by Larry Fyffe
What Bob Dylan leaves out of song lyrics is often as important as what he puts in them. Space is left for interpreters who dare to trek where angels fear to tread:
Three angels up above the street Each one playing on a horn .... But does anyone hear the music they play Does anyone even try (Bob Dylan: Three Angels)*
As already mentioned, according to Judeo-Christian lore, Lilith’s not happy with her relationship with Adam; she flees Eden in the form of a ‘screech owl’; sets down in a cave in Babylon where she bears lots and lots of children.
Adam snitches to God who sends three angels to fetch her back. But Lilith refuses to return. The angels blow their horns; sing to her that they’ll kill a hundred of her offspring each day as just punishment for disobeying God’s winged messengers.
Unlike the high priest Eli, who too does not repent, Lilith swears that she’ll fight back.
Eli just let’s things slide; tells Samuel, his student:
And he was to told these few words which opened up his heart "If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any" (Bob Dylan: The Wicked Messenger)
Not so Lilith. Says she’ll have her revenge; she’ll cause other’s children to be still-born, or die while sleeping in their cribs.
She aims her bolt well, this pretty one. Ready now to show mercy, the three angels promise that they’ll not slay any of the screech owl’s children if they’ve been given special amulets to hold:
With your holy medallion in your fingertips that fold And your saintlike face, and your ghostlike soul Who among them could ever think he could destroy you (Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)
In Greek/Roman mythology, the owl is associated with Athena (Minerva), the flashing-eyed virgin Goddess of Wisdom:
Shut your mouth, says the wise old owl Business is business, and it's murder most foul. (Bob Dylan: Murder Most Foul)
As a judge, not a Mafia boss, Athena lets Orestes off because he’s suffered greatly for what he did; does not try to excuse himself for causing the death of both his mother and her lover even though Apollo tells the court that he commanded Orestes to kill them both.
Another reference to the ancient mythology: You were born with a snake in both of your fists While a hurricane was blowing (Bob Dylan: Jokerman)
Hercules is strong even as a baby. With his two hands, he kills a couple of snakes sent into his bedroom at midnight by the angry, vengeful Hera, the wife of Zeus.
* Publisher’s note: it may seem perverse in an article about the lyrics of Dylan to provide a musical example not sung in English. The reason here is twofold. First, I’ve not been able to find any covers of the song in English which in my view actually add something to Dylan’s interpretation of his own work. Second, musically I rather like this. So it was a case of this version, or none, and since you have the choice of playing it or not, you already have the option of none. So, in essence, I’ve just added an option. I hope that explains everything. Tony.