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muses oldIt was a peculiar board-meeting, thought Daphne, because all of its members were women. It’s most uncommon there, although many small Greek companies are headed by women and most big national conglomerates employ a few female directors. Nor had she heard of MuseCorp, but many firms still survive the economic hardship.

These eight ladies were all old, very old and somewhat odd, yet most of them still seemed bright enough to the waitress. While normal conferees brought only their smart-phones, computers and identical black laptop bags, these kept their purses beside them but left their mysterious equipment stacked on a table near the door; a few wooden masks, a scroll, either a huge cheese-slicer or a stringed musical instrument that the Daphne did not recognize, and other curious items. Her boss whispered over her shoulder.

“After the kitchen sends up the ambrosia, these old biddies guzzle the nectar with a vengeance. So keep it chilled and flowing,” warned Mr. Popadopoulos and the sloe-eyed young lady nodded attentively. It was only her second month working at the five-star hotel and she was already entrusted with important corporate clients.

Eight conferees sat around a polished oaken table, in a penthouse meeting-room looking toward the wine-dark sea to one side and the massive, distant peak of Mount Olympus on the other. Their chairman looked at the wall-clock, “Ura’s late again.”

“Possibly she’s injured. Or maybe kidnapped. Or even dead,” moped Melpomene. She was in charge of Tragedy and took her job rather too seriously. The chairman ignored her, absent-mindedly tapping something into her tablet. “So, tradition isn’t good enough for you anymore?” Mel grumbled. “Those new electronic gadgets are expensive, they break down and then they have to be replaced. Nobody repairs them,” she muttered ominously.

Clio sighed. “I still keep a sacred scroll in my purse for public functions, not that we have many nowadays. But it can’t download scholarly papers, send emails, or get YouTube,” the historian explained. She sighed again. Even an old family firm, composed entirely of nine sisters, contained a wet-blanket or two, and Mel was theirs. “Let’s get started,” the Muse of History declared pleasantly. “Urania is always a little late. Callie?”

The Classical Greek Muse for Epic Poetry, a proper demigoddess, was remarkably big and boxy, making some siblings wonder if she wasn’t merely a half-sister and their father, Zeus, may have played one of his notorious tricks on their mother. He wasn’t the most responsible lover and Mnemosyne, as her name implied, neither forgot nor forgave. It wasn’t a great relationship. Calliope’s voice was simply stentorian, like the steam-driven circus organ that the humans named after her. Thalia, always a little too liberal with the wisecracks, said a short chat with Calliope saved her from having her ears de-waxed.

“Epics have edged up three percent over the past ten fiscal years,” the Muse thundered cheerfully as the windowpanes rattled. “Mostly they’re films of people in outer space, psychotics who dress up as bats or spiders, and something about midgets with furry feet. Don’t ask me to explain.”

Her sisters nodded approvingly. Even though humans had forsaken the ancient gods, and had largely forgotten the true epics about real people such as Achilles and Odysseus, these fictional approximations still inspired them with Valour and other Virtues, and helped to keep them from descending to the level of common animals. The conferees ignored the puzzling furry feet and each resolved not to tell Pan, who is quite sensitive to jokes about his own hairy goat-legs and hooves.

Then Calliope sighed and it blew some papers off the table. “Poetry is up nine percent,” she continued at volume but with a hint of sarcasm, “but only in wordy popular songs that don’t rhyme well, performed by drug-addicts who pretend to be convicted brigands, singing about rape and murder. So that isn’t promising. Real poetry is still as rare as Dionysus paying his bar-bill, and, well…as for proper Epic Poetry…” She hung her head and let her piercing voice trail down into silence.

Euterpe confirmed that Elegiac Poetry fared no better. “Since modern humans no longer believe in the gods and admire no mortal but themselves, there’s no one left to elegize. They profess to respect rather talentless celebrities,” the bony old Muse explained earnestly, “but that’s jealousy rather than real admiration, because it has no Virtue behind it. Polly?”

The Muse of Sacred Poetry slumped sound asleep in her chair, snoring gently; the last half-millennium had aged Polyhymnia even more than her sisters. At their annual meetings, the lovable old dumpling usually awoke for a small glass of nectar and promptly dozed off again as the proceedings continued around her.

The Muse of Love Poetry batted the big, watery, blue eyes that had made her such a striking child when the world was young. “People still sing about love, and they always will,” Erato enthused, gesticulating somewhat too vigorously. “Of course, nowadays they focus chiefly on the intermediate outcome.”

“She means screwing,” muttered Melpomene.

Terpsichore“Well, that’s a start! Or rather, coitus is their first crude objective and our foot in the door!” Erato continued brightly. “Our first challenge is to move the process back through gentle courtship, onto shy approaches after longing from afar, all the way to first glimpses of Beauty. Our next issue is showing that as the flames of ardor dim over the years, the glowing coals of pure love burn hotter than ever. That shouldn’t be so hard!” Like so many trendy modern humans, she used the word challenge to mean an unsolvable problem, and said issues when she meant disasters. Her sisters smiled reassuringly, but rather too weakly to be fully convincing.

“There’s something in what she says,” chimed Terpsichore. The Muse of Dance had been confined to a wheelchair for the past century or so, but the frail and lame demigoddess shared her older sister’s unconvincing optimism. The others listened politely, but involuntarily pursed their lips.

“Why, I just watched a modern dance dedicated wholly to Love,” she chirped. “The celebrity female dancer bends over, while the celebrity male dancer simulates, um, mounting her from behind.”

“Philotes must find that disgusting!” snapped the Muse of Tragedy. Peering over her spectacles archly, the Muse of History asked whether the dance began with chocolates and flowers, but her facetious question was ignored in the hubbub.

Clio kept her History report brief. “An underpaid and obscure few still mine the past for Wisdom and Virtue, but most of their brethren merely grab forgotten events and twist them into political job applications, mimicking that week’s hot topic in whatever they call the agora. Ordinary souls still love historical costumes and theatrical folderol, but see no relevance in anything more than ten years old.” The eldest Muse lost, for just a moment, her characteristic sparkle.

Mel’s report was the shortest by far. “Everything sucks,” the Tragic Muse declared, but everyone else merely shrugged; her opinions were predictably glum. Euterpe observed that the food smelled promising, while Melpomene cast dark looks at the waiters.

The portions of ambrosia were small, for the elderly ladies no longer had big appetites, but they were grateful for the slender glasses of yellow nectar and downed them swiftly, before much of the alcohol could evaporate: they drank like the Titans from whom they partly descended, but somehow never got as drunk as the gods. Daphne kept pouring, while a waiter scampered back and forth from the bar downstairs. Thalia rose to her feet, filling her traditional spot in the program.

“I just flew in from Mount Olympus…and boy, are my arms tired!” joked the Muse of Comedy. “So Menelaus took one look at the catering bill and said to Paris, ‘Take my wife–please!’ Two Boetian virgins walk into a hotel bar on the first day of Aphrodisia…” They were the same gags she’d told for more than a century. Comedy, her sisters assumed, had not improved over the previous fiscal year.

Even after Thalia exhausted her stand-up material, the meeting didn’t run out of juice because Daphne kept pouring. Suddenly, two burly men barged into the room, wearing dark sunglasses and presumably scrutinizing the old ladies. Then they stepped aside as Urania strode in mannishly, clad in a tight black business-suit. The granddaughter of a full-blooded Titan wore an intentionally understated titanium designer necklace that matched her hair. She helped herself to the empty chair and removed a black memory-stick from her equally black designer briefcase, as her menacing, black-suited deputies stood motionless behind her. The original Muse of Astronomy waved away Daphne and her offer of nectar; instead removing a plastic bottle of vitamin-fortified mineral water from her case, thumping it onto the table.

“No need to brief me,” she declared before anyone else could speak. “Email the minutes later. As the Muse of Science, I can report growth rates of approximately 64.38 percent…” Her sisters gasped in amazement but Urania added “…compounded weekly. I inspire my astronomers to photograph newborn solar systems at the very moment that our Universe was created. My doctors are conquering malaria to save hundreds of millions of human lives. My engineers will soon offer holidays in outer space. Biologists discover rare species living beside volcanoes at the bottoms of oceans, chemists create powerful new antibiotics, geneticists new food plants, and others can file, store and retrieve more data than Mankind has ever produced. You can read the details here,” she said brusquely, tapping the memory-stick on the tabletop. “I recommend Chapter 32 on fusion power.”

“Brilliant! You were always so clever,” the chairman began, but the Muse of Science interrupted.

‘That’s because I matter most,” snapped Urania. “Please excuse me, sisters. I meet the Gates Foundation and then the Max Planck Institute, all before supper with the Nobel Committee. Let’s stay in touch. Ciao, darlings!”  After making a smooching sound and a few cheerless air-kisses, she departed as abruptly as she had arrived.

The others sat silently for awhile, until Polyhymnia blinked open her weary eyes. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I must have dozed off.” Her sisters smiled at her indulgently, for they loved her deeply.

lost antiquity“I dreamed we were back in Uncle Ap’s garden so long ago,” she recalled, “but Apollo was out hunting with Artemis and his nephews, teaching her boys to become men. Some young humans had wandered up from the village and you, Mel, were acting out the story of Oedipus and they were enthralled. Down in the meadow, Terps taught some boys and girls a classical dance. Some us were weaving fresh-cut laurels and singing that ancient hymn to Demeter, the one about the sanctity of spring planting, but then you, Thalia, did that saucy impersonation of a farmer and the youngsters laughed so hard that they never forgot the sacred words and meaning. There were larks on that morning, larks swooping everywhere, and daffodils beside the brook.”

The elderly Muses nodded somberly. “Yes, we remember it,” Clio whispered.

“So what happened after I nodded off?” Hymnalia asked. “Are those lovely humans still enthralled by Virtue? Are we still teaching them to perceive Beauty and the Divine? Inspiring them to know Moral Greatness and attempt it themselves?” Her sisters nodded insincerely, but as vigorously as they could manage.

“I suppose I can read it in the minutes,” mused the Muse, modestly sipping her nectar. Clio made a mental note not to send her a copy. She wouldn’t miss it, dear thing, so old and so happily occupied by her memories and dreams.

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Published: Nov 9, 2013
Author
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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