Yu-gi-oh! and Egyptian Religion

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Yu-gi-oh!, the cause of my middle school obsession with ancient Egypt and the staple of my childhood. Yu-gi-oh! was created by Kazuki Takahashi and started off as a manga series. Both the show and manga centered around high school loner Yugi Mutou and the spirit of his prized Millennium Puzzle. The spirit of the Millennium Puzzle is a pharaoh who has no memories and whose history was all but wiped from history. Because of this, many aspects of the show and manga are based off ancient Egyptian culture.

-the first page from the manga

The first page of the manga actually is an ancient Egyptian relief of Anubis playing a dangerous game with a human while he points up at the Millennium Puzzle and the caption speaks of an ancient Egyptian game called the Shadow Games which decided one’s fate. The Shadow Games are a prominent feature of Yu-gi-oh! and in both the manga and season 0 (also known as the first anime), the Pharaoh (also known as Yami Yugi) uses them to punish wrongdoers because if the wrongdoer lost he or she had to face a penalty game, which was essentially a messed up manipulation of the mind (or death but no big deal).

The Millennium Items

The Millennium Puzzle is also one of the main features of the series. Playing off the “curse of the mummy,” the manga says it was found by a team of British archaeologists at the beginning of the 1900s and when they found it, they were all either cursed with death or mental torment about the Shadow Games.

-Yugi shows the yet to be completed Millennium Puzzle to Anzu (called Téa in the English version of the show)

-Yugi shows the yet to be completed Millennium Puzzle to Anzu (called Téa in the English version of the show)

In the regular show (also known as the second anime), the discoverer of the Puzzle was changed to Yugi’s grandfather who wasn’t cursed afterwards but had to go through many traps in the tomb to get to it. The Millennium Puzzle starts off as pieces kept inside a gold box decorated with hieroglyphics. Yugi can’t read hieroglyphics but he believes that if he solves the Puzzle, he’ll be granted a wish (spoiler alert: the wish is for friends).

So early on, the manga establishes that it is about Egyptian mysticism, which is only fueled by the Puzzle then releasing the spirit of the Pharaoh once it is put together. The Millennium Puzzle also acts as the Pharaoh’s home, which is fitting since it is shaped like an upside down pyramid and the inside is styled like a tomb. The inside of the Puzzle where the Pharaoh resides is also a dangerous maze and serves to portray the Pharaoh’s confused state of mind about not knowing who he is. 

-the Millennium items. The Millennium Puzzle featured in center. (Picture courtesy of yu-gi-ohfanon.wikia.com)

But the Millennium Puzzle isn’t alone. There are six other Millennium items and they all have special powers of their own. The Millennium Eye gives the possessor the power to read minds. The Millennium Key gives the user the power to “unlock” people’s soul rooms and let the user look inside and control them if the user so chooses. The Millennium Scales are used to judge people’s souls. The Millennium Ring acts as a compass and gives the wearer the power to find whatever he or she seeks.The Millennium Rod can control minds and the Millennium Necklace lets the wearer glimpse into the past or future. Explained in the last season of the show, the Millennium items were created by the Pharaoh’s father with dark magic in order to lock up and control the Shadow Games. Their creation came at a devastating cost though, ninety-nine humans had to be sacrificed. This genocide of a whole village is what caused the Pharaoh’s ultimate nemesis to be put on the path of revenge. In ancient Egypt, only the Pharaoh and the priests and priestesses could possess the Millennium items to ensure that they were used for good but eventually in the present, some fell into the hands of the wrong people and were used to summon and send people to the Shadow Realm.

The Afterlife

The concept of the afterlife is interesting in Yu-gi-oh! Since it is so heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, one would think that the concept of the afterlife would follow but it doesn’t…at least not entirely. The Shadow Realm mentioned earlier is comparable to Hell but for the living. It could be summoned during games to make it a Shadow Game and the loser’s soul would be trapped there forever or until they were freed.

-the Pharaoh and Yugi. Yugi is the modern day version of the Pharaoh as a kid. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

And since Yu-gi-oh! was created by a Japanese man, the concept of the afterlife was also influenced by Buddhist beliefs. Many of the characters in the show, especially the Egyptians who hold the Millennium items, are reincarnations of their past selves—the priests and priestesses who held the Millennium items in the first place. Yugi is actually the modern day version of the Pharaoh as a kid and his frenemy Seto Kaiba is the reincarnation of the Pharaoh’s cousin who he once fought against. This idea of reincarnation emphasizes the connections between the characters and that history is bound to repeat itself. And some characters that have died face the afterlife differently too. The Pharaoh and his nemesis Yami Bakura are spirits attached to a Millennium item, playing off the “cursed artifacts” belief. Shadi is a spirit from ancient Egypt that in the show, is there to protect the Millennium items and the Pharaoh. And the Dark Magician is the spirit of a sorcerer who combined his ba with his ka, which in Yu-gi-oh! is an Egyptian Spirit Monster. He then became a playable monster that is loyal to the Pharaoh. However, the

-the gates of the afterlife opening to let the Pharaoh pass. (Picture courtesy of youtube.com)

-the gates of the afterlife opening to let the Pharaoh pass. (Picture courtesy of youtube.com)

Egyptian idea of the afterlife is established too. At the very end of the manga and show, the Pharaoh remembers his name and is able to enter the afterlife where he rules as Pharaoh once again. In the manga, the Egyptian belief is more prominent.

-Shadi uses the Millennium Scales to judge the Curator

-Shadi uses the Millennium Scales to judge the Curator

There is an instance of the Weighing of the Heart but it is called a Shadow Game. Shadi flies in from Egypt to punish a museum curator for selling antiquities on the black market. He takes out the Millennium Scales and places the feather of Ma’at in one of the disks. He then proceeds to question the curator and his guilt causes the scale to tip, letting the empty disk with his “heart” touch the desk. Because the curator “lost the game,” his chair turns into Ammit and devours his soul. 

The Gods & Duel Monsters

The existence of the Egyptian gods in Yu-gi-oh! is rather vague. When Shadi arrived in the manga, he introduced himself as a servant of Anubis and in the relief in the beginning of the series, Anubis is portrayed. 

-Anubis from the movie. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

-Anubis from the movie. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

However in the first Yu-gi-oh! movie (which was not created by Kazuki Takahashi), Anubis is not a god but an evil sorcerer who tried to make his own Millennium item so he could overthrow the Pharaoh. He also has two appearances—in Yugi’s vision he has the head of a jackal but in the flesh he’s simply a blonde haired man with a really buff, tanned body. Furthermore, in the manga Shadi also refers to Ma’at during the Weighing of the Heart game and Ammit appears. But in the show, the gods don’t seem to exist. Rather they are just playable monster cards in both the present and ancient Egypt.

The game that the show and manga is known for is Duel Monsters where players pretend they are sorcerers and duel each other with monsters, traps, and spells. Players can either battle each other on a plain table top and let their imaginations run wild or duke it out in either an area or with a duel disk that holographically makes the game come to life. That’s the modern day version that was created by Maximillion Pegasus after he went to Egypt and discovered the ancient game. In ancient Egypt, the game was played by real magicians and the monsters were not simply paper cards but the evil and good kas of human beings trapped within stone slabs. They could be summoned with a DiaDhank (basically an ancient duel disk) during a Shadow Game to inflict real damage.

The Egyptian gods were three of such monsters and only the Pharaoh could summon them with the power of the Millennium Puzzle. So this represents the real Egyptian

-the Creator God of Light, Horakhty. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

-the Creator God of Light, Horakhty. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

belief that the pharaoh could communicate with the gods. The three Egyptian gods—Obelisk the Tormentor, the Winged Dragon of Ra, and Slifer the Sky Dragon—could also with the power of the Pharaoh’s name combine together in order to form The Creator God of Light, Horakhty, who was the most powerful of them all. In real Egyptian mythology, Horakhty is a form of the god Horus that relates to the sun aspect of him and he is at one point combined with the god Ra to make Ra-Horakhty. 

It is never stated in the show or manga where these gods came from and how they came to be trapped within stone

-the Egyptian gods from left to right: Slifer, Ra, Obelisk. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

-the Egyptian gods from left to right: Slifer, Ra, Obelisk. (Picture courtesy of yugioh.wikia.com)

slabs since they don’t appear to be the ka of anyone. But in the present, Maximillion Pegasus made them a part of his game by creating card versions of them. This angered the three gods and everyone working on creating them were attacked by the spirit of the the gods. Only Pegasus was able to finally finish the prototype cards since he had the Millennium Eye but after a nightmare and Shadi’s advice, he gave them to the wielder of the Millennium Necklace to bury in the Pharaoh’s tomb. An attempt to counterfeit the cards was made but using them either resulted in serious injury or death. The prototype cards eventually fell into the hands of Yugi and the Pharaoh and with them they won the title of “King of Games.” The gods never acted up again after the Pharaoh came to possess them, seeming to prefer being owned by him.

There are many more Egyptian related points in the show but these are just some of the aspects of Yu-gi-oh! that are the most important. Though they have their similarities, the ancient Egypt the show and manga portrays is vastly different from real life and mainly focuses on the mysticism of the religion.

(Sources: Yu-gi-oh! by Kazuki Takahashi and Yu-gi-oh! Wikia)

The Museum or Bust

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The statues lining the entrance to the museum — copyright Edna Rush

Last Saturday, my Religion of the Pharaohs class hopped on a bus and drove to San Jose to have a lovely time at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately, once we got there, we learned that there had been a power outage and no one was allowed to go inside. For how long was this outage going to be? Probably all day. But we weren’t going to let that ruin our trip completely. We did as much as we could—a docent gave us a short presentation on ancient Egyptian cosmetics, we hung out in the library (which still had power) for a bit, then went on a tour of the grounds.

I had been to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum twice already but both times, I had never taken a grounds tour before. My family and I did roam about then but we never actually knew what any of the structures or the like meant. For example, I knew that Thutmose III’s cartouche had been carved onto the floor of the temple replica next to the pond and I knew that Akhenaten was often featured around the grounds but I did not know why. According to the tour guide and more research online, Thutmose III’s cartouche is carved in a few places around the museum because Thutmose III “organized the first esoteric school of initiates founded upon principles and methods similar to those perpetuated today by the Rosicrucian Order.” Also according to the Rosicrucians, Akhenaten was initiated into “the secret school” and calls him the “most enlightened pharaoh” for being the first monotheist. They claim that he was so inspired by the teachings of the secret school that he changed Egypt’s religion to solely worship the sun disk Aten and though after he died and the polytheistic religion took precedence again, this “mystical idea” lived on. I always found it interesting that the Rosicrucians so revered a pharaoh that was almost completely erased from history by the Egyptians themselves but this explains it.

I found it odd though that along the top of the temple replica that is the entrance to the museum a scene of Akhenaten worshipping the Aten is surrounded by the other Egyptian gods. If the Rosicrucians valued Akhenaten for his monotheism, why surround him with the gods he had gotten rid of? It’s like the rest of the architecture of the grounds, a menagerie of Egyptian features. Maybe they just picked what they like and used that to make their own interpretations. One can definitely see the European influences in them too—the sphinxes do appear a little bit more Caucasian than the ones in Egypt. And I don’t believe the Egyptians would ever carve a Pharaoh’s cartouche into the floor where it can be stepped on.

Though I sound very critical, I did enjoy walking around the grounds and learning more about the Rosicrucians and what they believe. There were a few new things since the last time I was there so it was cool to see and learn that everything there has a meaning.

(Source: The Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, https://www.rosicrucian.org/history)

How important were the oracles during the New Kingdom?

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-a Ramesseum relief showing priests carrying a festival barque. (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)


An oracle (in Egyptian terms) is a divine judgement made by a god that answers a question posed to it through the means of a statue. This statue would be brought out from the temple to the people inside a covered shrine on a barque—a boat—carried by priests and the people would either present their question or petition in vocal or written form. Then through the priests carrying the statue, the god made its decision by compelling them to move in a certain direction. Yes was a dip of the barque’s bow and no was stepping away from the petitioner and/or his or her petition.

An example of an oracle is of this interaction between the high priest Menkheperra and the statue of Amun:

“Then the High Priest of Amun Menkheperra spoke to him, saying: ‘My good lord, is there a matter about which one should speak before you?’ The Great God agreed very strongly. Then, he (Menkheperra) went again before the Great God and said: ‘My good lord, is it the matter of the rebellious servants with whom you were angry and who are now in the oasis where they were banished?’ The Great God agreed very strongly, while the general whose hands were lifted in praise, honored his lord as a father speaks to his own son” (Meiroop, 266).

Menkheperra wanted to let the people who had been banished for crimes that are not stated return so he asked Amun and through the statue, Amun agreed.

Oracles were not all that common in earlier periods until the 18th or 19th dynasty. The gods used to be seen as divine beings who left the humans to manage things but now this close involvement of the gods became the basis of judicial practice. Every kind of issue could be brought before a god such as whether the petitioner should purchase a cow or if this person had committed a crime. However, murder and other serious crimes were left to the official judicial system because only the king, his vizier, or a jury of judges could pass the death sentence, which is the punishment for such crimes.

But how important were oracles actually?

Well, the fact that the people would ask such mundane questions is a clue that they were very important to them. But oracles also helped keep communities at peace because they were public affairs. Oracles were held before the petitioner and members of the community. When the god would be asked to indicate the person who committed a crime, the community was already aware of who the person was. So instead of one of them passing judgement, the god, who is beyond reproach, would pass it. Oracles could also be used to confirm or select civil or clerical positions as a way to not show favoritism. In short, oracles were seen as “the highest local voice of authority” in some towns (Meiroop, 235).

One could also see how valued an oracle was by going back to the Menkheperra oracle above. The last sentence is “The Great God agreed very strongly, while the general whose hands were lifted in praise, honored his lord as a father speaks to his own son” (Meiroop, 266). The general values the words of Amun like if they were spoken by his own father. The oracle is personally important to him.

Another clue is that some kings claimed it was by oracles that they were chosen. Hatshepsut did just that—claiming that Amun had selected her to be king:

“An oracle before this good god magnificently predicted for me kingship of the Two Lands, with the north and the south fearing me; and it gave me all the foreign lands, illuminating the victories of my Majesty. Year 2, second month of the growing season, day 29, the third day of the festival of the god Amun…being the foretelling to me of the Two Lands in the broad hall of the Southern Opet, while his Majesty delivered an oracle in the presence of this good god. My father, the god Amun, Chief-of-the-Gods, appeared in his beautiful festival” (Meiroop, 235).

If oracles were not that important and were just thought of as advice or tradition of some sort, would the kings go as far as “the word of god” to legitimize their rule? To Hatshepsut and the rest of the Egyptian people, oracles were not only a part of their religion but also their lives. Religion is so intertwined with their lives that they depend on the gods to make decisions for them or at least validate them.

(Sources: A History of Ancient Egypt by Marc Van de Mieroop, and Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt by Emily Teeter)

The Middle Kingdom Stelae

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-the Semna Stela (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

-the Semna Stela (Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Middle Kingdom stelae are stone slabs erected as either funerary or commemorative monuments. They can be about great acts or border achievements. They also are great looks into the relationship between Egyptians and religion.

The Semna Stela is a boundary stela written during the reign of Senwosret III and it is about the gaining of the southern border in a region of Nubia and the order to maintain it. Though it is a rather boastful proclamation (it claims it isn’t), it does include religion. The first two lines are praises and titles of the pharaoh and are phrased in god terms:

“Live the Horus Divine of Manifestations, He of the Two Ladies Divine of Manifestations, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khakaure, granted life, Live the Falcon of Gold Manifestations, the Son of Re of his body, beloved of him, lord of the Two Lands Senwosret (III), granted life, endurance, and dominion forever” (337).

This shows that the pharaoh is considered the living, human form of Horus and praises him as such. And the fact that these are the very first lines, shows the importance of the pharaoh and the gods.

These lines are also almost repeated word for word on the Stela of Ikyhernofret, which was also written during the reign of Senwosret III. This stela was written by Iykhernofret and recounts his mission to refurbish the statue of Osiris, other statues of gods, and ritual equipment, and to conduct important processions on behalf of the pharaoh. This account shows how significant the statues of gods were, especially those of Osiris, and the rituals. Iykhernofret boasts in the care of making the statues:

“I embellished the breast of the Lord of Abydos with lapis lazuli and with turquoise, fine gold, and all precious stones which are ornaments of the god’s body, and I clothed the god with his ornaments in my function as one versed in the mysteries and my duty as stylist (ritual sober). I was pure of hand in decorating the god, a sen-priest clean of fingers” (426-7).

The valuable stones and gold put on the statue of Osiris shows how high the god’s status is and how revered he is. Iykhernofret even had to be “pure” to decorate him.

The stela that is the best example (of the three I am discussing) of the integral part religion had in Egypt is the Neferhotep Stela. Written by Neferhotep, he gives the account of how he made/supervised the making of a statue of Osiris in Abydos (considered a sacred city) and his part in the ritual of actors then attacking the statue and being driven off. To Neferhotep, the gods are pivotal to him:

“Let (me) know the god in his essence and the Ennead in its nature that (I) may offer to them divine offerings and offer breads upon the altars so that I might know the god in his forms, that I might fashion him according to his first time. For it is in order to effectuate their monuments upon earth and that they might grant me the inheritance of Geb, being precisely all which the sun disk encompasses, that they have made me their protector. My office as head of the land has been given to me, for he the god knows the rectitude of my wisdom” (340).

This statement of Neferhotep conveys the belief that everything is given to him (and everyone else) by the gods; Geb gave him the land and a little later on the stela, it says that Re granted it. Frequently Neferhotep refers to himself as Horus much like the other two stelas refer to Senwosret in the same way, and Neferhotep calls Osiris his father. Neferhotep is also referred to as “the Majesty of this god” and as being pure. This reinforces the idea that the pharaoh is divine. Neferehotep even states that any one who opposes him shall be met with death and “His Ka shall be bound before the nobles and he shall be (cast) out before this god…” (344). So not only will you be punished physically but also spiritually for opposing the pharaoh. Even though he is considered as such, Neferehotep believes that is of great import to worship the gods himself too:

“…I will have you know a righteous life in the manner of one who endures on the earth, making monuments for Osiris and perpetuating the renown of Wenennefer. If this is done, it will be beneficial for the land and it shall be made effective for every land” (341).

To Neferhotep, making statues of Osiris is integral part of a righteous life and it is beneficial for the land.

In short, the Middle Kingdom stelae are a good look into the worship of gods and how the pharaoh is seen as divine, incorporating religion into Egypt itself.

(Source: The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry by William Kelly Simpson)