Classical Classic Rock: Part Three

“Flight of Icarus” by Iron Maiden 

Original Story: In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of poems focused on etiologies (or origins), we find the most popular retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. King Minos exiles Daedalus to the island of Crete and Daedalus plans to leave the island by taking the only path where Minos can’t stop him: the sky. He takes some feathers and arranges them so they mimic a bird’s wings and then binds them with wax (keep that detail in mind). As Daedalus and his son Icarus are preparing for flight, Daedalus gives a warning. Icarus is told that he should not fly too close to the water (drowning isn’t fun) and he should not get too close to the sun (getting scorched by the sun is also not fun). Basically,  Icarus needs to fly the middle course and everything will be fine. Daedalus then kisses his son and Ovid’s writing hints that this is the last time Icarus will embrace his father. Daedalus takes flight and Icarus follows. They are seen by some fishermen who think the flying figures in the sky are gods (how’s that for a fishing story to tell your buddies?) and Icarus begins to fly higher. The wax on Icarus’ wings melts and he falls into the sea. In a heart wrenching ending, Daedalus turns around, shouts for his son, and finally locks eyes with the feathers that have fallen in the waves. At the end of the story, we see the etiology (or origin) that Ovid explains: Daedalus buries the body of his son on an island that, from that point on, takes its name from Icarus: Icaria.

Image result for icaria on a map

At the bottom of this post, I’m including a link to the full text of the poem, since it’s a short read. It even includes the original Latin text to the English for you ambitious types.

Iron Maiden’s Take: It’s not unusual for Iron Maiden to make historical or literary references in their songs, but one thing that is surprising about “Flight of Icarus” (from the 1983 album Piece of Mind)  is that Steve Harris, bassist and primary songwriter for Iron Maiden, did not write this song. It was all Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith. In their portrayal, we don’t find the same tender relationship that Ovid shows. Daedalus is actually TELLING Icarus to fly closer to the sun. We see this in the opening of the song and the chorus: “As the sun breaks, above the ground /An old man stands on the hill… / His eyes are ablaze / See the madman in his gaze / Fly, on your way, like an eagle, / Fly as high as the sun.” This is a stark difference from Ovid’s portrayal of a caring father who tells his son to keep the middle course and leads the way off the island of Crete. In the second verse, Icarus declares, “In the name of God my father I fly” and then takes off. As the song continues, Icarus realizes that his dad isn’t a faithful father: “Now he knows his father betrayed / Now his wings turn to ashes to ashes his grave.” That’s the end of the story and the song closes with the chorus.

As mentioned earlier, Iron Maiden isn’t afraid of including allusions in their songwriting, and in many cases, the lyrics are faithful to the original story. For instance, look at “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from their 1984 release Powerslave. There are sections of lyrics that are taken verbatim from Samuel Coleridge’s poem of the same title. So what was the purpose of changing the story of Daedalus and Icarus? Maybe including a madman of a father fit more with the metal genre. It could be that having father and son working against each other just makes for a better story. Either way, all that matters is that the song is great, and if you haven’t heard it in awhile, scroll up to the top of the post and give it a listen.


Read the story here!


Classical Classic Rock: Part One

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.