This guest post is part of our first ever online Midwinter Festival of Folklore!
Thank you to Ash Green for being part of the festivities!
I have a fascination for superstition, folklore and folk tales, particularly those which focus on nature and the seasons, and the notion of the mystical often associated with that.
I also make retro style short narrative digital games and interactive stories, and my interest in folklore and superstition crosses over into that area, including the folklore of winter. To me, winter and the darker days naturally develop that romantic magical notion of what is beyond our known world, as the space around us is transformed into something strange on days of snow and fog – a world away from the brightest and longest days of the summer.
Attribution: Midwinter Spirits by Ash Green
I’ve explored elements of winter folklore and folktales in a couple of my small playable digital tales. One particular aspect of it that particularly struck a chord with me is represented in Midwinter Spirits. It is centred on the idea of keeping the world lit and bright during the dark months of the year. There are a few traditions across Britain and Europe that focus on this notion. For example, Norse people would use fires to chase away evil spirits during the winter. Also, the need-fire, which is not specifically a winter phenomenon, would be lit to avert evil or misfortune. And in some traditions, fires would also be lit to strengthen the sun at the start of winter.
In Midwinter Spirits, I used the idea of lighting the fires and keeping them alight as a way of welcoming and guiding back the spirit of ancestors to the family. This was partly inspired by the Celtic Samhain, which is a time when the doorway to the realms between the living and the dead is open, bonfires are lit, evil spirits are driven away, and spiritual ancestors return to their homes – welcomed there by the living. It was also inspired by the Winter Solstice and Yule, which marked a shift in the length of the days. After this, days would grow longer and light would begin to overcome the dark world.
The narrative in Midwinter Spirits also recognises the important role evergreens play in European folklore. I mention the holly and ivy, which are heavily associated with the festive season in particular. The prickly holly signifies bringing good luck to men. And likewise, ivy brings good luck to women, and wards off evil in the houses it grows upon. Tied in with this, mistletoe in a Scandinavian home was also a tradition signifying that visitors were welcome there.
Towards the end of the Midwinter Spirits tale, a bell must be rung. Traditionally, it’s said that church bells are rung to keep away demons. But this tradition actually pre-dates Christianity, and the ringing of any bell loud and clear was used to keep away evil spirits.
Overall, the message I wanted to convey in this digital story was based around the folklore and customs that centre on keeping both the living and the dead safe during the darkest days of the year, and seeing off any evil forces that might do them harm.
You can play/read Midwinter Spirits here.
Midwinter Spirits isn’t the only digital tale to focus on the cold season’s folktales, customs and cultural beliefs. Others have weaved their stories around tradition in winter settings as inspiration, and are often influenced by cultures from around the world.
For example, Never Alone, by Upper One Games, focuses on the traditional beliefs and customs of the Iñupiaq people. In it, the player is rewarded with cultural stories about the Alaskan natives, in a visually stunning digital form of their traditional wisdom and tale sharing. Further to the culture shared in the game, the game developer also highlights the traditions behind it, along with how they worked with the Native Alaskan community to develop the game.
Another game, Roki, created by Polygon Treehouse, takes a fairytale-like story delivered in a winter setting. The game features legendary creatures inspired by European myths, including Gryla, a giant Icelandic witch who eats badly behaved children at Christmas, and Krampus – again another mythical creature with a similar focus – who takes on the form of a half goat, half demon creature.
Yukie, created by ImCyan, is an interactive visual novel featuring the legend of a Japanese snow spirit who plunges the world into an eternal winter. It’s based on the myth of Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit, who has a dark and dangerous reputation, and is known for freezing victims lost out in snow-storms. The character of Yuki-Onna is a traditional tale that we may be more familiar with in another guise, as the character of the woman of the snow, or the snow-queen cuts across a number of cultures.
The idea of a never-ending winter is also common folklore of this season from around the world, and there are also games based on books, films and TV that touch on this aspect of wintry legends. In some cases the authors create their own winter folklore, but often with a feeling that it is based on or adapted from superstition that existed previously. For example, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gives us the White Witch, a variation on the Snow Queen, whose icy presence turns the world to winter, “but never Christmas.” Similarly, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones’ dark characters known as Others (or White Walkers) bring a winter to the landscape that lasts decades.
In the small number of games I’ve shared here, you can see how fragments of seasonal folklore, traditions, customs and beliefs have made their way into the digital realm over the past few years. But as you will find out from the events happening during Creswell Crags Winter Folklore Festival [ link ] there are many more wintry tales and encounters waiting for you to discover beyond the space of the video game.
Ash Green’s creative projects can be found at: http://ashgreen.uk/
Additional reference source
& M.A. Radford, Christina Hole, ed. (1961) Encyclopaedia of superstitions, (Rev. ed), London: Hutchinson & Co.