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In the song "Something Just Like This," by Coldplay and the Chainsmokers, there's a line that says:

I've been reading books of old

The legends and the myths.

Achilles and his gold,

Hercules and his gifts.

I recall Achilles being associated with martial prowess and his famous heel, not gold. What does the song refer to?

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    My best guess would be that the gold refers to the riches Achilles got from fighting - he, as did the other fighters, got a share of the spoils from war. Achilles got a larger portion, both because of a fight between Agamemnon and himself, and because he was one of the best fighters. From there, gold was used because it fits both the rhythm better, and probably because it draws more attention to his ability - the song is about superheroes, not unfortunate ways to die. Aug 13 '17 at 13:51
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    It would make more sense if the lyrics said Midas and his gold.
    – David
    Aug 19 '17 at 17:53
  • Goodness, a gold badge already.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 7 '18 at 2:05
  • I want to post an answer to this three-year-old question, and I actually composed and edited a good one, but then I saw that the question is still "Highly active" and therefore unanswerable. Can someone dumb it down a bit, to make it less active so I can post my answer?! Dec 25 '21 at 4:18
  • @Metamorphic - Unfortunately, I cannot unprotect questions.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 25 '21 at 4:46
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One of Achilles’ best known and most important connections with gold is that he rejects the treasure, including ten talents of gold (δέκα δὲ χρυσοῖο τάλαντα, Iliad 9.122 & 9.264), that is offered by Agamemnon as an inducement to rejoin the war effort. For he is in receipt of divine intelligence (from his mother Thetis, 9.410–416) that if he continues to fight at Troy he will die young, and his reward is to be immortal fame.

Provision for immortal fame involves, first, recognition from his peers, in the form of treasure-gifts, including spear-prize women, awarded by the army collectively (1.162) in recognition of meritorious service on the raids that bring in the treasure. After that, and in some measure depending on such signal honors, the hero can become a personage in heroic epic, which lasts forever. Agamemnon’s insulting and autocratic revocation of the army’s award of the woman has in effect broken the mechanism by which Achilles can hope for immortal fame. And as he himself points out, treasure itself cannot equally well be worth dying for, and cannot undo death:

Of possessions
cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier. (9.406–409, Lattimore trans.)

Another connection is the famous armor, particularly the shield, created for Achilles by Hephaestus at Iliad 18.478–607. Materials for the shield include bronze, tin, and silver as well, but the figuration or blazonry that dominates the passage prominently features gold.

The association of Hercules with gifts also raises questions. The song elsewhere uses gifts in the sense of talents (in the modern sense of extraordinary god-given abilities, not as weight or mass unit), and presumably is using it in that sense also in relation to Hercules—who is not so much known for gifts, in the sense of presents, as (say) the Magi of Christian myth.

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  • @Gibet - It's imperfect rhyme or near-rhyme. It's an old and popular poetic technique.
    – Obie 2.0
    Aug 13 '17 at 17:19
  • I have excised the only bit of my answer that has hitherto drawn comment--on both anti-snark and New Critical principles. Aug 14 '17 at 18:19
  • Very insightful, relating Achilles' "gold" to his choice of "undying fame". I can't say whether this was Coldplay's intention, but it strikes me as the proper understanding.
    – DukeZhou
    Aug 14 '17 at 21:57
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The song apparently hints at a quote which once has been popular but now is known only by classicists:

ll entreat Achilles to lend me the gold with which Hector was ransomed (Achillem orabo, aurum ut mihi det, Hector qui expensus fuit).

T. Maccius Plautus, Mercator, or The Merchant, Act 2, Scene 4

Paul Veyne, in one of his books (''Did the Greek believe their myths'', n.77), gives the line as an ironic example of something irrealistic, as we could say e.g. "I'll ask Santa for some money".

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"What does the song refer to?"

It refers to the lyricist's lack of knowledge & unfamiliarity with classical Greek mythology.

I looked up the whole lyrics the whole verse is this

"I've been reading books of old The legends and the myths/ Achilles and his gold/ Hercules and his gifts/ Spiderman's control/ And Batman with his fists/ And clearly I don't see myself upon that list"

The intent of the verse is clear, the writer doesn't see himself as heroic.

But it also demonstrates unfamiliarity with the characters mentioned. What is "Spiderman's control" supposed to mean? Does the writer mean Spidey's agility, i.e. acrobatical control over his body? Or did the writer mean "self control" over emotions? The latter is not something the Spiderman character is known for.

And "Batman with his fists", while Batman is known for martial arts skills, he's much more closely associated with his detective skills & inventive gadgets.

"Hercules and his gifts" is vague & generalized.

In a later verse the writer says "Superman unrolls/ A suit before he lifts" Which doesn't really make much sense either.

So what I think it means overall, is that the writer sat down & said "I want to write about not being heroic, & if I name some popular hero characters it will make the song more popular" then he looked up some names of popular heroic characters & put them in the song without really studying much about them at all.

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    Actually, the leader of Coldplay has a degree in Ancient World Studies, with an emphasis on Greek and Roman civilizations.
    – Obie 2.0
    Aug 13 '17 at 19:07
  • I think you took the question too literal. What the writer means with the song is irrelevant. It's about those four specific lines, and 'Achilles and his gold' in particular. Whatever he sang about Spiderman/Superman may be an appropriate question somewhere else on the Stack Exchange network, but not on Mythology.SE.
    – Mast
    Aug 13 '17 at 19:59
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    Greek and Latin is a huge canon, and I've known people with Classics degrees with little knowledge of mythology. When Achilles withdraws from the war over his argument with Agamemnon, he is accused of cowardice. To my mind, this would seem to support the case that Achilles refusing the inducement of gold (see Brian Donovan's answer) is counter to the intended meaning of the song lyric. By the same token, "Achilles gold" may refer to his undying fame, and not base, literal gold.
    – DukeZhou
    Oct 5 '17 at 20:06
2

I am a fan of this song, and this question. After thinking about the song for some time, I was enabled to gain some impressions of my own, and I felt inclined to share them here.

The song seems to be about a child's becoming or wanting to become a superhero. To me it says that the author of the lyrics found a loving protector, the female character in the song, before he found stardom. I am not sure if "she" is his mother, or Jesus, or a special woman in his life, or an alien entity. But I think the song expresses a child's feelings of unworthiness about receiving the promised gifts, and it assuages his concerns about the risks he will confront on the path that he is being shown.

The lyrics seem intentionally childish. I think this can be heard in the opening line, "I've been reading books of old" - in the contrast between the casual "I've been reading" and the archaic "books of old". Chris Martin is not, as others have pointed out, trying to prove himself as a classicist here - he studied under Jeremy Bentham. If it sounds like an imaginative child is putting his own spin on the myths, then we should at least credit the musician's mythical associations for setting a tone that is consistent with the rest of the song. There is even an animated official lyric video which shows a child in a spaceship.

At the same time, it seems possible to synthesize the other answers into an interpretation that refers to something more mature and more specific, and something which may even be deliberate on the part of the artist.

Consider that Achilles was known for being swift, and Hercules for being strong. The narrator is worried that he won't be swift or strong enough to make his dreams come true. But his benefactor replies that she's not looking for someone who is already a hero. Maybe she then reassured the narrator with the verse from the Bible that says: "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong". The full text of that verse is:

Ecclesiastes 9:11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The verse lists five superhero gifts and traits:

  1. race / swift
  2. battle / strong
  3. bread / wise
  4. riches / understanding
  5. favour / skill

The song lists five superheroes, and things they have:

  1. Achilles / gold
  2. Hercules / gifts
  3. Spider-Man / control
  4. Batman / fists
  5. Superman / suit

As I already noted, there is a good correspondence between the first two items in each list. For example, although it would sound just as well to switch Achilles and Hercules in the song, this would break the correspondence to Ecclesiastes: Hercules is known for being strong, not swift; it is Achilles who is called "swift-footed".

Now, of the modern superheroes, Batman (number 4) is best known for being wealthy ("riches") in his day-job identity, and he is the next easiest to cross off the list.

As for the last item, number 5: Superman may have just as much "favour" as the other heroes, but this depends on his suit, which serves to insulate his superhero identity from that of the timid journalist Clark Kent. You wouldn't want to try to rescue someone while dressed like Clark Kent! It could have been Spider-Man's suit, or Batman's, but we can see that wearing a suit brings (worldly) favor, and making a suit requires skill. Certainly a suit is more apt to win favor than the "race" or the "battle".

Incidentally, creating a metaphorical "superhero suit" might be an essential skill for a pop star, who must also maintain two separate identities - the reclusive intellectual composer and lyricist, versus the "superhero" stage performer. Some of the symbolism that we're trying to analyze here might be like a costume that creates the lyricist's public persona: something that covers the details of his private life, without pretending there isn't a human beneath it.

The hardest connection for me to explain is Spider-Man with bread and wisdom. The best explanation I could think of, is that Spider-Man's abilities are due to an "unstable performance-enhancing chemical"; in fact he is the only hero in the song's list whose abilities are said to come from an ingested (injected?) substance; and bread is the only edible item on the Ecclesiastes list. Moreover, bread is perishable and therefore "unstable". Finally, in the Bible there is a description of a mysterious unstable substance that Moses called "bread" but his followers called "manna" or "What is it?":

Exodus 16:15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they [knew] not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.

We know that manna was even more unstable than bread, because it grew worms if left "until the morning" (Ex 16:20). I'm not sure what this has to do with "Spider-Man's control", except that after Moses gave manna to his followers and taught them how to gather it, they were thirsty and hungry and murmured against him - and they still had to eat it for forty years. Did they all become superheroes before they got to the promised land? Anyway, Moses is the best connection I could make between bread and Spider-Man. Also, control may be connected with wisdom, the corresponding attribute in Ecclesiastes.

Besides the five gifts, there are a few other hints at Ecclesiastes 9:11 in the song. In fact the entire rest of this verse appears in one form or another in the song's lyrics. Ecclesiastes 9:11 mentions "time and chance": "time" becomes "somebody I can miss"; and "chance" becomes "risk". The phrase "I returned, and saw under the sun" becomes "The moon and its eclipse". The song's words "moon and its eclipse" originally suggested a lunar eclipse to me, but with the help of the Ecclesiastes correspondence, I can now see that the song is talking about a solar eclipse.

In answer to the original question, I think the song is not so much a reference to specific super-heroes and their stories, but to five super-hero traits that the artist was seeking to possess as a child. For whatever reason, the song's list of five traits seems to mirror the list of five traits in Ecclesiastes 9:11.

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Actualy, I think it's been mixed up. Achilles had the gift of being unharmable, and Hercules had the golden fur of the Neamean lion. That's all i can think about, and I absoluetly agree, that the lyricist has a big lack of knowledge, because even if we sing it like: Hercules and his gold, Achilles and his gifts, it's still okay with the song both musicaly, rythmicaly, and even poetically.

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  • That, and it is Heracles in Greek. With the mention of Achilles, one can only wonder if this was part of his lack of expertise. Nov 11 '17 at 23:03
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    @AndrewJohnson - I'm not sure how many times I have to tell people that the leader of Coldplay is trained classicist before they believe me....
    – Obie 2.0
    May 8 '18 at 17:21
  • @Obie2.0 , "Martin continued his studies at University College London (UCL), staying at Ramsay Hall, where he read Ancient World Studies and graduated with first-class honours in Greek and Latin." May 8 '18 at 17:29
  • I believe you. But just because someone is trained in something, doesn't mean they will remember it forever (my grandpa was trained for nukes and my mom for military jets/planes, don't think the recall much about those subjects). Plus, I kinda made that comment out of spite. I just hate it when people mention Hercules as Greek. If he was taking about his Roman/Latin form, I could understand the usage. May 8 '18 at 17:31

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