On the Origin of Species: Absol

Investigating the inspirations behind Pokémon
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  • Monday, September 23, 2013

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This column has been written by Xan Hutcheon. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

How many Pokémon are there? It’s a tough question, especially with a new generation on the horizon. Do we count the ones we don’t know about yet? If we don’t know about them, how can we possibly count them? It’s questions like these that really bothered the Ancient Chinese.

Absol, the Disaster Pokémon

Well, more precisely, they were wondering about supernatural creatures in general. They also came up with an answer: there are 11,520 kinds of supernatural creatures in the world. The story of how this figure was supposedly arrived at is also where the story of Absol begins.

The tale also concerns the Yellow Emperor, also known as Huangdi. He’s often said to be the man who founded China over 4,500 years ago. While throughout most of China’s history he was considered to have been a real person, it’s now generally accepted that the Yellow Emperor is just a legend, making him the Chinese equivalent of a King Arthur figure.

The story goes that the emperor was on patrol in the mountains and encountered a strange, intelligent beast called the Bai Ze (白泽). This creature told the emperor about every kind of monster that existed in the world, the kind of harm that they could do and what methods could be used to stop them. The emperor had his scribes record all of this information in a book called the Bai Ze Tu. While no copies of this book are known to exist, some supposed fragments survive as quotations in other books.

Descriptions of the Bai Ze's appearance vary, but it is usually bovine or feline in shape, with horns. Japanese depictions frequently give it a human-like face. It sometimes has a number of extra eyes located all over its body: very often it is shown with a third eye on its forehead. Most likely taking their cue from the Yellow Emperor's encounter, some descriptions of the Bai Ze say that it will only appear to just and wise rulers.

A painting of the of Bai Ze or hakutaku by 17th century Japanese artist Gusukuma Seiho

As the creature which graciously provided people with the knowledge necessary to combat monsters, images of the Bai Ze became popular as good luck charms during Japan's Edo period, where it was believed they had the power to ward off both monsters and disease. In Japan, the Bai Ze is known as the hakutaku (白沢), and there is a related Japanese myth that ties all of this in with our friend, Absol.

In this legend, a creature very similar to the hakutaku appeared on Mount Tate in Toyama and warned the nearby villagers of a coming plague. The monster explained how they could protect themselves with magical talismans, and when the plague eventually came, they were saved. While the monster in this story is given the name kutabe (くたべ), it's generally considered to be a variant of the hakutaku myth, and it's one of the reasons that the hakutaku remains a symbol of traditional medicine.

Already, we can see plenty of parallels with Absol. It's intelligent, lives in the mountains and appears to warn people of disasters. It's also close to many of the depictions of the hakutaku – albeit somewhat prettier – having a roughly feline shape, a horn and what could be considered a third eye.

There's a clear contrast as well, though: while the hakutaku and its variants are unambiguously friendly and even heroic creatures, protecting humans from monsters and disease, Absol is often said to be reviled, its predictive powers making it an outcast.

Perhaps this is simply the creators making a statement that the line between savior and harbinger and doom is a fine one, which depends mainly on the perceptions of the audience. Nobody likes receiving bad news, and it's all too common to take things out on the messenger. Absol appears to be a version of the hakutaku myth seen through more cynical eyes, in which it is considered not helpful, but a bringer of misfortune in its own right. It's a victim of superstition (it's not a coincidence that it resides on Route 13 in Unova and Route 213 in Sinnoh) despite it actually being just as well-intentioned as its mythical forebears.

So if we do consider Absol to be a cautionary tale about letting superstition and fear blind us to solutions that are being offered, we can at least be glad that Absol, while feared in canon, gets a lot of love from the fandom. And who knows? Perhaps Mega Absol's flashy new wings will finally let it perceived as the savior it is...

On the Origin of Species
By Xan Hutcheon
WooperCastformMawileManaphy and PhioneSandshrew and Sandslash
Turtwig, Grotle and TorterraRelicanthFarfetch'dPoochyena and Mightyena
Bronzor and BronzongNincada, Ninjask and ShedinjaParas and Parasect
JirachiChinchou and LanturnMeowthTrapinch, Vibrava and FlygonJynx
Lileep and CradilyCharmanderTreecko, Grovyle and SceptileOddish
Gloom and VileplumeMewNosepass and ProbopassShuppet and Banette
WoobatVenipede, Whirlipede and ScolipedeMagikarpVictreebel
Slowpoke, Slowbro and SlowkingDunsparceCorsolaStantlerAbsolLuvdisc