It’s only when you start to look into it that you realise how important folk tales, myths and legends are in contemporary culture. There’s a whole selection to draw upon from the Greeks, Romans, Druids and beyond and modern life is teeming with references to them all. Most of our films, books, plays and otherwise are at least obliquely influenced by them, if not directly.
Disappointingly, in compiling this list, I’ve struggled to find a decent pop, rock or traditional song about an Irish Mythical character. Aside from that glaring omission I’m sure that I’ve surely missed a few (though I’m deliberately avoiding Santa – too out of season!) so let me know if you have any suggestions please.
1. Wagner – The Ride of the Valkyries
Okay so his relationship with Judaism was, how shall I put it… complicated and Hitler was one of his biggest fans, but Wagner’s music and philosophy has had an incredible influence not just on classical music but on well… everything. He recognised that myths were really a way of exploring the unconscious desires of humanity well before Freud. Also, I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.
2. Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Oh those Greeks! So many songs of myth and legend are based on the Greek classics. This one is based on Homer’s tale of derring-do the Iliad. Odysseus (The Roman’s call him Ulysses) is the main character, spending an inordinate amount of time poncing about the Mediterranean making up crazy stories to tell his wife when he gets back.
3. Cat Power – Werewolf
The mythic human/wolf hybrid has been with humanity for quite some time. As usual the Greeks wrote it down first, but it’s likely that tales of – wolves far predate this. It’s probably a way of explaining mans more savage urges. This song has a lovely haunting melody to it. To me it seems at odds with our usual vision of the werewolf as a violent and indiscriminate killer.
4. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Back to the Greeks (and indeed Homer’s Iliad) again. Marling wrote this song having been inspired by the tale of Odysseus’s long suffering wife, Penelope. She waited 10 years for the hero to return, fending off various suitors (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a great take on this, by the way).
5. Donovan – Atlantis
I only knew about 3 words of this song,before checking it out on youtube – it’s used in Scorsese’s Goodfella’s right before Billy Batts gets his head kicked in. I’ve always viewed Donovan as a bit of a second-rate Bob Dylan, but that’s probably being a bit unfair to him. This sort of stuff is shockingly hippy-ish but enjoyable in a silly sort of way.
6. Monty Python – Camelot Song
Ah the legendary Camelot, where King Arthur presided over the Round Table. Upon hearing this song in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail – and having spent the entire film up to this point travelling to Camelot – Arthur turns to his knights and says ‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.’ I can see why.
7. Metallica – Enter Sandman
The Sandman is a character originating from German folklore who sprinkles sleep-dust (or ‘sand’) in children’s eyes to send them asleep. When you wake up with ‘sleep’ in your eyes, it’s the Sandman who put it there. He’s mostly portrayed as a benign character in folk tales, but lets face it that’d make a rubbish Metallica song. I do find it hard not to burst out laughing at points in this song though – the lyrics here are hilariously overblown. Grown men (with beards and everything) intone ‘We’re off to Never-Never land’ ominously. The intro is fantastic though.
If you’d like to listen to all the tunes consecutively – you know, like an old mixtape – check out the youtube playlist.