5 Songs Inspired by Greek Myth

The grip Greek Myth has on our imaginations on some level is unsurprising, given the stories go back 2700 years. People love something familiar, and having been around so long, these stories and the moral conundrums they contain provide the basis for a significant swath of Western Civilization. From Icarus to the Minotaur to the libidinous and petty Gods, their stories were populated with intriguing characters animated by the same passions as humans, just on a much grander, larger-than-life scale. Heck, the more you think about it, the more it sounds like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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1. “Orestes” A Perfect Circle (2000)

The myth of Orestes was the focus of several Greek playwrights, Aeschylus’ Oresteia being but one. While the particulars and focus vary, the larger story is of a son who must avenge his father by killing his mother, bringing competing societal dictates into conflict (signifying for some scholars a transition from matriarchal to patriarchal attitudes). Orestes story appears throughout Greek literature as a prototype for one who commits a crime which is mitigated by extenuating circumstances.

Billy Howerdel and Maynard James Keenan formed A Perfect Circle in 1999, and this became Howerdel’s favorite track when his father complimented it, before his death not long after the debut album, Mer de Nom’s May 2000 release. It’s about releasing the past and healing yourself Keenan explained in an interview with Kerrang! Magazine. 

“It’s about grieving, coming to terms with things,” he said. “I had some friends who were going through some difficult times, as we all do. You see them getting swallowed up by their own self-pity and depression and fear.” 

2. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” Cream (1967)

The composition was essentially a collaboration between Australian artist Martin Sharp, who was a neighbor in his building. Sharp had written a poem he thought might make a good song, and Clapton has some music in mind. 

“As it happens, I had in my mind at that moment an idea inspired by a favorite song of mine by the Lovin’ Spoonful called ‘Summer in the City,’ so I asked him to show me the words,” Clapton wrote in his 2007 autobiography. Bassist Jack Bruce sings, as he did on most Cream songs.  The album was the b-side to their hit single, “Strange Brew.” 

When the band’s first attempt at the track fell flat, Clapton found himself at a nearby music store. He purchased a wah-pedal because he heard that Jimi Hendrix, who lived in London at the time, had been experimenting with one (on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Sharp not only contributed lyrics to the band, but composed the cover art for that album, Disraeli Gears, and 1968’s Wheels of Fire.

3. “Oedipus” Regina Spektor (2002)

Like “Samson,” the other Greek myth song on her second (self-released) album, Songs, Spektor doesn’t merely regurgitate the tale, but rather finds a different perspective. In “Samson” (which she’d rerecord for her 2006 major label debut, Begin to Hope) it’s one of his prior loves, here it’s the unloved and forgotten progeny of Oedipus and Clytemnestra. 

The child remains nameless, only a number like 31 others, the ill-begotten spawn of their father’s greed and narcissism. His mother can’t even look at him, so grievous is her shame, which he can’t help but internalize. As the song progresses, the child goes as mad as Jack Nicholson on winter break at the Overlook Hotel. As “Oedipus” closes, there’s a sense of how the continual reaping and sowing of our worst impulses are sadly self-reinforcing. 

4. “Sisyphus” Andrew Bird (2019)

Like Spektor, Bird tries to turn the Greek myth on its side. In some sense, there’s a heroic aspect to Sisyphus “willingness” to face that rock each day and engaged the futility of his actions. Many of us may be prone to sense of diminishing returns to our labors that allow us to sympathize. Bird imagines this heroic suffering is its own jail and calls Sisyphus the first Catholic in a conversation with novelist David Eggers (who attended Lake Forest High School in Chicago like Bird). 

Bird describes the song as “being addicted to your own suffering.” It’s something he knows well.
“I’m happiest when I’m struggling up a literal or figurative hill,” he said. “Sometimes I stop and say, “What’s the collateral damage of this inclination? And the moral consequences of abandoning this eternal task? Maybe the rock’s going to roll down and hurt somebody.” 

In the end, these Herculean tasks and hopeless endeavors only serve to separate us, as even our suffering is personal, not something to be shared. This is the idea behind the lyric, “I’d rather fail like a human than flail like a God.” In that lyric, “to fail like a mortal” is to give up on immortality in favor of friends and family community. Harmony and happiness instead of tortured godliness.”

5. “Venus” Bananarama (1986)

This London trio had already enjoyed significant success (six Top 10 singles) in the U.K. before releasing this ultimate summer jam in May of 1986, and watching it top the charts in five countries, including America. It’s actually a cover of Dutch band Shocking Blue’s 1969 hit song. Though it doesn’t differ much in structure, all the layered sonic details are turned up to 10 on the Bananarama version. 

Credit belongs to Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Peter Waterman, a three-man production team that got their start making hi-NGR club tracks, and had just turned Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” into a No. 1 hit in the U.K. Bananarama had been performing “Venus” almost since they started and were finally ready to record it like a dance tune, but the producers who helped with their previous hit, “Cruel Summer,” weren’t into it, so they sought out Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

The vaguely kitschy video saw the trio dancing over a variety of backgrounds in a campy fun manner, as if they were before their mirrors at home, amplifying the joyous kid-like abandon already present on the track. While original member Siobhan Fahey left in 1988, after replacing her with Jacquie O’Sullivan for a few years, the pair of Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward continued as a duo. They released their latest album, Masquerade, just last year. Woodward was in a relationship with Wham’s Andrew Ridgely for over 25 years before it ended in November 2017. 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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