When I was a teenager, I tried to play through all of the Final Fantasy games in order – although I have to admit, I never did finish Final Fantasy VIII. Still, I battled my fair share of pixelated beasties, and I often wondered exactly where those imaginary creatures originated.
I did some digging at the time, and found that the original Final Fantasy on the NES lifted most of its bestiary from Dungeons & Dragons. While the English translation obscured this somewhat, so that the Mind Flayers became mere “Sorcerers”, a look at the monster names in the Japanese version will reveal Squaresoft’s debt to TSR. A good number of the enemies were ultimately drawn from legends and mythology, of course, but it is no coincidence that these creatures can also be found in the Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual.
Final Fantasy II was more imaginative, and introduced a large number of original creations, such as the tentacled Malboro:
But in terms of inspirations, Final Fantasy III is where things get interesting. The game draws upon a surprisingly broad range of legends from around the world – although, admittedly, in many cases Squaresoft’s depictions of the monsters have little connection to their legendary counterparts beyond sharing the same name.
Looking back, it is clear to me that someone at Square must have had a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, the Japanese edition of which was published in 1974. Here are some of the creatures that are found in both Final Fantasy III and Borges’ book:
Abtu and Anet, two fish from Egyptian mythology.
The Lemur, a ghost from Roman folklore.
Acheron, a Titan who was transformed into a river leading to Hades.
The Carbuncle, a small animal with a gem on its head, was supposedly sighted by Spanish conquistadores in South America; Final Fantasy III depicts the creature as a blue rock with an eye. As “carbuncle” is also a general term for a red gemstone, this could be a coincidence – but bear in mind that later Final Fantasy games use a Carbuncle that is clearly the creature described by Borges.
Humbaba, a giant who turns up in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Square borrowed his name for this winged bull.
Haniel was, according to the Zohar, one of the four angels witnessed by Ezekiel. The Lovecraftian entity portrayed by Square owes little to Ezekiel’s vision, however.
The Barometz enemy takes its name from a variety of fern that inspired the curious legend of the “Vegetable Lamb of Tartary”. The game depicts this being as a humanoid plant, and uses a recoloured version of the same sprite to portray the Mandrake enemy.
The Garuda, a giant bird (sometimes depicted as half-human, half-bird) found in Hindu legend.
The Simurgh, a flying monster of Persian lore; it is depicted in the game as a giant bird, although its legendary counterpart was said to have mammalian aspects as well.
The Crocotta and Catoblepas, creatures described by Pliny the Elder and later found in medieval bestiaries.
Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail – an aspect lost in Square’s human-headed interperetation.
This coral-like enemy is called a Remora, after a real-life species of fish. Borges included this creature in his book due to legends that it could slow ships.
The Buraq is named after a winged, human-headed horse of Islamic lore; Square borrowed the name for a Cthulhu-like being. The game’s English translation rendered the name as Bluck.
The relative obscurity of most of these creatures, and the overall scale of the overlap, make it hard for me to chalk all of this up to coincidence. Most telling of all is that the game repeats what appears to be a mistake made by Borges.
One of the enemies encountered in the game is a Haokah, portrayed as a two-headed lizard-man that shoots lightning bolts. The name “Haokah” turns up in the Book of Imaginary Beings; here is Borges’ description:
Haokah, the Thunder God
Among the Dakota Sioux, Haokah used the wind as sticks to beat the thunder drum. His horned head also marked him as a hunting god. He wept when he was happy and laughed in his sadness; heat made him shiver and cold made him sweat.
However, outside of Borges’ book and texts obviously derived from it, I have found no sources that indicate that “Haokah” is the name of a Dakota deity. The word “haokah”, more commonly spelled “heyoka” or sometimes “heyókȟa”, denotes someone who belonged to a class of ceremonial clown in Lakota society; from my limited understanding, a heyoka was actually a sort of sacred jester (and possibly still is; I have no idea if heyoka remain part of Lakota culture)
One real-life heyoka was Black Elk (1863-1950). Here is his outline of the heyoka ceremony, as recorded in the book Black Elk Speaks:
I will say something about heyokas and the heyoka ceremony, which seems to be very foolish, but is not so.
Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.
But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for.
From this account, we can see some of the elements that Jorge Luis Borges appears to have garbled in his description. The notion that heyoka are people who witness thunder spirits (known as Wakinyan) presumably fed Borges’ claim that Haokah is a thunder deity; his following description of how Haokah “wept when he was happy and laughed in his sadness” sounds like a misinterpretation of the heyoka ceremony.
Going back to Final Fantasy III, we find that the game contains a monster called a Thor that looks the same as the Haokah, only yellow instead of blue:
This would suggest that Square believed “Haokah” to be the name of a thunder god.
Final Fantasy III is not the only example of pop culture running with Borges’ interpretation. The Shin Megami Tensei series has a character named “Haoca”, depicted as an androgynous figure with artificial wings and stereotyped Native American get-up:
This design may have influenced two characters from the online game Blood Brothers, named Haokah Thunder Shaman and Haokah the Lightning Brave:
A 2003 issue of Captain America, meanwhile, introduced a character named Haokah to the Marvel Universe; “Haokah, the Sioux god of Thunder, is like the Norse god Thor, in a few ways”, states Comic Vine.
So, it looks as though Borges’ idea of a Native American thunder god named Haokah has made inroads into pop culture, with Final Fantasy III being one of the earliest examples.
(As a final note, if anyone has any comments or corrections relating to Lakota belief, I’d be very interested to hear them!)