Bob Dylan and Catullus: Greek and Roman Mythology


by Larry Fyffe

What Bob Dylan’s personal spiritual or religious beliefs are, be his own business. He ain’t sayin’.

Their examination of Dylan’s songs, some writers declare, reveals his personal beliefs. Others, like myself, are more interested in what the lyrics mean, in and of themselves – regardless of what beliefs the song writer may or may not hold.

Into his breakfast bowl that contains hillbilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll music, Dylan mixes words from the Judeo-Christian Bible. He then throws in a good helping of Greek and Roman mythology.

Numerous writers agree with me on that. However, I find in Dylan’s lyrics a blended consistency that many writers do not.

I tie his lyrics up in a tangled bow that reflects a Gnostic-mystic outlook. Whether Dylan himself is a Gnostic is anybody’s guess – he doesn’t like to be labelled.

Writers involved in Dylan’s lyrics have demostrated the influence of ancient Roman poets Virgil and Ovid, and the influence of Catullus whose poetry expresses a ‘modernistic’ concern for emotional self-expression; especially in wry humour, concerning sexual desire and romantic love.

The examples below are mine:

Suns may set, and suns may rise again
But when our brief life has set
Night is one long everlasting sleep
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred more
(Catullus: Let’s Live And Love)

In Dylan’s double-edged song lyrics, the physical pleasure of sex available in life, represented by the light of the morning, is no more with the descending of the darkness of death:

Lay, lady, lay, across my big brass bed
Stay lady stay while the night is still ahead
I long to see you in the morning light
Stay lady stay, stay while the night is still ahead
(Bob Dylan: Lay, Lady, Lay)

The ‘carpe deim’ theme – seize the day – oft times tinged with the irony of vulgar humour:

You’re in love with some feverish little whore
You’re ashamed to confess it
Pointlessly silent, you don’t seem to be idle at night
It’s proclaimed by your bed
Garlanded and fragmented with Syrian perfume
(Catullus: Flavius Has A Girl)

And mixed with music:

I woke up this morning with butter and eggs in my bed
I woke up this morning with butter and eggs in my bed
I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head
(Bob Dylan: The Levee’s Gonna Break)

A rather male-oriented theme: get a lot of sexual pleasure any way that you can because your date with death is coming all too soon:

Charlotte’s a harlot
Dresses in scarlet
Mary dresses in green
It’s soon after midnight
And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen
(Bob Dylan: Soon After Midnight)

The selfish pride of the male ego doesn’t go uncriticized, however:

Once bright days shone for you
When you’ve been drawn to a girl
Loved like no other, she will be loved by you ….
And now that she no longer wants you
You, weak man, are unwilling to chase after the deer that flees
Nor willing to live in misery – be strong-minded, and stand firm ….
Who’ll be next to submit to you; who’ll see your beauty?
(Catullus: Advice To Oneself)

The singer/songwriter, or at least his persona, is not beyond taking a critical look at his own behaviour – unselfish love that’s true can teach something new:

You turn the tide on me each day
And teach my eyes to see
Just being next to you
It’s a natural thing for me
And I could never let you go
No matter what goes on
‘Cause I love you more than ever
Now that the past is gone
(Bob Dylan: Wedding Song)

Love and/or sex given in exchange for material comfort is a reality:

Return my cloak you pounced on
And the napkins given to me by the Spanish
And the painting ware from Bithynia
Absurd man – that you ‘own’ openly like heirlooms
Unhook them now from your talons, and return them to me
(Catullus: Return My Things)

A trade that may be considered fair, by one or both parties involved:

The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
(Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna)

And also, but nuanced:

So take heed, take heed of the western wind
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there’s something ya can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather
(Bob Dylan: Boots Of Spanish Leather)

References there be to the half-human Greek gods, and the later more distant Roman gods – to Diana, the moon-goddess, twin to Apollo, the sun-God, the offspring of the Supreme God, Jupiter (Zeus):

O, daughter of Leto, and greatest child of great Jupiter
Whose mother gave birth near the olive trees of Delos
Mistress of the mountains and the geen groves
Of the secret gardens and the sounding streams ….
Your monthly passage measures the course of the year
(Catullus: Hymn To Diana)

Of Diana, the Moon, the songwriter sings – she clothed in modernist Romantic Symbolism as seen in Johnanine visions from the Freudian rungs of the Gnostic ladder:

They shaved her head
She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow
Follow her down pass the fountain where they lifted her veil
(Bob Dylan: Changing Of The Guards)

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. “Take heed of the western wind” – The West Wind is often used as a symbol for the sweeping away of the debris of autumn in preparation for the coming of spring’s renewal: ie, Shelley

  2. “date with the fairy queen”…..with Diana – the Moon Goddess, the White Mother who created Earth…
    In another mythology Diana, the moon goddess, is the daughter of Jupiter and she’s twin to Apollo, the sun god ….

    “they shaved her head” – Diana is condemned by Christians as a witch: ‘the city…is a worshipper of the goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter” (Acts 19:35)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *