Elden Ring: Cosmologies in Conflict
From the moment we step under Elden Ring’s sky, we spend most of our time in the shadow of the colossal, luminous Erdtree; a tree so gigantic it’s virtually impossible to find a vantage point that grants a full view of the entire thing. It is, in the words of one of the game’s many ghosts, “the Golden Order itself, unwavering, stretched to the sky.”
Everpresent, glowing with mysterious life, encompassing heaven and earth, extending its canopy of branches over all of creation, this majestic tree has everything a cosmic symbol needs to express its passive, yet total pervasiveness. Its very passivity and stillness is central to its power; just like the world it represents, the cosmic symbol simply is. To exist – and to be seen – is its only job.
The Erdtree brings to mind the most famous world tree there is, the sacred ash Yggdrasil of Norse mythology. In one respect, however, the Erdtree is very different from Yggdrasil. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is imagined as literally being the world, or at least the cosmic framework that holds the nine worlds or realms of the Norse cosmos together. Which means that to move and act is always to move and act within (on?) Yggdrasil itself. In this world view, Yggdrasil is not exactly a symbol. Or at least, it’s both a symbol and the very thing it symbolises at the same time.
Not so the Erdtree. It is not the world. It is aloof and apart from both the world it claims to symbolise and its inhabitants. By being removed and exalted, a holy thing on a distant mesa, it stresses its own “symbolness,” its own central position in the world. In other words, it communicates something, cries its own importance from the hilltops. In Queen Marika’s words: "The Erdtree governs all. The choice is thine. Become one with the Order. Or divest thyself of it. To wallow at the fringes; a powerless upstart."
If the Erdtree truly is a cosmic given, a natural and unalterable fact of this world, why would it need to communicate anything? Why can’t it be more like its sibling Yggdrasil and simply be content with existing? The easy answer is that it’s just the developers trying to create a memorable sight, or to make sure we understand how important the Erdtree is, or simply to give us a helpful point of reference during our navigation through a large open world. There’s likely truth in all of these, but there’s another, far more interesting answer that’s more in tune with the fiction of Elden Ring’s world: The Erdtree needs to broadcast its universal claim simply because it is not, in fact, universal.
No matter how solid its trunk may seem, the Erdtree is propped up at all times by a large cast of powerful characters: From god-like beings like The Greater Will and its steward Queen Marika, to prophets and hierophants like the Two Fingers and the Finger Reader Crones, to generals and soldiers “defending” the faith through the threat of bloodshed: “In the early days of the Erdtree, everything was in opposition to it and Marika's order, but with Godfrey at the head of her armies, Marika persevered and the Erdtree would reign supreme as the embodiment of order itself.”
But what are these other cosmic forces against which the Erdtree must defend its position? Just like The Greater Will and the original seed of the Erdtree, they are all beings or forces originating in outer space. On the one hand, there are the “Outer Gods” like The Frenzied Flame or The Greater Will itself. On the other, there are the heavenly bodies of the stars, the moon and comets.
Each of these forces have their own symbols, domains, spheres of influence, creeds and followers. And each has its own school of sorceries or incantations associated with it. The most “mainstream” form of sorcery is a kind of astral magic, drawing its strength indirectly from the stars via a substance called glintstone. As the Sorceress Sellen puts it: “Glintstone is the amber of the cosmos, and sorcery is the study of the stars, and the life therein.” Cold magic is the domain of the moon, while gravitational magic is associated with meteoroids or “falling stars” and the meteorite they leave behind.
If this simplified description already sounds complex, just wait. Because most of these archetypal cosmic forces or symbols contain multitudes. Take the moon, for example. There’s the familiar full moon which accompanies us in the night sky and which features in the sorcery Rennala’s Full Moon. Or does it? The spell description tells us: "Queen Rennala encountered this enchanting moon when she was young, and later, it would bewitch the academy.”
This suggests two counterintuitive facts: First, there’s more than one moon, and 2nd, the full moon of the spell had to be encountered, or discovered. Are there literally several moons, some of them tucked away in distant or hidden places, or – if understood more figuratively – is there one moon with different secret aspects? The only thing we know for certain is that there are other names referring to moons in Elden Ring, such as Ranni’s Dark Moon and the Lost Black Moon of Nokstella, which may or may not be the same entity.
To make matters even more confusing, the item description for Ranni’s Dark Moon reads: “This moon was encountered by a young Ranni, led by the hand of her mother, Rennala. What she beheld was cold, dark and veiled in occult mystery.” Like Rennala’s Full Moon, it clearly distinguishes between several moons. And yet, the strange wording provokes more questions than it answers:
How is it Ranni who encountered this moon when she was being led by the hand of her mother when she saw it? Wouldn’t they have encountered it together? Could it be that they both saw the same entity, but perceived it so differently that it appeared like two separate things?
The sentence “What she beheld was cold, dark and veiled in occult mystery” does put a heavy emphasis on Ranni’s subjective perception and interpretation of the entity. And yet, upon visiting the Moonlight Altar Plateau, we can actually see a second, darker moon looming in the night sky. Is this Ranni’s Dark Moon? And is it an actual celestial object, or rather an illusion, Ranni projecting her own sigil and putting her mark on the face of the cosmos?
The moon(s) may be the most baffling case, but it is not the only cosmic entity with doppelgängers and dark twins. While the sun is not a major player, having had its main gig as big glowy thing usurped by the Erdtree a long time ago, it does have another, darker aspect: the eclipse, which is venerated, or rather invoked, at Castle Sol. At first glance, the stars don’t seem to have an obvious shadowy reflection, but there is a false or illusory starry night sky in a dark place: the Eternal Cities of Nokron and Nokstella.
Buried deep beneath the ground, the ruins of these cities rest beneath high stone canopies glittering with the light of countless stones. If these stones can be speculated to be glintstones, containing the actual light of stars, the Eternal Cities still experience a shadow of the actual night sky deep underground. The being responsible for the destruction and burial of the Eternal Cities could itself be described as another dark twin to the stars. Astel, Naturalborn of the Void, is said to be a “malformed star born in the flightless void far away. Once destroyed an Eternal City and took away their sky. A falling star of ill omen.”
And finally, the Erdtree itself may be the most obvious example, having spawned several minor Erdtrees and saplings all across the Lands Between. More interestingly, there’s the Haligtree, a well-hidden and secret copy of the Erdtree created by Miquella in an ill-fated attempt to replace the original and thus remove the meddling of The Greater Will.
If we understand the word “dark” not in a negative sense, but as simply meaning “obscure” or “hidden,” then most cosmic forces in Elden Ring seem to have a dark twin or reflection. But why? The most obvious explanation, that Elden Ring presents a dualistic cosmology, doesn’t get us far. After all, it’s not like the “bright” aspects of these forces find themselves on the same side of a cosmic struggle against all the “dark” aspects. It could be argued that these twins smack more of history and politics than they do of myth or cosmology, with the central players copying, reclaiming and reinterpreting older symbols of power to further their own very earthly goals.
There’s a lot of truth in this more cynical view, but just like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Elden Ring understands that myth-building and cosmology have always been hopelessly entangled with political interests. Despite all the politicking of its actors, the cosmos of Elden Ring is a subtle, multifaceted and enigmatic place.
It’s no coincidence that its doppelgängers, obscure aspects and hidden correspondences echo the real-life occult world views of Hermeticism, alchemy and astrology. Influenced by Neoplatonism, Hermetic philosophers and magicians imagined our material world as a dark and corrupted place, in effect a shadowy copy of a transcendent, spiritual realm of divine light that lies beyond the perception of most. This means that even a grossly incandescent thing like the sun has two aspects: one burning with the oxymoronic “dark” or “black” material fire we see with our physical eyes, and the bright, spiritual, invisible one beyond.
Where Elden Ring differs from this dualistic view is in its messiness and indifference towards easy answers. Just like the other inhabitants of the Lands Between, we are on our own in our search for meaning and the “correct” path. Lacking certainty, truth is eternally contested and constructed. Small wonder that this is a world of ideological strife, or heterodoxies and heresies.
Brother Corhyn will gladly teach you incantations associated with the Golden Order, but will hesitate to teach the “heresies” of other groups. The Academy of Raya Lucaria condemns Carian sorceries, “a heterodox pursuit that views the moon as equal to the stars.” It also abhors as abominations the entities called “Graven Mages”, created through the forbidden “primeval current” of glintstone magic: “To those who cleave to its teachings, the act of collecting sorcerers to fashion them into the seeds of stars is but another path of scientific inquiry.” The efficacy of “heterodox” practices is never contested, and the rival cosmic entities from which their power stems are silently acknowledged as dangerous even as their cosmological significance is being denied.
But neither is it an eternal struggle between evenly matched forces. The cosmos of Elden Ring is chaotic and capricious, and neither gods nor the stars themselves are safe from its whims and tides. Here, humans can be turned into stars, and stars can fall from the sky in the shape of abyssal monsters. We learn that the black moon of Nokstella once “was the guide of countless stars” and that a demi-god such as Radahn was powerful enough to enslave and halt the movements of the stars: “But long ago, General Radahn challenged the swirling constellations, and in a crushing victory, arrested their cycles. If General Radahn were to die, the stars would resume their movement.”
It becomes clear that 1) the stars are not removed from the world they influence and can be influenced by it in turn, and 2) that the stars have fallen (sometimes literally) from their previously powerful position. Of the astrologers, the game says: “They read fate in the stars, and are said to be heirs of the glintstone sorcerers. But alas, the night sky no longer cradles fate.” In other words, the stars once influenced the fates of the inhabitants of the Lands Between, before being supplanted by The Greater Will and its Golden Order. Until, that is, the destruction of the Elden Ring ended its influence. Fate, then, isn’t some inherent force in the cosmos, and neither does it stand above the gods like it does in Greek or Norse mythology. Fate is simply the name for a near-total (yet transient) dominion of a ruler over its realm.
Fate and its order, then, can be seen as either a state of stagnation and imprisonment, or a source of stability and certainty; something to be either imposed onto others or to be escaped from. Small wonder that many of the game’s subplots revolve around characters driven by the creation of a new order that benefits them, or even the destruction of the old one. The most extreme example of this destructive urge is The Frenzied Flame, whose quest line ends in the burning down of the old world, the negation of all order and the rule of chaos. At first glance, The Frenzied Flame’s vision sounds like a worse kind of tyranny that places a cruel new lord in place of the old one and just replaces one meddling outside force with an even worse one. Is this the only kind of liberation the Lands Between can aspire to?
Still, there are ambiguities that create space for other views and different interpretations. Shabriri encourages us to seek The Frenzied Flame and to offer ourselves to the fire rather than Melina. He does so arguing not from a standpoint of madness or cruelty; surprisingly, he appeals to our moral compass, emphasising the righteousness of sparing Melina and the horror of an unwilling human sacrifice:
“You are about to sacrifice something precious. The life of a fair maiden, that you would toss into the fiery forge. Only so that you may be Lord. What a horrible thing to ponder. Your ascendancy requires her sacrifice, whether she wishes it or not. But how would the Lord, crowned so, be looked upon?”
Similarly, he frames his vision of The Frenzied Flame’s rule not as tyranny, but as a kind of anarchist levelling of an uneven playing ground, a kind of anti-rule that exists only to ensure the end of unequal power and hierarchies: “Burn the Erdtree to the ground, and incinerate all that divides and distinguishes.”
Depending on where you come from, this may sound like an appealing promise. But even disregarding the ambiguities of interpretation and individual political views, it’s impossible to say for certain whether to trust Shabriri. Is he manipulating us into doing his dirty work? Does he believe in what he says, but was himself deceived by The Frenzied Flame? Or are these doubts unfounded, built on the propaganda of those who want to ensure the continuation of their order and power?
The Frenzied Flame illustrates that the struggles in the Lands Between are first and foremost about interpretation and the construction of meaning; without meaning, there can be neither order nor power. This is made explicit in the two major principles of The Golden Order, the laws of Regression and Causality: “Regression is the pull of meaning; that all things yearn eternally to converge. Causality is the pull between meanings; it is the connections that form the relationships of all things." In other words, meaning is a force that seeks to incorporate all the disparate (and often contradictory) information about the world in an internally coherent system. What it doesn’t say, and what a cynic might point out, is that ideologies like The Golden Order exploit the human need to make sense of their world in order to gain control over and through them. Once it gets a foothold, it can remake the world (or its appearance) in its own image.
If meaning itself is something that’s both fundamental to order and necessarily “divides and distinguishes,” does The Frenzied Flame seek to destroy meaning itself? It’s hard to say, but at least one other ambiguous actor clearly has an axe to grind when it comes to meaning: Ranni the Witch. Following her quest line will result in the Age of the Stars, which is maybe even more nebulous than The Frenzied Flame’s goals. Luckily, Ranni is happy to spend quite a few (vague) words on the topic:
“Mine will be an order not of gold, but the stars and moon of the chill night. I would keep them far from the earth beneath our feet. As it is now, life, and souls, and order are bound tightly together, but I would have them at great remove. And have the certainties of sight, emotion, faith, and touch... All become impossibilities. Which is why I would abandon this soil, with mine order.”
Her emphasis on separation and distancing of everything reads like an antidote to the Laws of Regression and Causality: while the old order pulled together to create certainty of meaning, Ranni’s order pulls apart with the exact purpose of destroying all and any certainty. In other words, the cosmos becomes (or is revealed to be?) fundamentally unknowable.
Ranni’s motives aren’t clear, but there’s neither malice nor benevolence in her words. Instead, it’s a vision of a coldly indifferent kind of liberation not just from political and spiritual servitude, but from everything that binds and attracts; whether it is the deceptive lure of gold or even the gravity of the earth itself. While Ranni does speak of an envisioned “order,” she seems more interested in taking it away from everyone than in what this order actually entails. Her aim is not the destruction of order or meaning, but their removal. The world will be abandoned, striving towards unity and understanding, but unable to reach it. As Ranni puts it once you’ve completed her quest:
“To every living being, and every living soul. Now cometh the age of the stars. A thousand year voyage under the wisdom of the Moon. Here beginneth the chill night that encompasses all, reaching the great beyond. Into fear, doubt, and loneliness... As the path stretcheth into darkness.”
What is the purpose of the journey? Will we be able to gain some of the moon’s wisdom at the end? There’s a hint that the point of it all is not the “fear, doubt, and loneliness” itself, but what might await us on the other side. Whether that is to cure us from our desperate need to find safety and comfort in the illusion of a meaningful world, to find some deeper cosmic truth, or simply to indulge the whims of a witch is impossible to say. Given Ranni’s distaste for certainty, it would be surprising if it wasn’t.
Elden Ring presents a world in the midst of a prolonged battle for dominance and meaning. Cosmology isn’t just an idle interest or a bit of extra lore for die-hard fans; it’s the central battlefield of this struggle. Whichever faction or individual manages to impose its visions and symbols of the cosmos on the people of the Lands Between achieves dominance, and ensures its continuity by reshaping the world.
While most of the competing factions claim to represent a natural, sacred, destined world order that brings together everything into one holistic and coherent cosmology, the very fact that we witness this struggle and its politics puts the lie to these claims. There are no disinterested or objective parties, and thus no objective cosmology; even Shabriri or Ranni, the two actors seemingly eager to rid the world of the constrictions of a coherent, meaningful order, can’t help but be entangled in the same game as all the others.
No matter how majestic the Erdtree, no matter how real the influence of the moon: cosmic order is never something that simply is, never a neutral or natural state of being. Rather, it’s something continually constructed and contested. In other words: these cosmic orders may be real to some degree, but they are “made” real by interests at work within the cosmos. The result is a shifting patchwork cosmos made up of entire worlds eternally colliding and intersecting. Stagnation is just as temporary as dominance, and there’s always something nibbling at the roots of every world tree.