“We work in the dark to serve the light. We are Assassins”
When I first encountered the above phrase in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, during the Assassin initiation ceremony, I took it at face value. “We work in secret to do good.” Then I noticed throughout the game the number of people who perceived the Assassins as the bad guys. After all, you the player know that you are killing bad guys, but to the NPC townsfolk, these are the pillars of society. At one point Ezio says to the jeering crowd something like, “you speak of things you know nothing about”. This got me thinking that the Assassins may serve the light, but they are perceived as being dark. Recently, I began to see this phrase in a new way. I remembered that light can mean both goodness and enlightenment. What if serving the light is the serve enlightenment? What if it’s about serving The Enlightment?
WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?
Five hundred years ago, Western Civilization was pretty rubbish. Compared with the Chinese and Islam, Europeans were definitely in last place. Then something changed. Economic historian Professor Niall Ferguson set-out to discover how and why the West came to dominate the world in such a short span of time. He concluded that a combination of six key factors tipped the scales for the West: competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic. All but one of these were born of the Scientific Revolution and The Enlightenment, the exception being competition which was endemic to a continent born of warring tribes.
The Scientific Revolution, from roughly 1543 to 1687, established in the common mind that the universe operated according to fixed principles rather than the whims of the gods. Upon this foundation was built The Enlightenment which sought to apply reason and the scientific method to society and politics. The result were concepts like human rights, the freedom to think, act, and believe as we choose, and the right to own property. The ultimate expression of Enlightenment values is the United States Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.
Today, we take these concepts for granted, however when we look at the big picture of the human experience across the globe for the past 50,000 years we find only an insignificant percentage of the human who have ever existed could even conceive of these notions. Nonetheless, we want to see these values expressed in the historical fiction we produce. The Assassin’s Creed series is no exception. Here we have a secret society fighting to promote Enlightenment values millennia before the everyday person could accept them as being normal. However, there is an ancient source for these particular values and it is possible to draw a straight line from it to the fictional Assassins.
MAN VS SOCIETY
Humans are small group animals. This is an inescapable fact of nature and far too often ignored. According to the Monkeysphere theory, our brains are only capable of recognising from 100-150 people as being unique people. Everyone else is just “them”, NPCs, moving scenery who we de-humanise with labels and stereotypes. If someone says that they are concerned about the poor, they are really saying that they are concerned about the poor as a general concept and may not really know any actual impoverished people as unique individuals. This is not to criticise. It’s just important to understand how things are.
This basic tribal mentality hardwired into our brains is further reinforced by 50,000 year of tribalism. Even today, our caveman brains seek to fit in, be part of the crowd, identify with our idea of us as a people, race, or nation. This is manifested in the current trend of identity politics, not to mention the multi-billion dollar industries built around the basic impulse to be fashionable among our peers in our tastes in entertainment and appearance.
The tribe can be a good place to be. It provides security, safety, identity, purpose, and emotional support. The ideal tribe is like the ideal family where the wise and caring father takes care of everyone. For millennia, this ideal image has been translated from father, to chief, to king, to president. We want a government of wise and caring leaders who will take care of us, the people.
Being part of a tribe requires each individual to put their selfish desires aside and to put the needs of the tribe first. You need to join the group if you want the benefits. As a result, tribal societies have no concept of individual identity to the same high degree that we in the modern West possess. Considering this in the context of the 50,000-year history of human consciousness, our modern notions are a blip on the radar – a freakish abnormality.
The Templars in Assassin’s Creed recognise this fact. They understand that humankind is hardwired to submit to the will of the tribe, to society, and that the ideal situation is for wise leaders to take control of society and shepherd it into a better world. The Templars see themselves as the wise leaders who will lead a populace yearning to be led. But it’s not that simple. Humans are small group animals, but every person is possessed of a unique consciousness. We are all individuals. This is where the Assassins come into the story.
The Assassins ascribe the ideas of the Enlightenment. That each person is an individual with his own mind with which to think and to make the life choices that he thinks will benefit himself. With this choice comes the responsibility of consequence, be the results beneficial or negative. “Nothing is true” reminds us to be critical thinkers and to challenge the accepted “truths” enforced by the tribal authorities of state, religion, and society. “Everything is permitted” is both a liberation and a warning. We are free to act, but our actions, and the actions of others, may or may not lead to a positive outcome – life has no safety rails.
Human are small groups animals with individual consciousness. At one extreme, the individual receives all the benefits of being in the tribe, but at the cost of freedom. At the other extreme, the individual is free, but alone and responsible. The struggle is to maintain the balance of the two, but this is not possible when the degree of social participation ceases to be voluntary but is forced upon us. The ideal society for the Assassins is one where the power of tribal authorities is held in check to allow people to have that balance.
FINDING THE SOURCE
In the real world, the Assassins were a Muslim sect operating in Iran and Syria during the Crusades. The leap of faith from the games comes from stories where Hassan i Sabbah, the founder and leader of the order, would command followers to leap to their deaths to demonstrate their unquestioned obedience. That sounds nothing like the anti-authoritarian Assassins from the game the series. The fictional Assassins have a more fanciful origin story dating back to the dawn of time and the actual historical Assassins were re-interpreted to fit this fictional narrative. It is true that the Assassin’s Creed is historically attributed to Hassan i Sabbah, but it does not seem consistent with the beliefs of a devout Muslim. So what is the origin of the Creed, or at least the philosophy behind it?
In Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, the Assassin Mary Read asserts
Cultures and religions and languages keep folks divided, but there's something in the Assassins Creed that crosses all boundaries. A fondness for life and liberty.
This reflects the Enlightenment idea that the values of the Enlightenment are based on rational principles and are therefore universal. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”. Any rational being can discover these ideas if they choose. Yet, in the course of human history they are rare finds with most folk falling back on the default tribal model. However, there is a historic precedent dating back 3500 years which provides an interesting alternative theory for the origins of the Assassin’s enlightenment ideology.
This story begins with a man named Zarathustra. No one really knows when Zarathustra lived, but the best guess in around 1000 BC, give or take a few centuries. This is roughly the same period given for the Biblical kings, Saul, David, and Solomon. No one really knows where he was from either. Modern scholars tentatively place him in eastern Iran. What is important is the influence he had on human history.
Zarathustra is more commonly known by the Greek version of his name Zoroaster and the religion he founded, Zoroastrianism. To put the religion into context, it is basically the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the first monotheistic religion. Concepts like the war between good and evil, the existence of angels, demons, and Satan himself, a day of judgement, and heaven and hell all come from Zoroastrianism.
Zarathustra taught that human consciousness was a unique gift from the one god, Ahura Mazda, the “wise lord”. With this gift comes the individual responsibility to choose between good or evil. This consciousness was bestowed upon all humans, regardless of race or gender. In a time when women were property and marriage was a financial arrangement, Zoroastrians saw women as equals to men with equal responsibility to choose good. The Zoroastrian Creed is “Good thoughts, Good words, and Good deeds” implying that we must constantly be exercising our free will to choose good.
Professor Kaikhosrov D. Irani, a retired Professor Emeritus of Philosophy from City College of New York, explains it like this:
"In the Zoroastrian doctrine, there are no specific prescriptions which state, "do this" or "don't do that." The individual is left to think it through. The responsibility for what should be done rests with each individual. The acceptance of this responsibility becomes a way of life. The world is a moral reality and your way of life is good thoughts, good words, and good deeds."
This passage reminded me of Mary Read’s interpretation of the Creed in Black Flag, “it does not command us to act or submit - only to be wise.”
It is incredibly difficult for the modern mind to comprehend how revolutionary Zarathustra’s teachings were in 1000 BC. It is like finding an iPhone buried under the pyramids. Up until this point you were the tribe. There was no I. Now here comes a religion that places free will in the centre of its belief system.
Zoroastrianism would go on to become the dominate religion in Persia for the next 1700 years until the conquering armies of Islam gave their usual convert or die option. Well, there was a third option. Those refusing to convert could pay a special tax and be allowed to live without converting to Islam. Over time the number of Zoroastrians dwindled and today only an estimated 200,000 remain. Possibly the most famous modern Zoroastrian was Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen. For the Christians, the Persian word for a follower of Zarathustra was Magi. The three wise men from the East who brought gifts to the baby Jesus were Zoroastrians, so thank Zarathustra for your Christmas presents. And if you drive a Mazda, your car was named after Ahura Mazda.
Possibly the most important historical Zoroastrian was the Persian king Cyrus the Great (576 – 530 BC). Cyrus has always been held in high regard throughout history. In the Bible, he was the Persian king who allowed the captive Jews to return to Palestine and paid to have their temple rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity. His cupbearer had been the Jewish scribe Ezra, who many scholars believe to have been the chief editor of what we have today as the Old Testament of the Bible. The prophet Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “the anointed one”, or as the phrase is more commonly known, the messiah.
The Greek historian Xenophon is most famous for his book, Cyropaedia, a mixture of fact and political theory centred around the life of Cyrus and a key resource for the American Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson who owned many copies in several languages.
Today, Cyrus is most regarded for the Cyrus Cylinder. After Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire he issued a decree to his newly conquered subjects in which he guarantees their right to worship as they please. Among human right advocates, this is widely viewed as being the first great human rights documents.
Professor Irani refers to this period of Persian history as, “The First Enlightenment” with Zoroastrian philosophy as the centrepiece. Both this First Enlightenment and The Enlightenment as we know it were based on the same principles. As beings of individual consciousness we must be free to exercise and cultivate that consciousness regardless of social authorities. This is the battle line between the Assassins and Templars, the individual and the tribe, Man and Society, and Classical Liberalism and Authoritarianism.
The role of Zoroastrianism in the ancient world is comparable to that of Christianity in 19th century Britain or 20th century United States as the primary religion of the greatest power of the day. With the coming of Islam, we see the enlightenment-oriented culture that the Zoroastrians had cultivated in Persia continue under the new religion to create the so-called Golden Age of Islam in science and learning. This would eventually spread through the Moors in Spain and Venetian traders returning from Istanbul to spark the Renaissance in Europe, followed by the Scientific Revolution, and then The Enlightenment. These are the dots connecting the first and second Enlightenment.
However, there is a fundamental difference. Although both Enlightenments reached the same destination, they did so from different routes. For the Zoroastrians, the path was a religious one using reason, yes, but within the context of the supernatural. This first form of enlightenment worked, but not as efficiently as version 2.0 which arrived through reason with any irrational justification.
So there is an actual ancient precedent for the Enlightenment values expressed by the Assassins of the game. Making the connection requires a bit of conjecture, as the game series never mentions Zarathustra, but there are some interesting parallels. Whether by accident or design much of the symbolism of Assassin’s Creed reflects this First Enlightenment. The following is not intended to be anything more than observations of interesting parallels between Zoroastrianism and the fictional Assassins found in the Ubisoft game series.
The Persian Connection
Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia where it was practiced as the primary religion for over a millennium until the Islamic conquest of Iran, but even then it took centuries for the full Islamification of Iran. In 1056, four hundred years after the Muslim invasion, Hassan-i Sabbah was born in the scholarly Persian city of Qom. He would go on to inhabit the mountain fortress of Alamut in Iran as the founder of the historic Assassins.
Meanwhile back in the 21st Century, the games company Ubisoft was running their successful game series, The Prince of Persia. They had intended to feature the Assassins in a sequel to Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time, however during development the Assassins took on a life of their own and it was decided to launch a new game completely separate from the Prince of Persia series.
The original Assassin’s Creed game was inspired by the book, Alamut by Vladimir Bartol. He was a self-proclaimed Existentialist and may have been inspired by Friederich Nietzsche who made mention of the Assassin’s Creed in his book, On the Genealogy of Morals, and was himself a student of Persian history and culture. Among Nietzsche’s most important works is Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he creates a second Zarathustra who brings atheism where the real Zarathustra brought monotheism.
Within the Assassin’s Creed Universe, there once existed a highly advanced species called the Isu who genetically designed humans to serve as ignorant slaves. Due to interbreeding with the Isu, some humans were born with individual consciousness. These special humans led a revolt against their creators and were the first Assassins. The centre of the conflict was the city of Eden, the source of our Garden of Eden myth. In the garden, humanity achieves individual consciousness by rebelling against God by eating the forbidden fruit. There are of course those who believe the Eden story was real, and one of the prime contenders for the location of Eden is an area outside the city of Tabriz in Iran.
I find it interesting that ideologically through Zoroastrianism, historically through Hassan i Sabbah, and fictionally through the game development, it’s literary inspiration, and in the story itself, we can trace the Assassin’s origin to Persia.
The original model designs for the Assassins depicted them wearing all white and concealing themselves with a hood. Why white? It’s not the best colour choice for sneaking about in dark or concealing blood spatter. This white design remained with various characters in the series until Arno Dorian in AC Unity in 1789 and the Frye twins also abandoned the white garb in 1868. This change may have more to do with decisions at Ubisoft since characters created earlier but inhabiting a later period in history, such as Nikolai Orelov in 1918, are still wearing white.
Many religions feature white clothes for special occasions or rituals, but not necessarily as standard dress. Two religions stand-out. The religious leaders of the Zoroastrians wear all white and in Islam men are encouraged to wear white regularly as their principle colour choice. In both instances, white is symbolic of purity.
In the game series, the use of white may be intended to harken back to the historical Islamic inspiration for the game Assassins. However, the first Assassins Creed game depicts the Assassins as being apart from the Islamic sects of the time which is contrary to the true history. One might argue that the decision was to dress the Assassins so that they might disappear in a crowd of Muslims clothed in white, but why continue the convention into the 20th century? Perhaps the designers felt that they had established a theme in the first game and wanted to continue. Who knows? Personally, I like the Zoroastrian theory. Here’s why.
The Fire of Enlightenment
Back in September 2013, I received a comment on one of my posts stating that the Assassin’s Creed symbol is derived from an earthen lamp called a diya. I found it interesting and asked for evidence but received no reply. I looked into it a bit deeper. The diya is used in the festival of Diwali, the most important festival in the Hindu calendar. I discovered that these earthen lamps are also used in the practice of Zoroastrianism, particularly among the Parsis of India.
Fire and light play a very important role in the practice of Zoroastrianism to such a degree that those ignorant of the religion assume them to be fire worshipers. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that the fire represents the force of creation, science, and wisdom. In short, it means enlightenment. Their places of worship are referred to as fire temples with prayers, hymns, and meditations being directed towards the flame. The same is done in home worship through the use of oil lamps such as the diya.
The commenter directed me to a link illustrating the diya drawn from the front where a protruding lip is evident. The oil fills the basin and a large wick rests on the lip. Whether this theory is true or not, the resemblance is uncanny as illustrated below and seems to explain the separated lower portion of the symbol as the rim and lip of the lamp.
As I have written before, the word creed means both a belief and the symbolic representation of the belief. So when asked, “what does that symbol you wear mean?” I can answer that it means “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” However, more and more I am content to say that it means enlightenment, particularly the Enlightenment values of wisdom and freedom demonstrated by the Assassins.
It has been said that the only people who know the meaning of the word autodidact are autodidacts. The word simply means self-taught and is used to describe people who became experts in a subject or field through their own pursuit of knowledge rather than through a formal education system. As Mark Twain famously said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
This relates to the first half of the Creed as an invitation to critical thinking. Nothing is true, so don’t believe everything you are told. Think and discover for yourself. This principle is behind calling the leaders of the Assassins “mentor”. The role of the mentor is to aid in discovery and not to impose answers. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each individual to choose wisdom. The Zoroastrians also employ the concept of “the mentor”. Among the many titles given to Zarathustra, one is interpreted as “thought provoker” or mentor. This has carried on into the modern day where the various degrees of religious leaders among the Zoroastrians act more as mentors rather than authoritarian priests or ministers.
Every person is a potential autodidact by virtue of having a mind. Whether they choose to be one or merely accept the “truths” that they are given is also their choice. The role of the mentor is to provoke thinking, to guide but not control the process, to inspire but not to impose.
The Paradox of Tolerance
The Assassins differ from the Zoroastrians in their chosen battlefield against the forces of evil. Zarathustra taught that the two opposing forces of Asha (truth, order, justice) and Druj (falsehood, deceit) exist within each person and each person has a responsibility to choose truth over lies. In a larger sense, it is the choice between wisdom and enlightenment over ignorance and darkness. For the Zoroastrians, there is no external evil to be fought but an internal conflict that all people must wage on a personal level. This is very different from those religions that seek to fight and punish others whom they perceive as being evil.
An Assassin would not deny this internal field of battle, but they go further by taking a proactive approach against those conditions that promote or encourage ignorance, such as slavery and bigotry. Their justification is expressed in a concept laid out by the philosopher Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance.
"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them."
Many of the Templars are portrayed negatively in the game series, but there are a few good ones through whom we are shown the ideal Templar society. Their ultimate goal is a collectivist system were wise paternal rulers control the thoughts and actions of the people so that each person can live peaceful and prosperous lives in blissful ignorance. The Assassins see this as reducing people to the role of slaves or cattle. Goodness must be chosen freely and not imposed on people with laws backed by force.
Like all do-gooders throughout history, the Templars have a plan for society and any opposition to that plan will not be tolerated. For the Assassin’s, the only sin is a lack of tolerance for the rights of others to think and act as they choose. So they will oppose any attempt to infringe on these rights regardless of the alleged morality of “the plan”. They will not tolerate intolerance.
In this context, intolerance is a denial of the rights of others to think and act as they please provided they cause no real and direct intentional harm. The word tolerance means to endure something. I am disgusted by the guy picking his nose in public, but I endure it because it’s a free country. I am deeply offended by a comment on the internet, I may challenge him using reason, but I will fight for his right to be a dick. That’s tolerance.
While both the Assassins and the Zoroastrians recognise the sanctity of individual consciousness and respect it, the Assassins take a proactive stance to actively protect and defend the conditions that allow for the expression of that consciousness against those who seek to manipulate and control it.
According to the game series, the Assassins have existed for millennia, since the time of the precursor city of Eden and the historical Assassins of Hassan i Sabbah were just one faction of the larger Assassin Order. I would propose an addition which is basically just a bit of fan fiction.
I would suggest that the precursor city of Eden is in fact in Iran as some people claim, that Zarathustra was of a remnant from that city, and that the Assassins emerged as a break-away sect of Zoroastrians who sought to take a more proactive approach by protecting the Enlightenment values and using violent means if necessary. Over time they dropped the religious aspects and became a wholly secular philosophical organisation, but retained some of the religious trappings. It’s just a theory and a bit of fun. I would love for Ubisoft to use this, but judging from the forthcoming Empire story, it looks as if they will take an Egyptian rather than a Persian route for an origin story.
In a sense, this entire article can be called a piece of fan non-fiction. I was inspired to write it because it seems as though the Enlightenment values that we take for granted are gradually disappearing in a world where people give and take offense so easily with no respect for the minds of others; where people trust their feelings over reason and call anyone who disagrees with them stupid; where we seem to be allowing ourselves to be manipulated by elites burying us in propaganda that gets repeated by our friends as truth. In the face of all this, I could think of only one response:
Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember,
Nothing is True.
Where other men are limited by morality or law, remember,
Everything is Permitted.
We work in the dark to serve the light.
We are Assassins.