Sunday, May 9, 2010

At Least Partly Right (Halo)

(Crossposted from Halopedia)
One of the more important aspects of any body of fiction is the names of its main characters. Names have significance in etymology and in reference to famous persons who previously bore such names. Halo’s main character names were likely carefully chosen to fit into the intricate mythology set up by Bungie. Here I have collected what we know and what I suspect regarding the names of John-117, Cortana, the Prophets of Truth and Mercy, the Arbiter, the Monitors, Kurt-051, and i love bees’ Melissa.
The most obvious name is that of the Halo trilogy’s protagonist: John-117. John-117 has been suspected to be a reference to various biblical verses, such as John 1:17 and John 11:7, in addition to those of the Book of John (aka Revelation): Revelation 1:17 and Revelation 11:7, which are considerably more interesting. John was the name of two saints, John the Baptist and the apostle John, and the name derives from the Hebrew name Yochanan, meaning “Yahweh is gracious”. Given the religious theme surrounding the series with the religious name, I suspect the name John references one of these saints. 117, however, I believe lies with Bungie’s own mythology.
Bungie’s previous first-person shooter game series Marathon shares many similarities with Halo, which Bungie has referred to as Marathon’s “spiritual sequel”. One aspect of the Bungie mythology in relation to Marathon is the number 819. I believe a developer’s name translates to 819 when run through some number cipher or some such, and 819 is referenced in the series. Well, one thing universal to Bungie mythology is the number 7, and as it turns out, 819/7 = 117.
“I am your sword.”
Cortana is the second most important character in the Halo trilogy, and her name also references Marathon. In Marathon, the protagonist is continuously harassed by a Rampant AI named Durandal, who serves approximately the same role as Cortana in the story. Durandal was named after the legendary sword wielded by Roland, Charlemagne’s subordinate and a military leader in his own right. Cortana is also named after a legendary sword, one wielded by the character Ogier the Dane. His sword Cortana was said to bear the inscription: My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durendal. Joyeuse was the sword of Charlemagne himself, and Durendal is another spelling of Durandal. So, yes, Cortana is most definitely your sword, and as Halo is like Marathon, so is Cortana like Durandal.
Religion is one of the main themes of Halo, and this is most evident with the Covenant and its religious Prophets. With their violent theocracy, the Prophets are sometimes compared to various Christian or Muslim regimes. Descriptions like “Prophet of Truth” and “Prophet of Mercy” are sometimes used in reference to various holy figures, specifically the prophet Muhammad in an Islamic context. I’ve noticed Muhammad is often referred to in online articles as the “Prophet of Mercy” following the backlash against Islam in the post-9/11 times. As Halo itself is a post-9/11 story, it is probable that the Covenant was intentionally written to resemble the Islamic terrorists in some ways so that they could serve as a cathartic enemy the player could fight off.
Another Covenant name with a clear Islamic influence is the Dervish, which is what the Arbiter was originally going to be called. While many (non-Muslim) people I’ve talked to just associate the word “dervish” with someone who spins around like the Tasmanian Devil, in Islam a dervish is a member of a Sufi Muslim ascetic order roughly equivalent to a Christian friar. Some of them do spin around as a ritual means of reaching a spiritual state via dizziness. Fearing offending Muslims, Microsoft had Bungie change the name. As the Dervish/Arbiter is the blade of the Prophets, charged with killing heretics, I can see where they would be worried about causing offense. The new name Arbiter is far more straightforward in its meaning, which can be presumed to indicate the person’s role to judge whether people live or die.
Far less controversial are the Monitors of the Halo installations, whose identification numbers illustrate Bungie’s love of the number seven. We are first introduced to 343 Guilty Spark, Monitor of Installation 04, in Halo: Combat Evolved. 343 is 7 * 7 * 7, or 73. In Halo 2, we then meet 2401 Penitent Tangent, Monitor of Installation 05. 2401 is 7 * 7 * 7 * 7, or 74. Looking at these two, a pattern emerges. The Monitor’s number is 7 to the power of the Installation number - 1, which may alternatively be written as 7n - 1, where n indicates the number of the Installation. The table above illustrates this pattern. Of the word section of the Monitor’s name, the pattern seems to be a word meaning to have committed some sin (i.e. guilty, penitent), followed by a word whose pattern I do not know. Because the Forerunners are so dang mysterious, the exact meaning of this is entirely up to wild speculation for the time being.
Easier to speculate on is the surname of Spartan-II Kurt-051, or rather his second surname. As the Spartan-IIs were inducted against their will, ONI wanted them to disconnect all ties with their previous lives, and so made them forget their surnames and replaced them with a number instead. When Ackerson snatched him to work as a trainer for the Spartan-III program, Ackerson decided to give Kurt a new surname: Ambrose. The name Ambrose evokes the St. Ambrose of the fourth century, a Catholic bishop of Milan given the title of Doctor of the Church. Also notable is that the name Ambrose comes from the Greek name Ambrosios, meaning “immortal”. This seems particularly relevant when considering Kurt’s proclamation that “Spartans never die”.
Jersey Morelli: “Do you have a name?”
Durga: (an AI fragment unable to contact her primary software) “I can’t ask.”
Jersey: “That sucks. Okay, I’m gonna call you Durga.”
Durga: “But what if that’s wrong?”
Jersey: “Trust me; it’s at least partly right.”

Because I love i love bees, I have to mention its main character(s). Yasmine Zaman was a Spartan-II who did not survive her augmentations, and her brain was used to create an AI named Melissa. Following a Slipspace anomaly, Melissa was split into three fragments, given the names: the Operator, the Sleeping Princess, and Durga. The anomaly in addition sent the Operator and the Sleeping Princess back in time from the 2552 to 2004, beginning that wonderful Alternate Reality Game.
Yasmine is a common Middle-Eastern name that means “flower” in Arabic. It is her surname Zaman that seems most relevant, as it means “era” in Arabic. She is one of the few people to live in two very different eras through time travel. The Operator’s name is pretty straightforward, as Melissa was given that as a nickname for her cold and manipulative personality. The Sleeping Princess is a bundle of code that is Yasmine’s human memories, and her name references Sleeping Beauty trapped in her glass coffin. Durga is named for the Hindu goddess of war, probably because of her aggressive personality. It is also implied by a creator that at one point in the editing process of the story Jersey was to be Hindu.
Melissa herself is named for Yasmine’s death. Before being put under, Yasmine observed Dr. Halsey take a syringe and fill it with yellow liquid. Yasmine thought that with the needle, yellow tube, and black millimeter marks, that the syringe looked a lot like a bee. Dr. Halsey then made the appropriate remark: “This will hardly hurt a bit. Just a pinch, honey. Just a little sting.” Yasmine died with that as her last memory, and the trauma remained with her into her posthuman AI self. Even though she didn’t remember the event consciously, enough of it stayed with her that when she needed to choose a name for herself she decided on Melissa. Melissa is a Greek word meaning “bee”.
In conclusion, names are a mysterious aspect of the Halo universe that potentially offers greater understanding to the work. Some of them are easy to understand, and others are not. Perhaps some of these speculations are incorrect, but Bungie definitely leaves hints pointing to some epic meaning just beyond the bend. All of us hardcore Halo fans will always speculate, eager to discover the unknown.

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