Of all of the 898 Pokemon species currently known to exist, only 59 are Legendary. This means that a whopping 93.43% of Pokemon fall under a different bracket. Some of these are Mythical or pseudo-Legendary, but the vast majority of them are just ordinary ‘mons, living ordinary lives. Mareep is just hanging out in the field, chomping on grass and accidentally electrocuting farmers, while Poochyena sits at the window all day, devilishly snarling at the postman until its trainer opens the door, at which point it just wants belly rubs.
What I mean is, while lots of regular Pokemon have fantastic designs, their inspirations are pretty easily deciphered. Mareep is a sheep. Poochyena is a dog. Pidgey is a bird. Tauros is a bull. Klefki is car keys. Vanilluxe is ice cream. Garbodor is rubbish. Those last few are a bit weird.
With Legendary Pokemon, though, things become far more complex. I’m happy to admit that not very many of my favourite Pokemon are Legendary. I love Suicune and Lugia, and I’m a big Groudon fan. Aside from that, though, I rarely even bother catching Legendaries – but that’s not to say they’re not fascinating.
While most Pokemon are based on some sort of real-life animal – or, er… inanimate object – Legendary Pokemon are often derived from mythology. In many cases, this is not as simple as “Lugia is a dragon!” Instead, these Pokemon are composite beings who are often derived from several conflicting mythologies, which is probably why their designs and characteristics end up being so unique.
A good example of this is the Legendary titans. Many people believe that Regirock, Regice, and Registeel are based on golems from Jewish folklore, and I reckon they probably are – sort of. Golems, for those who don’t know, are sentient beings made up of some kind of lifeless matter. In pop culture, they often tend to appear as a hulking hodgepodge of walking stone. Regirock in particular is closely aligned with this common depiction of golems, which was lifted from its original folklore and reappropriated into a more secular kind of mythology shared between multiple cultures in the medieval age.
All of the above being said, it would be totally fine to say that the Legendary titans are based on golems. Rock, ice, and steel are all inanimate and unrefined materials, so the idea of them gaining sentience and becoming a massive Pokemon in a world filled with weird and mysterious magic isn’t too Farfetch’d. But it would be remiss to stop here, or to think, “Ah, we’ve cracked it,” because there’s more going on here.
While Regirock, Regice, and Registeel debuted in Generation 3, Regigigas, the leader of the Legendary titans, didn’t appear until the next set of games, Pokemon Diamond & Pearl. Regigigas’ name alone should scream at anybody who has ever looked at ancient languages. “Gigas” in particular is quite well known as the Ancient Greek word for “giant.”
So I looked it up and it turns out that “Regi” is the Latin word for “royal,” which means the Legendary titans are actually known as “Royal Rock,” “Royal Ice,” Royal Steel,” and “Royal Giant.” The fact Regigigas presides over all of them, and is known for its status as a primeval giant as opposed to the material it’s composed of, lends special credence to the etymology of its name. Gigas’ origins as a Greek word, coupled with the fact that these are officially known as the Legendary titans, implies that as well as being influenced by Jewish and medieval golems, this Legendary quartet – now a sextet after the Crown Tundra’s addition of Regieleki and Regidrago – is related to the infamous Titans of Greek mythology. The fact Regigigas was locked away adds even more weight to this, bearing resemblance to the Titans’ imprisonment in Tartarus after the events of the Titanomachy, or the ten-year war that saw them lose their power to the usurping Gods of Mount Olympus.
The page linked above also notes similarities with a certain yokai known for moving mountains and a demigod who used ropes to expand the landmass of his kingdom. While these could have partially influenced Regigigas’ individual historical background, they carry less weight than the golems and Titans who appear to have heavily influenced this entire Legendary group. The introduction of Regieleki and Regidrago – “Royal Electric” and “Royal Dragon” – further serve this hypothesis, while also playfully experimenting with it. While they’re not necessarily based on inorganic matter, they are sentient beings composed of some kind of mysterious power. It’s worth noting that Regieleki could be based on something like the Baghdad Battery, a mysterious galvanic apparatus that was uncovered in Iraq that dates back to almost two millennia ago, while Regidrago’s “dragon” basis could be tied to the ambiguity as to where dragons actually come from. For example, while dragons in pop culture often hatch from eggs, Egyptian mythology’s Apep had a head made of flint, while Denwen’s body was entirely composed of fire. Most interpretations of dragons – even ones that are born from eggs – involve at least some form of primordial power. Consider Skyrim’s frost dragons being connected to ice, or the belief that a dragon created the first humans in southwest China by breathing on a group of monkeys. Dragons, although mysterious, always have some sort of connection to the kind of materials a golem is composed of.
I don’t mean to linger on the Legendary titans for too long, although given the amount of detail provided above, I can’t go through all 59 Legendary Pokemon either. Given that we’ve just discussed dragons, it probably makes sense to move on to Rayquaza, the master of Gen 3’s Weather Trio.
Rayquaza is the most fascinating Legendary Pokemon ever created. Its origins are so vast and varied that it’s no wonder it has become one of the most popular ‘mons Game Freak has designed to date. For example, when Mega Evolution was introduced in Generation 6, Rayquaza became the only Pokemon who didn’t need a Mega Stone to Mega Evolve. Instead, it has a unique organ that allows it to channel consumed asteroids into Mega Energy. This is called the “mikado organ,” with “mikado” meaning “emperor” and referring to the Emperor of Japan, who is also called “Tenno,” which is translated as the more specific “heavenly emperor.” Given Rayquaza’s location at the top of the sky tower and association with space, this makes perfect sense.
But this just refers to Rayquaza’s hierarchical position – it doesn’t explain the full etymological basis for it. According to Bulbapedia, Rayquaza’s name could refer to “Raqiya,” which is the Hebrew word for “firmament.” The etymology section here also offers some other alternatives, but given the existence of the mikado organ, the most likely origin is “retsu ku za,” which combines the Japanese words for “furious,” “sky,” and “seat,” which gives us “one who sits in the ferocious heavens.” This, clearly, is linked to the “heavenly emperor” connection described above.
In terms of Rayquaza’s mythological inspirations, the possibilities are fairly endless. It bears a resemblance to the vast majority of dragons throughout various cultural mythologies, which makes tracking down a concrete origin more difficult than with the Legendary titans. What I will say is that the page linked above lists a few of the more popular examples, some of which hold little to no weight. For example, while the Aztec deity Quetzlcoatl was a flying snake, it had feathers and was not the leader of its respective circle. It also had a twin, which means that Rayquaza’s lack thereof makes establishing connections difficult. In general, deific twinning is an exercise used to highlight opposites – the simple fact that Rayquaza already presides over twin Legendaries makes comparisons to Quetzlcoatl weak or null by default.
Rayquaza is far more likely to be based on Japanese dragons, which is backed up by the existence of its mikado organ and the supporting etymological possibility of its name being derived from “retsu ku za.” As noted in the wiki linked above, Japanese dragons also notably have three claws, while Chinese dragons have four, giving us a clearer idea of where Rayquaza’s aesthetic was drawn from. On top of that, if you consult a list of renowned Japanese dragons, you’ll find that many of them preside over the oceans in a similar way to Rayquaza, and are often connected to Emperors in accordance with Rayquaza’s name origin.
The best part about all of this is that this level of care goes into every single Legendary Pokemon’s design. My personal favourite has to do with Lugia and Ho-Oh, Generation 2’s Tower Duo. This pair are connected to one another in some ways, but their individual identities then stem out into vastly different mythological stories. For example, Lugia is most likely based on a Japanese dragon, similar to Rayquaza – however, instead of being based on the concept of Japanese dragons, Lugia resembles Ryujin specifically, who is known for dwelling on the ocean floor. I found one section of Lugia’s wiki particularly fascinating, as it points out that the colors of its base sprite and shiny alternative – white and red – closely resemble the coral used for Ryujin’s palace.
Meanwhile, Ho-Oh – whose name literally means Chinese phoenix – is clearly a phoenix. Eastern mythology often posits the dragon in opposition to the phoenix, associating the former with water – again, as seen with Rayquaza’s inspirations – and the latter with fire. Obviously, Lugia and Ho-Oh fit this mold neatly in several ways: Lugia is located in the Whirl Islands, while Ho-Oh’s signature move is Sacred Fire.
Legendary Pokemon have fascinating links to all kinds of different mythologies. I’ve only actually covered nine of my favourite examples here, meaning that there are 50(!) more Pokemon to examine in this light.
It’s easy to say “That’s just a dog with a sword in its mouth,” although I think that’s actually a pretty lazy criticism. When you’re willing to look into these things in more detail – particularly with Legendary designs – you’ll find that there are countless inspirations for every single one of them.
Although I will admit: nothing will ever top Rayquaza or Lugia.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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