Conceptual metaphors in “Ghost of the Navigator” by Iron Maiden

Hi everyone!

Christmas vacation is over and I am back with the first post of 2015. Prepare yourself for a long (but captivating!) read; the year starts with a real epic. This time I am presenting the analysis of “Ghost of the Navigator” by Iron Maiden (from the “Brave New World” LP, 2000). No introduction required. It was the main part of my term project last semester. The paper has been submitted and now I can publish my work here.

Before the analysis starts, however, it is vital for the understanding of this text to indicate its two-level metaphorical nature. The conceptual and image metaphors in the lines of the text construe the lower level; they help make sense of the sequence of the depicted events. Then I argue that the upper level is, in fact, one dynamic image metaphor, which constitutes the core message of the song. This is achieved by the interplay of all conceptual metaphors of the text and the cultural knowledge of the readers. Below follows the lyrics analysis.


I have sailed to many lands

Now I make my final journey.

The first line contains a composite metaphor, created by two basic metaphors, i.e., PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS (extension of LIFE IS A JOURNEY) and LIFE IS A JOURNEY itself. The first metaphor can be constructed on the premise of giving a purpose to every journey, that is, people usually travel to a foreign place in order to experience something or perform any possible action at a place of destination. The protagonist states that he visited many lands and, based on the PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS metaphor, it can be concluded that he is an experienced and wise man, who achieved a lot. As for the basis of the second metaphor of the first line, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, we look at the act of sailing, which, combined with the first metaphor, may refer to a protagonist’s long life span (he travelled a lot in his life). Now he is on his last voyage (line 2) and the DEATH IS GOING TO THE FINAL DESTINATION metaphor (extension of LIFE IS A JOURNEY) makes it clear that he faces soon death. In this case, such a conclusion is much prompted by the word “final”, meaning that there will be no return from this trip after he reaches the destination point (as there is no return back to young years when a person dies at the end of the life).

On the bow I stand,

West is where I go.

If the metaphor LIFETIME IS A DAY is employed here, then one more reference to the approaching death of the main character becomes obvious. West is where the sun disappears, that is, the day ends here and the night starts. In the structural scheme of a lifetime, it is where the life ends and a person dies.

Through the night I plough,

Still my heart, calculate and pray.

Finally, the protagonist meets his end and dies, which is presented through the metaphor DEATH IS NIGHT (extension of LIFETIME IS A DAY), though the author extends here the conventional metaphor in a rather creative way: after the character dies, he appears to be still alive (through the night (=death) he ploughs). Ploughing is a tiresome and slow process of cutting or turning over the soil with a plough, a sharp blade. This may potentially be the instance of a dynamic image metaphor: slow and tiresome cutting of the soil may be mapped on the image of the protagonist, who challenges death into a long and painful fight. Its outcome is unknown at this point, because the image schema of ploughing presupposes moving forward along a straight path, chosen beforehand, and finishing the task (not stopping in the middle of a field). Moreover, it can be claimed that there is one more metaphor employed in this line, namely, STATES ARE LOCATIONS. Night is a state of being dark after the sunset and in the current case it is a metaphor for death, which is also a state of being dead. The author uses the preposition “through”, which in the physical world has a meaning of going into something (any location) on one side and coming out on another side, e.g. going through the forest. In this way, the image schema of the path, conveyed by the word “plough”, is also manifested by the preposition “through”.

The utterance “still my heart” in the next line contains another metaphor, which has to do with the feelings and is based on metonymy. It is EMOTIONS ARE SUBSTANCES. Gibbs and Colston in “Interpreting Figurative Meaning” (282) point to the fact that “heart” in the Western culture is widely used as a container for a range of emotions (from the BODY IS A CONTAINER FOR THE EMOTIONS metaphor one can extend HEART IS A CONTAINER FOR EMOTIONS). Here in the song it is the one responsible for the emotional state of a hero. The word “still” refers to something motionless and quiet, e.g. still water, still air, still rain (rain without wind). Thus, emotions can be viewed as physical substances, which may be stilled. Then, the container metonymically stands for its filling (emotions). Hence, one can “still the heart”.

As the compass swings,

My will is strong, I will not be led astray.

The reading of the last two lines may seem straightforward or it may arguably contain one more image metaphor, if the passage is viewed in context. The main character says that there is a possibility of losing the way, because his compass constantly swings, which means, it constantly shows wrong directions. In this case, if the compass were a person, one would say he (or she) is very nervous or excited and blinded by emotions. Then the following line reassures the reader that the protagonist will not lose his way because of his strong will. Strong will is a mental power, thus the brain is at work here. In the Western cultural tradition the reasonable brain is usually in opposition to the human heart, which is easily tempted, scared, turned to excitement etc. (HEART IS A CONTAINER FOR EMOTIONS and it can be filled with temptation, fear, and excitement). Moreover, the second line of the previous chunk tells the reader that the heart of the protagonist is in the state of excitement and must be stilled. Thus, there is a reason to claim that swinging compass is an image metaphor for the emotionally unstable heart of the main character.


Mysteries of time,

Clouds that hide the sun,

But I know… (x3)

These three lines contain the metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS and two cases of personification. Time cannot have (=possess) mysteries as it cannot possess anything; it is an abstract notion. If it has mysteries, then it is mysterious, which means that it is in a state of being mysterious. As states are a type of an event, the metaphor EVENTS ARE ACTIONS personifies time as an actor here. Clouds, covering the sun, are the event of cloudy or bad weather. Again, if EVENTS ARE ACTIONS, than the action of cloudy weather is performed by an actor, that is, clouds. So, clouds are presented as living creatures, who can hide the sun. Another explanation may be that the clouds, hiding the sun, are the metaphorical image of the time, covering some sort of truth and creating a mystery (e.g. mysteries of time are clouds that hide the sun). In the context of the song it is clear that the protagonist has lost the guidance, either geographical (the sun is one of the convenient ways to orientate on sea), or spiritual (e.g. the sun emits light; there is the LIFE IS A LIGHT metaphor). The protagonist proceeds on his own and he knows something that makes him proceed (“But I know…”).


I see the ghosts of navigators, but they are lost,

As they sail into the sunset, they’ll count the cost,

As their skeletons accusing emerge from the sea,

The Sirens of the rocks, they beckon me.

This part of the refrain turns to be not so rich in conceptual metaphors as the first verse. The second line sees the repeated use of the LIFETIME IS A DAY metaphor (“as they sail into the sunset”). The last two lines present a real problem for interpretation, though. On the one hand, the image of skeletons of the dead navigators, emerging from the sea, can be an image metaphor of the summoning of the dead on the judgment day in the Christian tradition, with the sea standing for the grave in the structure of this metaphor. On the other hand, this mentioning of the skeletons stands in anaphoric relation to the mentioning of the lost ghosts of navigators in the first line (“I see the ghosts of navigators… As their skeletons accusing emerge from the sea…”). In this case, the scene is just a vision of the underworld, unfolded in front of the eyes of the still living traveler. The participle “accusing”, which is clearly addressed to the protagonist, and the last line strengthen this second explanation. The beckoning sirens of the rocks is a case of metonymy. They are a structural element in the scheme of killing, which belongs to the domain of death. Mappings within one domain are metonymies. Sirens are the creatures from Greek mythology, who lured the ships onto the rocks and killed the sailors. Hence, the line “The Sirens of the rocks, they beckon me” is an attempt to kill the protagonist. In this context, the accusing skeletons, who emerge from the sea, would be accomplices of the sirens in the attempt of the underworld (i.e. death) to steal the life of the main character.


Take my heart and set it free

Carried forward by the waves

Nowhere left to run, Navigator’s son,

Chasing rainbows all my days.

Where I go, I do not know,

I only know the place I’ve been,

Dreams they come and go, ever shall be so,

Nothing’s real until you feel.

The first line of this passage introduces a case of metonymy and the metaphor LIFE IS A BONDAGE (or A BURDEN?). “Heart” stands here in a metonymic relation to the body of the protagonist. Hence, when he appeals to someone to take his heart, what is conveyed is to take his life and ease his suffering.

The idiom “chasing rainbows” is worth attention, because its imagery renders a very clear understanding of its meaning (trying to achieve the impossible) even without any prior knowledge. This research claims that it is an instance of the GENERIC IS SPECIFIC metaphor realization. “Chasing rainbows” as idiom can characterize and thus be mapped on a number of situations in everyday life, if the knowledge structure of those situations correspond to the one of the idiom, which is the following:

– there is a person, who sets a goal (chaser in the idiom)

– there is a goal, which is not reachable, because it does not physically exist (rainbow is a mere light rays refraction in the drops of water, i.e. visionary illusion)

– there is a process of striving to achieve the goal nevertheless (chasing).

Hence, “chasing rainbows” can characterize multiple situations with the same event structure and is indeed a generic-level metaphor.

“Dreams they come and go” is yet another instance of personification by the EVENTS ARE ACTIONS metaphor. To have dreams is to be in the state of dreaming; as states are a kind of event, and the latter one is action through metaphorical mapping, then, there is an actor. In the case above the actor is “dreams”.

N.B. Alternative explanation (Jan 3rd, 2015)! I do not think anymore that this line is an instance of personification. However, I kept the original thought on purpose here. You can see now that this all is not as straightforward as it may seem at first.

This case reminds me of the one in “Black God” (“still will my hopes pursue thee”), my previous post. I argue here that the line “Dreams they come and go” is the realization of the MENTAL STATES ARE ENTITIES WITHIN A PERSON metaphor.


I steer between the crashing rocks,

The sirens call my name.

Lash my hands onto the helm,

Blood surging with the strain.

I will not fail now,

As sunrise comes, the darkness left behind,

For eternity, I follow on,

There is no other way.

The second verse is the most difficult to analyze due to the lack of conceptual metaphors and a number of images, which are understandable only in the context of the whole song and with the relevant cultural knowledge.

“I steer between the crashing rocks” may be argued to have two conceptual metaphors, namely, LIFE IS A JOURNEY and its extension LANDSCAPE OBJECTS ARE DANGERS TO LIFE, if it is considered in the overall metaphorical context of the song. The process of steering a vehicle has the image schema of path and is a structural part of the travel domain. Steering between the rocks on sea is to keep a ship safe from a possible crash. Both source domains fit perfectly the domains of life and an attempt to avoid its dangers.

There is one more mentioning of the sirens here. The explanation of this metonymy was provided above.

Finally, the last lines of the second verse contain three metaphors, which were already employed at the beginning of or throughout the song. These are personification of the sunrise by the EVENTS ARE ACTIONS metaphor, then LIFETIME IS A DAY, manifested in the words “As sunrise comes” (the beginning of a new day is the beginning of a new life), and its extension DEATH IS NIGHT (“the darkness left behind”). The latter metaphor refers back to the line in the first verse, where the protagonist was ploughing through the night after the sunset (fighting death after actually dying). Thus, the end of the song witnesses the main character as a victor over death, because he reaches a new life.

In a nutshell, the author employs the sea travel discourse to tell a story of a man, who, having achieved a lot in his life, strived for eternal life and challenged death. After actually dying, he fights his way through all dangers of the underworld and victoriously resurrects into the new life. On the textual level it is presented as a story about a seaman, who, having spent all his life on sea, departs on his last and most important journey with very slender hopes for a positive outcome. At night, he carves his way through all kinds of dangers of the sea travel, which hamper his progress, and survives into a new day.

At this point, it becomes clear that all analyzed metaphors and metonymies in the lyrics create together one massive dynamic image metaphor (upper level metaphor, referred to in the introductory paragraph). For such an assumption to be true, this metaphor must have its source and target domains. In this case, the source domain is a sea journey through a dangerous night into a new day; the target domain is argued to be the Bible story of the resurrection of Christ. The structural schema of dying, defeating death and obtaining a new life (used in the song) follows the same one, described in the New Testament’s Gospels: Christ dies on the cross, descends to hell, defeats death and resurrects into a new life. There is even symbolical (self) crucifixion in the lyrics: the main character ties his hands to the helm (wooden steer wheel of the ship) and bleeds, when fighting the dangers of the night travel on sea. The text tells the reader, though, that the protagonist managed all “the travel” alone and without knowledge of the future, while according to the Gospels Christ simply followed the path, chosen for him before, with the perfect knowledge of his future, of what he was doing and why.

Finally, it is time to address the last issue. Why “Ghost of the Navigator”? The word “ghost”, among other meanings, has also a meaning “spirit or soul”. Therefore, one of the explanations of the title may be “Soul of the Navigator”.

Any other thoughts?



About Andriy Karamazov

2 responses to “Conceptual metaphors in “Ghost of the Navigator” by Iron Maiden

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