Greek Myths & the Art of Words

Kate Tempest: A 21st Century London Poet – Musing and Rapping on Greek myths

04 April 2015     by James C. Stratis

We can be inspired by words, the art of words as in the inspirational art of poetry. Previously1 we connected to the ancient place of Kommos when we posted an article, a blog, on the poetry of place, through a poem by Constantine Cavafy.

If the archaeological site of Kommos on Crete is to receive the stewardship and attention it deserves, its story must continue to be told and not just to the intellectual specialist. One can read interpretation about a subject like a person, place or thing for only so long, before the cloud of boredom descends and the fresh air of the new, the light of the next… pulls us onwards.

Finding another way to connect the public to a story, such as through puppetry, animation, humor and/or music is something we wrote about before2. Kate Tempest, an award winning young poet from London England, likewise, connects her audience to stories artfully. She has put her own spin on timeless Greek stories, some of them like Icarus located off the waters of Crete, where our story of Kommos is anchored.

Here below we include a continuation on the subject of the poetic delivery of a story shared by three New York Times journalists; Charles Isherwood, Rachel Donadio, and Michiko Kakutani. They write in part about the means and values of storytelling.

“The roots of theater lie in oral storytelling, and Ms. Tempest’s huge ambition is to reanimate this tradition — or at least keep it chugging along for a little while longer. In her hypnotically persuasive vision, the same passions and poisons that made Olympus such a lively place still simmer in the hearts of men and women trudging through their drab lives in cities the world over.”Donadio observes3


Kate Tempest — a playwright, poet, rapper and published novelist — in her home neighborhood of Brixton in London.
Photo Credit: Andrew Testa, The New York Times

Charles Isherwood says “Ms. Tempest mostly speaks but occasionally sings out her tale in long, spiraling phrases, rich in inspired images, although the language is vernacular (and the rhymes are often approximate). While she moves casually across the stage, she often seems to be vibrating like a tuning fork with the urgency of the telling, her arms sawing at the air in time with the propulsive rhythms of her speech, which also reflects hip-hop and rap influences.”4

One of Ms. Tempest poems stems from the fact that there were Bronze Age Minoan colonies on what is now the Italian island of Sicily. After the Bronze age, families from Crete continued to thrive there and the ancient Greek poet Diodorus “of Sicily” wrote in his Library of History [4.77.8} of Icarus and his father Daedalus and their inventive yet fatal escape from King Minos’ island Crete.5 The myth of Icarus is a lesson of thoughtless hubris, I do because I can, the timeless moral of the story being – listen to your (wiser) elders, steady on and you may get there.

This YouTube video was filmed in the poet’s house – November 2010, where Tempest performed Icarus before undergoing throat surgery.


Soaring the skies that had always been beyond his reach
He felt like a champion
His feet kicked the clouds
His arms are bound in the feathers of his father’s labour
Which a little while later would be ashes … vapour.

Cumbersome limbs furnished with powerful things
He heard the wind speak
Every time he heard his wings beat
His Father flew before him and so the course was set
He said, Don’t fly by the waves ’cause your wings will get wet
but don’t fly so high that the sun melts the wax
He said stay on my path, son, Follow my tracks
But Icarus, enamored by the feeling of flight
He just had to fly higher and get closer to the light
The sun was hot against him as he carried on ascending
He felt strength in him increasing like the heat that was so tempting
Beneath was the world he left behind in search of better things
but to achieve that freedom he sacrificed everything.

I told him
Come down from the sky you’re flying too high
Heed your Father’s words this ain’t your territory
No one even noticed as he splashed and hit the sea bed
I wonder what he saw before he fell
And if he needed my help
Would he asked for it?
Probably, he wouldn’t
Probably, he thought he was invincible
He weren’t
In principle he burned
He smoldered in those myths
So that we who never flew before could learn from what he did.

Given the gift of flight
It was too easy to ignore
The warnings of his Father
How could he be truly responsible
When really all he wants to do was soar above his station and become the Sun’s equal
But the Sun can have no equal
Poor Icarus
That flicker in his eye
That distant picture in the sky
About to catch the light he sought
Ah, foolish young pride
Silly man-cub
How can you learn to fly if you haven’t even learned to stand-up
If he had listened to his father
Well then he would never would’ve drowned
But the happiness he felt is one he never would have found

Gifts are dangerous when they are given and not earned
A lesson merely heard, well that’s never a lesson learned
By the time his father turned, the wax had completely burned
Feathers scattered on the waves
And they just rolled on unconcerned
But for the small moment before he fell in to the sea
Icarus the head-strong had been completely free

Come down from the sky,
You’re flying too high
Heed your Father’s words, this ain’t your territory
No one even noticed as he splashed and hit the sea bed
I wonder what he saw before he fell
And if he needed my help
Would he asked for it?
Probably, he wouldn’t
Probably, he thought he was invincible
He weren’t
In principle he burned
He smoldered in those myths
So that we who never flew before could learn from what he did.

“Her spoken-word performances have the meter and craft of traditional poetry, the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and the intimacy of a whispered heart-to-heart, drawing on ancient mythology and sermonic cadence to tell stories of the everyday.”6

Kate Tempest -Niamh Covery

Kate Tempest Credit: Niamh Convery


Brand New Ancients book cover

“It’s almost disorienting to realize that this intensely vivid tale (Brand New Ancients), which touches the deep chords of pity we associate with Greek tragedy, has been created by the petite, girlish young woman onstage, in jeans and sneakers. She is indeed someone you might just walk by on the street, perhaps noting her English-rose loveliness and her ingratiating smile, but little suspecting the mighty passions firing her imagination.” writes Donadio3

we’re the same beings that began, still living
in all of our fury and foulness and friction,
everyday odysseys, dreams and decisions …
(Brand New Ancients)

Similar to the current financial disparity of today’s Greek citizens within the European Union, Donadio also says “An insistence on connection and revealing quiet moments of beauty in the lives of Londoners — many of them struggling to stay afloat in economic uncertainty — is at the heart of Ms. Tempest’s work. Citing both the poet William Blake and the rapper RZA among her influences, she is a powerful mix of innocence and experience with a growing, and fervent, following. Her play ‘Brand New Ancients’ reimagines the Greek gods as ordinary Londoners through the tales of two interconnected families.” and “She uses myth to frame contemporary personal stories.”3
Isherwood called it “a story so vivid it’s as if you had a state-of-the-art Blu-ray player stuffed into your brain.” He notes that ”With Ms. Tempest’s words painting the pictures, it’s pretty easy to focus.”4
Journalist Kakutani writes of the “29-year-old Kate Tempest’s gift for shattering — and transcending — convention and conventional genres, and says that “they also underscore the tensions and contradictions that fuel her dynamic art. Tiresias, the blind seer in Greek mythology who lived as a man and a woman, is the presiding figure in her (Tempest’s) collection ‘Hold Your Own,’ and the contemporary characters in her dazzling story-poem ‘Brand New Ancients’ are also conflicted beings in search of a self. They are torn between confidence and self-loathing, between aching loneliness and the tumult of love, between ambition and a revulsion for the phony accouterments of fame. Ms. Tempest describes these ordinary people as gods, and their quarrels — so reminiscent of the squabbling among the Greek gods on Mount Olympus — are both petty and profound. Myths used to be ‘the stories we used to explain ourselves,’ she (Tempest) observes, and to her, myths, like art, are a way to universalize individual dreams and suffering: They lend continuity and weight to the everyday struggles of life — ‘deadlines, debts, divorces’ — and remind us that every person, every passer-by on the street, has an ‘epic narrative’ within.”6

Times writer Donadio reports “And her fans believe the appeal will carry across the Atlantic. While Rachel Mannheimer, who acquired the new poetry collection for Bloomsbury, explained by email.3 ‘Her vision is about finding the universal in the local, the mythic in every individual — how we’re all part of something bigger and older than ourselves.’

We are in the age of leveraged value and multi-tasking. There are many paths to choose, leading us away from boredom. We ride on a bus with an earbud in place, we sit across from friends and our attention is redirected to our smart phones. Mass exposure to the MTV like videos with their rapid fire – quick video editing and the non-stop sight and sound action of the movie industry over the last thirty years has been fully integrated into commercial advertising for global capitalism.

We are expecting to have our attention held or we change the channel – change the delivery system.
The messages of the ancients, however, still resonate and must still be taught afresh. Combining poetry, music, live performance and an inspirational place such as Kommos the Minoan seaport and Greek temple site, has the potential to provide a sensory experience greater than the sum of the parts. We must encourage the multi-sensory experience of the feel of the sun, the wind, the sea, where the smell of the air and the presence of the spirit of Icarus’ past, frees the imaginations of visitors of all ages.

Kate Tempest’s ghostly familiar fatal lesson delivered through her lyric poem and performance, transports us to a place with learning from millennia ago, which is still relevant today. There, a better understanding that can be achieved by recalling lyric poetry, even more so within a full immersion environment like Kommos. Performance art like rap and poetry / rap poetry out of the in-door stage, amidst the sound and feel of the wind, the weather and cadent wave backdrop of the abandoned ancient seaport, can compound the visitor learning experience because the leveraged values of history, place, archaeology, and culture count and matter as much as ever in our recreation choices and in the funded curricula of formal institutions of learning.

1. Poetry and Place — Ιθάκη / Ithaka – C.P.Cavafy September 30,2014

2. Contemporary Music and Minoan Mythology December 06,2010

3. Rachel Donadio; NYTimes March 6, 2015

4. Charles Isherwood; NYTimes January 14, 2014

5. Diodorus of Sicily; ca 65-30BC

6. Michiko Kakutani; NYTimes  March 18, 2015

Featured Image triptych photocredits

      Clouds – Handa Gote group

       Kate Tempest –  Andrew Testa for The New York Times

       Burning Wing –

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5 comments on “Greek Myths & the Art of Words
  1. Loes Huis in 't Veld says:

    I am very interested in the poems and the story about Icarus from Kate Tempest.

    The story of Ikaros intrigues me. The enthusiasm of a young man who fanatically is driven to do something, especially if he perceives that it perfectly suits him.

    The story implies: vanity leads to fall. But I do have the idea that everyone who reads this story sympathizes very much with Ikaros . We all want to be able to fly and to decide how and where to go.

    Je dromen, Ikaros….!
    grijpen naar de zon
    hogerop willen gaan
    lucht ademt je lijf
    wind kietelt veren

    strelingen van gouden lijnen
    omfloersen verenpracht
    het luchtruim doorklieven
    de wereld houdt zijn adem in
    veren spelen in de wind

    niet willen weten…
    verlangen naar vrijheid
    veren ritselen in de wind
    gebroken dromen
    geknakte vrijheid

    wasdruppels langs huidlagen
    verzengende hitte
    wind ruist door veren
    the oceaan…!
    water speelt met veren

    oktober 2014 Pano Stalos

    Your dreams, Icarus…..!
    grasping at the sun
    wanting to go higher
    air inhales your body
    wind tickles feathers

    caresses of golden lines
    encircles gorgeous plumage
    splitting the air
    the World holds its breath
    feathers playing in the wind

    not knowing
    not wanting to know
    heat on skin
    desire for freedom
    feathers flutter in the wind

    broken dreams….
    shattered freedom….
    wax drops along skin layers
    burning heat….
    wind rustles through feathers

    the fear…..!
    the fall……!
    the ocean….!
    Water plays with feathers

    oktober 2014 Pano Stalos

    Loes Huis in ’t Veld is a Hellenophile, poet and an artist who lives and works in Holland and on the island of Crete, Greece. The inspired art from her studios can be accessed and appreciated through her web site. For several years she has concentrated on the core theme of flying and the total experience of flight. She demonstrates in her work the principle of freedom and movement; the turning, the lifting, the free-falling, the joy, the wonder and the sheer magic of every aspect of flight. The launch from the earth with all its brute force, the freedom of movement through air and the battle with gravity. Her concepts are both fantasy and reality. Special in the series “Flying”. Her disciplines are: Paintings and drawings in mixed media and collage, screen printing and etching, photography and external art installations and book printing. For additional artwork and information visit:

  2. 4ndr0s says:

    I like the poetry and images used here, this is very inspiring, thanks!

  3. Wendy Everett says:

    This sonnet, written in 2013, is one of a collection of works about or inspired by Crete. It deals, as does Kate’s rap, with notions of flight, freedom, and the perceived invulnerability of the young. And, of course, with the widespread desire to escape. It also makes a playful reference to my Cretan cat, Icarus, who, when a tiny kitten, repeatedly attempted to ‘fly’, almost always with catastrophic consequences.

    As I work in cinema, visual images are crucial to me, and I’m accompanying my sonnet with a small water colour, image entitled ‘The fall of Icarus’, and a photograph.


    by Wendy Everett

    Certainly excited, that day, as he soared upwards with his father.
    Perhaps a little clumsy, at first,
    Leaving the familiar landscapes of Crete,
    Its white-capped mountains, deep valleys, and craggy cliffs,
    And heading out over the blues and purples of the sea.

    But then, for sure, delight, as he swooped down towards the silver spray,
    and through the limpid waters glimpsed swift rainbows of fish,
    Wrack and wrecks where strange creatures lurked.
    He would have tasted the salt on his lips,
    and seen its sparkling crystals on his wings.

    So this is freedom, he thought, this shifting perspective,
    This awareness of space, of boundless possibility.

    And, with the immortality of youth,
    He set his course towards the dazzling sun.

    Wendy Everett is Honorary Reader in Film Studies at the University of Bath, UK, and Research Fellow of the Camargo Foundation, Cassis, France. Her research interests center upon European Cinema, and she has published widely in the field, on subjects ranging from identity, autobiography, migration, colour, and music in film, to fractal narratives of the postmodern, and the European road movie. Member of the editorial boards of several international journals, and joint editor of Peter Lang’s New Studies in European Cinema series, she gives lectures and papers across Europe and the USA, and has addressed various national and international bodies, including the European parliament, on the role of cinema in the formation and articulation of identity. She is currently living and working in Crete where she combines academic interests with writing poetry, and is completing an illustrated collection of poems inspired by, and relating to Crete.



  4. Rena Stollenwerk says:

    When I think of you, I think of Icarus
    poetry and art by Rena Stollenwerk – 7 February 2016

    Poet and artist Renata (Rena) Stollenwerk considers both myths of Sisyphus and of Icarus asks: “Do we have to go through the process of Sisyphus first, to be able to fly without crashing?”

    When I think of YOU,
    I think of Icarus
    but I am not willing
    to accept this experience.
    I question the experiment.

    Who saw his fall? Who found his body?
    Only the father in his anxious foresight.
    Maybe Icarus disappeared,
    utterly high, because freed
    from the weight of the feathers frame,
    suddenly light,
    flown beyond any horizon?

    I am not willing
    to accept those impossibilities,
    still working on my wings…….
    only to lift off
    and then to aviate
    far and very light
    liberated from weight
    and the heaviness of life.

    I am not willing
    to take it as invariable,
    I always keep my wings in mind.
    And one day I will fly
    beyond the earth, the moon
    and the sky.
    I know,
    there I will meet YOU
    and probably
    Icarus too.

    See our Kommos and Myths article’s comments for Rena Stollenwerks poem and artwork on the Sisyphus myth.

  5. Kate Tempest poem Icarus and the artists/poets Huis in’t Veld, Everett, and Stollenwerk were all inspired by the myth as told by Pseudo-Apollodorus’ in his Bibliotheca (Ancient Greek: Βιβλιοθήκη) wherein the original myth of Icarus was told in 1st-2nd century AD. In 1985 Archaeologist-scholar Judith Weingarten’s paper, Aspects of Tradition and Innovation In The Work Of The Zakro Master, she refers to a seal stone image and about the evolution “into a true bird man with human legs, Ikarus’s most distant ancestor.” Her fascinating paper is available at

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