A Little Legend of the Dance

Gottfied Keller

Thou virgin of Israel, again shalt thou be adorned with thy tablet and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry... Then shall the shalt rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old together. (Jeremiah 31: 4, 13)

Saint Gregory relates in his tales that Musa was the dancer among the saints. She was the child of good folk, and a graceful little maiden, who diligently served the Mother of God and knew only one passion, namely, a love of dancing so uncontrollable that if the girl was not praying, then she was assuredly dancing. And she danced in every conceivable way. Musa danced with her playmates, with the children, with the young men, and even alone. She danced in her little chamber, in the great hall, in the gardens and over the meadows, and even when she approached the altar, she seemed to be dancing a delicious measure rather than walking. And on the smooth marble flags at the church door, she never forgot to try a few hasty steps.

Indeed, one day, when she happened to be alone in church, she could not refrain from dancing a few figures in front of the altar, and, so to speak, dancing a pretty prayer to the Virgin. She forgot herself so utterly that she fancied she was dreaming when an elderly but handsome gentleman came dancing towards her and supplemented her figures so deftly that the two between them performed the most finished pas de deux. The gentleman wore a royal robe of purple, a golden crown on his head, and a glossy black beard which was lightly silvered with age as by distant starlight. And music sounded from the choir, for there half a dozen cherubs were sitting or standing on the screen, swinging their chubby little legs over it, while they played or blew divers instruments. And the urchins made themselves quite comfortable, for each propped his music against one of the stone angels which adorned the choir screen. But the smallest, a round-checked piper, was an exception, for he crossed his legs and contrived to hold his music in his rosy toes. And he was the most zealous of all. The others swung their feet, stretched their rustling wings till they shimmered like the breasts of doves, and teased each other as they played.

Musa found no time to wonder at all this till the dance, which lasted some time, was over, and the merry gentleman seemed to enjoy it as much as the maiden, who, for her part, might have been tripping about in Heaven. But when the music stopped, and Musa stood there panting, she began to be really afraid, and looked at the old gentleman in amazement, for he was neither out of breath nor hot and now began to speak. He introduced himself as David, the royal ancestor of Mary the Virgin, and her messenger. And he asked her whether she would like to pass an eternity of bliss in an endless dance of joy, a dance, compared with which the one they had just ended could only be called a dismal crawl.

Whereupon she promptly replied that she could wish for nothing better. Whereupon the blessed King David rejoined that all she had to do was to give up all dancing and all joy for the rest of her earthly days and dedicate herself to penitence and spiritual exercises and that without faltering or relapse.

At this the maiden was somewhat taken aback, and asked whether she must give up dancing altogether. She doubted whether there really was dancing in Heaven, for there was a time for everything. Solid earth seemed a good and suitable place for dancing, therefore Heaven must have other things to offer otherwise death would simply be superfluous.

But David explained to her how sorely she was in error, and proved by many passages from the Bible, as by his own example, that dancing was certainly a blessed occupation for the blessed. But now she must make up her mind quickly, yes or no, whether by temporal renunciation she wished to enter into eternal bliss or not: if not, he must be getting along, as Heaven was in need of a few dancers.

Musa still stood there irresolute, her finger-tips playing anxiously about her mouth. It seemed too hard never to dance again just for the sake of an unknown reward.

Then David made a sign and suddenly the musicians played a few bars of a dance, so incredibly blissful and unearthly that the maiden's soul leapt in her body and she twitched in every limb; but she could not move one to the measure, and she saw that her body was too stiff and heavy for that music. Full of longing, she struck her hand into the king's and gave her promise.

Forthwith he vanished and the cherub musicians whirred and fluttered and crowded away through an open window in the church, but first they rolled up their music sheets and, like mischievous children, slapped the patient angels' faces till the church re-echoed.

But Musa walked home with devout steps, the heavenly melody in her ears, had a coarse garment made, laid aside all her fine raiment, and put it on. Then she built a cell in the back of her parents' garden, where the shadows of the trees lay thick, made a little bed of moss in it, and lived thenceforth apart from her companions as a penitent and a saint. She passed all her time in prayer, and often scourged herself, but her hardest penance was to keep her limbs still and rigid As soon as there was a single sound in the air, the twittering of a bird or the rustling of the leaves in the trees, her feet twitched and felt that they must dance.

As this involuntary twitching would not disappear, and sometimes, before she was even aware of it, she could not suppress a little pirouette, she had her frail feet bound together with a light chain. Her relatives and friends marvelled day and night at the change, but rejoiced in the possession of such a saint and guarded the hermitage under the trees as the apple of their eye. Many came for counsel and intercession. Above all, young maidens were brought to her who were a little heavy on their feet, for it had been noticed that any she touched became light and graceful of movement.

So she passed three years in her solitude, and towards the end of the third year Musa had become almost as thin and transparent as a summer cloud. She no longer moved from her little bed of moss, and lay looking longingly up to heaven, and she thought she could see the golden soles of the blessed dancing and gliding through the blue.

One raw autumn day, the news went round that the saint was lying at the point of death. She had had her dark penitential robe taken from her, and was clad in dazzling white bridal garments. So she lay with folded hands and smilingly awaited the hour of death. The whole garden was filled with pious people, the breezes whispered and the leaves were falling from the trees on every hand. But imperceptibly the whispering of the trees passed into music, which seemed to sound in every tree-top, and when the people looked up, lo ! everything was clothed in tender green, the myrtles and pomegranates bloomed in fragrance, the earth was decked with flowers and a rose-coloured light lay on the frail form of the dying maiden.

At that moment she gave up the ghost. The chain on her feet sprang asunder with a clear ringing sound, Heaven opened far and wide, full of infinite splendour, and all might look in. Then there could be seen host upon host of lovely maidens and youths in the utmost glory, dancing in endless circles. A splendid king, enthroned on a cloud with a little separate band of six cherubs sitting on its edge descended a little towards earth and received the form of the blessed Musa before the eyes of all those who filled the garden. They saw how she was borne up to Heaven, and forthwith danced out of sight amid the singing and shining hosts.

In Heaven it was high festival. But on festal days - this is contested by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, but maintained by his namesake of Nazianzen - it was the custom to invite the Muses, who were sitting in Hell, into Heaven to lend a hand. They were well entertained, but when their work was done, they had to go back to the other place.

But when the dances and all the ceremonies were at an end, and the heavenly hosts sat down to table, Musa was led to the table where the nine Muses were sitting. They sat huddled together, half intimidated, staring round them with their fiery black or deep blue eyes. Busy Martha from the Gospel served them. with her own hands. She had put on her best kitchen apron and had a dainty little smudge on her white chin, and she kindly pressed the good things on the Muses. But it was only when Musa and Saint Cecilia and other women famed in art came along and cheerily greeted the shy Pierians and sat down beside them that they brightened up and grew confidential, while a charming gaiety spread over the whole circle of the women. Musa sat beside Terpsichore, and Cecilia between Polyhymnia and Euterpe, and they all held each other's hands.

Then the little cherub musicians came up and made much of the beautiful women, hoping to get some of the shining fruit on the ambrosial table. King David came too in person and brought a golden goblet, from which all drank. He passed kindly round the table, not forgetting to pat the lovely Erato's chin as he passed. As things were going so merrily at the Muses' table, our dear Lady Herself appeared in all her beauty and goodness, to sit with the Muses awhile, and she tenderly kissed the august Urania on the mouth under her starry coronal, and, as she said goodbye, whispered that she would not rest until the Muses should again sit in Paradise for ever.

But it did not turn out so. To show their gratitude for the kindness shown them, the Muses took counsel together, and, in a distant corner of the underworld, practised a hymn of praise, to which they tried to give the form of the solemn chorales usual in Heaven. They divided into two groups of four voices each, with Urania singing a kind of descant, and so produced a remarkable piece of music.

But when the next festival was celebrated in Heaven. and the Muses were again on duty, they took advantage of a moment which seemed favourable, grouped themselves, and softly began their song, which soon swelled into a mighty chorus. But in those spaces it sounded so sombre; nay defiant and harsh, so heavy with longing and so complaining, that at first a terrified silence reigned; but the whole assembly were seized by earthly suffering and the yearning for earth, and a general weeping broke out.

Endless sighs throbbed through Heaven: all the Elders and Prophets started up, terrified and dismayed, while the Muses, with the best intentions, sang ever louder and more sadly, and all Paradise, with the Patriarchs, the Elders and the Prophets, all who had ever walked or lain on green pastures, were quite beside themselves. But at last the Holy Trinity itself came up to set things right, and silenced the zealous Muses with a long rolling peal of thunder.

Then peace and serenity returned to Heaven, but the poor sisters had to depart and have never been allowed to return since.

Translation by M.D. Hottinger

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© 1994-1999 Robert Godwin-Jones
Virginia Commonwealth University