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Music vs Myth: Epic

Updated: Jan 1


Editorial Note – for the sake of this article the version of The Odyssey used was the Penguin Books revised translation by D.C.H Rieu so any references to specific quotes, line and page numbers will reference this version of the epic.


Originating as a viral TikTok sensation written, composed and recorded by Jorge Rivera-Herrans, ‘Epic’ retells Homer’s famous poem, ‘The Odyssey’. The concept album tells the story of Odysseus, taking us from the end of the Trojan war to (presumably) his return home. The album will consist of forty songs, split into nine sagas, of which two sagas have been released to date. The first five-song saga, ‘Epic: the Troy Saga’ was released on 25th December 2022, while the second four-song saga, ‘Epic: the Cyclops Saga’ was released on 27th January 2023. While there is no news yet on when the complete third saga will be released, excepts and progress can be found on Rivera-Herrans’ TikTok: @jorgeherrans.


Unlike Homer’s ‘The Odyssey,’ which begins with conversation between the gods, takes a detour to Ithaca and then finally catches up with Odysseus on the island of Calypso, ‘Epic’ follows a more linear path, beginning with the very end of the Trojan War with its opening number ‘The Horse and the Infant’.

The decision to begin the story here is certainly an interesting one. One thing to remember when looking at ancient myths, is obvious but often overlooked – the norms and values of that time are not the same as our own. Many ancient heroes commit acts which by our standards today would be deemed unheroic at best, and monstrous at worst, including the slaughter of non-combatants, the taking of slaves, and the sexual assault of women. As such, many modern retellings of these legends minimise some of the more distasteful elements to make the hero more palatable to a modern audience. ‘Epic’ goes in another direction, with the album beginning with – arguably – the most heinous of Odysseus’ crimes – the murder of a child.


The son of Hector, Scamandrius, is most commonly known by the moniker ‘Astyanax,’ meaning Lord of the City, a name he was given by the people of Troy due to his being the first (and only) son of the city’s crown prince and strongest defender. After Troy fell the women were divided amongst the Greeks and the men – including young Astyanax – were killed. There are multiple accounts of Astyanax’s fate, including one hopeful tale where he survives and escapes to Sicily. But more commonly the boy is killed, thrown from the walls of Troy, with most ascribing this death as coming at the hands of either Neoptolemus or Odysseus.


‘Epic’ explores the death of Astyanax at the hands of Odysseus – an action which is deemed so significant that two of the first saga’s five songs deal with this – ‘The Horse and the Infant’ and ‘Just a Man’. The first details Odysseus in the midst of battle visited by the god Zeus, who informs him that he must kill the infant Astyanax, to Odysseus’ protests. The second deals with Odysseus’ emotional turmoil with this order, his struggle with his own conscience, and eventually his decision to follow through and kill the child.


In ‘The Horse and the Infant’ Odysseus is given two main reasons to kill the child. Firstly, the gods demand it of him. While this may be a slightly weaker argument to a modern audience, the Ancient Greeks were certainly not in the habit of defying the gods. Tales of those who did – Minos, Cassandra, Polyphemus – famously ended poorly for the defiant and this would certainly not be the first time, even during the Trojan war, that a child was killed by the will of a god. When Agamemnon offended the goddess Artemis the Greek fleet were stranded on the shore, the winds dead and their ships unable to sail for Troy – the war seemed over before it started. To appease the goddess, Agamemnon’s young daughter Iphigenia was sacrificed to her.


The second reason is actually the more compelling of the two. Despite the risks, Odysseus does attempt to argue with Zeus’ orders to kill the boy, offering a number of alternate solutions – raising the boy himself, sending him away, having him raised in obscurity – all of which are shot down. Zeus warns that if the child lives, he will grow to kill Odysseus, destroy his kingdom, and murder his wife. This may well echo the motives of the legendary Greeks - though some legends characterise Asyanax’s death as vengeance from the Greeks for those of their number killed by Hector, in others the Greeks are fearful that Astyanax will grow into a mighty warrior and take revenge for the fall of Troy.


Tragically, the (attempted) killing of children to prevent a prophecy is not unheard of in Greek myth, though these killings were often done by exposure and, equally often, thwarted by the child being saved and raised by a passing shepherd or kindly animal (one of the reasons Zeus objects to Odysseus’ suggestion of sending the boy away, his name unknown). Even Troy’s famous Paris is said to have been left to die of exposure due to prophecies that the boy would be the downfall of Troy.


Though the exact method of the murder is not explicitly stated in ‘Epic’ with Odysseus it is still clear that Odysseus did kill the child – a decision which clearly haunts him through the rest of the album and continues into the following ‘Epic: The Cyclops Saga.’ Here, his guilt is demonstrated by his refusal to raid the Lotus Eaters (‘we should try to find a way no one ends up dead’) and his refusal to kill the cyclops Polyphemus (‘the blood we shed, it never dries’).


With the end of the Trojan War, the final three songs of the first saga deal with the initial stages of the journey home from Troy, ‘Full Speed Ahead’, which details their leaving Troy and introduces Polites and his second in command, Eurylochus, ‘Open Arms’ which covers Odysseus’ encounter with the fabled Lotus Eaters, and ‘Warrior of the Mind’ which covers Odysseus’ history with the goddess Athena. Both ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Warrior of the Mind’ serve to explore aspects of Odysseus’ personality, and his close relationships with Polites and Athena.


In ‘Open Arms’ Polites – who is described in ‘The Odyssey’ as Odysseus’ greatest friend – encourages Odysseus to stop seeing the world so cynically, and to be more open to a peaceful and trusting resolution a conversations that certainly never occurred in ‘The Odyssey’ itself. Conversely, in ‘Warrior of the Mind’ Athena challenges Odysseus to remember to focus on logic and ruthlessness, rather than emotion. The two songs, so close together, highlight the conflicting aspects of Odysseus’ character, with one significant difference between them. Polites is merely a human, while Athena is a god. Defying one (and subsequently the ruthlessness that she represents) bears far greater consequences than defying the other.


With Athena’s rather ominous parting remark – ‘don’t disappoint me’ – the first album of the ‘Epic’ saga ends, and we move swiftly on to the Cyclops Saga, which details one of the most well-known scenes of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops, Polyphemus.


The first song of the album, ‘Polyphemus’, begins with Odysseus and his men discovering the cyclops’ cave and killing a sheep that they find there. Even so early in the song, there are a few key differences between the saga and Homer’s epic. In the saga, Odysseus and his men are unaware that the cave belongs to someone, and only seek it out because they are hungry, and desperate to replenish their fleet’s food supply. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus and his men have already come upon a deserted island full of sheep and goats and replenished their stock, they only sail to the island of the cyclops to assuage Odysseus’ curiosity. They are also fully aware that the cave has an owner, as they find they find the sheep in pens, and the cave filled with supplies of milk, whey and cheese – supplies that they quickly help themselves to.

Both versions of Odysseus commit a transgression against the owner of the cave, Epic’s Odysseus by killing one of Polyphemus’ sheep – ‘my favourite sheep’ – and Homer’s Odysseus by breaching the code of Xenia, an Ancient Greek right of guest hospitality.


Presided over by Zeus, Xenia was a code of conduct that dictated that the host should offer the guest food and drink, safe refuge for the night, gifts of friendship and an escort to their next destination. There were also expectations on the guest – they were to be respectful of their host and his home, and would, of course, be expected to offer the same standard of hospitality if their host were ever to find themselves as their homes as a guest. With Odysseus as a wandering traveller, Xenia appears constantly within ‘The Odyssey’, with the good acting as either gracious hosts or guests, while the bad behave abominably as both. In entering Polyphemus’ home and ransacking it, (or, as in the album, by killing his sheep) Odysseus breaches the code of Xenia, something which is soon overshadowed by overshadowed by Polyphemus’ far greater transgressions when he returns home.


Instead of offering hospitality, the cyclops traps the men in the cave and kills two of them – eating them in front of their stunned and horrified crew.


In the ‘Epic’ album, we also see a breach in conduct on behalf of the cyclops (even before the cannibalism). Odysseus proposes a trade in apology for the mistakenly killed sheep, and for his crew’s lives, ‘I’ll give you our finest treasure, so long as we leave alive’ and offers the world’s best tasting wine – a claim that may well be true. In ‘The Odyssey,’ when the cyclops is offered this wine it is described as having been gifted to Odysseus by a priest of Apollo who kept the wine so secret that only he, his wife and his most trusted servant knew of it. The cyclops accepts the wine and so, implicitly, accepts the deal, even expressing his gratitude to Odysseus. When the cyclops then attacks it is even more shocking and horrific, especially as, with Odysseus’ desperate cry of ‘look out’ the song abruptly ends.


The following song, ‘Survive’, describes a battle that never took place in ’The Odyssey’, with Odysseus and his men battling against the fearsome Polyphemus. The emotional climax of the song is the tragic death of Polites, who is crushed by Polyphemus’ club – a tragedy which does not happen in the Odyssey. Though Odysseus is fated to return home alone, and so must lose all his crew, Polites was not one of those killed in the cyclops cave, surviving for at least another year, as he was present on Circe’s island in the original poem.


The battle concludes with Polyphemus passing out, much as he did in the Odyssey, though the latter was caused by an overindulgence of wine, while the former was due to Odysseus drugging the wine, he had offered the cyclops. Consequently, much like the two breaches of Xenia in the odyssey, both Odysseus and the cyclops had breached the terms of the offered trade – though Odysseus’ offence of drugging the wine is of course overshadowed by the cyclops’ far greater breach of murder and cannibalism.


What follows marries very closely with the events of ‘The Odyssey’. Odysseus and his men turn Polyphemus’ club into a spear and use it to blind him in his sleep. When other cyclops appear to find out why their brother is crying out, Odysseus’ famous ‘Nobody’ gambit pays off – ‘If nobody hurts you, be silent’ in the song and ‘if you are alone and nobody is assaulting you, you must be sick’ in the epic – though in the album, Odysseus and his men flee with the sheep, rather than tied under them as in Homer’s epic. However, at this point in the album we also see a culmination of Odysseus’ guilt over the murder of Astyanax. When Athena appears before Odysseus and tells him to kill Polyphemus (much as Zeus once appeared before Odysseus and told him to kill Astyanax) Odysseus says no. Odysseus soon after makes one of the biggest mistakes that he – and indeed the original Odysseus – make on their journey. Despite Athena’s attempts to stop him, he tells Polyphemus his name.


Interestingly, for a concept album revolving around this character, this is the first time that Odysseus’s name is mentioned – the last word of the eighth song in the album. This, in its way, does mimic the opening of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus is not mentioned by name until the twelfth line, and does not appear in person until page sixty-six. In ‘Remember Them’ Odysseus’ impulsive declaration of his name is followed by an ominous quiet, filled only by the creaking of the boat.


Though not yet explored in the album, for those familiar with the story of Odysseus this nautical quiet is a stark reminder of Odysseus’ mistake. Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon, god of the seas. And, now having a name, Polyphemus was able to curse it, calling his father’s attention to Odysseus and turning the god against the man – a terrible prospect for someone whose home lies across the sea. In ‘The Odyssey’ this act is seen as a display of hubris– Odysseus and his men had escaped and in turning back to taunt the blind cyclops Odysseus only drew its attention and put his men back into danger. In comparison, the Odysseus of ‘Epic’ initially turned on the cyclops in rage and grief over his lost crewmates – ‘My comrades will not die in vain, remember them’ however this righteous anger does then turn into its own bitter hubris, as Odysseus proudly declares, ‘I am neither man nor mythical, I am your darkest moment, I am the infamous, Odysseus’.


As in Homer’s epic, Odysseus faces immediate godly retribution for his pride, though this does not come with the horrific discovery that his foe is the son of the sea god. Instead, ‘Remember them’ segues into the final song of the arc, ‘My Goodbye’ which features the breakdown of Athena and Odysseus’ relationship. This is something that never occurs in ‘The Odyssey,’ which casts Athena as Odysseus’ constant advocate and guardian, though she is not always able to act against her uncle, Poseidon, and must wait until he is occupied elsewhere before she is able to intervene.


Having lost the backing of a goddess, gained the enmity of a god, and lost one of his closest friends, the second arc of the ‘Epic’ Saga ends with Odysseus’ troubles just beginning and much more danger to come. So, while the release date for the next saga has yet to be announced, we doubt that here at Mythos we’re the only ones waiting with bated breath for the next instalment in the series.


 

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