“I’d like to draw your attention to this cave painting.”
Cynthia looked up from her notebook, and startled in surprise. She recognized the image on the projector screen – it was from the ruins behind her house, the painting her grandmother had showed her when she was a girl. Three lights, each slightly elongated to suggest the shape of a creature, arranged in a triangle around a larger light.
“You may have seen this before – the original is in Celestic Town, but it’s a fairly popular piece to reproduce for museums,” the professor went on. His mouth quirked a very slight smirk before he asked, “Can anyone tell me what it represents?”
Cynthia’s hand shot up immediately. She faithfully recounted her grandmother’s explanation: “The three lights represent the Trinity.”
The professor’s smirk grew to a full grin. “Yes, that’s the popular interpretation. The three lights represent Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf, the lake spirits commonly worshipped today.” He waved an arm languidly. “If you look this picture up on the internet or visit Celestic Town yourself, that’s what it’ll say: ‘Early depiction of the Trinity’. So!” The class jumped at the professor’s sudden rise in volume. He leaned back against the wall and looked up at the projector screen with exaggerated curiosity. “Can someone tell me…” He gestured to the points of the triangle, and looked back at the class with a wry smirk. “…where’s Azelf in this picture?”
The class went silent for a full second. One student half-raised her hand, hesitantly, but the professor ignored her to bellow, “You can’t tell! They’re all just blobs, right? So, how do we know this is actually depicting the Trinity? Well actually… we don’t!” His expression suddenly turned serious, and he stamped his hands on his desk for emphasis. “This is the most important thing you’re going to learn in this class,” the professor intoned. “If you take away nothing else, remember this: interpretation is shaped by pre-existing beliefs. The lake trinity is what we’re familiar with, so we interpret everything through that lens. We see three blobby things in a painting from a thousand years ago and assume that of course they must be the three things we care about now. But we have nothing to back that up!”
The professor clicked ahead a slide. “The number three actually comes up a lot in mythology. Nearly every region has a ‘mythic trinity’ of some kind. A Kantonian would look at this and say, clearly this is our trinity, Moltres, Articuno, and Zapdos! A Johtonan would say, are you crazy? That’s clearly Entei, Suicune, and Raikou – totally different!” A few students laughed, and the professor joined them. “Yes, you see now how silly it is to make assumptions? Kanto and Johto are still arguing to this day over their respective trinities that are plainly different forms of the exact same creatures, no better demonstrated than with Suicune and Articuno – clearly summer and winter forms of the same pokemon. But –” The professor raised a finger and smiled condescendingly. “Do you think that might have something to do with the fact Kanto and Johto have almost no pokemon that take multiple forms?” After a moment, he continued, "Something blindingly obvious can be misinterpreted or missed entirely because a particular culture insists on viewing it through an inaccurate lens. No one in Kanto and Johto today disputes the fact that pokemon are capable of different forms, but they don't reconsider assumptions inherited from a time when no one knew that."
He clicked to the next slide, which contained a smaller crop of the painting and a large number 3. “Why don’t we put the question to you, now. Can you think of other ‘threes’?”
Cynthia thought for a second. Other “threes”? Did he mean other trinities? He already mentioned the Kanto-Johto trinity. Were there any others? She vaguely recalled hearing something about Hoenn…
The professor’s booming voice jolted her out of her thoughts, and she realized someone had already beaten her to the punch. “The three lakes?” the student asked, an uncertain warble turning the statement into a question.
“Yep, yep.” The professor nodded. “You mean the three lakes of Sinnoh? Yep, that’s a big one. You know about the Lake Heresy? They should teach you that in history class – point is, for a long time it was unquestioned doctrine that the lakes were a reflection of the Trinity, and there were three lakes because there were three spirits. But as people started to learn more about the world, they came to argue that it was the other way around, and the number of lakes was just a coincidence of geography.” He shook his head. “Claimed many lives. Yes, you there!”
“Pokemon evolution,” Cynthia said. “Pokemon can only have three evolutionary stages.”
The professor lit up, practically skipping back to his desk. “Ah, that’s a very interesting statement, very interesting indeed. ‘Pokemon have three evolutionary stages.’ That’s something ‘everyone knows’. But is it really true? Think about it. Plenty of pokemon have only two stages, and some don’t evolve at all. Now people will say what they meant was important is that the maximum is three stages. But that’s not true either. There are pokemon families with alternate ‘third’ stages, like ralts – or eevee, which we just discovered a ninth stage for! So then people say, well, any individual pokemon can still only experience a maximum of three forms over the course of its life, but even that's been proven wrong by the discovery of mega evolution.”
He clicked to the next slide, and began, “The number three comes up a lot in folklore even aside from mythical pokemon. For example –” He looked up at his own slide, and stopped short, seeming just as surprised as the students. The slide showed paintings of three pokemon Cynthia didn’t recognize – a canine, a flatworm, and some kind of gigantic biped, all with the same green-and-black color scheme. “Oh!” he laughed after a second. “Right, I put this first – uh –” He coughed, and faced the class again. “This is actually very exciting. Over in Kalos they have another trinity, the three pokemon you see here. But just recently researchers witnessed one of these pokemon transforming into the other, proving that they are actually only different forms of the same pokemon! Or, well –” He waved a hand dismissively. “The Lumiose Institute is insisting that just because the worm changed into the canine doesn’t prove the biped is also the same pokemon, but…” He gave a knowing shrug. “…preliminary research is already showing that the worm is capable of absorbing more cells, so people are pretty certain we’ll see at least one more form. Perhaps this would've been realized earlier if we had focused on the fact of the matter, three pokemon that showed signs of some relationship to each other but with no clear evidence pointing toward what that relationship was, instead of picking one option and assuming that was right until explicitly disproven by the weight of evidence.”
This time when he clicked ahead, the professor made sure to check the slide – another display of the cave painting, with space for notes underneath – and gave a small, “Aha.” Then, “So, let’s go back to this. First off, let’s list what we can see for certain here. Each of the lights seem to be the same size. And we can tell one thing from that, which is that we aren’t meant to be able to identify them by their image. Either they are interchangeable, or their position identifies them. This actually doesn’t fit well with the lake trinity, where each is meant to represent a separate, specific virtue. In confirmed Trinity iconography, they are always individually identifiable, usually by color if nothing else. So, let’s see what we can infer from their positions. We see the lights are arranged in a triangle, one above and two below, surrounding a central point.” He looked out over the class. “Is anyone here familiar with Draconid mythology?”
The students exchanged glances with each other. The professor waved his hand placatingly. “It’s very obscure. The Draconid are an extinct, ancient people who lived in Hoenn. The most complete record we have of their beliefs is from a missionary who lived a hundred years ago. According to their notes, the Draconids believed the world was the domain of two demons, the land and the sea, but they were quelled by a savior from the sky.”
The bell rang, and everyone immediately scrabbled for their bags. “For your homework tonight,” the professor called over the din, “think of other interpretations that could fit! For example, are there not three stones that evolve eevee?”
Cynthia shouldered her bag and prepared to leave, but something nagged at her. After a moment’s hesitation, she approached the professor behind the lectern.
“In the Celestic Town cave painting,” she asked, “you talked about the triangle, but what about the fourth light, the one in the center?”
The professor’s eyes lit up instantly, and he beamed. Cynthia immediately felt a burst of pride. “That is an excellent question,” he said. “You’re ahead of the game! We’ll be discussing that next class.” He spoke in a rapid, excited chatter, but Cynthia hung on to every word. “As a preview, well – the popular belief is that it represents the world, and the painting depicts the Trinity creating it. But even assuming the triangle is the Trinity, there are lots of other things they could be creating – a theory currently gaining traction is that it’s one of the physical gods, Dialga or Palkia.” With a chuckle, he said, “Study up and come with those questions next class!”
Cynthia nodded, and moved aside as another student asked about the homework. She recalled asking her grandmother the same question, and she had given the same response: the world, and the Trinity creating it. The idea it could be something else pulled at her curiosity. She couldn’t stop thinking: Why did everyone assume the Trinity were acting upon the central light? Perceptions, assumptions… Everyone ‘knew’ the Trinity were the supreme forces of the world, but Cynthia had never seen any reason to believe that. What if the light represented something else – a power greater than the Trinity? Her grandmother would call such thinking blasphemous, but the thought gave her a thrill.
Cynthia had taken this class on a whim, but she was already fascinated. She’d have to work hard at her other classes if she wanted to be champion, she knew, but she decided then and there she’d keep Comparative Mythology, no matter the strain on her schedule. There were more secrets to be uncovered here than she had ever imagined.