Sunday, 18 November 2012

Assassin's Creed: Seek This Symbol

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.

As with any work of art, it is whatever we want it to be provided our perception can be supported by the work itself. So if I am a fan of the series because of the game play, sure that’s there. Or if I think the characters are cool, yes, that is there too. But if I like it because I think it promotes homosexuality, then I may be going out on a limb, because that’s really not there, at least as far as I can see.

What I want to write about here is a scene in the latest game that gave me chills, but first some background information for the uninitiated. A key aspect of the story running throughout the games is the “Ones Who Came Before” and the artefacts they left behind. Basically, they are an ancient advanced civilization who lived on Earth and bioengineered slaves to serve them, also known as us humans, and were the origin of the divine pantheons of many cultures. Their civilization was destroyed by a massive solar flare and the few survivors were forced to interbreed with the surviving humans. You did not need to have this lineage to be a member of the Assassin Brotherhood, but the top Assassins were. This ancient DNA allowed them to utilize artefacts, such as the Apples of Eden, without being corrupted by them.

I should note, there will be spoilers in this article. You have been warned.

In Assassin’s Creed 3, we learn that at least two of the ancient ones had essentially downloaded their consciousness into a sort of internet linking various artefacts and temples. Through these they acted as “spirits” manipulating the course of human events, primary through the conflicting secret societies of the Assassins and the Templars. These two entities are first discovered in Renaissance Italy and identify themselves as Minerva and Juno.

Minerva is the Roman name for the goddess Athena and is associated with wisdom, tactics, invention, commerce, and freedom. Forms of Athena/Minerva include Britannia and the Statue of Liberty. So we could say that she represents the Assassins.

Juno is the Roman equivalent of Hera, the wife of Jupiter/Zeus. She is the goddess of matrimony and motherhood. In other words, social order and therefore represents the ideology of the Knights Templar.

In the story, one of the temples housing Juno’s consciousness is in a sealed cave in up-state New York and protected by a tribe of Mohawk. The existence of the temple is discovered by members of the Knights Templar who are looking to remove the natives and open the sealed doors, but Juno wants to prevent such a premature activation of the temple. She makes contact with a young Mohawk boy who inherited from his British father the ancient gene of the Assassins. During his communion with Juno via an ancient artefact she shows him the insignia of the Assassins and tells him to “Seek This Symbol”. That is where I got the chills. Here’s 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 to create this symbol. I do not know their intentions, inspirations, or any meanings that they subscribe to it. What I am presenting here is just my opinion and the ideology that I have emotionally invested in it.

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.  This fits with the opposing ideologies.  The Master commands while the Mentor guides.  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 whether intentional by the games authors or not, 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 brought Classical Liberalism, at the time was called radical republicanism, which brought individual freedom.  Another interesting relationship was that Adam Smith, James Watt, and many of America’s founding fathers were all Freemasons.

The symbol 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.  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.

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 Hashashin 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.


  1. I'm sure that I will receive comments on this, so I'll address it from the start. Yes, I know Desmond chooses what I call the non-Assassin option. If he had chosen to let the world burn, then the Assassin's Creed story and franchise would be over and Ubisoft won't be doing that.

  2. Very impressive. Thank you for your time,research and opinion on this. And no Ubisoft isn't stopping anytime soon. It (ac) is pure entertainment,nothing more. I just hope others know and understand this as well.