Dogū: from prehistoric figurines to collectible pocket monsters

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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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.[1]

Figure 1. The monster called “Pocus Poppet”, from the Dragon Quest series (Square Enix, 1986–present; artwork from the game). Other versions of this enemy (you know, those with different colors and more Hit Points) are called “Clay Doll / Terracotta Warrior” and “Dirty Dogu”. Source: Dragon Quest Wiki.

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).

Figure 2. The Pokémon Baltoy (left) and its evolution Claydol (right). Official artwork from the Pokémon series (The Pokémon Company, 1996–present). Source: Bulbapedia.

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”.

Figure 3. Dogū excavated in Tajirikabukuri, Ebisuda, Miyagi Prefecture (circa 36 cm in height; 1000–400 BCE). Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-38304).

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.

Table 1. The main periods of Japanese prehistory and their approximate duration. Dates according to Henshall (2004), but these numbers are still much debated.

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).

Figure 4. An example of Jōmon pottery (5,000–4,000 BCE), from the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Chris 73 (2005), Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Figure 5. Phallic stone rods (sekibō) are common ritual objects found in Jōmon settings. Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-34676; 1000–400 BCE).
Figure 6. The Ōyu Stone Circles, in Kazuno, Akita Prefecture (2,000–1,500 BCE). Source: G41rn8 (2016), Wikimedia Commons.


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).

Table 2. Subdivisions of the Jōmon period. Dates according to Habu (2004); note how they do not exactly match the dates given in Table 1. The dates also vary regionally within Japan, as different parts of the country reached these phases separately.

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[2], 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.

Figure 7. The so-called “Jōmon Venus” (2,000–1,500 BCE), from the Togariishi Museum of Jōmon Archaeology. Source: Takuma-sa (2012), Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Figure 8. Heart-shaped dogū (2,000–1,000 BCE), from the Tokyo National Museum. Source: Daderot (2014), Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Figure 9. Dogū excavated in Kamegaoka, Kizukuri, Aomori Prefecture (circa 37 cm in height; 1000–400 BCE). Source: Tokyo National Museum, Digital Research Archives (item J-38392).


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!

Figure 10. Monument at Kamegaoka Site, in Tsugaru city. Source: Tomo HGS (2018), Mapcarta.
Figure 11. Kizukuri Station in Tsugaru city. Source: Bakkai (2008), Wikimedia Commons.

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.[3] 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.[4] 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).

Figure 12. Arahabaki’s official artwork from the SMT series. Source: Megami Tensei Wiki.

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.[5]

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.

Figure 13. Official artwork of the demon “Dogu”, from Ōkami. Source: Okami Wiki.

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.

Figure 14. The Ancient Dogoo Girl poster. Source: IMDb.

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.

Figure 15. A collectible figure of Dokigoro, from The Ancient Dogoo Girl. Source: HobbySearch.

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.


Bulbapedia. (2018a) Baltoy.  Available from: (Date of access: 12/May/ 2018).

Bulbapedia. (2018b) Claydol.  Available from: (Date of access: 12/May/ 2018).

Dragon Quest Wiki. (2018) Pocus poppet. Available from: poppet (Date of access: 16/May/2018).

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.

Megami Tensei Wiki. (2018) Arahabaki. Available from: Arahabaki (Date of access: 14/May/2018).

Mendes, A.B.; Guimarães, F.V.; Eirado-Silva, C.B.P.; Silva, E.P. (2017) The ichthyological diversity of Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 4(1): 39–67.

Normile, D. (2001) Japanese fraud highlights media-driven research ethic. Science 291(5501): 34–55.

Okami Wiki. (2018) Dogu. Available from: http:// (Date of access: 15/ May/2018).

Romey, K.M. (2001). “God’s hands” did the devil’s work. Archaeology 54(1).

Rousmaniere, N.C. (2009) Rediscovering dogū in modern Japan. In: Kaner, S. (Ed.) The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan. British Museum Press, London. Pp. 71–82.

Salvador, R.B. (2017) Medjed: from Ancient Egypt to Japanese Pop Culture. Journal of Geek Studies 4(2): 10–20.

Soffer, O.; Adovasio, J.M.; Hyland, D.C. (2000) The “Venus” figurines: textiles, basketry, gender, and status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology 41(4): 511–537.

Tomotani, B.M. (2014) Robins, robins, robins. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1–2): 13–15.

Tsugaru City Board of Education. (2018) Historic site Kamegaoka Site. Available from: 2013/07/leaflet_13kamegaoka.pdf (Date of access: 14/May/2018). 


Those figures presented here that were extracted from the Tokyo National Museum (Digital Research Archives: and Wikimedia Commons, have been slightly modified (cropped, etc.) to improve presentation.


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?

[1] Back then, in my home country, Internet connection was awfully slow and the service very expensive.

[2] The phallic stone rods seen above (Fig. 5) are also typically regarded as fertility symbols (Habu, 2004).

[3] That happened to other weird beings, such as the cartoonish Egyptian god Medjed (Salvador, 2017).

[4] 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).

[5] 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.

Check other articles from this volume


Making a vampire

Veronika N. Laine

Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). Wageningen, The Netherlands.

Email: veronika.laine (at) gmail (dot) com

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The modern vampire is often portrayed as a human transformed into a vampire due to a bloodthirsty spirit[1], demons[2], viruses and other pathogens[3], magic or some unknown reason[4].  Neither fiction nor more realistic accounts have shed light on the precise molecular mechanisms of how the transformation happens until the novel trilogy and TV series called The Strain (Fig. 1) introduced some ways as to how the transformation could happen. In The Strain, parasitic worms carry a virus that causes the vampiric changes to happen through a modification in the expression of genes. This change even creates new organs such as the stinger.

Figure 1. Promotional poster of The Strain TV series, directed by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Image retrieved from: IMP Awards (http://www.impawards. com/).

For obvious reasons, no actual experimental studies have been conducted with vampires and so the exact origin and evolution of vampirism remains unknown. A full genome-wide association study or transcriptome analysis would be preferred to recognize the exact genes behind the vampiric traits, but getting enough samples from vampires will most likely be difficult. Thus, the “candidate gene” approach might be the best method for reaching some conclusions or, if there is enough material, a whole genome sequencing and comparison to human genomes.

In this article I will explore some thoughts on how we could make a vampire in the lab and which part of the genome we would need to alter in order to see the necessary changes. Imagine if genetic engineering would be so advanced that when you tweak little bits of the human genome here and there, you could make whatever traits, even vampiric ones, appear (or disappear) any way you like. Unfortunately, reality is seldom as easy, as it has been shown in movies such as Gattaca (Columbia Pictures, 1997), Splice (Warner Bros., 2009) and the X-Men series (20th Century Fox, 2000–2017), although the genome editing method CRISPR (Cong et al., 2013; Hsu et al., 2014) has lifted genomic modification to a completely new level and has already been used in removing diseases in humans (Ma et al., 2017). Alternatively, what if vampires already existed and we could get our hands on their genome sequence? Which genes would be affected by the transformation? Intriguingly, there are real life examples of species and conditions that could be thought of as vampiric and we can find potential candidate genes for vampirism from these traits. These “vampire building blocks” could then be used in constructing a lab vampire (at least hypothetically).

The myth of vampires has been around for thousands of years and the descriptions of vampirism vary between times and cultures. The vampires we know today date back to the 17th century and they have been covered by every platform in our popular culture. A good summary of the evolution of vampire myths can be found in Harris (2001).

The exact way in which humans transform into vampires depends on the source of the story you are reading and it often remains a mystery. In the extensive study of the science of vampirism, Dr. Pecos and Dr. Lomax (2001–2017) from the late Federal Vampire & Zombie Agency (FVZA) suspected that it is a human vampirism virus (HVV) that causes the transformation. The origin of the virus is suspected to be the vampire bats and their fleas, which sounds very plausible since bats are known to be carriers of many diseases such SARS, ebola and rabies (Biek et al., 2006; Smith & Wang, 2013), and it was also suggested in the movies Daybreakers and the Underworld series. Furthermore, rabies has been suggested to be the actual origin of the modern vampire myth (Gomez-Alonso, 1998).

In this article, I will present real life examples of vampiric traits and hypothesize possible molecular mechanisms and candidate genes that could be mutated after the transformation. I will concentrate on the following three vampiric traits that are common to many descriptions of vampires:

  1. Hematophagy (that is, feeding on blood)
  2. Immortality
  3. Sunlight avoidance


For many people, bloodsucking is the first vampiric trait that comes to mind. Blood is a nutritious fluid tissue, full of proteins and lipids and it is easy to consume. In nature, blood consumption has evolved in several unrelated species throughout the animal kingdom. Among invertebrates, leeches, mosquitos and fleas are the best known examples, and some fish (lampreys) are also known to feed on blood. There are several bird species that practice hematophagy, such as the oxpeckers, hood mockingbirds and vampire finches. Among mammals, the best known hematophagic species are the vampire bats.

Several changes in the genome are needed in order for animals to survive exclusively on blood. One of the key features is to prevent the victim’s blood from coagulating while feeding. In vampire bats the plasminogen activator (PA) genes have gone through gene duplication, domain loss and sequence evolution (Tellgren-Roth et al., 2009). These genes are expressed in the saliva glands of vampire bats and the proteins they produce help to process the blood of birds and mammals. In humans, these genes protect against heart attacks by producing proteins that clear the blood vessels by degrading blood clots. The hairy-legged vampire bat’s (Diphylla ecaudata) PA genes resemble the PA genes of the closely related non-blood feeding bat species. These bats feed on the blood of birds and it seems that the activation of PA in saliva glands is enough to keep the bird blood flowing. However, in the two bat species that feed on mammal blood, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and white-winged vampire bats (Diaemus youngi, which also feed on birds), the PA genes have gone through more extensive modifications in order to better tackle the natural inhibitors of PA proteins in mammal blood. A transcriptome and proteome study of common vampire bats found additional genes expressed in the salivary glands (Francischetti et al., 2013). Furthermore, by comparing vampire bats and leeches to non-blood feeding species, Phillips & Baker (2015) found additional genes related to blood feeding, such as ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase-1 (ENTPD1), which has not before been linked to secretory expression. They also suggest that alternative splicing of genes has been an important mechanism for these species to rapidly evolve to feeding on blood.

In addition to blood coagulation, the vampire bats needed to overcome the bitter taste of blood. Bitterness in nature often means that the substance is poisonous and should be avoided. However, in all of the three vampire bat species there is a greater percentage of non-functioning DNA in the bitter taste receptor genes than in other bat species. These results suggest that these genes have been relaxed from selective constraint in vampire bats, which has led to a reduction of bitter taste function (Hong & Zhao, 2014).

Lastly, the problem with consuming blood is the ratio between amount of nutrition needed and the liquid consumed.  A typical vampire bat can consume half of its weight in blood in one feeding. The blood is then rapidly processed and the excess liquids are urinated within two minutes of feeding in order for the bat to take flight. Conceivably, the same effect would not be very convenient for vampires. If the vampire weighed for example 70 kg, it would need to consume 35 kg of blood in one feeding and urinate the excess liquid almost immediately, because the bladder can only hold about half litre of liquids. Furthermore, humans have about 5 kg of blood on average, so vampires would need to suck dry about seven people per night and urinate between victims, something that has not been discussed or shown in vampire stories, except in The Strain, where vampires defecate the blood while drinking. To compensate for the low intake of nutrients, vampires might slow down their metabolism and go to a hibernation mode and thus avoid the need to suck several litres of blood in one go. It would also enable fasting through hard times. In many stories, vampires have managed to survive without blood for days (see below).


Vampires are often regarded as undead; they are dead but behave like living beings, which in turn gives them eternal “life”. In this paper, I am not going to discuss whether vampires have a heartbeat or if they breathe (for that we would need actual vampire specimens); I will instead concentrate on how actual immortality could be achieved by giving real life examples.

First, we need to define what immortality is. The concept of biological immortality means that there is no mortality from senescence, which is biological aging. This of course means that the organism is not truly immortal, it can die through injury or disease. Vampires are often presented as highly resilient beings who can survive disease and injuries, but there are things that still kill them, like sunlight, a wooden stake through the heart, fire or beheading.

What is then the ultimate cause of senescence? It is still unclear how the process of senescence happens exactly, since it is a very complex phenomenon. This subject is under heavy research, especially in regard to how we could slow down or even reverse aging (de Keizer, 2017; see movies Self/less [Focus Features, 2015] and Mr. Nobody [Wild Bunch, 2009] for further thoughts). The research has been concentrating on gene expression changes, chemical and DNA damage, and telomere shortening. Telomeres are repetitive regions at the end of chromosomes. Every time cells divide, the ends of the chromosomes are progressively clipped in the replication process. Because the repetitive sequences in the telomeres are not protein coding, the clipping does not affect cell functions. When the telomeres are gone after a certain number of divisions, the cells stop dividing (Hornsby, 2007). However, cells have ways of replenishing the telomeres with an enzyme called “telomerase reverse transcriptase”. The drawback is that the majority of adult somatic (that is, non-reproductive) cells do not express telomerase, but it can be found for example in embryonic stem cells, male sperm cells, epidermal cells and in most cancer cells. In vampires, this enzyme might be active also in the adult somatic cells but this might pose an increased cancer risk. However, vampires might have ways to avoid cancer, as discussed below.

The way senescence happens is not universal; there are species where aging is negligible or cannot even be detected. There are two well-known examples of truly immortal species, the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) and the animals from the Hydra genus. The immortal jellyfish, originally from the Caribbean Sea and now spread around the world, can use the process known as transdifferentiation to rejuvenate itself from its sexually mature free-swimming medusa form to sessile polyp form when the conditions turn harsh for the animal. When conditions are suitable again, the immortal jellyfish again transforms to its medusa form. This cycle can in theory continue forever, making the species immortal in the biological sense. However, this does not save the jellyfish from predators and diseases. The immortal jellyfish also appeared in the TV series Blacklist (Sony Pictures Television, 2013–present), where its cells were injected into humans in order to generate immortality. In the real world, science is not that advanced yet and it is also highly unlikely that it would be this easy to achieve immortality.

Hydras have been under more research than the immortal jellyfish. Hydras are simple freshwater animals (also cnidarians, like the immortal jellyfish) whose cells can continually divide and not undergo senescence. One gene, “Forkhead box O” (FOXO) has been extensively studied in hydras (and also in other species, like the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, mice and humans) (Boehm et al., 2012; Martins et al., 2016). In hydras, this gene is the main player behind the renewal of the cells. In other species, this gene has been linked to aging and longevity in many studies. In an essay by Schaible & Sussman (2013), the authors suggested that during the evolution of the FOXO gene, its function changed from Hydra’s life span extending role to many other pathways related to maintenance, which altered the gene’s rejuvenating functions in multicellular eukaryotes such as humans. Thus it might be that in vampires this gene (or actually all the FOXO genes – mammals have four of these genes) have retained the original function of FOXOs.

In the mammalian world, naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) and Brandt’s bats (Myotis brandtii) are exceptionally long-lived compared to other small sized mammals. Naked mole rats are known for some very peculiar characteristics. They can survive anoxic conditions, they have delayed ageing and live up to 32 years, and the species is highly resistant to cancer, among other things, making them a very interesting species for scientists to study. In studies of the longevity and cancer resistance of this species, scientists found that a gene called INK4, which is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancer, produced a new product through alternative splicing. This protein isoform (that is, protein variant), called pALT(INK4a/b), prevented the mutated cells from clustering together and thus made the naked mole rats more resilient to cancer (Tian et al., 2015). In another study by the same group, extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronic acid was found in naked mole rat fibroblasts (the most common cells in the connective tissue of animals). The molecular weight was over five times larger than that of human or mouse hyaluronic acid. It was speculated that a higher concentration of hyaluronic acid evolved to keep the skin elastic in underground tunnels. In addition to skin elasticity, long hyaluronic acid molecules wrap around cells tightly, preventing tumor cells from replicating (Tian et al., 2013). Whole genome sequencing revealed additional genes that could be linked to longevity in this species (Kim et al., 2011).

Brandt’s bats are known to live for over 40 years, making it the most long-lived mammal of its size. In the whole genome study of the species, Seim et al. (2013) suggested that a combination of different adaptive characteristics such as hibernation, low reproductive rate, cave roosting and an altered growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor 1 axis could extend the Brandt’s bat’s lifespan. Furthermore, FOXO1 gene was expressed in high levels in Brandt’s bat suggesting a possible role also in the longevity of this species. Hibernation in general has been linked to survival of different species allowing them to withstand extreme conditions (Turbill et al., 2011; Wu & Storey, 2016). The molecular difference between hibernators and non-hibernators seems to be in gene regulation rather than a difference in the DNA sequence itself. Differential expression was detected in the genes that were involved in metabolic pathways, feeding behavior, and circadian rhythms (Faherty et al., 2016). Hibernation or some other kind of dormant state seems to be present in vampires as well, helping them to get through tough times. In the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, the vampires go to a hibernation-related state to cope with changing times. In the Underworld movies, two of the elders are kept in hibernation while a third reigns over the vampires. The reign goes in cycles, each of elders having their turn over the vampires and slave lycans. This cycle has social reasons, but it also gives rest for the elders from their immortal life.


Vampires are creatures of the night and sunlight is often regarded as deadly to them; in many occasions, they burst into flames whenever in contact with sunlight. It is an adverse trait for vampires and most probably emerged through pleiotropism. Pleiotropism is a phenomenon where one gene affects two or more unrelated traits (Paaby & Rockman, 2013). Mutations in genes causing immortality or blood consumption could also cause death by sunlight (antagonistic pleiotropy). Real life examples of bursting into flames due to sunlight are obviously not found, but sun can cause problems to people with certain conditions. Sunlight can cause severe allergic reactions, people can suffer from blood disease called porphyria, or have a rare recessive genetic disorder called “xeroderma pigmentosum”.

“Sun allergy” is an umbrella term for a number of conditions where rash and blisters occur on skin that has been exposed to sunlight. Some people have a hereditary type of sun allergy, such as hereditary polymorphous light eruption, others a non-heritable type, such as solar urticaria. In some cases, symptoms only occur when triggered by another factor, such as certain medications or skin exposure to certain plants. The allergic reaction to sunlight occurs in the same way as in any other allergic reaction, although it is still not clear what the triggering component is. Somehow, the immune system recognizes the sun-altered skin as foreign to the body, which in turn activates the immune defences against it. If vampires suffer from sun allergy, could strong antihistamines and a high sun protection factor sunscreen help them survive under the sunlight, in the same way as people with sun allergies? As death is a very severe reaction to sunlight, it is likely that vampires do not suffer from a sun allergy but from something more serious.

Porphyria, a group of blood diseases, have been suggested as a possible explanation for vampire myths but these ideas have been rejected in later papers (Winkler & Anderson, 1990). However, the mechanism behind porphyria could still shed light on why sunlight would be poisonous for modern vampires. In the cutaneous forms of porphyria where the skin is mostly affected, sunlight can cause pain, blisters or open sores to the patients. The disease is often hereditary due to a mutation in one of the genes that make the heme molecule (a component of hemoglobin, the red pigment in our blood): ALAD, ALAS2, CPOX, FECH, HMBS, PPOX, UROD, or UROS (Badminton & Elder, 2005). These genes could also be suitable candidates for vampire sunlight avoidance.

There is an even more severe sunlight sensitivity illness, the rare hereditary condition called “xeroderma pigmentosum” (XP). In extreme cases, the patients need to avoid all exposure to sunlight as it can cause severe sunburn with redness and blistering. If not protected from the sun, people with XP have a high risk of developing skin cancer. XP patients’ eyes are also very sensitive to sunlight and some of the patients have neurological problems such as seizures and hearing loss. The condition is caused by mutations in the genes that repair DNA damage. This causes a deficiency in DNA repair after ultraviolet damage to cells, which in turn accumulates abnormalities to the DNA causing the cell to become cancerous or die. In most of XP cases, mutations occur in these four nucleotide excision repair related genes: POLH, XPA, XPC or ERCC2 (Schubert et al., 2014). In addition to porphyria genes, these are also potential candidates for vampires’ adverse reactions to sunlight.


Obviously, the transformation from human to vampire would affect many genes, some of the changes being bigger than others, which makes the genetic modification of human to vampire even more difficult. From the real life examples, the PA (blood coagulation) and FOXO (immortality) genes seem to be strong candidates. Furthermore, it is also possible to find more suitable genes to test and to investigate interactions between hematophagy, immortality and sun avoidance genes by using network analysis such as Genemania (Warde-Farley et al., 2010). For example, when inserting the human ortholog (roughly put, the equivalent gene) of bat PA gene, the plasminogen activator, tissue type (PLAT), the FOXO genes FOXO1 and FOXO3, and the four XP genes, POLH, XPA, XPC and ERCC2 to Genemania, it is possible to see how the genes are linked and what additional genes might be involved (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Gene interaction network of the genes PLAT, FOXO1, FOXO3, POLH, XPA, XPC and ERCC2 done with Genemania. Showing 20 related genes with 27 total genes and 207 total links. Input genes are indicated with stripes.

In many of the traits mentioned above, we assumed that mutations in these candidate genes would be the cause of the vampiric traits. However, mutations are not the only possible cause. Epigenetic changes are functional changes in the genome that do not involve modifications in the DNA. Such mechanisms are, for example, DNA methylation and histone modification. External or environmental effects can cause DNA methylation and change gene expression. In vampires, both mutations and epigenetics could be possible players, causing changes and vampiric traits. Furthermore, if vampirism is caused by a virus or a parasite, we need to take into consideration the possible ways the pathogen could affect the human cells, which is a topic of its own.


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I would like to thank Dr. Olaf Thalmann and Angela Boeijen for insightful comments and Nina Haglund for language revision. 


Dr. Veronika Laine is a molecular biologist working currently with the great tit and she is especially interested in behavior, genes, pleiotropism, bats, kittens and vampires, especially Eric Northman. She plays too much video games.

[1] The Queen of the Damned, by Anne Rice (1988).

[2] Old folklore; Buffy the Vampire Slayer (20th Television, 1997–2003).

[3] Daybreakers (Lionsgate, 2010); the Underworld film series (Lakeshore Entertainment, 2003–2016); The Strain (20th Television, 2014–2017).

[4] Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897); The Vampire Diaries (Warner Bros., 2009–2017); The Twilight Saga (Summit Entertainment, 2008–2012); True Blood (HBO Enterprises, 2008–2014).

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Medjed: from Ancient Egypt to Japanese Pop Culture

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart. Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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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.


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.

Figure 1. Support’s on the way! (Image taken from Megami Tensei Wiki:


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.)

Figure 2. Sheet 12 of the Greenfield Papyrus. Picture is a courtesy of the British Museum (©Trustees of the British Museum).
Figure 3. Sheet 76 of the Greenfield Papyrus. Picture is a courtesy of the British Museum (©Trustees of the British Museum).

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.

Figure 4. Close-up of Sheet 12 of the Greenfield Papyrus (from Fig. 2) showing Medjed. Just in case, he is the one on the right.
Figure 5. Close-up of Sheet 76 of the Greenfield Papyrus (from Fig. 3) showing Medjed.

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[1]).


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?

Figure 6. Frame 3 of the Papyrus of Ani (19th Dynasty, ca. 1250 BCE), showing the Judgement scene, also known as “weighing of the heart”. Anubis performs the weighing and Thoth records the proceedings. Ammit waits close by in case she has to devour the deceased’s heart. Picture is a courtesy of the British Museum (©Trustees of the British Museum).

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).


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).

image description
Figure 7. Left: Plush Medjed (lasers not included). Source: Rakuten Global Market ( Right: Medjed mug. May this coffee smite your fatigue away! Source: Suzuri (

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.


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.

Figure 8. Flying Mr. Medjed. Screenshot of the game.
image description
Figure 9. Medjedra, from Puzzle & Dragons. Source: Puzzle & Dragons Wiki (

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).

Figure 10. Zephyrine and Nakama/Medjed, from Aura Kingdom. Source: Aura Kingdom Wiki (http://auraking

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.

Figure 11. Characters from Ejikoi! Source: Ejikoi Official Twitter (

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.

Figure 12. The cute gods of Kamigami no Ki. Source: MyAnimeList (

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.

British Museum, The. (2017) The Greenfield Papyrus. Collection online. Available from: (Date of access: 09/Jul/2017).

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).

Stargate Wiki. (2017) Stargate: The Movie Transcript. Available from: Transcript (Date of access: 09/Aug/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). 


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.

[1] 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).

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Fantastic beasts and how to diversify them

Guilherme Hermanson

Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras de Ribeirão Preto, Universidade de São Paulo, Ribeirão Preto, Brazil.

Email: guilhermehermanson (at) gmail (dot) com

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Despite their secrecy, fantastic beasts are oftentimes noticed by muggles. Their diversity, however, was never subject of any study in order to understand what could have driven it. At least two groups of creatures show that both historical and environmental aspects played role on these organisms’ lineages’ splitting events, leading to their current distribution on the globe. Additionally, nonspecialist readers that enjoy Harry Potter culture might become interested in the topic and, as such, fictional content can represent an innovative tool of science outreach to introduce evolutionary biology and biogeography concepts to the general public.


Not even special clauses (Scamander, 2001) prevented muggles of noticing fantastic beasts among them. They are part of our days probably since before we started creating tales about them (d’Huy, 2013). Present in all continents, except Antarctica, magical creatures occupy an unequal variety of niches, from herbivorous forms to fire-eating beasts (Scamander, 2001). All the main differences described for such creatures may reflect not just local traditions or modifications from oral stories, but actual lineage branching events (e.g., Hamilton et al., 2015).

Among such beasts, there are some groups in which well-known diversification processes can be exemplified, namely a clade of hominoid-related beasts, and a clade of insect-related creatures, both currently spread in the European and North American continents (Fig. 1; topology follows Gerelle et al., 2016). Basically, the appearance of natural barriers, as well as opportunistic exploitation of diverse ecological niches, could be the main causes explaining where such fantastic creatures currently inhabit (i.e., their geographic distribution); this would be in spite of the common explanation of climate change driving biodiversity dynamics (e.g., Janis, 1993; Alroy et al., 2000).


According to Gerelle et al. (2016), Fairies, Imps, Pixies, Grindylows, and Doxies form the sister clade to butterflies (crown-Lepidoptera), making them a sort of ‘lepidopteran-like’ beasts. Despite being phylogenetically related to insects, all creatures in this clade possess humanoid traits, consisting of a remarkable case of evolutionary convergence. In addition, the absence of wings in Grindylows and Imps is probably a case of reversion to the apterous plesiomorphic condition of insects (i.e., the insect lineage was originally wingless; Kukalová-Peck, 1991).


Figure 1. Current distribution of the groups discussed in the text with their phylogenetic relationships, based on Gerelle et al. (2016).

It is plausible to assume that the split between crown lepidopterans and lepidopteran-like fantastic beasts occurred back in the earliest Jurassic (Hettangian) of Britain (circa 200 Ma, i.e., 200 million years ago), as this is where the oldest fossil lepidopteran comes from (Whalley, 1986; Schachat & Gibbs, 2016). At that time, continents were united in a single land mass, called Pangaea, which would have allowed some populations of ‘Doxy-like’ beasts to migrate from British areas to what is now North America (Fig. 2A). This would explain why Doxies are present in both continents, but the remaining representatives of the group are not, demonstrating another case of disjunct distribution, as occurs, for example, with ratite birds, some pleurodiran turtles and flowering plants (Wen, 1999; de Queiroz, 2005). Otherwise, Doxies might have later migrated to North America through land continuities such as the De Geer Bridge (McKenna, 1975).


Figure 2. Probable location of ancestors of (A) the lepidopteran-like beasts during the Hettangian (earliest Jurassic) of Britain, with posterior migration to North America, and (B) hominoid-related beasts, originating in Central Europe during the Paleogene, with subsequent migration to northern Europe and North America. Maps modified from the Paleobiology Database (PBDB;

Grindylows branched early in this clade’s evolutionary history, “soon” after the Doxy lineage separated, likely dating to the Toarcian (late Early Jurassic; circa 180 to 175 Ma), when England was flooded by marine transgressions (Wignall, 1991). The populations occupying the deluged area probably vanished, while the ones remaining at its borders survived and later invaded the aquatic environment (organisms closely related to modern Grindylows). This is somewhat akin to the Pleistocene refuge hypothesis of Neotropical diversification (e.g., Vanzolini & Williams, 1981; Garzón-Orduña et al., 2014), but instead of forest retraction due to climate fluctuation, areas underwent fragmentation because of marine water incursion.

Like the other splitting events, Imps and Pixies diverged mainly due to historical causes. Both beasts share morphological and reproductive similarities (Scamander, 2001). Pixies are restricted to Cornwall, whereas Imps are distributed throughout Britain, living near river banks. In Cornwall, the River Tamar largely represents the boundary with the rest of England (Carey, 1911). The rise of sea-level (similar to that of the last interglacial period; Rohling et al., 2008), could have flooded the river region, isolating populations that lived near it (like modern Imps do). On the Cornish side of the river, a small population would have differentiated, preventing gene flow after the restoration of sea levels (Fig. 3). Despite capable of flying (and thus crossing the river), Pixies are not known to form hybrids with Imps.

According to folklore, Fairies are exclusively British creatures (Briggs, 1967; Silver, 1999), but the lack of information regarding ecological preferences (Scamander, 2001), as well as fossils, hinder speculation about their evolutionary history.


Figure 3. (A) Geographical distribution of ‘Pixie + Imp’ ancestor in southwestern England. (B) Vicariant event isolating two populations and preventing gene flow. (C) Current distribution of Imps and Pixies, the latter being restricted to Cornwall.


It is likely that, instead of historical events causing populations to split, ecological constraints were mainly responsible for the current diversity of hominoid-related beasts. The first branching lineage to be analyzed is the clade formed by Gnomes, Red Caps, and Leprechauns. As hominoid-related beasts, the group probably originated at least before the Miocene (a period spanning roughly 23 to 5 Ma; Stevens et al., 2013) and later invaded European landmasses. The burrowing habit of Gnomes most likely resulted of selective pressure due to the predation by Jarveys, a large ferret-like beast present both in Europe and North America. As such, the plesiomorphic (i.e., ancestral) condition of the group was a non-burrowing habit, which might have evolved independently in Red Caps too (Scamander, 2001). The occurrence of Gnomes in both Europe and North America depicts again a case of disjunct distribution, but the processes that drove such pattern probably differ from that of the Doxy. Rather than a vicariant event resulting from the split of Laurasia, climatological events could have created a passage that allowed them to reach North America (e.g., the Thulean Bridge; Brikiatis, 2014), as exemplified by marine diatoms during the Eocene (Bijl et al., 2013). As Jarveys intensively preyed on Gnomes, some populations likely sheltered in tunnels and acted as scavengers, feeding on the blood shed by their kin (similar to modern Red Caps).

In turn, Leprechauns likely represent a more recent lineage that migrated to Britain at first (still connected to the European mainland; Erlingsson, 2004) and then reached Ireland, probably across a land bridge before humans (Edwards & Brooks, 2008; Bower, 2016), being later included in Irish folklore (Winberry, 1976; Koch, 2006). However, Leprechauns (as all the exemplified beasts) lack a fossil record, which complicates the understanding of how and when such groups colonized the areas they currently live in (Crottini et al., 2012).

The other clade of hominoid-related beasts comprises Erklings, Trolls and Progebins, distributed in northern Europe (Fig. 4A). Modern representatives of the group are known to feed on flesh (especially human; Scamander, 2001), which evokes whether such beasts arose earlier or later than the Homo arrival to Europe (ca. 1.4–1.8 Ma; Parfitt et al., 2005; Toro-Moyano et al., 2013). Probably spread all over Europe originally, the competition for the same kind of resources (mostly raw flesh) with a distantly related clade


Figure 4. (A) Probable ancient distribution of Erklings, Trolls, and Pogrebins in Europe. (B) Arrival of Homo species in Europe, ca. 1.5 Ma. (C) Demise of original populations of fantastic creatures, showing their current relictual distribution in Europe.

(Homo species) may have constrained the range of the group (mainly inhabiting densely vegetated zones today), extinguishing ancient populations more widely distributed. This last example analogously illustrates a case (e.g., Silvestro et al., 2015) in which the later arrival of a phylogenetically distant (but ecologically similar) clade to an area triggered diversification shifts onto the previous occupiers, as well as the probable extinction of some forms.


In order to verify if there is a regionalization among the fantastic biota, their geographical distribution was compiled from Scamander (2001) and interpreted based on (i) six distinct geographical realms from Wallace (1876), and (ii) the recent division of Holt et al. (2013) in 13 domains. Each creature was plotted against the realm in a simple area vs. taxa matrix (e.g., Souza, 2005), scoring (0) if absent, and (1) if present in a determined locality. This gives us a diagram, called ‘area cladogram’, with the biogeographic history of the groups.

The area cladogram obtained with Wallace’s six biogeographic domains (Wallace, 1876) is partially consistent with the biogeographical history of the southern hemisphere (i.e., mostly Gondwanan-derived land masses), according to patterns observed in some plants and animals (e.g., Sanmartín & Ronquist, 2004), in which the Oriental biota (i.e., mainly Indian) is the sister group to the remaining areas (Fig. 5A). This could be reasonably expected, since India was the first land mass to branch in Gondwana breakup geological sequence (Barron, 1987; McLoughlin, 2001). The relationships of African, South American and Australian areas however disagree with Sanmartín & Ronquist (2004), in which it was expected that South American and Australian biotas were more closely related to one another than to the African biota. This result could imply a Pangaean origin for these fantastic beasts, with subsequent vicariant events. However, this hierarchical pattern following the breakup sequence of Gondwana could also be a kind of ‘vicariance-mimicking’ phenomenon affecting the cladogram area topology (see Upchurch et al., 2002). Until fossils of fantastic beasts are found, knowledge about their past distribution remains obscured. On the other hand, when plotted according to the biogeographic realms of Holt et al. (2013) the Gondwanan-derived continents do not present such hierarchical relationship (Fig. 5B), resulting in a pectinate (i.e., comb-like) conformation within the area cladogram. Both results could also be influenced by the lack of data about the fantastic beasts, which may not follow the pattern of ordinary ones.


Figure 5. Area cladograms obtained based on (A) Wallace’s zones (1876), and (B) Holt et al. (2013) new zones, subdividing those proposed by Wallace.

In sum, due to the incompatible results for Gondwanan continents, the fantastic biota could have had a hybrid, composed origin (Amorim, 2012), with both autochthonous and allochthonous elements. The Palearctic and Nearctic realms were recovered together in both analyses, although both regions are inhabited by most of the beasts, which could have biased the result. Despite of the apparently unarguable Laurasian distribution of such beasts, it has been historically difficult to depict the continents’ biogeographical scenario (Sanmartín et al., 2001; Wildman et al., 2007).


Biogeography is an integrative science combining different sources of evidence to understand what caused organisms to be distributed the way they presently are – or were in the geological past (Lomolino et al., 2010). Despite of its relevance, the public knowledge (i.e., outside the academic environment) concerning this research area seems debilitated, even with the timid increase in electronic dissemination (Ladle, 2008). Present in both evolutionary approaches of Darwin (1859) and Wallace (1876), the spatial distribution of organisms offers an unparalleled tool to stimulate students to think about evolution and natural history (Rosenau, 2012; Allchin, 2014) – and not just to understand evolution, but to accept it as well (Lombrozo et al., 2008).

In this context, the teaching of biogeography (and evolution in general) could benefit from the use of fictional organisms with “real” distributions around the globe. Presenting the continents’ past and present arrangement, allied with the localities inhabited by the beasts and possible disjunction events, in a kind of inquiry-based approach (e.g., Robbins & Roy, 2007) would instigate students to formulate their own hypotheses. This, in turn, could lead them to more easily assimilate all these concepts. The specific use of the popular Fantastic Beasts of the Harry Potter franchise to canalize this is supoprted mostly by the interest of younger audiences (under 25 years old) in the recently released spin-off movie (over 50%; Lang, 2016). Actually, scientific scenarios were already present on several episodes from the Harry Potter books (e.g., Rowling, 1997; 1998; 1999; 2005), providing a larger background for people to get involved.

Moreover, this would not be the first time that a fictional universe was considered to engage younger people on scientific activities (e.g., Roque, 2016). J.K. Rownling’s fantasy novels are already proven as a promising and innovative background for scientific experiments (e.g., Vezzali et al., 2014). As such, the present work is hopefully in a good position to arouse at least a spark of interest among students to understand what made our beasts – fantastic or otherwise – to live where they do.


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I would like to thank J.K. Rowling, who idealized the magical world of Harry Potter as well as its fantastic creatures; my Biogeography professor, Eduardo Almeida, in whose course I was able to formulate ideas regarding the subject; my colleagues (Anaís Silveira, Carolina Barroso, Fernanda Dalarmi, Isabela Soares, Luene Pessoa e Thayná Medeiros) with whom I worked in said course, as well as Nádia Gibran, for all the support and kindness. The author is funded by the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP; proc. 2016/03373-0).


Guilherme Hermanson is a big fan of the Harry Potter magical world. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of São Paulo (Ribeirão Preto’s campus), currently developing his research at the university’s Paleontology Lab, focused on the internal anatomy of extinct turtles.

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Ancient Egyptian themes in Skylanders

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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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 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

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.


Adams, B. (1994) Egyptian Mummies. Shire Publications, London.

Burton, R.F. (1884) The Book of the Sword. Dover Publications [1987 ed.], Mineola.

Emlen, D. (2014) Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle. Henry Holt & Co., New York.

Hall, R. (1994) Egyptian Textiles. Shire Publications, London.

Hart, G. (2005) The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Second Edition. Routledge, Oxon.

Lurker, M. (1984) Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, London.

Miller, M.E. (1999) Maya Art and Architecture. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Partridge, R.B. (2002) Fighting Pharaohs: Weapons and Warfare in Ancient Egypt. Peartree Publishing, Havertown.

Pasztory, E. (1998) Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Peck, W.H. (2013) The Material World of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reyes-Valerio, C. (1993) De Bonampak al Templo Mayor: El azul maya en Mesoamérica. Siglo XXI Editores, Mexico D.F.

Salvador, R.B. (2015) Egyptian mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 8–32.

Salvador, R.B. (2016) The overwatching eye of Horus. Journal of Geek Studies 3(2): 01–07.

Scheel, B. (1989) Egyptian Metalworking and Tools. Shire Publications, London.

Shaw, G.J. (2012) The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign. Thames & Hudson, London.

Shaw, I. (1991) Egyptian Warfare and Weapons. Shire Publications, London.

Shaw, I. (2004) The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Skylanders Wiki. (2016) Available from: (Date of access: 19/Mar/2016).

Teeter, M. (2011) Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tyldesley, J.A. (1998) Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. Penguin Books, London.

Vinson, S. (1994) Egyptian Boats and Ships. Shire Publications, London.

Wilkinson, R.H. (1992) Reading Egyptian Art. A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames & Hudson, London.

Wilkinson, R.W. (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson, London.


Rodrigo Salvador remains fascinated with Ancient Egypt and often stops to ponder about it, even while fending off wave after wave of nasty Chompies.

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The overwatching eye of Horus

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s new hit, is a team-based first-person shooter game released on May 2016 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the game, several heroes battle each other in 6×6 matches. One of the heroes is called Pharah (real name: Fareeha Amari), an Egyptian security chief equipped with a jet-propelled combat suit and a rocket launcher (Fig. 1).

Pharah’s character design is clearly related to her Egyptian nationality. However, by this I clearly do not mean present-day Egypt, where Islam is the state religion. I actually refer to the mythology and culture of ancient Egypt.

Pharah - fig 1

Figure 1. Pharah in her full combat suit, the Raptora Mark VI (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from “Pharah Reference Kit” (official Overwatch website).


Let us start with her combat suit. At first glance, any gamer would consider Pharah’s suit a reference to Samus Aran (from the Metroid game series) and call it a day. Or maybe an otaku would say (mainly because of the bird-like helmet) it’s a reference to the suits of the heroes from the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972; Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, in the original). But I would argue that Pharah’s suit, her distinctive eye tattoo and actually her whole personality, are all linked to the Egyptian god Horus. But before discussing Pharah, I need to give a quick primer about Horus.

Horus is one of the most important Egyptian deities and also one of the first we find in the archaeological record. Depictions of Horus are found in objects from the very early Dynastic Period, but he was very likely already present in Predynastic times (that means earlier than 3100 BCE). In his most ancient form, Horus was the “lord of the sky”, represented by a falcon soaring high up in the sky. His right eye was said to be the sun and his left eye the moon. His most ancient cult center known to archaeologists was the city of Nekhen, better known by its Greek name Hierakonpolis, meaning “city of falcons”.

Later on, Horus assumed another aspect and became known as the son of the deities Isis and Osiris. Some scholars actually believe that this was a different deity altogether from the elder sky-lord Horus described above, which 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 new “incarnation”, Horus became intimately linked to Egyptian monarchy. As the son of Isis and Osiris, he was the rightful heir to the Egyptian throne. His uncle Set, however, tried to usurp the throne, leading to a battle that lasted for 80 years. At some point, Set gouged Horus’ left eye out, which was later restored by either Hathor or Thoth. Eventually, though, Horus became the ruler of Egypt. The gods then gradually gave way to the mortals to rule their own land. Henceforth, the ruler of the mortals, the pharaoh, became equated to Horus and was referred to as “the living Horus”.

The pharaoh’s duties were to protect Egypt and its people and to uphold maat, which was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, harmony (in the sense of balance or order), morality and justice. In Overwatch, Pharah (whose name is clearly an intentional reminder of “pharaoh”) somewhat assumes this role too. She is defined as a good-hearted, honorable and justice-inclined person (“Lawful Good” in Dungeons & Dragons terms) and said to be a protector of the people. Eventually, when her ultimate is charged, she rains justice from above on her enemies (Fig. 2D). Scenes of the pharaoh smiting his enemies were a recurrent theme in Egyptian art (Fig. 2E).

Horus’ iconography is one of the best known from Egyptian art: he was depicted either as a falcon (Fig. 2A) or as a falcon-headed man (Fig. 2B). The basis for his avian depiction was a real species, most likely the lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825; Fig. 2C). Needless to say, Pharah’s winged combat suit, the Raptora Mark VI, is based on a bird of prey. (Birds of prey are also called raptors, but this is not an actual group in a biological sense; it is rather an “unofficial” category to gather falcons, hawks and eagles.) This is not only implied by the suit’s name, but also by the peculiar shape of the helmet (Fig. 1), which imitates the hooked beak of a bird of prey (Fig. 2C).

Pharah - fig 2

Figure 2. A. Statue of Horus as a falcon (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). Photo by Merlin-UK (2006); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Wall carving depicting Horus as a falcon-headed man (temple of Horus, Edfu; Ptolemaic Era). Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. A lanner falcon, Falco biarmicus Temminck, 1825 (family Falconidae). Photo by Peter Pauly (2012); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Pharah’s “Hieroglyph” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. E. Detail of the bottom side of a scarab amulet from the reign of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty, New Kingdom) showing the pharaoh smiting an enemy. Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Falcons (i.e., the family Falconidae) are arguably the most accomplished fliers of the animal kingdom. The most striking example to achieve aerial superiority is the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus Tunstall, 1771), the fastest animal alive. These falcons skydive in order to chase and catch prey and during one of these stunts a peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph).


One of the most distinctive features of the lanner falcon is the dark markings around its eyes (Fig. 2C), which also appear in representations of Horus (Fig. 2A). Not surprisingly, these markings became stylized in Egyptian art and the resulting symbol was known as the “Eye of Horus” or wedjat (Fig. 3A). The name wedjat is often translated as “the whole one” or “the restored one”, being an allusion to the legend told above where Horus’ eye was gouged out by Set. The name can also be written as udjat, which is the spelling used in Overwatch.

Pharah has the contour of the wedjat tattooed around her right eye (Fig. 3B; it can be seen more clearly in one of her “sprays” from the game: Fig. 3C). In the Overwatch comics, Pharah says she got her tattoo after her mother’s. Ana Amari, who is now also a playable character in Overwatch, indeed has a tattoo on her left eye, but it is only vaguely reminiscent of an actual wedjat.

The wedjat was considered a powerful protective symbol in ancient Egypt and was used in wall paintings and reliefs, sarcophagi and, more extensively, in amulets and jewelry (Fig. 3A).

Pharah - fig 3

Figure 3. A. Pendant with the wedjat, or Eye of Horus, found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). The eye represented is the right one, the solar eye. Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Pharah, without her helmet, showing the wedjat tattoo around her right eye (original model from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. C. Pharah’s “Tattoo” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

In the Overwatch comics, it is correctly stated that the wedjat is a symbol of protection, but then the comics say that it is not meant as a protection for Pharah herself; instead it should mean that Pharah needs to protect others. This is, of course, not true — an amulet is, after all, meant to protect the wearer — but it is a minor slip made for narrative purposes, as Pharah was developing her sense of duty in protecting others.


Pharah’s customization option in the game include other sprays (besides the ones shown in Fig. 2D and 3C above) that are also based on ancient Egyptian themes. The “Statue” and “Stone” sprays are merely depictions of Pharah given an ancient-looking vibe. The “Tattoo” (Fig. 3C) and “Wedjat” (here it is curiously spelled in the most common way, contrary to the comic’s “udjat”) are pretty straightforward to understand after the discussion above.

The “Scarab” spray (Fig. 4A) is also a simple matter, as it represents the so-called sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer Linnaeus, 1758; Fig. 4B), albeit in a rather stylized manner. For the Egyptians, the scarab was linked to the sun god Re (also spelled Ra) and it was probably the most common theme for protective amulets in the country (Fig. 4C), meant to ward off evil.

Pharah’s “Wings” spray is a somewhat more complex composition. It is a solar disc, with rays spreading from it, mounted above the pair of wings from the Raptora suit (Fig. 4D). A winged solar disk (Fig. 4C) was also a symbol of Horus, in special of the “elder Horus” described above. However, the wings are separated in Pharah’s spray (Fig. 4D) and so would be perhaps better interpreted as a distinct thing from the solar disk. Wings were usually attributes of gods when shown in a sort of protective embrace: Horus was commonly shown protecting the pharaoh; Isis was usually shown protecting either the pharaoh or her brother/husband Osiris; the vulture goddess Nekhbet was also shown with outstretched wings as a general symbol of protection. (By the way, the typical winged-Isis depiction is imitated in Pharah’s “Hieroglyph” spray, shown in Figure 2D.)

The solar disk with rays emanating from it was a common depiction of the sun and of any deity associated with it (Horus, Re etc.), but this particular symbol became strongly associated with the heretic king Akhenaten of the 18th Dynasty. During his reign, Akhenaten established the cult of a single god, Aten, which was depicted as a solar disk with life-giving rays emanating from it (Fig. 4E). The rays of the Aten often terminate in hands, sometimes holding the ankh (the sign for “life”). The solar rays in Pharah’s spray terminates in small bulges, which could mean that it was based in a depiction of the Aten’s.

Pharah - fig 4

Figure 4. A. Pharah’s “Scarab” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. B. A specimen of Scarabaeus sacer from an entomology collection. Photo by Sarefo (2007); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. C. Scarab pendant from the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom). Photo by Jon Bodsworth (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. D. Pharah’s “Wings” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. E. Stone block from El Amarna, showing Akhenaten (as a sphinx) receiving the life-giving rays of the Aten (shown on the top right corner). Photo by Leoboudv (2008); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, there are the “skins”, which change a character’s appearance in the game. Pharah’s “Anubis” skin changes her combat suit to black and golden, with a helmet shaped like a jackal’s head (Fig. 5B). Anubis, the god of cemeteries, burial and embalming, was depicted as a black jackal (Fig. 5A) or a jackal-headed man. He is perhaps the most readily recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt today, so it’s not surprising for Pharah to have something related to him. (By the way, the game’s Egyptian stage is called “Temple of Anubis”, but this Anubis is an AI.)

Pharah - fig 5

Figure 5. 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 (Egypt Archive); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. B. Pharah’s “Anubis” skin (screenshot from the game). A white version of this skin is called “Jackal”. Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Pharah’s other skins are based on: (1) the mecha genre of Japanese anime, notably on the classical Gundam (skins “Mechaqueen” and “Raptorion”); and (2) on native North American themes (skins “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”).


Needless to say, Pharah’s one my favorite characters from Overwatch. The nicest thing about this character is how well the Egyptian theme is built, consistently wrapped around the god Horus (the falcon, the wedjat and the pharaoh stuff) and protection symbols (the wedjat again, the duties of the pharaoh, the wings and the scarab), all of which fits perfectly with Pharah’s personality. The single minor slip, I venture, was to use the heretic depiction of the solar disk in one of the sprays; but a single spray is such a minor part of the game that I can easily let this one slip.

Pharah - fig 6

“Play Pharah” spray (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.


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Egyptian mythology in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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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.

Persona - Table01

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).

Persona - Table02

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).

Persona - Figure01 - map (Jeff Dahl 2007)

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.


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.

Persona - Figure02 - Amun

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.

Persona - Figure03 -Anubis

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?

Persona - Figure04 - Apep

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?

Persona - Figure05 - Bennu

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.

Persona - Figure06 - Hathor

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.

Persona - Figure07 - Horus

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.)

Persona - Figure08 - Isis

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).

Persona - Figure09 - Serket

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.

Persona - Figure10 - Seth

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).

Persona - Figure11 - Sokar

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.

Persona - Figure12 -Thoth

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.

Persona - Table03

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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Check other articles from this volume

Death and remembrance in Final Fantasy Type-0

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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The Final Fantasy video game series is famous for its over-the-top cataclysmic-world-end stories and absurd hairstyles. The latest entry in the series is Final Fantasy Type-0, released in March 2015 for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles. (The original game, however, dates from October 2011, released only in Japan for the PlayStation Portable.) This game brought some nice changes (gameplay-wise) for the franchise, but this is not my interest here. What is unique about this game (besides its nonsensical story and awful dialogues) is how one particular facet of its fictional world works, namely the memories of the deceased.

Allow me to explain. The world of Final Fantasy Type-0, called Orience, is comprised of four nations. Each of these nations has a Crystal (the capital “C” indicates it is a huge and sentient mineral) that grants them unique powers. However, with great power comes great… costs; and the price to pay is a certain degree of memory loss. The Crystals make the common people of Orience forget those who have died. (Also, I should remark that treating the memories of the dead in a bizarre way is not a first for the series; see Box 1 for a quick overview of the topic in Final Fantasy X). This means that once a person – let’s call him Bob – dies, nobody will remember anything about him. Even Bob’s relatives, friends or whatever, immediately forget everything they knew about him: his name, his appearance, his stories, his deeds, his achievements etc. The only way to “remember” Bob is to read something that was written about him. One of the game’s characters synthetize the idea nicely:

“If people’s actions fade away from our memories with time, then all we can do to prevent them from slipping away is to keep written records. But if the Crystal erases all our memories of the dead, what good is a list of someone’s achievements when we can’t remember who they were?”

―Ace, one of the main characters of Final Fantasy Type-0.

Of course that, not knowing any better, the people of Orience thinks this is normal. They believe this is the way in which the Crystals encourage people to carry on with their lives after a loved one passes away, instead of being held back in mourning for them. This reasoning is presented repeatedly in the game by the characters, mainly in response to Rem, a girl who thinks it is rather sad to forget all about your loved ones.

Type0 - Figure01

The Vermillion Bird Crystal in Final Fantasy Type-0. (Screenshot from the game.)

However, this “memory mechanics” is, of course, custom-made for the game, which revolves around young people throwing away their lives in a senseless world war. Therefore, it is simply an excuse to explain why all the soldiers, free from the fear of death and loss, are so eager to vainly sacrifice themselves. Fear of death is, after all, intimately linked with the instinct of self-preservation, as argued by Zilboorg (1943). However, that does not work as neatly for everyone in Orience, as the following quote implies:

“I’m not going to let myself die, even if it means I have to take someone else’s life instead. I… don’t want to be forgotten.”

―Dominion Legionary, a NPC (non-player character) from Final Fantasy Type-0.

In any case, this kind of forgetfulness poses a serious problem to how Orience’s advanced civilization actually came to be. It would be very complicate to keep accumulating knowledge and technological advances if the folk would keep forgetting the inventions and ideas of dead people. This is especially true for the stages of civilization predating the invention of writing systems.

Anyway, instead of pinpointing the failings of a video game’s narrative and its lack of logic or cohesion, let us simply accept it and move forward to focus on a different aspect of death and memory. I want to talk a little more about the importance that the (memory of the) dead had in the history of religious belief in our species.

Box 1. The dead in Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X was released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2 console, getting remakes in 2013/2014 for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita and in 2015 for the PlayStation 4. The game is set in a world named Spira and has the most different and best delineated setting in the series.

There is no mystery about what happens after you die in Final Fantasy X – I mean, besides the “Game Over” screen. The dead (or, more precisely put, their spirits) go to a place called the Farplane (although the Al Bhed people have a different theory). The good and the bad, all end up there. The curious thing is that the Farplane is not a sort of heaven, hell or Hades – it is an actual place in the city of Guadosalam that people can physically visit (and no doubt a major tourist attraction!). The living go there to talk to their deceased loved ones. As such, there is no uncertainty about the afterlife and thus little need for an actual fear-based religion revolving around eternal punishment (such as in our real-world monotheisms). The fear in Spira is much more straightforward – it involves a giant Leviathan-like monster (called Sin) that swims around destroying towns and punishing people for the sins of their ancestors from a thousand years ago (much like the god of our monotheisms’ stories).

Type0 - Figure02

The Farplane, in Final Fantasy X. (Concept art of the game.)


Whenever humans started thinking about causal relations (either true or imagined ones), superstitious behavior accompanied them (this is also observed in other animals; see Box 2). Consequently, the seeds of religion started to form. At first, the nomad human tribes would try to deal with basic stuff through ritualized superstition (much like the pigeons from Box 2), like, for instance, ask for a good hunt or good weather, propitiate a spirit to stop a storm etc. Soon they added spirits and ancestor worshiping to their beliefs – and death (and the memory of the departed) played a major role in this. (It is way beyond the scope of this article to explain how religion emerged and took root; for that, please refer to the amazing books of Daniel Dennett [2006] and Nicholas Wade [2009] – the discussion below is largely based on their research).

Since we are not in Orience, after someone passes away we still remember him/her. As Dennett says: “A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our (…) habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse.” He goes on to say that we “can’t just delete the file from our memory banks” (his italics), which is precisely what the Crystals do to the people of Orience. Dennett continues stating that actually “we wouldn’t want to be able to do so”; which is the same thing that Rem tells everyone in the game.

Box 2. Superstitious pigeons

Skinner (1948) conducted a fantastic experiment with pigeons in his lab. He starved some pigeons a little to make them really crave food. A mechanism in their cages would feed them a couple of times per day. Of course, as classical experiments (and experience with domestic animals) had shown before, animals learn quickly how to get food after doing some chore, like raising their paws or pressing a button. However, Skinner decided to feed his pigeons at random, independently of any behavior the animals were displaying.

He saw that the behavior of the pigeons did not remained random though. In fact, after being fed randomly a couple of times, the animals started to show consistent behavior, each doing some odd thing of its own, like keep circling clockwise for instance. They were simply repeating the behavior they thought had made the food appear. This is superstition.

As Skinner himself puts it: “The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior.  Rituals for changing one’s luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing – or, more strictly speaking, did something else.”

There are some later research confirming Skinner’s finding (for instance, Timberlake & Lucas, 1985) while a few others seem to partially contradict it (Staddon & Simmelhag, 1971). It is strange that such an interesting topic has barely been studied to this day. Perhaps this is just to avoid hurting the sensibilities of our religious species, since many still believe the myth of humans-as-masters-of-Creation.

The deceased play an important role in people’s lives, even long after their deaths. We preserve reminders of the dead, relics, stories, images. With time, their unseen presence in our lives goes beyond the simple “Oh, I wonder if he/she would like this” to a more complex “virtual presence”, namely a spirit. That is part of how ancestor worshipping came to be, where they were honored or propitiated with prayers, offerings and sacrifices. But I am getting ahead of myself here, so let us get back to track.

Perhaps the most pungent reminders of the dead are our dreams. A dream is thus a “place” where we can actually “see” the deceased (like the Farplane, from Box 1). As Wade (2009) puts it, this is perhaps how the idea of an afterlife and a “spirit world” first appeared. Since people would keep “meeting” their deceased relatives and acquaintances in dreams, then perhaps they were not truly dead, just “somewhere” else. This led the ancient humans to the conclusion that the spirit world could be visited in dreams – or also in trances, which was achieved at first during ritual dances and later during induced trances by shamans (with the use of natural-occurring psychotropic substances).

With the establishment of both an afterlife and a spirit world, the ancient tribal religions could transform into a more organized and specialized set of beliefs, led by an also specialized class of priests. This accompanied the transition from a nomad existence to a settled one. Still, the ancestors retained an important part in this context and were thus still remembered and worshiped. Well, why would anyone want to meet an ancestor in dreams/trances in the first place? To access their knowledge, of course. The elder were always (and rightly so) regarded as wise and people asked their counsels in solving difficult matters. The ancestors, of course, also filled that role. Finally, as the state religions were solidified, meeting the ancestors in dreams or trances slowly gave way to more controlled forms of divination (conducted by the priest class), involving birds, bones, shells etc. The psychologist Steven Pinker (1997) even makes the stinging commentary about how these ancestor cults took hold and endured: “Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to those who are about to become ancestors.” Perhaps the powerful presence of an important ancestor, like a leader or hero, transformed from a simple spirit to a full-fledged god.


The “ancestors in dreams” idea explained above is not the only explanation for the appearance of the belief in an afterlife. Another idea, likely complimentary to it, revolves around the fear of death. It is called “Terror Management Theory” (henceforth, TMT) and was developed by Greenberg et al. (1986), being derived from the Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker (1973).

Becker argues that a major part of what humans do is related to ignoring/avoiding the inevitability of death. Knowing that we, like all living creatures, will eventually die is a very unwelcome realization. Moreover, knowing that death may come at any moment for reasons we cannot predict or control just makes it worse. Thus, the terror of total annihilation haunts people, creating a strong subconscious anxiety; as a result, people spend their lives attempting to avoid this feeling. William James (1902) called death the “worm at the core” of human existence and endeavors and Zilboorg (1943) linked it to the instinct of self-preservation, arguing that an organism would not function if this fear were constantly present on the top of one’s mind. Becker’s book is then a nice argument on how civilization and culture are, in part, ultimately an unconscious intricate defense mechanism against the anxiety caused by the knowledge of our mortality.

The TMT builds on Becker’s research. This theory states that cultures are symbolic systems whose purpose is to give meaning and value to life. And by giving life meaning, cultural values manage the terror of death (see also Solomon et al., 1991; 2015). Of course, the most obvious example of a cultural value that “grants” immortality is the idea of an afterlife, alongside its accompanying religion (which would dictate who is worthy of receiving immortality in the thereafter). The invention of a soul that endures after death in the spirit world was thus achieved by all human cultures.

In addition, further research in TMT uncovered other cultural values that also manage the fear of death, such as posterity, patriotism, humanity’s purported superiority over other animals (Becker had already pointed out how humans dislike the fact that they are animals), beliefs regarding sex etc. Some of these values at first glance do not seem to be related to death at all, but they in fact offer some kind of symbolic immortality.

But not everything is so bleak, as Sam Keen says in his foreword to The Denial of Death, “the bitter medicine that he [Becker] prescribes – contemplation of the horror of our inevitable death – is, paradoxically, the tincture that adds sweetness to mortality.”


Returning to Final Fantasy Type-0, the “idea” of the Crystals seems to resonate with the TMT. By erasing the memories of the dead from people’s minds, the Crystals also relieve people from this pressing fear of the inevitability of death. As I said above, people in Orience seem more prone to throw their lives ways at war (although more often than not religion does the same thing in our world).

Could then the people in Orience, unbound by this fear of death, have built their civilization? Moreover, would it be anything like ours (as the game clearly is) or would it be something completely alien to us? Maybe the latter; although it should be pointed out that Becker clearly states that our species still largely lives in tribal ways and easily sheds blood to purchase our token of immortality. But once again I was sidetracked – lacking the fear of death is a just secondary symptom in Orience, the cause of which is the erasure of the memories of the dead.

Type0 - Figure03

Ending scene of Final Fantasy Type-0, with nearly all the main characters dead after their final sacrifice in the war. After this, their “mother” (Arecia, a god-like creature) finally capitulates: “The world will change to one where death cannot be forgotten. So please, I ask that you remember my children.” (Screenshot taken from the game.)

I know that in the beginning of this article I asked you to ignore the fact that Orience could not have become what it is if its people kept forgetting the dead and their stories. Well, now I want you to think about it again. The deceased obviously continue to play a big role in our lives long after they die – and they have done so in the whole story of our species. Would it be actually possible to live and thrive without their memory? Of course not! Our species can only thrive on accumulated knowledge and each generation adds to what was achieved by the preceding one. As many historians and scientists have said before, the past is the key to the future.

Everyone has lost something precious. Everyone here has lost homes, dreams, and friends. Now, Sin is finally dead. Now, Spira is ours again. Working together, now we can make new homes for ourselves, and new dreams. (…) Just, one more thing… the people and the friends that we have lost, or the dreams that have faded… Never forget them.

― Yuna, ending speech of Final Fantasy X.


Becker, E. (1973) The Denial of Death. [Republished 1997]. Free Press, New York.

Dennett, D.C. (2006) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking, New York.

Final Fantasy Wiki. Available from: (Date of access: 15/May/2015).

Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T.; Solomon, S. (1986) The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: a terror management theory. In: Baumeister, R.F. (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self. Springer-Verlag, New York. Pp. 189–212.

James, W. (1902) Varieties of Religious Experience. Modern Library, New York.

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Skinner, B.F. (1948) Superstition in the Pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology 38: 168–172.

Solomon, S.; Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T. (1991) A terror management theory of social behavior: the psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 24(93): 93–159.

Solomon, S.; Greenberg, J.; Pyszczynski, T. (2015) The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Random House, New York.

Staddon, J.E.R. & Simmelhag, V.L. (1971) The “superstition” experiment: a reexamination of its implications for the principles of adaptive behavior. Psychological Review 78: 3–43.

Timberlake, W. & Lucas, G.A. (1985) The basis of superstitious behavior: chance contingency, stimulus substitution, or appetitive behavior? Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 44: 279–299.

Wade, N. (2009) The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. Penguin Press, New York.

Zilboorg, G. (1943) Fear of death. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 12: 465–475.

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Praise Helix!

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany.

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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It is not everyday that I manage to join two of my main interests, mollusks and mythology. So rejoice!, for today is one of those days. I bid you welcome to the Cult of the Helix.

So how was this cult born? Nature-worshipping barbarians coping in a dangerous environment? An old bearded guy receiving revelations in the desert? A bald hermit meditating in the mountains? Well, none of the above. The Cult of the Helix was born in a most unorthodox manner: on the first iteration of Twitch Plays Pokémon. Wait, what?


Twitch Plays Pokémon (henceforth “TPP”) was a crowdsourced event in which everyone could type commands through the website’s chat window and try to finish the game that was being streamed, namely Pokémon Red. It took a little more than two weeks for the players to complete the game and this was more than enough time for the birth of an entirely new religion. But how exactly did that happen?

With thousands of people giving commands at the same time, there was a huge confusion and progress was very slow at the beginning. Then some programmer had the idea of initiating a system (named “Democracy Mode”) in which the game compiled votes every 10 seconds and the command inputted on the game was the one with most votes. People could vote to switch between Democracy and the original mode (hence renamed as “Anarchy Mode”) at any time. Most people preferred Anarchy, because it was supposedly more fun, and turned to Democracy only when it seemed otherwise impossible to advance in the game.

TPP is a very boring way of playing Pokémon and the players soon turned to other stuff in order to make it a little more exciting. They started to interpret whatever was happening in the game in a way that it would make sense from a cosmic point of view. And, as a matter of fact, many bad things were happening in the game – in the Anarchic world of TPP, bad moves and poor strategies were running amok. Not intentionally, mind you, but as a result of the way in which commands were given and computed. This way, items were discarded, pokémons were released and, even worse, eevees turned into flareons.


But let’s return to the Helix. One item in particular could not be discarded; it was the Helix Fossil (the fossilized shell of a ammonite-like pokémon). And, boy, people spent a lot of time in the inventory clicking on the Helix Fossil (and thus receiving in return the message “This isn’t the time to use that”). It did not take long for people to decide that the fossil was a god and that Red, the protagonist, was consulting it as a sort of oracle in order to discover the best way to proceed on his adventure.

Lord Helix. Artwork by Chlorine17 (

From this point onwards, the mythology of the Helix developed really fast. The Helix Fossil had been previously chosen by the players in spite of the Dome Fossil, which then became the Enemy, or the Devil, if you will. The Helix represented Anarchy Mode, while the Dome represented Democracy. The pidgeot, the most reliable pokémon in battle, became Bird Jesus; flareon became the False Prophet, a servant of the Dome Fossil; and many other pokémons received places in the mythology, accompanied by a lot of fanart on the internet. Long story short, eventually the players revived the fossil (yes, that’s possible in the game in a very Jurassic Park style) and received the pokémon omanyte in return. He was the resurrected god, Lord Helix. And then they went on to beat the game, but that’s not important – let’s take a closer look at the whole religion thing.


The Church of the Helix was born in a very short time span and possibly already have more followers than many of the world’s “true” religions. In a sense, Helixism has itself become a true religion and, more than that, it was created consciously through the consensus of a tribe (here defined as a group of people sharing the same interests and symbols). This is perhaps an example of Durkheim’s totemism. According to him, this is the most fundamental and primitive style of religion. The totem (here, the Helix) is a reflection of the tribe’s consciousness, chosen as a symbol to represent it. Symbols are an important part of any religion and the main pillar of totemism. Symbols are the representation (or perhaps translation) of the abstract principles of a religion in material form and, thus, allow the cult to develop and flourish.

Durkheim’s ideas were much disputed, of course (despite having received certain revival now in the light of research on the evolutionary roots of religious behavior), but the parallel was too strong to be ignored here. For Lévi-Strauss, for instance, the totem is a kind of animal with which a particular tribe identify themselves. In this case, it is not consciously chosen. Therefore, this view does not accommodate so nicely with the TPP’s Helix cult, since it was consciously (albeit somewhat accidently) chosen by its followers, which supposedly don’t identify themselves as an omanyte.

Granted, there are yet further difficulties: to begin with, Helixism was not born “naturally”, like a totemic religion developing in a group of humans some tens of thousands years ago. Rather, it was in a large part built on the common features of Christianity (including its symbology and usual artistic depictions). This, of course, merely reflect the cultural background of most players, but make comparisons with theoretical works more complicate and perhaps even more tenuous.

The Helix mythology. Artwork by Twarda8 (

Of course, this is not a serious foray into the origins of religions in general or the meaning of a peculiar newborn religion. These are just some random thoughts that came to me when I first saw the Helix cult in all its glory. Helixism will probably never be treated seriously by its followers (well, at least I hope so). Still, the Church of the Helix functioned in its own manner as a true religion does, giving an identity to a group, making them stick together and driving them forwards (there was even a petition to make March 1st the National Helix Day in the USA). As such, it is a unique and amazing event and I do hope that somebody will someday seriously study it.


The Helix Fossil and the pokémons you get from it, omanyte and its evolved form omastar, are based on actual mollusks: the ammonites.

Top row: the helix fossil (left) and omastar (right), as they appear in official Pokémon artwork. Bottom row: Asteroceras sp. (left), an actual fossil ammonite shell from the Jurassic of England, and an artistic reconstruction of the animal (right), by N. Tamura (

The ammonites are a completely extinct branch of cephalopod mollusks – besides ammonites, the class Cephalopoda comprises squids, octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses and the also extinct belemnites. Ammonites once ruled the seas and diversified in thousands upon thousands of species, but unfortunately, they died together with the dinosaurs in the great extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous. They received their name in ancient Rome, for the fossil shells were compared to the ram’s horns of the Egyptian god Ammon.

By the image above, one can see that both the fossil item and the pokémon are reasonably representative of ammonites (although the pokémon’s shell is positioned like a snail’s shell, not like a cephalopod’s!). But I do have an issue with the name: “helix” comes from the Greek, through Latin, and simply means “spiral”. Up to here, it is a fitting name. However, Helix (notice the italics) is already the name of a genus of land snails, which includes common garden snails and edible snails.

A Helix snail: Helix lucorum. Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

Land snails are, of course, gastropods, which is an entirely different class of mollusks altogether and only distantly related to the cephalopods (and thus to ammonites). They could at least have chosen a better name; a good deal of ammonites have names ending in “ceras”, for instance (which means “horn” in Greek). But Pokémon is a complete failure for names – gastrodon is another poorly named molluscan pokémon. But I’ll let this whole name deal slide just this once, since this fossil has spawned the first mythology ever based around a mollusk – and that is truly something to be happy about.

But since they have chosen the name Helix, I have a final comment to make (which may be somewhat disturbing for the faithful), for one must be consistent with his choices. “Helix” is feminine, so we would have a Lady Helix, not a Lord Helix. Unfortunately, pokémons still did not have genders in Pokémon Red (this feature was only introduced in the so called Generation II, i.e., the Gold/Silver games), so we will never know Helix’s gender for sure. In any case, I bet it would have been a surprise for the followers to discover that their god was actually a goddess.

Last but not least, if you have any important questions, feel free to do like Red and consult the Helix Fossil, in this charming website:

Praise the Helix!


I’d like to thank the artists from, who kindly let me use their works here.


Durkheim, E. (1912) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. George Allen & Unwin, London.

Leach, E. (2010) The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. Routledge, London.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1963) Totemism. Beacon Press, Boston.

Mithen, S. (1999) Symbolism and the supernatural. In: Dunbar, R.; Knight, C.; Power, C. (Eds.) The Evolution of Culture: A Historical and Scientific Overview. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey. Pp. 147–172.

Monks, N. & Palmer, P. (2002) Ammonites. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C.

Wade, N. (2009) The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. Penguin Press, London.

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