To my amazement, we’re already coming quite close to the end. Only a handful of Pokémon from eastern Kalos remain, then I’ll have to think of something else to pass the time until I pick up Alpha Sapphire or Omega Ruby (at the moment it’s looking like I’ll finally do that series on the rival characters that I’ve been putting off forever). Meanwhile, my unfathomable whims decree that now is the time to take on the flagship Pokémon of X and Y: the divine guardian of life and the terrifying shadow of death, Xerneas and Yveltal. I’m not even going to bother talking about stats or moves or any of that nonsense; I know I usually do, but you really don’t need me to tell you that these things are godlike, right? Stick some attacks on them and go commit brutal murder; whatever. I’mma talk about themes and stuff.
I will admit, I was not terribly inspired by these two when they first appeared in the teaser trailer for X and Y last year. “Wait, so they’re… based on the letters X and Y?” I asked myself. “What? Why would you- what does that add? What is the point of that?” I’m still not really sold on the alphabet thing, and only partly because it led to that ridiculous line where Professor Sycamore says the only thing he knows about Xerneas is that it “resembles the letter X.” No, it doesn’t; it resembles a massive f#%$ing stag. I suppose there doesn’t really need to be any point to it, though – there was no reason for Palkia to associated with pearls and Dialga with diamonds, and Xerneas and Yveltal have plenty of other significance to them. It’s just rather strange, after the previous generation used the titles Black and White to tie in with the Yin-Yang ideas and the themes of balance and duality that those games were so insistently pushing, that the best anyone can come up with for X and Y is that Game Freak and Nintendo were just really proud of their 3D graphics. It wouldn’t exactly surprise me, and it even makes some sort of sense with Y conventionally representing the vertical dimension (Yveltal can fly) while X and Z are the two horizontal dimensions (Xerneas and Zygarde have two different modes of earthbound movement), but it’s not really a satisfying conclusion. Maybe it was just coincidence that the titles and associated legendary mascot themes of Black and White worked so well – or maybe there’s something tremendously dramatic planned for Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby (which, of course, also include letters of… well, an alphabet) that will make sense of everything; I don’t know. In any case, that’s not what I most want to talk about here, and again, I don’t think it matters. Their curious alphabetic structures do nothing to detract from Xerneas’ obvious majesty or Yveltal’s palpable malice. These are Pokémon who know which notes they want to strike, and do so quite effectively. What I really want to do with this entry, for the most part, is take apart the Norse mythology interpretation of Xerneas and Yveltal that seems to have so thoroughly convinced the internet.
At some point shortly after that first trailer, someone latched onto a variety of figures from Scandinavian myth, primarily inhabitants of the great ash Yggdrasil, as the most likely source of inspiration for Xerneas and Yveltal’s designs, and I think everyone’s just had trouble letting go of that idea – sometimes to the exclusion of all common sense. Personally I struggle to find much merit in the interpretation. It sounds really clever when you take it as a whole because it gives you an eagle, a stag and a snake that all have something in common (a tie to Yggdrasil), but the individual identifications make little to no sense. The original argument seems to have wanted Xerneas to be based on a quartet of stags who live in the branches of the World Tree and feed on its leaves. They are described in the Grimnismal (Sayings of Grimnir), one of the poems that make up the Poetic Edda, the major surviving body of pre-Christian Norse myth. Nothing else is known about them aside from their names: Dain, “the Dead One,” Dvalin, “the Slumberer,” Duneyr, whose name’s exact meaning is uncertain but possibly something like “Murmur,” and Durathror, who is again obscure but perhaps means “Delay.” These, of course, all make such perfect sense for a Pokémon whose raison d’être is to invigorate life, particularly “the Dead One,” that it’s hard to believe anyone could doubt there is a connection. The idea also seems to have circulated that each stag had a different coloured gem in its horns – red, yellow, blue and purple, the colours of the glowing projections in Xerneas’ horns – but as far as I can find there’s actually… like… no evidence for that… anywhere… so yeah. Yveltal, similarly, is linked to an eagle who roosts at the top of Yggdrasil, a figure to whom the Eddas do not even give a name, and spends his days insulting the dragon Nidhoggr (who lives at the bottom of the tree and gnaws on its roots), by way of a squirrel messenger named Ratatoskr. Like the four stags, the eagle forms part of the scenery of the World Tree but is otherwise not a terribly important figure, and, also like the four stags, seems to be the subject of an erroneous detail that seems to have been concocted to make the whole concept seem more likely – namely, someone seems to have put it about at some point that the mythical eagle was blind (…it wasn’t) and suggested this as an explanation for Yveltal’s unsettling blue eyes. Finally, again like the four stags, it’s difficult to see what the Yggdrasil eagle could have given to Yveltal other than simply being a mythical bird of prey. He’s not really linked with death or destruction, any more than the stags are linked with life.
Bulbapedia offers related alternatives to each, which do little to improve my estimation of the idea. Yveltal, in their view, might be based on Hraesvelgr, a giant who takes the form of an eagle and lives at the edge of the world; I think the main attraction is his badass name, which means ‘Corpse-Swallower.’ This guy is a seriously obscure character. He’s attested in a poem called the Vafthrudnismal (or Sayings of Vafthrudnir), another part of the Poetic Edda, which is basically about Odin asking the giant Vafthrudnir stupid questions. Odin’s ninth question is “where does wind come from?” and Vafthrudnir answers “there’s a huge f#$%ing eagle-giant at the edge of the world who flaps his wings really hard” (that is, of course, my own literal translation from the Old Norse, or whatever this stuff is supposed to be written in). The later Prose Edda quotes this passage word-for-word, and that is the sum total of what Hraesvelgr does in the extant Norse texts; how he got his sinister name is never touched on. You may as well just say Yveltal is based on a really big eagle. Similarly tenuous links are drawn from Xerneas to the great stag Eikthyrnir, who stands on the roof of Valhalla chewing branches of Yggdrasil and distilling the sap into the water that supplies the world’s rivers. This one, I will grant you, actually does make some degree of sense because Eikthyrnir, like Xerneas, is a sort of wellspring of life, in the form of fresh water, though I would rather expect Xerneas to have water-related powers if that were the case – I mean, it’s not like you need a lot of justification to put something in a legendary Pokémon’s movepool, and this is literally the only thing we know about the character being identified as the inspiration for Xerneas.
All of this was discussed ad nauseam before X and Y were ever actually released. People thus inferred that the third legendary Pokémon, whom we now know as Zygarde, would be based on Nidhoggr, and successfully predicted that it would therefore be serpentine (seriously, though, it had to have a Z-shaped body; what else could it possibly have been?). In some ways this is the most appealing identification to me because a terrible serpent who lives underground certainly sounds like Nidhoggr, and the –garde termination could well be a reference to Asgard and Midgard (though it could equally just refer to Zygarde’s position as, well, a guardian). In other ways it actually makes the least sense of the lot because, rather than simply being generally nondescript like most of the other beings we’ve talked about, Nidhoggr has enough of a personality to be strongly opposed to the role Game Freak appear to have in mind for Zygarde. He’s described as “the Order Pokémon” and is supposed to be a guardian of balance in Kalos’ ecosystem, which sounds as though he’s supposed to fill a Rayquaza-like role in checking the excesses of both Xerneas and Yveltal (since overabundant life and unchecked destruction could both devastate an ecosystem; the way his ability relates to theirs reinforces this idea). Nidhoggr, by contrast, is a far more malevolent character than any of the minor figures suggested as an inspiration for Yveltal; he spends his time chewing on the corpses of the dishonoured dead in Hel, and seems to be one of the figures on the side of evil and chaos in Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. If Zygarde is based on Nidhoggr, why isn’t he the Pokémon who symbolises death instead of Yveltal? Similar attempts to locate Zygarde’s origins with the World Serpent Jormungandr – the arch-enemy of the universally loved and admired Thor, and a major player in bringing about the end of the world – are, if anything, even worse. In any case, there will be more on Zygarde when he gets his own entry.
Finally, just to cap it all off, people point at Xerneas’ dormant form – a white tree – and say “ooh, look, it’s clearly a reference to Yggdrasil.” Xerneas is a stag, for heaven’s sake; stags being associated with trees and forests is really nothing unusual; it’s certainly not specific to Norse myth. Besides, where does that leave Yveltal’s cocoon? There’s no reason Yveltal couldn’t have lain dormant as a black tree, and if Yggdrasil were really as important a unifier as this concept makes out, it would have made a great deal of sense, whereas a cocoon doesn’t give you anything to work with.
So, now that I’ve spent all this time picking apart why I don’t think the currently popular mythological identifications work, am I now going to present something much cleverer that explains Xerneas and Yveltal perfectly? No, actually, I’m not. I’m really not sure there is one. Legendary Pokémon are not usually based on specific mythological characters in this way; with a few notable exceptions, they more often tend to be the Pokémon world’s expression of generalised archetypes. They may very well relate to mythological characters, but in most cases (again, with notable exceptions) I don’t think trying to pin them on specific characters from specific mythologies is a productive exercise. In fact, you can count on one hand the number of specific mythological figures who are clearly identifiable in the designs of legendary Pokémon: the phoenix (Ho-oh), and the Japanese gods Fujin, Raijin and Inari (Tornadus, Thundurus and Landorus). I suppose you can also argue the nine Muses for Meloetta, Nike for Victini, or the golem of Prague for Regigigas and friends, but I don’t think those are nearly as solid. We don’t actually need an answer to this question. There’s nothing that should lead us to expect that there is one. If we have to find a mythological antecedent for them, I rather prefer the idea that the forces represented by Xerneas, Zygarde and Yveltal correspond to the three deities of the Hindu Trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – or, more accurately, not to the deities themselves but to the forces they represent, creation, preservation and destruction.The idea that Yveltal is a reference to the Black Death, I’m also fairly partial to; first of all, it’s got ‘death’ in the name, and although Game Freak shied away from actually calling Yveltal “the Death Pokémon” (going for “Destruction” instead), it’s pretty clear that that’s what it is, in opposition to Xerneas, “the Life Pokémon.” The Black Death is generally understood to have been caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis – starts with a Y, which is apparently one of Yveltal’s defining features. Like Yveltal, the Black Death appeared mysteriously to ravage a huge region centuries ago, then vanished just as mysteriously (and, if certain current ideas about the Justinian Plague of 6th century Byzantium are to be believed, it had already done so once before). Locating such a Pokémon in a European region would also make sense. The physical designs of Xerneas and Yveltal, though, I think were dictated partly by the X/Y theme and partly by the general feeling the designers wanted to get across. Stags appear in a lot of fiction as guardians and avatars of nature – look no further than the stag-like forest spirit from Princess Mononoke, whom I would accept as a possible influence on Xerneas far more readily than Eikthyrnir – and Xerneas’ rainbow horns evoke the vibrancy and diversity of life. Birds of prey can descend from the sky to snatch life away without warning, an unsettling trait that is reflected in stories found around the world of giant birds that can prey on people, like the Roc and the Thunderbird. Xerneas and Yveltal are best seen as the Pokémon universe’s take on these broader ideas, not as attempts to ape specific mythological animals whose stories don’t even fit them.
That isn’t exactly the way I envisioned this entry going; I suppose dissecting these mythological identifications was more important to me than I realised, and in fact I’m coming to realise I haven’t actually said much about Xerneas and Yveltal themselves. A quick assessment to finish, then. Life and death were bold choices, and I feel there’s a lot more room to play with this story than we saw in X and Y – Zygarde will doubtless complicate the relationship between these forces a great deal. The designs are perhaps a little over-the-top, even in comparison to previous legendary Pokémon – I mean, Xerneas is almost literally “rainbow crystal stag Jesus” – but they certainly work. They also led to the creation of an interesting kind of threat in Team Flare and Lysandre, although I’m on the record as believing that Lysandre isn’t nearly as morally ambiguous as the game seems to think he is. In short – if you ask me, these Pokémon work.