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In a few days Florence + The Machine will wrap up the High As Hope tour at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (commonly called Herodion Theatre), a small stone theatre on the southwest slope of the Acropolis of Athens. Built in the II century to host musical performances, since 1955 the Odeon has been the site of the prestigious Athens and Epidaurus Festival, which annually presents numerous theatre, dance, and music artists. Here the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Patti Smith and Foo Fighters have performed. But playing a concert at the Herodion is not easy. The theatre may be granted for events of only high artistic and aesthetic value and artists must receive approval from some of the major Greek cultural institutions. The Communications Manager for Detox Events, the promoter for these shows, noted that it took more time than expected (it isn’t easy for “big rock” acts like Florence and the Machine to play in this venue) but also that Florence herself made it clear since the tour started in 2018 that she wanted to play the final show at the Herodion.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on the southwest slope of the Acropolis (ph. Scott E. Barbour)

 

The inside of the theatre (ph.puntogrecia.gr)

The announcement of the show on September 19th (a second date on the 22nd and a third on the 21st at the bigger Galatsi Olympic Hall have been added by popular demand) has been accompanied by these words from Florence: “Grecian art and mythology have always played a huge part in my work, so I cannot think of a better place for the final show of this record.”

Even for those who are not so much familiar with the artistic world of Florence Welch, this statement is not surprising.

The poetics of the British songwriter has always had a clear classical influence, Grecian especially. Her lyrics are dotted with more or less explicit quotes from the Grecian mythology: the sacrifice ritual that turns water from blue to blood-red in Rabbit Heart (Lungs, 2009), the hybris in 100 Years (High As Hope, 2018), the poor Atlas holding up the celestial heavens in What the Water Gave Me (Ceremonials, 2011), Persephone cursed to live between the earth and the underworld in Caught (How Big How Blue How Beautiful, 2015) – these are only a few of the references to the Grecian culture. Not to mention the whole How Blue How Beautiful album, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey (which is also the name of the film directed by Vincent Haycock).

But there is much more than this. The entire Florence + The Machine’s value system can be compared to the Greek one on multiple levels, with quite a few digressions to the Christian and Pagan spiritualities. Florence herself embodies a topos of the Greek literature both in her look and attitude: the dicothomy hìmeros/aidòs, passion and modesty, excitement and decency, which seem to wonderfully coexist in her. The polite and gracious Londoner turns into a passionate dancing maenad onstage and the iconic red hair stands out like flames on her English pale skin. Her artistic path, which led her from chaos to harmony and from addiction to sobriety, can be compared to the redemption journey of the psychologically complex tragic heroes, characterised by inner conflicts and loneliness.

Florence has gone through personal and creative phases that have several elements in common with the ancient myths. Wild and earthly creature in the Lungs era; majestic and mysterious goddess in Ceremonials, set in a more solemn and ghostly atmosphere; aquatic nymph in How Big How Blue How Beautiful, a tormented and deeply human work of art; peaceful and contemplative muse in High As Hope, the album that marks her personal and artistic maturity with a typical and inevitable hint of magic. A story of growth, love and pain, somehow symbolic and shareable like a modern mythos. How many of you have reflected in Florence’s chaotic teen years, in her falls and in her hard path to salvation?

These features reflect in her songwriting – a summary of archetypes like love, death, nature and pain, treated with a visceral intensity that is typical of a Greek tragedy. Everything in Florence’s music and poetry has a strong spiritual foundation. Even if she claims she is not a religious person, it’s undeniable that her poetic and performative language is deeply spiritual and mystical. “There’s a lot that’s heavenly, hellish, pagan and reverential in my music”; “Sex, violence, love, death, are the topics that I’m constantly wrestling with, it’s all connected back to religion”. A kind of religion that has nothing to do with theology but it is decontextualized and treated as a part of the common mythos.

In a totally secularized world, religion seems to have rerooted itself into the popular culture and particularly in arts and music. This is clear in Florence’s writing and it is much more at her live shows, when she plays the role of a priestess celebrating a mass in front of her worshippers. Her body language is powerful like a Bacchae, her sharp voice resonates like the one of a tragic actor and the Machine embodies the choir, playing as an instrumental background to something that goes beyond a simple musical performance.

Left: ph. Dana Pacifico. Right: Winged Victory of Samothrace, II century, Louvre Museum, Paris

 

“Let’s talk about magic. Because music, at its best, is a kind of magic that lifts you up and take you somewhere else. “I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree, or off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and you can’t breathe,” says Florence Welch. “It’s something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up, and you’re either going to explode with it, or you’re just going to disappear.”

In this regard we totally agree with Jessica Misener, who describes Florence’s music as an ekstasis, a Greek word that means “standing outside of one’s self”. Ekstasis is the word used in Acts 22 when Paul describes his conversion account, the famous “road to Damascus” experience. It is that feeling of being pulled up to heights, to a personal epiphany (Leave My Body is a testament to that). Ask a Florence’s fan how it feels to attend one of her shows and they will probably tell you that it is like living a sort of spiritual transcendence. A catharsis, to mention another Greek word, that was the reason why Athenians used to go to theatre hundreds of years ago. Who knows if something like that will happen at the Herodion in a few days. But we are sure it will.

 

Florence + The Machine live in Athens

 

Odeon of Herodes Atticus – 19 and 22 September 2019

Galatsi Olympic Hall – 21 September 2019

All shows are sold out.

Here below you will find all the Florence + The Machine’s songs with references to the Grecian mythology. Florence’s manager, Hannah Giannoulis, revealed that some of these might be played in Athens.

 

Dog Days Are Over (Lungs, 2009)

The first song on Florence + The Machine’s first album has a Greek title: the dog days (kynádes hēmérai) are the sultry days of summer, historically the period following the heliacal rising of Sirius, also known as Alfa Canis Majoris and Dog Star. Sirius derives from Seirios, which means “bright” but also “burning”: in ancient Greece it was believed that its sparkle could damage the harvest, bring dryness and cause diseases and madness.

 

Rabbit Heart (Lungs, 2009)

The whole song is about a sacrifice ritual: the lamb brings to mind the scapegoat of the Dionysian ceremonies. There’s also a reference to King Midas, famous for his ability (donated by Dionysius) to turn everything he touched into gold. Another major topic is the gift, the word opening the chorus. In The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that an artist must embrace their gift sacrificing sacred parts of their life as a sign of gratitude to their genius (the Greek daimon) in exchange for creative fertility. If they do so, their genius will protect them and make them genial; if not, their genius will restlessly haunt them and sabotage their lives and relationships. The music video for Rabbit Heart is an ode to Greece: Florence looks like a Greek goddess taking part in a feast along with her Vestals.

Rabbit Heart music video, directed by Tom Beard and Tabitha Denholm (2009)

 

 

Howl (Lungs, 2009)

The feral love. “The fabric of your flesh/pure as a wedding dress” reminds of the contrast red/white and hìmeros/aidòs recurring in the Greek literature: the most famous example is when Apsyrtus, Medea’s brother, throws his own blood on her white peplos while being killed by Jason.

 

Between Two Lungs (Lungs, 2009)

The verse “My running feet could fly” might refer to Hermes, the god with winged sandals.

  

Shake it Out (Ceremonials, 2011)

“Every demon wants its pound of flesh” connects with the aforementioned theme of the gift. In an interview with Chelsea Handler, Florence revealed that the flesh she sings about represents the song she offers to her inner demon.

 

What the Water Gave Me (Ceremonials, 2011)

There is a clear reference to Atlas, the Titan condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity after the Titanomachy.

 

Heartlines (Ceremonials, 2011)

This song evokes a sacrificial atmosphere as well, in particular in the verses “And I’ve seen it in the flights of birds/I’ve seen it in you/In the entrails of the animals/The blood running through”.

 

Leave my Body (Ceremonials, 2011)

 

Literally the ekstasis we mentioned. Florence wishes to live in the moment (“I don’t want your future/I don’t need your past/One bright moment/Is all I ask”) and to leave her own body.

 

Bedroom Hymns (Ceremonials deluxe edition, 2011)

“The wine, the women and the bedroom hymns” sounds like the tale of a Bacchanal.

 

How Big How Blue How Beautiful (2015)

This album was going to be named Tantalus, a Greek king cursed by the gods to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree, so he could see the fruit but he was never able to get it and he could see the water but never be able to drink it. Florence told that this concept was very present in the record in that she could see this thing that she wanted and just couldn’t reach it. Another major influence of the record is Homer’s Odyssey and the theme of travel, recurring in Greek literature. Other important elements linked to Greek world are nature (often with figurative meaning) and the concept of double, a strong Leitmotiv in Haycock’s The Odyssey.

 

How Big How Blue How Beautiful, ph. Vincent Haycock (2015)

 

Caught (How Big How Blue How Beautiful, 2015)

This song features a reference to the myth of Persephone, cursed to live for six months on earth and for six months in the underworld (“between desperate and divine”).

 

Hunger (High As Hope, 2018)

Main character in the video for Hunger, directed by A.G. Rojas, is a statue (similar to the Greek ones). It is completely androgynous, it doesn’t have breasts and it doesn’t have a penis, either – an inversion of the famous story of Hermaphroditus, who is often depicted with both. This ambiguity and “other” nature to the statue can also be associated with the Greek god Dionysus, whose cults often engaged in wild, convulsive dancing not unlike the way Florence moves in the video. She throws herself through space, swaying and moving much like the intoxicated and ravenous maenads of Dionysus would as they hunted down their god to consume him.

 

Hunger music video, directed by A.G. Rojas (2018)

 

100 Years (High As Hope, 2018)

The verse “Hubris is a bitch” contains a Greek word: hybris is a literary topos that typically describes a behavior that defies the norms of behavior or challenges the Gods.

 

 

REFERENCES

  • Ileana Costabile, The indie music, independent and mainstream: the case of Florence + The Machine, dissertation, September 2014
  • Mary Elizabeth Andriotis, Florence + The Machine will end their tour at a seriously monumental Athens venue, in Architectural Digest, June 2019
  • Cassidy Smith, Big God: Exploring the spiritual imagery and religious recontextualization of Florence Welch’s “High As Hope”, in Online Academic Community, December 2018
  • Vanessa Grigoriadis, Florence Welch, the Good Witch, in Rolling Stone, November 2011
  • Jessica Misener, Florence, The Machine, Faith and me, in patheos.com, December 2011
  • Adam Thorn, Florence and The Machine: “I love demons and exorcism”, in NME, July 2011
  • Florence Welch’s biography, in ceremonials.florenceandthemachine.net
  • Editor Jdog2skillet in genius.com
  • Florence Welch, Interview for Chelsea Lately, 2011
  • Jabbari Weekes, Florence Welch started a witch coven and nobody knew about it, in Vice, June 2015
  • Murphy Leigh, You make a fool of death with your beauty, in Medium, May 2018