While it has always been captured on analog and digital media like vinyl and mp3s, heavy metal music has been traditionally intended primarily for live performance, where the musicians and audience reciprocally feed off a sense of community, shared identity, and celebration of the values of a counterculture. Not uncommonly, these sentiments are communicated lyrically through nostalgic themes of an historical or mythical past, or of fantasy worlds of swords and sorcery. Those familiar with the contexts of Homeric poetry can see the parallels here. Before and after the Iliad and Odyssey began in the eighth century BCE to be recorded on papyrus with a new alphabet adapted from the Phoenicians, they were fundamentally oral poems meant to be sung to music by professional bards. Their storytelling drew from a well of a past populated by gods, heroes, and monsters, but a past that was also the shared inheritance of Greeks across the mainland and islands of the Aegean. The first of these two epics, the Iliad, meditated on the experience of going to war, and the definitions of heroism in the arena of battle. In the second, the Odyssey, we see a post-war hero divinely exiled into a fantastic realm beyond human civilization before being integrated back into that civilization. It is about nostos, homecoming, and the suffering endured in achieving it. It is a story about a man who fights for his sense of justice, battles monsters and vindictive gods, confronts temptations, and gains knowledge. In what follows, I will discuss how Odysseus’ heroism appeals to heavy metal artists, but also how those artists reshape that heroism to suit their cultural ethos. In short, they elevate Odysseus to a masculine ideal, whose Satanic pride and Faustian thirst for knowledge only add to, rather than subtract from, his heroic appeal.
Commonly, Homer’s epic dilogy is read as advertising two aspects of the ideal man, those being physical (Achilles) and intellectual (Odysseus) prowess. Sure, but it’s more complicated than that. While the Iliad’s chief concern is its first word, “the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles” and its destructive consequences, the Odyssey begins with “the man of many ways.” The adjective modifying ‘man’ is polytropos, over which oceans of ink have been spilled through the millennia, with interpretations ranging from that he traveled to many places, to that he was capable of many devices, to that he displayed from within himself a variety of characters. Emily Wilson’s recent translation of the epithet as “complicated” deftly expresses the idea that Odysseus is a hard hero to pin down, and as a result the literary and artistic reception of him has to the present day been broad and rich. This is not to say anything of the other characters in the epic, such as his wife Penelope, son Telemachus, the sorcerer-goddess Circe, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and the rest. These figures remain readily adaptable, and before we explore how they are cast in the metal mould, let us refresh ourselves on the story.
After invoking the Muse and his theme, the epic begins with a council of the Olympian gods, where Zeus affirms that while mortals blame the gods for their suffering, it is really by their folly that they incur suffering beyond their due. It is also at this council that Athena pleads for the return of her favorite mortal, wily Odysseus, to his kingdom of Ithaca after 20 years away, 10 of which in fighting at Troy, and 10 of which in wandering and captivity on the high seas. Athena then travels to Ithaca, where she inspires Odysseus’ 20-year-old son Telemachus to come of age and go in quest of his father, leaving behind his mother Penelope besieged by over a 100 suitors who have been seeking her hand and abusing her hospitality by devouring her household, in the belief that her husband was dead. Telemachus sails to Pylos and Sparta, where he learns of the aftermath of the Trojan War, which was concluded by Odysseus’ ruse of the Wooden Horse. Meanwhile, Hermes is sent to command the nymph Calypso to free Odysseus from his seven-year sex slavery on her island where he had washed ashore. Poseidon causes Odysseus to suffer another shipwreck and he washes ashore in Phaeacia, where the princess Nausicaa rescues him.
As a guest in the court of King Alcinous, Odysseus recounts his adventures after sacking Troy. These include encounters with the Lotus Eaters, who tempted his crew with a narcotic flower, then the man-eating Cyclops who trapped Odysseus and his men in his cave. They escaped through violence and deception, but Odysseus’ boasting as they sailed away incited the Cyclops to pray to his father Poseidon to punish him. Odysseus and his crew then came to the land of the Laestrygonians who destroyed all but one of his 12 ships. They then come to the island of the divine witch Circe, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, but then becomes Odysseus’ lover and advises him on his quest. This quest leads him to the edge of the Underworld where he speaks with the souls of the dead, then by the island of the Sirens, who lure sailors to their doom with their melodious voices. They then navigate the strait between the vortex Charybdis and the monster Scylla, before arriving in Thrinacia, where despite warnings not to eat the Cattle of the Sun, Odysseus’ men forfeit their lives as Zeus destroys their ship, drowning what remained of his crew. Impressed by this tale, the Phaeacians escort Odysseus home to Ithaca.
The second half of the epic revolves around Odysseus’ plot to reclaim his kingdom and take vengeance on the suitors. Athena disguises him as an old beggar who ventures into his palace to reconnoiter, on the way reuniting with Telemachus and a loyal slave Eumaeus who join in the plot. After Penelope arranges an archery contest to determine whom she will marry, a contest that only Odysseus can win, he drops his disguise and slaughters the suitors, along with those of his slaves who were disloyal. He reunites with Penelope, then his father Laertes, but the story ends with a war that nearly erupts between Odysseus and the suitors’ bereaved families, a war abruptly stopped by Athena’s intervention. A synopsis in three paragraphs hardly does the Odyssey justice, and we will elaborate on its various episodes and characters more fully as the following analysis demands.
A search of the Metal Archives database reveals a wide readership of the Odyssey among metal artists. 67 different bands mention either “Odysseus” or “Ulysses” in their lyrics, while the epic is the basis of a total of six concept albums. There is a wealth of material, which precludes an exhaustive analysis here, but I will attempt to distill from a representative sample the key takeaways from heavy metal’s Odyssean reception.
As was typical with classical reception in metal, elements of the Odyssey trickled in piecemeal well before the entire epic was digested at large. In the 1980’s, the first Odyssean theme introduced was that of the Sirens, the half-woman, half-bird creatures whose singing lured sailors to their doom on jagged rocks. Warned by Circe of their fatal enticements, Odysseus famously plugged his mens’ ears with wax, and had himself tied to the mast of his ship so he could safely hear the Sirens’ song. As they sailed past they addressed Odysseus by name, claiming to “know all the things that come to pass on the all-nourishing earth” (Od. 12.191). In other words, they appealed to Odysseus’ curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
Ahead of their 1984 self-titled debut album (since renamed Psalm 9), the American Doom Metal band Trouble released with their single “Assassin” a cover of the 1967 song by Cream, “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The song is addressed to a male subject who tries to escape his cold, mundane reality by sailing to the tropics, where he meets the woman of his dreams:
And the colors of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids,
And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses:
How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing,
For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white laced lips.
And you see a girls brown body dancing through the turquoise,
And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea.
And when your fingers find her, she drowns you in her body,
Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind.
The song explicitly offers the Odyssey as an analogy for the subject’s amorous experience, importing a post-classical assimilation of Sirens, no longer bird-women, with mermaids as maritime temptresses. The perfusion of erotic language frame the Sirens’ calls as invitations to carnal rather than, in Odysseus’ case, general knowledge. Achieving the carnal act the song likens to the death of a tempted sailor, who surrenders mental control to the object of his affection. Thus Metal’s first use of the Odyssey is to invoke the archetype of the femme fatale that so commonly features in Metal’s reception of classical women such as Medusa and Cleopatra, and as we will see, Circe. However explicit their connection to the Odyssey, this adaptation of the Siren motif is prolific in heavy metal: a search for “Sirens” in Metal lyrics renders over 2,7000 songs!
Beyond piecemeal adaptations in the 80s, classical reception in Metal at large is relatively rare in the 90s, though a full half-record treatment of Homeric themes did come in 1992 with Manowar’s Triumph of Steel and its 28-minute epic “Achilles: Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts.” The renaissance came around the turn of the millennium, in parallel with a resurgent interest of popular culture and Hollywood with the ancient world. Before Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) hit the silver screen, however, there was the 1997 miniseries adaptation of the Odyssey, starring Armand Assante, that premiered on NBC. Two years following this, the first concept album on the epic, titled Odyssey, was released by the German Power Metal band Tarot’s Myst, a side-project of Harald Spengler of Stormwitch. While it is likely that Spengler consulted Homer’s text to write this album, the record betrays the influence of the Assante series, first of all in its arrangement. While the Homeric poem begins in medias res, toward the end of Odysseus’ 20-year absence, and provides backstory through the characters’ recountings, the TV series begins with Odysseus’ departure from Ithaca for Troy and proceeds strictly chronologically. Such is the order of events on the Tarot’s Myst album, and all subsequent adaptations of the story in Metal. But unlike the series, the album Odyssey is narrated entirely from Odysseus’ first-person perspective.
In the opening track “Blood on the Horizon” he first addresses his newborn son Telemachus: “Some day you’re the prince of this land, the Gods will give a helping hand.” He then addresses Penelope, exhorts her to “believe in our love” and consoles her tears as he embarks for war: “War ain’t no lust, this fighting’s a must, my Guardian Goddess, take care.” We see right away a reluctant hero, relying on Athena’s protection, who does not seek military glory for its own sake, but only fights to honor the oath he swore at Helen’s wedding to Menelaus to defend their marriage: “True to the oath we are reaching the coast, Troja will stumble and fall.”
In the next track, “Troja,” we see a transformation from a reluctant warrior “forced into warfare” to a prideful trickster glorying in his success. Frustrated that conventional battles have not penetrated the city walls, Odysseus realizes that only “a ruse…will break Trojan gate.” He devises the Wooden Horse, and in the chorus of the song he celebrates the qualities that granted him victory: “Troja, beware my patience and snare, Troja, beware.” In a rejection of physical prowess, it is Odysseus’ ability to be patient and enduring, coupled with his knack for deception, that the enemy should truly fear. In the bridge of the song, Odysseus lets this success go to his head in a pronouncement of naked, humanistic hubris: “Gods, see I don’t need you, it’s me to win the day, I do the things my own way / Recognize as granted, sad, but it’s true – I’m one of you.” Neither fate nor divine intervention, he affirms, defeated Troy, but Odysseus’ own intelligence, and he proudly claims equality with the gods themselves. Those generally familiar with Greek mythology and tragic theater may assume that “pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and would expect that Odysseus would learn a lesson in humility by his subsequent sufferings. But as we will see with the remainder of the album, the humanistic rejection of the divine orchestration of events so essential to epic poetry, is more or less validated.
The record fast-forwards to the Cyclops’ cave in the next track “The Giant’s Eye,” which opens with Odysseus and his crew arriving at the Cyclops’ island where his cave seems like “a place for night’s rest, warm and safe.” Omitted from Homer here is how Odysseus had come to this place not out of necessity, but curiosity. As Odysseus tells the Phaeacians in Book 9, he even regretted not taking his men’s advice to take the goats and cheese and flee from the cave before their owner returned. Beyond this, the song is more or less faithful to the Homeric folktale episode, how after devouring some of his men, Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk, stabbed out his eye with a burning wooden log, and escaped clinging to the bellies of his sheep. The song’s ending brings the most significant revision to the myth. As Odysseus and his men sail away to safety, he taunts the blinded ogre:
Tell your kin: No one did mutilate you, cry out loud that no one was to waste you
For your deed, the killing of my brave men – Guess who I am!
In Homer, Odysseus had convinced Polyphemus that his name was “No One” (Outis), so that when he was blinded, he shouted to his cyclopic brethren that “No One is harming me.” Only when they were sailing away did Odysseus boast and reveal his true name. This allowed Polyphemus to properly pray to his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus and allow him to return home only after years of suffering. In short, the Cyclops episode was intended to show how both Odysseus’ curiosity and his vanity were responsible for the loss of his men and his speedy homecoming. In the song, on the other hand, Odysseus shows no regret, certain that he had exacted justice. His denial of the divine machinery of epic destiny remains valid.
And it is not Odysseus’ curiosity, but that of his men, that has dire consequences; for in the next song, “Lord of the Winds,” Odysseus receives the bag of contrary winds from King Aeolus so that only the west wind may propel them to Ithaca. But before they reach home, “my curious fellows shattered the fortune” by opening the bag prematurely and getting them blown hopelessly off course.
“The Creature Within” brings the crew to the island of Circe, who is not named but is instead referred to as the “Lioness,” suggesting her predatory nature. By magically transforming Odysseus’ men into pigs, “she brings out the creature within,” a phrase readily applied to a sexually alluring woman who awakens men’s animal passions. This song contains the only instance of Odysseus receiving any divine help in the album: “the Gods sent an envoy” to give him the prophylactic herb against Circe’s magic. The song ends with her failure to transform him and the words “I have won.” Again, Homeric details are omitted to uncomplicate the hero, for in the original Circe had, in a sense, defeated Odysseus by sexually captivating him for a full year; it was his men who rescued him from this dalliance.
By ending the song there, the album also denies Circe’s positive role as an ally and adviser to Odysseus, who warns him of the Sirens and of the monster Scylla. Instead, in “Siren’s Song,” plugging the crew’s ears with wax and tying him to the mast is all his idea. However, the song “Jaws of Deep” suggests he did receive a warning about Scylla, but it was a warning to avoid the monster that he failed to heed (in Homer, Circe insists that he must pass by Scylla and necessarily incur a human toll). For this Odysseus, for the first time, expresses regret: “I was blind for the warning I did not obey.”
In “Come Hell or High Water” we see again the emphasis on the fault of Odysseus’ men for their destruction, as they disobey the injunction not to eat the cattle of the sun-god. Then in “Flame in the Maze” we find Odysseus alone on the island of Calypso, praying to the gods for deliverance from his “gilded cage.” He is “longing for my land, for my queen’s caress, for a tender rest.” The pendulum has fully swung from his hubristic arrogation of equality with the gods after conquering Troy. Nevertheless, he does not seem to acknowledge their role in his liberation when it comes: “My female warder tells me I’ve been released, beyond the water waits my kingdom to be freed.” Odysseus sets off for Ithaca as if to liberate it from the tyranny of the suitors, as though they were a scourge to his whole kingdom and not just his household.
In the next two tracks, “The One to Bend the Bow” and “Flesh and Blood,” Odysseus arrives in Ithaca to plot and exact his vengeance: “No word – to none, not even queen and son, unrecognized – in rags.” The beggar’s disguise is his own, and Athena’s guidance is entirely absent. Moreover, Odysseus contrives the plot and slays the suitors singlehandedly, without the help of either Telemachus, his loyal slaves, or Penelope, to whom he does not even speak. There is no suggestion that the trial of the bow was her idea. As he reveals his identity to the suitors, we see the direct influence of the Assante series: the lines “Do you know me now?” and “It is my world that you wanted to steal” are lifted nearly word for word from it.
The scene ends with Odysseus’ proclamation:
Your cries are in vain – so meet your bane, there ain’t no mercy for mean heresy
Your men, I locked them out, no help . no doubt, this is the day of the reckoning
The judgement I proclaim: Expiate your blame! The ferryman’s embrace will wash away disgrace
Tarot’s Myst employ highly Christianizing language to style Odysseus in the role of Christ as the judge of the living and dead at the end of days. The justice of the slaughter of the suitors is without question. This brings us to the final track, “Odyssey,” where Odysseus, locked in Penelope’s embrace, reflects on his experiences:
In the arms of my queen of hearts
I’m looking back – right to the start
All those years ain’t no wasted time
They did help me find human sins and crime
I had days of misleading joy
Was the ocean’s toy, an old man – a boy
Now I know how to hail the sun
How to miss all fun and to crawl and run
There’s no doubt, it is me to blame
For all grief and pain, for the kiss of chains
I learned pride goes before a fall
I succumbed to vanity’s mating call
(I was) Tumbling like leaves in the wind, Odyssey – turns a fool to a dreamer
(I was) Hunting the shadows within, Odyssey – makes a dumb man a screamer
Odysseus ultimately looks back on his “odyssey” as a positive experience, since it taught him the wisdom to live a just, fulfilling life. It taught him the humility he lacked when he conquered Troy, and to accept the responsibility for the suffering he endured. It taught him, finally, that rather than being a god he was a mere leaf in the wind, completely at the mercy of greater forces. That said, he again never acknowledges any divine orchestration of his destiny, neither the help of Athena nor the hindrance of Poseidon. By largely removing the divine machinery that drives traditional epic, Tarot’s Myst’s Odyssey emphasize the theme of ultimate human accountability that Zeus himself proclaimed at the very beginning of Homer’s poem. Though Odysseus commits hubris, he does not directly offend any god, and he learns his lesson in humility largely by observing the folly of others. Meanwhile, his prowess as a hero is elevated beyond that of the original, as he is not only cunning, but is a superhuman killing machine who annihilates the suitors singlehandedly. Beyond pride, he commits no sins, faithful to his wife and above the temptations of the flesh. He becomes the ideal of masculinity, an uncomplicated man.
Three years later, in 2002, the American Progressive Power Metal band Symphony X recorded what came to be the most well known adaptation of the Odyssey in heavy metal. Clocking in at 24 minutes (equal to the number of books in the original poem), the title track to their album The Odyssey does for this epic what Manowar did for the Iliad. In six sections, “The Odyssey” covers a selection of episodes, beginning with the initial embarkation after the sack of Troy. Once again, the whole story is recounted from Odysseus’ first-person perspective. After he has “been through battles and cried a sea of tears,” only two things are on his mind: his wife and his home. No mention of the glory of victory or the Wooden Horse: “seasons of sorrow have stolen all my years.” He has seen the horrors of war, and lost many friends, in a strange land. He wishes only to reclaim what is familiar.
The song transitions to the Cyclops’ and his cave. This section (“The Eye”) paints an atmosphere of terror more than telling a straightforward narrative, which culminates in the stake driven into Polyphemus’ eye. Notably absent from this scene, and the song overall, is Odysseus’ cunning. The Cyclops is dispatched by brute force more than by trickery. Their escape is a fait accompli. Also absent from this track is the loss of any of Odysseus’ men, or any notion that his or their suffering is their own doing. Instead, the next section (“Circe (Daughter of the Sun)”) begins by suggesting that divine machinery is at work: “the gift of wind, by Zeus, concealed.” Their drifting brings them to Circe’s island, where events are telescoped into a single scene:
We carouse with the maiden
beneath her eyes the madness lies
I drink deep from the chalice
of gold and jade – my senses fade
Stay – like those before
I condemn you all – from walk to crawl
No – my will it defies her
speak the verse – lift the curse
Rather than Odysseus, it is Circe who is the master of deception, her purposes attributed to irrationality and cruelty for its own sake. Odysseus nearly succumbs to her potion, but counters her incantation with a counterspell (rather than the herb given by Hermes) and by force of will. Now it is Circe who is enchanted.
In the following section (“Sirens”) she warns Odysseus of the “false bringers of love” and he is tied to the mast to hear the Sirens’ song. As we have seen before, what in Homer was intellectual becomes sexual temptation: “maidens of lust stimulate / and manipulate my senses. I welcome a watery grave.” The scene described here is illustrated on the cover artwork of the album. A hypermasculine Odysseus, long-haired and musclebound, is beset by three thin, naked, large-breasted women equipped with reptilian wings (for the sexualization of dangerous and powerful women in Metal artwork, see my previous posts on Medusa and Cleopatra). Neither ancient bird-women or modern mermaids, these Sirens are sexual demons that prey upon men’s lusts to lure them to their doom.
The final section (“The Fate of the Suitors/Champion of Ithaca”) opens with another acknowledgment of the role of divine intervention in the story: “In the guise of a beggar – Minerva guides my way.” With her help, Odysseus discovers his “kingdom in jeopardy” and that there are “so many who eye my Queen.” Using religious language reminiscent of Tarot’s Myst’s version, he vows to “make them pay for this blasphemy.” The suitors’ designs on his wife and his kingdom are not just an insult to Odysseus, but to the gods as well. “Thrashing and slashing down all my foes” Odysseus, as we have seen before, single handedly all of the suitors, his methods suggesting the use of a traditionally manlier sword more than a bow. The final refrain celebrates the serving of justice: “Triumphant – Champion of Ithaca / I will right all the wrongs.” Symphony X, like Tarot’s Myst, conclude their version of the story with the sense that Odysseus arrived as the champion of justice, and with vengeance served he lived happily ever after. Symphony X transform Odysseus from a morally ambiguous trickster into a much more Iliadic warrior like Hector or Diomedes. While his love of wife and country and his weariness of war reveal his humanity, he overcomes his challenges not by cleverness but by physical prowess and force of will, all the while guided as an instrument of justice by the gods who favor him.
Several other heavy metal adaptations follow the pattern thus far established, whether in individual songs or whole concept albums. The album Οδύσσεια by the Greek Heavy Metal band Reflection, for instance, traces Odysseus’ journey chronologically from the ashes of Troy to the slaughter of the suitors. Their repetition of the phrase “The Return of the King” echoes the last of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the restoration of the Ithacan monarchy as the victory of good over evil. Like Vergil’s Aeneid, this album ends on the climactic moment of Odysseus’ blooddrenched victory, omitting the denouement of his reunion with Penelope. Indeed, Penelope and Odysseus’ love for her is conspicuously absent from this record. Even in the song “Kalypso,” which dwells on his Ogygian captivity, it is only in his longing for home that he rejects Calypso’s blandishments of eternal love and youth. This marginalization of Penelope is typical of many Odyssean metal songs, which frame the hero’s desire for homecoming as more politically than erotically motivated.
Penelope is not universally sidelined, however. The 2015-2016 Tale of Woe double-album by the German Black Metal band Imperious is the most detailed, and faithful adaptation of the Odyssey in all of Metal, going so far as to frequently quote Alexander Pope’s 1725 translation of the poem, in rhyming heroic couplets, to supply much of its dialogue. Like Homer’s original, Imperious’ epic alternates between narrative and dialogue, with Penelope’s voice mentally interjecting to remind Odysseus of why he must persevere in his quest. Moreover, Imperious are the only band to dramatize Penelope’s final test of Odysseus to be assured of his true identity, when in the song “At the Olive Tree” she ask for the bed, which had been built out of a living olive tree, to be brought into the hallway. At Odysseus’ dismay at the notion that the olive-rooted bed could be moved, Penelope melts into his arms. Here, even the most thoroughly researched adaption of the Odyssey ends, avoiding the loose ends tied up by Athena ex machina in Book 24.
We have already seen the influence of modern film on musical adaptations of the Odyssey, and some bands also interpret the epic through the lens of post-classical literature: reception can have many layers of abstraction. One of the most famous revisions of Odysseus’ story can be found in the Inferno of the medieval poet Dante, where the Ithacan hero, now in Hell, describes how he met his end in quest of forbidden knowledge. Dante’s Odysseus, condemned as an evil counselor, relates how neither his homecoming nor love for wife and family could overcome his lust for exploration, and so he set out on a new quest into the Atlantic and to the south, and was then drowned by a storm as he barely sighted the Mount of Purgatory. The Italian Blackened Power Metal band Stormlord, in the song “And the Wind Shall Scream My Name” from their 2008 album Mare Nostrum, resurrect the Dantean Odysseus:
Ithaca is hidden far,
Beyond the horizon eternity awaits
I feel burning desire
To go where no man has gone before
This is the curse upon me
A madness whose name is love for knowledge
“Volta la nostra poppa al mattino
Dei remi facem ali al folle volo”
As Imperious quoted Pope’s translation, Stormlord intersperse their lyrics with Dante’s original Italian tercets. But they also quote the famous words that open every episode of Star Trek, “to go where no man has gone before.” This mission of exploration, noble as it seems, is dressed in the language of erotic passion, a paradoxically irrational desire to know that is so strong, Odysseus acknowledges it as a curse that invites destruction. Such is the repentant spirit of the Inferno. But despite the Dantean quotations, this song is delivered by Odysseus not after the fact, but at the very moment that his ship and crew face their tempestuous fate. He is still hopeful that “in the afterlife maybe I will find some new shores.” The irony of this statement given the audience’s foreknowledge matches the tension between Odysseus’ repentance and desire for immortal fame: “and the wind shall scream my name / Forever in time / The memories will live on.” Here Stormlord reconnect Odysseus with the core motivation of a Homeric hero, to be immortalized in memory and song for daring deeds, even if the result is an untimely death (the choice of the Iliadic Achilles over a long, obscure life). No longer the cautionary tale of Dante, Stormlord’s centrifugal Odysseus proclaims that even death as the cost of achieving fame is worth it.
Another post-classical poem that influenced Metal’s reception of the Odyssey is the Ithaka of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, written in 1911. Cavafy uses Odysseus’ story as a frame of reference to argue that while every journey should have a fixed destination (i.e. Ithaca), it is the journey itself that is the reward, and therefore we should savor the experience rather than rush to the endpoint. Like Cavafy’s poem, the song 2007 “Ithaca” by the Italian Heavy Metal band Wotan (off their album Epos) is an exhortation to Odysseus to not only endure, but make the most of his wanderings in his quest for home:
Sometimes the fear
Slowly slides in your veins
The journey at all
You have to listen
To the sirens song
Wotan insist that the journey is an opportunity to gain knowledge and wisdom, which is what the Sirens offer the Homeric Odysseus. Their song is also a quasi-Stoic exhortation to find meaning in the journey, and not let fear make you doubt that you are destined to reach your goal:
Lost in the immensity
Underneath stranger stars
Maybe flat silence
Maybe roar of thunder
But hold firmly the helm
And dream of home
Never be afraid
May be flat silence
May be roar of thunder
But the course is written
In the net of fate
The Italian band approaches Odysseus as one would Vergil’s Aeneas, assuring him that it is fated that he will reach his destination, no matter the immensity of the terrors along the way. Cast aside these emotions and fix a tranquil mind on your mission. Acquiesce in the predetermined course of the cosmic scheme.
Cavafy’s allegorical approach to the Odyssey is also an evident influence on another Italian Heavy Metal band, Dark Quarterer, who released the concept album Ithaca in 2015. The album is a more introspective and psychological narrative of Odysseus’ quest, yet it too will end, Aeneid-style, as he delivers the deathblow to the suitors. Here I will focus on the record’s third song “Mind Torture,” which interprets the various monstrous and magical forces that obstruct Odysseus’ quest as the manifestations of internal, psychological demons:
Like a parasite
Cyclops suck my mind
Huge mental distress
Won’t let me see
I’m feeling like a fool and a stupid giant
Deserve to be blind
Deserve to be dead
My instinct is like Circe
She makes me like a beast
She dominates my brain
And makes it like a slave
I am a prisoner
Of my fucking dullness
I am like a pig… Pig
My soul is charmed by a voice
She sings a sweet melody
Then feelings are clouded by a nymph
My heart cannot beat for her love
Drugged by false paradise
I waste my days and my life
All this is mortal for me
I must escape
Before it’s too late to be free… Free
The brain is a strange thing
It loves the easy and trivial
Dullness, instinct, wealth
Have an easy game
And you lose your eyes
And you lose your ears
And you lose yourself… Yourself
Open your mind to new thoughts
Reason must beat your instinct
Love must sincere and pure
The struggle between false and true
Every time that you win
You give the right sense to your trip
Every time that you lose
You give more strength to your weakness
More pleasure to pain… Pain
Cavafy, in his poem (I use here the Keeley translation), employs a similar allegory: “Laistrygonians, Cyclops, / wild Poseidon–you won’t encounter them / unless you bring them along inside your soul, / unless your soul sets them up in front of you.” So Dark Quarterer internalize these forces as inner demons, specifically as forces that cloud the subject’s ability to think logically. In his mental blindness he becomes the Cyclops, while in Circe we once again see the animal passions taking over and enslaving him. He is deluded by the Sirens’ song, Calypso’s blandishments, and the Lotus-Eaters’ narcotic inertia; in short, he risks succumbing to the consequences of taking the path of least resistance, while the arduous path of reason and truth will liberate him from the bondage of the passions. To Dark Quarterer, Odysseus’ trials in the realm of adventure resemble the Platonic struggle between the appetitive and reasoning parts of the soul: logos must control eros and convert it into the proper form of love, with Penelope representing the beatific vision of true Beauty achieved at the summit of Diotima’s ladder. The Odyssey has been read as the hero’s quest to rediscover his true identity, and Dark Quarterer understand that reading as their Odysseus confronts the psychological forces that would make him forget, rather than know, himself.
Beyond concept albums and songs of appropriately epic length, the majority of individual songs on Homer’s Odyssey concentrate on individual episodes. I will not analyze them individually, but remark on the fact that these songs focus mainly on three specific episodes: the Cyclops, Circe, and the Sirens. The Cyclops scene is generally the most iconic of the Odyssey, which not only demonstrates Odysseus’ cunning, but is also rightly identified as the moment where Odysseus overstepped his bounds and committed the tragic flaw that doomed himself and his men. Such is the emphasis in the song “The Odyssey” by the Canadian Speed Metal band Aphrodite: “Odysseus, cursed by the god, god of the sea / For his hubris and pride.”
As for Circe and the Sirens, as we have seen the archetype of the femme fatale, especially dressed in the language of witchcraft, resonates with Metal’s traditional ethos and its expressions of masculine anxiety against the threat of subordination to feminine power.
Indeed, the heavy metal Odysseus succeeds less through trickery and deception, and more through brutal physical offense and stoic defense, maintaining his masculine mastery by successfully resisting the feminine forces that the Homeric original had not. While he sometimes exhibits tenderness in his devotion to Penelope, his ultimate victory over the suitors is a triumph more of justice than of love. Homer’s complicated hero, while liable to tragic hubris, is almost universally admired by metal artists as a skilled warrior, just king, seeker of knowledge, and champion against the antagonism of cruel gods, and ideal of masculinity. Such qualities are celebrated most succinctly in this song, “Perils of the Sea (Part II)” by the Greek Black Metal band Agatus, which serves as fitting epitaph for the heavy metal Odysseus:
For years I fought the war in Troy
And my eyes have seen great warriors in battle fall.
I am the man without a name who sailed across the raging seas of Poseidon to reach my world Ithaca!
I am a man of iron will
I swore revenge, I’ll fight and kill
In my kingdom reigns glory and pride
Odysseus has returned alive!
Gods, I am man!