Mythology has also fascinated me, but even more, captivating are songs which cleverly reference mythology in its title or lyrics. So, here are the top ten songs about mythology (and besides being great songs, hopefully, you’ll learn a thing or two about this subject in the process.)
Number Ten: The Doors – Hyacinth House. “Hyacinth House” is a song by The Doors, off of their 1971 album, L.A. Woman. It was the last album recorded by Jim Morrison before he died, and while some may take the song literally, it’s well-known that Jim was versed in Greek mythology (often identifying himself with the god Dionysus.) Hyacinthus was the beautiful lover of the god Apollo, and when they were throwing a discus, the jealous god of wind, Zephyr, blew the discus off course, killing Hyacinthus. Apollo refused to let Hades claim his lover, so instead he created a flower out of his lover’s blood, called the hyacinth. Lyrics include, “what are they doing in the Hyacinth House / to please the lions this day / I need a brand new friend who doesn’t bother me…/ why did you throw the Jack of hearts away / it was the only card in the deck that I had left to play.” These lyrics, written by Morrison, were almost foreshadowing his death, as if Jim knew his life would end soon; by mentioning the hyacinth, he most likely was referring to how Hyacinthus was transformed into a flower when he died, and thus, Jim probably knew he would be immortalized after his death. Other lyrics include, “I see the bathroom is clear / I think that somebody’s near / I’m sure that someone is following me.” While many say this is a reference to the song being recorded in a bathroom, it’s very eerie considering Jim was found dead in a bathtub.
Number Nine: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Isis. “Isis” is a song by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, off of their 2007 album, Is Is. The lyrics are the following: “All my loves are / hidden in pieces / all my loves are / within a wild night / if they are still up high / we’ll throw them to the sea / watch the murder of the wilds / to the music of the deep.” Some say this is a song about revenge while others say it’s about the meaninglessness of one night stands. In Egyptian mythology, Isis was married to Osiris, who was murdered by his brother Set. Specifically, Set cut the body into pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt; Isis went looking for the pieces and found all of them but one. However, by the band saying “loves,” this suggests the narrator has more than one love interest, and by singing “we’ll throw them to the sea,” perhaps the narrator is saying that she’s going to put those with pride in their place; this reinforces the aforementioned idea of one night stands.
Number Eight: Deftones – Minerva. “Minerva” is a song by Deftones, off of their 2003 self-titled album. Minerva is a Roman goddess, who is often equated to the Greek Athena. She is considered to be the goddess of music, poetry, wisdom and magic, among other things; she is often shown with her sacred animal, the owl, again reflecting wisdom (interestingly, a white owl is present on the Deftones album cover for 2010’s Diamond Eyes.) Lyrics include, “I get all numb / when she sings it’s over / such a strange numb / and it brings my knees to the earth” and “God bless you all / for the song you saved us.” In this case, the “numb” the narrator is speaking of is in the sense of awe and wonder, especially in regards to the music (art) created by this woman. Supposedly, lead singer Chino Moreno stated that this song was about how the beauty of mature women enchants him. This is a beautiful track about art and women, with a bit of mythology mixed in.
Number Seven: White Hinterland – Icarus. “Icarus” is a song by White Hinterland, off of her 2010 album, Kairos (White Hinterland is the current stage name for singer/songwriter Casey Dienel.) The myth goes that Icarus was given a set of wings by his father Daedalus, that were made out of wood, feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the wax would melt, as well as not flying too low, as the sea would destroy the wings too; however, Icarus did not heed this warning, and the wax melted, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. The song begins, “let the sun rain down on me / ‘til covered in dew / all pink and new and reborn / cut past the grey and countless forms / condemned to be killed or conquered.” The song continues, “though I can see clearly ahead of me / I cannot stop it once I’m set a-spinning / what can it mean / why must I always see the ending at the beginning.” Perhaps these lyrics are reflecting how it’s impossible to escape fate; how Icarus flew past the clouds to the sun to escape Crete, yet his hubris caused him to end up in both places his father warned him about (the sun and the sea.) Other lyrics include, “slender as a carp you are,” “I watch you skate like a knife beneath the water” and “I’ll meet you where the water’s warm.” These lines mirror the idea of Icarus in the sea.
Number Six: Arcade Fire – It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus). “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is a song by Arcade Fire, off of their 2013 release, Reflektor. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was known to be irresistible when he played his music (specifically the lyre.) He married Eurydice, but shortly afterwards she was bit by a snake and died. Overcome with grief, Orpheus made up his mind to travel down to the underworld of Hades and bring Eurydice back from the dead; he was able to convince the gods to let him do this, but the gods had one condition: that he not look back at her while traveling back to the world of the living. Orpheus was successful up until the last moment, when he glanced back at her; she disappeared instantly. Orpheus spent the rest of his life in the wilderness, until a group of maenads literally tore him apart; however his limbs were found unaffected by the sea. The lyrics of the Arcade Fire song reflect the story of Orpheus, containing lines like, “hey, Orpheus / I’m behind you / don’t turn around / I can find you / just wait until it’s over / wait until it’s through.” This perhaps mirrors Eurydice’s thoughts about the condition the gods gave Orpheus, while also paralleling Orpheus’s musical skills. Other lyrics include, “sometime / boy they’re gonna eat you alive” (the maenads) and “we stood beside a frozen sea / I saw you out in front of me / reflected light, a hollow moon / oh, Orpheus, Eurydice / it’s over too soon.”
Number Five: Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is a song by Cream, off of their 1967 album, Disraeli Gears. Lyrics include, “her name is Aphrodite and she rides a crimson shell / and you know you cannot leave her for you touched the distant sands” and “the colors of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids / and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses / how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing / for the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white-lace lips.” The song was actually written by Martin Sharp, who said, “I used to live in the islands of the Med. Sea and when I moved back to London I missed it so I wrote these lyrics about it.” In this sense, the narrator of the song is referring to “Tales of Brave Ulysses” as a metaphor for his own journey. Ulysses is also known as the Greek Odysseus, who was involved in the “Trojan horse” story, who encountered the Cyclops, who was able to escape the sorceress named Circe, along with overcoming the Sirens and the sea monster Scylla. Although Ulysses plugged the ears of himself and his sailors to defeat the Sirens, by singing that “his naked ears were tortured,” along with “you want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter,” this suggests that like Ulysses, the narrator knows he’s bound for a life of adventure. Moreover, the “sparkling waves” and “distant sands” suggest that despite the hardships faced by the narrator, he knows he can never be content with a “normal” life since he has traveled to many foreign lands and experienced so much. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born by rising from the ocean on a giant scallop (or “crimson shell,” as the song says.)
Number Four: Donovan – Atlantis. “Atlantis” is a song by Donovan, off of his 1969 release, Barabajagal. In Greek mythology, Atlantis was an island in the West that the gods sank beneath the ocean to punish its people for their sins. The myth was explained by Plato, who elaborated that the island’s founders were half human and half god; Atlantis was considered to be a utopian paradise, and many scholars still debate whether or not the island actually existed in reality. The beginning of Donovan’s song explains this legend: “The continent of Atlantis was an island / which lay before the great flood / in the area we now call the Atlantic Ocean / so great an area of land / that from her western shores / those beautiful sailors journeyed / to the south and the north Americas with ease / in their ships with painted sails / to the east, Africa was a neighbor / across a short strait of sea miles / the great Egyptian age is / but a remnant of the Atlantian culture / the antediluvian kings colonized the world / all the gods who play in the mythological dramas / in all legends from all lands were from far Atlantis / knowing her fate / Atlantis sent ships to all corners of the Earth…” After this informative opening, Donovan sings, “way down below the ocean / where I wanna be, she may be.”
Number Three: The Police – Wrapped Around Your Finger. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a song by The Police, off of their 1983 album, Synchronicity. The song begins, “you consider me the young apprentice / caught between the Scylla and Charybdis / hypnotized by you if I should linger / staring at the ring around your finger.” The song continues, “Mephistopheles is not your name / I know what you’re up to just the same” and “devil and the deep blue sea behind me / vanish in the air you’ll never find me / I will turn your face to alabaster / when you’ll find your servant is your master.” Of course, the song begins with Sting singing, “I’ll be wrapped around your finger,” and ends with, “you’ll be wrapped around my finger.” Scylla is a terrifying-looking sea monster, while Charybdis is also a sea monster, who swallows and regurgitates water (similar to a whirlpool.) They are both female and immortal and reside on opposite sides of the shore on the waters that Odysseus must sail through. Essentially, being caught between them means being caught between two unfortunate options and having to choose between the lesser of two evils. In context of the song, an easy explanation would be that the narrator is lusting after an older, married woman, and therefore the hard decision he must make is whether or not to have an affair with her. Mephistopheles is a demon in folklore, and is most well-known for Faust selling his soul to him; in this track, the narrator seems to be saying that despite the person not being a literal or obvious devil, he knows their true motives, and will keep playing along, making them think they have control. “Devil and the deep blue sea” echoes the same sentiment of “caught between the Scylla and Charybdis,” so by saying it’s behind him, he’s stating that he made it past the trappings of this person. I assume that by transforming the person’s “face to alabaster,” the narrator could be referring to turning them into a statue or object- similar to all those famous statues of gods and goddesses. Essentially, he turns it around and says that he is the one in control and the one who will decide the person’s fate. Whatever your interpretation of this song, it’s one of the most lyrically brilliant tracks by this band.
Number Two: A Perfect Circle – Orestes. “Orestes” is a song by A Perfect Circle, off of their 2000 release, Mer de Noms (this album title is French for “sea of names.”) Lyrics include, “metaphor for a missing moment / pull me into your perfect circle / one womb / one shape / one resolve” and “gotta cut away, clear away / snip away and sever this / umbilical residue that’s / keeping me from killing you.” These lyrics reflect the title, in that the myth of Orestes revolves around him avenging his father’s death by killing his mother; however, as a punishment for committing matricide, the Furies drove Orestes insane (the Furies, also known as the “angry ones,” are female spirits of justice who supposedly were sisters, according to Greek and Roman mythology.) Supposedly though, if Orestes had not avenged his father’s death, he still would have been found guilty by the Furies; so it was a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” type of situation. The “perfect circle” could then be mirroring the cyclical nature of things, in that Orestes came from his mother’s womb, yet there’s only “one resolve,” or solution to the problem, which is to kill her. The “umbilical residue” further explains Orestes’ dilemma, in that he most likely still views his mother as a nurturing figure, yet he also knows what must be done. While this track certainly reflects the mythology of Orestes, surely it has other meanings as well. Some say it’s about Maynard James Keenan’s relationship with his mother Judith, some say it’s about preserving the bonds of family and some say it’s about the perception of insanity in the modern world (this latter theory actually makes some sense in terms of lyrics like, “give me one more medicated peaceful moment” and “I don’t wanna feel this overwhelming hostility.”)
Number One: Tori Amos – Pandora’s Aquarium. Tori Amos uses mythology in her music more than any other artist I know. In 1996, she recorded her album, Boys for Pele (Pele is a Hawaiian Fire Goddess.) In 2007, she came out with the concept album, American Doll Posse, in which she embodied several goddesses (such as Aphrodite, Artemis, Persephone, Demeter, Dionysus and Athena.) In “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas,” off of 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, she sings the following: “don’t make me pull him out of your head / Athena will attest that it could be done / and it has been done” (Athena was cut out of Zeus’s head.) In “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” off of 1996’s Boys for Pele, she references Sumerian goddess Inanna, while titles of her songs also reflect mythology, such as “Apollo’s Frock” and “Siren.” I chose to highlight “Pandora’s Aquarium,” off of 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel, as it mentions both Pandora and Persephone. Lyrics include, “Pandora, Pandora’s aquarium / she dives for shells with her nautical nuns / and thoughts you thought you’d never tell” and “I’m not asking you to believe in me / boy, I think you’re confused, I’m not Persephone / foam can be dangerous with tape across my mouth / these things you do I never asked you how.”
Persephone is the goddess of spring, while also being known as Queen of the Underworld; she was abducted by Hades (god of the Underworld) who tricked her into eating food in the underworld, thus, the goddess’ fate was to spend the winter months, or half the year, in the underworld. As mentioned previously, Persephone (in the form of “Clyde,”) is represented on the American Doll Posse album, within songs like “Beauty of Speed” and “Girl Disappearing.” However, in reference to “Pandora’s Aquarium,” by Tori stating she is not Persephone, perhaps she is saying to herself and the world that she’s not a victim (many tracks off of From the Choirgirl Hotel revolve around Tori’s traumatic experience of having a miscarriage.)
Pandora, in Greek mythology, was created by the gods as the first human woman; “Pandora’s box” is a phrase which references how evil was unleashed into the world. Supposedly, only hope was left inside when the box was closed, so by Tori replacing “box” with “aquarium,” perhaps she was “diving” for the hope that was left in the box. Tori herself has said the following about this track: “You know when you’ve cried and cried, and you really can’t cry anymore, so you’re very quiet? I started hearing the water, and ‘Pandora’ – the last song on the record – came to me. She was sort of warning me that there are so many feelings under the rocks that I needed to turn into. She told me, ‘You need to dive into this one, Tori, because your healing is in there. Once you go, it’s a whole new journey, but you’ve got to metaphorically leave this little dock and come with me to find out what’s really in this ocean of feelings.’ So I did.”