FFFMM II - Ultros: An unorthodox adaptation!
Anyone who has played Final Fantasy VI will be aware of a certain talkative, loveable, and yet terribly perverted purple octopus. The creature’s goofy teeth and mischievously sinister eyes make him one of the funniest, most iconic and expressive monster designs in the series. Although the party fights Ultros four times in the game, his role serves more as light comic-relief than as true sub-villain material for plotline importance. Whilst there will surely be some fans who are frustrated by the goofy character, Ultros has been so warmly received by other fans that he has since made several cameo appearances (and has even been retroactively inserted into remakes and re-releases of earlier FF titles). Ultros is something of an oddity within the FF franchise, and it isn’t always obvious where he hails from. Ultros has his namesake origins in Greek mythology, but other than a handful of nods, the character bears only a small resemblance to his source material. Some of the similarities and ideas expressed in this article admittedly require imagination, but it is nonetheless interesting how faint associations with the original Greek mythological creature have been implicitly worked into the game, even if some might be present only accidentally.
It is mostly this association with the colosseum which has been drawn from for Ultros’ later cameo appearances in other Final Fantasy games (namely FFXIII-2 and FFXIV). Ultros’ role here is likely symptomatic of the familiar popular culture trope of hurling anything vaguely ancient (irrespective of particular historical era) into gladiatorial games in an amphitheatre setting, removing this practice from its Roman context. Likewise, Final Fantasy fans might be familiar with Disney’s Hercules in the Kingdom Hearts series being placed in a certain ‘Olympus Coliseum’, featuring a handful of Disney’s interpretation of Greek ‘Titans’ as super-bosses. While some people interested in ancient culture might be tired of the coliseum trope in popular culture’s representations of the ancient world, when considering video games it is understandable that the coliseum setting is popular from a gameplay perspective, as it usually provides the players with an extra challenge for some reward in a more structured way. This remains the case for Ultros at the Dragon Neck Colosseum in FFVI.
Having briefly examined Ultros’ role in Final Fantasy, it is worth considering the origins of the character and his name.
Although most English fans refer to the character as Ultros, the Japanese name is Orutorosu (a Japanese transliteration of Orthros, a character from Greek mythology). The true name for the character would therefore be Orthros, and so our name Ultros results from an error by the infamous Ted Woolsey (English translator of Final Fantasy VI) who mistranslated the Japanese characters. Unlike some ‘Woolseyisms’ the name Ultros has generally remained with the character in English versions of the FF games. Perhaps Uncle Orthy fails to pack the same alliterative punch as Uncle Ulty.
The myth of Orthros: The Daybreak Hound.
So who is this Orthros character from Greek mythology, and does he have anything at all to do with FFVI and its themes? In the image below (a red-figure kylix cup signed by Euphronios, late 6th Century BC) Orthros is the dead two-headed dog shot through by Heracles’ arrows.
Note: The octopus tentacles on one of the shields are entirely coincidental!
Etymologically speaking, the Greek word Orthros means ‘early day-break / morning-twilight’. This might relate to the celestial nature of the elements concerning his myth. The creature’s canine features might have astronomical roots; perhaps the two heads represented the Canis Major and Canis Minor constellations (the ‘big dog’ and ‘little dog’). Although this constellation association cannot be gleaned from surviving ancient sources, the ‘dog-star’ (Sirius) is contained in Canis Major, and this star was important for being observed to rise with the sun at dawn to mark the beginning of summer. Other elements in Orthros’ myth also hint at a celestial interpretation (Heracles travelling westwards to get there in a sun-cup, and Geryon’s cattle being envisioned as soaked in the light of sunset). In some Greek texts Orthros was alternatively spelled as Orthos, which in Greek can mean ‘erect in height’, ‘straight’, or ‘right’ (from this stem we get the word orthodoxy, orthodontist, orthopaedic, and so on). The former spelling and interpretation, Orthros, is perhaps preferred for our dog-creature on the island of Erytheia.
When compared with other Greek mythical monsters Orthros is quite obscure, but our double-headed hound belongs to a family of famous mythical beasts. In some traditions his mother was listed as Echidna and his father as Typhon (more about him later). Orthros’ siblings were Cerberus and the Chimera, and depending on the preferences of individual poets or compilers of traditions, the Nemean Lion and the Sphynx were sometimes attributed as Orthros’ own children, or sometimes they were regarded as other siblings.
Name-dropping: Square’s references to the ancient world.
Although at a first glance there may appear to be no common ground between the Greek myth and FF’s cheeky aquatic sea monster, on closer inspection there are Greek mythological references at the first meeting of Ultros in FFVI in that the party faces him in the Lethe (a river taken from Greek mythology). Lethe literally means ‘forgetfulness’ (hence lethargy, a ‘forgetful idleness’). The Lethe was one of the infernal rivers of the Underworld, and it was responsible for washing away people’s memories, or sometimes for actually purging the soul of all earthly memories so that it could start again in a new life (see, for example, Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica: 1.642).
That the development team of FFVI used a Greek mythological stream here is encouraging a deeper analysis. Furthermore the Lethe of FFVI’s world flows to a fishing port called Nikeah. Nikeah might be drawing on Nikaea (more often Latinised as Nicaea). Nikaea (from Greek nike, ‘victory’) was a town name applied to several Greek settlements in antiquity, and so yet another Greek name has been added to FF’s amalgamation of references. The most famous Nicaea is perhaps the one in north-western Anatolia (now Iznik in Turkey) where the Nicene Creed was formed and established the grounding principles of Christian theology. There was also a Greek colony called Nikaea in the west (now the name has developed into Nice in the land we call France today). Like the FF counterpart, this town was a sea-port of sorts, and geographically speaking would align (albeit roughly) with Heracles’ route on his return journey after fetching Geryon’s cattle. That this Nikaea was not founded until approximately 350 BC (and Heracles likely never existed in historical terms) is irrelevant when considering the flexible and timeless nature of myth! Maybe Square did the research, or maybe they didn’t. To the creators of FFVI looking for a name for a port, it seems that they stumbled on this one for one loose reason or another.
While the FFVI planet uses the concept of the River Lethe, and sticks Ultros in it, in the Greek mythic tradition Orthros himself was located at the banks of another important river: the River Ocean. In ancient Greek conceptions of geography, Ocean (or Okeanos) was the river which encircled the known world (which in a loose way the ocean sort of does, after all). In some ancient traditions the island of Erytheia was perceived as the same as, or near to, ancient Gadeira / Gades (modern Cadiz in Spain), originally a Phoenician colony. Being on the west coast of southern Spain, this exotic place was located beyond the Pillars of Heracles (hence west of the Strait of Gibraltar, therefore on the River Ocean and beyond the Mediterranean world which the Greeks were comfortable with). Heracles’ presence at Gades is interesting in itself as an important Phoenician Melqart temple was located there (Melqart being interpreted by Greeks and Romans as a Phoenician counterpart to Heracles), and this may have contributed to or reinforced the myth of Heracles travelling there.
The ancient Greek connection of the mythical Erytheia with historical Gades is important for our purposes. A river in Gades’ proximity, now named the Guadalete, was once named by Greeks as the Lethe. This Lethe is not necessarily the Lethe of the Underworld, but one of a handful of terrestrial rivers which acquired the name. The modern name Guadalete actually derives from the words for River Lethe from old Spanish-Arabic, and so the name remains. The Orthros hound is not so far from a Lethe River after all, and so Ultros’ placement is perhaps more than just idle attachment to another random Greek name.
Muscle-heads: Sabin as Heracles.
Before returning directly to Ultros, let us investigate the role of Heracles in the myth of Orthros and the implications this has for FFVI. Some mythic traditions attest that Heracles travelled west by sea to gather Geryon’s cattle within a large golden cup or jar belonging to Helios (the Sun).
(Attic red-figure cup, approximately 350 BC. Imagine the barrel riding scene from The Hobbit and that’s more or less how Heracles must have managed this).
Ultimately the explicit trait shared by the two characters is that both Sabin and Heracles specialise in leaping headlong at monsters, relying on brute strength rather than wit and guile. In addition to Heracles’ more famous terrestrial foes, he also tackled multiple monsters of the deep. In this Caeretan black-figure hydria vase (approx. 530-520 BC) Heracles is apparently gutting his way through the sea!
It is implied through dialogue with Ultros in FFVI that the octopus’ other main rival is a character named Siegfried. Siegfried (or most commonly known as Sigurd) is the name of a Nordic hero. Whilst this might initially seem like some odd mythic mash-up, this hero has himself been compared with Heracles at times in his exploits (killing dragons, etc). The Siegfried spelling for the hero was particularly popularised by Wagnerian opera, and the FF Siegfried may equally have more to do with representing the operatic themes in FFVI, and indirectly perhaps justifying Ultros’ reasoning for disrupting an opera. Regardless, there is more sense than nonsense to these associations which might not be immediately noticeable at a glance.
Ultros essentially acting as a substitute for the Phantom of the Opera is not the character’s only taste of the finer things in life. One of Ultros’ phrases in FFVI that is most loved is that he self-styles himself as ‘octopus royalty’. Despite having the appearance of an ugly octopus Ultros considers himself a part of high society, and in the game his criminal behaviour befits his class. Not only does Ultros attempt to disrupt an operatic performance, but later on in the game he also turns his hands to antiquity theft when he attempts to steal gold statues of the Warring Triad from the Esper Caves. Additionally, paintings appear to exist of this aristocratic octopus as one can be seen in Owzer’s House (supposedly different to the one that Relm can draw of him during his third encounter).
In an ancient and aquatic context Ultros’ proclamation of royal importance is very appropriate too, due to his purple colouration. The industry of extracting purple dye from murex sea snails was so expensive in antiquity that wearing purple clothing was long associated with nobility. In one myth Heracles discovered this extraction process when his dog ran off on the beach, mauled a murex sea snail, and stained its mouth purple (Julius Pollux, Onomasticum: 1.45-49). Square’s choice of colour for our fiend was most probably a coincidence, but it makes a lot of sense and fits the character’s class and themes.
(Heracles and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple by Rubens, 1636)
So why did the Image Designer (Yoshitaka Amano) decide on an octopus for Ultros’ visual appearance rather than the two-headed dog from myth? Some people may find it irresistible to yell out something resembling ‘Because it’s Japan! Ho ho ho!’ Japanese interest in horrors from the deep, and tentacled creatures in particular (a natural interest given that Japan is a series of islands), might inevitably play a role in this. Ultros acts perversely towards women (and, at least in FFXIII-2, towards some effeminate men too), and so it takes only a slightly-twisted mind exposed to the internet to see that Ultros’ tentacled aspect also fits his personality, disgusting some players but inducing chuckles in others. However, the simplest reason for our octopus foe in FFVI is his creation for a river setting (if his placement preceded his design).
There is also a fascinating story circulating on the internet (although it is, tantalisingly, usually copy-pasted and cited word for word by various sites, and its origin is poorly sourced). The story, if there is any truth to it, states that when Amano and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Producer) were designing the octopus character, one of the programmers saw the designs and mentioned that it reminded him of a purple octopus toy that he owned as a child. This toy happened to be called Orthros.
Perhaps if the FF creators had instead built this character from the ground up (by taking inspiration from bestiaries of mythical creatures, or adapting the creature directly from the ancient sources), then Ultros would more closely resemble the dog, as he does tend to be depicted in canine form in other popular media.
One recent interpretation of Orthros in popular culture might make many people groan, for he appears in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and, yes, Hasbro produce a closer portrayal of the Greek character than Square did. One might wonder if Ultros would find himself quirkily attracted to the ‘brony’ phenomenon…
Typhon: A stormy relationship.
In the FF franchise Ultros does not always act alone. Let us now briefly examine Ultros’ companion, introduced in some versions of FFVI as ‘Mr. Chupon’ but (once de-Woolseyed) more properly known as Typhon.
Typhon is perhaps the most Lovecraftian of Greek monsters, and he is probably the closest that Greek mythology gets to Cthulhu. The Greek Typhon was an indescribable horror, and poets took liberties in their descriptions of him which can fail to be comprehended by the brain and translated into a coherent image of the creature’s anatomy. Typhon was sometimes described as a hundred-headed serpent, or sometimes imagined as having a hundred heads growing from his fingers. The image below is from a black-figure hydria (approximately 540-530 BC) taking up the challenge of representing Typhon.
Whilst the Greek Typhon represented the most extreme, chaotic and uncontrollable forces of nature (at different times including volcanic eruptions, devastatingly destructive gales, and so on), in FFVI although his Snort attack can be a pain for completely blowing the party away from the battle, he is hardly a global threat. On the contrary, Typhon’s hideous form (resembling either the tumorous mass excised from Beelzebub himself, or a squashed pink marshmallow-man with a grotesque face for buttocks) and also his sneezing behaviour have become running jokes. Typhon is, however, one of the last bosses which the party face in the World of Balance. Whilst Mr. Typhon is not responsible for the World of Ruin, the dreams of the Greek Typhon’s reign of destruction are partly (if not entirely) fulfilled by Kefka and his nihilistic insanity.
Ultimately our cute cephalopod, Ultros, is not the same character as the Greek dual-headed hound, Orthros. This much is obvious, but there are still Greek themes about the original location of his character, and there are even (probably coincidental) comparisons to be drawn between original myths regarding Orthros and Final Fantasy’s Ultros. Orthros has been adapted, but he is not stripped entirely from his original context. If anything the intended references to Greek mythology and the ancient world have been partially obscured by Woolseyisms, and by Square turning Ultros and Typhon into recurring jokes. In taking a relatively obscure creature, and making something entirely different from it, they have created one of the series’ most cherished sub-villains.
What are your thoughts on Ultros? Do you like his representation in FF? Do you like the mythic themes? Want to discuss any of the themes and questions raised in this article? Please comment!
For other current articles in the FFFMM series see:
Issue 1: The Carbuncle.
Issue 3: Alexander.
Issue 4: Wedge and Biggs.
Issue 5: Red XIII.
Issue 6: Shiva.
Halloween Special: Phantom Train / Doomtrain.