Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Monomyth in Final Fantasy X

The first time I played Final Fantasy X was around 2002, when a friend let me borrow it one summer. I was hooked immediately. Since this first experience with it, I have played through the game countless times, spending many summers or weeks between semesters at college with one of my favorite games of all time. As I got further in my study of literature, mythology, and mysticism, I made connections between the traditions I was reading and FFX. I began to see the patterns and ideas behind FFX’s story that paralleled others, and it was a fascinating and liberating experience. When reading Joseph Campbell’s concept of monomyth, Jung’s explication of alchemy, and treatises in the Hermetic tradition, my mind has consistently turned to this game as an exemplar of these patterns and concepts. When I was young, I didn’t quite grasp the profundity of Tidus’ journey, and though I loved the gameplay and the narrative, I thought the story was some anti-church, anti-religion atheistic manifesto: the head church officials of Spira perpetuate Sin in the world by their faulty traditions, knowingly give the lives of Spira’s summoners and their guardians over to Sin, and keep the masses docile via a ban on technology, or machina. Of course, this is all true, but the story is much more complex. Final Fantasy X tells the story of a liberation of soul and spirit from bondage and contains dozens of brilliant uses of various mythological traditions, including Gnosticism and alchemy.

Image result for sin
Eve reaches for an apple in the Garden of Eden, whose original inhabitants were free of sin.

The word sin evokes strong feelings for both Christians and non-Christians alike. The koine Greek word which is translated sin in English is hamartia. Hamartia means, literally, “to miss the mark,”originally an archery term for when one misses the target, possibly evoking for some classicists an image of Cupid accidentally shooting earth-dwellers (or fellow gods) with arrows, infecting them with passion. In the Pauline epistles, the word for law is nomos, and Paul’s hamartia is an inborn principle in the natural, fallen human that gives humans a tendency toward defying the nomos (which is in place, given by God, to restrain these tendencies). Ultimately, for Paul, the death of Christ gave him a freedom from the nomos, not because he did not follow it anymore, but because he was no longer bound by it. That is, Christ’s death internalized the nomos for Paul, while it had put an end to hamartia. Of course, the word sin has come to carry a meaning far beyond the way the Greeks, and even Paul, used it, especially in Christian churches whose members are concerned with the operations of society and the actions of the individuals in that society, for fear these individuals will go to hell (Hebrew שְׁאוֹל, “underworld, abyss,” literally “grave”). Putting the reality of the Judeo-Christian hell aside, let’s move on to the topic at hand: Final Fantasy X. In the story, the people of Spira have named the gigantic monster “Sin,” a monster whom followers of Yevon believe is a punishment for their past transgressions.

In FFX, pilgrimaging summoners and their guardians attempt to destroy Sin and bring about a temporary Calm, only to keep a new Sin (necessary to remove the old one) remaining in Spira (whose name sounds like “spiral”). Unbeknownst to Tidus when he sets off on his journey with Yuna, the destruction of Sin necessitates two sacrifices: a sacrifice of the summoner him- or herself and a sacrifice of one of the summoner’s guardians. Although the summoner is lost forever, the sacrificed guardian becomes the new Sin. The cycle continues in this way, and it would have continued forever if not for the actions of Yuna and her companions in the story of FFX – where the summoner and her guardians fight and destroy the previous final aeon, Tidus’ father Jecht, rather than summoning a final aeon to swallow Jecht – and the summoner and guardian – up.

As some of you may know, aeon is used in Gnosticism to describe the emanations of God. The first of three Aeons in many systems is known variously as Sige (“silence”), Ennoea (“thought”), or Charis (“grace”), and is a perfect being. The next two emanations, one male and one female, are Nous (“mind”) and Aletheia (“truth”). These aeons dwell in the upper strata of Pleroma (that is, “the region of the light”); meanwhile, those that dwell at the lower end of Pleroma are closer to the darkness or material world. Though each system begins with the perfect being and ends in the material realm (darkness), different Gnostic systems have separate accounts of and names for the emanations. Furthermore, as Wikipedia explains, in Gnosticism, the

transition from immaterial to material, from noumenal to sensible, is created by a flaw, passion, or sin in an Aeon. According to Basilides, it is a flaw in the last sonship; according to others the sin of the Great Archon, or Aeon-Creator, of the Universe; according to others it is the passion of the female Aeon Sophia, who emanates without her partner Aeon, resulting in the Demiurge (Greek Δημιουγός), a creature that should never have been. This creature does not belong to Pleroma, and the One emanates two savior Aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit, to save humanity from the Demiurge. Christ then took a human form (Jesus), to teach humanity how to achieve Gnosis. The ultimate end of all Gnosis is metanoia [(Greek *μετάνοια*, or “repentance”)]—undoing the sin of material existence and returning to Pleroma.

That is, Gnostics in antiquity disagreed (at least superficially) about what causes the transition from the noumenal to the phenomenal (or sensible) world. However, the solution for sin, for the tendency toward the material realm, was always the same – metanoia. Much like hamartia, the word metanoia has become much distorted also. To achieve metanoia, one need not enter into a sobbing fit in a confessional of a church, as the English translation repentance may connote for some today. Metanoia simply means “changing one’s mind” – that is, it is something that is done inwardly to oneself, not outwardly. It is a shift in one’s mind away from darkness and toward the region of light: “Long hast thou dwelt in Darkness” the Neophyte Ritual of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, dense with Gnostic thought, tells its initiates, “Quit the Night and seek the Day.”

Each of Spira’s summoners has access to the pantheon of aeons, access to each of which is gained through prayer at a designated temple, only after completing an ordeal called a Cloister of Trials. Each Final Fantasy aeon is conceptually borrowed from a religious or mythological system.

AeonName comes from…Appears as…
ValeforThe sixth spirit of the Goetia, demon by day of the third decanate of Taurus, apparently a “good familiar, but tempts to steal” (Godwin 323).According to Mathers, “a lion with the bellowing head of an ass.”
IfritClass of jinn who embody fire in Arabian mythologyJinn, djinn, or genies inhabit the invisible realm. According to the Qu’ran, the jinn are the third class of sentient creatures alongside angels and humans.
IxionIn Greek mythology, Ixion was summoned to the table of the gods, and hit on Hera. Jupiter tricked Ixion into sleeping with a cloud made to look like Hera, and was strapped to a flaming wheel that revolves around the world as punishment.Probably human, but the fake Hera gave birth to the centaurs; hence, Ixion appears as a horse-like creature.
ShivaShiva, Hindu god of destruction, or possibly the Slavic goddess of life and fertility, Ziva. (Both are appropriate, given that Shiva is also the god of duality.)Shiva appears blue (like FFX’s Shiva) after saving the world by drinking poison. Ziva appears as a scantily clad woman (also like FFX’s Shiva).
BahamutBehemoth is a land monster (as opposed to Leviathan, a water monster) in Hebrew mythology, mentioned in Job 40:15 and identified with the Devil in apocalyptic literature (e.g. Revelation).
Bahamut, certainly related to Behemoth, is also a large fish that supports the earth in Arabian mythology.
Chaos monster destroyed at the time of creation, sometimes a dragon.

Large fish, sometimes having the head of a hippopotamus or an elephant. According to Borges, Bahamut is the large fish that Jesus beholds on the 496h night of the One Thousand and One Nights: “It carries a bull on its head; the bull bears a rock, and above the rock is an angel who carries the seven stages of the earths. Beneath Bahamut is an abyss of air, then fire, and beneath that a giant serpent called Falak.”
AnimaAnima means “soul” and is the name of the feminine archetype in depth psychology.A vicious monster with two sides – one chained above, the other free but vicious and violent below.
YojimboYojimbo (用心棒) means “bodyguard,” reflecting the fact that he is a sword for hire.Samurai for hire.
Three Magus Sisters
(Sandy, Cindy, and Mindy)
Traditional women’s names.
Sandy is an abbreviation of Sandra, based on Alexandra (“man’s defender”). Cindy means “light,” and Mindy means “sweet.”
Three sisters, each with much different proportions. Sandy is tall and slender, Cindy is medium height and heavyset, and Mindy is small. The Sisters make us think of the magi who visited Christ at His nativity, traditionally 3 in number. It also makes us think of the 3 witches in Macbeth, the 3 fates, and the 3 goddesses from Greek mythology.
Jecht, the Final Aeon

Braska’s Final Aeon is not borrowed from other mythologies; other than “Jecht,” (it is called “Jecht, l’Ultime Chimère” in the French version) the aeon doesn’t have a name: it is wholly a fantasy, a chimera, of its summoner Braska’s imagination. Years after Braska’s summoning, once Sin had returned, Braska’s daughter and Jecht’s son set out to bring the Calm once again, continuing the cycle. Though the final aeon Jecht doesn’t appear as anything recognizable, the aeon looks remarkably similar to Hashmal, Bringer of Order, who is associated with the zodiacal sign Leo in Final Fantasy XII. Their white hair, size, red foreheads, and blades for arms echo one another.

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Hashmal, Bringer of Order

Tidus’ journey of reconciliation with his father (the final aeon, Jecht) takes the archetypal pattern of the “hero’s journey” myth, sometimes called monomyth. As Joseph Campbell describes, the journey (depicted as a cycle) may include any or all of the following, outlined in three acts: Act I, Separation; Act II, Descent and Initiation; and Act III, Return. First, the hero is called to adventure, and the hero usually refuses the call. Next, the hero meets his mentor and crosses the threshold. The hero goes through a series of tests, meeting allies and enemies along the way. Eventually, the hero approaches an “inmost cave” and faces a great challenge, the completion of which gives him a reward or boon. The story then focuses on the road back, when there is a breakthrough to the other side once again, a resurrection, and a return with a boon for the people. Each step and its manifestation in FFX are outlined below in Table 2.

Archetypal StepAppears in FFX as…
Call to adventureAuron’s call to Tidus and the appearance of Sin in Tidus’ Zanarkand
Meeting the MentorTidus and the player meet Auron
Crossing the thresholdTidus and Auron get sent to Spira through contact with Sin
Tests, allies, and enemiesPath to Zanarkand, the tests at the temples, the guardians, and the enemies (e.g. Seymour)
Approach the inmost caveEnter into the belly of Sin
The ordealDefeat of Sin and the final aeon
RewardThe Eternal Calm

Tidus’ allies – Yuna and her guardians – have the option to collect sigils and crests to unlock their celestial weapons along the journey to the inmost cave. Each sigil and crest pair is named after one of the seven planets in Chaldean astrology. The table below lists each character and corresponding planet in the US English version of the game, ordered from closest to farthest from Earth.

CharacterPlanet
YunaMoon
RikkuMercury
LuluVenus
TidusSun
AuronMars
WakkaJupiter
KimahriSaturn

Aside from being the only apparently moving sources of light in the sky, these seven planets were named and venerated, painted on Babylonian temples as a series of “planes” to the divine, and were thought to have influence over the fate of humans. The table above orders the planets by their apparent proximity to Earth, like a ladder up to the stars if we were living in a geocentric universe.

If you recall, the first three emanations of God in Gnosticism are the perfect being, then a male, and then a female emanation – grace, mind, and truth. This may remind some of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, whose first three Sephiroth (or spheres) are Kether (Crown), Chokmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Understanding). The last two of the three spheres on the Tree of Life, like the last two of the three emanations of God mentioned from Gnosticism, are masculine and feminine, respectively, the first providing the ability to conceive and the third providing the possibility for a thought to take a shape. The ten spheres of the Tree – which are emanations from God, and not necessarily of God – are depicted across three columns. In order after Binah, they are Chesed, Geburah, Tiphareth, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkuth.

Tree of Life in the Hermetic Qabalah

In some Kabbalistic traditions (mostly those of the Hermetic flavor), practitioners attribute to each of the spheres along the Tree of Life a planet, and each of the 22 Major Arcana of the tarot to the connecting paths between them, as can be seen here. I should mention here that each of the Major Arcana cards are also attributed to a Hebrew letter, and additionally some are given a planet, a zodiacal constellation, or a classical element.

There exists a fantastic set of correspondences in FFX using the Tree of Life from Qabalah. As shown above, the characters’ sigils and crests correspond to the seven planets used in Chaldean astrology. In the game, there are certain places wherein only Wakka, Tidus, and Rikku may go (only these three members of your party can swim; the other members must remain behind). Do these three members’ planetary attributions bear a connection to their ability to swim underwater? You’ll notice that the corresponding Sephiroth of their planets (Mercury, Sun, Jupiter) on the Tree appear in a kind of diagonal line, beginning on the side of Mercy in Chesed and ending on the side of Severity in Hod. The paths connecting these three Sephiroth (and one adjacent) are attributed to the three earthy zodiacal constellations: between Hod/Mercury and Tiphareth/Sun lies The Devil/Capricorn (cardinal earth), and between Tiphareth/Sun and Chesed/Jupiter lies The Hermit/Virgo (mutable earth). The third earth card or sign, The Hierophant/Taurus (fixed earth) lies between Chesed and Chokmah, just above Wakka’s sphere. Most of you will be familiar with the hierarchy of the classical elements – in order, starting with the most subtle, they are fire, air, water, and earth. Naturally, the reason Wakka, Tidus, and Rikku are able to travel and explore under the “water” in the game is their earthiness.

(In his book on astrology, Aleister Crowley describes an aspect of the human psyche and calls it the Sensorium. The Sensorium is the part of the soul that stores sense perceptions and sends them back into consciousness. I think the Wakka, Tidus, Rikku trio is something like this aspect of the mind.)

Now, if this idea is applied to the story, we begin to see much more meaning in all of these attributions and connections. The first person Tidus (the Sun) encounters after his first contact with Sin (besides the dreams he has dozing by the fire), the first character he meets in Spira, is Rikku (Mercury). She comes to Tidus’ aid after Tidus lights a fire in what appears to be a dilapidated temple near Baaj. As the fire begins to go out, a fiend attacks, and Rikku comes to fight by Tidus’ side. Though she goes missing for a while, Rikku, like the planet, provides our hero with a wide array of technology (machina), perhaps paralleling the technology Hermes provides for Perseus when preparing to fight Medusa – winged sandals and a magical cap, symbolizing the human intellect and imagination. Appropriately, the first mission with Rikku is the recovery of a lost piece of technology from underwater: “Fa vuiht dra airship!” one of the Al Bhed exclaims (“We found the airship!”), a device that, like the winged sandals of Mercury for Perseus, later help Tidus fly (and it’s not a wonder the sphere of Mercury is called “Splendor” on the Kabbalistic Tree).

Naturally, Rikku, the technology expert, later provides the party with another great perk: alchemy. Rikku’s planet, Mercury, is named after the Roman God whose Greek equivalent is Hermes, and, according to tradition, Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-blessed) invented and spread the art of alchemy; hence the art is also called Hermetics, Hermeticism, or the Hermetic art. Superficially, alchemy is the transmutation of base metals, such as lead, into finer metals, like gold. However, occultists use the symbolism and practice of alchemy for their own purposes: transmutation of the soul and spirit. The lead of the operation is the soul in its original state; the gold of the operation is the soul perfected.

Tidus, who as the Sun figure corresponds to alchemical gold, discovers something important about himself at the end of the story. The fayth ( 祈り子, literally “Child of Prayer”) project Zanarkand into existence, and therefore Tidus, as a citizen of Zanarkand, is in Spira only as a projection of their dreams. He is a product of their dream life, and as soon as the fayth stop dreaming, he will disappear from Spira. Do we want a complete absence of Sin in the symbolic sense? If there’s no Sin for Tidus and his friends to fight against, is there still a journey into and out of the inmost cave and a return with a boon for society? Would there be such a thing as a culture hero?

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, mentioned above, utilizes both Gnostic and alchemical language (among other symbolism) in its lectures and rituals. C. G. Jung writes in his Psychology and Alchemy that the ancient Gnostic tradition, during the medieval era, adopted the guise of alchemy and survived through alchemical treatises, which, on the surface, appeared to be chemical and herbal instructions to make gold and powerful elixirs, but were subtle operations and instruction to make changes to the human mind. Similarly, Final Fantasy X‘s writers appear to have preserved Gnostic, alchemical myths in this guise, for others to chance upon and begin pilgrimages of their own.

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