K-pop, or Korean popular music, has grown from a South Korean national obsession to a bonafide cultural export that has created legions of fans across the entire world. The K-pop boyband BTS has quickly become one of the most recognizable names in pop music in the past few years. Although the influence of Western and African-American music in BTS’ music is widely noted, you may not have known that their visual aesthetics, lyrics and subject matter have also referenced and drawn inspiration from Ancient Greek mythology many times.
BTS sees itself in Greek mythology
Many of the most beloved K-pop groups have used Ancient Greek myths as the source material for their songs, the concepts of their music videos, and their promotional images. They incorporate the rich cultural history of Greek mythology into the tapestry of their aesthetic. BTS have grown to dazzle the world largely due to the dexterity with which they blend their influences into a single package with each component falling into the right place.
For BTS, the use of Greek myths is often the key to providing a symbolic, meaning laden dimension to their pristinely choreographed and manicured visual aesthetic. They draw from the poetic, allegorical, and fantastical world Greek myths are so famous for in order to provide literary depth and subtext to their songs and music videos.
BTS is by far the biggest K-pop band to emerge from the South Korean cultural phenomenon. They were reported to be the biggest band in the entire world, selling more albums than any other act in 2020. Their discography is laden with references to Greek mythology: they even performed as seven Greek gods for their 2019 MMA performance, literally conflating the band members identities’ with the roles and personae found in Greek myths.
Here are a few of the most iconic examples of Greek myths throughout BTS’s career:
Pandora’s Box, Icarus, and Dionysus
The ultra popular group have released multiple songs centered around iconic Greek myths, such as “Fake Love,” “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” and “Dionysus.”
The music video for “Fake Love,” a song from their 2018 compilation album Love Yourself: Answer, singer Jungkook is given a key by a mysterious hooded figure. The key is meant to open a corresponding box that represents Pandora’s box, one of the most iconic and infamous artifacts in all of Greek mythology.
Pandora’s box tells the story of Pandora, who was the wife of Epimetheus and mother to a mortal daughter, Pyrrha. Because of Pyrrha’s marriage to her cousin Deukalion, the gods sent a massive flood to destroy the earth and the mortals. However, Pyrrha and Deukalion managed to survive and after seeking help from the Oracle at Delphi, they cast the bones of Pandora to the ground so that the world would be repopulated.
One day, Epimetheus asked his wife to look over a vessel. Pandora, who could not contain her curiosity, opened the ‘box’, which contained fear and despair, thus releasing them unto the world, and only closing the box in time to stymy hope from escaping.
BTS’s music video for their 2016 song”Blood, Sweat & Tears” is centered around visual references and allusions to the myth of Icarus. The video opens with the entire group seated around a long table, with H.J. Draper’s painting “The Lament For Icarus” appearing as the backdrop.
The music video features scenes with member Jungkook levitating in mid-air, like the flying Icarus, with the painting in the background, and bird’s feathers falling from the sky.
The myth of Daedalus and Icarus tells the story of a father and a son who used wings to escape from the island of Crete. Daedalus worked for King Minos after being exiled to the island of Crete by the goddess Athena.
King Minos asked he construct a prison to entrap the Minotaur– a mythological creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull–who had become aggressive and violent, but instead Daedalus created an elaborate labyrinth that was impossible to escape form.
King Minos wanted the existence of the Minotaur to be kept secret, so he kept Daedalus and his family, including his son Icarus, trapped in a cell. Daedalus collected feathers to create wings for Icarus to escape with, warning him not to fly too close to the sun. He did not listen to Daedalus: the sun melted his wings and he fell into the sea.
Jungkook’s levitating body evokes the tragic and iconic climax of the myth of Icarus, the falling feathers and his floating body representing the melted wings that left Icarus in free fall.
The song “Dionysus”, from BTS’s 2019 album Map of The Soul: Persona, gets its namesake from the Greek god of excess, wine and festivity. The track uses the symbolism of Dionysian euphoria as a vehicle for their irresistibly catchy pop, associating the rush of music and dancing with ancient and eternal scenes from Greek mythology. The track opens with the line “Just get drunk like Dionysus, drink in one hand, thyrsus in the other.”
BTS uses Greek mythology to explore the vast range of human emotion and experience, from painful to elated, giving the timeless Greek imagery of the past a contemporary twist, introducing their younger audience to Greece’s past.