We have had a few people contact us in relation to .. well, a certain video-game franchise dipping its toe (evidently in kicking format) into Nordic mythology. Now, I have never played a God of War game and I have no intention to do so. But I saw this comment from one of the key personnel involved in the project, and I felt it worthy of comment.
Why? Because it demonstrates how a careless approach to mythological subject-matter can lead to … unintentional outcomes.
Who and what is Angrboda. Every person with some interest in the mythology can answer this easily. Angrboda is a rather demonic figure – indeed literally mothers a brood of apocalyptic monsters by Loki.
This is, in other words, not a positive figure.
So, if one thinks that making Angrboda a “young black woman” is an empowering gesture – this can only suggest some rather curious inversions are taking place on some level.
Now to be fair and sure, an attempt to forcibly incorporate ‘Black’ features into Nordic mythology is instantly going to run into the rather prominent problem that major instances of quite literally black-visaged beings are often rather malefic.
The obvious exemplar here are the Draugr – the ‘blár’ colouration, ‘blue-black’, referring to the fact of the undead being’s deathly status. Another being Surtr – quite directly ‘black’, in a manner similar to ‘Svart’, etc. in more recent Nordic languages.
Now clearly, simply because these beings are referred to as ‘black’, this does not make them, in the modern idiomatic sense ‘Black’. Quite the contrary.
Draugr that are encountered in barrows in Iceland, for instance, are going to be the deceased (or, rather, evidently not quite deceased – the ‘unquiet dead’) of Nordic stock. And the ‘blackness’ there is that of putrefaction of a corpse – something easily observable in nature, which happens to anybody in the absence of preservation.
Surtr, despite coming from the (cosmological) south, is a spirit of destructive and consuming flame. The blackness there refers to smoke and soot. It has nothing to do with a human of high-melanin skin-tone.
What does all of this mean?
Well, first and foremost, that symbolism is a complex creature. And that what various things meant a thousand years ago (or, for that matter, three thousand, four thousand years ago in Central Asia – as applies my own more usual area of operation) ought be taken on its own terms.
It forms a decidedly uneasy vector for pushes at propelling more contemporary causes or more contemporary symbolisms. In this case, apparently, that a colour and phenotypical palette applied to a mother of demons renders the figure in question a representation for “young black woman” [in the words of the game’s story developer].
The ‘expression’ has sought to displace the ‘essence’.
Attempting to turn mythology into a vehicle for modern-day political causes (like, in this case, greater representation values) … is a great way to get yourself tangled up; the inherent symbolic values of the mythology in question becoming hard to displace without tearing out the entire essence of the thing and leaving only the vaguest of exterior veneers.
And, in so doing – actually producing effective contra-indication which ends up undermining both.