Many of us are definitely stressed about the COVID-19 global pandemic. This post will hopefully provide a bit of lighthearted mental breathing room while we shelter in place in our living rooms.
Back in February, I posted a link to the YouTube video of Dead Can Dance’s “Children of the Sun” and was asked what I thought of a specific part of the lyrics — specifically the section just after ~5:02 when the dissonant strings start up.
I was very overprepared because, after I first heard this song, I played it on repeat for over a week while going to and from work. This post is a modified form of what I said in response to the question.
Back in spring 2019, when Hermias 🤯ed my brain, years-dormant interpretative skills I had learned as a young English major awakened themselves again. Thus, this analysis is definitely over-the-top even though it makes me feel happy that I have learned enough that I can do these things on the fly.
Yes, I am pouring Platonic analysis onto a modern song.
Broadly speaking, “Children of the Sun” presents an idyllic paradise of growing into oneself that is interrupted — ruptured — before being brought back to a new stability. One major reason I listened to this on repeat so excessively is that it makes me think of Iamblichus and the things he says about happiness and the Gods in De Mysteriis, but also his heritage connection a solar God (El-Gebal), which makes me fond of him because Apollôn — namely, the solar series in a Platonic sense and the connections between Apollôn, Hêlios, and other Gods with connections to light, purification, planet-illuminating stars. This comes out in both the lyrics and the choice of the chords — the music is bright, harmonious, and beautiful. I often repeat-listen to pieces that remind me of concepts so I can work through things mentally with a musical assist.
Now, we’ll go line-by-line through the piece.
We are ancients / As ancient as the sun / We came from the ocean / Once our ancestral home / So that one day / We could all return / To our birthright / The great celestial dome
Verse 1 is about the pattern of ascent/descent of the soul, an optimistic evocation of both the soul’s position in time (“we are ancients / as ancient as the sun”), alluding to Okeanos and Tethys and their place in the succession myths and the physical process of evolution — the sea is literally our ancestral home from a physical perspective.
We are the children of the sun / Our journey’s just begun / Sunflowers in our hair / We are the children of the sun / There is room for everyone / Sunflowers in our hair
The chorus points again to the status of the soul (“we are the children of the sun / our journey’s just begun”). To continue, I need to share a section of Hermias’ On the Phaedrus:
Originally and at first the soul was united with the gods and that ‘one’ of its was joined to the gods. Then, withdrawing from that divine union, it descended to intellect and no longer possessed [all] there is (ta onta) in a unified manner and in one but gazed upon it and saw it by means of simple apprehensions and, as it were, direct contacts (thixis) [on the part] of its intellect. Then, withdrawing from intellect too and descending to reasoning and discursive thought, it no longer gazed upon it by means of simple apprehensions either, but by moving syllogistically and step by step and one thing after another from premises to conclusions. Then, departing too from pure reasoning and the psychic mode (idiôma), it descended into generation and was infected with great irrationality and confusion. It must, then, return once more to its own origins and go back once more to the place whence it descended.Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 227A–245E, 89,15-30
The soul is first joined to the Gods, and its descent can be taken as a journey, if the word journey can even be used. However — the Gods extend even into matter, so we are not completely disconnected. The sunflowers are a σύμβολον, and the presence of them in the unnamed WE/US’s hair points to that material extension, as hair is the most mortal part of us — it has no biochemical activity even if it’s useful for keeping an organism warm.
“There is room for everyone” is an inclusive line, as this journey belongs to everyone; in an infinite hotel, all of the rooms are full, and there is always room for more.
Throughout the ages / Of iron, bronze, and stone / We marveled at the night sky / And what may lie beyond / We burned offerings / To the elemental ones / Made sacrifices / For beauty, peace and love
Verse 2 historicizes this. It points to the long history of WE/US’s cultic relationship with both the process of physical offerings and “[marveling] at the night sky,” which is a reference to contemplative and philosophic activity. Iron, bronze, and stone is a semi-traditional reference to Hesiod &c. combined with archaeology (the stone part). “made sacrifices / for beauty, peace, and love” points to the Platonic erōs; here we have the Beautiful and the glue of love that draws us up. Peace refers to the harmony of an ordered soul.
We are the children of the sun / Our kingdom will come / Sunflowers in our hair / We are the children of the sun / Our carnival’s begun / Our suns will fill the air
The chorus changes “our journey’s just begun” to “our kingdom will come” for the second round. This is a reference to Dionysos, whose reign is in the future, and “our carnival’s begun” indicates the Dionysian madness that brings the soul back into unity again from division, as described by the philosophers.
“Our suns will fill the air” is an elevating statement.
And you know it’s time / to look for reasons why / just reach up and touch the sky / to the heavens we’ll ascend / We are the children of the sun / Our journey has begun”
The first few lines refer to the joining of “this one of the soul to the gods and to intelligible beauty” (Hermias, 94,10-15), followed by a reiteration that this is part of the soul’s descent into matter and its eventual pivot back up.
The shift to discord happens gradually, and the turn begins within the instrumental interlude. The peace of the earlier sections is broken; the contact with the harmonizing quality of the Gods and the solar series broken. It is the Tower fallen, the groves of the Nymphai uprooted, the temples torn down and refashioned into city square stonework.
All the older children / Come out at night / Anemic, soulless / Great hunger in their eyes / Unaware of the beauty / That sleeps tonight
“All the older children” refers to souls who have made many revolutions here, but who have become jaded (hence “older,” which is in a negative sense here) or who may have, as per the discussions of the tyrants in the Republic and Proclus’ commentary on it. Being just is better than being unjust, and when enough is in disharmony and injustice, it is as if the intellectual soul is no longer in charge of the lion and the hydra (the spirited and appetitive lower soul-bits) within us.
They come out at night and are “anemic, soulless / with hunger in their eyes,” because they are disconnected from the Sun, that it has made them lose vitality, and that they are disconnected from their own souls and what can give them completeness. This is where we can look to two of Iamblichus’ statements about true happiness and the Gods:
The last subject for discussion concerns happiness, about which you make various enquiries, first proposing objections and then doubts, and after this you start the interrogation. So taking up these points that you raise, we will answer you appropriately on each one of them. You enquire, then, whether there is not some other road to happiness which we are ignoring; yet what other reasonable mode of ascent to it can there be apart from the gods? For if the essence and accomplishment of all good is encompassed by the gods and their primal power and authority, it is only with us and those who are similarly possessed by the greatest kinds and have genuinely gained union with them that the beginning and the end of all good is seriously practiced. It is there, then, that there occurs the vision of truth and intellectual understanding, and with knowledge of the gods follows a turning towards ourselves and knowledge of ourselves. (De Mysteriis X.1)Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, X.1, trans. Clarke et al.
[Understanding] the Good is the paradigm of well-being, just as obliviousness to the Good and deception concerning evil constitute the paradigm of evil things. The one, therefore, is united with the divine, while the other, inferior, destiny is inesparable from the mortal; one measures the essences of intelligibles by sacred methods, while the other, abandoning its principles, gives itself over to the measuring of the corporeal paradigm; one is the knowledge of the Father, the other is a departure from him and an obliviousness to the divine Father who is prior to essence and is his own first principle, and the one who preserves the true life, leading back to its father, while the other drags down the primordial man to that which is never fixed and always flowing. But the sacred and theurgic gift of well-being is called the gateway to the creator of all things, or the place or courtyard of the good.Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, X.5, trans. Clarke et al.
“Unaware of the beauty / that sleeps tonight” stresses (1) the Beautiful and (2) that even in a place that seems absent of all divine light, what is dormant can be roused, contact and wakefulness could be reestablished. There is always hope.
And all the queen’s horses / And all the king’s men / Will never put these children back / Together again
This is complicated. Horses are a standard reference to the orderly and disorderly horse of the soul; the queen here can be interpreted as Kore.
“The king’s men” is a reference to daimones, which, after Iamblichus, can be helpful or unhelpful, the latter when one is disconnected and fragmented. The king here is Dionysos or Hades, probably Dionysos given the next line — Dionysos is the one who puts us back together again, and the older children are not capable of receiving that in their current states. Never cancels out the hope embedded in the previous lines, as if WE/US is oscillating between optimism and pessimism about whether there is, in fact, room for everyone.
Additionally, the “will never put these children back / together again” reminds me of that part of the Myth of Er when the tyrants and very wicked people are dragged down.
These verses are extremely powerful to me because they are very Prevailing Circumstances — I can see the smashing of the temples, the shutting of the polytheistic schools, and so on.
The instrumental part comes back powerfully here, first with descending notes, and then weaves with such expressive complexity.
Faith, hope, our charities / Greed, sloth, our enemies
The WE/US is suddenly able to ground and center itself. When it comes to “faith, hope, our charities,” I haven’t read the Platonic Theology by Proclus yet, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quotes it in the Proclus entry, and I’ve encountered the concept elsewhere. Here’s what they pulled out of the text:
Those who hasten to be conjoined with the Good, do no longer need knowledge and activity, but need to be established and a stable state and quietness. What then is it which unites us to the Good? What is it which causes in us a cessation of activity and motion? What is it which establishes all divine natures in the first and ineffable unity of goodness? […] It is, in short, the faith (pistis) of the Gods, which ineffably unites all the classes of Gods, of daemons, and of blessed souls to the Good. For we should investigate the Good not through knowledge (gnôstikôs) and in an imperfect manner, but giving ourselves up to the divine light, and closing the eyes, to become thus established in the unknown and occult unity of beings. For such a kind of faith is more venerable than cognitive activity, not in us only, but with the Gods themselves.Proclus’ Platonic Theology I 25, trans. Taylor
I’d seen some of this footnoted in the intro to Ruth Majercik’s Chaldean Oracles ed. but it is probably better to pull straight from the ocean.
The week I did the interpretation on Twitter, I had been given the Maxim “ἐλπίδα αἴνει” in my weekly divination; see the poem I wrote on KALLISTI for a take on Elpis, as the final lines I wrote there contain concepts relevant to my interpretation of this section of the lyrics, namely the lines that say:
Good spirit, flower-fragrant,Me, “To Elpis,” in a KALLISTI post from a while back
you who bestow the spark
to seek concord and beauty,
inspire us to find the best
in one another, the blessings
within the muddy ground,
to turn back cloudy despair
and all-dividing dissolution.
In “Children of the Sun,” faith and hope are both charities, or graces, or virtues, depending on the lexical meaning given that this is English — they could be the Goddesses (the Kharites).
“Greed, sloth, our enemies” is pointing to the ways things slope downwards. Greed is a passion that draws people down into matter in an unhealthy way. Sloth convinces people that they can’t leave the cave. It’s fairly self-explanatory. Again, this section is a recalibration.
We are the children of the sun / We are the children of the sun
Finally, after that regrounding, the WE/US in the lyrics find the refrain again, and the discord is put to rest. We are the children of the sun.
And here ends the analysis. I hope it was fun!
For a final note, realistically, departing from my analysis for practical things, Brendan Perry (the lyricist) likely meant to evoke transcendence broadly, along with the danger of losing enchantment, as a convergence of things he’s encountered. I know from interviews that he reads voraciously.