My over 300 hours worth of adventures through Atlus’ recent Persona games (sorry Persona 1 and 2 fans, for now) have clearly given me a lot to think and write about here. Whether it’s the friendships, a deductive process, a specific heart-warming scene, comparing the games, or real-world collectibles, it may seem like I’ve definitely run out of Persona content to analyze. But believe it or not, there’s more for me to write about today, because the series is just that rich in content!
The entire Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series that Persona branched out of has historically been very heavy on plot related to deities and mythology. Each game usually has hundreds of demons, gods, and mythological beings that you can interact with or work with in battle throughout the game. Think Pokemon, except the monsters aren’t made up by Atlus, but are instead representations of real-world mythologies. In this post, I’ll be specifically focusing on how the antagonists of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 relate to these real-world mythologies.
[In case it wasn’t obvious by now, this post contains HEAVY SPOILERS for Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5. Like I’ve said in the past, I highly recommend you play any or all of these games (starting from any point is fine).]
Let’s start with Persona 3‘s major antagonist: Nyx. In Greek mythology, Nyx is the goddess of the night. Compared to some other deities in Greek mythology, she appears sparsely in what texts have survived to contemporary times. However, we do know a few things about Nyx that help us understand her role in Persona 3. Most of these are found in Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem describing the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods, and Homer’s epic, the Iliad.
- In the Theogony we see that within Tartarus–described as a deep abyss that is used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked–is where Nyx built her home.
- Nyx is known to have been a consort of Erebus (meaning darkness, see below) and also gave birth to many other deities, including Thanatos, the Greek personification of death.
- It was noted by Homer that at one point, Zeus was angry at Hypnos, a minor deity of sleep and a child of Nyx, and was going to smite him. However, Zeus greatly feared the anger of Nyx, and chose not to take any action in order to avoid her maternal fury.
More than half-way through Persona 3, our heroes in the “Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad” (SEES) realize that their original goal to destroy the twelve major arcana shadows actually was a trap set by Shuji Ikutsuki to set free Nyx, a being who is supposed to bring about the end of the world. This Nyx would descend upon the top of Tartarus to bring about the The Fall of the world. This is consistent with the Greek view of Nyx returning to her home in Tartarus noted in point 1 above. The appraiser of The Fall is Ryoji Mochizuki, a representation of Death, and only he can call forth Nyx to the world. This makes sense given that Nyx gave birth to Thanatos, a personification of Death who also is the ultimate Persona of the Death arcana in Persona 3 (point 2 above). Ryoji also warns SEES that resisting Nyx is futile, as she cannot be defeated, which explains why even Zeus is afraid of her in point 3 above. Lastly, as you’ll see below, Nyx and Erebus have an important relationship (point 2 above) that is pivotal to the story of Persona 3 FES: The Answer.
Persona 3 FES: The Answer is an epilogue to Persona 3 that dives deeper into the “death” of the protagonist and the truth behind Nyx. It’s revealed that the deeper antagonist of the world is not Nyx, but actually Erebus, the Greek personification of darkness. Like Nyx, Erebus’ mythology is sparse and we don’t know much about him. What we do know is related to the Nyx mythology mentioned above:
- Erebus’ perceived meaning is “darkness”, or more specifically, “the place of darkness between earth and Hades.”
- Erebus was an offspring of Chaos and a brother/consort to Nyx with whom gave birth to many other Greek deities.
- In some Greek literature, the name Erebus is used interchangeably with Tartarus to represent a region of the Greek underworld where the dead pass immediately after dying.
Erebus is the actual “final boss” of the Persona 3. We find out in The Answer that Nyx is actually not evil at all; she can only bring about The Fall if Erebus comes into contact with her, which is related to point 2 above’s implication of a relationship between Erebus and Nyx. This is because Erebus is the manifestation of humanity’s grief and negative emotion, which essentially makes him reincarnate infinitely over time as long as there is negativity among humans. It might be a stretch, but I can see how this symbolically relates to “the place of darkness between earth and Hades” noted in point 1 above. Lastly, Erebus’ relation to Nyx and her home Tartarus is clear in the game, which is interconnected with the note in point 3 above.
Ameno-sagiri is the final boss of the “normal” ending of Persona 4. Very little is known about Ameno-sagiri, a Shinto spirit of fog, except in the Kojiki, an 8th century collection of Japanese myths, legends, songs, genealogies, oral traditions and semi-historical accounts. In this text, we see that:
- Ameno-sagiri is one of the children of Ohoyamatsumi (spirit of the mountains) and Kaya-no-hime (spirit of the fields).
- Ohoyamatsumi and Kaya-no-hime are the children of Izanami (see below) and Izanagi.
When Ameno-sagiri appears in Persona 4, the Investigation Team had just defeated the real culprit of the murders in Inaba, and found out that this spirit was the one responsible for the recent influx of fog in the town that was slowly turning people into shadows. This is consistent with Ameno-sagiri’s mythological counterpart, a spirit of fog (although the fog in Shinto tradition probably didn’t turn people into shadows). In addition, it’s revealed later (see below) that Ameno-sagiri was actually created as an avatar of Izanami, which is compatible with the fact that Ameno-sagiri is Izanami’s grandchild (she created him) in Japanese mythology (points 1 and 2 above).
Unlike the previous spirits, Izanami, the “true” final boss of Persona 4, has a wealth of information regarding her mythology, most of which is actually mentioned in the game itself. When the Investigation Team visits Tatsumi Port Island (the home of Persona 3), Mr. Edogawa tells the following story about Izanami and her consort, Izanagi:
One could say that this is Japan’s oldest tale of curses. You all know about the gods who created this country, I assume? The two gods who gave birth to this country are the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami.
They got along very well, but one day, Izanami died when giving birth to Kagutsuchi, the fire god. Extremely saddened by this, Izanagi left for the land of the dead to bring back Izanami. Yomi…the dark, dark underworld. There, Izanagi asked Izanami, who had become a dweller in that land of shadows, to come back with him to the land above. The goddess replied by saying she would negotiate with the god of the underworld, and asked Izanagi to wait for her.
However, Izanagi became curious to know what was going on, so he broke his promise and set his comb alight to look around. What he saw was the goddess Izanami, whose body was completely covered in filth and maggots! Terrified, Izanagi ran away, but the enraged Izanami chased after him! After dodging the many demons set after him, Izanagi reached the entrance of the underworld, Yomotsu Hirasaka. He set in place a large boulder as a barrier between the two worlds, and got away unharmed. When the dreadful goddess reached the boulder, he said his farewell to her. This is the curse known as the “kotodo.” Curses beget curses, and Izanami said to the god: “If you’re going to treat me this way, I will kill 1,000 humans in your world each day!” Izanagi regretfully accepted that the bonds between them were severed, saying: “Then I shall give life to 1,500 each day.”
Izanami’s tragic fate helps us understand her role as the primary antagonist in Persona 4. In the game, Izanami is intrigued by humanity’s true desire, and bestows various people their latent powers of invoking Personas. She believes that by observing the ones who have awakened, she would learn and be able to carry out humanity’s true desire. As the year goes on in the game, Izanami observes that Adachi’s actions have had the greatest effect on people, and so as the Yomotsugami (“Goddess of the Land of the Dead”) in Shinto mythology, she prepares to flood the world with fog and turn everyone into shadows in response to what she assumes is humanity’s wish.
When the protagonist discovers her identity, Izanami invites him to Yomotsu Hirasaka, which is mentioned above as the entrance to Yomi, the underworld. It is here that the protagonist defeats her in the end, by channeling none other than Izanagi, his original Persona. Izanagi transforms to Izanagi-no-Okami and finally defeats the rotting, death-ridden form of Izanami, Izanami-no-Okami. This serves as somewhat of an epilogue to the story above: their marriage was truly over and Izanagi was able to defeat his past lover, preventing her interference with humanity for good. Just as in the original curse of 1,000 deaths versus 1,500 births, Izanagi was able to undo Izanami’s intrusion into the human world once again.
Finally, we arrive at the recent Persona 5‘s antagonist, Yaldabaoth. To understand Yaldabaoth’s mythology, we need to dive into the ancient religious system of Gnosticism, where Yaldabaoth is considered as the “evil” God of the Old Testament. In most schools of Gnosticism, there exists an idea of the Pleroma, which represents the collective totality of divine powers in the world. Within the Pleroma, there existed a being named Sophia who brought instability to this divinity due to her desire to create a material world. This caused Sophia’s exile from the Pleroma, and after this expulsion, Sophia created Demiurge, who is also called Yaldabaoth, or the Son of Chaos.
Sophia was ashamed of her creation due to its conflict with the values of the Pleroma, so she created a great cloud around Yaldabaoth to hide him and built him a throne. When he gained consciousness, Yaldabaoth had no awareness of Pleroma or Sophia, and given his throne, he concluded that he was the creator of all things. Yaldabaoth then created Adam, the first man, but could not grant him a soul due to the absence of his connection with the Pleroma. At this point, Sophia felt pity for him and granted Adam a divine spark that led him to worship the true God. Yaldabaoth was infuriated by this and in a series of events told by the Old Testament, has since sought to keep the souls of mankind bound to the material world.
In Persona 5, Yaldabaoth is the primary antagonist of the true ending of the game, and is a power-hungry and self-righteous deity who toys with humanity out of sheer sadism. This twiested view of humanity can be explained by his jealousy of Adam’s praise of the true God mentioned above. Throughout the ending of the game, we see Yaldabaoth as a manifestation of humanity’s subconscious desire for order and control, but in a warped view where humans are no more than livestock for him to rule over. Given that the mythological Yaldabaoth created by Sophia had no divine power and could only create the material world, this is actual a meaningful point highlighted by Persona 5. Ultimately, Yaldabaoth wants all humans to be soulless and follow him blindly, because he is incapable of being a god of humans who have souls or any ounce of divinity within them.
During the final battle in Persona 5, Yaldabaoth also stays true to his myth in Gnosticism. For example, at the end of the fight, Yaldabaoth reveals that he actually had enough power to defeat the Phantom Thieves at any time, but kept holding back in his fight due to his arrogance. As noted above, this arrogance is thousands of years old, starting from when Yaldabaoth saw his throne within the dark clouds that surrounded him and concluded that he was the ruler of the world. Lastly, when Satanael finished off Yaldabaoth using a bullet harnessing the seven deadly sins that Yaldabaoth himself was using in his battle, the god was essentially killed off by his hypocrisy. Even more interesting is that in Gnostic traditions, Satanael is said to be an angel who once served Yaldabaoth (similar to Satan and the Judeo-Christian God), who rebelled when he realized that Yaldabaoth was not the true God in order to liberate humanity. The game stays true to this mythology by allowing Satanael to be the Persona that saves the world in the end.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of the influential spirits within Atlus’ Persona franchise. In addition to Persona 1 and Persona 2, this post is also missing the side stories of the franchise, including Persona 4 Arena, Persona 4 Dancing All Night, Persona Q, as well as the upcoming Persona Q2. We can also expand this to the actual SMT franchise and find even more myths to analyze and compare between the games and the real world. Maybe one day I’ll get to all of those games and write a part two. Until then, please chime in with your thoughts and additions to these mythologies!