Back in April, I suffered mental burnout that almost resulted in a breakdown at work. To recover, I purchased a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and played it all evening. Three months and 47 hours later, I’m glad I did. Not only are the plot, characters, and gameplay enjoyable, but the game has reached into me and awakened a current of emotions I never expected.
If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of the game, Assassin’s Creed: Origins takes place during Ptolemaic Egypt, circa 49 BCE. At this point in history, Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians commingled throughout the cities of northern Egypt, but especially in Alexandria, the seat of Egyptian power. The infamous Cleopatra is 20 years old and not yet the notorious queen she will become. Because Assassin’s Creed: Origins uses this dramatic period in history as its backdrop, as a result, it is able to showcase something unique: the religions of these ancient civilizations.
And, much to my surprise, the game does it well.
Immediately after leaving the first town, you, as the protagonist Bayek, are given instructions to travel to Alexandria to meet with some other important characters. Along the way, you can make a stop in a town called Yamu, where your old friend is the head priest of the Temple of Sekhmet. A sidequest sends you to his aid. Since I want to complete all of the quests and puzzles in the game, I chose to do it — and as soon as the front of the temple came within sight, I found myself floored.
Only in paintings and the photographs of old ruins have I seen the ancient temples of Egypt. I know the shape of them, the enormous statues of gods that flank the entrances, and the imposing rows of lions, rams, or other beasts that guard the front walkway. But it is something else to observe them as bustling hubs of socio-religious activity, even if it’s through my TV screen. As I moved Bayek past the front entrance and into the main chambers of the temple, he jostled other worshipers. Slowly, I explored the temple, moving into a room with a small pool, where two priests knelt in prayer. The sight sent a jolt of shock through me. I recognized the way the priests bowed, with their heads touching the floor, their arms spread before them.
Because I’ve bowed that way before the Egyptian gods, too.
For four years, I identified as a Kemetic — a person who worships the gods of Ancient Egypt. I learned, through my studies, that certain hand positions and gestures were important to do during ritual. I learned them all, including the henu that involves kneeling, head-to-floor, before the gods.
As I watched the NPC priests in Assassin’s Creed: Origins go through their programmed motions, an unexpected emotion filled me: a sense of connection. It comforted me. It made me feel validated and understood. Even then, I was aware that these NPCs are mere pixels in a video game produced by other humans who are not polytheists. But that fact somehow made me feel even better. It made me feel acknowledged.
Now, I cannot comment on the accuracy of historical events that take place in the game due to my ignorance of this time period. What does impress me, though, is the accuracy of details regarding the Ancient Egyptian religion, which I first noticed in the town of Yamu. There is an old man in the market who asks you to recover his copy of The Book of the Dead, which bandits stole.
For those unfamiliar with The Book of the Dead (more appropriately called The Book of Coming Forth By Day), it is a text the Ancient Egyptians used to safely navigate the afterlife. The most well known copy is the Papyrus of Ani. People unfamiliar with Ancient Egyptian studies sometimes incorrectly assume that there is only one version of this book, and that everyone uses the same version. The truth is that each person would have a personalized copy purchased from the temples. This NPC in particular explains how expensive his copy was, considering he went all the way to Memphis to purchase it.
Hearing that piece of dialogue was a pleasant surprise. I marveled at that little detail, thinking about how most gamers wouldn’t appreciate its significance. To me, it represented proper and thorough research, the kind that made Disney’s Moana a huge success among people with Polynesian cultural roots. I found myself looking forward to whatever other little details the developers included in the game.
As Bayek, I traveled through Egypt until I reached the city of Memphis, where the main god worshiped is Apis. Helping the priests at the Temple of Apis is part of the game’s main plot, so I will not discuss what happens. However, the cutscene that plays when you first meet with the head priest struck me as phenomenal, and I want to take the time to explain why.
Most, if not all, of the Egyptian gods have associations with animals, which are sacred to them. Some are obvious, such as Ra with the hawk and Sekhmet with the lion. Others are less obvious; though Thoth is an ibis-headed god, another of his sacred animals is the baboon. And sometimes, the sacred animals of these gods were themselves venerated in ancient times as living vessels of the gods. Such was the case of the Apis bull. Instead of a statue of a man with a bull’s head, a specially chosen black calf was the focus of ritual worship until its old age and inevitable death. Afterward, a new calf was chosen.
In my experience as a polytheist, most people in the modern day would find this practice quaint, exotic, just plain strange, or even primitive. Media is rife with the notion that people who follow unfamiliar religious practices are weird, even crazy. They are “other”; they are “not like us.” But shockingly, Assassin’s Creed: Origins does not use the cutscene featuring the Apis bull to portray this ancient practice in a negative light. The game isn’t even neutral about it, which would have been enough to satisfy me. Instead, the game shows the sincerity of the Ancient Egyptians when it comes to their worship of the god through the sacred animal. It shows their genuine piety and their honest belief.
It normalizes polytheism as a human experience.
As soon as I realized this, I looked for it. I wandered the Egyptian countryside on horseback, following quests, hoping to stumble upon the city or town that worshiped him above all.
And then I rode into Nitria, a small town that produces natron, a kind of salt used in the embalming of mummies. At first, I didn’t think it would have a main god of worship, considering its size and lack of temple. But then I spoke with an NPC and my excitement bloomed.
I found steps cut into the cliff that overlooks Nitria. I climbed them as the virtual sun set over the virtual desert, passing offerings left in piles, candles, pillows for sitting, and burning incense. I saw the jackal’s head rise ahead of me.
I let Bayek linger by the giant statue of Anubis, Lord of the Burial, lying recumbent — a traditional pose — while I watched the sun finish setting over the statue of my god of gods. I may identify as a Heathen now (a worshiper of Germanic gods like Thor and Odin), but I continue to pray and make offerings to Anubis, who has been a god of my hearth since I was thirteen years old. And even though I was not on that clifftop myself, even though I was not standing beside that statue of my god, I felt…
In the United States, where I live, polytheism is not a common conception of the divine. My society is dominated by a Christian worldview and Christian morals, even if more and more people are becoming disillusioned by the Christian faith. And many people my age (and younger) embrace some form of atheism instead. Religion in America has a negative connotation, and being religious is often equated with being conservative, narrow-minded, irrational, fearful, or subservient. Needless to say, polytheistic religions in America are minorities — both in the general public’s understanding of their beliefs and in the number of their practitioners. I have met people who become confused after I explain to them that I believe in more than one god. Some of them have heard of Greek mythology but never learned that other ancient cultures were polytheistic, too. Some of them never even realized the Greeks actually worshiped their gods.
I don’t write this to whine or complain; I’m merely stating facts. It’s the situation I’ve accepted and also the situation I am trying to change. But change is not easy. Not everyone likes to hear about what others believe or how they worship. Not everyone is interested in religious discussion, even on an academic level. Even my own personality holds me back sometimes. I am a private person, and I won’t mention anything dear to my heart unless I feel comfortable enough in a conversation to do so. And the general public’s uneasiness with religion does not make me feel comfortable.
In contrast, the world of Ancient Egypt — the world this game presents to me — is overflowing with religion. Yes, there are NPCs going about their regular, everyday activities. Some are weaving, some are blacksmithing, some are selling goods in the market. Some steer their boats down the Nile while others simply walk along programmed paths. But I also saw NPCs praying. I saw them entering temples and kneeling before the statues of their gods in reverence. I saw them rubbing fragrant oil along the bodies of sacred animal mummies, a gesture full of love and respect.
Actions aside, the game dialogue alone is chock full of references to the gods, to the afterlife, to the forces of good and evil that shape Kemetic religious philosophy. Bayek will swear on the name of Amun and call upon Anubis. He prays to the divine gatekeepers and guardians while deep in the hearts of the tombs. NPCs will invoke their gods to protect them, wreck vengeance on evildoers, and imbue them with wisdom or strength.
Media and popular culture will often simplify real polytheistic religions to the point where they are not accurate representations (the Vikings TV show) or reinvent them/their mythologies in new ways that aren’t true to reality (American Gods by Neil Gaiman; the God of War video game series). That’s why it is so refreshing to immerse myself in a game with such an accurate, positive portrayal of a polytheistic religion. I found myself yearning for a world where religions can coexist, where people actually know about other people’s faiths and gods, where people can express their piety without fear of judgment or proselytizing. I found myself wishing for other games, books, etc. that can do the same thing as Assassin’s Creed: Origins but for other cultures and other religions.
A feeling settled in me that I couldn’t explain at first. The best way to describe it is a wistful nostalgia for a time I had never experienced. It felt like an emptiness waiting to be filled, but not by simply spending time with other polytheists. I concluded, after some deep thought and discussions with others, that the solution is not a matter of other people at all. Instead, it’s a matter of being unapologetically, unabashedly polytheistic.
Living religiously isn’t about gathering in a building for an hour, once a week, and then forgetting about it all for the rest of the time. It’s about allowing the religious to merge with the secular. It’s about putting the gods, the ancestors, and the wights in the fore of my mind as often as I can. It’s about living alongside them in every waking moment.
I live in a world teeming with the divine spark. It does not wait for me to be ready to engage with it. Instead, I must meet it directly, confidently, and with purpose.
Regardless what others think.