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Comparative religion: Spira vs. Thedas

[personal profile] tklivory ask me to compare and contrast the Maker (Dragon Age) and Yevon (Final Fantasy X), which is a fantastic question. Two god-figures, two religions, two metaphors, two cultures. More different than alike, but with a similar founding principle: protecting the planet and the people while attempting to harness and control its world's greatest power. How do these two gods manifest, and how do their similarities and differences shape their respective worlds?

When we speak of Yevon, we have to consider the different entities the word can embody: the god, the religious and political order that holds absolute rule over most of Spira, and the man, Yu Yevon, a summoner of ancient Zanarkand who created and then became the great monster, Sin. The man is largely lost to history, the truth of his identity a closely held secret until Yuna drags all of Yevon's secrets into the light, but the organization and its god permeate almost every aspect of life on Spira. Yevon functions as the government of Spira as well as its church: they operate the military, shipping and travel services, and the world's largest entertainment complex in the form of the blitzball stadium. Yevon's leader, the grand maester, is supreme head of both church and state, answering only to a council of advisors whom he presumably appoints himself. The only non-believers in Spira are a group of outsiders, the Al Bhed, and there is no other religious pluralism that we see, except for indications that another group, the Guado, used to have their own religious tradition before a recent mass conversion. Yevon rules nearly supreme, and any attempt to question the status quo is met with ruthless force.

The situation in Thedas is rather different, at least on its face. The Maker is a distant god, by tradition not concerned with the matters of mortal men, and his followers tend to be more focused on his bride, Andraste, a martyr and messiah who is comparable to the Christian saint Joan of Arc. The religious group organized around worship of the Maker and Andraste is the Chantry, which is nominally separate from each nations' sovereign government. There are also other religions practiced throughout the world: Dalish elves revere their ancient pantheon; traditional dwarven religion is a form of ancestor worship; the country of Rivain as well as the Chasind and Avaar peoples have their own faith traditions; and the Qun is followed by many people, mainly the Qunari invaders from the north, but there are converts throughout Thedas, most notably within Rivain and the contested territory of Seheron. There are also different faith groups within the followers of Andraste, with the divide between the Black Divine of Tevinter and the White Divine of Orlais and the South being the most obvious example, but there are other variations based on local tradition, such as the death cult of Navarra.

However, the Chantry holds a great deal of political influence. It maintains its own standing army, the Templars, and the Orlesian Chantry controls mages through a system of Circles. The Orlesian Chantry also has a habit of calling Exalted Marches (compare to the Crusades of the Catholic Church) on groups with which it disagrees: the elves, the Qunari, the competing Imperial Chantry of Tevinter. Still, the amount of control that the Chantry holds in Thedas pales in comparison to the absolute rule of Yevon, and this can be attributed at least in part to the threat of Sin.

The Chantry and Yevon were both founded at least in part to protect the populace from a potential source of danger: magic in Thedas and Sin in Spira. Each is a powerful force capable of bringing great devastation, but the similarities end there. Although magic is a force of nature, outside of the Fade it's typically channeled through human beings who can exert some level of control over it. Magic can be used for good or for evil, just like any other human endeavor. In contrast, Sin is a giant, pitiless sea monster who exists only to kill, targeting humans directly and purposefully, and it can be neither defeated nor controlled. Yevon, through the summoners it trains and supports and its teachings of purity and atonement, is seen as the only hope of ending the terror of Sin's attacks. By keeping strict control of the Summoners, who can defeat Sin if only temporarily, and by forbidding the use of machina weapons, Yevon perpetuates the cycle of Sin's destruction and rebirth to keep itself in power. This strategy is effective, and I don't find it surprising that the people of Spira would take refuge in Yevon and shun the few who would doubt as dangerous heretics. Not even Al Bhed believe that Sin is potentially benevolent or even neutral -- they disagree with Yevon about how it might be defeated, suggesting that machina could be a viable option, but not that stopping Sin is a necessary goal. By marginalizing the Al Bhed and claiming that their use of machina keeps the cycle alive -- rather than the Final Summoning, which ends one Sin to fuel the rebirth of the next -- Yevon keeps anyone from developing a weapon strong enough to challenge Sin and end the cycle, and therefore also their control of Spira.

Meanwhile, in Thedas, the nature of magic and how it should be best controlled is hotly debated. Are the magical beings who populate the Fade good, evil, or living creatures with the potential for either? Are mages people who deserve to live completely free or a threat to be contained at all costs? (To pick two extreme views, without implied endorsement of either. My personal opinion on this topic is complex and not really relevant to this post; maybe I'll open that can of worms another time.) What matters here is the existence of a genuine controversy, of political and philosophical differences that can be debated. And so they are, even among people who follow the same faith. As a result, we end up with more variations, including people who reject the Maker and his Chantry entirely.

It's easy to see Yevon forbidding the use of machina except for "approved purposes" (such as the blitzball stadium) and the Chantry confining mages and use of magic to the Circles as similar, especially when you realize that Yevon has a secret stockpile of machina weapons in the basement of St. Bevelle. Nominally forbidding a practice while quietly doing it in the background is a textbook tactic for controlling a population. But I would argue that Yevon was much better at it, possibly because Sin provides a more immediate and visceral threat to the people of Spira than magic does to the average person in Thedas.

Then again, Yevon didn't survive its secrets coming to light, and when Yevon crumbled, Yuna and her guardians were able to defeat Sin for good. Can we see a similar end coming for the Chantry? Maybe, in the long run, but it's hard to say without knowing the Chantry and the people of Thedas respond to the threats I see on the horizon in Dragon Age 4. In terms of immediate threats, Solas tearing down the Veil might make Sin look like a walk in the park in comparison. Whether this situation might lead to the Chantry taking more power or less will depend a great deal on how everything plays out, and I for one am very curious to see it.

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