The Gnosticism of Final Fantasy VII, Pt. 1

FF7 Lifestream_Meteor

This is the first post in my new Final Fantasy VII/Gnosticism project, in which I analyze the connections between Final Fantasy VII, the 1997 game that ‘sold’ the Playstation, and Gnosticism, an obscure (yet omnipresent) religion/philosophy whose mythology permeates popular culture.

To begin, we must ask: what is Gnosticism? Despite having a simple, stereotypical image, Gnosticism’s definition is highly contested in academia. It’s accepted that Gnosticism originated around the 2nd century CE and lasted for a couple centuries in various forms, and early Christian thinkers denounced its various strains as heretical. In terms of beliefs, it’s generally the “notion that the material cosmos was created by one or more lower demiurges…an entity or entities lower than and distinct from the most transcendent God” (Williams 4). In another words, the god that created the world as we know was not, in fact, an all-powerful, supreme God in the mold of Judaism or Christianity.

However, many ‘non-Gnostic’ texts also include this notion, so scholars have tried using addendums and secondary qualifiers…but no definition, whether broad or narrow, has ever succeeded at grouping together all ‘Gnostic’ texts while excluding all ‘non-Gnostic’ works. Non-Gnostic works and authors, such as Plato, slip through broad definitions, and ‘Gnostic’ works get squeezed out of narrow, restrictive ones.

So how can Final Fantasy VII be Gnostic if Gnosticism isn’t really defined? For a blatant example, one only needs to listen to Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children:

FF7 is replete with loaded language that comes directly from Gnostic texts. ‘Cosmos,’ which Sephiroth utters, is just one example, given that it comes directly from the previously listed definition of Gnosticism. Another ‘loaded’ word in the FF7 universe, which will be discussed later, is ‘puppet’; the term repeatedly used to deride Cloud’s origin is actually sourced from a classic Gnostic text, the Apocryphon of John.

Sethian Gnosticism

This post will focus only on the Apocryphon of John (Ap. John), whose beliefs are sometimes referred to as Sethanism or Sethian Gnosticism. The text, which describes an experience of John, one of Jesus’s disciples, has innumerable parallels in FF7’s plot.

The Apocryphon starts out with Jesus appearing to John in a moment of doubt and explaining the workings of the universe. To borrow the words of Michael Allen Williams, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington:

In the long revelatory discourse from Christ that follows, John learns about the nature of true divinity and the invisible structures in the divine realm; the relationship between true divinity and humanity; the relation between the invisible divine realm and the visible creation; how this creation came into existence; the nature and names of the gang of subdivine powers who control this world…and, over all of this, the all-powerful divine providence in which humanity can have complete trust.

(Williams 9).

In reading this myth, it becomes clear how many elements and plot points of Final Fantasy VII are based on this story. According to the Apocryphon, everything originates from a singular God – “the true God who is the fountain from which all else derives” (9).

Compare that to FF7. All life originates from the Planet/Lifestream. Humans and monsters alike come from the Lifestream, and they return to it when they pass away. When Aeris explains that Elmyra’s husband is dead, she phrases it in context of the Lifestream: “Someone dear to you has just died. His spirit was coming to see you, but he already returned to the Planet.”

Aerith’s role as mediator and converser with the Planet is itself taken straight from Ap. John. In the text, one of God’s first actions is to imagine its own self-image; this process gives birth to a new entity named ‘Barbelo,’ whose main purpose is to be the link between God and humankind, leading humanity to salvation. Barbelo is human, yet she is special – she is the “First Human” (10) and God’s partner.

Doesn’t this sound a lot like the Cetra? The Ancients, as they were also called, were the first race to prosper on the Planet. They commune with the Lifestream, and when early humans came into being, the Cetra helped them flourish. Aerith is the last living Cetra by the time FF7’s story begins.

Aeris CCFF7Moreover, Aerith is humankind’s savior in FF7. Her sacrifice in the Forgotten City saves humanity from Meteor. In using the Holy materia, she gathers the Lifestream, communes with it, and makes it repel the Meteor before it annihilates Midgar. She, and the Cetra as a race, is Final Fantasy VII’s Barbelo.

The idea of Ancients leading Shinra to the ‘Promised Land’ is a similar retooling of this figure. Remember that Barbelo helps lead humankind to salvation. In the story, that can be interpreted as meaning that people rejoin the one divine providence, the Perfection that cannot even be imagined.

ShinRa correctly understands that the Promised Land will be mako-rich. However, that’s because the Promised Land – the Lifestream itself – is mako. The Lifestream is the one divine providence, and people return to the Lifestream upon death. People are, in a sense, rejoining the Perfection that is Ap. John’s God.

Even the gender and title of Barbelo is copied by FF7. Although Barbelo is technically androgynous, the story refers to Barbelo as female, as she “request[s] the ‘consent’ of her consort…” (10, emphasis added). Moreover, as Williams notes, “Barbelo can be depicted as the ‘Mother’” in her relationship with divine providence” (10).

It’s not a mistake that the only two Cetra we learn of in Final Fantasy VII, Ifalna and Aerith, are female. Moreover, in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, characters repeatedly refer to Aerith as ‘Mother.’ Kadaj confers upon her that title when he dies. After being shot by Yazoo, Cloud’s first reaction is to call Aerith ‘Mother.’ While she jokes off the title – “why is everyone calling me Mother lately?” – the parallel is clearly drawn.

Trouble in Paradise

God continues to create new divine entities – a divine self-generated “Child,” (9) the “Perfect Human” (9) Adamas and his son Seth, and a litany of personified attributes and personality traits, called “aeons” (10)[1].

In fact, the summons in FF7 are the ‘aeons’ of Gnostic myth.  Just as the aeons originate from divine Providence, summons like Shiva, Odin, and Alexander are called forth from materia. Materia is composed of condensed mako, which itself originates from the Lifestream.

All these deities (or demiurges, as they are called in Gnostic texts) live in harmony…until Sophia, the personification of Wisdom, starts to believe that it too is capable of creation and imagination.

Normally, lower deities are supposed to ask for Providence’s permission before they do anything. Sophia, in her infinite wisdom, chooses not to, and calamity strikes. Her child, Ialdabaoth, is “grotesque and unformed, unlike its mother and any of the other divine entities” (11). He is more animalistic than human. In FF7, Ialdabaoth is Sephiroth.

Although Sephiroth is not as hideous as his Sethian counterpart, his unnerving appearance is noted in-game. His eyes have slitted cat pupils, underscoring the animalistic connection to Ialdabaoth’s appearance. The silver color of his hair is unique in the FF7 universe. His black wing is distinctively abnormal, and his appearance during the first phase of his boss fight, Bizarro Sephiroth, can be described as misshapen.

Bizarro SephirothFrom the adjacent image, one can note his arm appendages that resemble wings or fins, his cylindrical lower body, and his nonhuman facial features, such as the green-tipped horns and the spikes emerging from his shoulders.

After being created, Ialdabaoth quickly gathers lackeys together to help him rule all darkness. He is completely unaware that any other, higher deities exist apart from his mother, Wisdom. In the same fashion, Sephiroth knows only of Jenova, his mother. He is aware of mako energy, but the Lifestream theology is either unknown to him or he does not believe it; the only reference he makes about the Lifestream is that he can harness its energy after Meteorfall. There is no recognition of the Lifestream’s consciousness in his words.

Through their own methods, Ialdabaoth and Sephiroth seek to become Gods. In Ap. John, he is described as having “inherited in full measure only his mother’s worst impulses. Completely self-willed, he steals spiritual power from his mother and runs off and sets about creating a world that he can control as he pleases” (Williams 11).

Sephiroth fits this description perfectly. What is Final Fantasy VII, if not Sephiroth’s failed attempts to destroy the world, become a God, and reshape the planet to his liking? Sephiroth leaves parts of Jenova to serve as boss fights on the ferry to Costa del Sol, the Forgotten City, and the North Cave, indicating that Sephiroth subsumes Jenova’s power, not vice-versa. He steals his mother’s power and uses it for his own ends. Moreover, his summoning of Meteor is an explicit attempt to become a God and reshape the world: he plans to harness the Lifestream’s power, just as he did Jenova’s, and claim it as his own.

At its core, Sethianism is a story where a divine providence creates the universe, and Ialdabaoth tries and fails to reshape the world and establish himself as its ruler. Final Fantasy VII is about how the Lifestream created and runs the planet, while Sephiroth tries to reshape it and become a god.

Jenova, as depicted in Advent Children

Jenova, as depicted in Advent Children

Sethian Gnosticism and FF7 do diverge in places. In the former, Wisdom is shocked at her son’s actions and immediately begins to repent. While she’s not restored to her previous divine stature, she’s given the equivalent of ‘administrative leave’ until the scandal of her son is cleared up. In FF7, of course, Jenova supports and guides her son’s destructive actions.

Jenova also borrows some of Ialdabaoth’s characteristics. When she realizes the horror of her son’s appearance, Wisdom hides Ialdabaoth “in a cloud far from the immortal, divine realm” (11). Jenova is called the “Calamity from the Skies”, and she falls from space to crash into the Planet. Her normal appearance is even more ghastly and inhuman than that of her son.

However, despite this overlap, Jenova’s other characteristics – her cosmic origin and her role as ‘Mother’ – better overlap with Wisdom, and Sephiroth’s actions denote him as Ialdabaoth.

Setting the Stage

Confusion about Jenova’s identity, and the consequences that arise from it, help set in motion the entire story of Final Fantasy VII. Simply put, Jenova fits descriptions of Barbelo, and it’s natural that the ShinRa scientists who unearth her, such as Gast and Hojo, mistake her for a Cetra[2].

Williams writes, “Barbelo is introduced as having several other titles or attributes, each of which pertains to some aspect of this entity’s role in the myth…triple-male; triple-power; triple-name” (9).

The triple-power represents the three aspects of Jenova’s existence: the body that ShinRa unearths; Jenova cells, which interact with mako to confer superhuman strength on SOLDIERs; and her mental presence, which calls to Sephiroth in Nibelheim, guides the Remnants in Advent Children, and ultimately causes the Reunion(s).

A Reunion itself requires all three parts: One must possess Jenova cells, have a physical part of Jenova’s body to fuse with, and be guided by her mental presence. Kadaj demonstrates this via his own Reunion in Advent Children:

The triple-name represents the three main characters of Final Fantasy VII who share Jenova cells and a mental connection: Sephiroth, Hojo, and Jenova herself. The ‘triple-male’ is clearly shown in the trinity of Genesis, Angeal, and Sephiroth in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, each of whose natal development was defined by the injection of Jenova cells.

Because of the first trinity – Jenova’s body, cells, and mind – as well as her inhabiting the body of an actual Ancient, it’s easy to see how ShinRa then gives birth to the other two unholy trinities – the First Class Soldiers and the main villains.

Extending the trinity analysis, there are three scientists who interact with Jenova – Gast, Hojo, and Hollander. It’s ironic that Gast, the ‘good’ scientist of the trio, fathers Aerith, a Cetra, whereas Hojo and Hollander both engineer men who come to call themselves ‘monsters,’ which is more in line with Ialdabaoth’s animal-like appearance. In Crisis Core, Angeal even transforms into a griffin-like creature, cementing the monstrous connection.

These trinity relationships are important because they allow for some characters in FF7 to perform actions that are otherwise done by Ialdabaoth in Ap. John. For instance, in the Apocryphon, Ialdabaoth decides to craft a human built in his own image (11). With his lackeys, he starts to build a human piece-by-piece with middling results: “when he is finished, the fabricated human remains a lifeless puppet, lying limp, motionless” (12, emphasis added).

Cloud is one of Hojo's failed attempts at recreating Sephiroth, and Hojo considers him a disgrace..

Cloud is one of Hojo’s failed attempts at recreating Sephiroth, and Hojo considers him a disgrace.

We can compare this this to Hojo in the aftermath of Nibelheim. He takes Cloud and Zack for experimentation, and he spends five years altering them, trying to recreate Sephiroth through them, an allegory to Ialdabaoth’s attempts to recreate his own image. He pumps Cloud’s veins with mako and Jenova cells. Yet Cloud becomes comatose, and he struggles with resisting Jenova’s mental influence even after he awakens. He is repeatedly called a ‘puppet’ throughout FF7’s storyline, a direct comparison to Adam in Ap. John. Kadaj notes Cloud’s former marionette status in Advent Children, just before they battle:

Meteorfall and Beyond

The story doesn’t end with failed attempts to recreate Sephiroth and Ialdabaoth, however. Cloud obviously awakens before FF7 starts, and in Sethian myth, Ialdabaoth’s creation, Adam, becomes conscious. So what happens? Eventually, Wisdom tricks her son into infusing Adam with spirit that she provides. As a result, Adam possesses incredible intelligence and glows with divine spirit (12).

That ‘glow’ of divine spirit is the same glow of a SOLDIER’s eyes. As Zack remarks to Aeris in Crisis Core, they are “eyes infused with mako energy. A SOLDIER trademark.” Given that mako is Lifestream, which is the supreme God, one can easily make the connection between Adam’s divine glow and glowing mako eyes.

Hojo injects Cloud with mako, hoping that it will cause the Jenova cells to activate. Instead, he is actually imbuing Cloud with the divine spirit that will enable him to defeat Sephiroth. Suddenly, the weak trooper is more powerful than ShinRa’s unbeatable General, just as the divine spirit gave Adam great intelligence that surpassed Ialdabaoth’s own (12).

The rest of the Sethian creation myth is a series of attempts by Ialdabaoth to destroy humankind. Notably, he creates a “flood of darkness” to wipe out humanity, and when that fails, Ialdabaoth sends his henchmen to bed human wives, infecting them with a “strain of pollution” that humanity would carry forevermore (12).

Divine Providence foils these attempts by sending the message that there is a real supreme deity above Ialdabaoth, and it also warns Noah, who escapes the dark flood. Moreover, Ap. John suggests that initiates into the text’s religious community would be saved by exposure to “the water of light” (Ap. John II, qtd in Williams 13).

Both of these attempts are replicated in Final Fantasy VII. Meteor, had it collided, would have destroyed the Planet and all life on it, akin to Ialdabaoth’s dark flood. The “strain of pollution” is matched by Geostigma, an infection of the body by Jenova cells that weakens its victims.

Moreover, the ‘water of light’ that Ap. John mentions is directly matched by Aerith’s holy water and healing rain. After Sephiroth’s defeat in Advent Children, Aerith casts a downpour over Midgar, and the rain cures denizens’ Geostigma upon contact. Her flower garden in the church turns into a pool whose water also possesses curative powers.

Aerith plays the role of Barbelo well. The Cetra plays a major role in saving humanity and leading them to ‘salvation.’ She directs the Lifestream to repel Meteor. Her martyrdom completely reshapes people’s beliefs about mako power and the sentience of the Planet. She directs the Lifestream to cure Geostigma. She opens everyone’s eyes, setting everyone on the path to a sustainable future.

Ironically, by guiding humanity to salvation, she guides everyone to the ‘Promised Land’ that ShinRa had so dearly wanted. By welcoming even the Remnants into the Lifestream, she sends an inclusive message, stating that everyone will one day reach salvation.

(To reinforce a point from earlier: Upon hearing Aerith’s voice, Kadaj instantly calls her ‘Mother‘.)

In a nutshell, that’s Final Fantasy VII through the lens of Sethian Gnosticism. Most of the backstory for the game’s setting, as well as crucial characters and plot points, have origins in this subset of Gnosticism.

Certainly, there are discrepancies. For one thing, Sethian Gnostic texts don’t all contain identical teachings. However, the Apocryphon of John is among the best known texts of Sethianism. I also glossed over other aspects of Sethian Gnosticism, such as Adamas, the Perfect Human, and the ways that Ap. John parlays Judeo-Christian teachings into its own worldview. Moreover, the symbolism of Sephiroth’s plan – join with the Lifestream, the supreme deity, in order to attain divinity – is in contrast to how Ialdabaoth was completely unaware of Providence’s existence. (Sephiroth knows the Lifestream exists, but he never indicates understanding its spiritual significance.) However, the parallels presented between FF7 and Ap. John are undeniable.

As I continue to research, different parallels between FF7 and various Gnostic texts will surface. Discrepancies that exist currently in my understanding may come to be explained.

In any case, the next post will definitely cover Valentinian Christianity and its influence in the Jenova Reunion Theory. I’ll keep other connections to be drawn as a surprise; this is research in progress, after all.
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[1] Side note: This is where the name for Aeons in Final Fantasy X originates.

[2] This confusion is passed onto Sephiroth. Hojo leaves texts in the Nibelheim Mansion describing Jenova’s identification as a Cetra for Sephiroth to find, and from that point forward, Sephiroth believes himself an Ancient, or of a distinctive lineage. While that’s technically true, as Jenova is an extraterrestrial being, it plays into the idea of a false god that Ap. John engenders in Ialdabaoth.
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Works Referenced:

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete. Dir. Tetsuya Nomura. Sony Pictures, 2009. Film

Square Co. Final Fantasy VII. (SCE America). PlayStation. (September 7, 1997)

Square Enix. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. PlayStation Portable. (August 24, 2008)

Williams, Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.

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4 responses to “The Gnosticism of Final Fantasy VII, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: One of Many Looks Back at Final Fantasy VII | bigtallwords·

  2. When I was researching for my literature class project, I stumbled upon your website and I was amazed at your thorough analysis. In fact, I am trying to analyze FFVII with eco-critical and sociological approach and your website gave me much deeper interest and diversity to my research. Thanks a lot.

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