Final Fantasy X Symbols & Glyphs
Solving the Riddle: Yevon's Sacred Writing in FFX
The world of Final Fantasy X shimmers with sacred symbols, glowing glyphs, and beautifully ornate mandalas. They're part of the stunning graphics of a visually impressive video game. I've always wondered what they meant. I knew they were related to the aeons, genie-like spirits that assist the party during their adventure, but I never investigated... until now.
While researching these symbols, I've discovered something that's pretty spiffy: I think they're based on a kabbalah-like sect of medieval Japanese Buddhism! Read on to learn how a popular video game -- at first glance a simple fantasy story told in video game form -- actually expresses some fairly esoteric religious concepts.
(This page began as a section of "Inscriptions and Writing Systems of Spira.")
The Church of Yevon's Sacred Alphabet
Yevon Script is one of three alphabetic writing systems in Spira, the fictional world of Final Fantasy X. Its shapes are loosely based on the real-world ancient Siddham Script, an archaic written form of Sanskrit still used for holy books in both Hinduism and Buddhism. This is a clue that Final Fantasy X's fictional Church of Yevon, the theocracy that rules most of Spira, is loosely based on some archaic form of Buddhism (or Hinduism, or both).
Sometimes, these letters simply represent sounds and spell out words, as I explored in my survey of Yevon Script in FFX. Other times, they symbolize "fundamental elements/forces of the world of Spira," according to the FFX Ultimania Omega guide. That guide explains the meaning of the following signs:
Summoning Glyphs (Mandalas) Representing Aeons
If three alphabetic writing systems plus "elemental signs" weren't complicated enough, Final Fantasy X also has special "glyphs" which I call mandalas, the circular geometric patterns that appear when the fayth are summoned. Puzzles in Zanarkand and Baaj require us to match letter-signs and summoning glyphs, and by extension the aeon and temple associated with each.
Bahamut is a rare exception to the rule, in that he has two elemental signs instead of one. I (Light) is his letter-sign in the Bevelle and Zanarkand Cloister of Trials, while T (Mu) is his mandala and in Baaj Cloister. Either it's a game design mix-up, or a hint that he's special. Regardless, the basic idea is the same; he just embodies more than one principle.
I've colored these myself; they're based on but not always identical with the in-game mandala colors.
GALLERY: Aeons And Their SymbolsClick thumbnail to view full-size
What It All Means: The Secret of Yevon Glyphs
As a westerner, I couldn't help seeing correspondences between the Church of Yevon and Catholicism, with its organized church hierarchy, concepts of sin and atonement, inviolable scripture, pilgrimages and reverence of saints (High Summoners). However, during my research for a mythological studies MA, I became more keenly aware of the Buddhist elements in this game, from the pilgrimage to Yuna's ultimate weapon, Nirvana. Most of all, I began to see the hidden meaning behind the summoning glyphs and signs.
The Siddham Sanskrit script is used in Japan mostly by the Shingon School of Buddhism, which draws heavily on older, esoteric Hindu traditions. One key concept of these traditions is that deities (devas) manifest their thoughts or spiritual energy in our world on several different "wavelengths", so to speak, analogous to the way matter behaves both a wave and a particle. The "wavelengths" are: Sound, Form, Symbol.
In some Hindu traditions, not only does the "word of God" bring the universe into being, but also, the 25 syllables of the Sanskrit alphabet are the building blocks of the universe. Just as we can name anything by rearranging letters, and just as matter is made up of arrangements of atoms, God can name anything into existence by rearranging sounds.
That's what lies behind a Mantra, a ritually repeated sound or chant (like the Hymn of the Fayth). A string of syllables, or even one syllable, can manifest a deity, or manifest esoteric concepts/spiritual powers such as elements. Accordingly, Shingon Buddhism considers the letters of the Siddham alphabet to be "seed-syllables", sound-particles which express and manifest the essence of deities. The "A/ah" sound is a central point of meditation for Shingon Buddhists, and the "ah" sound in the Yevon script doubles as the glyph for Yevon itself.
Early literate cultures were stunned by the power of writing, which captured fleeting sound in a visible, permanent form. For them, letters were more than signs; they were visible embodiments of sounds which preserved their meaning and essence. In a ritual context, sound-syllables and the letters embodying them can express manifesting/creative force. It's the same idea behind Egyptian hieroglyphs (literally, "sacred signs"), Norse runes, and many semi-magical writing systems. The sign is the sound, and names (sounds) have power.
The second "wavelength" through which deity can manifest is an anthropomorphic representation like a statue or avatar. It's not the deity, any more than a physical body is a total human being, but it's a living form that humans can apprehend. Note that the form physically expresses the essence, the meaning of the divine power, just as the aeons in FFX don't represent the fayth's temporal body (what they looked like in life), but rather, their dreams: the inner fires, passions, or temperament of the soul.
In some Hindu and Buddhist practices, one can invoke deity through a physical representation, a statue. It's not idol worship, but rather, a focused visible expression, just as a mantra is a focused vocal expression, of the deity's power. Sometimes, the deity's mantra or seed-syllable is ritually written on a piece of parchment that is carefully tucked inside the heart of the statue. (Right, Ifrit's fayth statue: what it looks like without the glass dome on top.)
The third "wavelength" through which deity can manifest is a mandala (Buddhist tradition) or yantra (Hindu tradition), a geometric pattern which distills the essence of the deity into an abstract visual representation. "Yantra" is sometimes translated "machine" or "instrument." Like mantras, lenses of sound, yantras are visible foci that can direct spiritual energy toward a purpose. (Like, say, summoning?) Shingon Buddhism employs mandalas as instruments of ritual, too. Buddhist and Hindu Mandalas/yantras often have the "seed-syllable" for the associated deity inscribed at the center, and other "seed-syllables" may also be added around the perimeter of the mandala.
The mandala/yantra balances the anthropomorphic representation: one is utterly abstract, the other utterly concrete, but they both express the meaning of the deity. Vibrating sound, visual symbol, physical embodiment: these are simply three different ways in which immanent, divine energy can "precipitate" into a form we perceive.
I notice the mandala is also used in the Shingon Buddhism initiation ritual to help the initiate connect with a specific tutelary deity, after which the initiate receives a rod/staff. The ceremonies differ in other ways, but I can't help thinking of Yuna's summoner trials.
Many fan discussions talk about how Final Fantasy X's message is a rejection of religion, drawing heavy-handed parallels between the Church of Yevon and Christianity. What those discussions often seen to miss is the fact that Final Fantasy X is drawing even more heavily on eastern, medieval Japanese religious traditions. If you pay attention to Yevon signs and symbols, it's obvious: the summons magic of the previous games has been reinterpreted in Shingon Buddhism terms. It's the same way that the world of Spira is based on medieval fantasy, but it's not western medieval fantasy, unlike previous installments. It's Japanese.
In fact, Yuna is betrayed by and rejects organized religion and the church. Auron and Lady Belgemine both insist that the spiritual power of summoning is authentic, while the Teachings, Scriptures, devotion to Yevon and obedience to the Church are not.
Auron: The fayth are the ones that give power to the summoners. Not the temples or the teachings. If the temples try to stop us...then we will defy Yevon if we must.
Belgemine: Ah, you shouldn't take what the maesters say too seriously. For summoners, destroying Sin is everything. We are no tools of Yevon, understand?
I might go so far as to say that Final Fantasy X presents a more eastern view of religion while raising questions about western notions of sin and atonement, scripture and dogma. For what it's worth, in 1996, only a few years before Final Fantasy X was released, 2% of Japan's population was Christian, while 4% were members of Shingon Buddhism. (The majority of the population practice more mainstream Buddhism and/or Shintoism, if they practice anything at all).
Mythopoiesis in Final Fantasy X
The use of glyphs and symbols in Final Fantasy X reminds me of the way J.R.R. Tolkien created multiple Elvish languages, complete with etymological histories, to make personal names and geographic names sound more authentic. You're probably not aware of the Elvish languages behind the names, but they make Middle-earth feel more real. In the same way, the use of glyphs and sacred letters in Final Fantasy X makes the game "ring true," especially for Japanese players.
Final Fantasy XII (with its zodiac pantheon) and XIII have revived the basic idea of FFX's glyphs/mandalas for summons. There were also a few "eye candy" examples of mandalas prior to Final Fantasy X (the Diabolos summons in VIII, e.g.). Nonetheless, I think Final Fantasy X demonstrates the most successful and meaningful example of integrating game mechanics (summons) into the cultural context of the world.
This page is the last part of my tour of writing systems and symbols in Spira. I've deciphered most of the signs, banners, and graffiti scribbled across the world of Final Fantasy X: find out what they say!
© 2011 auronlu