Gnosticism in Pokemon
Gnosticism was a kind of Christian mysticism in the early centuries of Christianity. Gnostics got their name from "gnosis" or knowledge, that they believed could be gained of spiritual realities beyond material existence. Because the material world was subject to decay and death, they did not worship the same God as Jews and Christians, but taught that He was simply a lesser being, a corrupt and ignorant being trying to imitate higher, perfect beings who had created a higher, more perfect spiritual realm. Humans were conflicted and disordered because they had both spiritual and material realities conflicting inside them. Through gnosis, sacred understanding, human beings could transcend the flawed material universe and ascend to a spiritual realm.
Well it seems weird to think about, it feels like a lot of gnostic concepts get touched on in anime (or in this case, since we'll be primarily looking at the Pokemon games, Japanese games). It seems weird because gnosticism is a sort of dead-end branch of early Christian thought that died out, and was forgotten for centuries, only enjoying a recent revival. Second, it seems weird because Japan is not a Christian country, with Christians being a rather rare minority faith. Some reasons for this might be that certain stranger sects of Christians in Japan were gnostic or believed in things that were more mystical and transcendent, which perhaps would have been a more appealing version of Christianity to Buddhists. Or it might be that ideas in gnosticism are strangely similar to certain Buddhist ideas and practices (certainly, they both teach a lot of similar concepts). Or, it could be that Japanese intellectuals involved in making art and video games and such are influenced by studying gnosticism or other forms of mysticism. Whatever the reason, there can be said to be clear gnostic parallels in profound, artistic anime series like Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (I'll maybe talk about their relationship with gnosticism in later articles). But what about in a light-hearted kid's game, like Pokemon?
Mind, Body, and Spirit
The gnostic teacher and theologian Valentinus (source) taught that humanity had three elements within them, usually translated as body, soul, and spirit. But the term "soul" is confusing here, because we often use the words "soul" and "spirit" interchangeably. But Valentinus wrote in Greek and the word he used for "soul" is "psyche", which I think more directly translates to "mind". This was the animating "soul" that allowed the body to move and the seat of consciousness, but it was not the "spirit", the perfect part of the self that lived after death. These three parts making up the human being have conflicts with each other and are the reason creation is considered flawed. Unlike most gnostic teachers, Valentinus didn't think that the world was created by a malicious God, but simply one who was lesser than the greater original God who represented what a person's immortal spirit was seeking to connect with through "gnosis" or spiritual understanding of that truer, greater, more perfect God, not the Demiurge or "craftsman" who simply created the world and mankind, but was not the true Father or supreme God. The human spirit is given to us by a being higher than the Demiurge called Wisdom or Sophia, which is why the spirit is pure and perfect and seeks to return to its true home, called the "entirety" by many gnostics and the "fullness" by Valentinus.
Now, I'll also discuss the Pokemon creation story in a later article, but I thought one thing was very interesting when I head about this; it reminded me of the evolutionary lines of Machop, Machoke, Machamp, Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam, Ghastly, Haunter, and Gengar. If you'll remember, these are the three evolutionary lines where the highest form of evolution is only possible by trading.
The Physical or Material
You have here the bodily form of existence represented by the trio of Machop, Machoke, and Machamp. While a body can "evolve" into a stronger body, it is limited, constrained by all the flaws of this material world. Even getting four arms, representing a doubling of its strength, it is still weak to the higher level, the psyche, or Psychic type Pokemon. Because it is purely physical, it cannot even touch a Spirit (Ghost), making it the lowest of these three seemingly related trios of Pokemon. Similarly, the world of matter and physical existence were seen by gnostics as flawed and inferior to the world of the spirit.
The Psyche, Soul, or Mind
Then, there is obviously the mind or soul aspect of humanity being represented by Abra, Kadabra, and Alakazam. Interestingly, the Abra starts its life looking permanently asleep, and being asleep for 18 hours a day. When it evolves, it opens its eyes. This seems to speak to the idea of meditation bringing about enlightenment, like in Buddhism. It could also represent gnostic initiation, or initiation into one of the mystery cults, which were all said to "open one's eyes" by teaching them a higher truth. At first, little Abra can only protect itself by fleeing, using Teleport to get away from predatory Pokemon or attacking Trainers.
This may have to do with the soul/mind's role in the Valentinian gnostic understanding of creation and humanity; the psyche was the "breath of life" which animated a human being, allowing them to move. It was considered the seat of reason and intellect, in conflict with the greedy whims and appetites of our material flesh. However, it was still considered lesser than the true soul or spirit, the part of the self that lives on after death and seeks to return to the entirety or fullness, the spiritual realm beyond our reality. The psyche was capable of doing good through the exercise of the intellect (Abra evolves into Kadabra and not only opens its eyes, but gains a red star in its "third eye" area, seeming to indicate some kind of spiritual awareness it didn't have before). But through intellect and reason alone, the gnostics believed we were still limited, or incomplete.
The Spirit and Ghosts
By the time Abra evolves, it has become capable of fighting, dishing out psychic attacks that will bring down any Fighting type and many other types as well. But it is weak against attacks from Ghost types. Ghastly, Haunter, and Gengar are the original Ghost type Pokemon. Gengar is one of the most powerful Pokemon in the Kanto region, because there was no Dark type in those games that it was weak against. Perhaps their appearance as black and purple represents them as polluted or corrupted souls. A pure soul, perhaps having undergone gnostic baptismal rituals, would go to be one with the entirety or fullness after death, to have eternal peace. But the souls walking the earth must in some way be corrupted or impure. In the anime, we see this with Ghastly, Haunter, and Gengar being tricksters and being mean (but not truly evil) because they have unresolved karma, unfinished business, or whatever you want to call it. They're still struggling with something that keeps them bound to the material world and unable to go to the fullness/entirety or heaven or whatever else is beyond this material world. That is why I believe that they are both Ghost and Poison types. They are not evil or malicious (Dark), but they are corrupted by some kind of toxic mindset (Poison) that keeps them from fulfilling a spirit's true purpose and ascending beyond the material world. This is quite similar to how other Poison types, Grimer/Muk and Koffing/Weezing operate, they seem to be corrupted physical entities, one earth-bound and one flying, that were corrupted by pollution of the waters and air respectively. Similarly, I think Ghastly, Haunter, and Gengar are similarly polluted spirits.
The Significance of Evolving By Trading
Interestingly, all of these triads have the same feature that in order for one of these Pokemon to fully evolve, they must be traded from one Trainer to another. Other than the obvious cash grab on the part of Nintendo, this makes little sense in-story. What is gained from the experience of being traded and traveling from one Gameboy to another with that link cable your mom wouldn't buy for you?
Well, it becomes more interesting if we think about gnostic mysticism and its idea of how a person is saved. Unlike the schools of thought in early Christianity that would later become the mainstream theology, gnostics taught that people could achieve gnosis, or knowledge of the true spiritual reality, through their own personal experiences. Many of them claimed to have had visions where they traveled out of body and experienced some kind of profound spiritual learning. Gnostic rituals, the group-led study of gnostic texts, and so on were designed to push the participant toward a path along which they would receive gnosis and therefore salvation, but it was considered much more of a private spiritual experience.
In the Catholic church and later derivative sects, salvation was attained through having the right beliefs and being part of the Church, taking part in the sacraments. In Protestant traditions that emerged after the Reformation, salvation was about faith alone. But pre-Catholic Christian mystics believed in study, learning philosophy and theology and perfecting one's mind, much like Indian yogis or mystics in many other faith traditions. They believed that a person could undergo a major spiritual transformation on their own, not necessarily needing to be part of a rigid church-like structure (which didn't exist yet in Christianity). So, back to Pokemon, it seems to me that the experience of traveling from one game-universe to another "parallel plane" constitutes a metaphor for a human spiritual journey similar to what gnostics and other mystics believed could happen when a person gained wisdom or insight from a spiritual experience.
There are many similarities between what a person having an out-of-body vision and a traded Pokemon goes through; they are taken out of their normal reality, lifted up (the link cable was attached near the top of the Gameboy in the original system), transformed, much like a physical being taking on a spiritual form, and placed in a completely different reality altogether. Similarly, when someone has a truly profound spiritual experience, it can probably seem like it is their reality that has been altered, even though their world is the same as it ever was.
So why then can't any Pokemon, like a Ghastly, an Abra, or even a Pidgey evolve after having such an enlightening experience? Simply, the Abra, Ghastly, and Machop are not ready yet, and other Pokemon, not possessing human-like bodies, minds, or souls, cannot evolve in the way humans "evolve" through spiritual experiences. Also, when a Pokemon evolves by trading and holding an item, that's not just a pain in the ass for the player, but also a way of saying "this Pokemon will be changed by their spiritual experience if and only if they have the necessary equipment", much like how some people cannot achieve spiritual understanding without certain ritual tools, or natural materials designed to lend their energies to the person's experience (but this idea is more common in Wicca than gnosticism).
Not everyone can transform by having a spiritual experience, similarly, in the real world. Much like an Abra not ready to yet become Alakazam, a new initiate might not have the fullness of understanding or the years of study necessary to make meaning from the experience. Pidgey and other Pokemon are simply not human-like enough, they don't have a deep consciousness to be affected by such an awakening or aren't capable of fully realizing it in their more simplistic minds. Interestingly enough, in the first generation of games, with the first 151 Pokemon, those that are human-like in form do not evolve, such as Jynx, Mr. Mime, Hitmonlee, and Hitmonchan. What I know about these Pokemon is that they are based on female opera singers, mimes, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan, respectively. Perhaps they represent a form of false humanity that does not improve itself, merely contributing to entertainment and spectacle rather than being capable of growth and change (Pokemon evolution). They might represent entertainment in the material world as part of the "circuses" part of the "bread and circuses" that keeps us distracted from reaching higher truths. Though in later games, they have baby forms of themselves revealed, they do not get evolved forms higher than themselves, suggesting that their status is limited, that they are more bound to the physical world than Pokemon who can ascend to a higher evolutionary form.
So what did you think? Let me know by commenting.
Also, I want to give credit for helping me understand and learn about gnosticism to this amazing Audible audiobook called "Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas" by Professor David Brakke, which you can find here. I highly recommend it if you have an Audible account and are interested in learning more about gnostic beliefs, scripture, rituals, and concepts. And I credit the good people over at Bulbapedia for my Pokemon research. Go there if you want to learn basically anything there is to learn about Pokemon.
Thanks for reading!