Religion and Mythology in Dark Souls

“The eyes show a world destitute of fire, a barren plane of endless darkness. A place born of betrayal. So I will’d myself Lord, to link the fire, to paint a new vision.” – Ludleth of Courland, Dark Souls 3

“Like a moth drawn to a flame, your wings will burn in anguish. Time after time. For that is your fate. The fate of the cursed.” – Dark Souls 2

A while back, I made a post about the religious influences that inspired the Silent Hill series. When I was researching that post and putting together my argument, I had the benefit of knowing exactly the creators’ artistic intention for the series. Team Silent has always been pretty open about their inspirations and their artistic vision — not so with the creators of the Dark Souls series. The games are filled with rich and complex lore, and much of the storytelling seems to have both literal and symbolic layers — but the developers have mostly kept quiet about how this symbolism is meant to be interpreted. Personally, I think that leaving things open to interpretation by the player was the developers’ intent. These games have fostered a lasting discussion about meaning that has continued for years after the series’s conclusion. Figuring out what the story means for you is part of the appeal of Dark Souls.

That being said, there are definite religious themes to the series, although I’m not sure whether those themes were intentional on the part of the developers or just sneaked in from some of their other influences. Some of the parallels are too obvious to just be coincidence, and some of this is just me making guesses. But that’s the fun of fan theories, isn’t it?

From what I can tell, there are two main schools of religious thought that influence the Dark Souls series: one is Christianity (specifically medieval European Catholicism) and the other is Norse (or, more broadly, Germanic) mythology. This makes sense, since Dark Souls takes place in a medieval-ish fantasy setting modeled after Western Europe. I think the series does a very good job of capturing the combination of beliefs, ideologies, and religious themes that would have dominated recently-converted areas during the Middle Ages. Iceland, the last official pagan stronghold in Europe, did not adopt Christianity as its state religion until 1000 AD, so this was very much a period of time when old beliefs were mingling with new and when people were still discovering how to reconcile their spiritual heritage with their new faith. It was a time of confusion and of forging new paths, which is kind of Dark Souls’s whole deal.

Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, as pictured in the opening cutscene of the first game.

One of the most striking details of Germanic (and particularly Scandinavian) mythology and religion is how focused it all is on the inevitable end of our universe. Everything ends. Everything dies. The vast majority of surviving myths deal with the gods battling against the forces of chaos that seek to bring about Ragnarok, or the end of the world. Before the gods, the world was nothing but fire, ice, and darkness, totally inhospitable to all life except the jötnar, those forces of chaos I mentioned earlier. Odin, who would become the leader of the gods, and his brothers slayed Ymir, the father of the jötnar, and built the physical world from his corpse. They created mankind to inhabit this world, and thus began the god’s age of order. Yet some of Ymir’s descendants survived, and they sought tirelessly to bring about Ragnarok and return the world to its state of primordial chaos. Scandinavian pagans believed that Ragnarok was guaranteed — it was not a question of when it would happen, but of how long Odin and the other gods could hold it off.

Compare this to the narration of the opening cutscene of Dark Souls: “In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Archtrees and Everlasting Dragons. But then there was Fire and with fire came disparity… Then from the dark, They came, and found the Souls of Lords within the flame. Nito, the First of the Dead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights. And the Furtive Pygmy, so easily forgotten. With the strength of Lords, they challenged the Dragons… and the Dragons were no more. Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign…”

The basic beats are all there. An age of primordial chaos, ruled by a race of inhuman beings (jötnar in Scandinavian myth vs. dragons in Dark Souls). A group of young gods who challenged this race (Odin and his brothers vs. Gwyn and the other Lords). A new age of order that will inevitably give way to another age of chaos. Life and death, light and dark, playing back and forth through all eternity.

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Odin, or Wodan, was the leader of the gods who represented order in Germanic mythology.

These Norse influences are most obvious in the character of Gwyn — in fact, if you described Gwyn to someone without mentioning any names, it could just as easily be a description of Odin. Odin is the one who brought the world out of primordial chaos. Blessed with foresight, he knows that Ragnorok is the fate of the world he has created, yet he tirelessly seeks new knowledge that may help him prevent this end. Odin is desperate for knowledge, to the point of making grave personal sacrifices to gain secret wisdom. He gives up his eye in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s Well, whose waters hold cosmic wisdom. On another occasion, he impales himself on his own spear and hangs himself from the branches of Yggdrasil, the world tree, for nine days and nine nights in order to gain knowledge of the runes. (Keep in mind that, in Germanic cultures, written language was closely linked with magic, so learning the runes meant learning prophecy and magic.) We can compare this to Gwyn, who encouraged Seath’s research into the secrets of immortality, and who eventually sacrificed himself to link the First Flame and artificially prolong the Age of Fire.

However, for most Westerners the idea of a deity sacrificing himself in order to protect the world he created probably brings another religious figure into mind: Jesus of Nazareth.

Early Christians believed that Jesus’s life and death served as a perfect example to be both imitated and shared in — many of them went willingly to their deaths, believing that martyrdom for their faith was the most sure way to achieve salvation. Tradition tells us that, out of the original twelve apostles, ten were martyred (with the two exceptions being Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after betraying Jesus, and John the Beloved, who lived to old age). When Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was sentenced to death for his faith in the early second century, he wrote a letter to his fellow Christians which read, “I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ… Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and struggle with wild beasts, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body… may I but attain to Jesus Christ.” Though Christians by the Middle Ages had become a religious majority in Europe and were no longer being persecuted for their faith, martyrdom remained an important part of the Christian worldview, particularly in Catholicism.

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Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Il Sodoma

This theme of imitating a deity through self-sacrifice can also be seen in Dark Souls. Dark Souls 3 features five Lords of Cinder, all of whom attained a godlike status by following Gwyn’s example and Linking the Flame themselves. When the player encounters Ludleth of Courland, the only Lord of Cinder to remain at his post, he tells them, “The fast fading Flame must be linked to preserve this world. A reenactment of the first linking of the fire. So it is, I became a Lord of Cinder. I may be but small, but I will die a colossus.” Like the martyrs of early Christianity, the Lords of Cinder chose to sacrifice themselves in order to become part of something greater, and were rewarded with great power.

Dark Souls‘s Christian influences don’t end there. One of the major themes of the series is the concept of Hollowing, a process by which humans become undead husks, no longer living and yet unable to die. As they become more and more Hollow, the afflicted humans slowly lose their minds until they are completely insane. Gwyn and the other gods contain the Hollows — including the protagonist of Dark Souls — in the Undead Asylum, a dark and bleak prison similar to Purgatory in Christian belief.

Interestingly, the games imply that Hollowing is actually the natural state of mankind. The opening cutscene of Dark Souls states that both the gods and man came from the Dark with the lighting of the First Flame. The state of life, like the Age of Fire itself, is an artificial order imposed on a world of chaos. As the flames begin to die, and as darkness starts to once again take hold, humans revert back to their Hollow state.

The father of mankind is the Furtive Pygmy, the last of the Lords to find his Soul in the Fire. The Pygmy’s soul — the Dark Soul — is unique in two ways. First, as the name implies, it is intrinsically linked to the Dark and to the Abyss. Second, it can be shared. The Pygmy used the Dark Soul to raise creatures from the Abyss, gifting them with fragments of the Dark Soul and thus creating the human race. Each human literally bears a piece of the Dark Soul within them in the form of humanity, and it is this humanity that keeps them from reverting to their Hollowed state.

The Dark Soul is very similar to the concept of original sin.

Original sin is a dual doctrine, composed of two parts: it refers both to the sin committed by Adam and Eve (i.e., disobeying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) and to the “stain” that this sin leaves on all human souls. Humans inherit the sin of their first parents, and thus have a natural affinity for sinful behavior. This doctrine is especially important in Catholicism, which emphasizes overcoming original sin in order to live a righteous life.

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The Fall of Man by Titian depicts Adam and Eve committing the first sin.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and committed the first sin, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. In Eden they had been immortal and yet unchanging — now they had to face illness, injury, and death, but were also given a chance for personal growth. When the Furtive Pygmy — the father of man — bestowed fragments of his Dark Soul upon the creatures of the Abyss, they were transformed from immortal husks into human beings. Christians believe that humans who live righteous lives will be glorified in death and will exist in communion with God, in an existence similar to that which Adam and Eve lived in Eden. In Dark Souls, as the Age of Fire slowly gives way to darkness, humans naturally revert to their original state. In both cases, we see the cyclical nature of humanity. Human souls pass through light and dark in an endless cycle.

Dark Souls 3 implies that the coming Age of Dark will eventually end in a new Age of Fire, and that the entire cycle has repeated and will repeat time and again into eternity. In Norse polytheism, the world of the Aesir is destined to return to the entropy from which it came, yet the myths reveal that after Ragnorok a new sun will rise and new races of gods and humans will walk the earth. In Christianity, God is both the beginning and the end — before the creation of the world God existed, and after the end of the world the faithful will exist with God in a realm beyond the physical. All things come full circle.

Perhaps the Dark is not a force of chaos, but merely the other side of Light. Dark is the natural state of the universe — light is the force of change. Perhaps the Age of Dark is a time of necessary healing, a time for the cooling of the burns left by the fading Fire. One cannot exist without the other, and maybe that’s for the best. For without darkness, what use would we have for light?

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