I am an avid video game player, and the "Final Fantasy" series is one of my all-time favorites.
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.
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 Symbols
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!
- Part I: Everyday Spiran Inscriptions
- Part II: Al Bhed Writing & Graffiti
- Part III: Yevon Script, Temple Texts
© 2011 auronlu
Comments / Feedback - Please share this page with fellow fans!
Lucas on May 31, 2018:
Awesome article. Very interesting to read after replaying FFX!
YoYo on May 31, 2017:
I think that this game hide much things, like the fact that all Spira is a reflex of Tidus Spirit (Spira=Spirit). Tidus at the beginning live a period of his life in which he is confused and he can't find a sense of his life. He's is a famous player and he got everything at the material point (fame, money, etc.). In his darkest period of life (cause the memories of the dead father and mother that rising in its mind), appear Sin, that is the rappresentation of the sin of wasting his life without being able to live it truly. That's the point where Tidus have a symbolic death, that is spiritual not physical. Auron is his guide, the root and the beginning of the path of consciousness of Tidus. The seven characters of the game is similiar at the seven chakras in terms of numbers. Kimarhi is the intellect, silent but thoughtful; Yuna is the spiritual side, pure and innocent; Wakka is the physical side, full of energy and optimism; Lulu is attractive and has the control of the situation; Rikku is a child and is the sensible side. Each character is associated with a planet, and each planet is associated with an Eon: Tidus with Bahamut that is the black sun (the material side, cause he exist in reality); Yuna with Valefor that is the moon (the spiritual side and is the counterpart of Bahamut); Wakka with Ifrit and Mercury (the fire of life, the activity); Auron is a samurai like yojimbo with the symbol of Saturn (the experience, the root); Lulu with Shiva and Mars (the attractive side); Kimari with Ixion and Jupiter (the intellect indicated by the horn); Rikku is separated from Anima, even if they have the same meaning, or the souls, also called anima in other language. The three magus is separeted from the others, but their concept is the same; they are the three side of the human soul, the body, the mind and the soul.
In order of acquisition, Eons became a real path. The first is Valefor, or the first awakening of the conscience; like i said, Valefor is the spiritual side, he is divine. After there are the three elements of the soul that is Shiva (the cold intellect), Ifrit (the flames of the activity) and Ixion (the energy that comes from the soul). After these is acquired a dark side born in the human soul, that is Bahamut. Bahamut is the black sun, the negative virtues and is the counterpart of Valefor if you look well. Bahamut is the physical King. Valefor is the spiritual Queen. Yojimbo then is the union of the trinity of Ixion, Shiva and Ifrit in a human. After that the six Eons is available (so we have the union of spiritual, physical and the three vital elements) the soul rise from the deep, or Anima. Anima, like the soul, is chained into a body, slave of the body. The wings is like a flower which is about to blossom. Like the human soul, Anima has two side, similiar to the Yin Yang. At the end we obtain the three Magus, or the three aspect of the soul awakened completely. In fact we see during the invocation that the three Magus comes out from three flowers. At the end of the game we got Tidus that overcomes the divergences with his father. He fight Yu Yevon, or the original sin in his soul. He kill himself to spiritually reborn. After the end credits we see Tidus comes out from the water, a symbological scene that mean that Tidus return to live his life completely renewed in the soul. For this i hate FFX-2, because it destroy voluntarily the meanings of the X.
J on October 09, 2016:
I've been reading through your articles on spiran, yevon and al bhed scripts - really interesting stuff!
Just wanted to share a thought on the inconsistency with Bahamut Mu/Light. The Zanarkand puzzle which requires the Light symbol starts by inserting Besaid and Kilika spheres leading me to believe that this puzzle is not related to the aeons but to the pilgrimage/temples (Besaid, Kilika, Djose etc).
This then effectively reflects the first trial in Besaid, where the yevon script on the walls names the locations of the temples (Besaid, Kilika, 'Djoze', 'Zanarkana', Bevelle, Baaj, Macalania). In this puzzle we are creating the yevon symbols for the temples we have been to on the pilgrimage, not the aeons we received.
This interpretation I think fixes both issues highlighted here in the article, being "Why is anima's mandala here" and "Why is bahamut represented as light".
For Anima, Anima is now the aeon at Baaj temple, and Baaj temple is on the walls of Besaid's trial showing it is part of the pilgrimage. When in the puzzle we solve Baaj's symbol it is Anima's mandala that appears.
For Bahamut, when we are solving the puzzle by lighting the shapes, we are solving the light symbol because that is the symbol of Bevelle temple. It is the symbol in the Bevelle spheres which shows this. I speculate that it makes sense in the game too, Bevelle is giving light to Spira through the false hope of the pilgrimage etc. Bahamut's mandala appears as his fayth is in Bevelle temple.
Shashank Rao on August 14, 2015:
Another very important aspect of Yuna's rejection of the Church of Yevon is that she only continues to recognize the Aeons and the Fayth. These are the only physical proofs of the Yevon faith, which might indicate some commentary on worship revolving around things you cannot perceive. Much of the worship in the Yevon faith is already predicated on things that ordinary people can see, such the High Summoners, who people look to for guidance, and also the fayth by the summoners, who are the only people who actually know the truth behind the fayth and such. Even the maesters are unlikely to have seen the fayth themselves (unless they too were summoners, such as Seymour). In short, I think that game is condemning esoteric and contrived evidence for religion, weird or unexplained reasoning for precepts of the faith, particularly the ban on machina, which if encouraged, might have helped destroy Sin much earlier on.
auronlu (author) from Spira on April 07, 2014:
@nekoboi72: I wish I could figure those out. There's still some bits of all this that elude me, places where Yevon Script is used in mandalas, but we've only been given the conceptual translations for a handful of them (fire, ice, light, /mu/), so we don't know what the rest mean when they're incorporated into summoning mandalas. I suppose they could be just decorative for game design purposes. However, since these mandalas resemble esoteric Buddhist mandalas, I have the feeling that they must be suggesting related ideas/concepts/elemental forces that are part of that aeon's power.
nekoboi72 on March 29, 2014:
This page was very interesting and helped fuel my curiosity about the scripts that was used within the world of FFX. I was hoping to learn more about the extra scripts that was used to surround the elemental symbols on the mandalas, to know if it was supposed to mean anything. Like with Anima's mandala using the two light symbols on the left and right sides and from top to bottom was 'P' and 'Q' (had to download a picture and flip it around). Might be nothing but thought it would be fun to look into.
auronlu (author) from Spira on August 20, 2012:
@anonymous: Yes, all of these mandalas appear during the aeon's summons. :)
anonymous on August 16, 2012:
@auronlu: Ah, I see. I've been in the process for years to create renditions of those mandalas. I've seen different versions throughout the game. When you revisit the fayths after you get the airship, the mandalas appear in much more detail than what was shown in the Baaj Temple. The black and white versions come from an artbook, however, even the artbook fails to show them in their full glory. The user ShardofTruth posted images of the Bahamut mandala in shocking detail; I wish they posted the other ones as well.
auronlu (author) from Spira on August 15, 2012:
@anonymous: I don't remember exactly. i think I scoured every HD walkthrough on Youtube, hitting pause a lot trying to stop it on just the right frame. Possibly zashetheman's channel. Most are from the Baaj temple sidequest, where you have to deposit a glyph sphere from each temple into the sockets in the statues in front of Anima's chamber. Each one flashes the glyph of its corresponding aeon and temple for a moment after the sphere is inserted (e.g. When you insert the Bevelle Sphere, Bahamut's main glyph appears.) Another good place to watch for the glyphs is in the sidequest to Remiem; the Magus Sisters' glyphs appear the first time you enter, and depending on the camera angle you get most of the glyphs during Yuna's or Belgemine's summons animations. Basically I scoured HD walkthroughs for moments like that when glyphs were likely to appear, until I got the right frames. Unfortunately I don't have those screencaps anymore. (although with some of the images above, if you click on them, they go to larger-sized versions of the same image.)
anonymous on August 15, 2012:
@ShardofTruth: Where did you get your pictures of the glyphs? Those are the most detailed and the highest quality rendered Bahamut glyphs I've ever seen. Do you have the others in that quality; and maybe perhaps a larger size?
anonymous on July 15, 2012:
It's very interesting, I like this page. Well, I have to tell something concerning the Shiva's Mandala. It appears qhen you sommon her. The Mandala appears when she enters the ice (Well, white on white, it is not very clear to see but...). I don't have any picture to proove what I say but you can also play FFX and summon Shiva (Take a very concentrating look on the ice when she enters on)
anonymous on July 01, 2012:
Very interesting! Love the page thanks a lot!
anonymous on June 03, 2012:
I must say this is a really nice page! I've actually been doing some digging myself as far as the glyphs go and this helped out a lot. Thanks for taking the time to put something like this together :)
auronlu (author) from Spira on March 04, 2012:
@ShardofTruth: Hmmm. You've almost convinced me! At the least, there's something very puzzling about Bahamut. Which we knew. (If you have any fondness for fanfiction at all, go read justira's "Clarion" story casting Bahamut as the Machiavelli of Spira. Now. Don't even read the rest of this comment. It's too good a story to miss.)
Obviously, I need to do another play-through of FFX to reconsider Bahamut and Valefor. Not right now, though, as I'm currently catching up on several old games I'd never gotten around to playing before: FFIII (on the iPad), FFVI (I'm stuck in the depressing period after the party is separated), and Suikoden V (which rocks).
I can't wait for FFX HD to come out. Okay, so it'll be exactly the same game with PS3-quality graphics, but it remains my favorite story and world.
I would be careful of taking anything in FFX-2 as proof positive of anything, considering that they have people from Zanarkand hanging out in Luca. But I'm sure you've noticed the somewhat haphazard way that game was thrown together. ;)
auronlu (author) from Spira on March 04, 2012:
@anonymous: I'm basing Bahamut = Light on the chart provided in the FFX Ultimania guide, which specifies that glyph as light. It's the glyph paired with Bahamut's primary mandala in the Zanarkand Cloister of Trials puzzle which forces us to piece together the glyphs on the floor. The Baaj puzzle then tests you on the pilgrimage aeons' five mandalas plus Zanarkand's; the Bevelle sphere at Baaj makes it clear which mandala is Bahamut's.
There is some ambiguity in this system. Notice how the Magus Sisters's mandalas include the Lightning glyph at the center of one of them. Ifrit's Cloister of Trials shows the Zanarkand glyph on the floor of the elevator which doubles as Sin's glyph. All the Chambers of the Fayth have the "no-self" glyph behind them (I assume a hint that the fayth have sacrificed themselves.) There are complexities never fully explained.
However, I agree with you that there seems to be some sort of unexplained link between the two "child" fayth. They are the beginning and ending of the standard pilgrimage to acquire the five known aeons.
anonymous on February 29, 2012:
as well as Valefor is as you said non-elemental with his sonic wings energy ray/blast the Nirvana in this case helps valefor hit over 9999 hence fourth your evidence is truthful as well as the others