Smash the World’s Shell — The Gnostic Roots of the Dark Souls Trilogy
You know, the reason I started writing Homestuck analysis in the first place was my frustration with the fandom’s conversation on all things surrounding the comic’s canon lore — because from my perspective, there was very little regard to the overarching themes that informed the “ending” of the story.
But I can hardly blame them. A lot of the fandom came into the comic drawn in by the spectacle of dramatic showpieces like [S] Cascade, and so expecting, essentially, a straightfoward if overly complicated action romp anime. Like a One Piece, or a Naruto.
But while Homestuck isn’t necessarily deeper than those stories, it is constructed differently. A lot of the comic’s storytelling is left in the background, through visual symbolism or mythological and literary references.
Keeping track of the story required drawing connections between otherwise throwaway words and phrases, descriptions, images and all sorts of other stuff. It’s a story constructed like a puzzle box.
So my frustration with the fandom was heightened, perhaps, because I happened to be coming from a slightly different position. I already knew a story who’s fandom had developed entirely around the idea of putting together just such an ambiguous and interwoven narrative.
I came in a fan of Dark Souls.
So imagine my delight when Mr. BestGuyEver (One of my favorite youtubers) drew a direct link between the endings of Dark Souls 3 and Homestuck in his look at the game’s final ending.
He contrasted the nature of Sburb (A game that consumes a planet to produce a new universe) to the Painted World of Dark Souls 3’s ending, which uses the blood of Humanity — the Dark Soul — as a creative pigment with which to draw a new world into existence, at the expense of the old.
And that’s a solid parallel…but I’m here to argue BestGuy was more right than he knows. But first, a detour.
In the discussion that followed the final entry in the story of the Dark Souls Trilogy — the Ringed City DLC — discussion began to surface on the parallels between the white egg held by Filianore and a previously little-known anime film known as Angel’s Egg.
This led to a bit of fanfare from the Youtube anime analysis crowd revisiting the latter, (a zeitgeist Mr. BestGuy also contributed to), and some excellent exploration of the story’s philosophical and religious themes. But unfortunately, in terms of exploring Dark Souls, the conversation seems to have stalled there.
Which is a shame, because Dark Souls isn’t just pulling inspiration from any general depiction of the mythological world egg. Angels’ Egg is an explicitly Christian work, a product of a man’s deep personal conversation with a particular religion’s themes and symbols.
I believe that Filianore’s Egg, introduced at the end of Dark Souls, is a signpost marking the beginning of a path to a set of symbols and archetypes that can help us cast new lights on what Dark Souls’ trilogy might be getting at.
Now to be clear, I’m no religious historian or scholar, and I know precious little Christian history. So for the most part, I won’t be getting into that. Lucky for us, we don’t have to, because there are many relatively modern works tapping into the same well of symbolism these two draw from.
And the usage of these symbols is so consistent that I can draw direct parallels between these otherwise totally disconnected works— including Berserk, Homestuck, Revolutionary Girl Utena, the MOTHER franchise, Persona, and fucking Digimon.
Not every story uses all the same symbols, since modern fiction — especially in Japan — often takes from and plays with spiritual symbols and concepts quite liberally. But when the same symbols do surface, they tend to get used the same way.
Take the egg, for example.
Both Homestuck and Revolutionary Girl Utena feature white eggs, whose destructions herald the end of the story and the world. Utena is the most explicit about the eggs’ apocalyptic imagery, and so the most informative on the symbol’s meaning:
The entire motivation of the antagonists — members of Ohtori Academy’s powerful Student Council, which serves the agenda of a mysterious agent known as End of The World — centers on this key phrase, ritually chanted at the beginning of every Council meeting.
The phrase equates the egg’s shell with the world, and the chick with the plight of the council — humans, each seeking to somehow escape the restraints put on them by themselves and society. Every council member is seeking to “be born”, an act that necessitates the destruction of the world that constrains them, to allow for the birth of a new one fit to their desires.
A revolution. An apocalypse.
In Dark Souls, the birth of humanity similarly requires the destruction of the egg that maintains the rule of the Gods, the end of everything, and a rebirth into a new kind of world. A revolution. An apocalypse.
“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”
― Hermann Hesse, Demian.
But Utena’s ritual chant is actually paraphrased from an older story: Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel, Demian. Demian concerns itself with the coming of age of Emil Sinclair, a boy who finds himself torn between two worlds:
The bright, safe world of light and illusion, ruled by benevolent gods such as Mother and Father. And the dark and dangerous world of thought and spiritual truth.
As he delves deeper into the latter, Demian finds himself discovering two mysterious entites: His own human self, and a cryptic deity named Abraxas — the God that the bird of humanity flies to once it’s broken free of its shell.
So what is Abraxas?
Well, that’s complicated. Across history, the name Abraxas has been described as an Egyptian deity, a demon, a magical incantation, and more.
Drawing from the word’s usage in Utena, Demian, and Homestuck, however, here we’ll talk about Abraxas as the Gnostic deity described by writers like Herman Hesse and psychologist/spiritualist Carl Jung.
So what’s Gnosticism?
Well, again, it’s complicated. Gnosticism is basically an umbrella term used by modern religious scholars to describe a variety of spiritual traditions and philosophical beliefs spawned from early Christianity.
No defined group called “Gnostics” ever existed, and groups now joined under its banner didn’t all necessarily agree — the term is just a loose grouping of many traditions outside the Christian “Canon” based on the Old and New Testament most of us are familiar with, containing all sorts of beliefs.
But at least in terms of what more modern works seem to have taken away from Gnosticism’s influence, there seems to be some fairly consistent imagery.
For starters, Gnosticism tends to expand the mythology of Christianity.
Rather than a monotheistic model with One True God, Gnosticism could be interpreted as having at least two major deities, or an outright Pantheon, like the Olympians in Greek Myth.
This is unsurpising, since a lot of what made Gnosticism movements “different” from traditional Christianity was influence from other cultures — such as Greek Philosopher Plato’s Theory of Forms, and the concept of the Demiurge. Ideas who’s relevance to Dark Souls we’ll explore in Part 2.
Pt. 2 —Sophia and the Demiurge.
It could be said for the most part, Gnostic myth is a synthesis between Christian symbolism and Plato’s philosophy. This makes it quite interesting, because Plato’s philosophy gets at the fundamental tension of, well, existence. Which makes it pretty useful to questions of spirituality and religion, where providing answers to existential questions is pretty much the point!
See, Plato really loved knowledge. But in having knowledge, he came to a conclusion: The world kind of sucks! There’s disease and suffering all over the place. Everyone keeps dying and killing each other, and its terrible. :(
But having knowledge was pretty fun, at least! It was innately satisfying for a philosopher, sure — but having knowledge was also pretty useful, since it let you improve the world so things were less awful, by giving you candlelight or lube or the internet or whatever.
So Plato imagined a divide between two worlds: A pure and perfect world of Ideas, accessible only through honest thought and imagination. And the imperfect and dirty world of existence and physical matter, where thoughts and ideas are expressed, but can never match the perfect versions of themselves that can be easily imagined.
Plato then concluded that whoever set up this whole reality thing must be either evil, or really bad at their job.
So a Demiurge, as described by Plato, is a kind of Creator God who plays a role similar to that of God in Genesis: that of fashioning or sculpting the physical world. Because of the physical world’s imperfections, said God must be either evil, or somehow imperfect themselves.
Veins of Gnostic thinkers would then take this idea to solve a perceived tension in Christian mythology: The stark difference between the Angry and Jealous God of the Old Testament, and the God with a message of Love and Peace who sent Jesus to save mankind in the New Testament.
“Gnostics” resolved this tension by separating the Biblical God into two entities.
The first was Abraxas, the god that sat at the very center of the World of Ideas — also called the World of Light. Purely conceptual, Abraxas embodied the process of everything that existed — every idea, every event, every outcome, both conceptual and physical.
Initially, the World of Ideas was all that existed. Abraxas created pairs of beings called Aeons — Idea Gods meant to help Abraxas create reality by working in pairs. All of this took place in the perfect world of Thought, so all that was being created was more Ideas for Abraxas to be.
Then Sophia — the Aeon of Wisdom, in some Gnostic Myths the partner Aeon to Christ — had to go and get all FUCKING curious all wanting knowledge or whatever, and tried to create something by herself. By trying to interact with “that which is unknowable” without the aid of her Partner.
As a result, Sophia fucks everything up forever by creating…Reality.
By which we mean the world of matter and physicality, or in mythological terms, the Void of Darkness at the start of Genesis that the Lord exists in at the beginning of time.
Either cast down by the other Aeons over her mistake, or feeling regret at subjecting the new inhabitants of reality to such suffering, Sophia Descends from the World of Ideas (Light), down into the physical world of Matter (Darkness), and imbues herself within Humanity.
This means humans are all partly made of the spirit of Wisdom, and so have the ability to discover and explore the world of Ideas. The process of discovering wisdom — IE: Reaching Enlightenment — is equal to the process of becoming close to God.
“Wherefore, with a deer’s form surrounding her,
She labours at her task beneath Death’s rule
And Jesus said: O Father, see!
[Behold] the struggle still of ills on earth!
Far from Thy Breath away she wanders!
She seeks to flee the bitter Chaos,
And knows not how she shall pass through.
Wherefore, send me, O Father!
Seals in my hands, I will descend;
Through Æons universal will I make a Path;
Through Mysteries all I’ll open up a Way!”
But it also means she’ll experience all the suffering Humanity is subject to as they collectively try to Rise Up out of the material plane. All of our suffering is shared by her. For this reason, in some excerpts of the Nassene Fragments (one of our only known Gnostic texts), Christ takes pity on her and asks to be sent to Earth to provide a path for her — and humanity’s — salvation.
She also creates a being known as Yaldabaoth, a Demiurge described as “blind” for his inability to perceive the World of Ideas. Yaldabaoth perceives only the physical, and so cannot see Sophia, who created him — or Abraxas, who embodies them both. It believes it is the One True God.
Yaldabaoth then fashions reality, as in Genesis, and goes on to play the role of wrathful, jealous God in the Old Testament.
So how might these symbols look played with in a more modern story?
Well, in the creation myth that sets the stage of Revolutionary Girl Utena, the source of all Light is a deity named Dios (Spanish for God), playing the part of the Rose Prince.
By saving them with his power and giving them their promised kiss, the Rose Prince made all the girls of the world Princesses. Except for one girl who could not receive his kiss: Anthy Himemiya, his little sister.
Even though Anthy — a Goddess herself — had magical powers, and it’s implied it was her love for Dios that gave him the power to become a Prince in the first place, she simply could not become a Princess in a world ruled by Dios.
And the world grew reliant on the Prince, and soon it seemed Dios would kill himself trying to serve them. It’s here that Anthy becomes our Sophia:
By acting on her own to protect Dios, she inadvertently Changes him back to his true self — not the Rose Prince, but the Lord of the Flies — destroying the old world protected by his nobility.
In it’s place is born Ohtori Academy, with Dios reborn as a Demiurge:
Akio Ohtori, the schools’ chairman and absolute ruler, a manipulative abuser interested only in reclaiming his lost power. He’s isn’t explicitly identified as Yaldabaoth, but he’s still marked by a star: The Morning Star, Venus, a common symbol for Lucifer.
So Utena adopts some Gnostic symbols, but mixes the origin story of Yaldabaoth with a more commonly understood villain in Satan. This is a great example of how these stories aren’t regurgitating ancient Gnostic ideas, but simply appropriating some Gnostic symbols for their own storytelling ambitions.
For this sin, Anthy is forced to bear the burden of Humanity’s hatred, and becomes known as a Witch — an archetype associated with servitude to a controlling power — Akio, in Anthy’s case, or for example the First Flame for the Witch of Izalith —and the power to bring about the Apocalypse.
At this point you might be starting to draw the parallels yourself. The Demiurge is the flawed creator of the world, almost always depicted as the All-Father of Humanity, and almost always the Patriarch of a pantheon.
In Dark Souls, Gwyn is our Yaldabaoth. With lightning bolts echoing the Greek version of the Demiurge — Zeus — he takes down the Dragons much as Zeus casts out Uranus.
And just like Yaldabaoth, Gwyn is marked by the the Sun. In both Dark Souls and Homestuck, the Sun is used as both an identifier for the Demiurge and as a mark of said God’s dominion and oppression over the mortals in the cast.
The sun is the symbol of the Dark Sign, the means by which Gwyn freezes time and subjects humanity to the Undead Curse. All of the suffering and brutality humanity is put through across the trilogy is ultimately an effort to keep his dominion over the physical world intact, and the abstract threat of a realm he can’t perceive or understand at bay.
This makes Gwyn a more overtly antagonistic force than he was already—
his fear of the fading of the flame isn’t just a semi-tragic character flaw, but monstrous justification for his denial of humanity’s birthright. There is a deeper truth to the world Gwyn inhabits, and trying to hide that truth is the “First Sin” Aldia speaks of in the DKS2 DLC.
In this understanding, we can see Sophia as equivalent to the Furtive Pygmy — the figure that grants humanity the Dark Soul, which ultimately manifests as the power of Imagination: The power to perceive the world of Ideas and paint what lies within, the power to imagine what Gwyn and the other Gods cannot perceive.
Hence the innate threat of the Painted Worlds.
She could also be analogous to Velka, the Goddess of Sin. Sophia, as the counterpart to Christ, was also understood as the Holy Spirit: The spiritual instict that guides humanity upwards towards Enlightenment, commonly depicted by the Dove.
Velka, strongly associated with Crows, is repeatedly implied to lead humans to forbidden knowledge that threatens the Gods — it’s her crow that begins the journey of the Chosen Undead, deeming humans worthy of entering the Realm of the Gods all the way back in Dark Souls 1.
But either way, her analogues are both envoys of Gwyn’s opposing force:
The Abyss. And so, Yaldabaoth’s counterpart, Abraxas.
Pt. 3 — The Light found in the Darkness is named Abraxas.
Abraxas is manifest as all of reality — good and bad, hot and cold, life and death, light and dark. Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung — who developed concepts such as the Persona and Synchronicity, the idea of meaningful coincidence — described Abraxas as the Great Hermaphrodite, incorporating all opposites in one being.
If it has a counterpart in Dark Souls, it could only be the Dark Soul itself — the idea that both empowers your character and shackles humanity’s fate to Gwyn’s power throughout the series, the core concept that defines every moment of the game through the fantasy it justifies to make the world feel “believable”.
If Gwyn is the “Power” that the Player must strive against, then the Dark Soul — Abraxas — is the “Power” that allows us to Play.
Yet Abraxas can be seen as the Abyss threatening to swallow the world, as well. Endless Blackness expanding forever. Black like the world of ideas the Greeks imagined as the source of all things Good and True: The infinite blackness your brain perceives whenever you close your eyes.
We’ll come back to that in a second, but first, a slight detour.
So an interesting quirk of the “Gnostic” worldview is that in their interpretation of the Book of Genesis, the Snake is actually a heroic figure — borderline Christ-like, actually.
It kinda makes sense, once you consider that “Gnostics” imagined Yaldabaoth — the God in the Book of Genesis, commanding we not eat the apple — as an evil God suppressing humanity, and saw the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as a spiritual end.
Knowledge is good. Ergo the snake, who leads humans to knowledge, is also good. Eating the apple might have sucked in the short term, but it was also the only way for Humans to claim “the power of God”: The power to perceive ideas, and create/reshape reality according to what we imagine.
Because of this, Snakes are often used as a symbol of obscure, enlightening knowledge — as holders of secrets and old truths. Homestuck’s Denizens are impossibly long snake-worms the players can either battle to the death or consult for existential insight.
If approached for the latter function, the Denizens become sources of Knowledge and Ideas: Light. Hence their shining heads. And if we can see the abyss itself as Abraxas, and Snakes are seen as providers of True Ideas — the realm of thought that Abraxas presides over — then that puts an interesting spin on the twin snakes that make up Abraxas’ legs.
We can see them as reflections of the key power players in Dark Souls’ cosmology, who seem to emerge endlessly out from the Abyss: The Primordial Serpents. They present us with both the “Gnostic” and traditionally “Judeo-Christian” views of the Biblical Snake simultaneously, represented by two different snake characters.
You have Frampt, who encourages obedience to Gwyn, the figure standing for the Biblical God, and teaches the necessity of human suffering and sacrifice to the first flame as noble.
And then Kaathe, who inspires dissent and rebellion against the Gods’ world order, and the pursuit of humankind’s rise to their own dark, creative potential. In both cases, Snakes invite the understanding of a fundamental worldview:
Are humans bad and in need of penance and control? Or are they noble victims who have been cheated by the gods? The spectrum of answers to these questions the inhabitants of each Kingdom come up with define the world of Dark Souls.
But all Primordial Serpents ultimately seem to bow down to the Dark Lord once they surface and claim humanity’s freedom over the Gods. So even Frampt seems to act in service to the expansion of the Abyss — of Abraxas.
Interestingly, in Dark Souls 3’s final areas, the most devout adherents of either serpent’s following start transforming, sprouting wings that echo traditional warrior angels in the worlds ruled by Light. Birds being symbolic of ascension and liberation from the former world’s shell, a motif that’s also carried by…
The dark pilgrims, who when awakened to their true forms are reborn as winged serpents, specifically — snakes being symbolic of knowledge and enlightenment, remember. This design is particularly evocative of those that Jake English, a Warrior strongly linked to Abraxas, summons in Homestuck
“It is the monster of the under-world, a thousand-armed polyp, coiled knot of winged serpents, frenzy.” — on Abraxas, from Carl Jung’s “7 Sermons to the Dead”.
Carl Jung describes Abraxas as a “coil of winged serpents” in his post-humously 7 Sermons. All this said, Dark Souls doesn’t necessarily choose a side. This is pretty charged imagery, but I’m not arguing Dark Souls is telling an inherently Gnostic story — just that it plays with Gnostic symbols.
For one thing, mankind’s dark ascent is portrayed as pretty fucking terrifying, whether or not it was fair of Gwyn to try and suppress it. It has some fairly ugly consequences, and it’s not exactly clear that the world to come is a better one.
While Bloodborne’s universe might not directly follow from Dark Souls’, its kind of a natural thematic successor to the trilogy in this sense — with it’s grim exploration of humanity’s own innate capacity for cruelty, brutality, and damnation — as focused on the destructive power of science as Dark Souls is on he influence of religion.
Humanity’s dark ascenscion isn’t the exactly the inspiring triumph of humanity over oppression we see in Utena and Homestuck, is what I’m saying — although it certainly can be interpreted that way.
Homestuck, draws its moral and philosophical lines in the sand more clearly. It has a twin set of serpents, too. Cherubs are a biological component of any part of the Paradox Space multiverse: They come with two alignments of “good” or “evil”. “Good” cherubs act as protectors of the universe, challenging and subverting the destructive and controlling urges of “Evil” ones.
The story of Homestuck concerns two very special Cherubs who are allowed to play a game that allows mortals to become Gods, and the conflict of wills that plays out between them spans the entire narrative.
The way that conflict plays out between them turns out to be eerily similar to the conflict between the Abyss and Gwyn in Dark Souls. Gwyn is repeatedly identified as a Lord, a Class Caliborn is assigned by Sburb’s vague forces of omniscience.
The primordial serpent that represents him would be Frampt: while Frampt puts a nicer spin on it, the story he peddles is ultimately that humans exist to suffer Gwyn’s cycle and sacrifice themselves to keep the age of Fire alive — just as Caliborn believes his subjects deserve only death and suffering.
“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Psalm 33:6, New International Bible.
In both cases, Lord seems to be a mythological reference — Gwyn and Caliborn are Lords not just as in Royalty, but as in Lord Gods, the title of the Biblical Deity. Both Gwyn and Caliborn are obeyed, by both reality and their subjects — their power over their realms is absolute, while it lasts.
Both Gwyn and Caliborn commit first sins that create their flawed worlds — Gwyn the world of Dark Souls, Caliborn the world of Homestuck.
And in both cases, this sin involves the subjugation of Humanity and a diminishing of Humankind, though how that subjugation is carried out depends on the Lord. Gwyn — named a Lord of Light, deals directly with Fire and Light in his fight against humanity.
Caliborn, as a Lord of Time, oppresses the heroes through the Alpha Timeline, a massive timeloop every character must play out perfectly to ensure his own rise to power as Lord English, and so the creation of every character.
But the ideas of Light and Time are closely related in both Homestuck and Dark Souls — the Repair sorcery tells us that “Light is Time”, a forbidden knowledge the Gods wanted to keep secret.
And Light and Time are positioned directly next to one another in Homestuck’s official Aspect wheel — the Aspects the twelve primordial particles of Thought in Homestuck’s cosmology. The “elements of disparity”, as Dark Souls calls them — Life and Death, Light and Dark, and so on.
What unites Gwyn and Caliborn is their shared pursuit of the destruction of their opposite. Lord English is motivated by fear of his only weakness — his sister Calliope, the Muse of Space. Space is presented as the opposite to Time, and it’s directly next to Light’s opposing Aspect, Void.
Void is the aspect of nothingness and the unknowable, the hidden, secret, and abstract. In Homestuck, it’s depicted as the Furthest Ring, an endless realm of pure black chaos where natural laws break down, sometimes depicted as an ocean.
Calliope spends most of the narrative hiding deep in this Darkness, as Lord English endlessly tears at the Furthest Ring in a desperate bid to wipe her out. Sounds pretty similar to the way Gwyn’s fear makes him endlessly war against the darkness, huh?
Which is quite fitting, as it’s Calliope who echoes the Dark Serpent, Kaathe. Like Kaathe, Calliope leads her friends to a view that empowers them to claim their own innate creative power and divine potential in resistance of the Lord’s will.
Where a Lord commands through authority and respect, a Muse commands through inspiration, and though the Lord seems to overpower her initiatilly, it is the Muse who proves the true Master in the end.
Just as the underlying truth of the setting of Dark Souls is that the Abyss, and the true birth of humanity, is inevitable. There was nothing Gwyn could ever really do to stop it — it’s simply the course the world naturally takes, the nature of the world’s Setting.
And so Calliope’s final act over the story, and the final move of the Abyss in Dark Souls, turns out to be the same:
Birthing a final black Hole, that swallows the Sun that marks the power of the Demiurge. Both stories end with the final destruction of Yaldabaoth’s reign, and so, with the death and rebirth of the world he created. Here’s where both stories differ from what many perceive as one of the core “tenets” of Gnosticism, which is the idea that the world itself is inherently bad.
Instead of a straightfowardly “Gnostic” ending, all three of these stories turn to metatextual endings that position freedom and enlightenment as a noble pursuit — even if the enlightened power of Humanity proves risky or dangerous. Because, quite simply, it is Humanity’s birthright.
Utena can only end when Anthy overcomes her guilt and belief in her own evil, and rejects her Brother’s rule, and embraces Utena’s friendship completely by escaping Ohtori Academy — thus effectively ending the reign he established through her power.
Thus, it, too, ends with an escape from the realm of the Demiurge, an exit from the world of the narrative, and a rebirth into a lawless and apocalyptic new world, with the only comfort being true companionship.
In Homestuck, the Lord’s subjects emancipate themselves, and rule the Earth as Gods. But more important than their power is the simple comfort of being able to live peacefully in their new home. Together.
And in that respect, Dark Souls isn’t terribly different, either. The world Painted with the Dark Soul is cold and dark, but it’s also a very gentle place. And even in the ending where we let the fire die completely, we’re left with a different kind of warmth:
That of another.
And that’s satisfying to me — that all of these stories seem to end with the idea that all we really need, more than Light and Time and Gods and Power…is each other. Because at the end of the day, isn’t it true? Isn’t that all that really matters?
I’ll be eager to hear what you all think, so please let me know.
In the meantime…