Well dang. That went off better than expected. Glad to see so many people still interested in my Dark Souls theories! So, @invokingbees got me thinking on this one, and I’ve kind of been itching to do it. Because if there’s any subject that needs more lore theory it’s:
Out of all the Lords, Nito and the Death Soul are the most mysterious. I can’t even compare them to anything in Demon’s Souls. There were skeletons and undead in DeS, but they were clearly explained as being resurrected by demon magic. (Well, most of the undead on the Isle of Storms were ancestral guardians, but the ghosts were roused up by necromancers.) Nito was famously the first boss developed for the game, and occupied the end of the Painted World of Ariamis. His whole aesthetic seems to embody not just Dark Souls but modern dark fantasy in general. But all that’s just supplementary.
Most of what we have on Nito is just open to debate. Even his name in the opening cinematic can be interpreted differently - “Nito, the First of the Dead”. Get ready kids; we’re about to make lore out of grammar. Generally, it’s assumed that in the Age of the Ancients, nothing died; the Everlasting Dragons were not subject to the laws of life and death. The First Flame brought that disparity, and Nito represents the ‘death’ side of the equation. The most basic reading of ‘First of the Dead’ is that Nito was the first person (?) to die after the First Flame came into being, instating him as the Lord of the Dead by default. This isn’t entirely without precedent; in Hindu mythology, the god of the dead, Yama, was the first man to die and descend to Naraka. In Japanese mythology, Izanami became goddess of the underworld after she died giving birth to fire.
But there’s another interpretation that I’m more fond of. You’re all probably familiar with if you’ve watched DaveControl’s series of lore videos. ‘The dead’ is definitely plural, but ‘the first’ is by no means exclusively singular. In other words, Nito might not have been the first person to die, but the first people to die. Imagine how long the Everlasting Dragons ruled. Long enough to get a name like ‘Everlasting’, that’s for sure. And all the while, there were those little pygmies/Hollows living underneath them. Some of them must have been worn out; carried on well past they’re expiration date, run ragged, mortally wounded, etc.
When the First Flame brought the disparity of life and death, those Hollows that were supposed to die long ago were finally able to give up the ghost. That mass of death was the First of the Dead; the first generation of beings to die. And that generation formed into a collective that would become Nito. Maybe the First Flame pulled them together, maybe they volunteered in thankfulness for finally being able to die; I dunno’. But Nito’s design is like a whole mass grave stuffed into a single being, and that design choice is what makes me think of Nito as a plural being.
And of course there is the final interpretation, which is just that Nito is the most eminent of all the dead. No other skeleton is bigger and badder than he is, and therefore he is numero uno, so to speak. I’m not really on board with this idea, mostly because the Dead don’t really seem to be a force outside of Nito. There’s no signs of skeleton or necromancer faction existing as its own power. There are creatures like ghosts and zombie dragons, but it looks like they arise spontaneously. So Nito being named ‘First of the Dead’ and inheriting his Lord Soul solely because he is powerful doesn’t really add up. But if the origin myth from the beginning of Dark Souls is just that, a myth, and death did exist before the First Flame, then that would probably be the most likely origin for Nito.
I do have one more theory of my own, but it’s only something of a pet theory, and it doesn’t even really explain anything about Nito. When Nito dies, he goes basically t-pose and falls backwards, exactly the same as the giant sentinels in Anor Londo. Now, it’s more likely that the giants are based off of Nito considering Nito came first, but it does illustrate that Nito and the giants are roughly the same size. Also, the location that Nito lives in is the Tomb of the Giants, filled with giant skeletons and the huge sarcophagi. That alone is interesting to me, because it seems to indicate that Nito has some connection to the giants. What if, when the First Flame was divvying out Lord Souls, it chose a member to be representative of each of the major races? Gwyn represented the Lords, the Witch of Izalith was, well, the witches, and Nito was the representative of the giants. (And humans got squat because we’re all weird little Lord mutants anyway.) It doesn’t really add anything, but it might be some explanation as to why Nito chose the Tomb of the Giants to make his domain in. Or maybe it’s nothing.
So what is it that Nito does exactly? What’s his function and goals in the Dark Souls cosmology? From a rough glance, Nito appears to be the custodian of the closest thing Lordran has to an afterlife. It’s been noted elsewhere, bute an interesting detail about the Way of White is that it lacks any aspect of a life after death. The closest thing it has is the secret doctrine of ascension through the rite of kindling (which, incidentally, Nito also controls). Working from that, my guess is that the Way of White either has no afterlife at all, preaches that death is a reward, or has a very bleak, purgatory-like afterlife like the Jewish Sheol or Greek Hades. Outside of Lordran proper, this might take the shape of an spiritual afterlife, but it stems from the actual catacombs and Tomb of the Giants. People in Lordran would bring their dead to the catacombs and commend them to Nito’s care. With no real afterlife, physical remains might have been more important as they were all that was left of a person. Nito’s job was to watch the dead and make sure their corpses weren’t defiled, or at least that they didn’t leave the designated ‘land of the dead’.
Nito is also portrayed as death itself. If nothing else, his weapon is a big ol’ scythe like the Grim Reaper’s got. I think this is more of a mythical image built around Nito than his actual role. As the keeper of the Land of the Dead, he eventually became associated with death itself, becoming Lordran’s own version of the Grim Reaper. And if we’re assigning roles to the Lord Souls, then Nito is the keeper of the Death Soul. But what does that mean exactly? Is Nito directly responsible for death in the Dark Souls universe? Nito’s Lord Soul states that he ‘administers the death of all manner of being’, while the Gravelord Sword Dance states that Nito ‘quietly oversees all death’. So Nito himself does not do any actual psychopompery like the traditional Grim Reaper; he’s just the manager. He watches death from his tomb, able to see all across the world, and through the Eyes of Death, even across worlds.
But there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder if maybe Nito really is Death itself, and he’s just… quit. Look at the state of Lordran; everything that dies normally has already died. The graveyards are overflowing. Corpses are everywhere. The last humans are Undead or some kind of mutant. Even the animals are more like zombies than living things. What would Death have to do in this world? There’s nothing it would be able to do. Death has failed. Nothing in this world dies properly anymore. So Death would just give up; retire, go dormant, call it quits. The universe of Dark Souls is so out of balance that even the Grim Reaper has run out and faded away. To quote the great man, “And with strange aeons, even death may die.” It’s more a romantic, poetic notion than an actual explanation as to what Nito does, but maybe that’s why I like it. Think of it as a mood-piece to describe why Nito is moping around in that giant coffin.
So I guess I’d be kind of skipping some important details if I talked about Nito being the general manager of death and I didn’t talk about how he actually administers death and watches over it i.e. the Gravelord Servants. Nito’s covenant trades in the Eye of Death. When I first read the description of the Eye of Death, I thought it was some massive apocalyptic event in Nito covenant, like an event horizon of death where everything would die and the cosmic cycle would be reset like the coming of the Dark. But then I realized; no, it really is just squishy eyeballs you pluck off black phantoms (and basilisks; we’ll get to the basilisks).
Mechanically, when a Gravelord Servant pops an eye, it causes black phantoms to appear on a neighboring world, with a black soul-sign leading back to the Gravelord Servant’s world. How I interpret this from a lore point of view is that the Gravelord Servant uses some kind of necromancy inherent to the Eye of Death as a component to essentially punch a hole through the Dark. Like I’ve talked about before, the Dark isn’t just a part of the cosmic cycle, but also an ominipresent force that separates worlds from one another. This hole gives black phantoms that inhabit the Dark, or maybe just wandering Darkwraithes, the opportunity to invade a world and dispense death indiscriminately. The resident of the disrupted the world can follow the ‘hole’ back to its origin through the black soul sign. If the Gravelord Servant can be killed, the effect of the Eye of Death wears off. If the Gravelord Servant wins, they claim the other Undead’s eye as an Eye of Death.
So why does Nito want the Eyes of Death? My theory is that Nito is an overseer of death, just like he’s described in his Lord Soul. But he wants to see more death, not just the death in his version of Lordran. Nito, beyond the other Lords, is aware that there are alternate worlds all around Lordran. The Eyes of Death show Nito the life, and subsequent death, of whoever they were pulled from. Undead in particular, who have died countless times, would be an endless source of fascination to Nito.
One last detail I want to talk about with Nito; miasma. In the Age of Ancients, Nito’s contribution in the war against the Everlasting Dragons was ‘a miasma of death and disease’. This is even reflected in the Gravelord Sword, which inflicts toxic damage. It’s hard to know just exactly how much damage this miasma actually did to the Everlasting Dragons, but the broader implication was that Nito, as Death, was necessary to finally bring death to entities that were neither alive or dead. Miasma is another name for ‘bad air’, stemming from the bad air theory of disease which predated our current germ theory. Bad air was carried on night winds, around corpses, in swamps, etc. and if breathed in, would cause sickness. It was kind of a step between germ theory and the idea that disease was caused by curses and evil spirits. Bad air is why plague doctors wore their famous masks, which contained perfume and herbs to create ‘good air’ to counteract the disease.
Asian countries had a very distinct relationship with miasma theory; namely, it was believe that southern Asian countries were rife with miasma, to such an extent that the Chinese Imperial court used to banish disgraced nobles to southern territories as a kind of death sentence. This belief probably stemmed from diseases like malaria and dysentery being more present in southern China. This idea would migrate from China to Japan, where miasma would be perceived of as a kind of poisonous gas in mysticism and medicine.
What’s that all got to do with Nito? Nothin’. Just a nifty fact. Interestingly, though, it’s not the first time the Souls series has used an outdated model of disease as a character point. Maiden Astraea in Demon’s Souls was called foul and unclean because she used disease and lived with the disease. In the Medieval European world view, disease was a curse from God or evil spirits, brought on by defying the will of Heaven. So Demon’s Souls had the spiritual theory of disease, and Dark Souls had the miasma theory. Who knows. Maybe if the Souls team keeps going in this direction they might make some other game that features medicine and sickness. Maybe something about blood borne diseases?
Nito, though, is not the only lord of the dead. He has competition; weak, weak competition. Lurking in a giant sarcophagus, Pinwheel jealously hordes the Rite of Kindling he stole from Nito. The proximity of Occult items and the presence of skeleton wheels in the Painted World of Ariamis implicate Pinwheel in the Occult Rebellion, possibly even as its instigator. I’ve considered the possibility that Nito stays in his coffin so much because he was weakened by Pinwheel in the Occult Rebellion, but there’s nothing to really back that up. Pinwheel did steal the Rite of Kindling, however, which itself raises all sorts of interesting questions.
I remember when I first encountered Pinwheel. I began forming all sorts of crazy theories about him and his place in the Dark Souls story. I thought that the statues all around The Catacombs were the leftovers of a lost civilization, the keepers of the dead under Nito. And that would make all the mini-Pinwheels in front of Nito’s barricaded tomb his priests! And Pinwheel was the renegade necromancer, who turned on his brothers!
But, nope. Tragic backstory. Lone man trying to bring back his wife and child. Wound up fusing with them to keep them alive. Those things in front of Nito’s tomb? Holograms. It’s always holograms. And the statues are just some Dungeons and Dragons-esque traps Pinwheel set up to keep people from disturbing his research. Which is still kind of cool. I guess. But it really seems counter-intuitive as, judging from all the skeletons hanging around his lab/sarcophagus, torture and experimentation are core to Pinwheel’s research. You’d think he’d want a bunch of Undead guinea pigs wandering into his clutches.
It actually took me a while to parse out why exactly Pinwheel wanted the Rite of Kindling. You have to kind of break it down into its core components to make any sense of it. In Dark Souls, Kindling refers to sacrificing Humanity to a Bonfire in order to make the Bonfire grow larger and, consequently, give an Undead more Estus. Now, let’s assume for a minute that Estus is an extension of the Bonfire; literally drinkable First Flame. (Which always conjured up images of mixed drink with Capri Sun and whiskey for me.) The First Flame, and therefore the Bonfire, are living things. When they are given Humanity, they are fed and able to grow. So, in essence, the Rite of Kindling is the ritual for transforming Humanity into life energy. I think what Pinwheel wanted out of the Rite of Kindling was that secret; how to turn Humanity into life. With that knowledge, he could use Humanity to resurrect himself and his family. When Undead, or really ANY given passerby came in (like, oh say, clerics from the Way of White), Pinwheel would capture them, torture them, dissect them, and try to surgically remove their Humanity for his experiments. That is what all the skeletons hanging around Pinwheel’s sarcophagus are; the poor bastards who wound up being fodder for his mad magic experiments.
Pinwheel’s not the only necromancer, of course. Around him in the Catacombs are these Undead necromancers animating skeletons willy nilly. It’s kind of hard to say where these guys came from or who they are. They only appear in the Catacombs before Pinwheel, so I like to think they’re connected to him somehow. Maybe they were his accomplices from the Occult Rebellion, and they’re still hiding out with their ringleader? Or maybe they’re Pinwheel’s students, who learned how to steal power from Nito with him, and now they make a ‘living’ underground. Or, maybe they’re just random Undead who went Hollow and raising skeletons is how they deal with it. Also they’re holding heads, which are also necromancer heads? But not Undead necromancer heads? It’s confusing.
But the rank and file of the dead are still good old fashioned skeletons. It’s kind of a shame that you can’t summon a skeleton for yourself, because they’re apparently pretty simple in construction as near as I can tell. Skeletons are not Undead; they might not even be entirely undead given their nature. They’re closer to constructs like golems as near as I can tell. The remains of dead humans (and giants) are infused with the animating energy of Soul, and act on the infuser’s will. It’s certainly also possible that they arise spontaneously whenever the world’s flow of Soul is out of balance. So, y’know, like in every Dark Souls game. The fact that we don’t see any ‘zombies’ i.e. undead constructs with fleshy bits on them, other than the undead dragons, is kind of interesting to me. It could indicate that the recently dead aren’t used for necromancy for some reason. Or maybe it indicates that there are no recently dead; again, everything in the world that can actually die did so long ago, and now all that’s left are Undead.
There’s a couple of notable skeletons I want to talk about. (Gonna’ savor that sentence for a minute. That sentence about talking about skeletons with people on the internet… Ok, ready to go.) First and foremost, everybody’s favorite rock and rollers, the Skeleton Wheels, or Bonewheel Skeletons depending on who you ask. How can you not love these guys? They’re so full of vive, so full of vigor, so full of such a lust for life. I mean they drift on their own wheels. You could make an AKIRA send-up poster of them. Anyway; my working theory is that these guys are creation of Pinwheel. First and foremost, they have the obvious ‘wheel’ connection to one another. Second, they’re only found in Lordran proper outside of Pinwheel’s lair. And third, their only other location is in the Painted World of Ariamis, along with other Occult artifacts, building off the idea that Pinwheel was a ringleader in the Occult Rebellion.
What I think is that Pinwheel got himself a surplus of skeletons, dead adventurers and such, and he started using the remains for experiments, just to see what he could do with them. It even shows you how he killed them; the breaking wheel was a medieval torture device used to break people’s limb, or to display them on after they’d already been killed. You might remember the giant baby man from Berserk using it, which hey! Also happens to have a bunch of resurrected corpses rolling around on torture wheels! So what if Pinwheel decided to put up some wheeled Undead or clerics as a warning? And then, for whatever reason, he decided to take it a step farther and his warning a little more lethal? And that blueprint for a kind of monster would stay embedded in Lordran’s necromantic lore long after Lordran stop being Lordran, which explains why Bonewheels appear in later games. (Well, aside from being series mascots, of course.)
The skeletal beasts are where that construct nature of the skeletons I was talking about earlier really makes itself apparent. They’re clearly the same creatures as the giant skeletons, but built wrong somehow, like they’re missing some bones and had to make do with what was left. Or like their arms and legs were mixed up and they’re just dealing with it as best they can. Doesn’t seemed to have dampened their mood at all. This guy’s still smiling about everything.
Finally, we’ve got these walking dead baby jokes. I’m gonna’ level with you, I have no idea what is up with the fetus skeletons. Why are they so deep in the Tomb of the Giants? You only encounter them in the one area right before Nito’s Tomb. The closest thing that comes to mind is how there were literal undead abortions in front of the Maiden Astraea in Demon’s Souls. Like the other residents of the Valley of Defilement, the aborted fetuses were thrown downriver with the shit and the garbage. Astraea cared for them as she cared for the other diseased residents in the Valley, and kept them close to her. Maybe it’s the same with Nito? A sentimental part of me likes to think that Nito had a soft spot for dead infants. They had so little life, and now an eternity of death. So he takes them under his care and watches over them in particular, always close to him. He really is Papa Nito after all.
So, sorry this lore rambling is coming at you so late. I started it right after my last one and then… kind of got a job there for a while. Which was exhausting. But, I’m back to my unemployed ways and hey! Spooky scary skeletons just in time for Halloween! Also, do yourself a favor and if you liked my lore rambling here, checking out my pal @invokingbees lore theories about Bloodborne!
Age of Ancients - A colorless world enshrouded by fog, ruled by the Everlasting Dragons.
The First Flame - Four beings find power within the First Flame, the Souls of Life, Death, Light, and Dark, each respectively held by the Witch of Izalith, Gravelord Nito, Lord Gwyn, and the Pygmy.
The Divine’s War - Lord Gwyn wages war against the Everlasting Dragons, and finds an ally in that of the scaleless Seath. The Divines win their bid for dominance, and push the Dragons to near extinction.
Humanity’s Source - The Pygmy shatters his soul sometime in between the war and the Age of Fire, giving spawn to the ever fickle Humans. Likely during, given Havel’s status as a wartime friend to Lord Gwyn.
The Age of Fire - An age of peace and prosperity. Seath is rewarded for his assistance in the war and is recognized in dukedom, welcomed by the royalty, and is even given a part of Gwyn’s soul. Humanity flourishes under the rule of the Divines, and establish a city under their gods - New Londo. Lord Gwyn bequeaths a part of his soul to the Four Kings, recognizing their foresight. Humanity spreads across the land, establishing even more colonies such as the forests of Oolacile, the adventurous Zena, the warrior-nations of Balder, Berenike, and Catarina, the zealous lands of Thorolund and Carim, and the kingdom of Astora.
The Four Knights - Between the events of the war against the Ancients and the Age of Fire, Gwyn appoints four individuals to guard the realm from those who would threaten it. They are Ornstein the Lion, slayer of dragons; Gough the Hawk, whose mighty arrows are faithful to their mark; Ciaran the Hornet, who strikes fear from the shadows; and Artorias the Wolf, the indomitable master of sword and shield.
Fall of Izalith - The Witch of Izalith fails an attempt to recreate the First Flame, and becomes the Bitch I mean Bed of Chaos, the source of all demons, Izalith itself lost to this spread of chaos. Several of the Witch’s daughters and her only son are heavily affected by the initial invocation, and scatter to the winds. Gwyn sends a special detachment of knights to quell the ever-growing presence of demons, their charred armors granting the moniker “the Black Knights.”
Reduced to Embers / Gwyn’s Sacrifice - With the dwindling essence of the First Flame, the rising power of the demons, and perhaps forseeing the chaos of the Undead Curse and power of the Abyss, Gwyn realizes that the power of the First Flame is needed, now more than ever - and so he kindles the flame with his own soul, so that he might further delay the destruction of the realm. Before his journey to the Kiln, Gwyn bequeaths most of his power to his family, but yet remains with a powerful soul.
The Undead Curse - In correlation with the dying First Flame, certain humans become branded with the darksign and become undying, and suffer negative psychological tolls after numerous “deaths” eventually becoming “Hollow,” a term in which a human has fully (and likely irreversibly) lost their sanity.
Havel’s Coup - Archbishop Havel, a friend to Lord Gwyn and sworn enemy to Seath, mutinies against his former comrades with the power of occult, and fails, hollowing in the process. Though there is no definitive source of when exactly Havel would attempt his betrayal, it is at least sometime after the appearance of the Curse, likely during the height of the matters when the Divines and Seath were most vulnerable.
Abandoning the Light - With Lord Gwyn gone and the power of the First Flame now weaning by the second, the Divines abandon Anor Londo and likely all of Lordran itself, desperate to escape the Dark that knocks on the city gates. Few Divines remain, among them are Gwyndolin, who devises the illusions of Anor Londo in an attempt to grant a false pretense of Divine authority. Executioner Smough and Knight Ornstein also remain to protect Gwynevere’s illusion and the Lordvessel.
Fall of Balder - Balder is lost not long after the outbreak of the undead curse.
The Art of Lifedrain / Fall of New Londo - The crowns of New Londo are offered the art of Lifedrain, a powerful art that allows one to siphon the humanity of other humans, by a not-so-mysterious serpent. The Four Kings remedy their curse with this art – at a cost – and corrupt the knights under their rule, forming the Darkwraiths, their fall to dark allowing the Abyss to further taint it’s borders. The sorcerers Ingward, Yulva, and an unnamed third sink the keep in order to contain the art of Lifedrain, and are from thereon known as Sealers. Sometime during or after the Fall of New Londo, Artorias swears a covenant to the beasts of the Abyss (likely Frampt) in order to combat Darkwraiths in their element. It is stated that he hunted Darkwraiths, but it is uncertain if he was present during New Londo’s dissolution, meaning he may have actively tried to liberate New Londo from the Four Kings, but subsequently failed before it’s inevitable flooding. (Artorias’ covenant to the Abyss being a result either way - he may have used it in an attempt to reach the Four Kings, but ultimately uses it to hunt any Darkwraith)
Fall of Oolacile - The residents of Oolacile unearth the primeval progenitor of humans, Manus, colloquially known as the Father of the Abyss. Manus’ uncontrolled humanity mutates the residents of Oolacile, and decimates the land. Princess Dusk is abducted, and Marvelous Chester is pulled from the future.
The Legend of Artorias - Artorias is summoned once again, believed to be suited to the task during his endeavors against the Darkwraiths - however, the raw form of Manus’ taint proves to be too powerful for the lesser divine. With his arm asunder, Artorias makes use of his shield to protect his companion Sif, before falling to the Abyss. The Chosen Undead is pulled from the future holding a piece of Manus’ amulet, who then lays the spirit of Artorias to rest, fells the Black Dragon Kalameet, and later, defeats Manus, stopping the spread of his Abyss, but effectively shatters his power, the repercussions of which would take ages to take form.
The Chosen’s feats are accredited to Artorias, honoring the fallen knight.
Vinheim, Dragon School of Sorcery - Dusk’s dialogue suggests the more aggressive “modern” forms of sorceries did not exist during Oolacile’s reign, meaning that Vinheim’s studies were performed sometime after Oolacile was lost along with the original arts.
Thorolund’s Undead Hunts - Allfather Lloyd’s cleric knights of the way of white deem the undead as “accursed creatures” and begin hunting them without mercy. They are corralled to a remote location called the Undead Asylum, and given little hope of escape.
Oscar’s Prophecy / Fate of the Undead - Oscar speaks of a prophecy where undead are destined to journey to Lordran, to ring the bells of Awakening and learn the truth of the Undead.
The Chosen’s Path - A fated undead, whom makes pilgrimage to the land of ancient lords in search of purpose. It is worthy to note that a considerable amount of time has passed since Gwyn’s sacrifice (Quelana makes mention of a thousand years since her mother had failed to recreate the First), and many Undead have pursued the prophecy, such as Knight King Rendal of Balder, and Black Iron Tarkus of Berenike, and have since failed to surmount the challenges of Lordran. Following the words of a hollowing knight, the undead rings the bells of awakening and is then tasked by Kingseeker Frampt, a primordial serpent, to collect the Lordvessel and souls of the former Witch of Izalith, Gravelord Nito, and the bequeathed shards of the white dragon Seath and the lost Four Kings. Along this journey the Chosen might meet Darkstalker Kaathe, counterpart to Frampt, who opines the prophecy as false, and instead suggests the undead to allow the First Flame to whither and usher in an age of Dark and Man.
Extended Age of Fire - Should the player choose to do so, the First Flame is kindled by the player character’s powerful soul, burning for a considerable amount of time, and assumedly lifts the curse of the undead for a temporary time.
Age of Dark / Age of Man - Regardless of the player’s choice, the First is destined to fade. Now with the Divines powerless, the Demons of Izalith quelled, and the Abyss stalled, humanity is left to it’s own machinations.