Music itself represents a form of religious practice for a vast majority of people. Many renowned musicians project the elements of religious references and imagery in-between the lines of their lyrics. Some of them use their music as a modus for evoking or challenging the gods. In modern music, numerous artists also find inspiration among the heirdom of ancient mythology, folk tales, and mysticism. One could argue that it is easy to see the bond between mythical tragedies and musical expression. This powerful bond is often reflected in the opuses of many prominent musicians. Using their musical language, they can depict something inexplicable and godlike.
1. The Story Of Orpheus in Modern Music
A Greek proverb reads: ”While Hermes invented the lyre, Orpheus perfected it.”
The myth of Orpheus tells a tale of a musician so talented that he was able to charm all the wild animals and even bring the trees and rocks to dance. Upon marrying his love, Eurydice, the joyful hymns he played for her made the fields below them sway along in rhythm.
When his lover fell upon a tragic fate, he went to scour the underworld to retrieve his beloved. A myth was created about this story that can be seen in the present time in modern music too.
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Orpheus was born to Apollo, god of music and poetry, and the muse Calliope. Apollo taught him to play the lyre so beautifully that he could charm all things on Earth with the power of his instrument.
Tragedy begins with Eurydice’s death. When Orpheus found her lifeless body, he shaped all his grief into a song that brought to tears even the gods above him. And so, they sent him down to the realms of the underworld, so that he could try to bargain with Persephone and Hades for Eurydice’s life.
On his way down, he charmed with his lyre all the ruthless beasts that stood on his path. When Hades and Persephone beheld the greatness of his pain, they presented him with an offer. He was allowed to lead her from the underworld, under one condition. She had to follow behind him all along the path, and he must not turn around to see her. If he dared to look back, she would be lost forever amidst the nothingness of the underworld. They almost made it to the end when, in a moment of weakness, Orpheus turned back to look at Eurydice. She fell at that moment and was lost forever, doomed to spend her eternity in the underworld.
Many musicians in modern music are still finding a part of themselves in Orpheus and his destiny. Nick Cave is no exception. He famously twists this Greek tragedy in his song The Lyre of Orpheus. The song came out in 2004, displaying Cave’s dark and satirical take on the myth. In his interpretation, Orpheus invents the lyre out of boredom, only by chance stumbling upon ingenuity.
One could argue that Cave is singing about the creative process in general and the potential of vulnerabilities that come with it. He addresses the danger in the power of charming people with music and artistic expression. In the song, Orpheus takes this power too far, awakening the god above, who then takes him down to hell. There he encounters his love, Eurydice, and abandons his music in favor of family life, dooming himself to his personal version of hell.
”This lyre lark is for the birds, said Orpheus,
It’s enough to send you bats.
Let’s stay down here,
we’ll have a bunch of screaming brats.”
As ironic and bleak as it sounds, here Cave drew the strongest parallel between him and Orpheus, underlying that every musician carries a fragment of the myth within them.
2. Rhiannon: A Welsh Goddess Taking Over Stevie Nicks
There is a 14th-century manuscript in the Library of Oxford University called The Red Book Of Hergest, containing numerous Welsh poems and prose pieces. Among these writings, we also include the Mabinogion, the oldest known collection of Welsh prose, myths, and fairytales. One of the most notable and captivating figures mentioned throughout this ancient text is a goddess named Rhiannon.
When Stevie Nicks wrote the widely known Fleetwood Mac’s hit, Rhiannon, she had never previously heard of Mabinogion. She came to know about the character Rhiannon while reading the novel called Triad, written by Mary Leader. The novel tells a story of a modern-day Welsh woman, possessed by her alter-ego called Rhiannon.
Her amazement with the name inspired Nicks to write a song describing her visualization of Rhiannon. Interestingly enough, Stevie’s version of the character fell more in line with the mythology behind the goddess from the book of Mabinogion. In the ancient text, Rhiannon is described as a stunning and magical woman who runs off from her unsatisfying marriage into the arms of a Welsh prince.
Nicks’s Rhiannon is equally wild and free, an embodiment of all that music meant to her personally. Also important is the element of singing birds that, for Stevie, represent freedom from the pains and agonies of life. In it she writes:
“She rules her life like a bird in flight
And who will be her lover?
All your life you’ve never seen
Woman taken by the wind”
“This legend of Rhiannon is about the song of the birds that take away the pain and relieve suffering. That’s what music is to me.”- (Stevie Nicks, 1980)
The birds can also be found between the lines of the Welsh myth. The goddess has three birds beside her that wake the dead on her command and put the living into sleep.
After writing the song, Nicks found out about the myth and the eerie similarities between the two versions of Rhiannon. Soon she began to channel that magic into her live performances of the song. On stage, Stevie was powerful, breathtaking, and enigmatic, seemingly besieged by the untamed spirit of the goddess. By using the influence of her musical expression, Stevie Nicks managed to derive the ancient force of Rhiannon into the modern music world.
3. God And Love: The Unbaffled Cohen Composing Hallelujah
In Hebrew, Hallelujah speaks of rejoicing in the praise for God. The word first appears in King David’s Psalms, which make up a series of 150 compositions. Known as a musician, he stumbled upon a chord that can carry the might of Hallelujah. The question is, what is Hallelujah exactly?
Cohen’s Hallelujah stands the test of time as his most famous love song, even proclaimed by many as one of the most beautiful and honest love songs in the history of modern music. It certainly stands out as the most apparent mixture of love and religion in his career. His musical opus is overflowing with religious references, but no song could ever really compare to the spirit and message present in Hallelujah.
At the very core of the song, Cohen is offering his interpretation of the Hebrew phrase. Many remain in constant search for the true meaning of the word and what it truly represents. Here, Cohen steps in, attempting to lay-out the significance this phrase holds for him. But it all falls hard and heavy throughout the lyrics of this bitter lament. He speaks to his lover and all those searching for the secret chord. The resolution is within, and the meaning is found somewhere far beyond music and words.
He is using a reference to King David and Bathsheba, as well as Samson and Delilah. Among the words, he compares himself with David through the act of pursuing a woman that he can’t have.
“Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”
After seeing Bathsheba bathing, David sent her husband off to war, hoping for his death. That way, Bathsheba would belong to him.
Cohen also drew parallels between him and Samson, another biblical figure. In this metaphor, he brings attention to the inevitable vulnerability that comes with love. Samson is betrayed by Delilah, the woman he loves and for whom he sacrificed everything. In his love for her, he tells her about the source of his strength-his hair. She then cuts off that hair while he sleeps.
“She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips, she drew the Hallelujah”
Cohen sings how Delilah broke his throne. Samson was not a king; therefore, the throne symbolizes his sense of self-worth. She broke him until he had nothing left, and only in that moment could he seize the purest form of Hallelujah.
Both tales speak of men broken by love, and Cohen directly portrays himself into that concept. By adapting these tales of the Old Testament, he resurrects a powerful insight from a Biblical narrative into modern music.
“And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”
Here he proclaims that he is willing to try again. Cohen refuses to give up, keeping his faith, still, both in love and God himself. For him, it’s unimportant whether it’s a holy or a broken Hallelujah. He knows he’ll be facing both, time and time again.
4. The End Of An Era In Modern Music
An ancient belief says that swans, when faced with the proximity of death, sing out the most beautiful song after a lifetime of silence. From this, a metaphor of the swan song came to be, defining a final act of expression just before death. In 2016, a few months before his death, David Bowie, a modern music chameleon, chanted out his haunting swan song with the release of his album Blackstar.
In an album prevalent with experimental jazz, Bowie memorably combines the fears of bygone times with modern music. He is very much aware of the closeness of his death and accepts its inevitability. He knows that this time his fate is out of his hands. In the video for Blackstar, he is blindfolded with bandages, alluding to the fact that, historically, blindfolds are worn by those facing execution.
“In the Villa of Ormen
In the Villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle
At the center of it all”
In Swedish, the word Ormen stands for a serpent. In Christian theology, a snake tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. This act leads to the fall of mankind, with God banishing Adam and Eve from the eternity of paradise into mortality.
Bowie has never been religious, and that didn’t change with Blackstar. The words that he left behind can be read as his exploration of the concept of mortality in a way that is seen in religion. He is also using Christ-like imagery throughout the song and video.
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
I’m a Blackstar”
Bowie performs an optimistic final act by embracing his mortality and finding salvation in knowing that, after his death comes another great artist. Another brilliant Blackstar. His rebirth comes in the form of influencing and inspiring others, fully aware and content, with the fact that his immortality remains through his inimitable legacy.