Monday, September 21, 2009


I’ve blogged in the past about the figure of Orpheus in popular music, but I’ve yet to explore how the music has employed the mythic hero or heroine. A mythic hero is usually defined as a character from myth or legend that is of divine descent and endowed with great strength or ability. The term therefore encompasses demigods as well as gods and goddesses. I should note that my use of the word ability here is broad, since mythological figures such as Cassandra and Io are afflicted by madness as a consequence of the Olympian gods’ capriciousness. The cursed prophetess Cassandra, for instance, who has the gift of prophecy but is never to be believed, is an especially tragic figure. Likewise, Hera transforms poor Io into a cow because Zeus develops an erotic passion for her. Io is thus like Cassandra in that she can never articulate her tragic insight. Venus, the mythical Goddess of Love (of the erotic kind), enthralls the legendary knight Tannhäuser. In his poem Laus Veneris, Swinburne explores the tension between an older, pagan ideal as it comes into clash with the new, Christian religion. Swinburne’s Venus, with whom the young knight Tannhäuser falls in love and with whom he lives in her subterranean home, represents the life of the old religion. Tannhäuser is wracked with remorse and guilt because of his passion for her. Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” invokes the legend of “La belle dame sans merci,” the beautiful woman without pity, which the Tannhäuser legend also employs. And Fleetwood Mac’s famous song, written by Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon,” was apparently inspired not by the Welsh myth about Rhiannon, a horse goddess, but by Mary Leader’s novel Triad. For years when performing the song live Nicks would introduce the song as being about a “Welsh witch,” but that’s not quite correct, either. At any rate, here are a few pop songs that use the figure of the mythic hero or heroine to interesting effect. They reveal how vibrant and alive these ancient myths and legends still are, even if the figure is encountered without the songwriter ever actually having read the actual source text.

Abba – Cassandra
Jimmy Clanton – Venus In Blue Jeans
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Guinevere
Donovan – Guinevere
Bob Dylan – As I Went Out One Morning
Bob Dylan – Isis
Fleetwood Mac – Rhiannon
Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
Boz Scaggs – Hercules
The Shocking Blue – Venus
Al Stewart – Merlin’s Time
Steely Dan
Home At Last
Suzanne Vega – Calypso
Rick Wakeman – The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table [album]

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