Here are the results of my research on just how much actual content this show took from Egyptian cosmology and history. Since this is a long page, see the internal menu below for quicker navigation.
Here are some of the high points of Ancient Egyptian cosmology, for those who are interested. My main source for religion is Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, by Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, translated from French by G.M. Goshgarian, a delightful book that I highly recommend. Not nearly as distressingly Christian-centric as the work of the late Wallis Budge (who did the best he could with the worldview he grew up in, but still).
The first thing to keep in mind when trying to figure this system out is that identity was an aspect of function. What you do is who you are and vice versa. This basic law means that the identity of an actor can change depending on the action. Thus, when Isis needed to kick enemy butt, she became Sakhmet, because that’s what Sakhmet does. It was still Isis’ motivation and choice, but the identity was Sakhmet’s. So, too, Pharaoh performs Horus’ function, therefore Pharaoh is Horus. This is why the only people involved in building a temple are the king and the gods; that various priests played their parts was a mere technicality. The priests acted as the king and gods, therefore that’s who they were. In my opinion this also goes some toward explaining why it was so relatively easy for a woman to declare herself Pharaoh (male and god). It wasn’t a legal fiction, because there’s no such thing in this system. If it is legal, then it is a fact.
What this also allows for is a fantastic degree of integration. The best example is probably the sun god(s). Every possible identity (and there were a lot) is simultaneously true because each identity describes a different part of the sun’s function. Thus, by the New Kingdom period, Khepri is the sun’s identity at rising, Re at his height, and Atum at setting. Different function, different identity, all the sun.
On with the cosmological history, then.
The uncreated world consisted of the Primeval Ocean, eventually known as Nun or “nonbeing”, and the creator-god (variously named Re, Ptah, Khnum, Neith, Atum and Amun, to cite a few). Life awoke within the creator in the form of Shu, god of air (air=breath=life). The creator communicated this to the Ocean, who replied “Inhale your daughter Maat, and raise her to your nostril so that your heart may live. May they not be far from you, your daughter Maat and your son Shu, whose name is Life” (Adriaan De Buck, The Egyptian Coffin Texts, vol 2, 33-34, qtd in Meeks 14). Maat, the embodiment of order, truth, the norm by which order and chaos are measured, is quite reasonably the creation that followed immediately upon life. We might think of her as the rhythm of the creator’s heartbeat and breathing.
Quickly upon these events followed the creation of a few snakes, and the waters which are not Nun embodied by Tefnut, the sky embodied by Nut, and the earth embodied by Geb who are, at the same time, offspring of Shu and of the creator. Now the chronology starts to get a bit fuzzy. A lot more gods, and humans too, got created one way and another; the only one we particularly need to note is Thoth who is most commonly said to have come forth from Seth’s skull or “the heart of the creator, in a moment of bitterness” (78). He was Vizier to the creator, wrote down and transmitted his decrees, looked after everyone’s offerings and particularly ruled/embodied time and the moon.
At some point after Geb and Nut were separated, but before the creator left the world for the heavens (at which point, I guess they were more separated), Geb and Nut snuck around and got Nut pregnant with children who were not supposed to be born. Due to some jiggery-pokery that Thoth performed with time, they were anyway. These were the elder Horus, Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Seth.
It is worth noting that all this creation takes place in the context of a large body of the uncreated. Being uncreated, these forces could not be destroyed, thus the constant struggle between order and chaos that forms the backdrop for all this god-action. The succession of kings among the gods follows a pattern of rule-revolt-reorder-switch that reflects the recurring encroachment and repulsion of chaos.
Now, then, the creator ruled for a while. There was a revolt among the gods, for reasons undocumented, which the elder Horus or possibly Shu (depending on whether we’re talking about the creator as Re or as Atum) put down. Shu succeeded to the throne and became king of the gods. His rule followed the same pattern, and Geb succeeded him. Likewise Osiris. Now we get real trouble.
Seth, being both jealous of Osiris and quite… forthright, killed Osiris, cut up his body and threw the pieces into the Nile. Isis retrieved them, mummified Osiris and with some assistance, revived him long enough to conceive a child: Horus. At this point, Osiris took over rule of the underworld, Seth took over as king of the South, and Isis fled with Horus to hide in the Delta until her son was old enough to challenge his uncle. Note that Horus did inherit the throne of the North.
The grown up Horus took Seth to court, appealing for justice to the creator. Here the process hit some snags, since the creator favored Seth who was a strong and proven warrior and had defended him in the past. Absolutely everyone else, however, agreed that the just thing was for Horus to inherit the whole of his father’s realm, both North and South. After extended stalling and stratagems on both sides, Osiris finally threatened to send his messengers to the creator’s court to terminally sort out who’s just and who’s not. This brought the creator around and Seth lost the case in a big way. Horus inherited.
The underworld, by the way, was not precisely paradisiacal. In fact, it was remarkably similar to daily life among the living in both work and play. “The denizens of the next world had to give up their breath and the heat of their bodies upon arriving there, for these things were the marks of earthly life; the sun warmed them up again when he passed by them [in his nightly journey], restoring them to life for the briefest of instants” (87). You can see, perhaps, why the dead endeavored to move not only their ba but also their bodies to the heavens instead. Osiris wasn’t real keen on that, though.
At any rate, now that the gods were finally sorted out, humans rebelled. Although Sakhmet’s deadly intervention eliminated not only the rebels but a generous portion of the rest of humanity, this was the last straw. The creator told Nut to lift him on her back into the heavens. He took all the gods with him, and the throne was taken over by humans.
This is the start of the world as it was known to humans, in which the sun passed through the heavens and underworld every day and night and humans were responsible for carrying on the actions, and thus identity, of the gods.
Characters and Gods
Let’s start with things we have solid information for, and extrapolate from there.
According to an interview with US Shonen Jump (no longer extant on the web, as best I can tell, though Alecto of Yami no Kokoro used to have a copy up), Takahashi really did take Seto’s name from Seth. To be named after a god was not especially unusual, and there was, in fact, a Pharaoh of the Thirteenth Dynasty who was named Seth. I suspect that the main aspect Takahashi wanted to draw out here was the rivalry between Seth and Horus to reflect the rivalry between Seto and our Pharaoh. Possibly he also wanted to draw on the conflict between Seth and Osiris, but that was awfully… um… short-lived. The funny part is that, in character, Seth and Seto are pretty darn opposite. Ok, they’re both powerful warriors. But Seth was distinctly oversexed, chasing after both men and women as long as they were cute. Seto is made of ice. Seth was something less than clever, tending to lose wagers and appeals alike because more cunning gods out-strategized or just out-cheated their somewhat bullheaded associate. Seto is brilliant. The juxtaposition is just a bit odd. Seth changed over time, of course, becoming increasingly reviled as exile, intruder, troublemaker, with his previous virtues of strength, generosity and protectiveness passed along to newly assimilated arrivals. In that way, Seto actually reverses the process, at least in his present-time life. Perhaps Takahashi has a soft spot for Seth.
The goddess Isis was a powerful magician and a wise counselor, acting as the power behind the throne to Horus. Many of his powers as magician and healer were inherited from his mother. This fits fairly well with Isis Ishtar, who is the custodian of considerable magic and knowledge in the form of the Millennium Items and various engravings. She also passes on a main source of her power, the Tauk, to Pharaoh (who is, you recall, the avatar of Horus). The manner in which she maneuvers the various principals in the Millennium drama is very Isis-esque.
Eye color, among the gods, is significant. Horus’ eyes are blue, like the sky. “The sun’s eyes, when he was shining, were of electrum. Seth’s black eyes indicated his connection with darkness, whereas Atum’s green eyes were reminders that he had originally been a serpent. Red eyes, eyes of coal glowing in the night, were characteristic of feline or predatory gods; they underscored these gods’ dangerous, aggressive character” (57-8). Color coding in manga is a bit different, of course, but I would say that the significance of red eyes still stands (not so, Pharaoh?).
Concepts and Symbols
Netjer. This term actually has a lot in common with the Japanese kami. It’s translated into English as “god”, but “netjer designated any entity which, because it transcended ordinary human reality, received a cult and became the object of ritual” (37). The term encompasses gods proper, the king, and the dead. Thus, kami no cards actually fit pretty neatly into an Egyptian framework.
Ba. The ba corresponds loosely to the soul, but it is not necessarily associated with the personality. Invariably depicted as a winged human form, the ba is often called the “bird-soul”, the immaterial part of a human that can fly and therefore attain the heavens and exist with (become) the gods. Simon’s explanation that the ba is the innermost soul is fairly accurate, but I have found no indication that ka was considered to rise from the ba.
Ka. Most simply, ka is vital energy. It is because the gods posses a superabundance of ka that their speech, tears and chopped-off body parts take on an existence of their own once separated from the god. “The totality of creation accordingly constituted the sum of the creator-god’s vital force….gods could possess a variable number of ka, corresponding to the number of specific forms their creative power took” (71). We can see why Takahashi adopted ka as the term for a human’s spiritual projection, though in Egypt it was generally depicted as having the same shape as the body of the human in question. For the ka to be extracted would most likely kill a person, though zombie-hood is a good second guess going on the theory that the ka is creative force. It would have been more accurate to also use ka as the term for his spiritual-energy-gauge, but I suppose one can’t have everything. In short, the ka and the ba were mapped onto Takahashi’s own ideas for the workings of humans’ immaterial parts with perfectly allowable poetic license, if not perfect historical accuracy (which is pretty darned impossible at this date, anyway).
Kheperu and Iru. The kheperu are the projections of a god’s being, potentially infinite individual forms which the god in question can assume. The true or total form of a god is coincident with her/his true being, and thus not describable or apprehensible to mortals (we’ll get to why gods didn’t want their fellows to know their true being in the next bit). A kheperu corresponds to a state of being or a distinguishing action of the god in question; it is a potential. If the god chooses to enter the state or perform the act, this “inscribe[d] the kheperu in visible reality. This projection, called the iru, was a perceptible, intelligible, manifestation of the god, accentuated, as a rule, by various material attributes” (54). The paintings on temple/tomb walls, for example, are paintings of the various gods’ iru. It is these iru that could be taken on by another god, should they need to perform the action characterized by it. The partial nature of an iru helps explain why gods could incarnate themselves in so many different animals: any god who had an affinity with that animal’s nature could take on its form. Thus, Seth variously appears as a black pig, a crocodile and a donkey, despite the fact that Sobek was far more likely to be identified as the crocodile-god and Nut is also strongly identified with a sow. Though I have no idea whether Takahashi envisioned it this way, we might consider the god cards to be iru of Osiris and Ra. (What to do with Obelisk, I’m not sure. An obelisk is a tall, square pillar with a pointed, gold-plated top to catch and magnify the sun’s rays; don’t ask me how it got to be a god.)
Heka. This is often translated as magic, but it is far more accurate to call it self-knowledge. “Heka was what resulted from giving form to all the energies (ka) one absorbed” (96). To manifest, in knowable form, all one’s vital and creative energy results in total knowledge of one’s self. The implication of the texts Meeks cites is that powerful enough self-knowledge could prevent enemies from imposing any change of state one one, and equally ensure that any action one took would be so full of surety that it would invariably succeed. This is heka. The true name of a god was part of this. Knowing that name enabled the one who knew it to take on the powers that the name described and to do anything he or she pleased to the name’s owner. Isis picked up a fair bit of power after she tricked Re into telling her his true name, for instance. Heka is portrayed quite accurately in the manga. It’s what Mahaado is supposed to be very strong in, and I would hazard a guess that Bakura is too. Despite being a bit mad, he seems to have a high degree of self-awareness. The seat of heka is the gut.
Sia and Rekh. One of the best pop-culture definitions I can offer for sia is grokking. Only moreso. Sia is an intuitive recognition; “not to have sia of something (or someone) was thus not a matter of not knowing it, but rather of not being able, or of no longer being able, to recognize or identify it” (96). Rekh has more to do with definition, the practice of logic; it is a thing of language, which sia is not. The seat of both these things is the heart. Thus, the practice of preserving heart and guts in canopic jars during mummification; they contained important things.
Item of Interest: the udjat-eye on the Puzzle is the left eye, that is the lunar eye. This alludes to night, the time of darkness, and also to Thoth in his aspect as the moon. Thoth is the keeper of both sia and rekh, and his time is the time of both perception and discovery. The presence of the lunar eye on the Puzzle rather indicates that it is not the province of the uniformly ordered and sacred (Re) nor yet of raw power (Sakhmet, who embodies the solar eye), but rather of the balance and unification of disparate elements (Thoth).
Million. As Meeks says, “The creator-god was commonly called ‘the one become million.’ … million being, in Egyptian, the usual expression for what is infinite in number” (33). So, perhaps the Items were supposed to protect Egypt for an infinite number of years, or have infinite power.
Seven. A whole bunch of things came in sevens. Seven creative words spoken to begin the ordered world; seven messengers/guards for Osiris; seven arrows for Sakhmet to shoot cosmic enemies; seven gates on the dead’s journey to reach Osiris’ kingdom. You can see why seven is an easy number of Items for there to be.
The Real Thing
Decent Egyptian history is a bit easier to come by, but by the same token often exhaustive to read. I have tried to find good web-sources for this section, as they’re often syntheses and a bit more accessible than the original scholarly sources. Anyone wishing to explore could reasonably start at Minnesota State University’s Egyptian Culture Exhibit. The Carnegie Museum online exhibit on Egyptian Life also has some useful tidbits. Let us, however, concentrate on the Eighteenth Dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom Period.
First off, we should note that, while games were indeed quite prevalent among all classes in Egypt, and, while some such as Senet did acquire religio-magical significance, a game played by summoning spirits from tablets is the invention of Takahashi Kazuki. Give him credit for it.
The Eighteenth Dynasty was founded by the man who unified his people sufficiently, after a rather chaotic period, to drive the Hyksos (Asiatic invaders) off. This matches fairly well with the circumstances under which Akunamukanon was supposed to have allowed Akunadin to make the Millennium Items–that is, barbarians pounding on the gates. Historically, however, the invaders were driven off by force of arms. Amhose liked his army; his army liked him.
The capital, in this period, moved to Thebes (Luxor) in Upper Egypt. Takahashi seems to have his geography straight. The Valley of the Kings is, indeed, beyond this city, Westward toward the desert. Since the only village to have been excavated in this vicinity is Dier el-Madina, the village of the royal tomb workers, I assume that Kuru Eruna is based on that, though there are no historical indications that the denizens of Dier el-Madina ever turned to grave robbing. That said, Kuru Eruna’s hypothetical organization is quite traditional, it having been common for a village to comprise a group of related families who all worked in a single profession. If that profession was, by and large, farming, the inheritance of profession held equally true for the trades. I suppose there’s nothing to say tomb robbers couldn’t work along the same lines, though a village strikes me as a bit too high-profile for prudence.
There was never a Pharaoh whose name (any name) was Akunamukanon. For a good, annotated names-dates list, Tour Egypt is actually a pretty well-documented site. Not terribly sophisticated, but a nice, solid starting place. It is worth noting that scholars today use birth names to identify kings rather than reign names. For some speculations on what roots Takahashi may have had in mind when he came up with this name (or Akunadin, for that matter), see this side page. I will note here that the name is written in katakana, implying that it comes from a language other than Japanese, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to; it is certainly not Egyptian.
There was, in fact, a Pharaoh who was sufficiently unpopular that those who came after him attempted to wipe out record of him, but he bears no resemblance to Yuugi’s tenant. Amenhotep III, his father, had no problems with invaders or rebels of any kind. Akhenaten himself was a religious zealot who attempted to unilaterally convert Egypt to monotheism under the sun as Aten. It didn’t work very well. He was not, however, successfully obliterated. For a reasonable account of this figure see the Akhet-Aten Home Page. Nevertheless, this is probably where Takahashi got the idea of a king’s name being effaced from history. The similarity between Atemu and Aten supports the idea that he had this pharaoh in mind when he came up with our Pharaoh.
That the king should be served by a Vizier, such as Simon, is quite accurate, though the Eighteenth Dynasty saw this position divided with a Vizier each for Upper and Lower Egypt. What is slightly less usual is for the Vizier to have previously been a priest, as Simon appears to have been (and chosen holder of the Key, to boot). Taking a Vizier from the military ranks seems to have been more common. This was reasonable, given that the military was the only institution that did not operate according to birth-class, and thus the only place where a talented commoner could rise. Ability seems to have been at least one guiding rule for the military. Priests were either born to their jobs or appointed by the king. What is really, extremely peculiar is his name. Simon is a Hebrew name, and the Hebrews were not in good odor at all in the New Kingdom. For one to be Vizier would be unheard of; for one to be a priest, utterly unthinkable. (From both sides.)
It is far more reasonable for the king’s brother to have been appointed a priest, especially priest of the “Temple of Tablets”, which (had it actually existed) would have been both apart from the normal run of temples and also particularly in need of a loyal administrator. That Seto should be unaware that Akunadin is his father, or that the Pharaoh should be unaware they are his cousin and uncle, is, of course, absolutely absurd, but such are the requirements of suitably melodramatic plots.
The priestly Item holders would all have been apart from the normal duties of active priests, considering that those were both daily and extensive, and would not have left time for playing around with tablets. Though a recent rotation tending to the gods inside a temple could explain why Shadi is shaved bald, that having been part of various sacral purifications.
Random Item: The xenophobia displayed by the men who mob Kisara is an accurate reflection of the tone of the New Kingdom. They had, after all, just finished a nasty war to expel conquering foreigners. It is actually priest Seto’s little homily of tolerance that is historically unsupported.
Interesting Tidbits: The gold mined in Egypt is red (like copper, only it doesn’t tarnish). The title Pharaoh is the Hebrew pronunciation of per aa, or Great House; this was not actually a common title for the king until rather late in the New Kingdom period. The Children of Nut were associated with particular stars: Horus with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn depending on the aspect; Venus with Re and Osiris, the evening star being Re dying into Osiris and the morning star being Osiris reborn into Re; Orion with the dead Osiris; Isis with Sirius, herald of the flood-season; Seth with Mercury but more with the Great Bear, providentially nailed to one spot by the North Star and thus unable to get into further mischief (Meeks, 118).