Art Imitating Art
This article discusses the global, historical and literary references that are present in the video game franchise Bayonetta. In particular, references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the works of Dr John Dee, and European traditions of witchcraft are examined. Bayonetta is modern in the sense that she is a woman of the world. Her character shows how history and literature may be used, re-used, and evolve into new formats, and how modern games travel abroad through time and space.
Drawing creative inspiration from other works is nothing new. Ideas and themes, art and literature are frequently borrowed and recast. Carmel Cedro cites Northrop Frye in the example of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. These writers created stories and characters that have developed a level of acclaim and resonated with many individuals, resulting in countless homages over the years. The forms that these appropriations take vary widely. Media formats, such as film adaptations and even books, take the core characters or narrative from the original and re-work them into a different context. For example, the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1883 was adapted into the 2002 Walt Disney animated film Treasure Planet. The film maintained the concepts of the original narrative and retained key characters but re-imaged them to fit the science fiction genre (Clements and Musker).
The video-game franchise Bayonetta draws inspiration from distinct sources creating the foundation for the universe and some plot points to enhance the narrative. The main sources are Dante’s Divine Comedy, the projections of John Dee and his mystical practices as well as the medieval history of witches.
The Vestibule: The Concept of Bayonetta
Figure 1: Bayonetta Concept Art
The concept of Bayonetta was originally developed by video game designer Hideki Kamiya, known previously for his work including The Devil May Cry and the Resident Evil game series. The development of Bayonetta began with Kamiya requesting a character design that included three traits: a female lead, a modern witch, and four guns. This description laid the foundations for what was to become the hack and slash fantasy heroine that would come to be known as Bayonetta.
"Abandon all hope ye who enter here"
The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri during the 1300s, was a revolutionary piece of literature for its time, in that it was one of the first texts that formalised the vernacular Italian language by omitting the use of Latin, the academic language of the time. Dante’s work was also revolutionary in its innovative contemplations on religion, art and sciences, creating a literary collage of such depth that it would continue to inspire hundreds of years after its first publication.
Figure 2: Domenico di Michelino’s fresco of Dante and his Divine Comedy, surrounded by depictions of scenes in the text
Bayonetta explores the themes of The Divine Comedy in a variety of ways, using them as an obvious backdrop, along with subtle homages and references scattered throughout the game. The world of Bayonetta is set in the Trinity of Realities, three realms that co-exist forming the universe: Inferno, Paradiso and the Chaos realm—realm of humans—and connected by Purgitorio—the intersection of the trinity. In the game, Bayonetta travels throughout these realms, primarily in the realm of Purgitorio, the area in which magical and divine entities may conduct their business. However, there are stages within the game where Bayonetta finds herself in Paradiso and the human realm. This is a significant factor relating to The Divine Comedy as these realms also form the areas explored by Dante in his epic poem. The depth of these parallels is not exclusive to factors in Dante’s masterpiece, as there are also references to other art and literature inspired by Dante’s legacy. For example, the character Rodin in Bayonetta runs a bar named “The Gates of Hell.” In 1917 French artist Auguste Rodin completed a sculpture, The Gates of Hell depicting scenes and characters from The Divine Comedy. Rodin’s bar in Bayonetta is manifested as a dark impressionist style of architecture, with an ominous atmosphere. In early concept art, the proprietor of the bar was to be named Mephisto (Kamiya) derived from “Mephistopheles”, another name for the devil in some mythologies.
Figure 3: Auguste Rodin's Gate of Hell, 1917
Aspects of Dante’s surroundings and the theological beliefs of his time can be found in Bayonetta, as well as in the 2013 anime film adaptation Bayonetta, Bloody Fate. The Christian virtues, revered during the European Middle Ages, manifest themselves as enemies and adversaries that Bayonetta must combat throughout the game. Notably, the names of the cardinal virtues serve as “boss ranked” foes. Enemies within a game, usually present at the end of a level and more difficult to defeat than regular enemies within “Audito Sphere” of the “Laguna Hierarchy” (high levels of the hierarchy within the game), are named in Italian; Fortitudo, Temperantia, Lustitia, and Sapientia. These are the virtues of Classical Greek Philosophy, and reflect Dante’s native language as well as the impact the philosophies of Ancient Greece had on his writings.
The film adaption of Bayonetta incorporated many elements from the game. To adjust the game effectively, it was necessary to augment the plot in order to fit the format of this alternate media. As it was no longer carried by gameplay, the narrative became paramount. The diverse plot points of the new narrative allowed for novel possibilities for further developing the role of The Divine Comedy in Bayonetta. At the beginning of the movie, for example, Bayonetta enters as a nun, just as she does in the game, only here she is in church praying rather than in a graveyard conducting a funeral. During her prayer she recites “I am the way into the city of woe, abandon all hope, oh, ye who enter here,” which is a Canto of The Divine Comedy.
John Dee and the Angels
Dr John Dee (1527—1608), a learned man of Elizabethan England, was a celebrated philosopher, mathematician, scientist, historian, and teacher. In addition, he was a researcher of magic and occult arts, as were many of his contemporaries. These philosopher magicians were described as Magi and John Dee was the first English Magus (French). He was part of a school of study within the Renaissance intelligensia that was influenced by the then recently discovered works of the gnostic Hermes Trismegistus, thought to be of great antiquity. This was in an age when religion, philosophy and science were intertwined. Alchemy and chemistry were still one, and astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler and Tyco Brahe cast horoscopes. John Dee engaged in spiritual experiments that were based in his Christian faith but caused him to be viewed in some circles as dangerously heretical (French).
Based on the texts of Hermes Trismegistas and other later Christian philosophical and theological writers such as Dionysius the Areopagite, Dee and his contemporaries believed in celestial hierarchies and levels of existence. These celestial hierarchies could be accessed by “real artificial magic,” or applied science, that included mathematics, and the cabala, or the mystical use of permutations of Hebrew texts, to access supercelestial powers (French). In his experiments in religious magic, Dee was influenced by the occult writings of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486—1535). In Agrippa’s book, De Occulta Philosophia, there are descriptions for seals, symbols and tables for summoning angels, to which Dee referred in his accounts of his own magic experiments (French). Following his studies, Dee constructed a table with a crystal placed on it. By use of suitable rituals prescribed by Agrippa and others, Dee believed he summoned angels within the crystal, who could be seen and conversed with. Dee did not see these visions himself, but conversed with the angels through a skryer, or medium, who saw and heard the celestial beings. Dee recorded his interviews in his “Spiritual Diaries” (French). Throughout Bayonetta there are numerous seals and devices that would appear to be inspired by the work of Dee or other Renaissance Magi.
In these sessions, John Dee, through his skryer Edward Kelley, received instruction from several angels. The angels led him to believe he was to be a prophet in the style of the biblical Elijah or, more specifically like Enoch, whose prophesies were detailed in an ancient book that was not part of the Bible, but was considered by many scholars as divinely inspired. As a result, these experiments have been termed “Enochian conversations.” The prophesies received by Dee foretold apocalyptic events that were to occur soon and God’s plan for the world. The angels also instructed Dee in a system of magic to allow him to interpret the prophesies and participate in them as a form of judge. Importantly, Dee was also taught elements of the supposed angelic language, which came to be known as “Enochian” (Ouellette). Dee wrote extensively about his interviews with the angels and includes statements of their hierarchy (French, Ouellette). This is reflected in the “Laguna Hierarchy” of Bayonetta, sharing similarities in name and appearance of the angels Dee had described. Platinum Games creative director Jean-Pierre Kellams acted as writer and liaison, assisting the English adaptation of Bayonetta and was tasked by Hideki Kamiya to develop Bayonetta’s incantations and subsequently the language of the angels within the game (Kellams).
The Hammer of Witches
One of the earliest and most integral components of the Bayonetta franchise is the fact that the title character is a witch. Witches, sorcerers and other practitioners of magic have been part of folklore for centuries. Hideki Kamiya stated that the concept of” classical witches” was primarily a European legend. In order to emulate this European dimension, he had envisioned Bayonetta as having a British accent which resulted in the game being released in English first, even though Platinum Games is a Japanese company (Kamiya). The Umbra Witch Clan hails from Europe within the Bayonetta Universe and relates more closely to the traditional European medieval witch tradition (Various), although some of the charms Bayonetta possesses acknowledge the witches of different parts of the world and their cultural context. The Evil Harvest Rosary is said to have been created by a Japanese witch in the game. Bayonetta herself and other witches of the game use their hair as a conduit to summon demons and is known as “wicked weaves” within the game. She also creates her tight body suit out of her hair, which recedes when she decides to use a wicked weave. Using hair in magic harks back to a legend that witches often utilised hair in their rituals and spell casting (Guiley). It is also said that women with long and beautiful hair were particularly susceptible to being seduced by Incubi, a form of demon that targets sleeping women for sexual intercourse. According to some texts (Kramer), witches formed into the beings that they are through consensual sex with a devil, as stated in Malleus Maleficarum of the 1400s, when he wrote that “Modern Witches … willingly embrace this most foul and miserable form of servitude” (Kramer). Bayonetta wields her sexuality as proficiently as she does any weapon. This lends itself to the belief that women of such a seductive demeanour were consorts to demons.
Purgitorio is not used in the traditional sense of being a location of the afterlife, as seen in The Divine Comedy, rather it is depicted as a dimension that exists concurrently within the human realm. Those who exist within this Purgitorio cannot be seen with human eyes. Bayonetta’s ability to enter and exit this space with the use of magic is likened to the myth that witches were known to disappear for periods of time and were purported to be “spirited away” from the human world (Kamiya).
Recipes for gun powder emerge from as early as the 1200s but, to avoid charges of witchcraft due to superstitions of the time, they were hidden by inventors such as Roger Bacon (McNab). The use of “Bullet Arts” in Bayonetta as the main form of combat for Umbra Witches, and the fact that these firearm techniques had been honed by witches for centuries before the witch hunts, implies that firearms were indeed used by dark magic practitioners until their “discovery” by ordinary humans in the Bayonetta universe. In addition to this, that “Lumen Sages” are not seen to practice bullet arts, builds on the idea of guns being a practice of black magic. “Lumen Sages” are the Light counterpart and adversaries of the Umbra Witches in Bayonetta. The art of Alchemy is incorporated into Bayonetta as a form of witchcraft. Players may create their own health, vitality, protective and mana potions through a menu screen. This plays on the taboo of chemistry and alchemy of the 1500s. As mentioned, John Dee's tendency to dabble in such practices was considered by some to be heretical (French, Ouellette).
Light and dark forces are juxtaposed in Bayonetta through the classic adversaries, Angels and Demons. The moral flexibility of both the light and dark entities in the game leaves the principles of good an evil in a state of ambiguity, which allows for uninhibited flow in the story and creates a non-linear and compelling narrative. Through this non-compliance with the pop culture counterparts of light and dark, gamers are left to question the foundations of old cultural norms. This historical context lends itself to the Bayonetta story not only by providing additional plot points, but also by justifying the development decisions that occur in order to truly flesh out Bayonetta’s character.
Compelling story line, characters with layered personality, and the ability to transgress boundaries of time and travel are all factors that provide a level of depth that has become an increasingly important aspect in modern video gameplay. Gamers love “Easter eggs,” the subtle references and embellishments scattered throughout a game that make playing games like Bayonetta so enjoyable. Bayonetta herself is a global traveller whose journeying is not limited to “abroad.” She transgresses cultural, time, and spatial boundaries. The game is a mosaic of references to spatial time dimensions, literary, and historical sources. This mix of borrowings has produced an original gameplay and a unique storyline. Such use of literature, mythology, and history to enhance the narrative creates a quest game that provides “meaningful play” (Howard). This process of creation of new material from older sources is a form of renewal. As long as contemporary culture presents literature and history to new audiences, the older texts will not be forgotten, but these elements will undergo a form of renewal and restoration and the present-day culture will be enhanced as a result. In the words of Bayonetta herself: “As long as there’s music, I’ll keep on dancing.”
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