Through the Darkest of Times is a historical strategy video game taking place in Berlin during the Third Reich, from Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 to Germany’s surrender in 1945. The player leads a civilian resistance group fighting off the new regime how they can. The resistance is made up of common people, from all walks of life, so it’s the leader’s job to win hearts and minds and hold the group together. The player will be responsible for planning the group’s activity and survive by avoiding the Gestapo. All of this while actual history unfolds outside: the game follows the actual historical time-line, which influence the player’s options. The game is under development by Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games, made up by the duo Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz. It will be published by HandyGames in the near future and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jörg Friedrich to understand how such a unique game like Through the Darkest of Times came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: On your website, you mention that a game focusing on the civil resistance during Third Reich Germany just had to be made. We agree, of course, but would you care to elaborate a little more on this?
A: The story of civilian resistance fighters in Germany is a story that people must learn about – these normal people with families, with normal jobs, saw what was going on the world and decided they had to do something against it. They went underground and risked their lives to stop an inhumane regime.
We think this is a story that must be told.
As political people, certain developments in the world, the fact that we see fascists rise again, here in Germany but also in many more countries in Europe and in the US, worries us a lot. In 2017 we wondered what we could do about this and the only thing we are good at is making games, so we thought “hey let’s make a game that takes an anti-fascist stance and maybe it will make the world a better place!”
As game developers and artists, we like to push the boundaries of the medium. Sebastian and I met when we were working for YAGER, where we made a game called Spec Ops: The Line – an AAA shooter that asked players to shoot people and blamed them when they did. It was supposed to make players feel bad.
Back in 2012 this was special. It felt like a game that needed to be made. We felt like pioneers, we felt like we tried something new by taking a new stance on war and on war in games.
Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar – we try to find a new way on how games treat Nazism.
Q: Do you believe game developers have a responsibility when representing History? Should this come before artistic freedom?
A: We learn history not only at school, but also from the stories told to us by movies, books and well – video games.
But if someone would learn everything he knows about Nazism from games, he might conclude that Nazis are villains like the Empire in Star Wars: somewhat evil, but they have cool uniforms and tanks and are in the end just a faction like any other.
I find it problematic, that most games with Nazis don’t even mention the murderous anti-Semitism, the slow rise of Fascism or the Shoa.
I know that these games usually have no bad intention by omitting these facts, they often do it to avoid controversy. But honestly: if you think mentioning the historical crimes of the Nazis is inappropriate for your game, maybe picking Nazis as a faction or theme for your game is what is inappropriate here.
Q: Nazism seems to have become just another Hollywood trope nowadays. Are you concerned about how Nazi Germany is depicted in current games?
A: Here is the problem: if your game is about Nazis, but in your game, they do not commit any war crimes, there is no Auschwitz, no Shoa, then you create a historical narrative in which the Nazis didn’t commit these crimes.
And that’s the narrative that is told by Neo-Nazis who try to white-wash historical Nazism, so people are less hesitant to open for far-right ideologies.
Video games is the most important narrative medium of our time – as developers we must take responsibility and tell things the way they happened just as movies did a couple of decades ago.
Q: Current gaming culture is often referred to as toxic, where sexist, racist, homophobic behavior unfortunately abound. Do you believe that might be related to the ideals that games historically presented? Can game developers help change this culture?
A: Yes, I think so. The way games were marketed since the 1990’s until recently, towards young men, featuring the ideal of tough white guys who like hot girls and solve problems with their guns, appealed to a specific type. And this type feels now entitled to games. They think it is their medium and that developers need to create games for them and only for them.
This was never true, because of course there were always all kinds of people playing video games, but we now have this extremely entitled, extremely loud and toxic bunch of guys who yell the loudest and think they can dominate the Internet and our medium.
We must not let them. We must not listen to their demands; leave them stew in their own juice and just ignore them. Let’s make games that are open and inclusive, for an open and diverse audience instead of making games for the Christchurch killer.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What exactly is the players’ goal in Through the Darkest of Times?
A: You play a leader of a civilian resistance group in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler becomes chancellor. You try to fight the regime with acts of sabotage and later attacks, educate people and let them know the truth about the Nazis’ plans and their doings, and help the persecuted, by hiding them or getting them out of the country.
Your goal is to persist as a group until the end of the war and do as much of the three things mentioned as possible without being caught by the Gestapo.
In order to achieve this you need to send your members on missions and organize resources necessary for your fight.
The group members are civilians, who are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must do something illegal and risk their life to resist the regime. Members have different biographies and political views, which can lead to conflicts within the group and keeping up morale and members from simply giving up can be tough.
So you try to do as much good as you can and lead you and your group through the darkest of times.
Q: There are some games out there with a healthy dose of historical backgrounds, such as Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts and Assassin’s Creed. How does Through the Darkest of Times approach History?
A: Every turn in the game is one historical week. At the beginning of each turn you get the news with what happened in that week – based on the historical events of that week. But history influences the game mechanics too: at the beginning you don’t need to be too worried, there are even public protests against the regime happening in the streets where you and your group can join. But over time, the repression increases; after the Reichstag fire, the city is full of SA and things are dangerous; and once the Gestapo is founded and the first concentration camp is built, things are dangerous.
There are also big historical events that you witness through narrative sequences to give you more a feeling of being there, than just in the strategy mode.
History also influenced the looks of the game. Sebastian was inspired by German expressionists of the 1920’s who were later banned by the Nazis as un-German art. He tried to create a look that the Nazis would have banned.
So I would say, history plays a very important role in Through the Darkest of Times.
Q: What kind of source material did you use while building the game? Books, historical documents, interviews?
A: All of this. We read a lot, we went to places and museums – luckily, as we are in Berlin and the game takes place in Berlin, there are a lot of memorial sites and local annalists we got in touch with. We read interviews of course and we talked to descendants of civilian resistance fighters.
Q: How faithfully does the game follow real-life events of the Third Reich? Can the players expect to “change the course of history”?
A: In the main game, the historical events and what you read in the news all follow the actual historical timeline. Your character, the members of the group and your supporters are fictional though, and so are their actions against the regime.
But characters and actions are inspired by real civilian resistance groups that were active in Berlin at that time, such as the Schulze-Boyssen/Harnack group or the Jochen-Baum group.
Most of the missions wouldn’t have an impact on grand politics – if this is what you mean by “changing history”. However, the way we see it, history is not only changed by generals and leaders but by all of us.
Who saves people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea today is changing history – more than most politicians and in a better way if you ask me.
But since we have all these rogue-like elements in the game and since we like the idea, we are thinking about a second mode – a “New Game+” if you want – in which events happen less predictably and you might be able to stop the regime before the end of the war.
Q: Do you hope players will learn something about German and World History by playing Through the Darkest of Times?
A: When I talk to people about the Nazi time they often have the idea that it started with war and holocaust right away. But it didn’t. Hitler got elected. He became chancellor in a legal way, because we had conservatives who thought that they could handle a fascist in power and that this would still be better than the left – 12 years later half of Europe was destroyed and millions of people had died.
I hope people might be able to recognize the patterns when playing Through the Darkest of Times when they look at what is going on in the real world.
Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from your game?
A: It would be great if our players took away the same message that we took away when we started to learn about civilian resistance fighters: some developments are so wrong, they are so evil, that we have to overcome our day to day disputes, unite and fight for the fundamental human rights even if it means taking a risk.
About the Team
Paintbucket Games is a Berlin-based indie game studio founded by two ex-AAA developers. Jörg Friedrich does design and code and Sebastian Schulz does art and design. They have been making games for more than 13 years each and worked on 10 of those together. Among the several titles they worked on are: Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Island 2, Albion Online, and Desperados 2.
HISTORYING, PUBLIC HISTORYING, AND HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES
While traditional history, as a discipline, is important, that should not obscure the fact that doing history, sometimes called “historying,” is something everyone does. For history is fundamentally just the communication of the past through a medium (Dening, 2006; Chapman, 2016). That is certainly the case when the most traditional forms of history are crafted by academic historians: books and textbooks. The dominance of text and speech in history classes should not mislead us: they are not the only media for communicating the past and certainly not the only legitimate media (McCall, 2012b). There are many more, and once we leave the realm of academic historians, it’s easy to find pretty much everyone doing history in some form. They do this when they tell a story about their day, draw a picture about their vacation, or debate something that happened in their peer group. Film, painting, theater, sculpture, toys, music, even social media can and often do communicate aspects of the past and, when they do, they are history.
So, historical video games certainly qualify as a medium that can do history, that can communicate aspects of the past. To use a more formal term, historical video games are a form of public history. Because the term’s meaning varies widely, for purposes of this article, let’s define public history as any communication of the past crafted outside traditional academia with little or no involvement of academic historians. This includes games whose designers read published histories and even games where an academic historian was on board as a consultant but did not make the driving decisions in the design process (McCall, 2018).
So, what makes a video game count as historical? This is another area of debate, but a useful broad definition runs like this: a historical game “has to begin at a clear point in real world history, and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler, 2007). This definition works for most commercial games set in the past: the big budget titles Call of Duty: World War II, Total War: Rome 2, and Battlefield One; Sid Meier’s Civilization series (now for almost three decades with III, IV , and V still sold and VI released in late 2016); Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey (and many earlier entries in the series); the favorite games of last decade like Stronghold, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and even Age of Empires; and hosts of recent games by independent developers such as Field of Glory II,Egypt: Old Kingdom, Bomber Crew, Nantucket, and TheCurious Expedition.
Some games that connect to the past, however, are more difficult to categorize. Wolfenstein: New Order, for example, imagines a counterfactual history where Nazi Germany conquers the United States in 1948. The game begins in 1960. Not a historically documented world of 1960, but a counterfactual United States ruled by Nazis. Though Wolfenstein deals with important historical topics like the Holocaust, it does not neatly fit the definition of a historical game noted above (McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018).
Games in Assassin’s Creed series, on the other hand, do begin at a clear point in real world history but focus on player characters that did not exist (Altair, Ezio, Bayek, Kassandra) occupying roles (Assassins and Templars in cabals) that did not exist historically – at least not according to the best evidence and analysis. It’s best to remember that, ultimately, categories like “historical games” are useful not for their rigid application but only insofar as they help us focus on what is essential. Accordingly, this article is concerned primarily – but not exclusively – with exploring those games that fit the narrower definition of historical games most neatly: large-budget games like Civilization, Total War, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Call of Duty,Battlefield, and countless independent games like Field of Glory II and Bomber Crew. Despite their many differences, these games have real-world historical settings and have player agents that – generally speaking – either existed historically or take on roles that existed historically (McCall, 2019).
HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES: WHAT KIND OF HISTORY?
There are a great many kinds of these historical games: shooters, strategy games, adventure games, city builders, management sims, and so on. These games take two main approaches to representing the past: realist and conceptual (Chapman, 2016). Three-dimensional first- and third-person shooter games like Call of Duty, Battlefield One, and the Assassin’s Creed series take the realist approach to representing the past. Their designers present a visually verisimilitudinous environment, the past as it arguably appeared and as a world the player can navigate through the game’s protagonist. Much like historical novels, these games center on fictitious characters who act in historically documented setting but do not alter conventionally accepted larger historical narratives. So, for example, the Assassin protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series do not alter the outcome of the French Revolutions in AC Unity or negate Cleopatra’s alliance with Julius Caesar in AC Origins as they have their adventures. Protagonist Red Daniels’ actions in Call of Duty World War 2 do not spawn an alternate history without the Allied Push through western France. Rather, the player character develops their own fictitious narrative within the backdrop of the more-or-less documented historical setting. Players decide some of the in-game protagonist’s actions but do not change the larger historical narrative.
The other main approach to historical games is the conceptual simulation approach. Games like those in the Civilization series, Total War series, and Paradox’s grand strategy games like Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II, and Hearts of Iron IV focus not on showing how the past looked but telling how the systems and processes of the past functioned. They do this, not through immersive visually realistic environments, but through underlying rule sets and systems, communicated to the player through stylized and sometimes abstract symbols and graphics (Chapman, 2016). So, Civilization, for example, does not show what ancient civilizations looked like so much as tell, among other things, how geography shapes the development of civilizations. Crusader Kings II does not show how medieval barons lived but tells about the political fragmentation of medieval Europe. In these games, players can make choices that have a grand impact on historical outcomes: managing ancient Egypt to become the dominant world power by the time of the Renaissance, preventing Rome from falling, fending off the Crusaders, etc. These are approaches are not mutually exclusive, however, and many games have elements of both, such as the Total War games that combine the conceptual-style large-scale grand strategy of campaign maps and city-management screens with the more realist verisimilitudinous representations of individual soldiers and battlefields rendered in 3D.
What kind of histories are these historical video games? The vast majority whether their approaches to the past are realist, conceptual, or some combination, present that past as one or more historical problem spaces (McCall, 2012a, 2012b, 2016a, 2018). That is, they present the past in terms of:
A primary agent, the player character of the game, with one or more roles and goals, operating within
a physical space, a virtual world with an environment and geography that includes
any number of elements, including other agents modeled by the AI as non-player characters, that can afford and assist player actions, constrain player actions, or both depending on the situation; and so, the player crafts
strategies and makes decisions to take advantage of available affordances, work within or around constraints, and achieve their goal.
This certainly can be a problematic way to approach the past: It can over-emphasize agents’ conscious goal-oriented behavior and cause humans other than the primary agent to be cast as instruments (McCall, 2012b: 16–19). When applied specifically to the study of agents making decisions in systems like politics, trade, management, construction, battle and so on, however, the historical problem space approach of video games works reasonably well. For in these and other spheres, there was a great deal of conscious goal-oriented behavior, taking place in a physical geography containing elements and agents that could afford and constrain actions – terrain, weather, the physical condition of agents, their morale, and so on. Merchants and revolutionaries, soldiers and farmers, all formed strategies and made choices to reach their short- and long-term goals within their environment, their space.
Historical games model historical problem spaces in significantly different ways from narrative historical texts (McCall, 2012b: 13–21, 2016a: 8–10). The basic distinction is that games are interactive where text-narrative histories are fixed. Texts are fixed by the author and though, of course they can be interpreted in many ways by readers, the reality of the actual letters on the actual pages is objective and fixed and the narrative outcome of the text is fixed. For example, every reader that reads the book as designed will experience the same words in the same order. To that extent, the narrative outcomes of the text are fixed. Videogames (and boardgames for that matter) are interactive. The player is faced with meaningful choices and a variety of possible narrative outcomes based on those choices. Different players playing the game as designed will experience different scenes and episodes in different orders, a different narrative overall. In practice, this means historical games will necessarily include counterfactual history, events and outcomes that did not happen, but might have.
Crusader Kings II, for example, allows a player to start their games at various times in the 9th to 15th centuries CE. At any given date, the world map is divided into territories under the control of historical local rulers according to the historical evidence the game developers have been able to find. So, to use the European Middle Ages as an example, starting the game in late 1066, the player finds William of Normandy as the new king of England. The game designers did not stop with historical monarchs; lesser nobles generally correspond to historically documentable agents when that information is known, and the political boundaries of the world map change to match the history of the time and place. Thus, to a certain extent, Crusader Kings II accurately simulates the political geography of the time period in its various starting points. Once the player selects a dynasty to control and starts to play, however, the game simulates the actions of all the lords great and small in the game that the player does not control. Each lord operates according to the rules and priorities established in the game code. The player’s freedom of choice and the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) agents’ choices are coded as probabilities, not certainties, means that the narrative of gameplay will bear similarities to the broader historical context of the period and place but almost certainly not match the specific historical chronology. So, one can centralize eleventh-century England under King Harold instead of William the Conqueror, lead a Mongol king to conquer all of Eurasia, and so on (McCall, 2012b: 12–16, 2016a: 8–10, 2018: 408–409).
This key feature of historical games, interactivity and, as a result, counterfactual outcomes, makes games potentially a very powerful medium for exploring the past. Historical games, in short, can do a very good job presenting the past in terms of systems and interactions, the causal connections that made past societies and people act the way they did. They can also represent the past, to a certain extent, as it seemed to agents at the time, as a contextualized world of possibilities where agents make choices in the hopes of achieving or avoiding certain outcomes, without any certainty how everything will come out in the end. Indeed, this is how life is experienced for most of us, past and present. Interestingly, however, as Copplestone (2017) noted, the standard form of representing the past, textual history, tends to present the past as anything but open-ended, as simply a linear set of events destined to turn out the way they did. Games offer a sense of exploration, of control, of possibility, possibly a sense of sober consideration, not just passive determinism. As such they can helpfully move history education beyond the archetypal monotony of “one damned thing after another.”
Historical games generally make two kinds of claims to being historical, to conforming with evidence and scholarship about the past: implicit and explicit. Essentially, all historical games make implicit claims to having at least some accurate historical detail. Consider this: When designers craft a historical game, they can choose to make it about a historical topic and world – Civilization or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – or not – Scrabble, Super Mario Odyssey, and so on. By opting to connect the game to a historical world with historical names, visuals, symbols, and rules, the designers implicitly suggest the game is historical to some extent and has some level of accurate portrayal of the past – though of course that level can vary widely within and between games.
Many historical game publishers go beyond these implicit claims to claim explicitly that their games are historically accurate. “Historical accuracy” is a problematic term in-and-of itself and means different things to different people. Copplestone (2017) found in her research that many video game designers understood “accuracy” in terms of verisimilitude, correctly portraying architecture and material culture. Many players, on the other hand, considered accuracy to be judged in the degree to which a game matched something they had read (Copplestone, 2017). Gilbert (2019), however, found some players judged games to be more accurate than history texts to the extent that the games seem to espouse more diverse points of view than standard historical textbooks or teachings. Those investigating the connections between video games and history have their different definitions too and some advocate distinguishing between accuracy, defined as exact capturing of historical factual details, and authenticity, a more systems-based general feel that may err on details but gets an overall valid impression (Chapman, 2016; McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018). Still, many would recognize historically accurate or even historically authentic representations of the past must conform to some debatable extent to sound historical evidence. In other words, they are consistent with at least some of the evidence. And this is what some game developers explicitly claim. The manual for Civilization IV, for example, boldly proclaims:
“Civilization IV is the latest iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, first released in the early 1990’s. From its inception the Civilization series has been acknowledged as the first and best world history simulation, lauded for its incredible depth of play and its extraordinary addictive nature.” – (2K Games, 2005)
And Paradox Interactive claims its game, Europa Universalis IV allows one to “Rule [their] nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy” (in store.steampowered.com; accessed on 04/Apr/2019). Activision, publishers of the 2017 World War II shooter, Call of Duty: WWII, crowed, “our teams at Sledgehammer and Raven (…) captured the epic scale and authentic atmosphere of the most brutal war ever fought” (Jones, 2017). Creative Assembly, makers of the historical Total War series, play with definitions some, but still claimed their historical games conform to historical evidence when a spokesperson noted, “Authenticity is probably a better word than accuracy, and that’s what we aim for” (Brown, 2013).
Historical games not only promise to connect players to a real past, however; they promise all the traditional appeals of video games, elements that shape the type of history these games deliver. Beyond the tendency to cast players as goal-oriented agents within a problem space, video games often seek to indulge power fantasies where players have not just choices, but interesting and important choices that determine the fate of the game world. And because games try to satisfy this desire to make important decisions, they tend to be made about topics that seem more readily cast in heroic terms. This is at least part of the reason why there are very few peasant agriculture history games or games about herding flocks – despite the importance of these activities in human history – but there are myriad games about battles and politics.
Several other common biases of the medium are worth noting. Beyond presenting agents as empowered goal-seekers who face interesting choices, historical games also tend to simplify and streamline the topics they cover to make them more readily graspable, and, as a result, more appealing to consumers. Converting the health of soldiers into hit-points, calculating the experience of a player agent in terms of levels, treating all the nutritional requirements of humans as a simple all-purpose food commodity, expressing diplomatic relationships as positive or negative numbers. These are all examples of simplification and abstraction (McCall, 2012b).
On top of designers’ goals to craft engaging gameplay, and the historical problem space framework, game histories – like indeed all historical media – are also shaped by their designers’ understandings of the past. At a basic level, when a designer attempts to model the past, the elements in a game function according to that designer’s understanding of the past. To give some recent examples, the Civilization series continues to emphasize the designers’ understandings that advantageous geography and the development of Western arcs of technology are primary determinants in a civilization’s success, a quantifiable success often expressed in militaristic terms. The Roman city-builder game from last decade, CivCity:Rome, has a happiness level, that is essentially a material comfort level, and this measures the success of the player. In other words, the game promotes the “bread and circuses” approach to government – give the people material gifts and entertainment, and they will be happy. The popular Total War series suggests that morale is a critical part of battles, because soldiers fight not until they die, not always anyway, but until their morale dips too low and they flee in fear. None of these understandings are necessarily in conflict with historical evidence. They simply illustrate that designer’s understandings of the past shape their games (McCall, 2010; McCall, 2014).
GAMING THE PAST: VIDEO GAMES AND HISTORICAL THINKING INSIDE AND BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Designers do a considerable amount of historying when crafting their historical games, and this alone suffices to make them an interesting manifestation of public history for historians to explore. These games also have great potential to inspire and enhance all sorts of historical inquiries in and outside of the classroom. Since 2005, I have advocated that historical games’ ability to:
immerse and engage through choice and multi-modal channels,
provide systems-based interpretations that emphasize causal connections,
offer historical problem space approaches to understanding the past,
makes them useful tools for formal history education. Treating games as historical interpretations to critique, not as factual accounts, is critical to this approach. In other words, teachers and students should approach historical video games critically, study historical evidence, discuss ways the games simulate the past effectively and ways that they misrepresent it. This approach integrates reading historical sources, having discussions, direct instruction segments, and gameplay in class, and engaging in activities ranging from discussion to critical analytical writing, all designed to get students thinking about the historical claims of game models, and thereby, hopefully, developing a greater understanding of the past by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the game versions. At the same time, I have explored the flip side of the coin, students crafting historical simulations as a way to practice the craft of historians, think carefully about cause and effect, and explore the choices of historical agents in the past. Most recently that has manifested itself in research and work on Twine, the choice-based interactive text tool, that allows students to research and craft interactive historical texts, allows them, in short, to do interactive digital history (McCall, 2016b, 2016c). The powerful potential of historical video games as pedagogical tools for history education is just starting to be realized.
Even when not used in class as part of well-crafted learning environments, however, historical video games are an important medium of participatory public history. Players do history just by playing, for they interact with the game and engage in play that leads to historical narratives. Theorists about public history talk about the idea of shared authority, that non-academic historians, the public, can share authority for reconstructing and interpreting the past with academic historians. Game players and designers also share authority for reconstructing the past in video games. The game does nothing without a player, and so the act of playing is, in a very real sense, a dialogue between player and designer about what the past was like and how it functioned (McCall, 2018).
There is some research in this area, trying to understand what players think about as they play and reflect upon a historical game, though more is needed (Gilbert, 2019). Internet game forum discussions offer an important and largely untapped resource for investigating the historical reasoning and journeys of game players. True, most game players likely never post on game forums. So, one can rightly question how representative forum posts are of game-players’ thoughts in general. Still, they are an important resource for understanding some of the possibilities for players’ historical thinking: since the forums allow essentially any gamer to participate in them, they publicize players’ ideas ranging from support to analysis and criticism of their games. Forum threads, therefore, illustrate some of the types of experiences and understandings players can have interacting with these games. This is a critical point: the forums show a range of possible interactions with games available to anyone who wants to share their thoughts, and these interactions are no less possible for those who choose never to post. In short, the forums tell us what kind of reasoning can happen, a critical data point for those investigating historical games as media for learning history (McCall, 2018).
Forum posts suggest that some players engage in considerable amounts of historical reasoning as they reflect upon and discuss their gameplay. Discussion topics include:
the difference between a fixed representation of the past and a simulation;
the tensions that often exist between historical accuracy and engaging gameplay;
the role of counterfactual history in games;
how accurately games simulate elements of world history ranging from a historical state’s political and military power, to the role of women in the politics of a period, a religion’s characteristics, and to institutions of slavery.
Sometimes posters just assume the truth of their historical claims. Other times they provide reasonable historical statements (“facts”) to back their assertions. Occasionally, they refer to a historian’s work or text to back up their claims. In these ways, posters clearly engage in significant historical thinking on varied important topics and also think about the accuracy of the games (McCall, 2018)
In short, historical video games have an impact on how players approach and understand the past (McCall, 2018; Gilbert, 2019). Indeed, they can serve as foils for important arguments about past and present. It’s time to consider this final point in our exploration of historical video games as means of encountering, learning, and thinking about the past.
WHEN GAMES ABOUT THE PAST TROUBLE THE PRESENT
Far from desiccated topics of debate only of interest to antiquarians, video games histories inspire intense, sometimes inflammatory debates about past, how it is portrayed, whether those portrayals are historically accurate, and how those portrayals affect the present. This final section will examine a few cases where contemporary controversies have arisen about how accurately certain video games represent the past.
Some video games have proven to be politically charged in how they represent military and political powers in the past, causing some to challenge their historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014), for example, places the player in control of a fictional Assassin based in Paris during the French Revolution. The game, developed by French company Ubisoft, sparked criticism from some French politicians, most notably former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. He challenged the seemingly bourgeois depictions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as honorable victims of revolution, the radical Maximilien Robespierre, author of the Terror, as a vicious despot, and the Parisian working class as a bloodthirsty mob. Debates about these and other actors in the Revolution have existed since the time of the Revolution itself and continue to take place, now around video games (Chibber, 2014).
Company of Heroes 2, a real-time strategy game about the Eastern Front in World War 2, was released in 2013, causing an uproar among some in Eastern Europe and Russia. Some of those upset signed a digital petition, hoping to block the sale of the game in the Russian Commonwealth. Critics “review-bombed” the game, flooding a videogame review site, in this case Metacritic, with negative reviews to lower dramatically its overall review scores. At issue was the depiction of the Soviet Army and war effort in the Second World War. At different times in the game, the Soviet army is depicted as sending soldiers into battle without rifles, ordering officers to shoot any soldiers who retreated, and fielding battalions of convicted criminals. Critics suggested that these elements caricature Eastern Europeans as violent and obedient to the point of self-destruction and the Soviet state as evil. Relic defended its history and noted that there is enough evidence to suggest that two totalitarian states were brutal in their clashes on the Eastern Front and soldiers there were often caught between a rock and a hard place, between their enemies on the battlefield and their own states (Campbell, 2013).
The Civilization series, created by Sid Meier back in 1991 and now in its sixth iteration, has received significant criticism not only for its questionably accurate portrayals of the past but also the problematic messages those portrayals send to players. In this extremely popular strategy game franchise, players take on the role of leader of a “civilization.” These are ostensibly historical national leaders, but functionally deities, the guiding intelligence for their civilizations. Starting with the foundation of their first city in about 4000 BCE on a world map of earth-like or random geographic features, players navigate geography, and compete, collaborate, and fight with rival civilizations in a race to create the best civilization. Some have objected to the game’s caricature of historical figures and cultures. Other have criticized that the surest path to victory, to having the “best” civilization, is following the historical imperialist trajectory of technological and military development found in Western Civilization (Poblocki, 2002). Still others have pointed to the game’s problematic presentation of technological and industrial growth. In most playthroughs, a civilization can truly expand without to all the corners of the world, exploiting ever more land and resources, without any problematic effects on the environment. Interestingly enough, anthropogenic global warming and its effect on sea levels were built into the earliest games of the series, CivilizationI (1991) and CivilizationII (1996), and not seen as particularly controversial. The phenomenon disappeared from CivilizationsIII through V (Tharoor, 2016). Most recently the developers of CivilizationVI (2016) have released an expansion, “Gathering Storm” (2019), that adds, among other human made crises, anthropogenic climate change.
Still others have questioned how Civilization portrays certain historical leaders and cultures. Recently the Cree Nation criticized Civilization VI for including the Cree, without their consultation, as a historical civilization along with their historical chief Poundmaker. Said Cree Head Milton Tootoosis, “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land” (Chalk, 2018). Tootoosis further opined, “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view (…) It’s a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Chief Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers” (Chalk, 2018).
This concern about historical accuracy takes a grim turn when some argue, even against the historical evidence, that a game obscures the reality of the past in order to be “politically correct” and inclusive of diversity. Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017), for example, since its unveiling, has sparked debate and a considerable amount of racist rant and memes on Steam forums and elsewhere about the skin tones of ancient Egyptians, ancient Mediterranean peoples, and so on. Much of this discussion focused on whether Ubisoft was historically accurate in its racial portrayals of ancient Egyptians. Though not always, much of this discussion reeked of blatant efforts to promote racist ideology in the present by attempting to apply it to the past (as a search in the Steam forums under Assassin’s Creed Origins will illustrate) (Tamburro, 2017).
Similar debates about including women as protagonists in historical video games have surfaced in recent years. Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome 2, a strategy game in which players command an ancient state and its armies, received an update in March of 2018 that increased slightly the chances of certain states to receive female generals as potential recruits. These adjustments corresponded with Creative Assembly’s release of the Desert Kingdoms CulturePack that added Kush and Nabataea, among other new playable states (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Ultimately, the changes assigned some ancient states in the game a 10–15% chance to receive female generals as potential recruits. A few received greater chances. The ancient Nubian state of Kush, for example, received a 50% chance to reflect the greater frequency of women in political and military roles there. The most historically patriarchal societies – Rome, Greece, and Carthage – had no chance of recruitable female generals appearing.
Several months later, in September 2018, Creative Assembly released a tweet to respond to forum posters who did not condone the inclusion of women. The developers spoke in terms that demonstrated their interest in history and in representing the past in fairly viable, broad strokes. They stood by the changes.
Almost immediately after the tweet, negative reviewers review-bombed Total War: Rome 2 in the Steam reviews section for the game. Many of the protests claimed that the game was historically inaccurate in its inclusion of women in the game. Much of the criticism also suggested that Creative Assembly was pandering to the so-called “SJWs”, or Social Justice Warriors, a label of derision often applied in forums to designate those who are too interested in supporting diversity and inclusion (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Battlefield V, a popular first-person shooter game focused on World War 2, became the topic for a similar debate. A trailer launched for the game in May 2018 included a female sniper with a prosthetic arm engaged in a pitched skirmish. Critics, often in volatile misogynistic terms, protested the game’s inclusion of playable women characters as historically inaccurate (Plunkett, 2018).
The striking feature of the Total War: Rome 2 and Battlefield 5 controversies is not so much that the critics of these aspects of the game – the inclusion of more women characters in political and militaristic historical contexts – often use inflammatory language calling out “the politically correct” and “Social Justice Warriors,” as interesting as that is. What is truly striking is that these critics levy the at-first-glance-more-objective claim that Creative Assembly and EA DICE are in the wrong because these features make their games “historically inaccurate.” In reality, however, there are any number of basic features of these games and indeed the larger Total War and Battlefield series that fail the test of historical accuracy, if that means consistency with the critically researched available historical evidence. This was pointed out by Lukomski (2018) in an insightful essay titled: “Accuracy” vs Inclusivity: Women in Historical Games. And, in fact, there is ancient evidence that in some cultures women indeed participated in the political and military conflicts of their states as rulers, generals, and even just combatants. The same is true for World War 2 where women did play combat roles, especially in the Soviet forces, legendary for lethal women snipers and an air unit, the Night Witches, composed entirely of women pilots (Arbuckle, 2016; Holland, 2017). In short, it appears a number of posters have appealed to historical accuracy to support what essentially are racist and sexist arguments to limit diversity and representation in games.
The case of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018, henceforth KC:D) is a particularly interesting one to end this exploration with, because of a role reversal: instead of a game developer, as in the case of Ubisoft, Creative Assembly, and EA DICE including diverse people, increasing representations of diversity, and sparking cries of historical inaccuracy, the developers of KC:D presented a largely monolithically white, patriarchal, Catholic vision of Medieval Bohemia that pushed some to question how historically accurate this un-diverse vision of the Middle Ages was. In response to a query from a reader, the blogger at People of Color in European Art History investigated the game’s Kickstarter and raised questions about the game’s very un-diverse portrayal of medieval folk in Bohemia. Angry Internet sparring followed, and ultimately KC:D lead designer, Daniel Vávra, tweeted, “would you please explain to me whats [sic] racist about telling the truth? There were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period,” a problematically binary and ill-defined statement. In response to this doubling down, considerable debate has spawned on the Internet over whether indeed there were people of color in this small section of Medieval Bohemia.
In response to the ensuing flame war, blogger Robert Guthrie noted Vávra’s claims were misleadingly selective. There are many elements in KC:D, Guthrie (2015) notes, that are not historically accurate, but ignored in the game designers’ claims to accuracy. And so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion captured in Guthrie’s title: “When historical accuracy is used to deny agency” (Guthrie, 2015). By insisting this exclusion of people of color and women in anything other than stock subordinate roles is required of a historically accurate game, KC:D essentially erases these groups from history, at least from the audiences of their game.
All of this raises interesting questions for historians and history teachers who hope to leverage historical video games that are, like all historical sources, limited in their scope and representation of issues and people. Historical accuracy certainly seems to be a reasonable value for history educators, and reasonably accurate historying by game designers seems to be a positive goal. But what happens if the claim of historical accuracy is used, not as the basis for civil discussion about the past and how it is represented but as a way to exclude others? There is, indeed, a critical point here. When whole groups of people are left out of historical narratives and analysis, whether in a history book, class lecture, or video game, the effect is to almost erase those peoples from the record. This is not a problem that is unique to historical video games, of course. Even the best historians must be selective in their treatments and topics and will have their own biases. Thoughtful and reasoned debate and discussion are critical to navigating the often-muddy waters of historical accuracy in video games.
And those thoughtful and reasoned debates can certainly take place in the classroom. When it comes to use in history classes, the learning experience enhanced by games will be successful to the extent educators and students ground their discussion and analysis in historical evidence. After all, a game that is largely historically inaccurate – however one wants to measure that – can still be useful for learning history because the flaws in the game provide grist for the mill of critique (McCall, 2010, 2011).
Historical games, accurate or loose, exclusive or inclusive, problematic or purposeful, are history. They communicate their designers’ understandings of the past, not only in terms of what the designers think about the past, but also in terms of what they think is important to know, engage, and remember. They offer the possibility to game the past, to immerse oneself in historical problem spaces, seek out goals, make choices, and see the impact of those choices in a causally-connected systems. Accordingly, they offer significant possibilities for learning history whether it comes to students honing their abilities to critique modern media or developing their appreciation of systems and problem spaces. Regardless of whether they are leveraged in formal history education, they communicate messages about the past that reach considerable numbers of people. They should not be ignored by anyone concerned with how the past is perceived, portrayed, and played.
Copplestone, T. (2017) But that’s not accurate: the differing perceptions of accuracy in cultural-heritage videogames between creators, consumers and critics. Rethinking History 21: 415–438.
Dening, G. (2006) Performing cross-culturally. Australasian Journal of American Studies 25: 1–11.
Gilbert, L. (2019) Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is human experience: students’ senses of empathy while playing a narrative video game. Theory and Research in Social Education 47(1): 108–137.
McCall, J. (2011) Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. Routledge, London.
McCall, J. (2012a) Historical simulations as problem spaces: criticism and classroom use. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(2).
McCall, J. (2012b) Navigating the problem space: the medium of simulation games in the teaching of History. The History Teacher 45: 9–28.
McCall, J. (2014) Simulation games and the study of the past: classroom guidelines. In: Kee, K. (Ed.) PastPlay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 228–254.
McCall, J. (2016a) Teaching history with digital historical games: an introduction to the field and best practices. Simulation & Gaming 47: 517–542.
McCall, J. (2016b) Twine, inform, and designing interactive history texts. Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5739 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).
Dr. Jeremiah McCall is an historian who writes about the political and military culture of the Roman Republic and about videogames as a form of history. He teaches high school history, quite likely his true calling, at Cincinnati Country Day School, where he has been for most of the past two decades. For more details on his work, please visit Gamingthepast.net.
 History and accurate/authentic history are not the same, and a work that qualifies as history can still be a very flawed communication of the past, whether a monograph, a lecture, a visual artwork, a film, a game, etc.
It feels like a long time since Altair first adventured through the Holy Land. Now Assassin’s Creed, by Ubisoft, became one of the highest selling video game franchises of all time. It is even bigger if you consider the novels, comic books, animations, and well… that movie-thing. It is also one my top 3 favorite game series, so no wonder it would pop up on one of my articles eventually.
Besides the nice action and beautiful historical settings of Assassin’s Creed games, my favorite moments are when I suddenly stumble upon one of my real-life heroes. I enjoy talking to their in-game reconstructions and to see how they match both my expectations and the historical accounts of their real-world counterparts. Most of these people are, of course, scientists, even though some lived in a time where the word “scientist” was yet to be coined.
So, my goal here will be to show how these people are portrayed in Assassin’s Creed and how this matches reality. I will also explain their major achievements and their importance to science. But with so many games in the franchise, it would be a monumental task to write a single article with every scientist; thus, I decided to present this in parts. The first one, as you might have surmised from the title, will be about James Cook and Charles Darwin.
At first sight, this might seem a strange pairing, but it has its reasons. I’ve chosen to start with them because this year marks some anniversaries – and us humans just can’t help but be attracted to round numbers and meaningful dates. The year of 2019 marks 250 years from Cook’s historical first visit to New Zealand and 240 years from his death. It is also Darwin’s 210th would-be-birthday and the 160th birthday of the most groundbreaking book ever written: On the Origin of Species.
CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
James Cook was born on 7 November 1728 in Marton, in North-East England. He attended local school, apprenticed as a shop boy, and in his late teens became a merchant navy apprentice. During that time, he learned navigation skills and a healthy dose of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy, just when Britain was preparing for the Seven Years’ War.
Cook served aboard several ships; most remarkably, he was part of the HMS Pembroke crew when the British captured the Fortress of Louisbourg from the French in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. Due to his talent as a cartographer, he was put to good use during that time, mapping several parts of Canada in the late 1750’s and early 1760’s (then aboard the HMS Grenville). This is the part of his life seen in Assassin’s Creed, but he is most famous for what came afterwards; so let us take a look at that before turning to the game.
In 1768, the Admiralty made Cook lieutenant and put him in command of the HMS Endeavour on a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His main goal was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth to the Sun (the solar parallax). After that was out of the way, Cook opened an envelope with further orders: to navigate the South Pacific in search of the hypothetical continent Terra Australis and to find New Zealand’s eastern shores. He set off to the south and then westwards, reaching New Zealand and precisely mapping its entire coast. He also took the opportunity to record the transit of Mercury. Cook also needed to document the flora and fauna and establish a relationship with native people; in the long term, the goal was to acquire their consent to take the land for His Majesty. That was the beginning of the British history of New Zealand.
BOX 1. The discovery and naming of New Zealand
Despite what might be assumed, Cook did not discover New Zealand. Polynesian settlers arrived there between 1200 and 1300 CE and became known as the Māori. They called their new home Aotearoa.
The first non-Polynesian person to arrive in New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel J. Tasman, who first sighted the shores of South Island in December 1642. Tasman’s crew would have landed there, but were driven off by the Māori. They assumed that land could be the western shore of the imaginary continent Terra Australis. In any event, Tasman named the “new” land Staten Landt, which is a straightforward horrible choice. Dutch cartographers recognized this and renamed the place Nova Zeelandia in 1645, after the province Zeeland in the Netherlands. This name stuck, even under later British control.
Even though he did not stay long, Tasman literally put New Zealand on the map and right under the radar of European colonial efforts. His name lives on today in the Tasman Sea (separating Australia and New Zealand), in Tasmania (Australia’s southern island), and in the Abel Tasman National Park (in northwestern South Island, New Zealand).
Once back in England, Cook was promoted to commander and sent on a second voyage in search of Terra Australis, which everyone now knew was not New Zealand. Cook took the HMS Resolution, with the HMS Adventure serving as its companion ship, and navigated the southern oceans. He almost reached Antarctica, but his “failure” to find land put an end to the Terra Australis myth.
Back in England once again, he was made captain and soon became involved in a third voyage, commanding the HMS Resolution once again (the companion ship this time was the HMS Discovery). His goal was to find a northern passage, through the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He couldn’t do it, of course, and became frustrated with the voyage. During a prolonged stay in Hawaii to fix the ship, tensions began to rise with the locals. Cook tried to kidnap the Hawaiian king to put an end to it; the Hawaiians naturally didn’t like that and Cook was killed.
Captain Cook was responsible for mapping large parts of the world, as well as for several astronomical observations and for collecting dozens of ethnographic artifacts. He might not convey the impression of the typical scientist, but can and should be counted as one.
He was not the only scientifically-inclined person on his expeditions, though. During his voyages, Cook counted with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel C. Solander, astronomers Charles Green, William Wales and William Bayly, and naturalists Herman Spöring, Johann R. Forster, Georg A. Forster and David Nelson. There were also artists to illustrate the new lands, their people, flora and fauna.
Cook features in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (henceforth ACR), released in 2014 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (2015 for Microsoft Windows) and remastered for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2018. This game is different from the others in the series in that you play as a Templar instead of an Assassin. The game follows Shay Cormac in his convoluted journey from Assassin apprentice to senior Templar.
Cormac first encounters Cook towards the middle of the game’s story. By that time (June 1758) Cook was master of the HMS Pembroke. Even though he appears several times, his presence is not as well-marked as one would hope. Cormac and his crew go after him due to his “mathematical mind” and expertise in deciphering secret codes. They comment that Cook’s “seamanship is second-to-none” and that he had a self-policy of strict honesty. Cormac and his colleague Gist discuss how Cook would be a good addition to the Templars, but in the end decide that his total lack of guile would be bad for the Order: the man would not be able to keep the secret.
The presentation of Cook’s character and personality is in line with contemporary sources and his many later biographies, which paint him as intelligent, honest and driven. However, he faced many trials during his voyages and sometimes dealt with them using more brutality (towards his crew or the native people of the Pacific) than we can now accept. Furthermore, he seemed to have had a drastic change of personality on his third voyage. In any event, the depiction of young James Cook in ACR is very compelling.
The first mission in ACR involving Cook is very straightforward: to beat the French. Cormac takes the helm of the HMS Pembroke to aid Cook in turning the tide of the battle and finally, capturing the Fortress of Louisbourg. This aligns rather nicely with the historical record.
Cormac meets Cook again in Percé, in 1759, and asks him to decipher some encrypted maps. Cook also helps in tracking down a French-Canadian Assassin, after which he asks Cormac whether he belonged to a larger organization. After getting a reply in the lines of “we couldn’t say even if we were”, Cook then assumes Cormac and his crew were under direct orders of the King. The Templars seem satisfied with this and do not correct Cook. Instead, they say their group will contact him about sponsoring future voyages.
The last bit is a clear reference to Cook’s three exploration voyages to the Pacific. What interest the Templars might have there remains unknown for the moment, but it could definitely involve Terra Australis. In any event, real-life Cook indeed got the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society during his years in Canada, especially because of his incredible work mapping Newfoundland; indeed, this latter led to his appointment as commander of the first Pacific voyage.
CHARLES R. DARWIN
Darwin (1809–1882) needs no introduction – but here’s one anyway. He is THE most important figure in Biology and of the most important scientists of all time. He is most famous for his book On the Origin of Species (henceforth Origin), first published in 1859, but his contributions to the natural sciences extend beyond that. As late American paleontologist Stephen J. Gould argued, Darwin’s ideas rank with Copernicus in the way they revolutionized not only science but also the very way our silly species sees itself.
There is simply way too much to write about Darwin: his early life, his voyage, his books, his garden experiments, his immense legacy, etc. There are dozens of books written about him and, if I start writing all the things I find interesting here, I might just end up with a whole book. Since I do not want that, I will focus here on very small parts of his life that are related to what happened in the game.
Darwin features in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (henceforth ACS), released in 2015 for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows. The game takes place in London, starting in 1868, and revolves around the brother and sister pair of Assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye.
In the game, you first meet Darwin investigating a factory that produced an opium-based drug called “Soothing Syrup”. It was made by the Templars, of course, and Jacob decided to help Darwin in his investigation. They find out that Richard Owen (see Box 2), who was responsible for an article defaming Darwin, knew something about the syrup. Jacob interrogates Owen and discovers the name of the doctor who was behind the new drug, confronting and killing him in an asylum.
BOX 2. Sir Richard Owen
Owen is clearly linked with the bad guys in ACS. He was a controversial figure indeed, hated by his adversaries, but maybe not quite the “video game villain” kind. Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) was a brilliant naturalist and authored outstanding works in animal anatomy and paleontology. In fact, he is the one who coined one of the most important words in our vocabulary, “dinosaur”. He is also responsible for the magnificent Natural History Museum in London, built as a cathedral of Nature.
However, Owen opposed Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection. Owen was well aware of the anatomical features that established lines of descent and relatedness among animals. Still, his belief in human uniqueness, immersed in what he saw as “natural order” arranged by a creative power, escalated his quarrel with Darwin and his followers, mainly Thomas H. Huxley and Joseph D. Hooker. He could not agree with humans being “just” a weirdly naked species of ape.
In ACS, Darwin even says to Owen: “Mr. Owen, you are truly the most insufferable fellow I have ever had the misfortune to count among my acquaintances!” In real life, after Owen’s involvement in an event that undermined one of his colleagues, Darwin wrote in a letter: “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life.”
Back to the real world, first I should point out that Darwin was somewhat of a hermit. He lived in the countryside near London since 1842 and his home was known as Down House. Darwin reportedly did not enjoy going into town that much, so you would be hard pressed to find him in London as the Frye twins did. But that is totally excusable, as a game set in Victorian London must include Darwin somehow. Also, by that time Darwin already had his share of adventures during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle around the world, so you would be even more unlikely to find him poking around criminal activities in London. Thus, the whole “Soothing Syrup” quests would be very unlikely, especially because they involve more medicine and chemistry than actual biology.
Later on in ACS, the Frye twins meet Darwin again, who says that his critics were threatening him and his colleagues with violence. He was waiting for a certain German colleague of his, identified in the game simply as Dr. Schwartz, who was bringing an important fossil to London. Darwin asks the Fryes to protect Schwartz, but they discover that the German scientist was intercepted and killed by Templars. Even so, they manage to recover the fossil and deliver it to Darwin.
This mission is simply perfect for the setting, even though it is slightly historically inaccurate. The mission is called “The Berlin Specimen”, which is a name that can only refer to one thing: the fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) of Berlin. This species is one of the most important in the world from a historical perspective: its first fossil was discovered in southeastern Germany just two years after Origin was published and was a major evidence in favor of Darwin’s work, showing that the origin of modern birds lays within the group of theropod dinosaurs.
The Berlin specimen is the most famous (and most complete) of all the fossils of Archaeopteryx lithographica; we typically see a replica of it in exhibition in museums worldwide. However, it was only discovered somewhere in 1874–1876, some years after the setting of ACS, but still reasonably close. Curiously, a man named Schwartz, from Nuremberg, tried to buy the actual fossil before it was bought by the Berlin museum (funded by Werner von Siemens, founder of Siemens AG).
There is in fact a “London specimen” of Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861 and bought by none other than Richard Owen for the Natural History Museum in January 1863. Perhaps this fossil would have been more appropriate for ACS; especially given that Owen is already in the game.
Back to ACS, Darwin first asks the Fryes to investigate a plant that can make people delirious and then to secure him a copy of that day’s newspaper, which had a rebuttal to Owen’s defamation mentioned above. The Fryes then discover a Templar plot to spread newspaper articles with anti-Darwin propaganda, epitomized as a caricature.
In fact, Darwin was constantly under the radar of the Templars in ACS, who tried to buy him (and his research) out. Darwin answered that “[s]cientific knowledge cannot be bought, it belongs to everyone.” The Fryes, of course, would come to his aid. They discover who was behind the caricature (spread through London as posters) and sabotage the printer shop.
Darwin’s ideas of evolution by natural and sexual selection and their implications for our own species were the cause of many heated debates during his lifetime. In fact, to this day many people are still in denial regarding his ideas (especially in religious countries like the US and Brazil), despite the massive amount of evidence in his favor. Darwin knew this would happen and that is basically why he took so long to publish his main book: he needed to amass as much supporting evidence as he possibly could. In ACS, Darwin says to Evie that “I am used to people challenging my ideas”.
The last mission involving Darwin in ACS is called “A Struggle for Existence” and alludes to the full title of his main book: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. But the mission is not as poetic as it sounds; rather it is very literal. It begins with Florence Nightingale telling the Fryes that Darwin had been arrested and that she feared that “Mr. Darwin is no longer the fit, young man who once traveled the world.” The Fryes then rescue him from a Templar base and Florence suggests that Darwin retired with his family to the Isle of Wight to recuperate in peace. Darwin, though, argues that “[t]he acquisition of knowledge is in itself sufficiently recuperative.” Real-world Darwin actually spent a holiday with his family on the Isle of Wight during 1868; the latter of the photos shown above was taken there.
ASSASSIN AND TEMPLAR SCIENTISTS
As I said in the beginning, Cook and Darwin (and Owen, I suppose) are hopefully just the first on a series I intend to write exploring all the real-world scientists that feature in the many Assassin’s Creed games. (I’ll definitely include Florence Nightingale at some point, in case you were wondering.) Also, since several games take place before the establishment of modern science, you’ll also see some philosophers and historians around here. Until next time!
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Tischlinder, H.E. (2005) Neue Informationen zum Berliner Exemplar von Archaeopteryxlithographica H. v. Meyer 1861. Archaeopteryx 23: 33–50.
Tomotani, J.V. & Salvador, R.B. (2017) Análise do conteúdo de Evolução em livros didáticos do Ensino Fundamental brasileiro. Pesquisa e Ensino em Ciências Exatas e da Natureza 1: 05–18.
Wellnhofer, P. (2009) Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. Friedrich Pfeil, Munich.
Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108: 1815–1820.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who studies mollusks or, to put it shortly, a malacologist. He loves reading about the scientists of old and can’t help but share this sometimes. He is hyped by Assassin’s Creed games ever since the very first images of Altair came out. His favorite entry in the series is Origins, because… Egypt, but his favorite Assassins are still Ezio and Evie.
 Herdendorf (1986) argued that the Transit of Venus, first in 1761 and then in 1769, was the first international collaborative effort in science, including dozens of observers in tens of stations spread worldwide. He considered it as the establishment of the modern scientific international community.
 Actually, while Darwin was working on his book another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), independently conceived the idea of evolution through natural selection. His work on the subject was jointly presented with Darwin’s in 1858 to the Linnean Society of London.
As an avid consumer of Japanese video games during my early teens, particularly of the RPG sort, I could not help but notice that some monsters would pop up in several games and typically had a pretty standard depiction. I have always been interested in mythology and could naturally identify the usual chimeras, griffins, phoenixes, and gorgons.
However, these monsters shared their screen time with more unusual ones (or unusual to me at least) from Japanese myths and folklore. Maybe expectedly, I started to read about Japanese myths and to learn about kappa, tengu and many others. Still, one monster, in particular, was suspiciously absent from the books: a sort of statue-like creature with large round eyes (Fig. 1). I did not know its actual name and could not find information about it anywhere.
Then, I forgot all about this monster when I switched my geek focus to tabletop RPGs and my gaming preferences to Western hits (Bioware RPGs, Gears of War, etc.). This lasted until some years ago when I played Persona 4 and Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire for the first time (I had skipped Pokémon’s Gen III back in the day); there and then, I re-encountered that weird statue-like creature (Fig. 2).
Even so, it was not until a recent visit to the British Museum that my interest was reignited. In their Japanese exhibition, I discovered that this creature was not a mythological monster after all — it was nothing like a tengu or a kappa! The damn thing was a prehistoric clay figurine (Fig. 3). As a category, these figurines are called “dogū”.
Needless to say, I began searching for books and scholarly articles about dogū. Sadly, most of the literature on them (and prehistoric Japan in general) is in Japanese, which I cannot read and do not trust Google to translate it for me. Nevertheless, I wanted to report what I could find, just in case these figurines have captured the imagination of someone else out there (maybe someone like you, dear reader). So please keep in mind that my report here is based on the somewhat scarce literature available in English and thus it may lack some information and/or be overly simplified in some aspects.
Before we start, however, I need to briefly explain how Japanese prehistory is divided. So let’s get down to it.
Japanese prehistory can be broadly divided into two large periods: the Paleolithic and what may be informally called “Ancient Japan” (Table 1). The latter is a mixture of the usual Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age that has defied classification by archaeologists using this standard Western periodization (Imamura, 1996). This span of time contains three periods: the Jōmon, the Yayoi, and the Kofun. Here we are interested only in the first one, the Jōmon period.
Taken literally, Jōmon means “cord-marked”. This refers to the usage of cords to create decorative patterns on ceramics (Fig. 4), which was achieved by simply pressing a cord on the clay prior to firing (Kaner, 2009).
During the Jōmon period, Japan was covered by rich temperate forests (Imamura, 1996). This allowed people to live as hunter-gatherers, although there were phases (maybe seasonal) of sedentism, with some settlements growing quite large and possibly housing a few hundred inhabitants (Imamura, 1996; Henshall, 2004). There is also evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture and limited domestication of plant species, accompanied by skillful management of resources (Imamura, 1996; Habu, 2004). Furthermore, a good portion of the Jōmon people lived close to the coast, exploring marine resources (Henshall, 2004).
The Jōmon period was not, however, a single homogenous thing across all Japan. There was regional variation in habits and material culture, which changed at different paces throughout the country (Henshall, 2004). Furthermore, people from the continent migrated into Japan and added their share of knowledge, culture and genes to the mixture (Imamura, 1996). The Jōmon period ended with the start of rice cultivation and metallurgy.
One important social aspect that gained strength during the Jōmon was how people dealt with the supernatural. Artifacts (Fig. 5), burial practices, and stone circles (Fig. 6) all indicate that religion and ritual were steadily developing throughout the period (Kaner, 2011). One type such artifacts was, of course, the dogū.
Dogū are ceramic figures produced during the Jōmon period. The earliest dogū dates back to the Incipient Jōmon (Table 2) and they remained restricted in numbers during the Initial and Early Jōmon (Habu, 2004). However, from the Middle Jōmon onwards, their manufacture thrived and their design became more elaborate (Kaner, 2009).
Most of the dogū are clearly female (some of them supposedly pregnant; Fig. 7), so some scholars believe they are representations of an earth-goddess. They claim that this mother-goddess worship is common in agricultural societies, but then again, agriculture was only incipient during the Jōmon period. Other scholars take into consideration the prominence of secondary sex characteristics and hypothesize that the dogū are just general fertility symbols, related to fertility rituals and magical protection during dangerous events such as childbirth. This latter option seems apparently more likely, as similar symbols are known from pretty much everywhere.
Nevertheless, considering that figurines such as these have only one function is careless, to say the least (Soffer et al., 2000). As such, other interpretations have appeared in the last decades. For instance, some authors link the increase in the production of dogū from the Middle Jōmon onwards to an increase of agricultural practices and the role of women in this subsistence shift (Togawa, 2003).
The actual functions of dogū remain unknown, but the constant debate makes archaeologists revisit old ideas, propose new ones, and slowly fine-tune our knowledge.
There are several types of dogū, roughly classified by how they look. Because of that, they have some really amusing names (Habu, 2004): heart-shaped dogū (Fig. 8), sitting dogū, mountain-shaped-head dogū, goggle-eyed (or slit-goggle) dogū (Figs. 3, 9), horned-owl dogū.
It is still unclear if these different categories of dogū had distinct purposes or functions. Furthermore, dogū came in several sizes, from palm-sized figurines to large ones more than 30 cm high (Togawa, 2003; Kaner, 2009). As such, it is likely that they had different functions, ranging from personal belongings to probably community-wide ceremonial artifacts (Togawa, 2003).
Today, people can see all sorts of dogū in museum exhibitions around the world, like in the Tokyo National Museum and the British Museum. But they are not merely relics of an ancient past – Japanese people certainly have not forgotten them. For instance, there are some conspicuous monuments in Japan commemorating the most popular type of dogū, the goggle-eyed dogū (or shakōki-dogū).
Two of such monuments can be found in the city of Tsugaru, in Aomori prefecture. The Kamegaoka Site, an archaeological site dating from the Final Jōmon (1,000–300 BCE), is located there. This site is important because it is the place where the most textbook-famous dogū (a goggle-eyed one with a broken leg; Fig. 9) was found back in 1887 (Tsugaru City Board of Education, 2018). One of the monuments is a simple statue (Fig. 10), as could be expected, but the city’s railway station (Fig. 11) is something else entirely!
Box 1. Pseudoarchaeology
Unfortunately, the dogū (especially the goggle-eyed) became victims of human stupidity, just as several other archaeological icons (the pyramids, the Antikythera mechanism, the Nazca lines, etc.). That is, they were linked to alien activity by people who abhor scientific research and methodology and who prefer to make up their own wild stories about reality. Their “explanation” is that the goggle-eyed dogū resembles a person in a space suit. And no, I will not give the reference to their original “works” — these people should not be given the satisfaction of an actual citation!
Given the cultural importance of the dogū in Japan and the increasing influence of television, mangas and video games, it was expected that these clay figures would make their way into pop culture. This is especially true for the fan-favorite type, the goggle-eyed dogū (Rousmaniere, 2009).
The obvious examples, as I mentioned above, come from video games, especially RPGs such as the ever-present Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 1987–present) and Dragon Quest series. The dogū are featured in various games, often just as meaningless enemies in random dungeons. Thus, I will not bore you to death with an extensive list of all dogū appearances. Instead, I will point out just a few examples that I find more meaningful.
One of them is the Pokémon Claydol (Fig. 2), which does not have the most creative name around. It is a Ground / Psychic type and most Pokédex entries on the series point out that it is a clay statue made by ancient people (Bulbapedia, 2018). The entries in Pokémon Sapphire (2002), Black/White 2 (2012) and Alpha Sapphire (2014) date them from 20,000 years ago, which, as we have seen above (Table 1), is a clear exaggeration for the late parts of the Jōmon period. However, the Pokédex entry in Pokémon Ultra Moon (2017) is much more problematic; it reads: “The ancient people who made it apparently modeled it after something that descended from the sky.” Pokémon, of course, is not known for its scientific rigor (Tomotani, 2014; Mendes et al., 2017), but spreading ridiculous alien stories is irresponsible, to say the least (see also Box 1).
Another interesting appearance of the goggle-eyed dogū is in the Shin Megami Tensei series (henceforth SMT; Atlus/Sega, 1987–present), which includes the Persona sub-series. These games allow players to summon mythological monsters (and deities) from virtually all cultures around the world. Since it is a Japanese game, it focuses heavily on Japanese creatures. The goggle-eyed dogū from SMT is called Arahabaki (Fig. 12).
The entries about Arahabaki in the SMT games’ lore describe it as a god (Megami Tensei Wiki, 2018), which we have already established is the less likely hypothesis. The game also refers to it as “he/him” (at least in the English translation), while clearly depicting it with a female body, like the original clay figurines. SMT uses myths as a basis for its setting and story, and infuse them with fiction, so it is hard to tell if their information came from somewhere or if they just made it up to fill a narrative purpose. In any event, their description of the goggle-eyed dogū is off the mark.
Last but not least, there’s Ōkami (Capcom, 2006). The game is set in classical Japan and mixes lots of Japanese myths and folklore. In Ōkami, the goggle-eyed dogū (Fig. 13) is one among many demons that the player faces. The demon’s entry in the game’s bestiary (Okami Wiki, 2018) handles the matter much better than Pokémon: “Of all the odd clay figures in this land, the Dogu is the strangest. Fascinated people have speculated that they originated on the moon.” Thus, the game makes clear that the whole alien thing is just a story made up by some crazy folk.
Dogū are also featured in several mangas (e.g., Doraemon), typically as the focus of one or a handful of chapters. However, one title features them prominently: it is called “Dogū Family” (translation) and was printed in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. The story focused on the everyday life of a family of goggle-eyed dogū in modern Japan. Unfortunately, I could not find the actual manga to read.
Dogū also appear in Japanese products and TV commercials, and there is even one TV show about them: The Ancient Dogoo Girl (“Kodai Shōjo Doguchan”; Fig. 14) and its sequel The Ancient Dogoo Girls (“Kodai Shōjotai Dogūn Faibu”). The series aired on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System) from 2009 to 2010.
The series’ plot is very basic Japanese stuff: Makoto, a hikikomori, finds a weird breastplate buried in the woods, touches it, and awakens a girl named Dogu-chan. She is a yōkai hunter from the Jōmon period and ends up living with Makoto. Dogu-chan has a familiar/assistant named Dokigoro (Fig. 15), which is a sentient goggle-eyed dogū that transforms into magical (bikini) armor for its master. The sequel had another five girls wearing armors based on other types of dogū.
The Ancient Dogoo Girl is a very weird and rather embarrassing show, even by Japan standards, as it involves a lot of breasts-based magic. I just skimmed through the first episode to write these paragraphs and already regret it. So if you are curious to watch it, know that you have been warned.
Aliens and bikini armor aside, it is amazing how Japan is always finding ways to keep its culture alive. Because of that, even prehistoric artifacts such as dogū still have a place in modern Japan – and not only a place in museums, as national treasures, but also as pop culture icons.
Habu, J. (2004) Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Henshall, K.G. (2004) A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Second Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.
Imamura, K. (1996) Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
Kaner, S. (2009) The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan. British Museum Press, London.
Kaner, S. (2011) The archaeology of religion and ritual in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 457–469.
Those figures presented here that were extracted from the Tokyo National Museum (Digital Research Archives: http://webarchives.tnm.jp/) and Wikimedia Commons, have been slightly modified (cropped, etc.) to improve presentation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist and biologist, but is irredeemably fascinated with archaeology and mythology. Although his main “thing” remains Ancient Egypt, he is becoming increasingly drawn to the Jōmon and Yayoi periods of Japanese history. He has faced Japanese pre-historic monsters in many JRPGs, sometimes even summoning them to fight on his behalf – well, actually that last bit was just in SMT/Persona, because who on Earth uses a Claydol?
 Back then, in my home country, Internet connection was awfully slow and the service very expensive.
 The phallic stone rods seen above (Fig. 5) are also typically regarded as fertility symbols (Habu, 2004).
 That happened to other weird beings, such as the cartoonish Egyptian god Medjed (Salvador, 2017).
 And talking about exaggerating dates, the Japanese archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura claimed to have found Paleolithic artifacts in Japan dating back to 600,000 years ago. However, it was later discovered that he fabricated his own artifacts and planted them on his excavation site so he could “find” them later (Romey, 2001; Normile, 2001).
 Arahabaki’s look was very different in early SMT games, such as Megami Tensei II, where it was depicted as a samurai of sorts. So maybe they just retained the name, alongside the original idea/description, and changed this monster’s appearance to that of a dogū in later games.
Any gamer worth of his/her salt is well acquainted with the term “Easter egg”. It designates any sort of secret message or feature (or even inside jokes) hidden in a video game or any other kind of software. The name is obviously based on the egg hunt game that many children enjoy during Easter.
Nowadays, Easter eggs are everywhere, having spread from games and computer software to comics, TV shows, and movies. Some would even argue that they have gone too far and that we have reached a point where Marvel’s films have so many Easter eggs that they risk overtaking the main plot. Regardless, Easter eggs are something fun, that help to bring more color to any work, and are an important part of present pop culture; for instance, they are the very backbone of the novel Ready Player One. Thus, I would like to explore here the very first Easter egg in History. But first, let us see when the term was first applied.
The early history of video games is a little more dystopian than most would expect. Atari Inc. was one of the major names in the industry back in the 1970’s. The games it developed and published were very influential, but changes in the company during the late 1970’s led to some critical changes. Anonymity was to become the norm at Atari: programmers would not be credited in their creations anymore, for fear that rival companies would identify and “target” them, luring them away with higher salaries (and maybe a nicer working environment).
One of Atari’s game developers, Joseph Warren Robinett Jr. (born 1951), was then working on a game called Adventure (released in 1979–1980). When Robinett heard that programmers would not be credited, he decided to credit himself in the game. He did so by hiding the message “Created by Warren Robinett” inside a secret room in the game. Or, in Robinett’s own words:
“Atari would not give public credit to game designers. This was right after Atari had been acquired by Warner Communications. It was a power play to keep the game designers from getting recognition and therefore more bargaining power. So I created a secret room that was really hard to find, and hid my signature in it. I didn’t tell anybody (this was a hard secret to keep to myself) and let Atari manufacture a few hundred thousand cartridges and ship them around the world.”
― Robinett (in Conelly, 2003).
Robinett’s secret room was indeed not easy to find: the player had to collect an invisible item in the castle (a 1-pixel object now known as “the Grey Dot”) and use it to open a secret chamber deep in the catacombs. There, the player would find Robinett’s message, written in flashing text.
After the game was released, Robinett kept his secret, but eventually an American teenager found the message and contacted Atari. The company at first thought of removing it, but this would be absurdly expensive. However, Steve Wright, Atari’s director of software development, had a moment of brilliant insight and pushed for the company to keep the message in the game. By his rationale, this hard-to-find secret would give players an extra reason to play the game, because it would be fun like Easter egg hunts. And just like that, the name “Easter egg” entered gaming culture: Atari decided to include Easter eggs in all their games and, by now, they have become a staple of the industry.
THE FIRST EASTER EGG
Despite Robinett’s message being the one that gave rise to the name “Easter egg”, it was not actually the first one we know of. The very first Easter egg in gaming history was only very recently discovered: the message “Hi, Ron!” in the arcade game Starship 1 (Atari, 1977), programmed by Ron Milner.
However, given that many arcade games were released prior to Starship 1, it is very likely that even older Easter eggs might be found in the future. But they will not be as old as the very first Easter egg recorded in human History. For this, we need to travel some millennia back in time.
Art in Ancient Egypt typically served religious or state purposes and very often, both of these realms were linked. Egyptian art was thus more functional than anything else and several artists were involved in the production of any single piece of art: from draftsmen and carvers to illustrators, painters, and scribes.
Like in Atari, these ancient artists worked in anonymity, never being credited. This was, however, the norm, and was not seen as an affront to an artist’s creativity and personal work (as it was during the early days of video games). Even so, one of these ancient artists decided to credit himself. His name was Senenmut.
Senenmut was born a commoner, but in a literate family, which would put him in the upper 5% of the population. He entered the service of Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty, most likely when she was still the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II. After the king’s death, Hatshepsut became regent while Thutmose III was still too young to rule the country. She then became de facto Pharaoh (even after Thutmose III reached adulthood) and ruled Egypt from circa 1478 to 1458 BCE.
Senenmut obviously gained importance during this time: he was the steward of Hatshepsut and the tutor of her daughter Neferure, a highly-regarded position. He worked as administrator of Hatshepsut’s building projects and was also an astronomer and architect. Eventually, Senenmut would hold more than 80 titles, which included “Only friend of the Pharaoh”. The obvious important position of Senenmut and this seeming favoritism led some archeologists (based more on hopeful gossip than actual scientific investigation) to imply he was Hatshepsut’s lover.
As an architect, Senenmut’s most remarkable project was Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari (in ancient Thebes, modern Luxor), on the West bank of the Nile close to the Valley of the Kings. The temple, also known as “Djeser-Djeseru” (“Holy of Holies”), is one of Ancient Egypt’s most beautiful buildings, designed in several different levels linked by ascending ramps, located against the cliff’s face. It would have been even more awe-inspiring back in Hatshepsut’s day, where a sphinx-lined causeway led visitors from the valley to its grandiose entrance, marked by large pylons.
The curious thing is that, going against the practice of all prior (and later) Egyptian artists and craftsmen, Senenmut decided to sign his magnum opus. He hid his signature behind one of the temple’s main doors: his name and an image of himself.
We will never know why Senenmut decided to do this, but we can imagine that, given how remarkable a building the mortuary temple is, anyone would feel inclined to get recognition for it. So there you go, when Robinett decided to hide his own signature in a castle’s secret chamber, little did he know that a precedent had already been set 3,500 years ago: Senenmut’s Easter egg (not that Easter was already a thing back then, but you get the idea).
Novaković, B. (2008) Senenmut: an ancient Egyptian astronomer. Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade 85: 19–23.
Robinett, W. (2006) Adventure as a Video Game: Adventure for the Atari 2600. In: Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (Eds.) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. MIT Press, Cambridge. Pp. 690–713.
Robins, G. (2008) The Art of Ancient Egypt: Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, Harvard.
Schulman, A.R. (1969–1970) Some remarks on the alleged “Fall” of Senmūt. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 8: 29–48.
Silverman, D.P. (2003) Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, New York.
Tyldesley, J. (1996) Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. Penguin Books, London.
Wilkinson, R.H. (1994) Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames & Hudson, London.
Wilkinson, R.H. (2000) The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, London.
Wilkinson, R.H. (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, London.
Wolf, M.J.P. (2012) Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. Greenwood, Santa Barbara.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist/paleontologist and was trying really hard to write something more biologically inclined. Instead, he ended up writing his third consecutive article about Ancient Egypt. And now he will be off playing Assassin’s Creed Origins.
 The only other artist credited in Ancient Egypt is Imhotep, vizier of Pharaoh Djoser (3rd Dynasty). Imhotep was responsible for building the first pyramid, the “Step Pyramid” of Saqqara (2667–2648 BCE). Later, Imhotep was remembered as a great sage. Many centuries later, during the Late Period, he was worshipped as an actual deity, the patron of Medicine.
Not so long ago I have devoted a good deal of time and effort analyzing Egyptian mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona video game series (Salvador, 2015). Thus, it was only natural that I would come back to the topic after the release of Persona 5 (Atlus, 2017) earlier this year. In my former article, I discussed all the Ancient Egyptian deities and monsters who appeared in Persona games. These included the “top brass” of the Egyptian pantheon, like Isis and Horus, alongside several others. Persona 5, unfortunately, did not add any new deities to the series roster, but it brought a worthwhile mention to one very peculiar god: Medjed.
WE ARE MEDJED
In Persona 5, Medjed is the name of a group of hackers. Better put, it was the pseudonym of one lovely little hacker (Fig. 1) that later became the name of the whole group.
At a certain point in the game, the player receives an ultimatum from Medjed. Their message is very nicely worded, naturally similar to those of real hacker groups, but also (albeit probably unintentionally) curiously reminiscent of the way ancient Egyptian religious texts were written (see, for instance, the spells in the Book of the Dead; Faulkner, 2010). The hackers’ ultimatum also masterfully included the mythology of Medjed, as we will see below. Basically, it says:
“(…) Do not speak of your false justice. We do not need the spread of such falsehood. We are the true executors of justice. (…) If you reject our offer, the hammer of justice will find you. We are Medjed. We are unseen. We will eliminate evil.”
―Medjed, Persona 5
Honestly, I was really surprised to see Medjed referred to in the game, because he is a very minor god. I am talking extraordinarily minor here, maybe barely qualifying to the rank of deity: he is absent from nearly every textbook and encyclopedia of Egyptology. I remembered his name because of his very unusual appearance (as we will see below) and also, pretty much accidentally, knew something about the very scarce mythology behind him — he is mentioned only a couple of times in all inscriptions we currently have from Ancient Egypt.
In any event, I was baffled as to why the game’s writers had chosen Medjed. He certainly fits the bill for the whole hacker thing, but so would many other deities and mythological monsters, from Egypt or elsewhere. And so I decided to investigate the matter of Medjed’s popularity in Japan. But before getting into that, let us learn a little bit about this god.
The main source of knowledge on Medjed is the so-called “Greenfield Papyrus” (Fig. 2), where he appears twice. If the name of the papyrus seems a little awkward, that is because it is common for ancient Egyptian artifacts (especially papyri) to be named after the collector who owned it during the heyday of Egyptomania. In this case, this particular papyrus belonged to Mrs. Edith M. Greenfield, who donated it to the British Museum in 1910. The curator’s comments on the online collection of the British Museum summarizes it nicely:
“The ‘Greenfield Papyrus’ is one of the longest and most beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the ‘Book of the Dead’ to have survived. Originally, over thirty-seven metres in length, it is now cut into ninety-six separate sheets mounted between glass. It was made for a woman named Nestanebisheru, the daughter of the high priest of Amun Pinedjem II. As a member of the ruling elite at Thebes, she was provided with funerary equipment of very high quality. Many of the spells included on her papyrus are illustrated with small vignettes, and besides these there are several large illustrations depicting important scenes.”
―British Museum (2017)
The Greenfield Papyrus dates from the historical period known as New Kingdom, possibly from the end of the 21st Dynasty or the beginning of the 22nd, around 950–930 BCE (British Museum, 2017). The vignettes mentioned in the description above appear on top of each sheet in a manner resembling — and I hope Egyptologists will forgive me for this comment — a comic strip (Figs. 2 and 3). (In case you are wondering what a “Book of the Dead” is, I will come back to that in a moment.)
Medjed is featured on the papyrus sheets from Figures 2 and 3. So let us take a closer look at him: he is a shrouded form, like a cartoon ghost (Figs. 4 and 5), but sometimes is described as a mound with eyes and feet (British Museum, 2017). Due to his odd appearance, Medjed is just impossible to miss and/or to ignore, even to the most casual of observers.
The text on the papyrus (Fig. 2) names him Medjed (sometimes spelled as “Metchet” in older literature) and says that he “shooteth forth light from his eyes, but is himself invisible” and that he “revolveth in heaven inside a flame produced by his own mouth, whilst his own form is invisible”. This translation is according to Budge (1912); although this researcher is a rather controversial figure in Egyptology and his translations are very outdated (for instance, see Goelet et al., 2015), this was the only translation of the Greenfield Papyrus that I could reach. Regardless, it largely agrees with later research on Medjed. The passage above is part of Chapter 17 (or Spell 17) of the Book of the Dead.
So another place to look for Medjed is the same Spell 17 from other copies of the Book of the Dead (they vary, as I will explain later).
As expected, we can find mentions of Medjed in other New Kingdom (and later) papyri, including a group of papyri known as the “Theban Recension of the Book of the Dead”. Spell 17 of these papyri are similar to that of the Greenfield Papyrus, but bearing some differences. According to Budge (1898): “I know the being Mātchet [Medjed] who is among them in the House of Osiris, shooting rays of light from [his] eye, but who himself is unseen. He goeth round about heaven robed in the flame of his mouth, commanding Hāpi [god of the annual flooding of the Nile], but remaining himself unseen.” A new translation of this passage is given by Faulkner et al. (2008) and Goelet et al. (2015): “I know the name of that smiter among them who belongs to the House of Osiris, who shoots with his eye, yet is unseen. The sky is encircled with the fiery blast of his mouth and Hapi makes report, yet he is unseen.” Medjed is here named “the smiter”, or perhaps his name is translated to “smiter”. This translation rather deindividualizes Medjed, turning him into just “a smiter”: nearly all gods (and mortals) were prone to smite enemies.
To summarize all the information above, Medjed is unseen (hidden or invisible), can fly, can shoot rays of light from his eyes, can breathe fire (like our usual dragon, maybe) and can smite other beings. Besides this, nothing else is known about this god.
In any event, Budge (1904) lists Medjed (as Mātchet) in his chapter on “Miscellaneous Gods”, but whether this refers to the same god is uncertain. There, Budge lists the deities who protect Osiris during the 12 hours of the day and the 12 hours of the night; one of them is Medjed. More specifically, Budge (1904) reports that Medjed watches over Osiris during the 1st hour of the day and the 12th hour of the night. This is in line with the passage in Spell 17 where Medjed is said to belong to the House of Osiris, but I could not trace any more recent work reporting this (and Budge’s work, as explained above, is mostly shunned by Egyptologists).
THE BOOK OF THE DEAD
Now let us make a brief pause to talk a little about the Book of the Dead. The most important questions to address are: (1) What is it? (2) How it came to be? (3) Is it a single book or is there more than one?
The Book of the Dead is a collection of funerary texts; its use was widespread and lasted for over one and a half millennium (Munro, 2010). The Egyptians called it the “Book of Coming Forth by Day”, but “Book of the Dead” was more appealing to the modern audience. The book contained hymns praising the gods and several magical spells (for an example, see Box 1) to protect and guide the deceased through the perilous journey through the Duat, which is the Egyptian underworld (Taylor, 2010). The journey to a nice afterlife was riddled with dangers, fiends and tests, and the deceased needed all the help he/she could get.
The Book of the Dead was not a new invention, however. On the contrary, it has a long history, as it is derived from older writings. During the Old Kingdom, starting in the 5th Dynasty, funerary texts were written on the walls of the burial chambers inside the pharaoh’s (and later also the queen’s) pyramid (Munro, 2010). These texts, written in hieroglyphic script, are called “Pyramid Texts” — a rather uninventive name, maybe, but efficient nonetheless. They were meant to help the deceased king to reach his rightful place among the gods in the afterlife. Later on, the right to an afterlife ceased to be a royal privilege and first the elite and then everyone was granted access to it (D’Auria et al., 1989).
During the Middle Kingdom, the spells started to be written on the inner side of the coffins (sometimes also on walls and papyri). They are called, as you may have already guessed, “Coffin Texts”. Many new spells were added to the repertoire and they were, for the first time, illustrated. Afterwards, new spells were developed and everything started to be written on papyrus; the Book of the Dead thus came into being. The spells could be written either in hieroglyphic script or in hieratic (a cursive form of the hieroglyphs) and were usually richly illustrated.
The oldest known Book of the Dead is from Thebes (around 1700 BCE), during the Second Intermediate Period, and by the New Kingdom, the Book had already become very popular (Munro, 2010).
The most important thing to understand is that there is not a canonical Book of the Dead: when a person commissioned his/her own copy of the Book, they could choose the spells they wanted. Also, there are some differences among books even for the same spells, which can be due to poor copyediting, deliberate omission of parts of the spell or simple evolution through time.
To the modern public, the best-known scene from the Book of the Dead is the Judgement, or the “weighing of the heart” (Fig. 6). This was the most critical step of the journey to the afterlife. The heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth, balance and order. If the person behaved in life in accordance with the principles of Maat, he/she would be granted access to the afterlife. Otherwise, his/her heart would be devoured by Ammit, a goddess whose body was a mix of crocodile, hippopotamus and lioness. This so-called “second death” was permanent and thus much feared by the Egyptians.
So now that this is out of our way, let us return to the original question. Why was Medjed chosen for Persona 5? What does he have to do with Japan anyway?
Box 1. Excerpt from the Book of the Dead
Spell for being transformed into a phoenix
I have flown up like the primeval ones, I have become Khepri, I have grown as a plant, I have clad myself as a tortoise, I am the essence of every god, I am the seventh of those seven uraei who came into being in the West, Horus who makes brightness with his person, that god who was against Seth, Thoth who was among you in that judgement of Him who presides over Letopolis together with the souls of Heliopolis, the flood which was between them. I have come on the day when I appear in glory with the strides of the gods, for I am Khons who subdued the lords.
As for him who knows this pure spell, it means going out into the day after death and being transformed at will, being in the suite of Wennefer, being content with the food of Osiris, having invocation-offerings, seeing the sun; it means being hale on earth with Re and being vindicated with Osiris, and nothing evil shall have power over him. A matter a million times true.
—Translation by Faulkner (2010: 80).
MEDJED GOES TO JAPAN
Parts of the Greenfield Papyrus were on public display in Japan during the year of 2012 as part of special exhibitions about the Book of the Dead at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and the Fukuoka Museum of Art (British Museum, 2017). Visitors to the Tokyo exhibit quickly took notice of Medjed’s strangely manga-like appearance and photos of him (on the papyrus) started to circulate on Twitter (Stimson, 2015). As often happens on the Internet, fan art of Medjed started to pop up: there were drawings, comics, toys, cookies, you name it. Soon, any Japanese Medjed fan was able to buy merchandise of the god (Fig. 7).
Curiously, as the translations of the text from the Greenfield Papyrus said Medjed “shooteth forth light from his eyes”, some of the fan art started to depict him — obviously — firing lasers from his eyes. He was also shown flying, which is another of the “superpowers” assigned to him in the Greenfield Papyrus. However, up to my knowledge, no fan art alludes to his fire-breathing ability.
THE SACRED IN POP CULTURE
Medjed was becoming an icon in Japanese pop culture and there was only one thing left to solidify his position as such: video games. In early 2014, the game Flying Mr. Medjed was released for mobile phones (Fig. 8) and later on the same year, Medjed appeared on the popular Puzzle & Dragons game (as the character Medjedra; Fig. 9). In this case, the god’s power to shoot “forth light from his eyes” is a pair of laser beams, like those earlier fan art pieces.
Medjed was also included in the MMORPG Aura Kingdom in a manner very similar to that of Puzzle & Dragons (with lasers), but this time under the name Nakama and accompanying a character named Zephyrine (Fig. 10).
Then — and perhaps unavoidably when dealing with Japan — Medjed starred in a dating sim. The game is called Ejikoi! (Fig. 11), which translates to something along the lines of “Egy-love”. The player takes control of a high school girl looking for romance with one of her classmates, who all happen to be Egyptian deities. As weird as this game may sound, some people must have really liked it, because it is getting a sequel soon.
Finally, the god got his own anime series in 2016, Kamigami no Ki (translated simply as “Chronicles of the Gods”; Fig. 12). The animated series shows Medjed’s misadventures alongside his pantheon fellows Ra, Anubis and Bastet.
With such a solid background in Japan’s pop culture, it then became clear to me why Medjed was chosen for Persona 5 in spite of dozens of other more “traditional” candidates. However, instead of flying around and shooting lasers from his eyes, Persona 5 focuses on the god’s role as a smiter and the fact that it remains unseen — both good choices for a shadowy hacker group.
As an enthusiast of everything related to Ancient Egypt, I cannot but smile at this second “chance” Medjed received: he can now shine again in popular folklore, albeit inserted in a very different cultural background (incidentally, one that includes dating sims). Perhaps, given time (and more games) he can even achieve a sort of cult status among fans/followers and be included in a more definite manner in the mixed mythology of RPGs.
D’Auria, S.; Lacovara, P.; Roehrig, C. (1989) Mummies & Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Budge, E.A.W. (1898) The Book of the Dead. The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. The Egyptian text according to the Theban recension in hieroglyphic edited from numerous papyri, with a translation, vocabulary, etc. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.
Budge, E.A.W. (1904) The Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Vol. II. Open Court Publishing Company / Methuen & Co., Chicago / London.
Budge, E.A.W. (1912) The Greenfield Papyrus in the British Museum: the funerary papyrus of Princess Nesitanebtashru, daughter of Painetchem II and Nesi-Khensu, and priestess of Amen-Ra at Thebes, about B.C. 970. Order of the Trustees, London.
Faulkner, R.O. (2010) The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press / Imago, London / Singapore.
Faulkner, R.O.; Goelet, O. Jr.; Andrew, C.A.R.; von Dassow, E.; Wasserman, J. (2008) The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Being the Papyrus of Ani [Royal Scribe of the Divine Offerings] written and illustrated circa 1250 B.C.E. by scribes and artists unknown. Second Edition. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Goelet, O. Jr.; Faulkner, R.O.; Andrew, C.A.R.; Gunther, J.D.; Wasserman, J. (2015) The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. The Complete Papyrus of Ani. Featuring Integrated Text and Full-Color Images. Third Edition. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Munro, I. (2010) The evolution of the Book of the Dead. In: Taylor, J.H. (Ed.) Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Pp. 54–79.
Salvador, R.B. (2015) Egyptian mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games. Journal of Geek Studies 2(2): 8–32.
Stimson. E. (2015) The obscure Egyptian god Medjed and his bizarre afterlife on the Japanese Internet. Available from: http://www.animenewsnetwork .com/interest/2015-07-31/the-obscure-egyptia n-god-medjed-and-his-bizarre-afterlife-on-the-japanese-internet/.91149 (Date of access: 09/Jul/2017).
Taylor, J.H. (2010) Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
I am very grateful to the British Museum (London, UK) for the permission to reproduce here the photographs of the Greenfield Papyrus and the Papyrus of Ani (Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a zoologist and paleontologist, but he’s also fascinated with Ancient Egypt. After all, isn’t Archaeology just a tiny portion of Paleontology? One solely focused on a single very odd animal species? In any case, Persona 5 is now his favorite entry in the series, but he is sick and tired of that dammed cat telling him to go to sleep.
 In the sci-fi movie Stargate (MGM, 1994), the Egyptologist Daniel Jackson even makes fun of a translation of hieroglyphs he is examining: “Well, the translation of the inner track is wrong. Must’ve used Budge. I don’t know why they keep reprinting his books.” (Stargate Wiki, 2017).
After seeing how Egyptian mythology is depicted in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of videogames (see Salvador, 2015), I now turn to another game series: Activision’s billion-dollar toys-to-life franchise Skylanders. The main series (i.e., discounting spin-offs) currently counts with six multi-platform games: Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (2011), Skylanders: Giants (2012), Skylanders: Swap Force (2013), Skylanders: Trap Team (2014), Skylanders: SuperChargers (2015), and Skylanders: Imaginators (2016). The games take place in a world called Skylands, a magical realm full of floating islands. Needless to say, this realm is under the constant threat of villains who want to conquer or destroy it and so it falls to the heroes known as skylanders to protect their homeland.
Contrary to the Persona games, which only use gods and creatures from several mythologies around the world, Skylanders creates its own cast of heroes, villains and monsters. These characters are often based on real animals or on fantastic being from myths and stories from all around the world. There are elves, trolls, dragons etc. A few of the characters were inevitably based on ancient Egypt. As such, I will not analyze Egyptian mythology per se in Skylanders, but the many things based on ancient Egyptian culture that appear in the games.
Some parts of the text will refer to periods of Egyptian history or dynasties of rulers, so the table below gives an easy reference for this, with indication of the dynasties of rulers and approximate dates of each period (according to Shaw, 2004).
Dune Bug is a skylander that debuted in Skylanders: Swap Force. According to the game’s lore, he is a keeper of the secrets of an ancient Arkeyan city. (“Arkeyan” is the game’s catch-all term for an ancient Egyptian/Greek/Roman-like civilization with advanced technology.)
Dune Bug (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.
Dune Bug is clearly a scarab, a type of beetle belonging to the family Scarabaeidae. These animals are also known as “dung beetles”. This name comes from their mode of life: they make balls of dung that are used as brooding chambers for their eggs and as future food source for the larvae. Males roll their dung balls around and eventually fight for them; those that can protect a nice ball will get a good shot at reproduction. In most species, male beetles have huge “horns” on their foreheads that they use in these battles. However, the Egyptian species (Scarabaeus sacer Linnaeus, 1758, or “the sacred scarab”) does not have such horn, so we can say Dune Bug is not very biologically accurate in this regard (not to mention he’s missing two limbs!).
A specimen of Scarabaeus sacer from an entomology collection. Photo by Sarefo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Anyway, why is the Egyptian scarab called “sacred”? The Egyptians observed the ball-rolling behavior of the beetles and considered it an analogy to the sun god Re (may also be written Ra) pushing the solar disk across the sky.
Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung. Photo by Hectonichus (2014); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
The scarab beetle then became a symbol of this god or, more specifically, of one of the forms of this god known as Khepri, which represented the sunrise and early morning. Khepri was portrayed either as a scarab beetle or as a human man with a scarab as a head.
Wall-painting of Khepri in the tomb of Queen Nefertari (Valley of the Queens; 19th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Waiyenoo111; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
As a symbol of the sun-god, scarabs became widely popular imagery for amulets in Ancient Egypt, especially from the Middle Kingdom onwards. These were mainly apotropaic amulets, which means they were used for protection, to ward off evil. Scarabs would protect both the living (people wore them as necklaces) and the dead (they were placed in the wrappings of the mummies).
A solar scarab pendant from the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Krypt King is a skylander belonging to the famed group called “Trap Masters” (from the game Skylanders: Trap Team, as one might suspect). According to the game’s lore, he was a knight roaming the world as a disembodied spirit, until he found his suit of armor in some Arkeyan ruins.
The black and golden color combination of Krypt King’s armor was not very common in Egyptian clothing and artifacts. It was occasionally used by Egyptians, though; for instance, in the depictions of the black jackal-god Anubis and in several objects of King Tutankhamun’s treasure. Nevertheless, this color combination became somewhat symbolic of Egyptian stuff in modern times. Perhaps this is due to the above-mentioned treasury of the boy-king Tutankhamun, which has always received extensive media attention.
Krypt King (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.
The armor in itself is very stylized, seemingly made of metal, with broad shoulder plates, bracers and boots. This is definitely not even close to what ancient Egyptian armor looked like. Armors back then were a simple thing. In truth, for a long time there were no actual armors to speak of and only shields were used for protection. Only in the New Kingdom proper armors began to appear, first made of several layers of cloth and/or leather and later covered with metal scales. Of course, this would make Krypt King look rather weak, so in this case accuracy properly gave way to awesomeness.
Krypt King’s headdress is very Egyptian-like; it looks like a fusion of the nemes headdress with the white crown. The nemes is a yellow and blue striped headdress worn by pharaohs in daily life. It is known from depictions as early as the 3rd Dynasty, although there are some possible depictions of a nemes from the 1st Dynasty. The nemes almost always comes with a uraeus, the stylized rearing cobra on the forehead of the headdress. The uraeus is a symbol of the goddess Wadjet and represents sovereignty.
The golden mask from Tutankhamun’s mummy, shown wearing the nemes headdress (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). This particular nemes features both the uraeus and the vulture image of the goddess Nekhbet. Photo by Ibrahim.ID & D. Levy (2014, 2015); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.
The pharaoh also had a number of more ceremonial and ritualistic crowns. The white crown (or hedjet) represents rulership over Upper (southern) Egypt. The red crown (or deshret) represents rulership over Lower (northern) Egypt. They were together combined as the so-called double crown (or pschent), meaning that the pharaoh ruled over the whole land. The two crowns are already seen in the depiction of King Narmer, the founder of the 1st Dynasty and mythical unifier of Egypt. The white crown can also be seen in kings from the so-called Dynasty 0, i.e., before the total unification of the land.
Top row: The two sides of the Narmer Palette (Abydos; 1st Dynasty, Early Dynastic Period). The red squares mark where the king is shown wearing the white crown (left) and red crown (right). Photo by Nicolas Perrault III (2013); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. Bottom row: Expanded view of the areas delimited by the red squares above.
As stated above, Krypt King wears a headdress that seems to fuse the nemes and the white crown into one. This is actually (more-or-less) seen in Ancient Egyptian art: the nemes is sometimes depicted combined with the double crown.
Statues of Ramesses II from the temple at Abu Simbel (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom), shown with a headdress combining the nemes and the double crown. Photo by Merlin-UK (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Last but not least, there is Krypt King’s sword. Needless to say, his large sword is clearly based on medieval European weapons. As with all metalworking in early historic periods, swords in Egypt were not that large. Moreover, the typical Egyptian sword is very unique and more-or-less sickle-shaped. It is called khopesh (can also be spelled khepesh) and is known at least since the First Intermediate Period. Khopesh were first made of bronze (luckily, copper mined in Egypt contains a high amount of arsenic, which makes the final product harder), but later on in the New Kingdom, iron started to be used.
A khopesh found in Nablus, a city near Jerusalem (ca. 1750 BCE); as usual, the hilt was not preserved. Photo by Dbachmann (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Krypt King could have had a khopesh; it actually would have made him more unique (not to say more accurate too). This is especially true because there are already so many sword-wielding skylanders (even including another Trap Master!).
The Golden Queen is not your usual skylander. Rather, she was the main antagonist (alongside the ever-present Kaos) in Skylanders: Trap Team. In this game, you can capture the villains and make them work for the greater good; that means you can play as the villains too! She became a full-fledged character in Skylanders: Imaginators, appearing as a “rehabilitated” villain (and with the mandatory accompanying real-life toy).
Golden Queen (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.
By this point, it is very obvious that Golden Queen is clearly based on Egyptian themes. Like the Krypt King, she wears a nemes headdress, albeit very stylized. This is befitting of a pharaoh, but not of a “simple queen”. Queens that later became pharaohs, like Hatshepsut, wore male clothing and regalia, as appropriate for the office of pharaoh. Golden Queen’s nemes aptly bears a uraeus, a huge and very stylized one at that.
A curious feature of Golden Queen is the vertical lipstick-like stripe painted below her mouth. Perhaps the intention of this painting was to resemble the typical “false beard” worn by pharaohs. (To get an idea of what this beard looks like, take a look at the figure above showing the golden mask of Tutankhamun’s mummy). This ceremonial beard was, of course, also symbolical and indicated an association of the pharaoh with the gods. The pharaoh, after all, acted as the single intermediate between mankind and the divine.
The Pharaoh Hatshepsut (from her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom) is here depicted in male pharaonic clothing, but still shows a feminine form. Later on, she was depicted entirely as a male. Photo by Captmondo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
So now let’s analyze all the gold. Why is the Queen golden? Well, according to the games’ lore, she is actually made of gold (and can even regenerate by absorbing gold). This has precedence in Ancient Egypt, albeit on the divine realm. Egyptian myths tells us that the flesh of the gods was made of gold, while their bones were silver. (The exception was the powerful Set, god of the desert and disorder, whose bones were made of iron.) So the Golden Queen appears to be more godlike than a mortal ruler under this light. Of course, it was usual for the Pharaohs to be eventually depicted in a more godlike manner.
Staves and scepters are symbols of power and dominion, and thus rulership, in many (if not most) cultures of the world. This was also the case in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs and gods (and sometimes important members of the priesthood) were depicted carrying the was-scepter or the sekhem-scepter. (Pharaohs could also be depicted carrying other similar symbols, depending on the occasion, such as the mace, the crook and the flail.) The was-scepter represents power and dominion; it consists of a usually long vertical shaft with a forked base and is surmounted by an animal head (commonly the so-called “Set-animal” of the god Set). The sekhem-scepter denotes power and might; it consists of a short vertical shaft surmounted by a fan-like or spade-like structure.
Golden Queen’s staff is strikingly different from both (although maybe closer to the sekhem-scepter), having a pair of wings and a central egg-like structure. More importantly, the Queen can shoot golden scarabs from her staff and summon a swarm of these beetles. The meaning of scarabs for the Ancient Egyptians is explained above, in the section about Dune Bug. She can also use the staff to turn anyone or anything into solid gold. Alternatively, she can do this with a touch, an ability that comes from Greek myths, namely the story of King Midas.
Left: A was-scepter made of faience (its center portion was restored) from Nubia (Late Period). The animal head represents the god Set. Photo by Joan Lansberry 1995–2012; image extracted and modified from http://www .joanannlansberry.com. Right: Head of a sekhem-scepter, made of wood with gold covering, from the tomb of Tutankhamun (Valley of the Kings; 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Anonymous photo; image extracted and modified from http://ancienthistorysymbols.tumblr.com.
Finally, Golden Queen has a boat in the Skylanders: SuperChargers game. The vehicle is called Glitter Glider, perhaps because the name Golden Glider was already taken by DC Comics. Despite obvious additions (like the motor), her boat is indeed based on ancient Egyptian vessels, especially known by their high curving prow and many oars.
Top: Golden Queen on her boat (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki. Bottom: Reconstructed “solar barge” of King Khufu (4th Dynasty, Old Kingdom), found in the king’s pyramid complex in Giza. Photo by Berthold Werner, 2010; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.
Grave Clobber is a minor villain, featured as a playable character in Skylanders: Trap Team. He is summoned by the Golden Queen to get rid of the skylanders. By his wrappings, Grave Clobber is clearly a mummy. But that’s where all Egyptian influence stops. Actually, everything else in Grave Clobber looks influenced by Mesoamerican cultures: the geometric patterns, the ugly scary mask and the typical turquoise blue color (the pigment called “Maya blue”, or “azul maya”, from the Spanish).
Grave Clobber (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Skylanders Wiki.
Like for Grave Clobber above, Golden Queen’s stages (The Golden Desert and Lair of the Golden Queen) are all ornamented with reliefs and patterns that are more reminiscent of Mesoamerican cultures than ancient Egypt. This is especially true for the pyramid, which is a step pyramid with a flat top. Such buildings are well known from archeological sites in Mexico, but not in Egypt (although the very first pyramid built, by pharaoh Djoser, was stepped). Golden Queen’s racing stage from Skylanders: SuperChargers (called “The Golden Temple”) also shares a lot of this Mesoamerican style.
Top: Golden Desert stage, from Skylanders: Trap Team (official artwork from the game). Middle: Lair of the Golden Queen, from Skylanders: Trap Team (official artwork from the game). Bottom: The Golden Temple stage, from Skylanders: SuperChargers (screenshot from the game). All images extracted from Skylanders Wiki.
As we can see by the above discussion, the Skylanders series incorporates some nice elements from ancient Egyptian culture. It presents some things in a sensibly accurate manner, while accommodating other things in a more forceful manner due to gameplay and/or artistic choices. Some things, however, are unnecessarily mistaken, like Krypt King’s sword and the Mesoamerican pyramids.
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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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