Is there a reason or special symbolism for evil to fester in the northern reaches of a world?

Three examples I can remember on the top of my head is Tolkien with Melkors/Morgoths stronghold of Angband located in the north, Warcraft with the Lich King and Game of Thrones with the Others in the Lands of Always Winter.

Admittedly the latter are influenced by the first example and share similarities, but is Tolkien the progenitor of the evil in the north or are there earlier examples of this?

Why is the north often the homeland for evil?

  • 19
    North = cold = "enemy" of life
    – Annatar
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 12:19
  • 10
    Both symbolically (ice vs. fire antagonism) as well as strategically (really difficult to invade a freezing cold country, even against living defenders, just ask Russia)
    – Annatar
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 12:27
  • 8
    Grim Up North and Evil Is Deathly Cold seem to apply here (warning: tvtropes links).
    – Null
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:48
  • 9
    Scotland/England was divided by Hadrians Wall when the Romans invaded. Scots=Wildlings, English=Westorosi, Hadrians wall=The wall etc. A lot of sci-fi seems to draw from medieval UK, the above obviously uses GoT as an example.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:58
  • 4
    To give counter examples in Tolkien legendarium: Mordor, Umbar, Harad are all in the south. In the world Narnia resides in, Carlormen in the south is more or less evil (or at least an enemy).
    – Make42
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 15:09

3 Answers 3


Your examples are different.

The North - in our Northern hemisphere setting - is colder, and cold symbolizes death in a lot of our cultures, simply because winter means death :

  • People becomes sick or die form the cold
  • Food becomes scarcer.
  • Plants die, including crops
  • A lot of animals die, hide, hibernate or just leave until it's warmer
  • The Sun doesn't rise as much as usual which make the days shorter and darker.

Regarding the Sun, since our ancestors depended on astronomy to subsist and especially the Sun - which was quite bound to the activity of growing stuff - and it translated with that celestial body being overly represented in spiritual matters. Therefore, both the declining appearance of the Sun and the shortening and darkening of days filled them with apprehension and even fear. Many religions considered winter and especially its solstice as periods during which the realm of the dead was particularly close to ours - think about the Celts with Samhain for example.

Also, humans themselves become cold and pale/blueish when they die.

Therefore, you can draw relations between Winter and the frosten carpet it lays on the world as symbolising the opposite of life.

The North is hardcore Winter. From a Southerner point of view, the North is always cold and a freezing wind sometimes loaded with snow often comes from there. Moreover, overcome your fear and push even further and you will stumble upon places where winters are month long nights. It may seem to anyone who doesn't know better that that's where the dark and cold forces that are manifested by Winter are actually living. That's more or less the case in aSoFaI, by the way... But most people never went to the North, and therefore didn't know what was there, they could only assume things.

But you question tackled that issue in the literary world. Although novels are inspired by our world, they follow other rules.

The freezing North is far less hospitable than the more temperate areas that are... well, not freezing... Therefore, novels usually have people thriving in temperate areas and nothing much to put in the freezing regions, which become even better place to put the evil villain, dark lord, dead god or whatever gloomy, creepy and dreadful antipathic warlord is threatening your people. Because that's the whole point. When you write fantasy - or something closer - the exterior enemy of your people has to be close enough to be threatening but at the same time living in a region where your people has no incentive to be.

You'll have to agree with me there, the dark lord from the sunless valley between the frozen mountains gives more chills - sorry... - than the dark lord from the evergreen hill nearby the singing spring.

  • 13
    Many equatorial cultures regarded the unpleasant afterlife as a burning pit of terror, because they were plagued by deserts and heat (See: Christianity). Many northern cultures regarded the unpleasant afterlife as a freezing pit of terror, because they were plagued by winter and freezing (See: Norse). Europe (mostly cold-fearing) went through the Renaissance first, so their fictions spread farther early on. Tolkein and others drew heavily from the Norse specifically. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 17:32
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    "The sun doesn't rise as much as usual which make the days shorter and darker." The latter is a common misconception. As such, it can of course still contribute to this association, but it is not true: Winter days are indeed shorter in polar regions, but summer days are longer! Zenith, of course, is lower, so that angle of incidence is flatter and thus climate is colder. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 18:33
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    @LeifWillerts I mean that's relatively recent, compared to evolution
    – Sarkouille
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 23:03
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    @ksjohn, "frosten" in this usage sounds delightfully poetic and earthy, like where you'd use "slay" instead of "kill".
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 1:37
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    @MooingDuck "Many equatorial cultures regarded the unpleasant afterlife as a burning pit of terror, because they were plagued by deserts and heat (See: Christianity). Many northern cultures regarded the unpleasant afterlife as a freezing pit of terror, because they were plagued by winter and freezing (See: Norse)" > I would be careful with making generalizations even though I admit there may be some truth to "the bad afterlife is all the stuff we hate in real life amplified": E.g. Jewish Sheol is without warmth or emotion as is Greek Tartarus, but Judaea and Greece were pretty hot. Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 14:16

Modor was in the South East and it was hot.

In WoW Orgimar is hot and arid. The Horde were orginally the bad guys.

In WoW, the blasted lands are hot, hellish and filled with Ogres and demons.

Hell in many forms is hot and in some forms is cold as well.

Extreme cold and extreme heat are equated equaly with evil.

Both kill humans, animals and crops.

  • 9
    I don't see what this has to do with the symbolism of evil and undead in the North?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 16:01
  • 2
    I think you can generalize that temperate zones are seen as benign and inhospitable areas are home to evil. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 16:25
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    @Edlothiad Perhaps this could be made explicit, but the idea seems to be that there's not such a strong trend as OP is describing. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 17:45
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    I think the equating th symbolisom of evil and undead to the North is artifical and you see the symbolisom of evil and the undead all over the place. North, South, East and West. Evil and the undead are equally equated to intense heat and other environments. For example the Walking Dead is in Georgia. Vodo is in Jamacia. Cherry picking the cold versions of evil doesn't prove that evil and the undead are always associated with the cold and the north. They show up everywhere. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 20:10

Expanding on the comment by @Eran:

During most of the history of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel (in the land known today as Palestine or Israel, or both), they were under threat of occupation, or at least military confrontation, with the regional power inhabiting Mesopotamia (which was not a single continuous empire, but essentially an Assyrian or a Babylonian kingdom of some sort). And, indeed, first-temple-era Judea was vanquished by Babylonian king Nabú-kudurri-uszur II (נבוכדנצר in Hebrew, Nebuchadnezzar in English) who destroyed the temple and exiled most of the social elite.

Now, technically Mesopotamia was to the East and the North-East, but travel took place along the Fertile Crescent, so basically from Judea you went North to get to Babylon.

And thus the fabled biblical prophet Jeremiah has been assigned the following segment (Jeremiah 1, New International Version) of the Jewish Bible:

[13] The word of the Lord came to me again:

What do you see?


I see a pot that is boiling,

I answered.

It is tilting toward us from the north.

[14] The Lord said to me,

From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.
[15] I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,

declares the Lord.

Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.

[16] I will pronounce my judgments on my people
because of their wickedness in forsaking me,
in burning incense to other gods
and in worshiping what their hands have made.

The theme of evil ascending as the men forsake the gods, or the old and true culture/teachings/knowledge, is well pronounced both in Tolkien's and Martin's work (although with Martin it's much more complicated and we might just find out that there is no magic and there world had undergone some kind of apocalypse which wiped out a technological civilization. Or not.).

  • There's plenty of magic in ASoIaF. Just off the top of my head: warging and skin-changing, the face masks in the House of Black and White, the Greenseers, Melisandre's illusions, resurrecting the dead with prayer....
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:40
  • @Adamant: Most of this can be easily explained by telepathy and collective consciousness - both of which are common themes in Martin's other SF novels. Have a look at this sequence of videos by Preston Jacobs.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:19
  • Ummm, telepathy is magic. At least, when it’s between humans and wolves, and not two people with brain implants or something. And telepathy also won’t let you raise the dead. And Martin has said “it’s fantasy” in response to questions about (say) the weather.
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:23
  • @Adamant: Pointless to argue this here, wrong venue.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:29
  • And don’t even get me started on shadow-birthing, creating White Walkers with magic and obsidian (show only, so far), swords made of ice that shatter metal, fire mage fire invocation, and so forth. There’s just nothing to argue here. You might as easily claim that Harry Potter is science fiction.
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:31

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