Saturday, 25 April 2015

Assassin's Creed: Seek This Symbol

This article originally appeared on my Evil Thoughts of a Decadent Mind page on 18 November 2012.  Unlike the other re-postings,I have chosen to re-edit, add to, and amend portions of this article. The original article and comments can be found here.

When people ask me what I write, I answer, “the cultural, history and philosophy of the Romantic Era from 1776-1929”. Since philosophy covers metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, I write about all these subjects as they pertain to the Romantic. Yet my most popular article by far is a critique of Assassin’s Creed focusing particularly on the ideas expressed in the game Assassin’s Creed 2.2, titled “Brotherhood”. I am currently on my second play-through of the latest release, Assassin’s Creed 3 and I thought that I would take a moment and share some ideas.

When any aesthetic expression is put into the world certain people are drawn to it but for very personal and often unique reasons. This game series has fans all over the world, but I doubt that very many see what I see. Likewise, I may see things beyond whatever was conceived by the creative team behind it.  This is not to boast.  It is is the nature of any artistic experience for the audience to make their own interpretation that may bear little resemblance to the artist's intent, but that by no means diminished the affect it has on the audience.  The emotional response is very real. 

Where I got the chills in Assassin's Creed III was the scene where Juno, the Ancient who had downloaded her consciousness into various "temples", she shows young Ratonhnhak√©:ton (Connor) the insignia of the Assassins and tells him to “Seek This Symbol”. That is where I got the chills. This article explains why.

There are two kinds of people in the world. There is us and them. Humans are by nature small group animals with about 100-150 people in a group. We can say that what binds them together are familial ties, but that is superficial. Values are those things we act to gain or to keep. These values are determined by beliefs, and the habits required to attain these values are called virtues. When beliefs, values, and virtues are shared by members of a group we say that they have a common purpose. This is the glue that binds humans together as a couple, a family, a gang, a tribe, and a nation. We might even call it love.

All of these things, beliefs, values, virtues, shared purpose, and levels of group identity, are all abstracts. They have no physicality. So we manifest them as symbols. A symbol is not merely the representation of an ideology, but also of the group that adheres to that ideology. This is why the desecration of a symbol invokes such wrath. We love our symbols because they symbolise our love, our love of ourselves as part of the group we identify as us.

Humans may be small group animals by nature, but we no longer live in small groups. The groups we form are within the context of a larger group all filled with numerous other groups divided along a myriad of largely superficial lines, like race, national origin, religion, politics, and even cultural consumption. The result is that symbols lose their exclusivity to us. Anyone can impose any meaning, be it great or trivial, upon a symbol as they utilise it according to their fancy. A person may wear a cross for a number of reasons without any of them signifying identification with the beliefs, values, or virtues of Christians as a group.

Ubisoft, the company behind the Assassin’s Creed series, has made the symbol for the Assassin Brotherhood readily available in numerous forms, from jewellery, to belt buckles, to decals. What this says is, “I like the game Assassins Creed.” But there is more to it.

Within the context of the game’s story the symbol represents a secret society. It is a gang of men and women who have dedicated themselves to a system of beliefs, values, and virtues. Through this there is a common purpose and a brotherhood. Now suppose players of the game once exposed to this ideology find that they share these beliefs, values, and virtues. Does it not stand to reason that they will invest their emotions in the symbol as well? At this point the symbol transcends, “I like the game Assassin’s Creed” and becomes “I believe in the Assassin’s Creed”. The transition is made from art into life.

So let’s look at the symbol itself. First though, I need to give a brief disclaimer. I have no idea how the designers at Ubisoft came upon the design or what their intentions were.  All that I have is speculation.  I will note that a reader informed me once that the image the represents a flame burning on a lamp or brazier. Perhaps as the flame of Truth or enlightenment. This would fit within the Assassin's Creed lore and it is an interesting idea. It would be nice if it's origins were as ancient as this reader seemed to imply rather than just something that the Ubisoft creative team made-up, but he did not, or could not, elaborate or support this idea with evidence.  So it remains an interesting notion for now.

The Christians have their cross, the Muslims their crescent moon, and the Jews their  Star of David. So what should we call this?  Its been called the Assassin's Creed crest, insignia, logo, and symbol.  I prefer to call it just the Assassin's Creed.  A creed is a belief, yes.  However there is another definition for the word creed.  It can also mean the symbol representing the belief.  So the Christian Cross can rightly be called the Christian Creed.

When people ask me what does that symbol you are wearing mean, my typical answer is, "It means Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted."  The Assassin's Creed (symbol) means what it represents, the Assassin's Creed (belief).

Here are a few connections that I have made concerning the Assassin's Creed.  They are not facts, just observations that I find interesting to consider.


You may notice that the symbol looks like the letter “A”.  Sure, we can say A for Assassin.  We could also say A for Atheist.  The creed, “Nothing is True; Everything is permitted” as first expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an attack on belief, which historically has been used to control people, and in a general sense it rejects all beliefs derived from social conditioning. not only religious beliefs.  Also, the Assassins in the game are portrayed as atheists.

A can also stand for Athena.  It may seems strange to mention a pagan goddess alongside atheism, but the gods and goddesses are very useful tools as symbolic representations.  Athena, as mentioned earlier as Minerva, is in many ways a vivid characterisation of the Assassins, their beliefs, values, and virtues as the goddess of wisdom, battle tactics, invention, commerce, truth, reason, and freedom. As the patron of heroes, particularly Odysseus, she encouraged the virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honour.

Also of note in this regard is that in the game the Templar leaders carry the title Master, while among the Assassins the preferred title is Mentor. The word mentor originates from Homer’s Odyssey as the proper name of an old man who lived in Odysseus’ town.  During the story both Odysseus and his son are counselled by him, but it is later discovered that this was actually Athena appearing in his form.  The root of the word mentor, men, is the same from which we get the word mental referring to the mind.  It is also the root for the proper name Minerva, aka Athena.  So we have another connection between the Assassins and Athena.

download_ca_redThe letter A can also stand for Anarchy.  The political view of the Assassins is that power must be redistributed to each individual rather than concentrated in a central authority.  If we see political opposition on a scale between individualists on one side and collectivists on the other, then we have a clearer picture of the Assassins on the individualist side along  with the libertarians and anarchists and the Templars on the authoritarian collectivist end with the progressives, socialists and communists.  Power to the people does not mean power to a central authority claiming to act on behalf of the people. it means challenging the central authority as it presently exists and the potential creation of new authorities.

I have chosen to mark as the beginning of the Romantic Era as 1776 for three reasons.  That is the year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, James Watt put the first commercial steam engine into operation, and the Declaration of Independence was issued.  Romanticism is about individualism.  The Wealth of Nations brought capitalism that empowered the individual economically, the steam engine heralded the Industrial Revolution created individual opportunity, and the Declaration of Independence heralded the age of Classical Liberalism, which at the time was called radical republicanism, brought individual freedom.  Another interesting relationship was that Adam Smith, James Watt, and many of America’s founding fathers were all Freemasons.

Square_compasses.svgThe symbol of the the fraternal brotherhood known as the Freemasons, or Masons, is a compass and square.  Others have noticed the similarity between this and the symbol for the Assassins, with the compass forming the “A” shape and the square being the portion beneath it.  The “G” is said to stand for God, though not in a purely Judeo-Christian sense, but rather a supreme being as the “great architect of the universe”.  Masons use architectural and stonemason metaphors the illustrate their key principles of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

The similarity between the Mason and Assassin symbols is uncanny and yet may be purely coincidental.  Many theorists put forward the notion that the Mason evolved directly from the historic Knights Templar, however in the game universe, the Assassins are the oppositions to the Templars and the Masons are a separate entity.  I am by no means an expert on Masonic history, but from my understanding and research I would assert that Masons were generally on the side of liberty and were often persecuted by authoritarian regimes, such as the Italian fascists, the Nazis, and the Soviets.  I suspect that given further study many Masonic ideas may be present in the representation of the Assassins in the game.

Personally, I have friends who are Masons and they have given me an invitation to join, however as an atheists I cannot become a Mason.  Though it is funny to me when their friends meet me, notice my Assassin's Creed watch fob, and say things like, "You know what I mean, brother" with a sort of wink and a nudge.

Assassin’s Creed is a fantasy.  None of it is real.  There are no ancient ones, divine or otherwise; there is no Assassin Brotherhood, at least not since the Assasiyun died out after the Crusades; and there is no Knights Templar, although that is often debated on the internet.  So for all intents and purposes the symbol of the Assassins is equally meaningless, and anyone is free to ascribe any meaning to it, be it trivial or profound.

What is real is that there are people in the world who seek power which they usually justify in the name of righteousness.  Power is the means by which a person works their will in the world.  Some people use their power to exert their will over others and others readily accept this authority.  History shows us that human beings have an incredible capacity for self-subjugation to a point where it is perceived as a social norm and anyone who challenges the authority is seen as being weird or fringe.  Since the authority cloaks itself in morality, these outcasts are usually portrayed as evil or deranged.

This is the underlying truth behind Assassin’s Creed.  It envisions a secret group of people, a gang if you will, who rally behind a symbol and bind themselves together in shared beliefs, values, and virtues to challenge the authority –  “to work in the dark to serve the light”.  We talk about fighting for the right, but we really do not mean it.  We fight metaphorically through political activism or vicariously by playing games like Assassin’s Creed, but the authority does not fear metaphoric or vicarious battle.  Fighting means violence if necessary and the Assassins represent a group that sees the oppression that most are blind to and they are willing to do what must be done no matter how terrible.

At the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, the Earth is threatened by a return of the same massive solar flare that wiped-out “the Ones Who Came Before”.  The main character, Desmond Miles, must make a choice.  By activating an ancient device he can save humanity but also free Juno’s consciousness and she will in turn enslave humanity. Athena/Minerva councils him not to activate the device.  Remnants of humanity will survive and they will be free.  Desmond’s choice is one we must all make.  Do we value security and safety under the authority or do we choose freedom even if it means the world burns?  For me, the symbol of the Assassins marks those who choose freedom, no matter the cost and that is something very real.

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