Warning: this article contains minor spoilers for God of War.
Norse mythology grows ever bigger in pop-culture. Lots of people nowadays are familiar with Marvel’s glitzy, galactic version of it, with lots of quips and the occasional alien made of rocks. God of War goes a slightly different route, creating a blood-spattered, darkly dysfunctional world more akin to the actual myths that Norse-freaks like myself love passionately.
In this newest installment of the series, our anti-hero Kratos, having decimated the Greek pantheon, has settled down in the realm of Norse myth and legend.
Despite having started a family in the world of Midgard, Special K has apparently spent no time acquainting himself with his new home’s culture, leaving his son Atreus to explain much of how the world works to his dad.
The devil is really in the details with this game. We’ve all heard of Thor and Loki, but God of War plays with much more obscure areas of Norse mythology. They take a lot of creative license — and rightly so, Norse literature leaves a lot of gaps to fill — but nonetheless it will satiate even the most persnickety of Norse nerds.
As a self-professed Norseoholic, I was blown away by the wealth of details that enriched the world of God of War. Here are just a few things I spotted playing through.
Draugr are your first basic enemy in God of War. They look sort of like tree demons, and they’re great fun to splat with Kratos’ axe, with orange ichor spurting all over the shop.
You may remember Draugr from Skyrim, and arguably The Elder Scrolls was closer to the mark. In the old Icelandic, draugr translates to something like ghost, but really they’re more like zombies. Draugr were corporeal undead, given to hanging around grave mounds or occasionally riding the roofs of people’s houses. Still, the God of War version of draugr is just as fun.
The Aesir-Vanir conflict
As you journey through Midgard as Kratos, you’ll start to notice references to the Aesir-Vanir war. This is a central part of Norse mythology, which is still shrouded in mystery.
The Aesir are led by Odin, while the Vanir include the likes the Norse goddess of beauty and fertility Freyja, and Njord, god of the sea. The conflict is eventually resolved with a sort of hostage exchange, with Vanir gods going to live with the Aesir and vice versa.
A little-loved mainstay of Norse myth, you’ll have spotted Mimir in the trailers for the game. He’s the tree dude who asks Kratos to cut off his head.
Mimir acts as a useful exposition-man, feeding Kratos information about the world of Norse gods. In the mythology too, he is a useful source of advice. In the old Norse poems it’s mentioned that he provides counsel to Odin. He also owns a magic well, into which Odin drops his own eye.
In addition, Mimir’s head really does get lopped off. Not by Kratos (surprise surprise) but by the Vanir, the rival tribe to the Aesir. But Odin doesn’t want to lose a good adviser, so he brings the head of Mimir back to life and frequently consults him on important matters, e.g. Ragnarok, Doom of the Gods.
This turns up pretty early in the game, with multiple enemies wielding the evil power of seiðr (pronounced say-thur) against Kratos and son. Seiðr is alluded to often in Norse literature, and is a vaguely defined form of magic. In the game seiðr is straight-up evil, being used by undead revenants and exploding wizards.
In the myth it’s a pretty neutral form of magic, although it is heavily gendered. It’s primarily associated with women practitioners of magic, for example the goddess Freyja introduces the magical craft to the Aesir. But men are known to use it as well; notably, both Loki and Odin are said to have practised seiðr while in female form, although this is considered a source of shame.
It wouldn’t be a God of War game without puzzle mechanics, but along with the classic whirring blades and squishing blocks the game has worked in a niche piece of Norse culture.
“Scorn poles” in the game act as turrets that spew poisonous magic, and seem inspired by the níðstang, an ancient Scandinavian cursing pole. There are references to them in the sagas, and some people today still occasionally erect the odd níðstang.
Brok and Sindri
Another marriage of myth and game mechanics, your weapon and armour upgrades in the game are done by Dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri.
The God of War team have given the brothers a nice Odd Couple dynamic. They are constantly in competition in game, having previously been a master blacksmithing duo. Such is the case in the mythology (although Sindri is sometimes called Eitri).
In the mythology, Loki spurs on competition between Brok and Sindri against another set of blacksmithing dwarfs, the sons of Ivaldi. As a result the brothers forge many treasures for the Aesir, including Thor’s mighty hammer Mjollnir.
In the game the brothers have split up, both claiming to be the more skilled craftsman. In the myth Sindri is the more skilled craftsman, asking Brok to work the bellows.
The brothers also end up sewing Loki’s mouth shut after their competition is finished.
I daren’t mention any more of the details woven into the narrative as the game, seeing as we’re already in light spoiler territory and the surprises in God of War really do make the gameplay that much more exciting.
The truly fun part of the story of God of War for Norse nerds is the destabilising moral relativism. No divine side, race, or tribe can claim absolute moral authority, and the game plays with our own modern conceptions of godhood to bring us a game that is much more in tune with the nuances of Norse myth than most pop-culture treatments of the mythology.
Plus, there’s loads of extreme violence on an enormous scale. What more could you ask of a game.
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