This is the first part of a series. I am compiling a list of Classic Rock songs that make reference to Greek and Roman mythology. Each of these entries will have two parts: I will explain the original story and then look at the songwriter’s take on that story, examining the ways he or she stays to true to the myth and the ways he or she deviates from the original story.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream
Original Story: Ulysses, known to the Greeks as Odysseus, was the last soldier to come home from the Trojan War. He spent 10 years trying to get home (after spending 10 years fighting!). Homer’s Epic Poem, The Odyssey, gives the story of his journey home. It is truly an epic tale; Odysseus faces many obstacles on his way back, ranging from a Cyclops to a sea monster! One of the most popular obstacles he faces is the Sirens. In the poem, the Sirens have a song so beautiful that anyone who hears it wishes to stay with the Sirens and never leave. Odysseus wants to hear the song, so he has his crewmen tie him to the mast of their ship. This makes it possible for him to hear the song but impossible for him to leave. Meanwhile, his crew is rowing the ship, but their ears are plugged with beeswax so they can’t get distracted by the Sirens’ song.
Cream’s Take: Unlike Homer, Eric Clapton and Martin Sharp use the Roman name: Ulysses. The song mainly alludes to the Sirens, mythological beings that are typically depicted as women who are either part bird or part mermaid. The song gets it right in the references to the Sirens: “With the tales of brave Ulysses / How his naked ears were tortured /By the sirens sweetly singing.” This line also sets up Clapton’s guitar solo, making one wonder if the Sirens’ song sounds nearly as beautiful as his guitar tone. However, the song also makes reference to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual desire. In Homer’s poem, this goddess is only seen in a story that a bard tells; she has no direct interaction with Odysseus. Clapton and Sharp may have chosen to refer to her, since more people are familiar with Aphrodite than they are Circe or Calypso, the nymphs that Odysseus/Ulysses actually “interacted” with in the poem (*wink wink*). Interestingly enough, Aphrodite is the Greek name for the goddess, even though the title of the song refers to Odysseus’/Ulysses’ Roman name.