A Journey through Classical Reception in Modern Music

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch. Photo credit: Chencc67789, via Wikimedia Commons

Reprinted from The National Herald

                One of the greatest benefits of having Greek heritage is being a part of the tremendous legacy of Greek antiquity. Oftentimes, when one thinks of ancient art, politics, and mythology, they think of Greece. Of course, this is due to many things, one being education about Greek and western history in schools across the country. However, an arguably larger influence on the association of such important things with Greece has to do with what is called classical reception. Classical reception refers to how the classical world, especially Ancient Greek and Latin literature, have been received since antiquity. Studying classical reception helps us to understand the portrayal and representation of the ancient world from ancient to modern times. 

                There are many different mediums of classical reception. An obvious one is through movies. Hollywood has put out many films over the past few decades that have revolved on mythology from antiquity, especially the epics of “Homer” (the Iliad and the Odyssey). Examples of these kinds of movies include Clash of the Titans (both the 1981 and 2010 films), Troy (2004), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and the upcoming movie based on the Odyssey called The Return (anticipated release in 2024). There have also been a plethora of T.V. shows inspired by Greek history and mythology, such as Blood of Zeus (2020), a show that follows the story of Heron, a son of Zeus, and Reign: The Conqueror (1999), which is a Japanese anime based on the campaigns of Alexander the Great. There are also many popular books based on Greek mythology, most notably Percy Jackson & the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series, both of which are by renowned author Rick Riordan. 

In my quest to discover and enjoy various modes of classical reception, I decided to see what contemporary music I could find that was inspired by Greek mythology or Ancient Greek history. Before my search began, I was only familiar with a couple of rock songs that my dad had shown me when I was younger, such as Flight of Icarus and Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) by Iron Maiden. However, I was not expecting to find hundreds of songs inspired by Greek mythology and history in all different musical genres. 

I started with what I was familiar with: Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of the famous inventor Daedalus who died by flying too close to the sun with wings made of wax and feathers. In addition to the Iron Maiden song I already knew, I stumbled across Icarus by Bastille, best known for their song Pompeii, arguably another example of Roman classical reception. Icarus the song directly engages with the Greek myth through its lyrics (Icarus is flying too close to the sun / And Icarus’ life, it has only just begun / This is how it feels to take a fall / Icarus is flying towards an early grave), thus bringing an ancient myth to new life in the modern day.

There is also a surprising amount of songs about Orpheus, a bard, poet, and musician who is said to have traveled with the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece and even journeyed to the underworld to find his lost wife, Eurydice. It is ironic that there are so many songs related to Orpheus, given his close relationship to music. A couple I particularly loved were The Lyre of Orpheus by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Orpheus Under the Influence by The Buttertones. Additionally, Hadestown, a popular musical inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is currently on Broadway.

                There are also a variety of songs highlighting significant women from Greek myths. Antigone by The Cave Children, Ismene by Silo’s Choice, and Jocasta by Noah and The Whale are all inspired by characters from the Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles, which follows a ruler named Oedpius and his failed attempts to escape fate. Additionally, Persephone in the Garden by Aidoneus is arguably a take on the myth of Persephone from Hades’ perspective (Didn’t mean to take you down / Didn’t mean to take you down / I thought you’d wanna stay / I thought we would be fine whatever came our way). Pandora’s Box by MARINA (whose full name is Marina Lambrini Diamandis, and is actually half Greek) references Pandora, who is a mythological figure said to have released all the manners of misery and evil found in the world from a box. MARINA actually has a few songs that are inspired by antiquity: in fact, one of her albums is even entitled Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Cassandra by Florence + The Machine and also Cassandra by ABBA, songs both inspired by the figure Cassandra who was endowed with the gift of prophecy but fated never to be believed.

                Songs inspired by historical figures are also of interest. There are a surprising number of songs inspired by philosophers, such as Plato Song by Hero Magnus and Aristotle’s Denial by Joe Hawley and Cojum Dip. Sappho By Ruby Shore was obviously composed with the historical Sappho in mind. Sappho was an archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos and is known for her lyric poetry. From ancient times to modernity, Sappho has been regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets of all time and has even been referred to as the “Tenth Muse.” Sappho echoes the longing qualities of Sappho’s actual poetry, which we can read today only in fragments.

                Finally, there are an abundance of songs about famous heroes from the Greek epic tradition and mythology. Perseus by Unknown Brain and Chris Linton and Theseus by The Oh Hellos are about two extremely famous mythological figures who remain popular in today’s day and age. Tales of Brave Ulysses by Cream, Patroclus by Anjruw McCarthy, Songs of Achilles: My Name Shall Live Forever by Deborah Stokol, and Achilles Come Down by Gang of Youths are all inspired by characters from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. There is even an entire album by artist Andrew Achilles DiMestico that came out in 2019 entitled ILIAD. It is an album of instrumental music marking important segments of the Iliad. My favorite pieces on the album include Appropriating a War Prize (in reference to the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis), Patroclus Meets his Fate (about the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector of Troy), and Kissing the Killer’s Hand (Priam’s journey to the Greek camp to beg Achilles for Hector’s body).

Classical reception is an extremely interesting field of study, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much music I was able to discover in my self-imposed search. I invite you, reader, to embark upon your own journey through classical reception. In the words of classical scholars Anastasia Bakogianni and Ricardo Apostol, “The classics are indeed everywhere and for everyone, so may our odyssey never end.” 

Kaliabakos is a graduate of The Brearley School and the College of the Holy Cross. She has been featured in NEO MagazineThe National HeraldThe Villagerand The Village Sun, and has contributed to WestView News since 2018. She will continue her passion for journalism this year as a Collegiate Network Editorial Fellow in Washington, D.C.

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