The Carbuncle: Reflections of obscurity.
There are many familiar recurring creatures in the Final Fantasy universe whose return fans welcomely embrace. One of these creatures is the Carbuncle. Since its first proper
appearance as a boss and summon in Final Fantasy V it has popped up numerous times as a helpful ally, usually known for casting the (sometimes) useful Reflect status effect on the player’s party, bouncing magic spells back towards the opponents. Final Fantasy XIV (and similarly FFXI) give the creature more attention, and it is gifted to the Arcanist class as a personal pet-companion (becoming Final Fantasy’s answer to Pikachu). Regardless of the varieties of the Carbuncle’s specific role, there are standard identifying characteristics which players have come to expect. But what exactly is the Carbuncle? Outside of the Final Fantasy universe, where has this animal been drawn from? The creature’s origins are to be found with 16th Century conquistador adventures in South America, but since then the raw concept of the animal has captured people’s imaginations and has undergone considerable embellishment.
The Final Fantasy Carbuncle is typically represented as a blue, green, or teal squirrel-type creature with a red gemstone protruding from, or lying flat on, its forehead.
This gemstone is the prime attribute. The word carbuncle has been applied since antiquity to a number of red gemstones, such as garnet, deriving from Latin carbunculus (‘little coal’). This etymology was due to the perceived resemblance of shiny red gemstones with the glistening embers of burning coal, but sometimes the carbuncle classification was alternatively used to describe black stones such as black marble and obsidian, relating to the sable appearance of extinguished coal as well. These black carbuncle stones need not be dull as they could be just as reflective, and since ancient or even prehistoric times obsidian and other shiny, polished, dark stones have sometimes been used for mirrors. A carbuncle is also a medical term used since antiquity for a type of large skin abscess which (although it is not the form of carbuncle related to the creature!) is also appropriate since the creature’s gemstone sticks out from its forehead as a sort of mineralised ulcer.
Whilst most Carbuncles in the Final Fantasy universe look the same, it is worth noting that not all versions have been given rodentine or mammalian features. Before FFV standardised the Carbuncle’s physical appearance for Final Fantasy, the creature had one earlier appearance in FFIII as a rocky clump with a single eye, serving only as a weak monster in the game’s first dungeon. Perhaps the skin abscess was imagined here instead!
Later representations of the Carbuncle have also shown experimentation. Final Fantasy Tactics’ Carbuncle has a scaly, reptilian appearance, as does an image of Carbuncle produced as concept art for the Final Fantasy Anthology release of FFV.
This loveable fluffy-cuddliness has also been taken to the other extreme, however. In the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series carbuncles appear as a sluggish, yeti-like race, but they do keep the gemstone (although it is now held entwined by the creature’s antelopian horns) and they also sport an emerald-coloured coat reminiscent of the more popular design.
This appearance, whilst creative as a sort of cryptid amalgam, is also out of keeping with the more traditional small and agile characteristics of the legendary carbuncle animal.
Outside of Final Fantasy the carbuncle creature itself was supposed to have been an elusive little animal with a gemstone on its head which the Spanish conquistadors encountered while exploring South America in the 16th Century. The first reference to creatures referred to as carbuncles appears to be from the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés writing in the mid-16thCentury. Oviedo mentions a cleric’s report during the navigation of the Straits of Magellan that two carbuncle animals were seen glowing at night and causing trouble (Historia XX:10). Oviedo himself has difficulty interpreting these creatures, admitting that he knows nothing of them, and instead he refers to Old World lore as a framework for attempting to understand them, citing Isidore of Seville (6th-7thCentury). In Isidore’s Etymologies (an invaluable etymological encyclopaedia which collects extracts from ancient works) the passage which Oviedo draws a comparison with is that of extracting precious dracontite gemstones (a type of carbuncle stone) from the brain of a living dragon (Etymologies XVI:14). Such gems could be obtained with care while the dragon slept, and sorcery and herbs could help induce this necessary slumber. This reference has somewhat confused the particular myth of the carbuncle creature as witnessed or imagined in the New World by mixing it with established medieval and ancient traditions regarding the carbuncle gemstones, but Oviedo being careful admits that he can find no tangible information on the reported animal itself.
Slightly later, though, we get our most complete reference to the carbuncle creature in Martin del Barco Centenera’s Argentina (1602). Barco Centenera was both priest and poet, and was part of the Spanish conquistador movement in Argentina and Paraguay. In his rather fanciful description of some of the things which the conquistadors encountered, he describes El Carbunclo as a fast moving little animal, and the jewel on its head resembles ignited embers and acts like a mirror (Argentina Canto III, Verses 21-22). Barco Centenera claims to have personally witnessed the creature, but had been unable to study its appearance in detail. It is, however, a poem. Here the physical anatomy of the animal itself is not quite defined, but the qualities of its mirror-like reflective gemstone which Barco Centenera described remain respected when the creature is adapted for Final Fantasy, and given the very appropriate ability to cast Reflect.
Did Barco Centenera and the Spanish conquistadors really see a creature? Is it purely poetic fantasy, or was there a creature which sparked this description? Following a superficial look into Argentinian fauna, perhaps one candidate for the carbuncle creature could be some type of armadillo, or perhaps more specifically, the fancifully named pink fairy armadillo (chlamyphorus truncatus).
It isn’t too much of a leap to imagine how the reddish-pink epidermal scales on this creature’s head and back might look like stone. Add to this Barco Centenera’s poetic licence, and any misinterpretation, and we get the carbuncle creature’s jewel-head. The pink fairy armadillo is sometimes nicknamed the ‘sand-swimmer’ because it is a very fast burrower, and so in a way it does fit with the elusive speed of the carbuncle animal (although if you were to search for this incredible ability on Youtube you would be grossly disappointed – perhaps only lazy pink fairies have been captured on video?!). The scales of the pink fairy, however, are hardly mirror-like in appearance, and it might not be sensible to stretch this possibility further than necessary.
We should not lose sight of the reality that carbuncle is the name given to the creature by the Spanish, who were using a (now relatively archaic) term for red gemstones as a noun to describe this species. The very application of this label (bringing with it the associations with carbuncle gemstones in European traditions) may disrupt our potential to uncover more about the creature itself in its own surroundings. According to a marginal note with the text of Barco Centenera, the native Guarani referred to the carbuncle as the Anagpitan and described it as a little devil which shines like fire, so there may have been local native folklore regarding the animal which is now obscured. Examining the wider picture, creatures with glowing gemstones on their foreheads appear amongst several native mythologies of South and Central America. Amongst the Caribs of the Antillean islands was the alloüebéra (or Master Boa), a giant snake bejewelled with a red carbuncle stone on its forehead (European knowledge of this creature can be traced to 1658 in Rochefort’s History of the Carriby-Islands, Book I:3). European explorers and settlers encountered local traditions such as this, and some of them persisted (or in the example of the Antilles, the legends evolved and may have merged with African folklore when enslaved or escaped Africans in the 18th Century started to interbreed with Caribs, and so on). It may therefore also be plausible that the conquistadors of Barco Centenera’s party (in addition to Oviedo’s source slightly earlier) picked up some local legends of small bejewelled animals and reinterpreted them through European eyes, merging them with existing lore on carbuncle gemstones.
Since finding more information about the carbuncle creature seems to be as elusive as the fabled animal itself, it is not surprising that the myth of the carbuncle appears to have been imaginatively embellished as people have attempted to develop something from a minimal amount of detail. In recent times the carbuncle creature seems to have been popularised by its inclusion in Jorge Luis Borges’ popular The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957), which acts as a fairly comprehensive (albeit brief) modern bestiary. This bestiary needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, for some of the mythical monsters listed within it appear to have been made up entirely by Borges himself rather than being genuinely mythical, and some of the sources and medieval manuscripts he cites may unfortunately be of his own invention and cannot be traced. Nevertheless, various fantasy writers and role-playing game-makers (such as Dungeons and Dragons, and so on) referred to this for inspiration for the monsters that they were to include in their games. It seems plausible that the creators of Final Fantasy may have read about the carbuncle creature in a book such as this and decided to create their own adaptation of the animal.
Incidentally, when Dungeons and Dragons included the carbuncle in its bestiary, it was represented as an armadillo-type creature with a gem on its forehead. It seems that other people have toyed with the carbuncle-armadillo idea!
As stated above, most Final Fantasy representations of Carbuncle stick to variants of the same standard design. However, FFXIII’s Carbuncle is perhaps the most intriguing deviation from the classical Final Fantasy image for the creature, whilst still retaining all of its core defining characteristics. Its decorative face resembles the features of a racoon or a red panda, and this to many might be the most noticeable deviation. More interestingly, however, this is the only version of Carbuncle which is clothed, and though it may seem at first to be a stretch, the clothes could seriously pass for the garbs of a Spanish conquistador!
Considering the routes through which the Final Fantasy creators (over various years, on different game projects) will have learned of the creature, and probably researched it for inspiration for their designs, it seems reasonable to suggest that this is deliberate.
Someone, or some people, within the creative team of Final Fantasy over the years have adapted a relatively obscure fabled creature but have given it a recurring place within the Final Fantasy pantheon of summons, whilst maintaining the key characteristics of the original references to the creature. In doing so Square(soft/Enix) have developed a creature which is at once recognisably distinct (as one of many mascots for the Final Fantasy series), but also remains respectful of its origins.
Have you any thoughts about the Carbuncle? Anything to add? Any ideas about what creature it may have been based on, if any? Are you fond of its role in the Final Fantasy universe? Maybe you have a favourite Carbuncle? Discuss!
For other current articles in the FFFMM series see:
Issue 2: Ultros.
Issue 3: Alexander.
Issue 4: Wedge and Biggs.
Issue 5: Red XIII.
Issue 6: Shiva.
Halloween Special: Phantom Train / Doomtrain.