I'm the Girl by Heather Nova

medusa (1).jpg

Reference: Medusa

Level: Overt

Description: This song by folk singer and songwriter Heather Nova from her 1998 album Siren references Greek mythology's gorgon monster Medusa in the verse:

And I'm a siren; I'll wreck you on my shores
And I'm Godiva; I'll call you back for more
And I'm Medusa; and I'm your favourite doll
And I'm a Georgia O'Keefe
Hanging on your wall

A strong theme of infamous female figures runs through the entire song (Joan of Arc also gets a nod along with heralded/controversial female figures such as Georgia O'Keefe and the mythological sirens), as well as intoning that all women are of importance with the mention of the “girl next door”.

The song could simply be a homage to women throughout the ages ("I have a memory a thousand years old") or it could be an illustration of what 'woman' is, has been and continues to be; with the battles they face, how they are persecuted for their beliefs and values, or how they are portrayed in a negative fashion for committing an act that a man would be championed for. 

These multi-faceted complications for women are all the more pertinent in today's culture, and can be traced back to Medusa (who is mentioned several times in this song). Medusa was once a beautiful maiden who was wooed by Poseidon, who she then married. This angered Athena, who cursed her by tinging her skin green, making her eyes bloodshot and giving her snakes for hair. Medusa would turn people to stone by looking at them; she went to dwell in a cave out of sight but Perseus sought her out and beheaded her. Why this happened is another story but what is interesting is that Athena chose to punish Medusa rather than Poseidon! It is also interesting that despite her powers, she was reduced in mythology to a trophy for men to fight over – a difficult woman that needed to be conquered.

The song ends:

"Every ruby-lipped girl baby, old lady, squaw junkie, 
Girl after girl after girl, every muse, whore, 
Good witch, princess, back arching, year after year after year"

The lyrics reference Medusa’s fate and therefore the lives of all women - women have strong depictions in history but the reasons for the depictions are not always positive; the hypocrisy is that the traits that make these women seem like villains, are the same traits for which men are commended. 

Contributor: A Girl

Cassiopeia by Joanna Newsom


Reference: Cassiopeia

Level: Overt

Description: This harp song by Joanna Newsom is quite difficult to interpret, but seems to be linked to the bedroom and a relationship in some way. A simple interpretation of the lyrics appears to be that it is referencing the beauty of sleep (or perhaps insomnia). It possibly also explores the comfort of sleeping next to the one you love and not wishing to leave that haven. However, there are darker interpretations; does the song allude to an abused woman killing her abuser as he sleeps? The song ends with the words "hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopeia", which seems to be about reaching for or holding onto the magical power of the stars. In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia is the mother of Andromeda and boasts so much about her daughter's beauty and her own unrivalled beauty that she incurs the wrath of Poseidon. As a punishment, Poseidon sends her to the heavens, chained to her throne. It is from this vantage point that Cassiopeia has to watch the fate of her daughter (Andromeda) who is bound to the sea-rocks as prey for the monster Cetus. Andromeda is saved by Perseus, but Cassiopeia is forced spend the rest of her life circling the Earth, sitting upright for 6 months and upside-down for the other half of the year. The Cassiopeia star constellation imagines the shape of her sitting on this chair. It is interesting Newsom chooses this Greek myth because if the darker analysis of her song is true, it could draw parallels with a woman being persecuted by a man who is irritated by her beauty or womanliness (perhaps jealousy?) and she is at the mercy of his power. Is it not Poseidon who is vain and arrogant to feel he can punish Cassiopeia? If the song is about a destructive relationship, the Cassiopeia inclusion could refer to the person who knows that they with an abusive partner, but cannot leave - like Cassiopeia chained to her throne in the sky and unable to escape her fate. Or perhaps the Cassiopeia in this song deserves her punishment in some way for her vanity and arrogance, Dorian Gray style... Maybe Newsom just referred to Cassiopeia in its constellation context because of its resonance to the heavens and the stars. Whatever the case, please indulge in the sheer poetry of this sweet song!

Contributor: Keeley Hickin

Siren Song by Bat For Lashes


Reference: Sirens

Level: Overt

Description: This song from Bat for Lashes’ 2009 album Two Suns is definitely somewhat of an enigma. The first few verses certainly seem like a ‘modern siren song’ for a not-so-modern man. Natasha Khan sings that, “In the morning I'll make you breakfast, In the evening I'll warm the bed, And I'll always be happy to kiss you, Promise I'll never get sad” and we are being presented with the ‘ideal woman’, straight from a 50s commercial for soap powder. This is an appealing offer to a ‘modern Odysseus’ who is trying to steer his ship safely through the dangers of hedge-funds and high-cholesterol living. However, just as we think we know what point she is trying to make, the song takes somewhat of an unexpected turn when Khan sings, “Till the siren come calling, calling, It's driving me evil, evil” and we start to realise that the singer’s persona in this song (named Pearl) is not the siren that lures men to her with promises of a pre-feminist household, but it is in fact she who is the victim of the sirens’ calls. The song challenges the listener’s gender expectations; some will happily go along with the idea that the woman can lure the man – such is his shallowness and slavishness to his base instincts, but Khan is perhaps telling us that women have exactly the same desires, are just as fallible as men and are therefore just as likely to be tempted from their ‘perfect path’. Khan’s lyrics are deliciously ambiguous as she sings at the end of the song, “It won't be long until you'll break” and we cannot know if she is talking about the man or the woman in the relationship inevitably succumbing to the temptation of the siren. She finishes with, “Cause I'm evil, 'cause I'm evil” and we are left to ponder what or who the “I” is. Is it the man/woman in the relationship? Desire? Jealousy? Addiction? The song remains poignantly unresolved and as a listener we are free to superimpose what reasoning we like onto the words. It is at this point when we tend to layer our own fears onto the lyrics. And this is what the Siren’s Song does - it lures you towards your own insecurities and therefore, a definite oblivion.

Contributor: David Hogg

Trojan Curfew by Stephen Malkmus


Reference: Troy

Level: Overt

Description: This track appears on the eponymous Stephen Malkmus debut solo album. It was a bittersweet release for me at the time as it signalled the end of my beloved Pavement, but was good enough to assure me that all was not lost. The lyrics to this somewhat puzzling song seem to imagine an ancient time when "Greek gods are communing, Beneath the Doric arch, And they talk how small we humans are". The Classical references continue with mentions of Agamemnon, a 'Pyrrhic march' and sacrifices. This image of Hellenistic gods mulling over life is juxtaposed with the shepherds in the next verse who "herd in real time"; the listener is reminded that there are an infinite number of voices from the Classical world who never had the time to contemplate the insignificance of humans, let alone write down what they thought. The lyrical passing of 'real slow' time mirrors the languid music perfectly and when Malkmus states "Troy will prevail", I almost accept this because I want his world to exist as it seems so relaxed and peaceful. The final verse brings the listener into modern times and the 'drinking gods' have been replaced by drunken humans and it seems time may pass, but the pastimes stay the same around the "Doric arch". People will always have simple conversations about difficult topics over a glass of wine while the the "converging waves" continue to roll, in the same way that they have always done. Perhaps when Malkmus reminds us again that "Trojan curfews prevail", he's referring to a Troy that still has a chance to grow out of the infinite time that is still available to history.

Contributor: David Hogg

Alexander the Great by Iron Maiden


Reference: Alexander the Great

Level: Overt

Description: This track from Iron Maiden's sixth album is essentially a chronological description of Alexander's empire building. The lyrics come straight from a history text book as we are told his father is called Philip of Macedon, he became king at ninteen, in 334 BC he utterly beat the Persian army and so on. The verses manage to squeeze in references to Darius, Scythians, Egypt, Alexandria, Jaxartes, Arbela, Babylon, Susa, Persepolis, the Gordian knot and the fact that his army would not follow him into India. Not content with summarising the history of Alexander's military campaigns in just under 9 minutes, lyricist Steve Harris also manages to propose that, "Hellenism he spread far and wide, The Macedonian learned mind, Their culture was a western way of life, He paved the way for Christianity". The ideas contained in these lines could certainly fill up a 'Comments' section (if I had one). Disappointingly there are no references in the song to Hephaestion, Bucephalus or Roxana, but it is still a comprehensive introduction to this historical figure and is a topic unlikely to be tackled by any other musical act so comprehensively any time soon. 

Contributor: David Hogg

Aphrodite by Thurston Moore


Reference: Aphrodite

Level: Overt

Description: This is quite clearly a song written by a man in love to the woman that he is in love with; and what could be more complimentary to your loved one than calling her the Goddess of Love and Beauty. And at over 8 minutes, Moore is not embarrassed about highlighting his infatuation to his listeners. In the first verse, the words "pebble cast..." seem to make an reference to the beach where Aphrodite emerged from the sea-foam. The second verse seems to move the description onto the lover as opposed to Aphrodite and the lyrics hint at Hephaestus, "She first saw him there, Irons adorned the mystic sear", but perhaps there is also an echo of her lover Ares in the line, "Blood and ink blots for you". I have to admit that I had to try hard to find Classical references in the lyrics - perhaps it is enough to say that Moore has found a goddess for his muse. 

Contributor: David Hogg

The Ides of March by Iron Maiden


Reference: Julius Caesar

Level: Overt

Description: There are no lyrics to this song, so my job here is to infer the significance of the title, by surmising why a band would name a track after the day of Julius Caesar's assassination. This instrumental appeared on Iron Maiden's second album Killers, a title that links overtly to Brutus and his co-conspirators' actions. It is the shortest Iron Maiden track ever, which perhaps references the speed of the attack by the killers on the would-be emperorIt is also the last album to include original vocalist Paul Di'Anno before the band sacked him and he was replaced by long-term frontman Bruce Dickinson; perhaps the song is accidentally  prophetic. Could the title presciently reference the future of the band's lead vocalist and the upcoming changes to the line-up by recalling the assassination of Julius (who was followed by a long-term successor in the form of Augustus, just like Dickinson followed Di'Anno)? If so, what else do Iron Maiden's song titles correctly predict? 

Contributor: David Hogg

Venus by Bananarama


Reference: Venus

Level: Overt

Description: The lyrics of this 80s pop classic are not wholly robust under scrutiny (I can’t find evidence of Venus burning like a silver flame - although this might be a simile used to represent her passions), but the most important piece of information about this Goddess is abundantly present: she is a “Goddess of beauty and love. And Venus was her name”. Helpfully this is repeated many times and probably means that there is a generation of people (in Britain at least) who have a Pavlovian response when confronted with the words Venus, goddess of… There is also a hint of Mount Olympus in the lyrics when the trio state that she’s a "Goddess on the mountain top". I wish more pop songs repeated the names of gods and their patronage – there are certainly enough gods and goddesses for an album and it would make remembering them all a bit easier.

I’ll start: Mars, huh, God of War, what is he good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again!

Contributor: David Hogg

The End by The Doors


Reference: Oedipus

Level: Implied

Description: This brilliant song on the eponymous debut album from The Doors is an Oedipal nightmare that is anchored to this Sophoclean play so much more than simply “Father… I want to kill you. Mother I want to…”. The lyrics of this opus are steeped with the influence of this great tragedy throughout. At the start of The End Morrison states that he will "never look into your eyes again", which opens a circle which is nicely closed in the final verse when he sings, “It hurts to set you free… you’ll never follow me…” as he wanders off into the world, blind. Tiresias may even get a nod in the final lines (and perhaps a portion of blame) when he states “the end of laughter and soft lies”. The theme of fate gets acknowledged when we the Lizard Kings states “No safety or surprise” and we are walked towards the location of the narrator's doom in Thebes when the “desperate land” is mentioned and the singer takes the “strangers hand” (Jocasta?). And just in case you’re still not convinced by my proposal, we are told that “all the children are insane" and we all know what the children of Oedipus did next. Perhaps When the Music’s Over (turn out the lights) is an Antigone-themed sequel that references her sepulchral fate?

Contributor: David Hogg

Siren by Roxy Music


Reference: Sirens

Level: Overt

Description: This 70s classic features Jerry Hall on the album art as the eponymous siren. So the story goes, Hall and Bryan Ferry were not an item at the time of the photo-shoot, but got together during the photography session. It would be satisfying to say that Hall lured Ferry towards her, sirenesque. It would be particularly gratifying because of Ferry's 'nautical' name, which would neatly complete the circle. However, Hall's biography states that it was actually Ferry who took on the role of siren in this instance. Apparently, Hall struggled to remove the body-paint that she had been covered in for the photo-shoot and Ferry offered to help in its removal. The rest then becomes part of rock history. The opening track, Love is the Drug, suits the iconography of the album art because the allegory of the siren has been used throughout time to explain the inexplicable behaviour of those suffering from the narcotic effects of this stupefying emotion. Several years later, Roxy Music moved away from Classical references and found inspiration in British mythology with their final album, Avalon (the final resting place of King Arthur). There were also no supermodels on the artwork (a Roxy first) which perhaps shows that, as you get older, all you really want to do is stay at home and, when looking back at those bygone days, you realise that there is More Than This. 

Contributor: David Hogg

Ars Longa Vita Brevis by The Nice


Reference:    Hippocrates

Level:              Overt 

Description: The phrase Ars Longa Vita Brevis is used for both the name of the album and an instrumental track released in 1968. 

"Ars longa, vita brevis" is a Latin translation of a phrase that came originally from Greek. The Latin is often translated into English as 'Art is long, life is short', which can force us to think about the contributions to the world that we want to leave behind after we die. If we want to be remembered for doing great things, then we must do great things. However, one person's definition of 'great' can often differ wildly from another's; history has shown us that 'great' does not always mean good. In fact in today's celebrity culture, the word 'art' in this phrase could now be seen defunct. Perhaps 'fame is long' would be more resonant to the modern reader?

The original Greek version of the phrase is the first two lines of the Aphorismi by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The Hippocratic Oath that doctors have to swear today still carries his name. This perfectly proves the idea that a great deed can indeed continue to echo through time long after our deaths. Life maybe short, but it has been made a little bit longer thanks to Hippocrates and those that followed in his footsteps.

ContributorIan Desrosiers

The Lamia by Genesis


Reference: The Lamia

Level: Implied

Description: The song is on the concept double-album called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). It's an epic story of self-discovery. The lyrics to the track describe three snake-like creatures with female faces, roughly corresponding to a description by Diodorus.

The story that is used as the narrative to this song is strange, frightening and beautiful. The ugly and fearful are described in a sensual and calming way - the three female serpents seem gentle and caring. The poisoners are then poisoned by their 'victim' who is upset at their demise. These terrible creatures are then seen as terribly unfortunate. This playing around with the ugly/beautiful and the hunted/hunter is reminiscent of Keats and his technique of  Negative Capability. The Lamia is perfect for this type of poetic writing, as demonstrated by Keats' own poem about the creature called Lamia.

ContributorIan Desrosiers

Ocean by Eloy


Reference:    Poseidon, Atlantis, Kleito, etc...

Level:              Overt and Implied

Description:  This is a classic space-rock album from Germany released in 1977. There are plenty of Classical references including Kleito and the Columns of Heracles on the album. Even the song titles contain Classical references: Poseidon's Creation, Incarnation of the Logos, Decay of the Logos, Atlantis' Agony at June 5th - 8498, 13 P.M. Gregorian Earthtime.

Ocean is a true classic of progressive rock history in Germany and abroad. Written by drummer Jurgen Rosenthal, the lyrics relate to Greek mythology, combining the tale of Poseidon and the myth of Atlantis. Man lost the paradise on Earth that was Atlantis because of his violent nature. In 1977, the threat of nuclear war was at the forefront of everybody's thoughts, so the metaphor of Atlantis and the destruction of paradise would have been quite fitting.  There is a dream within the popular consciousness that we will find Atlantis one day, probably because it would prove that it could be rebuilt and there is such a thing as a 'second chance'. This would give civilization a safety-net and a chance to make at least one 'big mistake'. Atlantis has yet to be found...

ContributorIan Desrosiers

The Fountain of Salmacis by Genesis


Reference:    Hermaproditus

Level:              Overt

Description: Prog-rock legends Genesis recorded this song for their 1971 album Nursery Cryme. It was the first album to include Phil Collins on drums and the song has writing from all 5 members of the band. There is something apt about this union of the musicians considering the myth that they use for the lyrics of their song. There is no need to infer any reference in this song - it simply tells the myth in full with a varied and sometimes challenging musical arrangement. Peter Gabriel was the lead singer in the band at this time and was often a more original stage-performer than Bowie. His costumes and looks could often be quite challenging to a mainstream audience and he, like Bowie, liked to play around with his androgyny. The choice of this myth was more by design than accident. 

Contributor: Ian Desrosiers

Home at Last by Steely Dan


Reference:    Odysseus, sirens

Level:              Overt

Description: The theme of this song is based on the siren episode in the Odyssey, but with a twist - the chorus of the song almost seems like a lament. The singer also sounds almost annoyed about still being tied to the mast long after passing out of reach of the sirens:
I know this super highway
This bright familiar sun
I guess that I'm the lucky one
Who wrote that tired sea song
Set on this peaceful shore
You think you've heard this one before
Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last

She serves the smooth retsina
She keeps me safe and warm
It's just the calm before the storm
Call in my reservation
So long hey thanks my friend
I guess I'll try my luck again
(repeat chorus)

There seems to be an interesting paradoxical clash between what the narrator wants and what he has; he seems to desire both the danger/excitement of the sirens and the comforts and security of his home. This is impossible, unless Penelope is your wife. This desire to 'wander' away from home is seen in Odysseus, who seems to solve Steely Dan's conundrum by saying that he was 'under a spell' and therefore can't be blamed for anything he did (I know that Calypso isn't a siren, but I think it is a valid point). Perhaps Penelope had been getting advice from Dolly Parton's lyrics in Stand by Your Man.

Contributor: Anne Sullivan