The mythology of Squid Game

Squid Game has become a massive worldwide hit on Netflix, but some of its success must surely be due to what most people have gone through during the last two years? Many more of us than ever, it seems to me, are now wondering whether we are just the poor victims of some fateful game being conducted by a handful of bored, masked demi-gods who get their kicks from putting humans through ever more impossible dilemmas or trials which they call ‘games’. After all, they are the same controllers who treat the world like a giant chessboard upon which to stage their “war games” within “theatres of war”.

And so in the absence of any spiritual understanding about why we are here on planet Earth, and the destiny of our human life, we could easily end up concluding that we are trapped in the pink-and-mint green Escher-like maze of a Squid Game. In our spiritual blindness, we cannot see any higher or further than the ceiling of the first level to realise that there are many levels across many dimensions which are cooperating to provide for us a sort of hero’s journey of challenges in which we are able to grow our souls.

I wasn’t the least surprised to learn that the South Korean author of Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, had spent his youth reading manga comics. Many of the plotlines in those colourful cartoon stories are drawn from ancient myths in which the hero sets out to win the hallows.

We identify with this hero because we know that it is only in conquering our dragons, or facing our shadows, that we can win the hallows. We realise this at an instinctual level, and so we are constantly, if only subconsciously, on the look-out for clues. That is why the formula for any successful movie or television show has to follow the blueprint of the journey of the hero.

However, the screenwriters don’t realise that ancient myths are three-dimensional, and so we end up with a flatworld, bungalow-roofed version which, in Squid Game, turns out to be a combination of The Hunger Games and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

I found it interesting that South Korean currency is denoted in “wons”. In this modern day myth about how to win the hallows, contestants don’t earn but win billions of wons through childhood games in a children’s playground, which is made all the more surreally terrifying by the fact that losing a game means instant – and often gruesome – death. The fateful playground or pleasure garden is always a staple of the mythological hero’s journey, as is the redemption of the ancestors.  You will remember, I’m sure, Pleasure Island, in which Pinocchio begins to change into a donkey. Later he goes on to  “redeem his ancestors” in his rescue of his carpenter father Gepetto from the belly of a giant whale.  

The same theme is found in the Ghibli Studios classic animation Spirited Away. The heroine sets out to save her lost parents in a Pleasure Garden, in which they were turned into pigs by their own gluttony. But even older than those examples is the Old Testament story set in the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve have to make the same life-or-death decision as do the contestants in Squid Game, from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. So you see, the story of man never changes … In Squid Game, it’s just been given new clothes for the computer games generation.

In practically all ancient myths, when the hero first sets out he is invariably described as the Fool, because he knows nothing and he is setting out to seek wisdom. The hero of Squid Game, Seong Gi-hon, is literally a fool at the beginning, who gambles away his mother’s money – aka his inheritance, just like the Prodigal Son.

The fool-hero Seong Gi-hon in Squid Game

Gi-hon is literally shadowed throughout the games by his childhood friend, Cho Song-Woo, a fraudster. Song-Woo represents Gi-hon’s shadow that he has to turn and face to conquer in the end. The meeting and facing of the shadow side has to be completed before we can feel authentically whole and stop feeling like frauds – this is what ‘winning the hallows’ means. The reason we keep losing the game of life is because we haven’t yet faced our own shadow side and so cannot recognise its darkness in others.

Turn away now if you don’t want to read this spoiler – at the end, the mystery of the game is finally revealed to the fool/hero Gi-hon by its creator, an old man dying at the top of the skyscraper Skye towerblock. And so this is a retread back to the traditional story about the angry, jealous, Jehovah god, the old man in the sky, sending a flood to destroy the humanity he so despises. As I’ve shown in Stories in the Stars, there is a virtually identical deluge myth to be found in every culture on Earth, and it is not historical but astronomical and astrological – it is about a flood in the heavens.

Dong-hyuk – from his interviews anyway – seems to be ignorant of the deep wisdom in the underlayers or metaphors of the Mystery Teaching myths he has drawn on to author Squid Game. However, for me it is gratifying, at least, to know that the old stories of our wise ancestors will never die because, at the end of the day, money talks. So the algorithms which the Hollywood accountants use to predict blockbusters will keep telling producers to serve us up to our own story, to get enough bums on seats, until kingdom comes. If they could just get a shaman-mythologist on set as an adviser, though, they would serve an even deeper need.

If you’d like to know more about the journey of mythological hero, it’s all in my book Stories in the Stars.