Mythology and magic were created to account for phenomena otherwise unexplainable by generally accepted knowledge. It’s also a major element of fictional worldbuilding. In video games, lore is created to enhance the immersive element of media. However, like so much else in video games, mythology tends to draw heavily on real-world sources, and certain recurring characters begin to emerge in background stories. These archetypes are often subject to the same assumptions and traditions as their real-world counterparts unless placed in a central role to the story. When made central to a narrative, the opportunity arises for subversions and repositioning of archetypical roles. This does not, however, mean that opportunity is always realized.
I’m going to examine the use of witches in two games. Both are what one might call AAA or ‘big budget’ games, but their usage of this character type varies immensely. There are numerous other examples to be found across indie and AAA titles, but in examining witches in Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, we get a comparison between witches in the foreground and in the background, respectively.
Witches are particularly interesting mythological characters because women who are magic users are both recurring in several real-world mythologies and are often gendered. Where previously witches were a folkloric oddity tied up in local medicinal practices and the desire for control over seemingly random elements, accusations of witchcraft became an attack on femininity itself, or a perception of negative elements and the weaknesses of women.
I claim no basis for a general femininity that can be defined as natural and present in all women, or present subordinately in those who are men or nonbinary. However, I do suggest that witches are symbolic of certain aspects assigned to femininity, or the Feminine as an entity. These aspects change with social attitudes, sometimes belying positive attributes, and sometimes negative. Occasionally, witches represent the female other that may occasionally take the place of an absent female entity in a character’s life, or even female revenge, as is the case of the Slavic Queen Witch, Baba Yaga, or the Wicked Stepmother in so many Western fairy tales.
Skyrim draws heavily on witch folklore for its cast of magic users who are women, though they exist primarily in side quests and as faceless antagonists. An issue with any open world game produced on the AAA level is that deadlines and the sheer size of the game leave many elements feeling either too formulaic or unsatisfactorily explored. Such is the case of the fascinating religion of The Reach. This is where a faction of fighters called the Forsworn live.
The warrior men and women of the clannish Forsworn fight with hand-crafted weapons as well as a strong selection of spells. Their highest class of warrior is the Briarheart, a powerful male fighter. Despite being led into battle by a man, each group of Forsworn has an individual Hagraven that they possibly worship and turn to for guidance, as well as religious leaders who are women—the Forsworn Shaman.
While the presence of shamans and magical figureheads make it clear that the Forsworn practice some form of religion, it is never fully explained. While some Forsworn locations have altars to Dibella, these are covered in gore. It is unclear if Dibella is one of the “Old Gods” they are sometimes mentioned to worship, or if they are defiling her altar. This is further complicated by the kidnapping of a future leader of Dibella worship in a side mission, and for unclear purpose.
There is a clear association between witches and the Forsworn, as discussed later, but their role in what appears to be an overall women-centric religion remains unexplored.
Witches themselves are finally introduced to the game in the guise of the “hag” as a fill-in for a quest-specific location before that storyline is unlocked. Their mythology is expanded upon during the Companions questline, along with a difficulty update, only to be murdered during a shallow fetch quest. The model used is the exact same one as the Hagravens, so even an entire coven of female monsters does not deserve unique treatment.
The harpy is a quintessentially female creature with strong associations to witches, and is undoubtedly the basis for Hagravens. Beyond their appearance, both have become hag-like over the course of time and are usually in control of powerful magics. And while the Glenmoril Witches are a recurring group of people in the Elder Scrolls universe, their headquarters had yet to be seen until Skyrim, where their unoriginal use as grinding fodder is ultimately disappointing.
Skyrim does offer a little background by explaining the origins of the Hagravens. However, unlike Dragon Age, where the role of witches are central to the story, it is tucked away in one of the hundreds of readable books scattered within the game. While The Madmen of the Reach states that Hagravens have always been in The Reach, Herbane’s Bestiary describes what is possibly a myth about a young woman being cast out from her village for “devilry” (curious in a land without the Devil) and later turned into a Hagraven.
Herbane spends a lot more time describing how nasty the Hagraven is instead of describing how he defeated it, emphasizing how Hagravens, like traditional witches, fail at certain elements of femininity that men expect, such as pleasant looks.
Similarly, Flemeth—possibly the most powerful magic user in Dragon Age—appears as a hag when first encountered. However, she can shapeshift into many forms, and when unlocking her story, the game subverts sexual expectations of an attractive and powerful woman by making her predatory. There is an obvious parallel to witch trials throughout the Dragon Age universe, with the unique twist that magic is at first sought out and some measure of control is attempted at the beginning of the series. However, I’m going to focus specifically on the mythological aspects of Flemeth as discussed in Dragon Age: Origins.
Like many witches, such as the aforementioned Baba Yaga, Flemeth is feared and revered. The groups of people that live near her go to her for help, but are usually sorry they did so. Her role also seems to be conflated with that of other, more vampiric creatures such as the Succubus in that she is feared because she preys on men.
If your companion, Morrigan, is questioned during the course of the game, she will tell you the story of her mother and her rise to ultimate witchdom. Leliana, another companion, also has a version to offer. Flemeth’s story is so old that major elements change based on who is telling it. By Flemeth’s version, her story was changed to suit male vanity, with righteousness placed firmly with the man who considered himself scorned. In this case, Dragon Age’s mythology also appeals to the existence of witches as a reason for men to fear women: the story is expanded to include Flemeth stealing men and forcing them to “sire monstrous daughters,” as described by her Codex Entry.
The entry also mentions the existence of other witches who were supposedly all burned. These women are separated from magic users practicing at the Mage’s College by the type of magic they practice, as explored in Morrigan’s leveling tree, but also in their gendered identity.
While mages can be any gender—with their magic unaffected by this fact—witches are tied through mythology and accepted female lineage to womanhood. Unfortunately, this is where the game firmly casts Flemeth as a monster: Morrigan, after reading a book the player can retrieve for her, discovers Flemeth raises daughters to possess them so that she can never die.
It is also later revealed by Morrigan that the ritual to create a child in order to trap a god’s soul was created by Flemeth, and requires a sexual act. Unfortunately, in the game, this sexual act is sometimes non-consensual or done out of duty. If the player character is a man, they can choose to undergo the ritual themselves. Otherwise, a party member has to be coerced into it, sometimes using emotional leverage. In this way, the game reveals that the story of Flemeth kidnapping men is likely to be true.
There is more to investigate in both games, especially since Morrigan’s role as witch was barely touched upon. While there is a lot of witch mythology to wade through in both games, they are ultimately cast in traditional roles. It appears that even in games as progressive as Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origin, powerful female entities are treated as local color, grinding fodder, or gendered monsters.
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