Hraesvelgr’s Brood

Since the release of its inaugural title in 1987, the Final Fantasy series has borrowed concepts and monsters from several contemporary sources, most notably the bestiaries of Dungeons and Dragons. Perhaps the most famous inspiration that significantly differs from its mythological roots is Bahamut, the King of Dragons in the tabletop game, but named after a cosmic fish from Arabian lore. Similarly, the Heavensward expansion of Final Fantasy XIV includes a number of dragons based on non-draconic figures from Norse legends, and designers have created intriguing parallels that echo the series’ early influences. The great wyrm Hraesvelgr and his brood are a prime example of this.

In Norse mythology, Hraesvelg is a giant in the form of an eagle who is perched at the northern edge of the heavens. Called “Corpse Swallower”, he is so large that the beating of his wings generates the winds and gales experienced by the world of men. Despite his important cosmological role, Hraesvelg is attested solely in the Eddic poem Vafthrudnismal, so details about him are vague. Several scholars have theorised that this therianthropic giant is cognate with the unnamed eagle said to roost in the uppermost branches of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The bird is described in the poem Grimnismal as both offering insults and being the recipient of insults from the malevolent serpent that gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil, Nidhogg. Such messages are exchanged by the gossiping squirrel, Ratatosk, who runs up and down the trunk of the great ash. Further corroborating this premise is the eagle-and-serpent motif of other Indo-European cultures where, most interestingly, the eagle typically represents the storm or sky god, engaged in an eternal battle with his antithesis. It’s surely no coincidence, then, that Hraesvelg is almost exclusively associated with producing squalls from his heavenly domain, nor that Nidhogg is the dragon that rises from the darkness.

The primary story arc of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward relates to the Dragonsong War, a centuries-old conflict between the ageless beasts of Dravania and the city-state of Ishgard. The Dravanians are ruled by two great wyrms, the brothers Nidhogg and Hraesvelgr, both of whom are among the First Brood of Midgardsormr. Peace existed between Ishgard and the Dravanians a thousand years ago when Hraesvelgr fell in love with an Elezen maiden named Shiva. At her dying request, he consumed her soul so that they may be entwined forever, sealing an alliance between their kin. However, two hundred years later, when King Thordan I learned of the immense power contained in a great wyrm’s eyes, he and his knights slayed Ratatoskr, the sister of Nidhogg and Hraesvelgr. This triggered Nidhogg’s fury and eternal wrath, prompting the Dragonsong War. Hraesvelgr, meanwhile, though sympathetic to his brother’s anger, chose not to join in this retribution due to his own pacifist nature, and the spirit of Shiva appeasing his desire to avenge the death of Ratatoskr. Surrendering one of his eyes to Nidhogg by way of recompense, Hraesvelgr became a recluse in the floating islands of the Churning Mists, yet his presence continued to loom over the land below like shadow. It is only with the arrival of the Warrior of Light that he and his brood are persuaded to stand against Nidhogg to bring an end to the slaughter. With Hraesvelgr’s aid, the Warrior of Light is victorious, ushering in a new era of harmony for Ishgard and Dravania.

The most immediate and obvious contrast between Hraesvelgr’s representation in Heavensward and his mythical namesake is that one is a dragon and one is a giant eagle. More specifically, Final Fantasy XIV’s bestiary lists him as a great wyrm along with his six siblings. The term wyrm relates to a sea serpent in the Old English language, typically described as wingless and without limbs. They are interchangeable with the lindworms of Norse lore, the most renowned of whom is Jormungand, otherwise known as Midgardsorm (the World Serpent). Therefore, referring to the spawn of Midgardsormr in Final Fantasy XIV as great wyrms is accurate in a mythological sense, but not so much in the world of Hydaelyn, especially given Hraesvelgr himself has wings and limbs more akin to a drake.

While Heavensward’s gargantuan protagonist also shares similarities to a drake (not to be confused with a wyvern, which is identified by two hind legs and claws on its wings), there is clear evidence that his appearance incorporates substantial reference to his eagle counterpart in the poem Vafthrudnismal. In fact, he is the only one of Midgardsormr’s First Brood who does. His wings, for example, are magnificently feathered in colours of white and azure and magenta, unlike the leathery appendages typically associated with dragons. There’s also fine down plumage that runs the length of his spine, all the way from his neck to the tip of his tail.

Contrary to first impressions, Hraesvelgr’s connection to birds of prey in Final Fantasy XIV is not simply an oversight, as several minor characters from his brood are also named after avian creatures from Viking lore. The most significant of these is perhaps Vidofnir, a daughter of the great wyrm and the custodian of Anyx Trine. Vidofnir plays a key role during the plot of Heavensward and is, for a time, the dragon who speaks with Ser Aymeric and the Ishgardians on behalf of Hraesvelgr. She is also the one to grant the Warrior of Light access to the scared mountain of Sohm Al, and by extension the Churning Mists. What is curious here is that her character is derived from a rooster by the same name in Norse legend. The fowl is attested to sit atop Mimameid, a mystical tree which is often argued to simply be another term for Yggdrasil itself, thus creating an immediate parallel with the unnamed eagle and/or Hraesvelg. This would in turn explain why Final Fantasy XIV’s Vidofnir is chosen to speak for her father: variations in Eddic poetry indicate Vidofnir and Hraesvelg may be the same being.

Another recurring figure during Heavensward is Vedrfolnir, a descendant of the great wyrm who is both a FATE boss for the Warrior of Light and the opponent who tests Ser Aymeric’s strength during a trial to win Hraesvelgr’s respect. In the myths, Vedrfolnir is a hawk that perches on the head of Yggdrasil’s unnamed eagle, believed to be a symbol of wisdom. There are also Gullinkambi and Fjalar, respectively a quest-giver in Anyx Trine and a dragon that instigates a FATE in the Churning Mists, though neither are directly confirmed to be of Hraesvelgr’s brood. According to lore, Gullinkambi and Fjalar are two of the three cockerels whose crows will herald Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. Gullinkambi is golden in colour and roosts on Valhalla’s roof, while Fjalar is crimson, alerting the giants to the coming doom. It should be no surprise, then, that their Dravanian equivalents similarly have hides of gold and red.

In Final Fantasy XIV, Hraesvelgr’s dwelling is said to be Zenith, a splendid tower at the very pinnacle of the Churning Mists. The definition of “zenith” is that it is a moment in time when someone or something is at its most powerful, but also that it is the point in the sky directly above the observer. This alludes to Norse mythology where Hraesvelg is positioned at the edge of heaven, perpetually creating the winds that sweep across the world of men, as well as the eagle’s association with the supreme sky or storm gods in other Indo-European cultures. The Ancient Greek Zeus is such an example but, more closely, so is Perun of Slavic lore, often depicted as an eagle at the height of their celestial oak tree. Therefore, it can be deduced that the isolation of Heavensward’s Hraesvelgr at the highest point of Dravania’s “heavens”, Zenith, not to mention the imagery evoked by comparing the Churning Mists to the gales his Norse namesake whips up is not a coincidence. There is also a metaphorical link in that the wind itself is invisible, yet its influence can be devastating; the Ishgardians talk of a menacing presence at the summit of Sohm Al, though no living man has caught sight of the beast prior to the climax of the Dragonsong War.

Furthermore, two specific locations on the Churning Mists reflect the theme of birds of prey within the local dragon population. The first is the Rookery, a former skyport whose derelict buildings are now teeming with Nidhogg’s minions. During peacetime, it was a place where visitors and traders arrived on the backs of trained wyverns. A rookery is generally a nesting area for crows, usually high in the treetops. The Aery, on the other hand, is a floating fortress protected by a ferocious tempest, acting as Nidhogg’s lair and the base of the Dravanian Horde. Though not directly associated with Hraesvelgr, it’s interesting to note that an aery is a lofty nest of birds of prey, most commonly eagles or hawks, and that its choice of defence again alludes to the Norse Hraesvelg.

The sources of Viking myth are sometimes unclear and often contradictory. One such example is whether or not the rooster atop Mimameid (Vidofnir), the shapeshifting giant at the end of heaven (Hraesvelg), and the unnamed eagle perched at the highest heights of Yggdrasil are truly the same entity. To entertain this theory is to accept that Hraesvelg was the recipient of Nidhogg’s derisive taunts in Norse lore, delivered by the cosmological squirrel, Ratatosk. It is revealed during the events of Heavensward that Ratatoskr – the sister of Hraesvelgr and Nidhogg – was originally the peacekeeping messenger between Dravania and Ishgard. It is her murder that instigates the Dragonsong War and emphasises the opposing nature of her brothers; Nidhogg enters into centuries of conflict with the city-state while Hraesvelgr is one of the few dragons not to participate. He does, however, as compensation to Nidhogg, forfeit one of his eyes so that the latter (who lost his in battle with King Thordan I) can retain some of his power. This echoes Odin’s sacrifice of an eye at Mimir’s Well, granting him unfathomable knowledge of the Nine Worlds.

A common allegory in global mythology is Chaoskampf, the struggle of a deity or hero to defeat a monster which represents chaos. The variant of this adopted by most Indo-European cultures is their storm god (represented by an eagle) battling a serpent or dragon. Norse lore is atypical on this matter; while the relationship between eagle and dragon exists through Nidhogg and the bird at the summit of Yggdrasil, the storm god battling the serpent is actually depicted in Thor’s clashes with Jormungand. Curiously, though, the cultures that Germanic traditions most closely resemble are Baltic and Slavic, whose respective versions of Chaoskampf relate to Perkunas versus Velnias, and Perun versus Veles. The eternal conflict between Perun and Veles in particular reflects the natural cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, with the tale woven into the Western Slavs’ understanding of seasons. It could therefore be argued that a definitive victory for either one would break the cycle.

Applying the same principal to Hraesvelgr and Nidhogg of Final Fantasy XIV, a parallel clearly emerges. Hraesvelgr was the consort of Saint Shiva, and a beacon of hope that Ishgard and Dravania could again be at peace. While he was apathetic to the city-state’s plight against his brother, his unwillingness to join in Nidhogg’s reign of terror gave them a chance. During Heavensward, however, the Warrior of Light convinces him to ally with Ishgard. The two great wyrms duel and are evenly matched. Only when Hraesvelgr grants the player the power of his eyes are they finally able to fell Nidhogg. In doing so, they break the cycle, thus ending the Dragonsong War.

One final comparison worth focussing on is the historic love between Hraesvelgr and Saint Shiva; for this, though, we are required to consider his Norse counterpart in his giant form rather than his eagle form. In the Vikings’ view of the universe, the gods represented law and natural order, while the giants (Jotnar) represented the chaos in nature. Several stories exist where a giant has ransomed or demanded a goddess for his consort, and no secret is made of their lust to wed a divine beauty. Perhaps the most famous of these is Thiazi’s kidnapping of Idun, the protector of the apples of rejuvenation on which the gods depend for eternal youth. Thiazi, like Hraesvelg, is a Jotun who can take the form of an eagle, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest he also inspired the great wyrm’s character. Though slightly more abstract, it’s also possible that Hraesvelgr’s consumption of Shiva’s soul to bind them forever reflects the Norse gods’ need for Idun’s apples; alternatively – and morbidly – this might instead be directly attributed to the translation of his name, “Corpse Swallower”.

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