The Mythology of Final Fantasy - Part 1
The Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games is easily one of the most famous video game franchises to this date, and can arguably be considered the catalyst for bringing the "Japanese" RPGs into the limelight for North American players. Beginning in 1987 as the last ditch effort by the Japanese company Squaresoft (now Square Enix) to produce a hit, the franchise has boomed over the years, spanning fourteen main entries, several side-games, two movies, animated series and special, and even a trading card game.
With these countless entries, Square Enix has borrowed heavily from various fields for inspiration for their characters. Mythology, religion, and pop culture have all been referenced over the years. Where else but a Final Fantasy title can you fight a creature heavily based on ancient Hindu mythology, only to be able to talk to Biggs and Wedge from the Star Wars universe about your battle a few minutes later?
Just how many people know though that the creatures they face and the summons they call forth to aid them are derived from other sources, and even if they do know, are they aware of the actual backstory for them? Let's take a look at some of the more famous entries in the Final Fantasy games and see where their mythological roots lie.
So My Summons Come From Where?
One of the reoccurring elements in the Final Fantasy universe is summons, the ability to call forth a creature or machine to aid you in battle, be it dealing damage to the monsters or giving your party a protective effect. Though some of the roster has changed over time, there are a core group of summons that have appeared in most every Final Fantasy game, and most all are tied to various elements of mythology.
First appearing in the original Final Fantasy III (not the North American Final Fantasy III, which was the Japanese Final Fantasy VI), the summon Ifrit has commonly been depicted as a demonic creature that governs the element of fire. In his early entries, Ifrit was shown as being fairly humanoid with yellow skin and demonic horns, though later entries have given him a more animalistic, monstrous design. In Arabic folklore, the ifrit is a class of djinn often shown as a giant winged creature comprised of fire susceptible to magic but immune to conventional weaponry. Unlike its Final Fantasy counterpart, ifrits can be either male or female, and while they often try to find mates amongst themselves, they will sometimes take a human as their partner.
Also appearing in Final Fantasy III is the antithesis of Ifrit, the mistress of ice Shiva. Her design, as a whole, has changed very little over the years, as she is often depicted as a scantily clad, blue-skinned woman that decimates all creatures in her way with the powerful attack, Diamond Dust. Unlike her in-game rival though, Shiva's resemblance with her mythological roots are little more than name only. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is a member of the Trimurti, a triumvirate of gods that govern three principle aspects of Hindu faith, alongside Vishnu, the preserver, and Brahma, the creator. Shiva himself represents the destroyer, the end of all things. In all visual depictions, Shiva is represented as a young man with either two or four arms, a third eye on the center of his forehead capable of releasing a beam of destructive energy, a crescent moon that sits on his head, and is often depicted in a meditating position.
Perhaps the most famous and most powerful summon is Bahamut, a winged dragon that is often depicted in Final Fantasy games as being a deity of all other summons. Bahamut's design as a Western-influenced dragon has remained fairly similar over the years, though recent entries have given him more ornate, intricate details. Like Shiva, Bahamut's mythological origins are almost exclusively in name only, for in Arabic mythology, Bahamut is described as being a hippopotamus-headed fish of gargantuan proportions that floats on the surface of an unending ocean. On top of Bahamut stands the great bull Kujata that supported a mountain made of ruby, upon which sat an Angel that supported Earth, the six hells beneath it, and the seven heavens above it.
The Fierce Faces of Final Fantasy Fiends
The monsters of Final Fantasy are among the most memorable and exciting creatures for any person to ever face in an RPG, and like summons, a number of monsters, both major and fodder, have their roots in the mythologies from various regions of the world.
The monster Jormungand, sometimes under the names of Midgardsormr, Terrato, and Yormungand, has appeared in Final Fantasy games from as early as the original Japanese Final Fantasy III, and is often depicted as a giant serpent or Western-style dragon. Perhaps its most famous appearance is in Final Fantasy VII where it appeared as the Midgar Zolom (a mistranslation of Midgardsormr), a large cobra-like creature that roams around the swamp near the Chocobo Farm and serves to deter those who dare to cross the swamp on foot. Its mythological roots, however, are far more ominous.
In Norse mythology, Jormungand, also known as the Midgard Serpent, is a snake-like creature so massive that it is literally coiled around the entire world with its tail firmly held within its mouth. According to the myth of Ragnarok, the precursor to the end of the world would begin with Jormungand letting go of his tail to wreak havoc on all of creation before facing off against the god of thunder Thor. Thor would eventually prevail against the World Serpent, but would succumb to its deadly poison after only walking nine steps.
A staple monster in the Final Fantasy bestiary, and one that has changed very little since its inception in the original Final Fantasy II, is the Behemoth. Being both a goal and a bane of players due to its brutal strength and fierce temper, the Behemoth is a large, purple-skinned, horned creature that often appears as a boss fight or as a random encounter in end game dungeon areas.
Though embellished to a degree, the Behemoth of Final Fantasy closely resembles its mythological namesake, the Behemoth of Judeo-Christian religion. Described as a herbivorous creature with a tail that moves like a cedar tree, bones of copper, and muscles so powerful that the sinews are essentially knitted together, it is said that it would face the primal beast of the sea, the monster Leviathan, in a battle at the end of the world, and the two would slay one another.
Final Thoughts for this Final Fantasy
As a fan of mythology as well as the Final Fantasy franchise, I love being able to pick up the different references that appear in some of my all-time favorite games. I enjoy being able to see Zidane cut down a Garuda in Final Fantasy IX, knowing that the bird I just killed was a mount for the god Vishnu in Hindu mythology, or that the Ahriman facing down Cesil in Final Fantasy IV is a Zoroastrian representation of the devil.
Square Enix has managed to weave mythology and religion seamlessly into one of the best role-playing games of all time, and with each new entry brings new references for me to jump for joy over. Though recent entries have tarnished the reputation of this gaming giant for some, I remain an ardent fan, and will keep putting money down to see what relics of the past find their way to my Final Fantasy.
For the next entry
- The Mythology of Final Fantasy - Part 2
Another look at some of the mythos behind the monsters and summons from the Final Fantasy universe.