An Observation on the Natives of Skyrim Edit
At first glance, of all the peoples of Tamriel, it would seem that the Nords of Skyrim are the most paradoxical; they are known for their great boasting and boisterousness around the hearth, yet venerate mighty tongues who seldom speak at all, and as a people prefer action to words. Their gods reward a good death in battle with a place within the Hall of Sovengarde and they are renowned for their warrior culture, yet they largely shun the tourneys and other contests of skill seen in High Rock and Cyrodiil. They are known for the importance of their moots and their individual freedom, yet their rulers wield absolute authority. While both of these Nordic archetypes - the brash and bold and the grim and stoic - both hold a kernel of truth, neither on their own is a true description of the Nord people. Indeed, they are rather two sides of the same coin, and one cannot fully understand the Sons and Daughters of Skyrim as a group without seeing both sides. Here, we take an in depth look at our northern neighbours, based upon the observations I have noted on my travels in their rugged homeland.
The Importance of the Voice Edit
If one was to observe the various rituals of the Nords, both day-to-day and ceremonial, one would note that stripped to their core most revolved around the idea of the Voice - or more specifically the Power of Words - in one form or another. An especially prevalent example is the fact that, with a few exceptions, when it comes to their legends, stories and history, Nords tend not to write anything down until after the fact, if at all. Rather, the Nords have a strong oral tradition, tales passing down from generation to generation in the form of stories, poem and song. That is not to say that Nords never write down anything, but instead that this is a relatively recent practice in their long history. As a result, most of the documents written about the exploits of the Nord people during the days of yore are not written by contemporaries of the time period, but penned many centuries after the fact. Usually, these tales have been transcribed from the oral tradition, but due to inconsistencies that arise over time as a result of changes in the retelling, even the original sources must be taken with a grain of salt.
Another aspect of Nord culture that is frequently mentioned is the great importance of oath taking and the power that one's words possess. This cultural ideology is heavily rooted in religious dogma, specifically those pertaining to one of the most important members of the Nordic Pantheon, the goddess Kyne. While one might see Kyne as simply the Nordic aspect of Kynareth and draw conclusions thus, upon closer inspection there is a great difference between the two. To the Nords, Kyne is their mother goddess and the widow of Shor. She is associated with storms, wind and rain, her elements being of water, wind and lightning. She is said to have brought the Nords into being by breathing them into existence and it was she who first taught the Nords how to use the mighty Thu'um.
A Thu'um, or "Shout" consists of words in the ancient tongue of Dragons that are the literal embodiment of the thing they represent. For example, Yol is not just the word for fire. Yol is fire. Only a select few can wield the power of a Thu'um, and as such the nature and responsibility of utilising this force is not taken lightly. As a result of this philosophy and the veneration of Tongues - those who are capable of using the Voice - the swearing of oaths and even the act of speaking takes on a stern implication in Nord society. Just as a shout is the physical thing it embodies, so to is the swearing of an oath the physical embodiment of the oath itself. It takes on a physical binding presence according to Nordic ideology. This is why oath breaking has such a heavy taboo in the Nord culture, as it is seen as the misuse of Kyne's gift, and punishment can be severe.
With this understanding, the stereotype of the brash and boastful Nord who easily takes offence to various insults can be understood from a cultural perspective. Because each word embodies the thing that they are, a Nord's boast is not an idle comment to build themselves up, but rather it is a physical description of their being. Nords are expected to be capable of backing up anything they say with action, otherwise they do not embody the words they used, which is akin to oath-breaking, though the making of false boasts carries more of a shameful stigma than that of sacrilege. Likewise, the apparent easiness with which the stereotypical Nord can be offended stems from the same belief.
For example, when giving the insult of "Your mother was a goat" to a Redguard, they will understand the intent behind the words - being that you are trying to insult them - and take the meaning from the intent. To offer the same insult to a Nord, however, carries a different stigma. Because of their belief in the literal being of words, they will take the insult as you saying that their mother was actually a goat, and all that the comparison implies. Because of the cultural belief that the word represents their physical being, the Nord will be forced to challenge that statement and prove otherwise. In short, a Nord's first reaction is to take issue with what was said, while another might first take issue as to why it was said. It might appear then that the Nords are a literal people without understanding of metaphor or higher thinking, but this could not be further from the truth. Indeed, though some the above comparisons may ring true in Nord society, they are by no means entirely accurate as with any people, they are often contradicted by their own practices.
The Importance of Stone and Symbols Edit
While there is such a great importance placed on the spoken word, it is only once facet of the Nordic ideology. As stated above, the ancient Nords didn't usually write anything down, passing stories and traditions on orally. However, there occasionally appeared events of such great significance that they decided to immortalise them forever so that the events could not be forgotten. As such, the element they chose to record these events into was in stone.
The choice of stone as the medium for telling these tales is no accident, and is linked again to the nature of the Nordic belief in the power of words. As Kyne brought life to the Nords using her breath, so too are words said to be living due to the breath of the Nords. As a result, without breath the word is not alive, much in the same way a body without breath is not alive. Thus when the time came for words to be written down, they were written in stone in the form of runes. Unlike the written word of most other cultures, the runes of the Nords represent a different interpretation of words as opposed to standard writing. The runes therefore are almost a language all to themselves, a language of the dead. It is no coincidence then that the Nords built their barrows and cairns and laid their dead to rest in stone, for unlike the wind and wood, the elements of Kyne that represented the living, stone was reserved for dead, the domain of Shor. Using Shor's element to record events and tell stories implies great significance, as the stone represents eternity, just as death is eternal, and just as the honoured dead stand at Shor's side in Sovengarde forever.
However, as words are the language of the living, the Nords tend to tell stories in stone through the use of symbols and pictures, reserving runes for particular phrases. The use of pictures in stone has an important connection with the dead; as they do not have breath, they cannot use words. It is therefore imprudent to record words - the language of the living - in the element of those who cannot speak them. Pictures and symbols however, can communicate messages without using words, and can conjure several meanings at once, transcending the singular nature of the spoken word. Thus, the understanding of Nordic culture deepens, in that while the things that a Nord says are important, of equal importance are the things that he doesn't say.
The use of symbols and symbolic gestures as a means of communication represents an acknowledgement in the barriers of spoken language. Languages change over time, as evidenced by the fact that Nords tend not to speak old Nordic with the same regularity as they once did. Further, while the Nord culture tries to avoid this as much as possible, a turn of phrase can be interpreted with several different meanings depending on who speaks it and what the receiver believes is the intent behind it. However, the meaning behind a symbol or gesture cannot be debated. For example, if a Jarl sends written correspondence to another Jarl, the meaning and intent behind it may be misinterpreted depending on how the message is worded and the receiver's opinion of the sender. The sending of an axe or an offering of earth and bread crumbs however leaves no room for interpretation. While this tradition has allowed Nords to communicate with each other in an honest and straightforward manner, it has led to confusion when dealing with other cultures that are unfamiliar with the meaning behind such symbols. To that end, there is a limit to the effectiveness in the communication through symbolism and thus we return to the spoken word as a means of communication, having gone full circle. It is this dichotomy between the ways of Kyne and Shor, Mother and Father, Living and Dead, that allows us to understand the duality of the Nord. However, while it is all well and good to know the ideological roots of the Nordic psyche, the only way to truly come to know them is by seeing how they live, how they fight, and how they speak.
Strong, Blunt, Honest Edit
At their core, the Nords are a rather simple group, with personal honour, commitment to family and skill in battle held in high regard. This is not to say that they are lacking in intelligence, but rather that they do without the complicated trappings and ostentation often found in other cultures. Skyrim's winters are long, it's landscape harsh, it's native fauna brutal. In such an unforgiving environment there is little room for pretense, and little time to stand on ceremony. As a result, the Nords value simplicity, practicality and strength. Due to the brutality of the land in which they live, the Nords tend to be equally as brutal; while a public brawl is frowned upon in Cyrodiil, such things are considered part of the norm in Skyrim, spectators only interceding if the brawl appears to be escalating towards a more violent display. Further, it is expected that a Nord be capable of defending themselves, and as a result the vast majority of Nords find themselves in the army at some point in their lives, or at the very least fighting in some sort of skirmish.
This has resulted in a thriving warrior culture, where skill in battle is respected. However, unlike other cultures, this skill is seldom utilised in contests of martial prowess, such as duels or jousting, due to the Nordic culture being one of necessity, rather than for personal glory. Time spent in preparation for a tournament can be better spent preparing for war, or in the fields preparing for the harvest. Essentially, the average Nord learns to fight not because he wants to earn glory - although there are many who seek glory through battle - but because he will die without it.
With so many armed and decently - skilled warriors it would be easy to assume that the Nords should have fallen into a state of lawless violence and killing in a display of the survival of the fittest, and perhaps that might have been the case were it not for the emphasis on honour that is so heavily ingrained into Nord society. Stemming from their beliefs in the physical presence of the voice, a man's word is his bond. Trust is the key to survival as a group, and the loyalty of each individual within a community is shown by adherence to this honourable code. It is little coincidence then that areas where this honour code is not adhered to tend to be hotbeds from criminal activity, as evidenced in the cities of Markarth and Riften.
This honour code also stems from the belief in the Nordic afterlife; if a Nord lives honourably, fights well, or dies valiantly in battle, he will earn a place in Sovengarde, the promised land, where he shall enter Shor's own mead hall alongside the heroes of old. Because of this, while Nords may be the greatest of foes in life, it is generally considered dishonourable to deny their enemy a proper funeral if they fought or died well, and there is a general understanding that even bitter foes will meet each other in Sovengarde as friends. As with all races, these ideals aren't always adhered to, but those who do command considerable respect among their peers. Strength and Honour, therefore, can be considered two of the most important qualities that a Nord can possess. The emphasis on strength carries onto the importance Nords hold in their duty to their family. With conditions as harsh as they are in Skyrim, members of a family must be able to provide for one another in order to survive. Shirking one's duty, acts of cowardice and being dishonourable are highly deplorable in the eyes of the Nords, and are often met with severe retribution.
The simple honesty of the Nord culture can also be found in their naming conventions. A Nord's surname isn't always a name inherited from one generation to the next, though that can be the case, such as in the great clans Battle-Born, Shatter-Shield, and Longstride. A Nord's surname is carried more as a moniker - called a Kenning - describing a part of their being. As such, they are more titles than names, such as "the Tall", "Sheild-Breaker" and "Ironside". Even if the individual does have a heritable surname it is not uncommon for them to be known by their kenning instead. Often, surnames begin as kennings describing a particular individual which is taken up by their descendants and their descendants and so on.
With a reputation as a culture of simple necessity, it is easy to assume that the Nords are a barbarous lot, lacking in the high arts of philosophy, artistry and rhetoric, but that is untrue. While it is true that Nords aren't known for their literary works, their rich oral tradition is full of songs, poems and tales. In conversation, Nords tend to be blunt, as the old saying goes "Not one for using two words when one will do". This laconic way of speaking as often led people to the belief that they lack intellect, but in actual fact it shows quite the opposite. Indeed, Nords are well known for their dry, understated wit, compared to the refined and poignant humour often found in the courts of High Rock and Cyrodiil, and are seemingly able to make pithy remarks with little effort. This has been observed many times when foreign powers have entered correspondence with the Nords. During the reign of King Vrage the Gifted, an emissary from the recently formed Alessian Empire arrived at the King's court and constantly questioned him upon who he thought best exemplified Nord ideals. Annoyed by his presence, Vrage answered "He that is least like you."
The most legendary example of blunt Nordic speech appears during a famous correspondence between King Wulfharth of Skyrim and the Clan Direnni. After successfully driving the Alessian Order out of Skyrim and re-instituting the traditional Nordic Pantheon, he turned his attention to reclaiming lands lost to the Direnni Hegemony. After successfully reclaiming his former lands from them, the Dirennis sent Wulfharth a missive; "Choose carefully how you treat with us hence; would you prefer we enter your lands again as allies or bitter foes?"
Wulfharth replied with a message baring a single word: "Neither". The Direnni Hegemony came to an end with the decades following this incident as control fell to the emerging nobility of Greater Bretony until only the Island of Balfiera remained in Direnni hands.
The most modern example of the dry wit of the Nords comes from an account of King Falhof. During his youth as a Prince, he was thrown from his steed after it was spooked and lost consciousness. His retainers hurriedly took him to his chambers and sent for healers. His father, King Thian, upon hearing of the incident stormed to his son's chambers and demanded to know what had occured, to which the Prince's housecarl simply replied "He Falhof his horse". When word reached Falhof of this joke he was said to have laughed with such vigor that many were convinced that he'd almost created his own thu'um. Everafter, alongside his many kennings and titles, he would add His-Horse.
While the Sons and Daughters of Atmora may no longer be the centre of an Empire or enjoy the hegemony that they once did, the influence of their culture can certainly be found if one looks hard enough. Wander through the estates of the Lords of Colovia, or venture to High Rock and the Kingdom of Northpoint and you will hear echos of that proud northern people in the local customs, architecture and traditions of the people who live there. While they may not be the dominant force in Tamriel, the Nords of Skyrim have played - and will likely continue to play - a vital role in shaping our world. Without them, Tamriel as we know it today would not exist.
- Written by Alexius Varatus, Imperial Scholar