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The Real Myths and Legends Behind Frozen 2

Nokk on wood.

elsa and the nokk from frozen 2

Disney

Frozen 2 is finally out on digital for families to enjoy at home. My family has already watched it three times, and we’ve all dived into the special features of the release, including a spectacular version of “Into the Unknown” in 29 languages. But our favorite look behind the scenes so far is the featurette “The Spirits of Frozen 2” which gives you a look at not just how the creators conceived of the story, but also the real myths and folklore behind some of the characters.

We’ve previously discussed the pagan elements and ethos of Frozen 2 but this is a great time to really dig into the folktales that inspired many of the elements of the story. The elements were quite literal, as the spirits of air, fire, water, and earth all play different roles in the film.

The character that’s most literal, but least rooted in myth, is “Gale” the wind spirit. It’s fascinating listening to the directors and animators discuss the challenges of giving personality to a character that has no voice and is essentially invisible. There are innumerable wind spirits in myth, including the personified winds of Greek myth, but Gale is pretty much her own thing, and not very close to regular wind elementals like Sylphs.

Far closer to folklore is Bruni the Salamander and fire spirit. Salamanders have long been associated with fire and considered a fire elemental, but why is that? It seems strange that lizards would be associated with fire. Well, according to the Frozen 2 special features, salamanders like to hang out in dry firewood and would scamper out when the logs were added to the flames, giving rise to the myth that salamanders lived in the fire!

The first film was, of course, an extremely loose take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, but for the screenwriter and director Jennifer Lee and co-director Chris Buck, they looked to other Scandanavian myths for inspiration. One of those myths was of the Nokk, that water spirit that Elsa fights and tames in the dark sea in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences.

The Nokk is one of many names for a breed of Scandanavian water spirit. The fairy or spirit is also known as a Neck, Näkki (Finish), Nikker (Danish), Nøkke (Norwegian) and so on. They’re closely related to the German Nixie, who was essentially a shapeshifting river mermaid. These water spirits could change shape and appearance – they are water after all – and could bless or drown those they met.

The water horse that Elsa meets and rides is closer though to a Bäckahäst, or Brook horse, a water spirit of Scandanavian myth that can be harnessed by those pure of heart. There is a veritable zoo of “water horse” spirits in folklore, which the Frozen 2 creatives drew from in many ways. One aspect of the Nokk in early development that didn’t fully make it into the final film, but is explored in the deleted scenes, is that the Nokk could judge a person’s heart and would drown them if they are not true of heart, or just truthful.

The final spirit that Elsa and Anna make peace with is the earth giants. Giants are a huge (literally) part of Norse and Scandinavian mythology, and giants, in general, are part of myths from many cultures when it comes to primordial forces. The design of the earth giants in Frozen 2 was understandably inspired by the design of another magical Scandanavian creature we met in Frozen…the trolls. It’s easy to see the family resemblance.

Something the creators did seem to make up mostly on their own was Atohallan, the “river of memories” that Elsa visits, which is actually a glacier. There is no such myth in Scandanavian lore, but there are many magical rivers in myths from all over the world. In Greek myth there is a river of memory, Mnemosyne, which runs through the underworld parallel to the river of spirits drink from to forget their past, Lethe, Mnemosyne was also a titan and mother of the nine Greek muses. So there is some basis, and water is an element that has always been associated with memory.

Did you have a favorite mythic moment in Frozen 2, Suvians?

Frozen 2 is currently available to buy on digital and will be available on DVD and BluRay on Tuesday, February 25th.

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.