By Brett Strohl
What first sucked me into Hajime Isayama’s masterwork Attack on Titan was the incredibly sincere desperation and fury of lead character Eren Jaeger, who at a crucial moment of transformation, is described as: “The manifestation of humanity’s rage.” The reason for the popularity of the series, which has been touted as “Japan’s Walking Dead,” may seem hard to pinpoint, because at first glance the series may simply appear to be an amalgamation of standard tropes of an anime fantasy/horror universe, including: giant dueling monsters (which are very similar to “mecha,” the incredibly common fighting robot), an enormous ensemble cast of characters, serialized action, incredibly graphic violence, and dystopian world-view, etc. However, unlike much of modern pop-culture’s incredibly disposable TV and film, Attack on Titan seems to have touched a real nerve in viewers, both in Japan and all around the rest of the world. I personally believe that much of the reason for this popularity may be buried well below the surface of the show’s presentation of just another apocalypse, only this time via giant naked people.
On one hand, many viewers may already share Eren’s anger at living in a deeply corrupt world, to the point that the crushing weight of modern society’s slow collapse, probably feels as inevitable as the characters of Attack on Titan watching all of their friends and loved ones be eaten by the unstoppable Titan horde. However, what most viewers won’t recognize that Attack on Titan is set within a deeply religious framework, as a series of spiritual symbols and themes are buried within the story, not only to give it added intellectual depth, but more than likely with the intention of triggering a connection directly with the viewer’s unconscious mind. Beyond being just a powerful work of art, Attack on Titan seems designed to impact the viewer with the full weight of very powerful archetypes and symbols that are likely already imbedded deeply within humanity’s collective unconscious.
This may come as a real surprise to fans of the show, because on the surface, there may not appear to be any religious context to the story at all. Although there is the “Wall-worshipper” cult, but at first glance, this simply seems like just a cursory swipe at religious extremism, and that is really about it. However, after I began to take a closer look at both the anime and the manga, I started to realize that the story is actually set completely within the framework of Christian Gnosticism, and there are many allusions to it, that go well beyond passing coincidence.
In Gnosticism, the world we live in is illusory or is a false reality. More specifically, as it is depicted the Gnostic text, The Secret Revelation of John, the world is a bastardized version of the true divine realm (literally a copy of a copy). The reason humanity all suffers is because of the corrupt and twisted nature of the world we live in, which is ruled by demons, as well as demonic rulers and governments, known as, “Archons.” However, there also exists an ultimate reality or divine realm, which signifies a dualistic division between our false reality or “material” prison, which man is trapped in, and the true world or spiritual reality man’s spirit was meant to dwell in.
This duality of the material world versus the divine realm, is highlighted very clearly within Attack on Titan. As for the material realm, the characters are trapped within a walled domain that is under constant assault of giant demonic monsters called “Titans,” and it is also collapsing from within because of a corrupt and incompetent government. As for the divine realm, the characters long to return to the idealized world outside the city’s walls.
And while the violence of the of the material world is up front and right in the viewer’s face, the character of Armin Arlert subtly crystalizes the theme of Gnostic dualism by presenting a forbidden book of lost knowledge about the outside world, which is in fact symbolic of the divine realm. Armin and his friends long for the freedom of stepping outside the prison that man is trapped in, and they all promise to all explore it together after they banish all of the archons from their world.
It is also Armin who declares during battle that “THIS WORLD IS HELL!” Armin’s statement of what might seem to the viewer as just a passing remark, is in fact actually a very literal narration, as this expresses another very Gnostic sentiment. Gnostics didn’t necessarily believe that people go to Hell when they die; for them Hell was literally already here with us, as it is prison of the material realm itself.
The Gnostic creator or Demi-urge (minor spoilers ahead)
In Gnosticism the world wasn’t created by God, but instead only by a demon that believed it was God. Because the creator deity of the Jewish Old Testament was so angry, violent, and jealous, Gnostic Christians believed there was no way that it could actually be God. It either had to be a demon who was so deluded that it thought it was God, or it was simply just a very poorly rendered version of God, as the “Gospel of Phillip elaborates, “God created man. […] men create God. That is the way it is in the world – men make gods and worship their creation. It would be fitting for the gods to worship men!”
As we get further into the manga, the comic form of the source material, we find that this world and it’s walls were created by an incompetent king, who thought that he was uniting mankind by giving it a common enemy, but in actuality was damning it to a life of torment at the hands of his Titans. This king is clearly symbolic of the Gnostic creator, the blundering and demonic Demi-urge himself.
It is also stated that the king banned all knowledge of their time before being trapped inside the three walls, and humanity had in fact lost all of it’s memory before that time. This is also a mirror image of Gnostic thought, as Gnostics believed that as mankind had been cast into the material world it had lost the memory of it’s divine origins, and that the creator had forbidden them access to this knowledge by not allowing them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the book of Genesis.
The Gnostic Christ and Holy Ghost
Jesus, to the Gnostics, was more than simply a blood atonement for man’s sin (if He was that at all), but He was also a liberator, and a divine manifestation of God, sent to free mankind from grasp of the archons and the demonic “god of this world.” So in this way we don’t simply see Eren Jaeger dying and then leaving man behind. Instead Eren dies and is reborn, so he can drive out every last Titan/archon, in effort to liberate mankind, so it can return to the idealized divine realm beyond the walls.
Eren is very clearly a Christ-figure, and many of the events that transpire in the series are identical to events in the life of Jesus (although not quite chronologically). As was mentioned, Eren dies and is reborn through a miraculous transformation and his primary role is as a liberator. Add to that his first major victory over the Titans came after lifting an impossibly large stone, symbolic of the stone that was rolled away from Christ’s grave allowing him to leave His tomb. Eren is hated and feared by the very same people he saves, as was Christ, and he is literally referred to as, “The savior.” Eren is placed on trial by the corrupt religious and military leaders for crimes he didn’t commit, and beaten mercilessly, as Jesus also was.
Also the character Mikasa Ackerman is clearly a symbol of the Holy Ghost. Gnostics knew the Holy Ghost as “Sophia” or the embodiment of divine Wisdom and the manifestation of female divinity. Mikasa and Eren are completely inseparable, and while Christ and Sophia’s relationship in Gnosticism is more complex, this inseparable bond is symbolic of their relationship in Gnostic writings.
Wings of Freedom
Not everything in Attack on Titan fits perfectly into Gnosticism, but regardless the framework of the religion is still there. Plus I’d wager there are other many other symbols, religious and otherwise, scattered throughout the series. For instance there is a trinity of curiously named walls, and the main three characters of Eren, Mikasa, and Armin, also form a trinity. Also, there are a whole host of characters, encompassing political, military, and merchant positions, some of which are also likely metaphors for things I’m not personally aware of.
However, on my examination of the series, the last symbol to dawn on me is actually the absolute most prominent one in the entire series, that being the “Wings of freedom,” or the insignia representing the scout legion (which happens to be the only group of people who actually have man’s best interests in mind). Wings, especially in the context of “freedom” or the military are ones that a Western audience would automatically assume would belong to eagles or some other bird of prey. However, I think that is safe to assume, that in the light the story being told within Gnostic Christian framework, that they are actually meant to be angels wings.