• Jeffrey Carey

The Afro-Asian Roots of Star Wars


Anakin Skywalker with the Padawan sidelock clearly inspired by the African Egyptian Horus sidelock symbolic of youth. Also to reinforce the fact Anakin has the West African mud cloth collar tucked in his Asian kimono inspired dress.

With the new stand alone Star War's Han Solo movie about to come out in a few months Star Wars has been on my mind. Some of the fondest memories I have as a kid is going out with my Dad to see blockbuster movies like ET and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, now I try to continue the ritual of taking my sons to Star Wars movies. They may hopefully do the same thing with their sons. I wanted to write a Star Wars blog post for a while now that centers on the deeper meaning found in the Star Wars movies, and how it relates to world culture and African culture particularly. Since Star Wars was released in the 1970s it has become a cult classic that generated billions of dollars in movie tickets, theme parks, Blu-ray and DVD sales, video games, clothing and toys. In short Star Wars has become a huge industry unto itsself. The question then is what made this movie series such a hit in the 70s, 80s, and even up until this day? Many movie critics and historians have pointed out that one of the reasons Star Wars may indeed resonate with people all over the world is because they recognize elements from their own culture within the Star Wars experience. This was of course pointed out by Star Wars director George Lucas in his interview with Bill Moyer for the documentary The Mythology of Star Wars. In this documentary Lucas admitted that he pulled heavily from world mythology when creating Star Wars, and furthermore he was greatly influenced by mythologist Joseph Campbell author of the classic "A Hero With a Thousand Faces." In fact Lucas admitted that Star Wars could not have been done without Joseph Campbell's scholarship and insights.

When interviewed by Bill Moyer, Lucas freely admitted that the story of Star Wars is really nothing more than a retelling of old mythology of a hero. This old mythology is what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero's Journey. The Hero's Journey is a story of self-discovery, when the hero goes on to be taught by a wise mentor throughout his travels. He then goes on to face a challenge, or trial that may in fact cause harm, and even death. What makes the hero a hero is he overcomes these challenges to become a better person in the end. The story of the hero can be seen in characters as vast as Disney's Simba, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Stan Lee's Spider-Man, or J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo. What Campbell has done is find the archetype of the hero in many different cultures all over the world, and he has highlighted that they essentially tell the same story be it Jesus, Krishna, Hercules, Dionysus, Osiris, or Sundiata. It is these universal themes found in Star Wars that the whole world can identify with, thus enabling the movie to break all records, as it is propelled into its mythic status. Most people simply go to a movie to be entertained, but with Star Wars it taps into a certain cultural subconscious that many of us are not even aware of.

What I wanted to focus on with this article is some of the Asian cultural themes that we know definitely influenced the mythological origins of the Star Wars movie, as well as some lesser discussed, and even unknown African elements throughout Star Wars that may have been equally, as influential as some of the more popular Asian themes. Of course Star Wars pulls heavily from Asian culture this becomes quite obvious when looking at Darth Vader's helmet for example that clearly resembles the helmet worn by Samurai warriors.

Darth Vader's helmet and its obvious Asian/Samurai influences

This borrowing from Asian culture can also be seen in the robes worn by both the Jedi and the Sith that clearly were inspired by Japanese style kimono robes, as writer Walter Robinson points out in an article he wrote for the book Star Wars And Philosophy titled The Far East of Star Wars.

Jedi and Sith kimono style robes also show Asian cultural influences as well

Asian religious and philosophical concepts found in Taoism and Zen Buddhism "flow" all throughout the move as well. In fact if one did not know any better Jedi Master Yoda sounds as if he is a Buddhist monk training students in the Shaolin Temple. The Tao concept of Yin and Yang is also very apparent in Star Wars as well.

Most people are familiar with the white and black Yin and Yang symbol, but many may not know its meaning. Yin and Yang stands for opposites such as light and dark, feminine and masculine, positive and negative. In Taoism there is not so much a belief in good and evil, but how one can not exist, or be defined without the other. There is a push and pull between the two forces, yet in the end they help define each other, and balance each other out. The black and white dots within the Yin and Yang symbol also symbolize that these opposite forces also reside in us. We all encompass both light and dark, positive and negative forces within us. This is a concept that we also see in African cultures as well. In Egypt the religion was known as Maat and it essentially translated as harmony. Conceptually Maat was very similar to Taoism, and amazingly it may even predate the Asian concept of Taoism. The fact that opposites exist allows the world to exist in a balance. When there is too much of one it eventually leads to the rise of the total opposite. It is not so much that this is either a good or bad thing from a Taoist perspective, but more like the "natural way" things are. George Lucas was clearly influenced by these beliefs when he created the concept of "The Force." The Force is an energy that is tapped into by these futuristic galactic mystics known as the Jedi who represent the light side of the Tao or Force, and the Sith who represent the dark side of the Tao or Force.

I want to briefly list some of the African/Egyptian elements that are in Star Wars, and based on the fact that ancient Egyptian Civilization developed these concepts at such an early age Egypt may in fact be just as influential in the creation of the Star Wars mythology as Asian culture is. Of course it needs to be mentioned that Egypt was an indigenous African civilization. Though it was invaded over the years by foreigners, and had immigrants it was mainly created by indigenous Africans who migrated there from the surrounding African deserts that were once savannahs that dried up. In the mist of Hollywood whitewashing its easy to forget that Egypt is an African civilization and if we are to believe the Ancient Greeks it can be argued that it is at the source and very foundation of Western culture, so one is not surprised that it also influenced Star Wars.

1. The concept of two sides of the force, the Jedi and the Sith that was mentioned earlier may have been equally inspired by African sources as it was Asian sources. Above is a statue of the Pharaoh. What is interesting is that the Pharaoh is surrounded on each side by the Egyptian gods Horus and Set. In Egyptian mythology Horus was the god of the light, he was symbolized by both the falcon and the sun; however, Set was his opposite the negative force associated with darkness. Set the symbol of darkness then is the setting sun. Horus and Set would go to war because Set murdered Horus father Osiris. Horus is a Greek name his Egyptian name is Heru, and may have been translated from Heru into the Greek word Hero, so Horus/Heru would be an ancient equivalent and inspiration for the Jedi because he represented both light and righteousness, and Set then would be the dark side of the force. The concept of Horus and Set predate Taoism by millennia.

2. I always mention to people that they often forget Luke did not save the galaxy, and destroy the empire Darth Vader did. People often forget the trajectory of Vader, and exclusively see him as a symbol of hate. Vader has become the ultimate Sith for many, but what if this way of reading Darth Vader is wrong? Yes we are always reminded that Anakin was a tragic figure who turned from Jedi to Sith, but people need to be equally reminded that in the end he turned from Sith right back into a Jedi as he slayed the Emperor. This is a reminder much like Taoism's Yin and Yang symbol that positive and negative, light and darkness, reside in all of us. Remember there is a black dot within the white yang, and a white dot within the black yin. The Egyptians were also aware of this duality of both good and bad residing in all of us. In fact the Egyptians had a two headed god with both a head of Horus and a head of Set symbolizing that both of these forces reside within us.

Like the Yin and Yang symbol found in Taoism the Egyptians had a similar more ancient concept. This duality was symbolized by the two headed Horus and Set that stood for the positive and negative energy that resides within us.

The story of Star Wars is not so much a story about Luke Skywalker as it is the story of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, as the resurrected Jedi Knight who saves the galaxy.

3. Is the Egyptian God Set the archetype for Star Wars Darth Maul character? I have to say one of the most awesome looking characters in Star Wars mythology would have to be the Sith Lord Darth Maul.

Darth Maul was one of the antagonist in the movie The Phantom Menace, so awesome was Maul that this was the first time we saw a Sith take on two Jedi at the same time. Maul seemed to be more filled with Hate than even Darth Vader.

Those who follow the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons are aware that unlike Vader Maul never turns from the Dark Side. Maul's look is ferocious with his horned head, and red and black contrasted face. Where have we seen that face before one might ask? Is Maul not the face of the devil one might presume? I would have to say Maul is symbolic of the devil at first glance, but where does the image of the devil, or Satan come from? Many esoteric historians have pointed out, and I would have to agree that the origin for the devil, the imagery, iconography, and etymology also stretches back to Egypt. Is not Darth Maul the Egyptian evil god Set.

Set was always associated with the color red. Set was an Egyptian god of the red desert as compared to the black desert that surrounded Egypt and the Nile. There also seems to be a close etymological connection between the words Set and Satan. Set was also associated with darkness for he was the setting sun (sunset) as compared to Horus the rising sun, as in Horizon or Horoscope. At an early time in Egyptian history much like in Taoism Set did not necessarily represent total evil, but more or less an opposite force; however, during the Middle Kingdom when the invading Hyksos conquered Egypt and adopted Set, as their god the Egyptians began to view Set as exclusively an evil force similar to Satan in Christianity. Darth Maul then represents the completely evil Set of the Hyksos, unlike Vader he has no redeeming qualities. It is interesting that the Egyptian name Set when translated into Greek is Seth, strikingly very similar to Star War's Sith. Is this all to be left to chance or coincidence? This Darth Maul/Set/Seth/Satan comparison is just another reminder of how much Star Wars borrows from Africa as much as it does Asia.

4. What about the origin of the Jedi braid or more correctly the Padawan braid? Is not the Padawan braid directly inspired by the Horus sidelock?

Known as the Padawan Braid should traditionally always be worn on the right side like its Egyptian predecessor.

Known as the Horus sidelock traditionally worn on the right side another example of African/Egyptian inspiration for Star Wars.

In Star Wars beings with hair that are in training to become Jedi must wear the Padawan braid. If they have no hair they wear beads. The Padawan Braid signifies youth and that you are still at the learning stage. In ancient Egypt the braid or sidelock essentially meant the same thing, and traditionally always on the right side. It is called the Horus sidelock because it was braided, and divided into three sections just like the three talons on a falcon. The youth who was still in the learning stage much like the young Padawan is also shown sucking his finger, as another way to signify youth. The young Egyptian will one day grow into an adult Pharaoh who was the living embodiment of Horus/Heru or the hero.

5. The final question I ask is does Star Wars have a virgin birth, and if so is there a mythological origin for this?

Mostly all the ancient heroes in mythology were born of a virgin as was Anakin. Here Anakin is embraced by mother Shmi Skywalker. Is the origin for the virgin birth story found in Christianity, or does it go back much further?

The answer is yes Star Wars does have a virgin birth. It was announced in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace when Qui Gong Jinn talks to Shmi Skywalker, and she recalled that when she gave birth to Anakin Skywalker "there was no father." Instantaneously some might say George Lucas borrowed this concept from the Jesus story, and that may in fact be the case, but that only tells part of the story. Lucas most likely was tapping into something much further back.

George Lucas is on record saying he was greatly influenced by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote and taught about the virgin birth in detail many times. Campbell and others have traced the history of the virgin birth in many different cultures all over the world.

All of the world heroes were suppose to be born of a virgin be it Jesus, Krishna, Quetzalcoatl, Dionysus, or Horus. In fact most point out that one of the oldest virgin stories can be found in Egypt where the Virgin Isis gives birth to the hero Horus. Horus much like Anakin Skywalker goes on to defeat the lord of darkness Set. I conclude by saying it is obvious that George Lucas was a student of world history and mythology when he wrote Star Wars, and it was this unique knowledge base that allowed him to tap into a global story that resonated across all cultures on every continent be it Europe, Asia or Africa. Though many in the past correctly identified Asian and Christian influence in Star Wars, as the hero falls and rises again what has been under represented is the African influence on the Star Wars epic.

Further Reading:

Joseph Campbell. A Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press. 1968.

The Mythology of Star Wars With George Lucas and Bill Moyer. (2000) {DVD}. Films For The Humanities & Sciences.

Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl. Star Wars And Philosophy. Open Court Publishing. 2009.

Charles S. Finch III, M.D. Echoes of the Old Darkland: Themes From The African Eden. Khenti, Inc. 1991.

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