Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”
We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

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A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

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A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html

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