It's hard enough to come up with a small handful memorable video game characters without relying on other forms of "inspiration" for ideas. But when you're Game Freak, you've got to come up with 719 (and counting) unique pocket monsters to collect, and you're bound to run out of ideas eventually.
Luckily for the developers of the Pokémon franchise, our world is filled with a wealth of monsters, ghouls, golems, and other mythological creatures just sitting around in the public domain, waiting to be cribbed from. And while the designs are purely the product of Game Freak's active imagination, many of their Pokémon feature moves and back-stories inspired by some of the oldest stories ever told by mankind. These are some of the best.
Dunsparce is actually… the Tsuchinoko
Is it a slug? An overgrown silkworm? A snake with wings? No one really knows--because Dunsparce is based on an elusive creature called the Tsuchinoko. With no definitive proof that the Tsuchinoko exists, it's essentially Japan's equivalent of Bigfoot or a Fiji Mermaid. According to reported sightings, the Tsuchinoko looks a little like an overweight snake that got its midsection flattened by a rolling pin.
Instead of slithering, the Tsuchinoko is said to inch forward like a slug or snail. Other legends say that it can leap great distances, which could explain Dunsparce's adorable little wings. The Tsuchinoko also has twin fangs, another trait shared by Dunsparce in much cuter fashion. And the Pokémon series isn't the only place that the Tsuchinoko has reared its mythical head--you can also spot the girthy snake-thing hidden in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.
Sneasel is actually… a Kamaitachi
At first glance, Sneasel looks like your garden-variety Pokémon, as if someone just slapped talons and feathers on a cat. But its name implies that it's some kind of sneaky weasel--which perfectly captures the mythical Kamaitachi it's based on. The name is a compound of the Japanese words for sickle and weasel, and the methods they use to prey on humans will change the way you see Sneasels forever.
As the stories go, Kamaitachi hunt in packs of three, moving with lightning speed to get the jump on humans. The first Kamaitachi knocks you down, the second uses its razor-sharp talons to flay the flesh from your legs, and the third mends your wounds so you don't realize you've been attacked. All this happens in the blink of an eye; you think you just tripped, while three weasel monsters with huge claws run off chewing on your leg skin. Good God.
Mawile is actually… a Futakuchi-onna
With a horrifying crocodile jaw springing from the back of its head, Mawile's design is about as macabre as it gets for a non-Ghost type Pokémon, somehow balanced between nightmarish and adorable. But Mawile's look didn't just pop out of an artist's morbid fever dream--it was based on Futakuchi-onna, a monster of Japanese myth that's creepy to the max. Picture your typical woman; now imagine that there's a fully formed mouth hiding beneath the hair on the back of her head. Yeeeeeeugh.
The Futakuchi-onna is something of a cautionary tale about extreme dieting: women who barely eat anything might find a second mouth sprouting from their skull, one that requires twice the normal amount of food. And it's totally capable of feeding itself if necessary--the woman's hair will eventually develop a mind of its own, snapping up chow in a tentacle-like fashion to feed the ravenous Futakuchi-onna. How a creature like this made it into a Nintendo game, we'll never know.
Sableye is actually… the Hopkinsville Goblin
Sweet, a Pokémon based on a myth that isn't of Japanese origin! Sableye is probably one of the most bizarre-looking pocket monsters: a purple imp with jewels for eyes that looks positively alien. That's intentional, because it was inspired by the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, one of the most famous extraterrestrial sightings of the 20th century. If you live in Kentucky, you should keep an eye out for this little guy.
While most aliens are described as little bald men with big black eyes and tiny nostrils, the Hopkinsville Goblin is said to have pointy ears, bright glowing eyes, and no nose whatsoever. It's not just one crackpot saying this, either; the appearance of the Hopkinsville Goblin has been corroborated by multiple eye-witnesses…alleged, of course. The Hopkinsville Goblin is said to have silver skin, not purple, but the rest of the similarities to Sableye are too strong to ignore.
Zapdos is actually… the Native American thunderbird
One of the original Pokémon from Red and Blue, Zapdos is the ultimate badass of the trio of Legendary Birds of Kanto. With the ability to summon lightning from its wings (and beautiful plumage, to boot), Zapdos is highly sought after by stalwart Pokémon trainers because of its immense strength and incredible rarity.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Zapdos is essentially a direct copy of the thunderbird of Pacific Northwestern Native American Lore. Many tribes (like the Lakota or the Kwakwaka'wakw) have some version of the thunderbird (with dozens of different names), but all of them have a few things in common. The thunderbird is the spirit of thunder, lightning, and rain, and it's able to create thunder by flapping its wings. Much like Zapdos, you'll want to make sure it's on your good side, lest you anger it and get the worst static shock of your life. Maybe throw your expensive (and much more comfortable) Pokéballs when you capture it, eh?
Shiftry is actually… a Tengu
If you're at all familiar with monsters of Japanese myth, you probably clued into Shiftry's vague resemblance to a Tengu. The elongated, pointy nose is there--but unlike most Tengu, the average Shiftry's face isn't blood red. What gives? Turns out, getting the reference requires a bit more familiarity with Tengu than your average gamer--because besides making for awesome masks, Tengu were known to act as guardians of the forest, just like Shiftry.
Shiftry can also learn a variety of wind-based attacks; this is the perfect link to Tengu's magical fans made from feathers (or in Shiftry's case, leaves). And just to really drive the homage home, Game Freak gave Shiftry feet that look exactly like the traditional geta sandals Tengu are known to wear. Plus, Shiny Shiftrys actually have the bright red hue of a typical Tengu.
Whiscash is actually… the Namazu
This vapidly smiling fish may not look as goofy as Magikarp, but Whiscash's weird, moustache-like whiskers make it a close second. But whatever you do, don't let a Whiscash hear you mock it--because it might just level your house under a rockslide in retaliation. See, Whiscash is actually a variation of the Namazu, a humongous catfish that can start earthquakes at will just by thrashing around.
Way back in 1855, a disastrous earthquake leveled a huge region of Japan, killing thousands and leveling over 50,000 structures. Scared and confused, the survivors took to worshipping the giant catfish Namazu to stave off further calamities. Whiscash can't create fissures anywhere near that level of calamity, but its inherent Earthquake and Fissure abilities are telling of the allusion to Namazu's power.
Golurk is actually… the Golem of Prague
Golems have become a pretty recognizable fixture of video game bestiaries, pretty much describing any kind of hulking figure made from typically inanimate objects. And while the hefty, stone-like Golurk definitely fits the bill for the average golem, that are some details that suggest this is not your run-of-the-mill artificial human made from magic. Specifically, this could be the golem from the well-known Jewish legend put forth by Rabbi Loew.
The story goes that the Golem of Prague was a clay figure, given life through divine Hebrew inscriptions. Its task was to protect Jews from attacks and persecution in the ghettos of Prague. This story was somehow made into a two-part comedy for the Czech films The Emperor and the Golem. That film portrayed the Golem as a large clay figure held together by straps, including one over a large gash in its chest. Hey, just like Golurk!
Manectric is actually… a Raiju
There are only so many animal / element combinations to make, so it was just a matter of time before a lightning wolf became a bonafide Pokémon. But Manectric's brightly colored mane, along with its mastery over the powers of electricity, are a dead giveaway for the Japanese legend of the Raiju. This being of pure lightning could take many forms--fox, weasel, extremely weird-looking cat thing--but it's probably most recognized as a wolf coursing with electrical energy.
Whenever you hear the crackle of thunder, legends say that you're actually listening to the call of the Raiju as it leaps between trees and buildings. It also has one of the weirdest habits of all myth-kind: sleeping in random people's belly-buttons, leading people to sleep on their stomachs during thunderstorms. One has to wonder if Manectric ever sneaks into its trainer's navel while they sleep--and if so, that's freakin' gross.
Froslass is actually… the Yuki-onna
This strictly female Pokémon is the evolved form of Snorunt, itself based on the Yukinko snow children of Japanese lore. But while the Yukinko are relatively benign, the basis for Froslass is much more sinister: Yuki-onna, a vengeful spirit that also traces to Japanese mythology. This spirit takes form as a beautiful woman hovering above the snow, entrapping her victims with her icy breath or luring them into blizzards from which they never return.
In case you had any doubts that Yuki-onna is not to be trifled with, some accounts say that she consumes the blood of her prey, or lures men to their deaths akin to succubae or mermaid sirens. She doesn't just wander around snowy fields, either--Yuki-onna has been said to invade homes and abduct children. Funnily enough, the murderous Yuki-onna might've also been the inspiration for Jynx as well as Froslass--but the latter definitely captures the icy seductress vibe inherent to the original myth.
Moltres and Ho-oh are actually… the phoenix
You know you've started scraping the bottom of the cute monster barrel (wow, that sounded less gross in my head) when you're basing multiple Pokémon off of the same myth from different civilizations. But hey, if they're just different enough to not be noticed, why not, right? Because that's exactly what happened to Moltres and Ho-oh, who are both based on different versions of the same phoenix myth.
Generally, the phoenix is a mythical bird that bursts into flames, dies, then rises from its ashes reborn, not unlike that of Robert Downey, Jr.'s career. Many ancient civilizations had their own version of the same myth. Moltres is more or less inspired by the firebird of Slavic and Russian origin (right down to the fact that the bird is pretty much on fire). Likewise, the Ho-Oh is based more on the Chinese fenghuang myth, and typically only shows up in places of great peace and prosperity. It's also got the head of a pheasant, the body of a duck, the legs of a crane, and the beak of a parrot - it's like the turducken of ancient myths.
Xerneas, Yveltal, and Zygarde are actually… Norse demigods
This trio of Legendary Pokémon from the most recent installments are magnificent, to be sure--so magnificent, they've already earned a spot in Asgard's Valhalla. If you've seen any of the Thor movies, you might have an inkling of what we're talking about, but you'd have to be a certified expert on Norse mythology to actually pick up on who and what these Pokémon are actually referencing.
Ready for an onslaught of Norse nomenclature? Xerneas is roughly based on Eikþyrnir, an almighty stag which rests atop Valhalla. Yveltal is a toned-down version of Hræsvelgr, a gargantuan eagle who makes the wind blow just by flapping his wings. Lastly, the worm-like Zygarde is the Pokémon version of Níðhöggr, a serpentine dragon that gnaws at the roots of the Yggdrasil world tree. Try saying those preceding sentences three times fast. And before you ask, Níðhöggr is also the inspiration for the Nidhogg in the indie fencing game of the same name.
Tornadus, Thundurus, and Landorus are actually… the Kami of Shinto religion
Oh come on, Game Freak--you weren't even trying to hide the fact that this a trio of gods! The references are a bit more subtle when these three are in their animalistic Therian forms, but in Incarnate mode, they're practically bashing you over the head with their djinn-like appearance. And while you might've assumed they were just elemental genies, Tornadus, Thundurus, and Landorus are directly analogous to Fujin, Raijin, and Inari, three spirits oft worshipped in the Shinto faith.
Kami is the Japanese word for god, spirit, or deity, who are worshipped by Shinto practitioners for a variety of reasons. But these Pokémon actually occupy multiple cultural mythologies: the Therian forms are all parallels to Four Symbols of Chinese constellations, namely the Vermilion Bird, Azure Dragon, and White Tiger. You know what? We're not sure we're comfortable with the idea of entrapping mythological deities in little orbs so we can carry them around in our pockets.
Gotta believe in 'em all
And of course, Vulpix is based on the nine-tailed fox of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean myth--but everybody knows that. Any myths you think we mythed? Whoops--seems our lisp is acting up again.
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