“the binding of isaac” by ursullala
The Binding of Isaac benefits from an enormous following—again, a dedicated apotheosis. While many these fans are zealous because McMillen produces unique and experiential megames, I am certain that the majority of them resonate with the grotesque nature of the content that produces: Super Meat Boy, Time Fcuk, and The C Word. Hence, the remainder of this article shall soberingly address a number of critical spiritual pitfalls in BoI that players either celebrate, ignore, or are ignorant of, and that McMillen treats flippantly. All images of potential pickups are accompanied by the metamorphosis that Isaac undergoes when he picks up that item. In the game, these features are accumulative, or stacked. Here, every image is its own.
The very first item that I acquired during my inaugural playthrough was a Ouija board. I knew at once that this was the kind of game which thrives on pushing the limits. Of course, as a Christian, I know that Ouija boards are not just harmless
novelties found in the board games section of Toys R Us; the Bible is quite clear on where conjuration stands in light of God’s instructions—it is an “abominable practice”:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.~ Deut 18:9-14
These are not just “ritual laws” that are no longer applicable because of what Christ has done on the cross such as abstaining from consuming shellfish or circumcision; these are “moral laws” that no longer carry the penalty of a stoning, but instead the kind of retribution that only God himself knows for certain. I’m talking about spiritual warfare here, the kind that one should not dabble in with indifference. When the archangel Michael got in a tift with the devil concerning the body of Moses, even he rebuked Satan in the name of the Lord (Jude 1:9), not his own power. People who willingly subject themselves to spiritually precarious things stuff without God’s protection—and trust me, ain’t nobody playing with a Ouija board in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Those who claim to might have…hell…to pay.
The Binding of Isaac handles material such Ouija boards in a way that falls somewhere between satire and drollery. It is clear that McMillen wanted to say something profoundly denigrating concerning Christianity, not merely “religion,” because on one hand, if he were sincere in his exploration of faith in general, BoI would not be impaired by its iconography being strictly limited to themes derived, for better and for worse, from Christian ideology. On the other hand, the changes in Isaac’s physiology according to the items he encounters illustrate a blithe attitude toward spiritual taboo. I am unsure if McMillen was aiming for ghastly or grotesque with Isaac’s post-Ouija board facial expression, but it is certainly disturbing in all its hideousness.
In a related theme, it is possible to find the Deck of Cards item or the individual Tarots. I am not going to spend much time on these, but the history of their usage ranges from that of a conventional deck of cards (2-10, J, Q, K, A) to occult purposes and divination. In BoI, they exist in the latter form.
The second item I encountered in The Binding of Isaac included Loki’s Horns. Popular depictions of the
Norse mythological god vary greatly, though consistent with the character’s portrayal is his long fiery hair to match that fact that he is also the god of fire. Most iconic, however, are his horns whose prominence ranges between those of a satyr and the ostentatious golden crown that Marvel/Disney has settled upon. Though scholarly interpretation of Loki favors him being a trickster god who has flaws like any other god, the strongest modern influences are in pop culture, and they peg him as cunningly evil. BoI insists on this latter interpretation with the “deviled” horns. I hardly consider their inclusion in the game as sufficient to satisfy the idea that McMillen is interested in religion “in general.” In fact, his illustrative suggestion that Loki’s horns are “deviled” supports my claim that McMillen is enamored by the interplay between Christianity and the world rather than a sweeping exploration of religion.
The Devil Within
Indubitably, I find McMillen’s obsession with the symbolism of Lucifer queer. I am only uncertain if I find this affinity more disturbing or fascinating. For certain, Satan has a stronger presence in The Binding of Isaac than God. At the very least, I can confirm with certainty the unmistakable sense of…evil…that I felt the first time that I entered a Devil Room.
I entered into the door not even noticing the head shaped like a pentagram—I think my internal “offensive” gauage was either overstimulated or broken by the time I became good enough at the game to satisfy the conditions for making a Devil Room appear. Nevertheless, the suggestively ominous jingle that chimes upon my entry summoned forth a room containing two items with hearts under them, accompanied by the conspicuous centerpiece that is the large statue, pictured above, that had me bolting back out of the door, heart palpitating.
Did I just see what I think I saw?
Here’s the funny and subversive thing about sin: the first time you do it—pr0n, drugs, lie, sex out of wedlock (fornication), whatever—it feels awful. Negative feelings such as shame, fear, or even anger will ensue. However, the more you sin, the more you become accustomed to it than living a righteous life; hooking up, shooting up, shacking up becomes normal, not sin. So too was I gradually conditioned to be comfortable with Devil Rooms in The Binding of Isaac. And not only did I become accustomed to them, I desired for them to appear. I looked forward to them because I knew that their contents would more often than not help me win, which became more important to me than spiritual integrity. The only situation that ever created this feeling of wanting to summon forth Satan is when I play Diablo games, and that is because I seek to destroy the devil, not make blood pacts with him.
Make no mistake! That statue is indeed Satan. Because the game says so. And even if it did not, the clues are obvious in the illustration. However, what is not obvious is the formation of Satanic iconography: how did we, and now, how do we, come to recognize the devil (and his many names) as such—usually some combination of hooves, horns, pointed tail?
Christians know that the devil takes many forms; fiction need not remind us, yet sometimes we forget.
We know that Lucifer is real, but we have the benefit of living in 2016 when his existence is not a (serious) question. Working backwards through time, the idol that McMillen chooses as Satan is indisputably derived from the Church of Satan’s adoption of Baphomet in addition to the pentagram as its, um, unholy symbols.
The letters found around the in the traditional pentagram spell out “leviathan,” a mythological creature whose depiction changes depending on the region in which the people speak of it. Again, we have the benefit of living in modernity where we know that “leviathan” can be a synonym for “dragon” or “serpent.” Therefore, it is possible to consider that “Baphomet” is both the serpent in the garden of Eden and also the red dragon appearing in Revelation 12:3. Now here is where I give McMillen credit for making the connection between Satan and Loki: Loki is a trickster partially because he is a shape-shifter (in the recent Marvel/Disney movies, he is depicted as an illusionist rather than a shifter. As a fan of D&D, I frown upon this flagrant conflation of a magic school with a race). You know where this is going: Satan is not merely a shape-shifter; the Bible also calls him the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9). Loki ain’t got -ish on him.
The $100,000 Satanic statue in Detroit that we wrote about in 2015.
I do not think I need to explain how being the deceiver of the whole world means that Satan can take many forms, including especially those that we would not recognize, and how dangerous he is. Remember that the Bible describes him as (once) the most beautiful angel; we see this interpretation in works such as Sandman (above) with Lucifer Morningstar, who presides over the inhabitants of hell.
The Church of Satan derives its Baphomet from what it believes to be an idol from the knights of the 13th-century Knights Templar. Historians are in disagreement concerning the relationship between said knights and the original Baphomet idol, but most certainly “Baphomet” is a linguistic butchering of the Muslim “Muhammed.”
An even deeper look at history reveals that Baphomet may be derived from the Grecian goat-god Pan. This would account for the horns we typically see in devil iconography. Similarly, the winged Baphomet is an acknowledgement of Satan as the aforementioned fallen angel, described in Isaiah 14.
There many other references to this Baphomet in Gnosticism, (Neo)Paganism and other minor (false) religions, but there is no need to address them comprehensively. The important thing to take from all of this is that when God told humanity that He is the only God, not to create or worship false idols, or take His name in vain, well, the recognition and worship of Baphomet is just one result of our disobedience.
Would I go as far to say that The Binding of Isaac is a clandestine dedication to or reverence for Satan? I find it difficult to say no, given the quantity and inspiration for the content therein. Do I think this was McMillen’s original intent? I do not think so, but the intersectionality in BoI is undeniable. This is not the kind of subject matter that is casually encountered; one must intentionally seek and expose themselves to it. The deep and possibly devastating spiritual implications of playing around with the occult is why God gave a direct command to avoid it, and why it is accordingly taboo. In other words, McMillen unwillingly fulfills scripture:
Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. ~ Matt 15:17-20
Not to be left out of the conversation, and in a completely different direction, Wiccans believe that the Penta[cle] is a symbol for protection. This too is rooted in pagan traditions.
I have been intentionally cautious up to this point to use the word “Satanic” sparingly as a descriptor because I did not want to confuse my discussion of devil iconography with devil worship in the actual religion of Satanism, though The Binding of Isaac fuses that with Wicca and other heathen beliefs. This conflation is not entirely incorrect, as I have demonstrated above, for those beliefs are derivatives from the same evil source.
How many insidious elements does The Binding of Isaac feature? Let me count the ways!
I consider the Book of Shadows to be an item that makes a minimal impact in the game, yet its potency lies in the source for its (spiritual) inspiration. While Wicca maintains no text which parallels the Bible, the Book of Shadows is similar to the Hadith in Islam—the Qu’ran is the main text, but the Hadith is a critical supplement. The pagan Celtic symbol of the triquetra brands BoI’s rendition of this questionable text, symbolizing a trinity. In Christianity, trinity is obvious, but in Neopaganism, it often symbolizes the “Triple Goddess,” maiden, mother, and crone, often portrayed in fiction as the Fates.
In relation to the Book of Shadows, the icon for Spirit of the Night is the Wiccan symbol for Blessing Moon, a tradition of honoring the full
moon in July. Wiccans consider the Blessing Moon a sacred day, celebrating the “marriage” of the dark and light, sky and earth (or the King and Queens of Summer, but that is of no concern in BoI). The Wiccan Blessing Moon symbolizes for them an apex of power, when divination can be most potent.
Among all the symbols found in The Binding of Isaac, the Leviathan Cross touts the most originally reputable origin. It is the alchemical symbol for sulfur, known in the Bible as brimstone, or “burning stone.” The biblical presence of this element always accompanies condemnation, wrath, fate, or consequence of sin. Its most notorious cameo, for example, is in Genesis 19 during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in a “rain of fire and sulfur” (syntax and appearance of sulfur or brimstone vary by translation; ESV paraphrased here).
And now for some science!
Sulfur is a unique element in that when sulfur burns, it does not burst into flame, but melts into a viscous, fluorescent blue product that emits noxious fumes (SO2). The chemical properties of sulfur should illuminate (pun intended) Christendom’s strongest case for the existence of hell as the lake of fire spoken of in Revelation 20:10, “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” In other words, the concept of brimstone entails a combination of pungent, luminous embers and scalding liquids.
At any rate, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan (Satanism), adopted the Leviathan Cross as a “satanic symbol,” an
antithesis to the Christian crucifix. Allegedly, its double crosses signify the position of men and women in relation to each other. The infinity symbol represents…infinity, and positionally, hell rather than heaven, as paradise. Some have interpreted the double cross of the brimstone sigil to be an ironic gesture because LaVey felt Christians hypocritical, thus the double cross could indicate a jab at Christian self-righteousness—two crosses for double “holiness.”
If there is any spiritually questionable symbolism in The Binding of Isaac that is immediately recognizable