“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”
– Winston Churchill
It would appear there is more to consider when it comes to the influence of fiction on our spiritual lives. We live in a multi-media world, meaning that cultural and spiritual influences can come from anywhere. Just as important, stories change over time. Our spiritual heritages are always in a state of flux, changing from teller to teller, and generation to generation. When I speak of story telling, I am not simply speaking about literature, but also movies, music, games, and any other media form that has some aspect of storytelling.
As I said, stories change all the time. I would say that innovation is necessary to keep a cultural heritage alive. That is part of the reason I tell stories, especially Nordic-inspired stories, to help keep that tradition alive. How many Beowulf movies have been made? How many stories about Thor, including comic books and movies? There are certainly been a few, and certainly more to come in the future.
However, innovation and tradition are a delicate balance. As a storyteller, especially when working from ancient (Eddas and Sagas) material I am tasked with two things, honor the traditions left by my ancestors, while at the same time reshaping the ancient traditions so that they are relevant for today. In addition, I also have the duty to preserve these things for future tellers, which will make their own tweaks and changes.
Stories are much like living organisms, or perhaps spirits, in their own way. They change, grow, mutate and evolve over time. They reproduce, and change from generation to generation. On the other side, they also decay, die and go extinct. It pains me to think about all the stories that have been lost over time, but I also must rejoice for those that have been preserved, albeit with changes along the way. This I think is as good of place as any to bring in the other examples I wanted to explore in this series, namely Guild Wars 2 and the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Their are races in these games that are certainly Norse-inspired, and I would like to take a little time to explore these now. Starting with Guild Wars 2.
One of that playable races in Guild Wars 2 are called the Norn; a “race of towering hunters” and that “The individualistic norn live for the hunt, so their tracking, stealth and killing skills make them invaluable allies…” (Guild Wars 2 Wiki)
As to their religion the Wiki says; “The norn have a shamanistic religion where they revere totem animals of the Spirits of the Wild, the spirits of the strongest, bravest, wisest, or most cunning animals of the Shiverpeaks (their homeland in game). The Great Spirit is Bear, who is seen as the strongest of all the spirits and is said to have granted the norn with the ability to ‘become the bear’. The worship of the spirits Snow Leopard, Raven and Wolf is also prevalent because of the assistance they gave the norn in the past… There are many other totem spirits among the norn, such as Ox, Eagle, and Wurm, but they are not as widely revered… Each spirit has any number of shaman. A shaman devotes themselves to a spirit’s sacred area, serving as guardians to that area and teachers of the lessons of that spirit” (Guild Wars 2 Wiki)
Oh, a people after my own heart! Hunters, warriors, and animists, much like the Norse of old! In fact, their very name “norn” is Norse in origin. The norn, Urd and her sisters, were goddess of fate, and they weaved the paths of men and gods. I also see curious parallels here to things I have written about previously. As in the old paleo-mesolithic (See Bears and the Ancient North post) times, the bear was highly revered, and the evidence points towards multiple clans/tribes worshipping the same totemic animal, but perhaps with different stories and traditions associated with it. Elk/Reindeer was another big one in Scandinavia, and there is evidence to indicate the prehistoric existence of a wide spread “Elk/Reindeer Clan.” Certainly there could be said to be Native American influences in the Norn as well, though it should be said their are interesting parallels between the Paleo-mesolithic hunters and the Native Americans. Perhaps that is a whole other blog in itself. There could also be said to be Saami inspirations as well, but I will not dwell into that here.
Be that as it may, there is quite a bit of evidence that speaks to the animistic nature of the Norse, shape-shifting, skin-changing, werewolves, man-bears, what have you. The Norn of GW2 pick up that ancient tradition, and take it in a new, and quite engaging direction. I will circle back a little later, but it is time to move on to Skyrim.
Curiously (or perhaps not), the race of interest in Skyrim, and the other Elder Scrolls games as well, are known as the Nord. Nord, Norse, Norn, Nordic… The names are part of the connection, as Nor, Norr, Nord generally means “north” as a root. Norway means the “northern way” or perhaps “the northern way” or any variant there of.
“Nords are a race that were led to Skyrim by Ysgramor (A nord hero/founder). They are tall, fair-haired and pale skinned humans from Atmora (The Nord homeland) who are known for their incredible resistance to cold and even magical frost. They are enthusiastic warriors, and act as soldiers, mercenaries, merchants and blacksmiths all over Tamriel (The world of the Elder Scrolls games) … Above all else in Nord culture is the quest for honor and glory, and a great emphasis is placed on the family. They thrive in the cold, reminiscent of their native Atmora… Nords are also naturally superior at sea, and have benefited from nautical trade since their first migrations across the sea from Atmora.” (Elder Scrolls Wiki “Nord”)
A bunch of Vikings if I have ever seen one! But things get ever more interesting when we consider the “old” beliefs of the Nords, brought over from their homeland of Atmora, but mostly since abandoned by the time Skyrim actually takes place. Skyrim, as a game, contains quite a bit of written literature in game, and this is a wonderful source for this article. The following excerpt is taken from the in-game book called “The Dragon War.”
“In the Merethic Era, when Ysgramor first set foot on Tamriel, his people brought with them a faith that worshipped animal gods. Certain scholars believe these primitive people actually worshipped the divines as we know them, just in the form of these totem animals. They deified the hawk, wolf, snake, moth, owl, whale, bear, fox, and the dragon. Every now and then you can stumble across the broken stone totems in the farther reaches of Skyrim.
Foremost among all animals was the dragon…” (Elder Scrolls Wiki “The Dragon War”)
There is a difference of note here, whereas Bear takes prominence in GW2, the dragon takes prominence in Skyrim. This is a curious thing, as dragons are central to the stories of both games, as well as taking a role in old Norse literature. Dragons are another one of those topics that could be a whole post in an of itself. The point I really want to show here is the animistic ideas and Norse heritage from which both games draw. While both are works of fiction, can it be said they add material and innovation to the ever-evolving Northern Tradition? While of course fiction should be taken with a grain of salt, certain ideas can help us create a more meaningful connection to the Old Ways.