The League of Shadows is well known as a fierce enemy of Batman and his allies, but did you know that the fictional League actually has some roots in our own real history? While there is no evidence to suggest that any ancient order has existed throughout the millennia to “restore the balance” of civilization, there were many real life people, organizations, places, and tales that bear striking similarities to the mythology created in DC Comics.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the League itself. The League of Shadows, also called the League of Assassins, is an order of deadly warriors who exist solely to commit assassinations and acts of terror with the proclaimed goal of eliminating crime and evil from the world. In Batman Begins (2005), we’re told that the League destroyed Rome, Constantinople, and London, and in Arrow Season 3, Episode 21, Ra’s claims his predecessor destroyed Alexandria. While there has never been a shadow organization of warriors dedicated to eradicating evil around the globe, there have been organizations that resemble certain characteristics of the League.
When Nizam al-Mulk, a Persian Vizer, or Minister, was stabbed to death on October 14th, 1092, one of the prevailing theories surrounding his death was that he was assassinated by a member of the Hashashin; an order of assassins who ascribed to a sect of Shi’ite Islam called Isma’ilism.
Because they were located in a part of Persia called Nizar, they’re called “Nizari Isma’ilis.” In addition to the Persian Vizer, it is believed that the Hashashin also tried to kill the Mongol Leader Möngke Khan in the 1250’s. The Hashashin are also blamed for assassinating the King of Jerusalem in 1192, and for two assassination attempts on the Egyptian Sultan Saladin.
In addition to being warriors, the Hashashin were also a secretive religious sect, and as Edward Burman notes in his book The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam, they were generally not accepted by practitioners of main-stream Islam.
“The real problem of the Isma’ilis in general, and the Nizari Isma’ilis or Assassins in particular, is that they were always considered heretical and persecuted by official Islam, except for the period in which Isma’ilism was the official religion under the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. The consequence of this is that no comprehensive formula of the Assassins’ creed was ever generally recognized. Their doctrines were maintained in secrecy by the Assassins themselves, while their enemies were content to dismiss them as heretical without studying or reporting them.”
As a result, little is known about the specifics of the Hashashin religious beliefs. This obscurity is mirrored in the religious beliefs of the League of Shadows. We never find out exactly what the League believes, but in Arrow, we learn that the League believes in prophecies when Malcom Merlyn tells Oliver Queen that “There is a prophecy: the man who doesn’t perish at the blade of Ra’s al Ghul will become Ra’s al-Ghul.” Furthermore, we learn from Masseo that the League has Holy sites, with one such site being the place where Ra’s al-Ghul nearly killed Oliver Queen.
Ra’s himself gives us another clue about the League’s religious practices. When he stabs Oliver through the chest and kicks him off the cliff, he says a prayer for his fallen enemy. As he plunges the sword into Oliver’s chest, the Demon’s Head recites; “Forgive and have mercy upon him…Excuse and pardon him… Make honorable his reception… protect him from the punishment of the grave… and the torment of the fire.”
The original Arabic prayer is longer; “O Allah, forgive and have mercy upon him, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.”
This suggests that the League’s religious practices are probably a variation of traditional Islamic beliefs. We also know that the Hashashin used a substance called Hasha, from which they may derive their name, to enter an altered state. This too is mirrored in the League’s use of hallucinogenic drugs as a tool of indoctrination. In Batman Begins, this substance takes the form of a hallucinogenic compound found in a blue flower that grows on the eastern slop of the mountain where the League’s base is located.
Ra’s al-Ghul grinds the flower into a power, which he burns to create an air-borne hallucinogenic compound. Bruce is given the drug to cause him to confront his greatest fear as part of his initiation into the League.
Similarly, in Arrow, Ra’s gives Oliver another natural hallucinogen to prompt him to execute a hallucination of his best friend as part of his trails in entering the League.
Ra’s and his warriors reside in an ancient monastery fortress called Nanda Parbat, which is usually located either high in the Himalayas or deep in the mountains near Pakistan.
It turns out, there was a similar fortress in Ancient Persia. The fortress is called Alamut, or more correctly “Aluh amukht,” which may mean “Eagle’s Nest,” “Eagle’s Teaching,” or “Nest of Punishment.” The stronghold lies on a mountain top approximately sixty miles from the Iranian Capital of Tehran. Little remains of the fortress today, however it was an impressive castle when it was completed in 602 AD.
While Batman never trained in this mountain fortress, Alamut did house legions of warriors dedicated to keeping the balance of power in the region. Located at the top of a 550-foot cliff, the castle was originally constructed as a base of operations for a religious militia called the Fedayeen, or “those who sacrifice themselves,” loyal to the local government called the Nizari Ismaili state. The Nizari Ismaili state was a small lordship which was dedicated to the Ismali branch of Shi’ite Islam. Unlike the League of Shadows, the Fedayeen was committed to repelling invaders rather than transforming other cites or governments. In 1090, however, the castle changed hands. During the summer of that year, a coup was staged, and the castle’s defenders switched their allegiance to the Hashashin, with the stronghold’s commander accepting 3,000 gold dinars in exchange for surrendering the castle. Alamut remained a base for the Hashashin until it was destroyed during a Mongol invasion in 1256 AD.
In addition to Alamut castle, both the Nizari Ismaili and the Hashashin also used another mountaintop fortress located in the present-day Syrian city of Masyaf, near the Mediterranean coast. Dubbed the “Masyaf Castle,” the foundation of the fortress was constructed by the Byzantines, with the Nizari Ismaili later expanding it. The castle, as well as the surrounding town, served as the Nizari capital until the Hashashin captured it in 1141 AD. Thirty years later, in 1176, Saladin attacked the fortress, however the Hashashin managed to repel him. Much like the Alamut castle, the Masyaf Castle was surrendered to the Mongols in 1260, however it was not destroyed as Alamut was and remains in a state of only partial ruin.
Near to the Masyaf castle there is another, smaller castle which was also controlled by the Nizari Ismaili. The Al-Kahf Castle, or the “Castle of the Cave” as it was called, was built high in the al-Ansariyah mountains in Northwest Syria. It was constructed in 1120 by Saif al-Mulk ibn Amrun, and was sold to the Nizari Ismailis 1138 by his son Musa. Today, the castle remains in a state of partial ruin, much like the Mayaf Castle. Unlike the Masyaf Castle though, this fortress is of special significants because it is the place where a famed Hashashin Leader, the “Old Man of the Mountain,” died.
The name “Ra’s al-Ghul” is actually not a name at all; it’s a title translated from Arabic meaning “the goul’s head,” or “head of the demon.” In some incarnations he has used names like Henri Ducard, but usually he is known only by his title. We even see Ra’s attempt to transfer the mantle of “Head of the Demon” to Bruce Wayne in Batman: Arkham City (see that scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRo2eJy52dc), and also to the Green Arrow in Arrow Season 3, Episode 16 “The Offer.”
It turns out, there was a similar term for the leader of the Hashashin. While journeying through the Middle East and Asia, many European explorers recorded tales of a figure called Vetulus de Montanis, which in Latin means “The Old Man In the Mountain.” This Latin title was derived from the Arabic title Shaykh al Jabal (شيخ الجبل), which means “wise man or elder of the mountain.”
The first man to use this title was Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the Hashashin. In addition to knowing the Quran by heart, he was also well versed in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, medicine, and architecture, and he declared Persian to be the language of the Nizari sect. Hassan formed his band of assassins from a group of Fedayeen warriors, and it was he who turned the Alamut Castle into the Hashashin’s primary stronghold. He is considered the Grandmaster who established the core principles of the organization.
Upon visiting the ruins of the Alamut Castle in 1273, Marco Polo wrote:
“The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened.”
“When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they; received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will.”
“And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and say: ‘Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you return to paradise’. And the assassins go and perform the deed willingly.”
One of these boys was named Rashid ad-Din Sinan. He was born sometime between 1131 and 1135 in Basra, Iraq, and traveled to the Alamut castle as a young man. There, Rashid received traditional Hashashin training and he eventually became a religious leader of the Nizari Ismailis. Rashid eventually succeeded Hassan as leader of the Hashashin upon the founder’s death on June 12th, 1124. In doing so, he became the new “The Old Man In The
Aside from these two real figures, there is a general myth surrounding the “Old Man in the Mountain,” as if he lived for many lifetimes. This strongly resembles Ra’s, who uses the magical Lazarus Pit to rejuvenate his health, allowing him to live for centuries.
Much like Ra’s al-Ghul, who tries to manipulate the world through terrorism and assassination, Rashid is known to have ordered political murders. Twice he coordinated assassination attempts on the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, and he was responsible for orchestrating the murder of Conrad of Montferrat, the King of Jerusalem, on April 28th, 1192. Rashid himself died later that same year in the Al-Kahf Castle, in Masyaf, Syria, somewhere between the ages of 57 and 61.
Lastly, we can also see another reflection of Hassan in the language used by the League of Shadows. While Ra’s is mentoring Oliver Queen, he recites a phrase in a foreign tongue, which he then tells his new protégé is an “ancient dialect no longer spoken.” This is reminiscent of Hassan declaring the Hashasin’s primary tongue to be Persian, or what we today would call “Middle Persian” or “Sassanian,” which is a dead language.
The final inspiration we will examine comes from the Batman Begins Novel. While the novel may not be considered a canonical source for the films, we see an expanded version of Ra’s al-Ghul’s backstory, one that strongly resembles real-life legends.
In the novelization, Bruce Wayne finds an ancient text that narrates Ra’s al-Ghul’s life, describing him as a “medicine man,” or healer, who creates a pit of chemicals to heal his gravely ill friend and ultimately uses it to artificially preserve his own life. Bruce also notes that the nearest city to the League of Shadows’ base is Kathmandu, in Nepal.
These specific details that are exclusively recorded in the novelized form of the story become particularly interesting as clues to real-life inspirations for the character when we consider the real-life myth surrounding the origins of the name “Nepal.”
A local legend claims that a Hindu sage or healer named “Ne” established himself in the valley of Kathmandu in prehistoric times. In the Pali language, the word “pala” means “protected by,” and thusly the word “Nepal” literally translates to “protected by Ne.” Essentially, it is proclaiming that the land around Kathmandu is protected by the ancient healer. Furthermore, a Hindu religious text called the Skanda Purana, a rishi, or poetic sage, called “Ne” or “Nemuni” used to live in the Himalayas. The story goes that he practiced meditation and taught in the land surrounding the Bagmati and Kesavati rivers in the Kathmandu Valley.
This myth of a healer, or mystical sage, who protects, teaches, meditates, and trains in the Kathmandu Valley sounds nearly identical to the biography of Ra’s al-Ghul that appears in the Batman Begins novel.
The mythology of the League of Shadows, including Ra’s al-Ghul and Nanda Parbat, appears to be a combination, or a blend of many different stories, myths, and facts taken from both history and folklore. Many of its signature traits and goals were adapted from real-life inspirations, such as the Hashashin, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, and the Alamut Castle. Perhaps in these stories, historical tales and ancient legends from our own world we can find the influences that inspired the writers who created the awesome mythology of the DC Universe.