Toss a Coin to Your Medievalist: Norse & Celtic Mythology in The Witcher

Note: This post is completely spoiler-free!

The feature image for this post has been taken from Wikipedia. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46687768.

In case you really have never listened to a single word that has come out of my mouth, you may be surprised to know that I am deeply interested in Irish and Norse mythology, on top of my usual Medieval English stuff! I’m also a big fan of video games; I used to stick with Pokemon and Animal Crossing, until I got more comfortable with the fact that yes, I am bad at video games, but I also really enjoy playing them, so everyone is just going to have to deal with me muddling my way through The Witcher 3

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59882398 screenshot

Put these things together in a pot and what do you get? This blog post, I suppose! To my absurd delight, The Witcher 3 is saturated with references to Norse and Irish (or just generally Gaelic) mythology and legend. I have not read the original Witcher books by Andrzej Sapowski, nor have I played the first few games — yet — so this post will be specifically talking about the Wild Hunt game, though I did find a passage from one of the books that I will mention. I do hope you can forgive me for being so late to the party. 

Firstly, for anyone who is not familiar with the world of the Witcher, let me explain what the hell I’m talking about. The Witcher books are fantasy novels written by the Polish author Andrzej Sapowski, first published in 1993. The games were then produced by a small Polish video-game company, CD Projekt Red, and received increasing support and praise with each release. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sold over ten million copies during its first year of release alone. You also may have heard of the recent Netflix adaptation starring Henry Cavill as the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. At nearly 30 years of age, The Witcher universe appears to only grow ever-more popular. So, yes. Would recommend. 

Part of the appeal for me is how mythologies from real cultures are woven into the world of The Witcher. Though the landscape is fictional, it’s still very obvious that the world is based on Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and, obviously, draws most heavily from Polish folklore and legend. And while engaging with real mythologies that many people would be familiar with, or drawing on your culture’s history as inspiration, isn’t exactly uncommon, the manner with which the real and the fantastical are blurred is deeply satisfying. It isn’t difficult to see that Sapowski did thorough research before adapting different mythologies to suit The Witcher, rather than just plucking names and references from thin air and hoping they fit together. 

So, with some knowledge about Norse and Irish mythology tucked under my belt, and a PS4 controller in my hands, let me show you some cool Easter-eggs!

Andrzej Sapowski. Taken from Wikipedia.

“That large rock suspended above the water […] is Kaer Hemdall, Hemdall’s Watch-tower. Hemdall is our mythical hero. Legend has it that with the coming of Tedd Deireadh, the Time of the End, the Time of White Frost and the Wolfish Blizzard, Hemdall will face the evil powers from the land of Morhogg: the phantoms, demons and spectres of Chaos. He will stand on the Rainbow Bridge and blow his horn to signal that it is time to take up arms and fall in to battle array. For Ragh nar Roog, the Last Battle, which will decide if night is to fall, or dawn to break.” {Crach an Craite to Yennefer}

A small note first; though I’m not sure where “tedd” comes from, “deireadh” is the Irish word for “end”! The merging of Celtic and Nordic cultures is most obvious in the place names like Kaer Hemdall — ‘caer’ means city/fortress in Welsh, and Heimdall is a figure in Norse mythology. 

In this small passage alone, there are so many references to Norse mythology; Heimdall, in Norse legend, is known as the watchman of the gods. He spends his time at Himinbjorg and overlooks the Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard and Asgard. Heimdall owns the Gjallarhorn, which he blows to signal the beginning of Ragnarok (i.e., the apocalypse) and warn the gods in Asgard that the frost giants are attacking. “Morhogg” also reminded me of Niðhogg, the dragon that chews at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. 

In The Witcher universe, Hemdall is supposed to have had many children, who then went on to found Skellige. The Skellige Isles appear to be based heavily on Irish/Gaelic culture, though references to Norse legend are still very much present. The people of Skellige are very much people of the sea, so using Norse/Gaelic-esque mythologies links them heavily to the Vikings. Again we see that blend in one of Hemdall’s children, Tyr, who establishes one of the many tribes of the Skellige Isles, the Clan Tuirseach. 

Tyr is another very real figure from the Norse myth cycle; he is the god of glory in battle. Tyr is most well known for losing his hand to Fenrir the wolf, one of Loki’s children. In terms of the name “Clan Tuirseach”, we see more Irish influence, though it seems a little funny — “tuirseach” is the Irish word for “tired”. But hey, who am I to judge?

“[F]or Freya is the patron of fertility, love, and beauty. She also poses as the patron of soothsayers, clairvoyants, telepaths, as symbolized by her sacred animals: the cat, which sees and hears while being unseen, and the falcon, who watches everything from the sky.” {Witcher Wiki}

The Skellige Isles have a temple dedicated to Freyja, which is attended to by priestesses. They refer to Freyja as the ‘Great Mother’, which may be in reference to her power over fertility and love in Norse mythology. The priestesses in the game may be substitutes for the valkyries that serve Freyja in her hall. In Norse legend, Freyja rides a chariot that is pulled by a pair of cats, and she possesses a cloak of falcon feathers which allows her to transform and fly. I was absolutely baffled seeing such attention to the details. These are such specific elements of the goddess to include for one small part of such a large universe; The Witcher 3 really refuses to cut corners.

I could go on! But I shan’t. I will simply implore you to absorb The Witcher via whatever medium you deem fit. I can’t imagine you’ll regret it.

11 thoughts on “Toss a Coin to Your Medievalist: Norse & Celtic Mythology in The Witcher”

  1. Loved reading this! My brother is playing this at the moment and mentioned the Irish references! Also would die for Henry Cavill

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s