Rodrigo B. Salvador
Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.
Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.
Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com
Shin Megami Tensei is a Japanese RPG series famous for its monsters, which are taken from many different mythologies and folkloric legends from around the world. The player can “capture” these monsters and use them in battle in a very Pokémon-like manner. In the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona “sub-series”, more specifically these monsters are called “personas” (although some were called “demons” in the first three games). Since I am fascinated by monsters, mythologies and games, I decided to take a closer look at how my favorite mythology, the ancient Egyptian, is represented in the Persona games.
For the present study, the following games were analyzed (the abbreviation in parenthesis are used throughout the whole text): Revelations: Persona, also known by the Japanese title Megami Ibunroku Persona (P1), Persona 2: Innocent Sin (P2-IS), Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (P2-EP), Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (P3), Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (P4). The remake versions of P3 and P4 (Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden, respectively) were preferred, since they have extra content and were the last to be released. The following spin-offs and/or non-canon games were completely ignored: Persona 4 Arena, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, Persona 4: Dancing All Night. Just to situate the games, P1, P2-IS and P2-EP were released for the PlayStation respectively in 1996, 1999 and 2000 (Japanese dates). Curiously, P1 also had a later port to Microsoft Windows. Both P3 and P4 were released for the PlayStation 2, respectively in 2006 and 2008. All of the games eventually found their way into Sony’s handheld consoles too.
Below, all the Egyptian gods and goddesses featured in the Persona games are listed alphabetically (a summary can be found on Table 1). My original intention was only to include personas, but I decided to also include the so-called demons, since there are only two of them. In each entry, there is a brief description of the god(dess), his/her role in Egyptian mythology and society and his/her usual depiction in Egyptian art. All the information regarding the Egyptian mythology was taken from the books listed on the References section further below. I use the most commonly found version of the gods/goddesses’ names, but other variant spellings can also be found. Following this, there is a brief description of how the persona/demon is represented in each Persona game and a comparison with its mythological inspiration, pointing out what game designers got right or wrong. In some cases, I have also included the official artwork of the Shin Megami Tensei series, if it would bring more information and material for further discussion.
Table 1. List of all persona and demons in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, with their names in each game.
I suppose that the reader is familiar with a few things about ancient Egypt, such as: that religion played a central role in their life; that human, animal and hybrid forms are all part of their religious symbolism; that the afterlife and mortuary rites and cults were given major prominence etc. It is impossible for me to explain every single aspect of Egyptian mythology here and the reader is encouraged to explore further topics on his/her own (I even left some points barely explained to see if this can pique someone’s curiosity). The works listed on the References section are an excellent starting point, but a quicker way would be the English version of Wikipedia (sometimes the French or German versions are also very complete), although it is a very arid reading and some information there should be taken more cautiously.
Table 2. Periods of Egyptian history, with indication of the dynasties of rulers and approximate dates (according to Shaw, 2004).
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Egyptian myths sometimes disagree among themselves; for instance, there are several distinct cosmogonies, stemming from different cities (the solar Heliopolitan, the Memphite, the Theban etc.). The Egyptians did not mind this contradiction and could embrace all of them as complementary. In addition, some gods were more important in a given period of Egypt’s history, while others changed a lot through the three millennia the kingdom lasted. Here, I tried to always indicate the period and the geographical location of cults, works of art etc.; so, to give a better idea of these aspects, I included a table with the periods of Egyptian history (Table 2) and a map with the location of the main ancient cities (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Map of ancient Egypt, with the main cities (the modern Cairo is included for reference). Image by Jeff Dahl (2007); extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
AMUN / AMUN-RE
The first record of Amun dates from the end of the First Intermediate Period and the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. He was a local god from Thebes, who quickly displaced the other local god, Montu, and then rose to prominence when the Theban dynasty started to rule Egypt. Then, Amun was promoted to national god, becoming conjoined with the former national god, the sun god Re. This version of the gods became known as Amun-Re (Fig. 2A), who remained as chief god throughout most of the remainder of Egypt’s history.
Amun was originally a member of the Ogdoad, a group of eight gods from Hermopolis who was said to predate creation. Arranged in four pairs, they represented the concepts of the primeval waters, darkness, eternity and concealment. Amun belonged to the last category and together with his feminine counterpart, Amaunet, was the god of the hidden power of air and wind. He then took a role of demiurge, creating the world with his thoughts. All these aspects as a “hidden creative force” became a little antithetical when Amun was conflated with the sun god Re (after all, the sun is a very conspicuous thing). Amun was seen as a universal god, whose essence was in everything. Amun-Re’s status as chief of the Gods led the Greeks to equate him with Zeus (Fig. 2B).
Another conjoined form was Amun-Min (or Amun kamutef), where Amun took the divine features of Min, the god of fertility, and was shown, accordingly, in an ithyphallic manner (Fig. 2C). As “Lord of Victory”, Amun also was a god of war to some extent, a feature that he may have absorbed from Montu.
Amun was often represented in fully human form, wearing his characteristic crown with two long feathers (Figs. 2A, C). After the Amarna Period (a heretical surge in the Middle of the 18th Dynasty), Amun started to be constantly depicted with blue skin (Fig. 2A), perhaps symbolizing his original role as an air god. He could also be depicted as a ram (Fig. 2D) or a ram-headed human; his Greek conjunction with Zeus often included the ram’s horns (Fig. 2B).
In the game P1, Amun-Re appears in a very Egyptian manner, wearing his feathered crown (Fig. 2E). In the Shin Megami Tensei official artwork, he keeps the crown and adds some other features (Fig. 2F). Firstly, he has a greenish skin, which, as seen above, should actually be blue. Secondly, he is shown in a full white jumpsuit; in Egyptian art, Amun had a very characteristic tunic (Fig. 2A). Finally, he has a strange-looking scepter, with a broad circular head and two flail-like structures hanging from it. Amun could indeed be depicted with a flail (Fig. 2C), but more usually he was shown holding a was scepter (Fig. 2A). This kind of scepter has a very unique shape (Figs. 2A, 4A, 8A, 10A) and symbolizes power and dominion.
Figure 2. A. Amun-Re receives offerings (temple of Seti I, Abydos; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). B. The Greek depiction of Zeus-Amun (Nile delta; 5th century BCE); Roman copy of the Greek original. Photo by Dan Mihai Pitea (2013); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. The ithyphallic Amun-Min, from the temple of Deir el-Medina (New Kingdom). Photo by S F-E-Cameron (2009); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Amun, as a ram, protecting the Pharaoh Taharqa (25th Dynasty, Late Period). E. The persona Amun-Re (Amen Ra) in the game P1. Screenshot from the game. F. Amun-Re’s (Amon-Ra) official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
The jackal-headed god Anubis is probably the first thing that comes to people’s mind when thinking about Egyptian mythology. He is the god of cemeteries, burial and embalming and was the most important funerary god in Egypt until the rise of Osiris (his cult was later largely assimilated into that of Osiris). Anubis was said to have wrapped the body of Osiris (who was said to be his father in most myths), during the embalming of the dead god.
Figure 3. A. Statue of Anubis as a crouching jackal, from the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. The weighting of the heart ceremony, from the Papyrus of the scribe Hunefer (Thebes; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Anubis conducts the weighing on the scale of Maat, while Thoth records the result and the monster Ammit waits to devour Hunefer in case he fails the test. Photo by Jon Bodsworth (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Statue of the conjoined god Hermanubis holding the caduceus on his left hand. Photo by Colin (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. The persona Anubis in the game P1. Screenshot from the game. E. The persona Anubis as it appears in the games P3 and P4. Screenshot from the game. F. Anubis’ official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
Egyptian priests wore masks of Anubis during the mortuary rites and possible also during the embalming process. One of the most important of these rites was the ceremony of the “opening the mouth”; its aim was to symbolically revivify a mummy (or statue of the deceased) for his/her new life in the thereafter. This ceremony is known since the Old Kingdom and it used an adze-like tool, which was partly made of meteoritic iron. Anubis was though to provide this iron from the sky.
Anubis is a prominent figure in yet another important ceremony: the weighing of the heart (Fig. 3B). This ceremony was a form of judgement, described in the Book of the Dead, which took place in the Underworld. The deceased was led by Anubis into the Hall of Two Maats (Maat is the goddess of truth, balance and order), where he/she would plead his innocence (of 42 sins) before 42 judges. After this, the deceased’s heart was weighted on a scale against Maat, represented by a feather. The god Thoth would record the result. If the scales were balanced, Anubis would take the deceased before Osiris, who would grant him/her entrance to the afterlife. However, if the heart was heavier than Maat, the monster Ammit would devour the deceased, erasing him/her completely from existence.
Anubis is either depicted as a black crouching jackal (Fig. 3A) or a jackal-headed man (Fig. 3B); only very rarely does he appear fully human. His canine form is likely derived from people observing golden jackals (Canis aureus Linnaeus, 1758) and/or wild dogs scavenging bodies from the shallow graves during the Predynastic Period. It was common in Egyptian magic to use the form of the threat as a protective symbol; thus, a jackal god would repel scavengers. However, Anubis’ completely black color is entirely symbolical; it is linked to his role as god of embalming and afterlife. The god’s black fur is thought to represent the discoloration of the corpse during the mummification process and might also be linked to the ideas of fertility and rebirth, since black is the color of the Nile silty soil after the inundation, which made Egypt such a fertile place for agriculture (Egypt was called “the Black Land”).
In the Persona games (P1, P3 and P4), Anubis appears as a jackal-headed man, but his entire body is black (Figs. 3D–E); in Egyptian depictions, the body is of normal human coloration (Fig. 3B). In the games, the god is holding the scales (Figs. 3D–E), a reference to his role in the weighing of the heart ceremony (Fig. 3B).
In the official artwork of the Shin Megami Tensei series (Fig. 3F), however, Anubis appears holding the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. Hermes was a Greek god and his staff represented the domains over which he had power, such as commerce and negotiation. (Just a note: Hermes’ caduceus should not be confused with the rod of Asclepius, which is the symbol of medicine.) During the Ptolemaic Era in Egypt, it was common to have merged representations of Anubis and Hermes (as Hermanubis), since both deities shared some similarities (the statue from Fig. 3C, for instance, carries the caduceus).
Apep (also known as Apophis) was the greatest enemy of the sun god Re. It was the embodiment of darkness and chaos. Egyptian culture was all about standing your ground against chaos, so a monstrous god who symbolized primeval chaos was a big deal. It was said Apep existed before creation and, since references to it only appears during the Middle Kingdom, scholars believe that the idea of Apep was conceived during the uncertain and turbulent times of the First Intermediate Period. It is only during the New Kingdom that the myths surrounding Apep take a more definite shape.
Every night, the sun (Re) would travel through the Underworld on his barque. There, the great serpent Apep (some sources even give its length: over 16 meters) was always ready to attack him, its terrible deafening roar echoing through the whole underworld. In some versions of the myth, the god Seth protects the barque from Apep (Fig. 4A). In other versions, Apep was beaten and cut to pieces by the gods in Re’s entourage, but the serpent was always reborn each day.
Paintings and words were thought to hold power by ancient Egyptians. As such, since Apep was a particularly powerful and terrible enemy, it was always depicted being attacked or subdued (Fig 4A). Obviously, Egyptians did not have a cult for Apep (who would worship a god bent on destruction anyway?), but the serpent appeared in many religious settings as a symbol of all things related to chaos, darkness and natural catastrophes. There was a plethora of magic spells and amulets to avoid such things and even a book (the so-called Book of Apep, from the New Kingdom) devoted to this. In the Late Period, there were even daily rites to protect the world from the chaos serpent, in which a wax model of Apep was cut into pieces and thrown in the fire.
Apep is a demon in the Persona series, appearing in the games P2-IS and P2-EP. Contrary to the Egyptian depictions, in the games Apep is shown as a very short serpent (“chibi” would be an apt Japanese term) with bat wings (Figs. 4B–C). The reason for including wings would be sort of a mystery, because Apep is not only said to have swam in the primordial ocean but also to swim daily in the Underworld, where it attacked the solar barque. However, the mystery is quickly solved: Apep was regarded by the Greeks to be the same being as their monster Typhon, which was usually depicted as a dragon. Apep can be thus considered the first documented dragon – and good dragons must have wings nowadays, right?
Figure 4. A. Scene from the papyrus of Her-Weben (Third Intermediate Period) showing the solar barque of Re (seated), with the god Seth spearing Apep. B. The demon Apep in the game P2-IS. Screenshot from the game. C. The demon Apep in the game P2-EP. Screenshot from the game.
The Bennu bird, albeit little known nowadays, is an extremely important figure in the solar myths. The first mentions of Bennu date from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom: the bird was associated with (or was one of the forms of) the creator god Atum, which in turn was an aspect of the sun god Re (Atum was the evening sun, Khepri the morning sun and the nominal Re the midday sun). Later, during the Middle Kingdom, Bennu was considered the ba of the sun god Re, which originated Atum. The ba is one of the souls that make up things in Egyptian beliefs; it is roughly equivalent to our notion of personality.
Bennu is said to have flown over Nun, the primordial ocean, right before creation. He finally perched on a rock and let out a loud cry (in the sense of the usual animal call), which broke the primeval silence. This first cry was said to have determined what was and what was not to be in the soon-to-be-unfolded creation by the hands of Atum.
Very little is known of Bennu’s cult, but his role in the solar mythology of Heliopolis probably made him very important in the region’s cults. Bennu’s titles were “He who Came into Being by Himself” and “Lord of Jubilees”, reflecting, respectively, his self-generative birth and its long life. Bennu is usually depicted as a heron (Fig. 5A), sometimes atop of the benben stone (the rock or mound where it first perched, which represents Atum/Re) or on a willow tree (which represents the god Osiris). But where did Osiris come from in this story? Bennu became linked with Osiris as a symbol of anticipated rebirth in the Underworld; as such, the bird is sometimes depicted wearing Osiris’s atef crown (a feathered white crown; Fig. 5A). Rarely, Bennu is depicted as a heron-headed man.
Bennu appears as a persona only in the very first game in the series (P1). Its depiction in the game is completely stylized and rather bizarre (Fig. 5C), not being very reminiscent of a heron at all. However, the official artwork of the Bennu in the Shin Megami Tensei series is more similar to the Egyptian drawings (compare Figs. 5A and 5B). Nevertheless, it has a short neck and a long and curved beak, looking more like a hybrid of a vulture and an ibis than a proper heron. In addition, it wears not the atef crown of Osiris, but the headdress of the goddess Hathor (the sun disk amid cow horns), which has nothing to do with the Bennu.
Archaeological remains found in the United Arab Emirates, dating from the Umm an-Nar period (2600–2000 BCE), contained bird bones, some of which belonged to a large heron. These bones were deemed to belong to a new species, which was named Ardea bennuides Hoch, 1979 (its common name is “Bennu heron”). This now extinct species is considered to have been the inspiration for the Bennu – for an idea of what the animal might have looked like, take a look at the grey heron (Fig. 5D), which belongs to the same genus.
The date of the remains of the Bennu heron coincides with Egypt’s Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period (Table 2). However, the Bennu only started to be depicted as a heron later in Egyptian history, during the New Kingdom. Back in the Old Kingdom days, we find another bird that might have been the first inspiration for the Bennu – and it has absolutely nothing to do with a heron. This bird is the yellow wagtail, Motacilla flava Linnaeus, 1758 (Fig. 5E), which in the Pyramid Texts is considered a representation of Atum himself. A very modest bird for such an important role, perhaps?
Figure 5. A. Drawing from the Tomb of Inherkha (Deir el-Medina; 20th Dynasty, New Kingdom) depicting the Bennu bird. B. Bennu’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series. C. The persona Bennu in the game P1. Screenshot from the game. D. The grey heron (Ardea cinerea Linnaeus, 1758), a living species related to the extinct Bennu heron (Ardea bennuides Hoch, 1979; family Ardeidae), winters in the Nile Valley. Photo by Andreas Trepte (2015); extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. E. Western yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava Linnaeus, 1758; family Motacillidae), the original Bennu bird from Old Kingdom times. Photo by Frebeck (2014); extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. F. The persona Phoenix in the game P2-IS. Screenshot from the game. G. The persona Phoenix in the game P2-EP. Screenshot from the game. H. Phoenix’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
Finally, I should say something about another famous mythological bird, the phoenix. The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt during the 5th century BCE. There, he learned about the Bennu bird from the priests and called it Phoenix in his native language (the name was likely derived directly from “Bennu”). In later Greek tradition, the phoenix was often likened to an eagle, but kept the characteristics of its origin: its role as a sun-bird and a symbol of resurrection, its self-generative birth and its long life. These characteristics might have given rise to the legend that the phoenix is reborn anew in a fiery conflagration, like the sun rising at dawn.
As such, we may consider that Bennu is also present in the games P2-IS and P2-EP, under the guise of “Phoenix” (Figs. 5F–H). In this depiction, the persona is clearly following the Greek eagle tradition.
Some scholars believe that the goddess Hathor has its origin in the predynastic period, mainly by reference to an artifact from the reign of Narmer, the very first pharaoh (Fig. 6A). On the so-called Narmer Palette, there is the representation of a cow goddess. Nevertheless, most Egyptologists now agree this depiction actually represents the goddess Bat, and Hathor likely subsumed her attributes later on (and also those of Mehet-Weret, yet another cow-goddess). Hathor quickly became a very important goddess from the late Old Kingdom onwards, and was multi-faceted, appearing in many different contexts. As such, Hathor’s myths seems to contradict each other sometimes.
To begin with, Hathor was firstly alluded to as mother of Horus (and, by extension, symbolic mother of the pharaoh); Isis might have taken this role later, when Hathor’s myths were incorporated in the Heliopolitan tradition. Hathor was also said to have restored Horus’ sight after Seth injured him, but this role sometimes falls to Thoth. Later, Hathor was usually treated as Horus’ wife. Hathor could also be a sky-goddess, especially linked to the night sky and the Milky Way.
Besides being a goddess of motherhood, Hathor also presided over love, sex and beauty. Especially venerated by Egyptian women, she was called “the beautiful one” (or sometimes “mistress of the vagina”); the Greeks identified her with Aphrodite. Hathor was also the goddess of music, dance and joy. As such, music was very prominent in her cult and two musical instruments became her symbols (and were used by her priestesses during the rites): the sistrum and the menat. The sistrum is a rattle-like instrument (Fig. 6B), while the menat was a heavy necklace (not to be worn, but shaken); both led to ecstatic religious dances.
Hathor was also the goddess of foreign lands, especially of the material goods that the Egyptians explored abroad, such as timber and minerals. She thus received titles such as “lady of Byblos” (a commercial center) or “mistress of turquoise” (mineral explored in the mines of Wadi Maghareh). Finally, Hathor was one of the goddesses that were referred to as the “Eye of Re”; the others were Sekhmet, Bastet, Mut and Wadjet. The Eye of Re was an extension of the Re’s power and his feminine counterpart. She protected him from any threats – in a very violent manner, actually – and is often depicted as a lioness. In her rage, the goddess was said to have almost extinguished the human race once.
Hathor was worshiped throughout all of Egypt, but her greatest cult center was Dendera. Hathor can be depicted as entirely human (Figs. 6D, E), entirely cow (Fig. 6C) or as a cow-headed human (or even with mixed facial features). Other unusual representations of Hathor includes a lioness (as the Eye of Re), a snake, a sycamore tree (as a protective and nurturing goddess of the afterlife) or a papyrus plant.
Figure 6. A. Upper portion of the Narmer Palette (Abydos; 1st Dynasty, Early Dynastic Period), with the cow goddess Bat appearing twice on the top. Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Bronze sistrum (ca. 380–250 BCE, Late Period or Ptolemaic Era). Photo by the Walters Art Museum (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Statue of Hathor as a cow protecting the high official Psamtik (Late Period). D. Hathor in human form alongside the Pharaoh Menkaure (4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom). Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. E. Hathor greets Queen Nefertari in this painting from the tomb of Nefertari (Valley of the Queens; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). F. The persona Hathor in the game P2-EP. Screenshot from the game. G. Hathor’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
In the Persona games, Hathor appears as cow-headed woman (Fig. 6F), a form of depiction more rarely used in Egyptian art. Moreover, her scepter seems to be a new invention, bearing only a very slight resemblance to Hathor’s typical headdress (the solar disk between cow’s horns). What exactly are the two pokéballs floating around her is a complete mystery, though. The goddess’ official artwork of the Shin Megami Tensei series shows her entirely human (Fig. 6G), wearing the aforementioned headdress and her characteristic long hair (or wig, actually). The adornments hanging from her hair in this artwork could be a reference to one of Hathor’s symbols, the menat cited above, but this seems rather unlikely. The huge golden thing on the back of her dress is shaped like the tip of a cow’s tail.
One of the first Egyptian deities, Horus is known since the very early Dynastic Period, but very likely already existed in the Predynastic. He was one of the most important deities in Egypt and featured in many myths, displaying many different but intermingling aspects.
Horus’ original form was as “lord of the sky”, his name likely meaning “the one on high” or “the distant one”, linking his image to that of a falcon soaring high. The right eye of this celestial falcon was the sun and the left, the moon. His earliest recorded cult center was Nekhen; which the Greek later called Hierakonpolis, meaning “city of falcons”. From sky-god was just a small step for him to become a full solar god, often represented in art as a falcon-winged solar disk. As Horakhty (“Horus of the two horizons”), he was the god of the rising and setting sun. This aspect was later fused with the Heliopolitan sun god Re, becoming Re-Horakhty.
Later, Horus became known as the son of Isis and Osiris. Some scholars believe that this was a different deity from the elder Horus described above, but who just happened to have the same name. If they were indeed two gods, they were fused in the Osiris myths; if not, the younger Horus is just a very elaborate incorporation of the older Horus into the Osirian tradition. In this regard, Horus was commonly depicted as an infant (the sidelock hairstyle was typical of children), called simply “Horus the Child” by the Egyptians or “Harpokrates” by the Greek. He was usually shown being suckled by his mother Isis (Fig. 8B). From the Late Period onwards, Horus was depicted on cippi (a kind of stela) dominating some dangerous fauna (Fig. 7A), such as crocodiles, serpents, scorpions, lions and oryxes. Water poured over these cippi was believed to cure poison.
Perhaps more than anything else, Horus was intimately linked to Egyptian monarchy. First, he was the son of Isis and Osiris and thus the mythical heir and ruler of Egypt. He fought for 80 years against his usurper uncle (sometimes brother), Seth, for the rule of the land. After all the gods decided in his favor, Horus finally managed to unite and rule Egypt. Just a note: the kingdom was considered to be composed of two parts, Upper (south) and Lower (north) Egypt (Fig. 1); Horus (and the pharaoh) was thus called the “Lord of Two Lands”. Secondly, the pharaoh was considered “the living Horus” and two of the pharaonic names (they had five) are related to the god: the “Horus name” (written within a rectangular vignette, called serekh; Fig. 7B) and the “golden Horus” name. Horus was usually seen in statues protecting the pharaoh (Fig. 7C); ever since the Old Kingdom, the outstretched wings of birds were a symbol of protection in Egypt.
Figure 7. A. Inferior portion of the Metternich stela (a cippi), with scene of Horus the Child (center) dominating dangerous animals (30th Dynasty, Late Period). The other deities represented are Isis (far left), Re-Horakhty (left), Thoth (far right) and Bes (the face above Horus). B. Tombstone of Pharaoh Djet, showing his Horus name (the snake hieroglyph) within a serekh (Abydos; 1st Dynasty, Old Kingdom). Note the Horus falcon atop the rectangular vignette. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard (2004); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Horus, as a falcon, protecting Pharaoh Khafre (valley temple of Khafre, Giza; 4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom). D. Statue of Horus as a falcon (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). Photo by Merlin-UK (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. E. Wall carving depicting Horus as a falcon-headed man (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). F. A lanner falcon, Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825 (family Falconidae). Photo by Peter Pauly (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. G. A lanner falcon in flight. Photo by Alan Manson (2010); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. H. Horus’ official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series. I. A red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis (Gmelin, 1788) (family Accipitridae). Photo by Jason Crotty (2011); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. J. A red-tailed hawk in flight. Photo by Brocken Inaglory (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Horus’ iconography is one of the best known from Egyptian art: the falcon (Figs. 7B–D). However, a falcon-headed man was also a very common depiction of the god (Fig. 7E). His avian form was most likely based on the lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825; Figs. 7F–G), although some argue that the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus Tunstall, 1771) might also have influenced it. Despite the falcon depiction being so common, the Persona games managed to get it wrong, showing Horus as a hawk instead (Fig. 7H). The confusion between falcons and hawks is rather common, including among Egyptologists, but the two kinds of animal are easily told apart (they even belong to different orders: Falconiformes and Accipitriformes, respectively). Broadly speaking, falcons (Figs. 7F–G) are usually smaller, with more delicate features; they have a tooth-like projection on the upper mandible of the beak, dark markings around the eyes (Horus has them too!) and pointed wings. Hawks (Figs. 7I–J) are larger, have larger and curved bills and round wings. The difference of their wings is easily seen in flight (compare Figs. 7G and 7J).
Finally, an ironic remark: a fossil genus from the Eocene of France, Horusornis, received the god’s name (the name means Horus-bird). However, the single species known so far, Horusornis vianeyliaudae Mourer-Chauviré, 1991, is actually considered a basal hawk, not a falcon. So, if Egyptologists do not know (or do not care about) their Ornithology, ornithologists also do not seem to know their Egyptology.
Isis was one of the most important Egyptian goddess from as early as the Old Kingdom. She is an undeniable symbol of kingship: (1) she is the mother of Horus (god of kingship); (2) she is the symbolic mother of the pharaoh (the king was the “living Horus”, after all); (3) she is usually depicted in a queenly manner and with a throne-shaped headdress (Fig. 8A); (4) her name even contains the hieroglyph for “throne”.
She was featured in dozens of myths, but the most well-known is probably the tale of how she resurrected her brother/husband Osiris. Osiris, the earthly king, had been killed and mutilated by his treacherous brother Seth. Isis sets off to gather all of Osiris parts scattered through Egypt and reassemble him. She guards her dead husband as a kite with protective wings, which is also reflected in her iconography (Fig. 8A). As such, Isis was the Egyptian role model of the loyal wife and mother and thus also a goddess of marriage. (For those wondering, “kite” is a term commonly used for some species of hawk, but in this case it likely refers to the genus Milvus and perhaps more specifically to the species Milvus aegyptius Gmelin, 1788.)
Figure 8. A. Depiction of Isis with outstretched protective wings and throne headdress. This is a painting from the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by the Yorck Project (2002); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Statue of Isis suckling the baby Horus (ca. 600 BCE, Late Period). Photo by the Walters Art Museum (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Statue of Isis from the Roman Empire (circa 138–117 BCE, Ptolemaic Era). Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. The persona Isis belonging to Yukari. Official artwork from Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. E. Isis as she appears in P4. Official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
Isis was also the goddess of magic and, through her unparalleled domain of magic spells, she revivified Osiris’ whole reproductive system and got pregnant of him, later giving birth to Horus. The dead-but-resurrected Osiris then became the king of the Underworld. Isis then brings up Horus in secrecy, so that one day he might avenge his father.
The Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom say that Horus (and by extension the king) drinks divine milk from the breasts of Isis. This image was a favorite in Egypt (Fig. 8B) and was a symbol of protection and healing, especially for children. This iconography was copied by Christians, who transformed it in the image of Mary and Jesus. Every Christian artist should thus be grateful that ancient Egyptians did not count the copyright among their many inventions.
Isis was worshipped throughout all Egypt and she grew so popular that she ended up absorbing other deities, such as Astarte/Ishtar, Bastet and even a large part of Hathor, another important Egyptian goddess. That is why Isis is often depicted with some of Hathor’s trademark symbols, such as her headdress (the sun disk amid cow horns; Fig. 8B) and sistrum (Fig. 6B). Moreover, as soon as the Romans discovered Isis, they loved her and the goddess’ cult spread quickly across the whole empire. She was often depicted in Roman statuary in the typical Roman style (Fig. 8C), although she still bore her usual symbols, such as the sistrum. Isis was so important that her temple in Philae (currently an island in Aswan) endured long after the Roman emperor’s prohibition of all faiths other than the Christian one. This temple amazingly survived the monotheistic cultural onslaught until the 6th century CE.
In the Persona games, Isis is the sole Egyptian persona that belongs to one of the main characters in the player’s party. It is the second form of Yukari Takeba’s persona in P3. The design of Yukari’s Isis is extremely stylized, but it bears some of the goddess iconography, such as the outstretched wings and Hathor’s headdress (Fig. 8D). The golden lines on her body were typical of Egyptian art to depict tunics and other fancy clothing (see statue of Serket, Fig. 9B). Curiously, Yukari’s Isis has a bull’s head. This is a reflection of her persona’s first form, called Io. In Greek mythology, Io was a mortal priestess of Hera who was seduced by Zeus. Zeus had to disguise Io as a young cow so she could escape Hera’s wrath (by the way, Hera was pissed because she was Zeus’ wife).
In P4, however, Isis is depicted in a form astoundingly faithful to the goddess’ image (Fig. 8E), with wings and the throne headdress.
The scorpion goddess Serket is known since the very 1st Dynasty. She is mainly a protective deity, guarding the deceased (especially the deceased king) together with Isis, Nephthys and Neith. Her main responsibility is to protect Qebehsenuef, one of the four sons of Horus and the god who guards the canopic jar with the deceased’s intestines. Serket is also a goddess of healing and patron of “magician-medics” who dealt with poisonous bites. Her full name is Serket hetyt, meaning “she who causes the throat to breathe”, and relates to the fatal danger of scorpions – the goddess may heal or destroy. Scorpions were also symbols of motherhood and so Serket was said to nurse the king; she also helped to protect Horus during his infancy.
Serket is depicted as a woman with a scorpion over her head (Figs. 9A–B); the scorpion’s tail is raised and poised to sting. She appears in a single Persona game (P1) as a horrid woman/scorpion hybrid (Fig. 9C), although her design looks more crustacean-like than scorpion-like (Fig. 9D).
Figure 9. A. Painting of Serket from the tomb of Nefertari (Valley of the Queens; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). B. Statue of Serket guarding the shrine (in the background) with Tutankhamun’s canopic jars (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). C. The demon Serket in the game P1. Screenshot from the game. D. Serket’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
Seth (also spelled “Set”) was the god of the desert, representing the forces of chaos. He is known since the Predynastic Period. The “Red One” has a very convoluted history, being incorporated in the Heliopolitan tradition, where he killed his brother Osiris and fought with his nephew Horus for the throne. He destroyed Horus’ eye and was castrated by him in turn. He was the god of storms and even the sea (something Egyptians most certainly did not like or trust), of violence, strife and rage. Even his sister/wife Nephthys abandoned him to join “team Horus”.
However, Seth had other, more benefic, aspects. He was considered the god of metals (iron was called “bones od Seth”) and strength (his scepter was said to weigh 2 tons). Pharaohs prayed to him in war and even the gods relied on his strength – he stood on the prow of the solar barque to fight off Apep every night in order to protect Re (Fig. 4A). His more protective character even extended to common people, who prayed for him, and to the pharaoh, who was sometimes depicted protected by him and Horus (Fig. 10A); in this quality, Seth represented Upper Egypt, while Horus represented Lower Egypt (in later art, however, Seth was substituted for nicer gods, such as Thoth). There is even a tale in which he rescues the foreign goddess Astarte/Ishtar from the also foreign sea god Yam (Astarte later became Seth’s wife).
The importance of Seth decreased from the early dynastic period onwards, but, during the time when the Hyksos occupied Egypt (the Second Intermediate Period), he rose to prominence again. This was because the invaders considered Seth the same being as their chief god Baal. In the New Kingdom, he fell in importance again, but was treated as a sort of patron deity of the Ramessid pharaohs.
Figure 10. A. Seth (left) and Horus (right), both in hybrid forms, protect the Pharaoh Ramesses II (center) (temple of Ramesses II, Abu Simbel; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Chipdawes (2010); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Two examples (reproductions) of the “Seth animal” from the Old Kingdom (left) and Middle Kingdom (right). Image reproduced from te Velde (1967). C. An aardvark, Orycteropus afer (Pallas, 1766) (family Orycteropodidae). Photo by Louise Joubert (2013); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Seth’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series. E. The persona Seth in the game P2-IS. Screenshot from the game. F. The persona Seth in the game P2-EP. Screenshot from the game.
Seth was depicted as a strange animal (Fig. 10B), which Egyptologists, in a major stroke of creativity, call “the Seth animal”. This animal is said to be entirely fabulous (meaning invented) or a hybrid of a number of real animals. However, given the Egyptians’ naturalistic art, these two hypotheses are hard to swallow. Some Egyptologists consider the Seth animal to be based on a real animal, most prominent of which is the aardvark (Fig. 10C), or on a then-living-but-now-extinct animal (which could also be the case for the Bennu heron, as seen above). However, the “Seth animal” sometimes appear with other entirely fabulous creatures of the desert, such as the griffin (yes, the griffin is Egyptian in origin) and a serpent-headed carnivore-like animal. This could indicate that in fact, it is a fabulous creature instead of a real-world one; but this claim is also very weak.
Seth also appeared as a human with the head of the “Seth animal” (Fig. 10A). In the Late Period, however, the “Seth animal” disappears from art and the god is represented with the head of a donkey or ass. This confusion over the zoological identity of Seth’s symbol is somewhat ironic though; after all, he was the god of chaos.
In the Persona series, Seth appears as a black dragon (a very typical fantasy-RPG dragon, by the way) in P3 and P4 (Fig. 10D). This is obviously due to a long line of confusion and conjunction: Seth, in his character of enemy and bringer of chaos, was sometimes equaled to Apep, who, as seen above, was in turn equaled with the Greek Typhon. Typhon was usually depicted as a dragon, thus explaining Persona’s confusing depiction. Nevertheless, I’ll grant that an aardvark would probably be a little less threatening than a dragon. Finally yet importantly, the color black was an astoundingly poor choice for the dragon. Seth was the “Red God”, the color of the dangerous desert. Black, as seen above, was the color of the good agriculture-friendly silt of the Nile.
In the P2-IS and P2-EP games, Seth appears as a part mammal, part lizard and part amphibian creature, with tiny malformed wings and a scythe stuck to its nostrils (Figs. 10E–F). I have absolutely no idea whatsoever of what that’s supposed to represent.
Sokar (also spelled Seker) is a falcon-headed god from the region of Memphis (Fig. 11A).
Figure 11. A. The Pharaoh Seti I making offerings to Sokar. Walls of the temple of Seti I, Abydos (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). B. Sokar as Lord of the Mysterious Regions of the Netherworld. Wall painting from the tomb of Tuthmosis III in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). C. The persona Sokar (Seker) in the game P2-IS. Screenshot from the game.
Scholars believe that he was a god of craftsmanship who eventually became associated with the regional necropolis and thus became a god of the afterlife and the Underworld. As a god of craftsmen, Sokar then became associated with Ptah, the god of artisans (and a creator god according to Memphite cosmogony). As a chthonic god, he later was associated with Osiris (ruler of the Underworld). As such, already in the Middle Kingdom, these three gods were conjoined in the tripartite deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who remained an important deity in Egypt thereafter and was a favorite in the depictions of New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in Thebes (Fig. 11B).
The cult center of Sokar was naturally his home region of Memphis, but by the New Kingdom his festival was an important event also in Thebes, almost rivaling the New Year Festival of Opet. The festival served to give continuity to the royal mortuary cult.
Sokar is usually depicted as a falcon-headed man (Figs. 11A–B). In the Persona games, however, he is shown simply as falcon (Fig. 11C). He appears only in the games P2-IS and P2-EP.
Thoth is actually a Greek rendering of the name, which in Egyptian was something in the lines of “Djehuty”. He was present since Predynastic times and was originally an important moon god, a companion of the sun god Re, and identified as the “night sun” or, later, as the “silver Aten”. Only later Thoth assimilated the aspects of knowledge and became the god of scribes and scholars. Thoth was often considered a son of Horus, being born from the forehead of Seth after the latter ate some lettuce with the semen of the former.
Thoth invented writing and was said to record everything (including the result of the weighing of the heart ceremony, as seen above; Fig. 3B). He also determined the length of each pharaoh’s reign (he was thus called “Lord of Time”), recording it on a palm leaf (Fig. 12A); however, this function was most commonly attributed to his wife (or sometimes daughter) Seshat, who shared most of his aspects anyway. Thoth had thus a pristine reputation of integrity and truth. As patron of all areas of knowledge, he also had access to magic and secrets unknown to the other gods.
Finally, Thoth was also a messenger of the gods and usually conciliated quarreling deities. This led the Greeks to equate him with their messenger-god, Hermes. The so-called “Hermes Trismegistus” (meaning the “thrice great”) may be a syncretic combination of Hermes and Thoth. (Trismegistus, by the way, is the second form of Junpei Iori’s persona in P3; his starting persona is Hermes.)
The city housing Thoth’s largest cult center became known to the Greeks as Hermopolis Magna (Khemnu, in Egyptian). To the west of Hermopolis, lies the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel, where the catacombs known as the “Ibeum” holds hundreds of animal mummies of ibises and baboons, Thoth’s sacred animals.
Thoth is most usually depicted as an ibis-headed man (Figs. 12A–B), but can also appear as a full ibis (Fig. 12C); his depiction as a baboon (Fig. 12E) is secondary, but very common. Here is a good place to remark that Egyptian art was very naturalistic when it came to animals (Fig. 11C), representing them in natural poses and lively activities and in a manner that makes possible for us to easily identify the species in question. Thoth’s ibis is aptly called “African sacred ibis” (Fig. 12D); its scientific name is Threskiornis aethiopicus (Latham, 1790), meaning the “religious (or worshipping) bird from Ethiopia”. The ibis’ white plumage and long sickled bill probably had lunar symbolic significance. Is his ibis or hybrid form, Thoth is usually shown wearing his own brand of the atef crown (Fig. 12C): it is made of two twisting ram’s horns on its base, from where sprouts three bundles of reeds (each topped by a sun disk), which in turn are flanked by ostrich feathers and uraeus serpents.
Figure 12. A. Thoth records the length of the pharaoh’s reign on a palm leaf (Luxor temple; 18th–19th Dynasties, New Kingdom). B. Painting of Thoth in the temple of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). C. Statue of Thoth as an ibis (6th century BCE, Late Period). Image is a courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. D. The sacred ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus (Latham, 1790) (family Threskiornithidae). Photo by Johan Wessels (2009); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. E. Statue of Thoth as a baboon (ca. 1400 BCE, New Kingdom). Photo by Steven G. Johnson (2010); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. F. Thoth’s official artwork from the Shin Megami Tensei series. G. A yellow baboon, Papio cynocephalus (Linnaeus, 1766) (family Cercopithecidae). Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Unfortunately, the Persona games went for the baboon look (Fig. 12F), but, instead of the atef crown, he has a small solar disk on his head. I call it a solar disk because it is golden instead of the lunar silver. The baboons were sacred to the sun god, because these animals sit on their hinds legs at sunrise and raise their hands, which was interpreted as a sign of reverence for the sun. Thoth’s representation (likely based on the yellow baboon, Papio cynocephalus (Linnaeus, 1766); Fig. 12G) was always a sitting baboon with his arms in resting position (Fig. 11E), precisely to differentiate him from the solar baboons. Finally, the book in the official artwork is of a rather modern look; it surely gives a nice effect, though. The wedjat (Eye of Horus) depicted on the book’s covers was sometimes found in amulets of Thoth.
After going through all Persona games, I am very disappointed to have only encountered 11 deities from the Egyptian mythology. As we can see on Table 3 below, the number of Egyptian personas was kept constant throughout the games. However, the total number of personas increased, resulting in increasingly smaller proportions of Egyptian personas in each new game in the series.
Table 3. Total number and proportion of Egyptian-themed personas (but not demons!) in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. The Greco-Roman-themed personas are shown for comparison; the value for P3 is a little inflated, since all party members had Greek-themed personas. Also, I did not include: (1) the four prime personas (from P2-IS), since they are the same gods or goddesses that appear in non-prime form; (2) Cybele, who, despite being wholly incorporated in Greco-Roman traditions, retained her foreigner character.
The mythology of Ancient Egypt is astoundingly rich and its culture outright amazing – besides, they were the very first in the whole civilization business. If we compare these numbers with the percentage of Greco-Roman-themed personas (Table 3), for instance, the difference is very clear. I agree that Greek mythology is awesome in its own right, but the Egyptian one does not lag behind. (Sometimes, there are even the Greek and Roman versions of the same god in the same game: for instance, Ares and Mars both appear in P2-IS and P2-EP).
Egypt deserved better in the series, especially when faced by the ridiculous choice of including creatures from works of fiction, such as the Goetia and the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. (Of course, religion is just a special case of fiction, but you get my point.) Could Persona 5, to be released later this year (for the PS3 and PS4), be the game to set things right?
I am so indebted to João V. Tomotani (USP, Brazil) for compiling a large database with all personas/demons, that I am almost willing to ignore that his favorite entry in the series is P3 instead of P4.
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