The Mythology of Fate/Grand Order: Babylonia — Part 1by Steve Jones,
Outside some memeable quotes and the uniquely purple prose of the original visual novel's erotica, the Fate series is perhaps best known for its potpourri of characters picked from the entire length of human history and storytelling. One school of thought posits that all new stories we tell are just remixes of stories we've heard before, and in that regard, I've come to find Fate interesting in the nakedness of its belief in this tradition. That's not to say Fate is lazy and unoriginal in its approach to storytelling; quite the opposite, actually! It's turned into a playground for writers to imagine how characters from different eras, cultures, and literary traditions might interact. Alliances form, passions are shared, and warriors from all schools of combat beat the crap out of each other.
Fate/Grand Order takes this approach to its logical extreme, remixing not only historical characters but also characters from Fate's own mythos into one big gacha-friendly frenzy. Its seventh main arc, Babylonia, is naturally no exception. While I think the anime adaptation has done a good job of contextualizing most of its main players' motivations, I believe it's also illuminating to take some time to consider their origins in the oral and written tradition. Stories ebb and flow with the passing of ages, but some of these characters have persisted through multiple millennia. They didn't start out as sexy anime versions of themselves, and their presence in the collective consciousness of humanity certainly won't end here, so let's see where they came from.
GILGAMESH & ENKIDU
Since this Singularity is called Babylonia, it's only right that we begin with the characters originating from this region. Mesopotamia was one of several cradles of civilization—a place where the foundations of society were first laid—and it's also responsible for one of humanity's oldest surviving stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh. “Surviving” is the key word there, because the story as we contemporarily understand it is an incomplete conglomeration of several ancient and further incomplete sources, with new discoveries and interpretations continuing into this century. I cannot think of a more perfect place to start this discussion than an already-amorphous piece of pre-Christian poetry. We may never know the complete and accurate story the Sumerians told amongst themselves, so who's to say an action-packed, melodramatic anime remix is any less valid than other scholarly imaginings?
The titular Gilgamesh is a character whose villainous presence (and particular manner of laughing) should already be familiar to fans of Fate/stay night or Fate/Zero. The Gilgamesh we encounter in Babylonia, however, is a markedly different character who aids our heroes and the rest of humanity in their struggle to survive an impending apocalypse. While this incongruity may seem jarring at first, it's actually explained by the events of the Epic of Gilgamesh!
See, at the start of the tale, Gilgamesh is a part-human, part-god autocrat who's most notorious for being a huge asshole to the citizens of Uruk. His power and divine right inflate his head to the point where the abuse of his subjects is second-nature to him, and this Gil certainly resembles the guy who gets summoned during the events of Fate/Zero, with all of the treasures of Babylon at his disposal. Because Gil's the hero of arguably the oldest story about heroes, Fate gives him the fittingly haughty title of King of Heroes. He's not a pleasant person to be around at this point, though, so everyone in Uruk prays for the gods to come down and whip some sense into him. While there's no direct smiting, the gods do answer their prayers with a hairy, feral homunculus molded from clay. This is Enkidu, and I lump them together in this section because it's impossible to tell one's story without the other.
While the epic's Enkidu is a man, Fate's interpretation of the character is androgynous and agender, which actually does have some basis in the both masculine and feminine descriptors of Enkidu found in the Epic. I think one of the coolest things about Fate is its freedom to take liberties and reinterpret characters with the numerous perspectives modernity offers, so I'm a big fan of reading Enkidu as nonbinary. Fate also puts its own little spin on Enkidu's inhumanity by classifying them as a divine Noble Phantasm, i.e. a “weapon” more so than a person. That aside, however, the backstory of Enkidu and Gilgamesh alluded to in Babylonia is generally consistent with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The gods' plan to give Gil a taste of his own medicine backfires, and the wild Enkidu gains humanity (by having sex with a prostitute for a week straight, as one does) and actually forms a powerful mutual friendship with Gil forged in the heat of battle. They go on to help Gil cause further trouble for the gods, including Ishtar (who we'll get to shortly), which unsurprisingly rankles some divine ire. Enkidu is summarily cursed for their betrayal, and they die a slow and decidedly unheroic death. Fate's Enkidu fights with chains as an ironic reference to their status as a link between the gods and humanity, Gil's attempts to bind the gods themselves, and the gods' swift retribution binding Enkidu forever to the earth.
The closeness of Gil and Enkidu's bond is consistently stressed in the Epic, and there are even references to them kissing each other. This could be interpreted as powerful, fraternal closeness, but there's no reason we can't read it as romantic here. While Babylonia doesn't go much further than subtext in this regard, when we consider the powerful melancholy that creeps onto Gil's face whenever he considers the loss of the closest friend he ever had, it's pretty blatant subtext. And it's not like it's much subtler in the Epic, where Gilgamesh refuses to let go of Enkidu's body until weeks pass and maggots wriggle out of its nose, after which he spends most of the remaining poem telling everyone within earshot how much he misses Enkidu. My dude has his heart utterly shattered.
The weight of this death spurs Gilgamesh to go on a journey to discover the secret of immortality. There's some cool stuff here, including parts that were likely transposed into the Judeo-Christian myths about Noah's ark and the Garden of Eden, but the crux is that Gilgamesh returns to Uruk mortal, humbled, and ready to be a proper king. Enkidu fulfills their original purpose, albeit posthumously, and this is the wizened, mellower Gil who Ritsuka finds leading humanity's last stand. He doesn't wear solid gold armor anymore, and he rules with a clay tablet in hand instead of a weapon, so in the FGO meta he's reclassed as a helpful Caster (the default support class) instead of a tyrannical Archer. All it took was the death of his closest clayfriend and an epic journey to the ends of the earth in order to get him to chill.
We can imagine, then, how conflicted Gilgamesh feels when he sees his dead partner alive, working for the enemy, and going by the name “Kingu.” To better understand this, however, we need to dive into Babylonian mythology.
TIAMAT, KINGU, AND THE ENUMA ELISH
Tiamat will probably be a familiar name to anybody who's played an RPG, and she has a very important role in the creation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. She's not even as much of a goddess as she is a personification of the vast primordial saltwater sea of the Persian Gulf, which mingled with freshwater (personified by the god Abzu) in order to make the first generation of gods. Essentially she's one of the first beings to ever be, but she doesn't play much of a role in Babylonian mythology outside of the creation story Enuma Elish.
As a story, the Enuma Elish pretty much exists to prop up Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, so consequently it was a popular and important myth when Babylonian culture dominated the Mesopotamian area. Marduk's big claim to fame is his slaying of Tiamat, and this is where Kingu comes in. Kingu became Tiamat's son-turned-consort (can't have a creation myth without a little incest) after the other gods perpetrated the mutinous murder of her previous consort Abzu. Granted, Abzu was plotting to kill them first, but Tiamat nevertheless feels stung by betrayal and thus decides to drag everyone into line with Kingu as her proxy.
This conflict doesn't end well for the primordial goddess, with Marduk killing Kingu and cleaving Tiamat in twain (creating the heaven and the earth from her two halves) with his axe. This is the same oversized Axe of Marduk that Ritsuka searches for due to its aforementioned Tiamat-bisecting powers. It's also interesting that our Kingu declares themselves the prototype for the new humanity, because in the Enuma Elish, Marduk uses Kingu's blood to create the first humans. In fact, Babylonia's overarching plot can be read as a deliberate undoing of the Enuma Elish myth—wiping out humanity and restoring Tiamat as the ruler and mother of all. This is doubly ironic considering that Enkidu's Noble Phantasm (yes of course a living Noble Phantasm can have their own Noble Phantasm, why would you even ask that) is named “Enuma Elish” in reference to their own rebellion against the divine. Kingu's plan, arguably, was doomed from the moment they manifested in Enkidu's body; subservience to their creator just isn't in their nature.
That “mother” aspect of Tiamat is something Babylonia is particularly interested in. Scholarly interpretations of Tiamat often consider her to be symbolic of femininity and chaos, and while that may say more about scholars than about Tiamat, those interpretations are incorporated wholesale into Babylonia. Tiamat is called the mother of the demonic beasts, and Gorgon's lair deliberately resembles a gigantic, monstrous womb. The actual Tiamat looks like a gigantic feral woman leaking dark red “mud” into the sea that transforms all it touches into cackling grotesqueries. The seventh singularity is one big Freudian struggle against the remaining vestige of mankind regressing back into the primordial, animalistic womb. This hews a bit too uncritically towards the “femininity = scary” angle for my tastes, but it's certainly evocative!
ISHTAR & ERESHKIGAL
Tiamat is far from the only Mesopotamian goddess (or goddess-adjacent being) causing trouble around Uruk, but thankfully these other two end up being a bit more amenable to Ritsuka's situation. In Babylonia, Ishtar and Ereshkigal occupy the same Rin-faced body, and in mythology, the two are actually sisters. And they hate each other.
This sense of rivalry is largely a consequence of their diametrically opposing roles. Ishtar is associated with a lot of things—a consequence of her appearing in a ton of stories—but two of the big ones are love and war (so she'd probably be a big fan of Kaguya-sama). Consequently, she's a good fighter, and she even gets to weaponize Venus as a part of her Noble Phantasm, due to the ancient Babylonian belief that she was aligned with both the morning and evening star. Ereshkigal, on the other hand, is the queen of the dead and ruler of the underworld, called Kur, and it's not surprising that this gloomy older sister wouldn't be the biggest fan of her boisterous and popular little sister. Appropriately enough, her Noble Phantasm in FGO is a deliberate inversion of Ishtar's heavenly arrow, where she instead drags her victims down to Kur for an undead beatdown.
The specific antagonistic dynamic between them in Babylonia finds its roots in a myth about a carefree Ishtar taking a stroll down to Kur. A wary Eresh bars the gates and forces Ishtar to remove a piece of clothing for each gate that she wishes to pass. A naked and powerless Ishtar eventually reaches the bottom, at which point her sister either kills or imprisons her, depending on the version you read. Nothing like sisterly love! Babylonia recapitulates this myth with Ritsuka's descent to find Gilgamesh's soul, swapping out the divine striptease with the much funnier sight of an incredible shrinking Ishtar. But whereas the original myth turns into an explanation for the changing seasons (very similar to the story of Persephone in Greek mythology), Babylonia uses it as a chance to add Eresh to Ritsuka's wandering troupe of fighting goddesses.
As I alluded previously, Ishtar also has some complicated history with Gilgamesh. She actually wanted to marry him at one point, but Gil flat-out refused. Given their personalities as depicted in Babylonia, you probably have a good picture of how this scene would have gone down. A furious Ishtar then decides to sic Gugalanna, her gigantic Bull of Heaven, on him and Enkidu as retaliation. It's a move that has all the energy of a bitter stalker trying to ruin a perfectly good date between two lovebirds, and thankfully Gil and Enkidu's bond proves strong enough to totally dismember Gugalanna. This is why I find it kind of funny that Gil is so aghast when Ishtar divulges that she's lost her big Bull. I mean, dude, you killed it once upon a time.
That about covers all of the characters an actual citizen of Babylonia would have learned about way back in the BCE times. It shouldn't come as a surprise that most of the major players in this arc originate from this region's history, but Fate/Grand Order isn't the kind of game to limit itself to just one set of cultural touchstones. This arc blends characters and personalities from mythologies spanning the globe, and we'll be exploring them in the soon-to-come Part 2 of this feature! Assuming human history hasn't been incinerated by then, of course.
Steve watches too much anime and has somehow stumbled into a way to do so professionally. You can find him on ANN writing weekly streaming reviews and making bad jokes on This Week In Anime. For worse jokes, please follow him on Twitter at @vestenet.
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