Mythology is rich material for modern-day retellings. These are seen in multiple forms of media, from movies such as the multiple Hercules‘ we’ve seen in our lifetimes, to the Clash of the Titans, and more. Mythology reimaginations are certainly a strong subgenre in novel retellings, with Circe and The Song of Achilles from Madeline Miller, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, and more. Rick Riordan’s massively successful Percy Jackson universe has multiple series that tackle Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian gods (and his imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, features authors of color writing mythological retellings of their own).
That is to say, there are plenty of retellings of myths out there. But how does K-pop take this rich material and contextualize it in the modern-day? To cover the wide array of options is too much, so this month’s Music and Lyrics will be focusing on Greek mythology.
Let’s begin with the gods and titans. In 2016, VIXX‘s Conception Trilogy explored three different Greek deities. “Dynamite” is Zelos, the god of jealousy and anger. In a suiting fashion, the song drones on about their possessiveness and jealousy-fueled anger, from the opening notes to the end.
All mine her mind,
Maybe I’m jealous
What are you looking at? Let go!
Don’t tell me to relax, what’s the use of it?
“Fantasy” is dedicated to Hades, the god of the underworld, perhaps the most famous of their three chosen deities. Unlike “Dynamite,” the link between “Fantasy” and Hades is more driven by the music video, with lyrical imagery more of the bridge. Finally, “The Closer” tackles Kratos, the Greek personification of strength. This strength is translated in their overall vibe, with them choosing military attire, to the lyrics declaring themselves “The winner who will have you, no other words needed to describe me” and crooning at the girl to trust herself to them.
BTS‘ “Dionysus” takes on the god of wine, ritual madness, festivity, and theater. Likewise, the seven-member group talk about “get[ting] drunk like Dionysus.”
Drink in one hand, Thyrsus on the other
Art splashing inside this clear crystal cup
Art is alcohol too, if you can drink it, you’ll get drunk fool
Thrysus is the staff that Dionysus would carry as he did his duties, something made out of ivy or vine-like material, which is referenced later in RM’s rap: “From my mic made of ivy and rough wood.” Further references throughout the song are to Dionysus’ legendary partying ways, linking the act of drinking to getting drunk on art. Fitting, as Dionysus is also the god of theater and inspiration for artists. “What does it matter if I’m an idol or an artist?” Suga asks, and later underlines that they are still thirsty, with drink being linked to art throughout the song.
Shinee‘s “Selene 6.23” from their Misconceptions of Us album talks about Selene, a slightly lesser-known moon goddess. Selene and her brother, Helios, came to be linked to the twins, Artemis and Apollo. While Artemis is the goddess of the moon, Selene is the personification of the moon.
Look at my eyes, I whisper alone as I look at you from far away
Just smile for me once, I can endure it just by seeing your face
Fittingly enough, this personification of the moon is also the role that Selene has in Shinee’s song. Selene is a faraway entity, one that shines upon the world. In a way, Selene becomes the symbol for a faraway person, one that Shinee would like to have the attention of, someone that is unreachable due to distance, be it in the literal sense or in a figurative manner. “I get angry but it’s no use. I’m just one out of the many that pass by you.” They, as normal people, are not significant enough to warrant the attention of the moon.
Moving from the gods, we go to the heroes and creatures that inhabit Greek mythology. First off is Narcissus, who is fabulous enough that he has inspired two tracks. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, renowned for his beauty. So boastful was he in his looks that he scorned those that loved him, giving the rise to the term narcissism.
Given that looks play a huge role in K-pop, and almost all popular forms of visual media, it is a rich mythology to play with. SF9 do this with “Enough,” off of their album, Narcissus. In “Enough,” they proclaim that the love of theirs is pretty enough, that they don’t “need to become prettier, because you already stand out…when I see you, I go crazy.”
In this way, they take the concept of narcism but turn it on its head to become a love song. But it has that edge that is also present in the Narcissus myth. SF9 proclaim that:
[I hope] that everyone in the whole world is blind
So no one can see you
Like a fire you spread
And I want to be the only one to burn it
Like their source material, there is still a possessive nature to it. Gugudan’s “A Girl Like Me” has a different spin. Off of their second mini-album, Act 2: Narcissus, “A Girl Like Me” is a self-confident anthem about being proud of yourself. They declare that there is no girl like them, one who makes the first move without hesitation.
Hey Yes you there, let’s talk for a moment
You must be embarrassed, you’ve never met a girl like me
Baby I’m sorry but I like you
I felt it the moment I saw you
In Greek mythology, sirens were dangerous creatures that used music and song to lure sailors to their death. In several ways, they were seen as the Muses of Death. They are present in several myths, but are perhaps most known for their role in the Odyssey, where Odysseus, on the advice of Circe, were able to sail past sirens.
Just let go, don’t even hesitate a little
Just let go, you know that I’ll hurt you
The beautiful me of your fantasies
(Can’t you see that boy?)
From the first line of Sunmi’s “Siren” (“I told you not to be deceived, that the moment you take this hand it’ll be dangerous”) it is steeped in the mythology. She both tries to lure her lover in, while also telling him to go away (“Get away out of my face, don’t come any closer”). She knows of her tempting allure but does not want her love interest to be doomed like those before her. In this way, Sunmi takes on the role of the siren, luring people to her. But with her fame and her celebrity comes certain baggage, one that can lead to the death of a relationship. In this case, it is both a reference to the myth, as well as a warning siren for those listening.
This is but a small sampling of mythology and how they are played out in K-pop.