a guide for the lost; a dark-haired woman, clad in widow's weeds. Always, she is looking out a window into a grey day. Below the window, an empty road. Her left hand clutches a linen handkerchief. There is a wedding band upon her ring finger, but her house is empty — the road outside is empty — the one she waits for will not return.

Her eyes are wide, clear, and as grey as a dove. Always, always filled with tears — filled to overflowing. Yet, she smiles when I knock upon the black door of her chamber, and calls out, "Come in!" in a high, clear voice.

As I cross the threshold, the door behind me begins to burn — sinister black flames envelop the wood. There is no smoke, no noise, and they do not spread, but stay confined to the doorframe. Melpomene is calm, smiling.

"Hello. I have been waiting for you — I am your guide, Melpomene." I look around. Her chamber is a messy studio with a huge four-poster bed in one corner. There is paper everywhere, filled with her thick inky scrawls. She is not concerned with the apparent fire hazard, and I ask why.

"This flame will not harm wood, nor paper, nor flesh, artist," she says wryly. "No. It will scar your soul, scald your heart even as it beats inside your chest — yet when you emerge from this ordeal, you will possess the ability to heal yourself and others suffering from that peculiar human condition: heartbreak. You will be able to create new worlds, new roads to truth. All of this is no more or less than your destiny. No one is safe from loss."

Her eyes stray to the window, the empty road beyond — an old habit now. Her mourning-dove eyes filled with hope and despair, she lingers for a moment, then turns to me.

"To lose someone you love dearly — to suffer inside — to have your spirit long for impossible things — this is what it is to be a mortal. All pass through this black door of flames and into the wild wood beyond, and, 'tis true, some lose their way there and wander forever. You have navigated this pathway before, many times. You will emerge a little singed, but completely transformed — a magician, a blue butterfly, an artist sublime! You will pass through this doorway again and again, but you will grow, change, and soar above it all, creating something beautiful and deeply true from the ashy ruins."

"How do I pass through this door, and into the light beyond?"

"You must feel the pain fully — and face it honestly. You must make a record of your experience, and create new works of art to help yourself express this loss so that you may be healed. Writing, singing, painting, sculpting — all acts of artistic creation will take you through the flames, and will serve to guide others as well. It will give them hope, shine a light on dim pathways through the wild, and guide them into the Gardens of Dawn, where all sorrow is healed and mourners find joy again. Despair not, fair one — dawn is breaking somewhere in the world, even in the darkest hour."

She reaches for my hand. Together, we pass through the black flames. I am chilled to my very bones as we enter a dark, wild place. Uncontrollable sadness and rage engulf me, and I want to run away screaming into the night. As I weep, Melpomene guides me along a rough path. Her hand is iron, too strong to break away from. Pain. Numb despair. Rage, boiling and red-hot. "Let me go!" I plead.

"Were I to let loose of your hand here, you would be lost forever. The only way out is through the forest of thorns, by this path — the path is faith that dawn will come, that time will pass, that you will ache less some day."

She gestures to the path below, fine sand, and flat cobblestones that seem to be made of moonlight. It is bright, the only light in the wild darkness that surrounds us. She is determined, foot-sure — she leads me quickly through the forest, eyes never wavering from the path. Soon, the darkness fades a little. Dawn begins to sweep the cobwebs of midnight away from my heart. Just as the sun is breaching the hills beyond, we reach a high walled garden with a locked gate.

"Where is the key, artist?" Melpomene asks. I reach into my pocket and pull out a fine silver key, with a moonstone set into the base. A flowering vine winds about the barrel, delicate filigree. It is ancient. I have never seen it before, but it fits my hand perfectly.

"You have always carried this key with you, though you knew it not — it represents intuition, and creativity — unlock the gate! Enter the Garden with me."

I fit the key into the lock, twist it three times, and open the garden-gate. As Melpomene passes through the arch of stone, she sprouts wings, transforming into a butterfly with wings the color of a moon-flower's petals, edged in black ash. I follow her, watching in wonder as she floats and flitters above me, laughing.

Soon, I notice an odd sensation on my back — something tickles, pushes through skin painlessly, and unfurls behind me. I look over my left shoulder and see a huge butterfly wing, splattered with indigo and violet and purple like my palette. Together, we soar above the garden, surrounded by other butterflies. We rise, and float-flutter over the forest of thorns. I see the pain, the loss, from a different angle. It is beautiful here in the dark, with a moonstone path to guide me.

We fly beyond the borders of the forest, and see it as part of a glorious landscapes filled with crystal-blue lakes, mountains and rivers, trees and flowers and curious, magical creatures. I am filled with fresh inspiration, hope, joy, new ideas, and hot anticipation for the next adventure, the next journey, the next project. We fly further — over seas and distant deserts — finally, the mountains and rivers begin to be familiar, and soon we are flying over my home in Durango.

Melpomene leaves me at the door with a mysterious smile. "Remember always — you are a butterfly inside, an artist with wildly painted wings!" I flutter in through an open window, and find myself at the kitchen table. I land softly upon a notebook filled with my words — so many words — looking more closely, I find the last few words of this piece written there, and all the rest of it on the previous pages of my overflowing notebook —

Despair not, fair one — seek hope in the darkest hour, and hope you shall find — remember the key you hold to open the garden — never forget how to soar above the pain on phenomenally colorful painted wings!

Next: Polymnia: Muse of Sacred Song, Oratory, Lyric Poetry

©2006 Molly Anderson. All rights reserved.