Written in Uncertainty Episode 16: What are the Magna Ge?

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Hello and welcome to Written in Uncertainty, an Elder Scrolls podcast set firmly in the Grey Maybe of the series universe. My name is Aramithius and today I’m discussing a bunch of entities that were really, truly, totally, honest guv, on-board with the creation of Mundus, and then got cold feet at the last moment, running away and causing much damage to the project. Or were they completing it after all? Today we’re asking, what are the Magna Ge?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the Magna Ge, and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server. I’ll also be linking all the sources I quote in this blog post, so please go there and go through them yourself, rather than taking what I say as the correct answer.

I’m also making a slight change to the background music; Jeremy Soule has been kind enough to let his Northerner Diaries album be used royalty-free by streamers, modders and things related to gaming. Thank you ever so much for your kindness, Mr Soule, and I hope that last category covers this podcast! I hope you enjoy the music, and be sure to check out his other work. You’ve heard it in The Elder Scrolls games and probably other games, check out his Year of the Northerner stuff that’s coming this year.

And now, the Magna Ge!

The general consensus is that the Magna Ge are those et’ada (original spirits) that originally agreed to help Lorkhan in creating Mundus, with Magnus was the architect, but got cold feet when the project was underway, ripping the sun and stars in their escape. We see this most clearly stated in the Mysteries of the Mundus Stones and Before the Ages of Man , but this otherwise really accepted idea within the community isn’t too well attested. I don’t think this is because it’s not likely to be true, but because the event isn’t too relevant to the people on Mundus on a day-to-day basis. Magnus is the god of sorcery to the Altmer and the Bretons according to Varieties of Faith, but there’s not many other places on Tamriel you’ll see them mentioned at all.

It also looks like the Magna Ge are the most numerous of the et’ada, if the assertion that “most left when Magic did” from Before the Ages of Man is true. That means that there’s a good number of the et’ada that are unaccounted for anywhere in Tamrielic worship. And, potentially, a great many that are uninterested in the goings on of Tamriel. We also have it suggested by Lady Cinnabar that they are “capable of visitation”. So it’s likely a conscious choice to leave Mundus behind permanently. And so, basically, the Magna Ge are those et’ada who essentially want nothing more to do with Mundus, which is quite contrary to the actions of both Aedra and Daedra.

I think this reflects something that we see in the Anuad; although the Ge are very unlikely to be the literal blood of Anu, they reflect his perspective more than most. The Anuad also points out that the last emotion we have from Anu is grief. I’ve spoken previously about how Anu want to go back, not stay in place, and MK has mentioned this directly in the IRC chat that revealed the Amaranth:

The path of the stars of the sky should be kept unchanged but will not, for he dreams in the sun and now has dreamed of orphans, anon Magne-Ge, the colors he still wishes to dream.

So the Magna Ge are emblematic of those that have gone back, not kept things the same. Which is incredibly ironic, given the effect that their actions have had on Mundus as a whole.

The Magna Ge and Magic

The most obvious effect the Magna Ge have had is the introduction of light and magic to the world, which had a radical effect on Mundus. While it’s generally agreed that it’s this act that has brought magic to Mundus, we have two different accounts of how this happened; Lady Cinnabar claims that:

[Magic] filters through the veil of Oblivion from laminar (and luminar) perforations left by the architect Magnus and the Magna-Ge as they fled Mundus, bringing light and magic to mortals.

By this account, magic falls almost like light, as a constant stream from Atherius to Mundus. This is the version of events that you’ll see most commonly discussed in The Elder Scrolls fandom. However, we have a subtly different perspective on this, most plainly stated in Varieties of Faith:

What is left of [Magnus] on the world is felt and controlled by mortals as magic.

Before the Ages of Man also uses the term “Magic” to refer to Magnus as a being. This means that bits of Magnus (and probably bits of the Magna Ge too) are floating around in Mundus powering everything magical.

This version of events also answers a conspiracy theory that I see cropping up in the TES fandom from time to time. The theory goes that magic is an integral part of how Mundus works, and the tear Magnus left when he disappeared to Atherius is what brings in magic, then Lorkhan must have known that Magnus was going to leave in order for Mundus to work “properly”. However, we have a few sources, most notably Shor, son of Shor, that indicates this isn’t the case. If you accept Shor, son of Shor, that text relates that Magnar possibly “fled the field”, or “fell at sunrise and became replaced by mirrors”. That indicates that Magnus’ leaving was not planned at all. So why the reliance on magic in the world?

If we assume that Magic and Magnus are the same thing, and there are bits of him left, we get a different picture. If Magnus was meant to remain, this version suggests that Lorkhan planned for Mundus to be more magical than it currently is.

Magna Ge and the Constellations

However, we do have something to contradict that perspective is the constellations, which are similar in nature to those of our own world; groups of stars that are given patterns and names. The book The Firmament suggests that each constellation has a season, which is when the sun rises near one of them (whatever that means). If this is true, then the stars have a clear magic of their own, and it’s more obvious that magic comes directly from Atherius. Then we’re back to wondering what the original design of Mundus was like without its chief architect up and leaving in the middle of it all.

The constellations do, however, appear to have a distinct form of magic that can be harnessed directly. Both Ayleis and Nedes have been associated with this particular type of magic, the Ayleids in harnessing it through the Mundus Stones, and the Nedes potentially in manipulating or creating the Celestials out of their condensed starlight, if Skyreach Explorer is to be believed.  In addition, if the Celestials’ own account is true, that they have their home in the skies, the condensed magic of the stars contains their conscience, their essence, in a way that “normal” magicka does not, which indicates a definite difference between Magnus and his followers. The differing effects of the constellations also would appear to suggest this, as the sun interacts with different types of stars as they move through the sky.

There is also the possibility that they are Magna Ge, but I’m not totally sure as they are manifestations of the constellations, which are made up of several stars, rather than the singular creatures that created the stars. However, the Exegesis of Merid Nunda describes “Mnemo-Li” as a singular entity, where several other sources have them as plural, so the precise number of the Manga Ge is uncertain.

I should however point out that the constellations aren’t themselves entirely to do with the Magna Ge, and I’ll divert here because there probably isn’t enough for its own cast for this. Each constellation appears to be defined by a dominant plane(t), at least if the Cosmology document published by the Temple Zero Society in 1999 is still accurate. I’m a little sceptical as it hasn’t come up since, and there are other elements of Cosmology that have been contradicted in The Elder Scrolls: Online.

The constellations structured as three guardian constellations, in a possible enantiomorph of Thief, Warrior and Mage. However, I’m not sure about this as the three constellations don’t interact, if The Firmament is an accurate summary of astrological lore. They all protect their charges against the Serpent, who is associated with Lorkhan. So it doesn’t fit the typical pattern of an enantiomorph.

Magna Ge and the other Et’ada

This hits on what I think is one of the key things about the Magna Ge – they are spirits that are, in some ways, between. Several parts of their thematics suggest that they are liminial, in a way that the Aedra and Daedra aren’t. Their basic conceptualisation is to agree first, and then decide to disagree. The text The Gifts of Magnus labels him as “He Who Abstained”, saying neither yes or no to the idea of Mundus, itself an “in-between” position. I think this is put perfectly in the text The Magne Ge Pantheon, an unlicenced work by Michael Kirkbride. In it, we see a wide variety of characters, which the community has tried at various points to match to other gods and see the Magna Ge as reflections of, or at least linked to, other Et’ada. This feels like an impossible task to me, because they are essentially picking elements from each of the listed beings, and matching it up with elements that are known about other Et’ada. I don’t think this works, because several of the spirits talked about can match various Et’ada, with none reflecting them perfectly. If it is the intent that the Magna Ge pantheon map to other spirits, in order to get a true picture of any one, you have to take elements of each in order to fit it together. The spirits as presented both are and are not the same as the Aedric and Daedric spirits.

There’s part of me that thinks there’s merit to this, particularly if we consider how stars are considered in one particular world religion. In Judaism (as I understand it from a thoroughly awesome Bible Project podcast, go check them out if you’re curious), the stars essentially function as both spirits and signs of the spirits. If we separate that out, in that the spirits of the Magna Ge are the signs of other spirits, then perhaps the nature of the Magna Ge is essentially a game of Chinese Whispers with the patterns of the other spirits.

How the Magna Ge Exist

The Magne Ge Pantheon also puts across a really interesting view on how these spirits exist; the text talks about them in groupings related to light (C, Y, M and K Signs, as well as Blend Signs), and various events that are claimed to have happened are talked about in abstract terms but similar enough that there’s probably a coherent history going on in there. There is however a few anchor points that look a little interesting. We also have the Redguard creation myth that says that the spirits who are “between skins”, or between kalpas (episode link), are able to carry on existing in relatively linear fashion; the time between kalpas is sequential, and this is definitely the case if we follow Shor Son of Shor.

I also think that The Magne Ge Pantheon shows that the Magna Ge experience dragon breaks in reverse. There’s talk about “many and shattered floating untimes”, but the biggest clues I think is in the line of “Who can blame them, really, after the Breaking changed everything except for the suns?” The “them” here is the Magna Ge, who are reacting to some sort of cataclysm; but the key here is “suns”. There isn’t multiple suns on Mundus, and you wouldn’t see the hole Magnus tore as a sun from the other side. There are, however, multiple moons. We also have the words of R’leyt-harhr in Where Were You When the Dragon Broke which says that “the moons were the only constant” during the dragon break. So I have an inkling that the suns of the Magna Ge are the moons of Tamriel.

The Magna Ge and Lyg

And now we’re about to get into serious speculation territory, but first of all some more grounded stuff. If you can call the ravings of a merish Daedra worshipper grounded. Yes, we’re bringing Mankar Camoran into this.

Mankar has some… really quite interesting views and associations with the Magna Ge. The last volume of his Commentaries on the Mysterium Xarxes says this:

I give my soul to the Magna Ge, sayeth the joyous in Paradise, for they created Mehrunes the Razor in secret, in the very bowels of Lyg, the domain of the Upstart who vanishes. Though they came from diverse waters, each Get shared sole purpose: to artifice a prince of good, spinning his likeness in random swath, and imbuing him with Oblivion’s most precious and scarce asset: hope.

This has the Magna Ge having a hand in shaping part of Mehrunes Dagon, and being in Lyg. Now, Lyg probably deserves its own cast, but I want to mention it here for now to highlight that the Magna Ge can be there. So Lyg, the Adjacent Place to Tamriel, is somewhere the Ge can visit, or is potentially a domain of the Ge; we have “Xero-Lyg” mentioned in as a Ge in the Exegesis of the Merid-Nunda, although it’s not clear whether that particuar Ge is Lyg, or named after Lyg.

If you’re getting wind of some uncertainty here, that’s no accident. This is possibly something to do with Lyg being in that “in-between” space. It’s been described by Michael Kirkbride as a “parallel version” of Tamriel, which sometimes overlaps it, if some of the talk on /r/teslore  and Lyg’s real-world origins are something to go by. This entirely fits with the Ge’s liminality, and, I think, brings another element of them out.

They. created. Mehrunes.

Just let that sink in for a second. They created at least part part of the Daedric Prince of destruction in Lyg. There’s a notion throughout the commentaries of becoming, of transformation. I think this is hinting at the Magna Ge creating Mehrunes through transformation. Remember that Magnus possibly left bits of himself behind, in his flight? It’s likely his followers did too, an so they’re tied to that sort of self-destructive transformation in some way, I think.

And… I think that’s where we need to leave the uncertain, fluctuating and ultimately very distant and strange Magna Ge. Their realms are seen by the denizens of Tamriel every night, and still we don’t have a full understanding of them. Kinda fitting for entities that are half here and half not.

Before I go, I’d like to make a announcement, for those of you that stick around until the bitter end of these casts. I have set up a Patreon for this podcast, and a Ko-fi tip jar. If you’d like to support me in either of those ways, the link will appear in the blog post that’s accompanying this cast, and any podcast. Patrons will get full access to my notes for these podcasts and Written in Uncertainty YouTube channel, and exclusive roles and channels on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server.

With that in mind, that I want to be sticking around with these podcasts for a good while, please send me any ideas for questions for future episodes that you want me to examine. If the distinct questions dry up (and I’m not going to devolve into clickbait questions, sorry), I was considering doing a chronological history of Tamriel podcast, styled after a few of my favourite history podcasts. Is this something you’d be interested in? Let me know.

Next time, having mentioned the Adjacent Place in passing, I’m going to be going into it in more detail. Next time we’re asking, what is Lyg?

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty 15: What is the Aurbis?

Listen on: Anchor | iTunes | Spotify | Full list

This week on Written in Uncertainty I’m discussing some of the most fundamental parts of the Elder Scrolls universe, looking at its basic structure and how it works at the most macro level. Today we’re asking, what is the Aurbis?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the Aurbis, and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server. I’ll also be linking all the sources I quote in this podcast in this post, so please go there and go through them yourself, rather than taking what I say as the correct answer.

So what is the Aurbis? It’s basically the name we have for the Elder Scrolls universe. The Aurbis is the term that covers all of it. Nirn, Mundus, Oblivion, Atherius are all places within the Aurbis. However, it is a little bit more complicated than that in what it’s made up of.

We have this as a basic quote from the Monomyth, the section called the Myth of the Aurbis as presented by the Psijic Order:

“’Aurbis’ is used to connote the imperceptible Penumbra, the Gray Center between the IS/IS NOT of Anu and Padomay. It contains the multitude realms of Aetherius and Oblivion, as well as other, less structured forms.”

From this we can then see that the Aurbis is the interplay of Anu and Padomay. It is the space that is called the Grey Maybe. The place where everything is uncertain, where we have possibility. It’s not even really clear about what certain areas of it are, and where they are. The most obvious example of this is the conflation, in several texts, of Mundus and Nirn. Some people say Lorkhan created Mundus, some people say he created Nirn. The two are often used synonymously. Is Mundus Nirn? Is Nirn Mundus? Maybe. Although part of me thinks that the Moons are part of Mundus, but not of Nirn. But that feels like it’s my head’s way of solving this, rather than a definite thing.

The (unlicensed) Loveletter from the Fifth Era puts it a bit more clearly, in my opinion:

All creation is subgradient. First was Void, which became split by AE. Anu and Padomay came next and with their first brush came the Aurbis.
Void to Aurbis: naught to pattern.

In this telling, the Aurbis is the first expression of an even more primal pattern. Which also implies that, given the way that the et’ada and other beings that keep on subgradiating, are echoing the same pattern throughout the whole space.

This also gives a picture of interlocking and concentric patterns within patterns. This means that the Aurbis is the expression of the same pattern, all potentially happening in the same place. The text Vehk’s Teaching puts this as infinities enclosing infinities:

“Anu and Padhome, stasis and change, both vast realms sitting in the void, they created it. Not vast, infinite, as the void was infinite. Imagine an infinity enclosed by another; you come away with a bubble. Now watch as the two bubbles touch. Their intersection is a perfect circle of pattern and possibility that we shall call the Aurbis. The Aurbis is the foundation of the Wheel.”

It’s also worth noting here that the images being used may not be the actual “realities” as such. In the same way that the mortal mind interprets Oblivion as the night sky, circles are potentially only a way for the mind to interpret and relate to what is in fact the multiple interlocking infinities of the Aurbis.

The Aurbis and Perception

This also means that perception also has a potential to change what the Aurbis is and how it is seen. This is put explicitly in Sermon 21 of the 36 Lessons of Vivec, where Vivec says this:

‘They are the lent bones of the Aedra, the Eight gift-limbs to SITHISIT, the wet earth of the new star our home. Outside them is the Aurbis, and not within. Like most things inexplicable, it is a circle. Circles are confused serpents, striking and striking and never given leave to bite.

This claims that the Aurbis impose a change on the Aurbis, which produces the most popular model of the Aurbis, that of the wheel. We’ll get to that in a bit, but I want to explore some other implications of what the importance of perception could mean for a bit.

The way that the “interior” of the Aurbis, the Mundus, could be, is potentially saying that the primal reality of things is not as perceived. This is most obvious in the way that Reality and Other Falsehoods puts how Alteration magic works; the mage expresses a perspective, which then changes how the Mundus works. There are other, deeper hints at it, as well. The book Stepping Through the Shadows describes how each object makes a “depth-impression” upon Mundus through its existence. This functions almost like how objects warp space-time, to borrow from Einsteinian relativity.

The Aurbis as Place and No Place

As a result of this, objects only really function relative to where other things are; the perspective of entities and impact of objects upon local reality creates its own context. It does not need an absolute reality. If the Aurbis is concentric infinities, then what defines each thing within it is not so much the thing-in-itself (which is everything), but where it is in relation to other things. Which ultimately means that none of these little infinities has any independent existence, despite being infinite.

It’s this paradox which is potentially one of the fundamental portions of the Aurbis and some of the forms of apotheosis that are possible within The Elder Scrolls, most notably CHIM. Everything exists in relation to everything else, and being able to step outside of that thing, outside of that place, by virtue of realising/seeing the patterns, brings a new understanding and control of the Aurbis itself.

The Aurbis as Wheel and Tower

An illustration of the Wheel, the most common model of the Aurbis.

However’ this isn’t how you’ll hear the secrets of the Aurbis discussed by fans. The circular image the image that has taken hold the most is the one mentioned in Vehk’s Teaching earlier, that of a a wheel. The “eight gift-limbs” are the Aedra, which form the spokes of the wheel. The gaps in between are the Daedric princes, in this model. However, that does seem to imply that there can only be 16 Daedric Princes at a time. Some will dispute this, after the rise and freeing of Jyggalag in The Elder Scrolls IV, while others seem to put forward the idea of 16 “primary” princes or some similar language, with others not taking up such a prominent position.

 

However, I don’t really agree with this; the text On Oblivion seems unsure as to whether Hircine, one of the more usual 16 princes, is difficult to locate and may not even be a Prince. This suggests that the 16 is possibly an arbitrary number, there is no real need for that many, or that there are maybe more things holding together Mundus than we know about currently. The number of Daedric Princes was certainly intentional from a game design perspective at one point, but whether that perfect 16 fits with our current understanding of Oblivion is another matter.

The “Gift-Limbs” of the Aedra function as the things holding Mundus together. As I’ve mentioned in the cast on Dragon Breaks, are brushed aside during that un-time in the metaphor of the Hurling Disc (a disc being a wheel without spokes). If this is taken literally, this is more than just time breaking, it’s a loosing of all possibility, where (to fully extend the metaphor) the difference between Aedra and Daedra, Mundus and Oblivion, would entirely dissolve. The Dawn Era happens again. This gets referred to as “a moment of pure Aurbis” by Vivec in hir Trial. This further links dragon breaks to the “natural” state of the Aurbis, where everything is pure possibility.

If everything is merged together during a dragon break, in the Aurbis’ natural state, that has interesting implications for its true nature. Think back to the quote from Sermon 21, that outside the Gift-Limbs, beyond the laws of physics, is the Aurbis, and not within. However, both those texts are Vivec’s perspective, which isn’t entirely followed elsewhere, so I’d take it with a bit of caution.
To close off this section on wheels and the like, I’d just like to reiterate that the Wheel structure also affirms the idea of the Tower, that a wheel turned on its side is a Tower, which is the letter “I”. Thinking back to how the patterns of the original Anu-Padomay interaction which created the Aurbis echo down through the creational gradients, the Aurbis is, in a sense, the individual, as they express the same conflicts. The realisation of that “I”, that Tower that is both the self and the universe, is key to the state of CHIM.

The Argument of the Grey Maybe

The Aurbis is also called the Grey Maybe, the point where the IS of Anu and the IS NOT of Padomay intersect to produce possibility, that MAYBE. The two elements interact to create possibility, which is what we have in the raw, pure Aurbis. Outside of Mundus and the rules imposed by the Aedra, there is only possibility. Or, at least, that may have been the case at one point; there are a few texts that suggest progression within the raw Aurbis, that the MAYBE is a state that is steadily resolving into something. Maybe not IS or IS NOT, but something beyond MAYBE.

This means that one way of conceptualising the Aurbis is as an argument, and thanks to Rotten Deadite and the Selectives for pointing this out ages ago. That the conflict between IS and IS NOT drives the Aurbis forward towards a resolution, in the same way that thesis and antithesis produce synthesis in the process of their interaction. Or, perhaps more appropriately in the philosopher Hegel’s model, the Abstract and the Negative interact to produce the Concrete, the reality that is the Maybe. This brings out an aspect that often gets overlooked in the simple IS/IS NOT dichotomy; the idea of the Everything, the IS as often a static thing. Looking at both the Redguard creation myth and the tale in the Children of the Root, the Anu-aspect fills everything, and has to have some nothing in it, some negative, in order to be anything at all. This is perhaps at its starkest in Vehk’s Teaching:

These views included the suggestion that Anu’s son, the Time Dragon, was formed in reaction to Padhome’s influence. In effect, Anu had finally done something.

On this account, the IS of Anu is an abstract, isn’t actuality, and requires the “corrupting inexpressible action” (from The Monomyth) in order to be anything real. This is very close to an example of Hegel’s dialectic, that Being and Nothing are united in Becoming.

Exactly what The Aurbis is becoming isn’t clear at all. The best answer we have (if it’s an answer at all) is the events of C0DA. This ends in an argument, a debate between Jubal and the Numidium. There is a point in that narrative where the Numdium’s NO becomes MAYBE, another shift of Being and Nothing towards something else. This requires another start, which is also why we have “NO MORE WHEEL” pronounced by the Digitals, described as “UNION”. Union which creates the Flower Baby at the end of C0DA. It’s a product of Jubal and the Numidium’s interaction as much as Jubal and Vivec’s. And so a new world becomes, a new set of Being starts.

However, from the perspective of this Aurbis, the place where the question is being asked, the flower baby, the end result of the MAYBE, is an answer, and if it becomes the start of a new dialectic, it becomes a new question, which will begin a whole new set of interactions. But those will not be comprehensible to those who came before, because they won’t understand its progress, as the question is not a question to them.

Aurbis as a Song

Or maybe it’s just in a different key. I also want to talk about the Aurbis as a song, which comes from this quote from Michael Kirkbride, made in an IRC chat:

Tamriel. Starry Heart. That whole fucking thing is a song. It was made either out of 12 planets, or from two brothers that split in the womb. Either way, it’s the primal wail and those that grew up on it – they can’t help but hear it, and add to it, or try to control it, or run from it. The reason there IS music on Tamriel at ALL is because it exists. It was and is and it will not stop.

While Tamriel is used as the start of this, it sounds incredibly like the Aurbis as a whole.

The best expression of how this all works is myrrlyn’s Aurbis: The Musical piece of apocrypha. Go read it, it’s wonderful. This fits the Aedra and Daedra into a scale of notes, although the Daedra as accidentals does rather break musical terminology as we understand it.

That text, and a few others, compare the Towers to tuning forks, ways of adjusting the fundamental tune of the Aurbis to a particular pitch. This also riffs off (heh) the idea of the Towers as expressing the same “I” that is the shape of the Aurbis, imitating it to a point that if you change one thing you change the other. In this case, when you use the Towers and adjust them, you adjust the underling “tune” that is the Aurbis. This is especially apparent in the way that the Nu-Mantia Intercept talks about the White-Gold Tower:

Though the Ayleids gave theirs a central Spire as the imago of Ada-mantia, the whole of the polydox resembled the Wheel, with eight lesser towers forming a ring around their primus. To dismiss this mythitecture as being a mockery of the Aurbis is to ignore an important point: this same “jest” gave White-Gold Tower a power over creatia unalike any on this plane(t). It was a triumph of sympathetic megafetish, and the Start of the [Threat! To! Empire!] that brings me to this Council.

If the Ayleids made their own Wheel within the Wheel, were-web aad semblio, what would happen if they plucked its strings?

This is possibly the best example of the Towers being used to manipulate Mundus, and relies on music being the underlying mythitecture of Mundus in order for it to work. However, it’s not alone in using music to do so. We also have several forms of more powerful magic being compared to songs and music, or at least sound, that change the way the Aurbis works. Think tonal architecture, sword-singing, and the thu’um. At its broadest definition of sound, this could also include the tales of the Bosmeri Spinners, who rely on oral tradition.

This is a little tricky to match up with the other models here; there’s no special privilege given to music or its structure in the Wheel model, or the way in which the patterns of the Tower and the ongoing IS/IS NOT dichotomy get repeated. I can’t help but feel this is something like relativity and quantum physics; both have been shown to work on some level, but why both work at once makes little sense. Unless we are to assume a symphonic structure Mrrlyn’s symphony as the structure overall, with certain actions taken with the Towers and addressing the dichotomy directly as having some special resonance with the Aurbis. This is effectively a similar thing to how certain notes played on an instrument have particularly good harmonics.

That’s all I have for you this week on the structure of the Aurbis. Thank you for taking the time to listen/read, and please consider subscribing on your favourite podcatcher. I finally got into Spotify after a while persuading their system that I really do exist, honest.

In the meantime, please check out my YouTube channel, under the name Aramithius. I’ve started to produce videos of close readings of certain Elder Scrolls texts, talking about their underlying meanings and how they fit with the series’ concepts in general. I hope t do these on a weekly basis, but we’ll see how that goes. The videos a little basic at the moment, but I hope to introduce a few more bells and whistles as I go along. In the meantime, please forgive my terrible video presence and poor editing skills; I hope the discussion makes up for it.

Next time on this podcast, I’ll be continuing with our trip through the more distant aspects of The Elder Scrolls lore, and looking at those objects in the sky that look very far away, but aren’t really objects at all. Next time I’ll be asking, what are the Magna Ge?

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty Episode 14: What are the Hist?

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Hello and welcome to Written in Uncertainty, an Elder Scrolls podcast set firmly in the Grey Maybe of the series universe. My name is Aramithius and today we’re discussing some of the most mysterious entities in The Elder Scrolls. Things that can shape an entire race, and are probably the closest thing to aliens that we will ever see. Today we’re asking, what are the Hist?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the Hist, and not necessarily the whole truth behind them, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server. I’ll also be linking the sources that I quote in this podcast here, so please go through and read the sources rather than just taking what I say at face value.

On one level, what the Hist are is fairly simple; they are the progenitors of the Argonians, which manifests most obviously in various trees that are found in Black Marsh. However, they aren’t just trees, they are certainly sapient and have a will of their own. It is also likely to affect the whole of the Marsh, if Junia Severa’s Letter to Septimus is to be believed:

But I can tell you this, old friend, the Hist are not simply trees, regardless of sentience. It is true that the trees are impressive and demand a certain respect when you stand beneath them, but I have always found the roots most fascinating. If only I could properly describe the things I have seen, Brother Septimius. Beneath the swamp the roots grow deep and spread so wide it is impossible to know which tree they originated from. In a way, I believe, the roots are the marsh. The roots hold it all together, and they determine when it changes.

The Hist then control Black Marsh, and in a way maybe are Black Marsh. They were previously more widespread, but multiple sources point out that the trees were reduced during the Ehlnofey Wars, and they are described as “bystanders” in those wars in the Annotated Anuad. This highlights their “otherness” in relation to men and mer, and potentially also makes them the Observer in an enantiomorph of the War, although that may be stretching things a little; there hasn’t been a definite victor in the conflict between men and mer in Tamriel’s history so far.

The alien-ness of the Hist has led several to conclude that they are trans-kalpic or extra-kalpic, particularly as the Anuad lists them as one of the two survivors of the ruin of the Twelve Worlds, which are potentially previous kalpas.

Hist and Argonians

If the Hist make the whole of Black Marsh what it is, then there’s part of me that considers that every creature in Black Marsh is an Argonian; they are creations of the Hist, and sustained by the Hist, or potentially derived from them. If the above quote is true, and the Hist created Black Marsh, they are responsible for shaping the whole ecosystem of the marsh. The Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition treats it the other way round, seeing the Hist as the same thing as the Argonians, and not distinct from them.

One question that gets asked a lot is why the Hist created the Argonians. We don’t have much of an idea on this one, as the Hist’s goals and motivations are a little obscure, and they’re not exactly forthcoming in conversation. You’ll hear people say that the Argonians were created to be the Hist’s “limbs”, if you like; that because the Hist are trees, they need other things to be active in Tamriel. This makes sense, although there’s part of me that thinks that if they can manipulate bodies through the sap, influence conscience etc, making bodies for themselves that they directly control wouldn’t be too much of a step. But they don’t do that, they give the Argonians a level of autonomy. Although how much is, again, up for debate.

You’ll hear several people in the Elder Scrolls lore community say that the Argonians are the Hist’s slaves (often as a defence for why they were enslaved by the Dunmer). However, I don’t think that’s the case necessarily. The general social practice for the Hist is that not all Argonians regularly take Hist sap, but instead get it at particular points of their life. In addition, the Hist also provide visions as a means of direction, which is, well… indirect. So unless we assume things like “latent” Hist sap remain in the bloodstream and directs from there, any control is very remote. I’ve seen it said on Reddit that Michael Kirkbride at least considers that imbibing Hist sap means that the Hist have control over the soul of any kind of being, that they will all return their memories to the Hist on death. That would make the kind of control to make literal slaves possible, although it doesn’t seem to be their modus operandi. Hist sap certainly does strange things to any who drink it, as we see in the affair with the Blackwood Company in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, causing bloodlust and hallucinations. However, the sap there is noted to be a sick tree, so it may not be a reliable benchmark for normal sap effects.

The Hist form the basis for Argonian society, and explicitly direct it. Each Argonian village has a Hist tree at its centre, which directs the Argonians through the visions they grant those who drink their sap. The societal relation between the Hist and the Argonians isn’t 100% clear; it’s not exactly worship, as there are few distinct “devotional” activities beyond what Argonians in Black Marsh engage in as part of their way of life. The relationship feels almost familial in some contexts. We have the poem A Shallow Pool, which ends like this:

A shallow pool is all I want
Memories held
Old stories told
Surrounded by children
Who call me their Hist

There is something here that I think is core to the Hist and their overall philosophy, which we’ll get to in a bit more depth shortly. That thing that I get from that poem, in addition to the idea of family, is the sense of being, not really doing; we have memories being held and being recycled, changed maybe, through the telling of old stories. There isn’t much action here, there’s no progress as such.

What are the Hist up to?

That has however been different in the past, and the ruined xanmeers we see in Black Marsh are from a time where the Hist guided the Argonians in a different direction. This gives some insight into what the Hist are trying to do with the Argonians, to a degree; express various kinds of society in an effort to produce change in accord with the nature of things we’ll get to a little later.

Hist and Memory

One thing that is a little curious,however, is that the Argonians don’t seem too concerned to remember what went before. This is odd because there are several passages which link the Hist to memory, and to water. This is at its baldest in this passage from In Accord with Those Sun-Blessed:

We are the People of the Root. It is as true in this world as any other. Though our roots grow deep into shadow and drink from the tide of memory, our branches rise high into the sky to bathe in the light of the sun.

There’s lots to unpack here. We’ll get to all of it, but I want to start with the drinking in of memory. This is alluded to elsewhere too, and also has some very interesting implications for Argonian religious beliefs. Argonians believe they come from and return to the Hist, and the ingestion of Hist sap (a liquid, remember) informs their development. If water (=liquid) is memory, this is essentially saying that they are made up of memory, and potentially past lives too. The original memory and water quote makes it clear that memories become water once they’re done with, and so it is memories of the dead.

I’ve spoken about memory and water and people before, but I think it’s worth reiterating here too; that being made up of memory is how people are, in a sense. Everyone’s experiences of the “now” are informed by how they have perceived the past, and how they see things as having worked in the past. This means that our way of existing in the world is made up of memory, in a similar way to how the Argonians use Hist sap to frame and direct their development. The sap is the way in which the Hist most directly control Argonians. In addition, if the Hist are directing Black Marsh, controlling its water, they are shaping its past and, thereby, its future.

This could potentially be an overall goal for the Hist; the Third Edition Pocket Guide to the Empire points out that some call it the place “to where everything rotten and despoiled eventually flows”. Being a place which collects water, which is memory, could ultimately be what the Hist are trying to do; to collect memory, for some purpose. Exactly what is a little unclear, and we haven’t seen enough of what that could be to know what it would mean. However, I think it’s possible that their role as an observer in the Ehlnofey Wars and the Man/Mer conflict more general may indicate that they are looking to control something, or draw things to themselves.

Also, /u/tordirycgoyus mentioned in a Reddit thread that the Hist take in both water (=memory) and sunlight (=magicka), which is plenty of fuel to pull… something off.

This could be an attempt at a reconstruction of a past that that the Hist have experienced, and want to go back to. Remember that the Hist tree in A Shallow Pool wanted to be surrounded by memory? We also have this fantastic passage at the end of the Lost Tales of the Famed Explorer:

He came upon a tower. It was tall and vast and many trees grew from its many layers of marsh. Creatures lived and died without ever knowing of a world outside the tower. At its top was a tree that bled fire. Other winged things that looked like him circled it. They cried out in words he understood but didn’t know. He felt a deep sadness as the tower fell away.

This feels like a vision of the Hist’s past, a previous world (a previous kalpa, maybe?) that was, and is no more. The sadness of the vision seems to point to a want to reconstruct it, a nostalgia which is entirely in keeping with the focus on the Hist drawing in memory. The suggestion of things being “outside the tower” points to either the Hist being trans-kalpic, or maybe outside of the Aurbis altogether, from another Dream.

The Hist and their Saviour(s?)

This idea of the Hist being from another kalpa or another Dream paints them as survivors, particularly the account of the Anuad. This means they will likely do whatever is necessary in order to keep going. The Hist have made several deals or partnerships with other entities in order to ensure this. We have examples of multiple Hist making deals with Daedra in order to continue to exist in Oblivion, particularly the realms of Clavicus Vile and Molag Bal. These do however seem to be one-time deals; a Hist fled to Coldharbour over what seems to be disagreement with other Hist on the future direction of Argonian society, and several Hist striking up some sort of deal with Vile.

The Oblivion Crisis also indicates a broader connection between the Hist and Oblivion than a few Daedric pacts. The Hist as a whole appeared to know the crisis was coming,called a bunch of Argonians home, and sent them charging through the Oblivion Gates after they’d been apparently altered by the Hist to be more battle-ready. That they were forewarned about this means they had a connection of some sort to Oblivion in order to get wind of the Crisis first. It has even been suggested that they are some sort of conduit for something in Oblivion. The Elder Scrolls: Online has an Urgent Letter which compares Hist sap to chaotic creatia. To quote:

“Amber Plasm.” That is what one of the scholars called it before I fed him to Mighty Chudan. He said that it was like the chaotic creatia of Oblivion—leaking into Mundus through our Hist like blood from a wound.

If this is to be believed, the Hist are deeply connected to the substance of Oblivion, and can condense and alter creatia in a way that seems similar to the way the Towers function. If this has a similar purpose o the Towers, this links the Hist even further towards ideas of preservation and security, which is a little strange given their known association with Sithis.

The Hist’s relation to Sithis seems to be one of a protector. Both the creation myth presented in Children of the Root and the end of the Lost Tales of the Fabled Explorer depict Sithis as a caring entity. Children of the Root says this:

The shadow ate the snake and the root, and the sap and stone, and the oceans of blood, and all of the spirits. It had eaten everything before it remembered the roots that were its children, so it looked unto itself to find them. When the shadow saw this, it remembered that it was a skin of something that came before, and it had eaten what came after, and this would be an end that always was.

And so the shadow shed its skin, even though that was all it was, and it fell like a shroud over the roots, promising to keep them safe within its secrets.

The end of the Lost Tales has something very similar:

He looked up and saw other worlds and other towers. They were spinning wheels and they crashed into each other, and their spokes got tangled up and they broke each other. And he saw that his world was breaking, too, but quick as a snake a shadow came and swallowed up the roots of the tower so they would not break.

The Towers are other universes, the Tower and the Wheel being symbols for the structure of the TES universe as a whole. This indicates that the Argonians have a much broader view on creation than other races, whose views tend to stop with this Aurbis, with the possible exception of the Redguards. The key difference that these myths seem to bring to the table is the figure of the shadow. This is a pretty unambiguous reference to Sithis.

These myths indicate that that Sithis (who is the father of Lorkhan, remember), seems to want to keep Mundus stable. This is a really interesting idea, because Sithis is otherwise presented as a god of death, destruction and entropy. This depiction goes against these typical views of Sithis, presenting it as a benevolent thing, and a preserver, which is typically the wheelhouse of Anu.

We have hints in The Elder Scrolls: Online that the Hist deliberately stopped Argonian “progress” at one point, and they haven’t changed much either socially or technologically after that point. This is really weird for entities that seem to value a thing highly connected to change and decay, because the basic society of the Argonians does not change. This is possibly to do with the paradox behind constant change; if everything is always changing, then nothing lasts, we’re back to the impermanence of the Dawn, or the pre-Mundus state. This is what we see in Argonian culture, the Hist direct the Argonians towards specific types of change, with others being not permitted, seemingly. This is partly due to the paradox that is change (if everything is always changing, then iterative change and therefore progress is impossible), but it may also have something do with the connection the Hist have to time and memory. We have this from The Seasons of Argonia:

Time is immutable. An engine that drives the will of change, inevitable, primordial. An ever-moving force in an ever-constant cycle.

Given this perspective, it’s likely that the Hist, as accumulators of time and preservers in a way, would engineer something that simply goes through motions and cycles, rather than progressing forward, particularly if all time and memory in particular is what they value.

Or it could be something else entirely, I’m not sure. We have this passage in particular from Children of the Root:

In time, the worlds were too big and there was no more room. Again the spirits went to the roots to ask for more. But the roots had gone to sleep content with what they had made, because it changed so often that it did not need to grow.

If the Hist are the roots here (seems a reasonable assumption), then they see growth as something to promote change, with change as the most important thing. So we’re maybe looking at something a little like it’s the process of change that’s the important thing, which is very different to how we see change as humans. To us, change is a way to promote growth and progress, whereas this has change as an end in itself. This would work with Sithis as an entity focused on entropy, as entropy produces simple things.

That’s… about all I have on the Hist for now. There’s a good load more to cover, I feel like I’ve skirted around a few topics here, so I may do a continuation at some point if people want more hist information. Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen, and a special thanks this week to ddoggw for your very kind review. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcatcher, I’m now most of the ones out there. If you fancy a chat, please join the discussion on the Written in Uncertainty Discord.

I’m also collating a list of the best longform essays on TES lore. If you have any you think should be in there, please let me know. Check out the existing ones here.

Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the bigger picture in TES lore, exploring the realms of the stars, where they come from and what they mean. Next time we’re asking, what actually IS the Aurbis?

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty Episode 13: What is a god in The Elder Scrolls?

Listen on: Anchor | iTunes | Spotify | Full list

Hello and welcome to Written in Uncertainty, an Elder Scrolls podcast set firmly in the Grey Maybe of the series universe. My name is Aramithius and today we’re discussing something that probably should have been discussed as part of last episode. There is a wide variety of deities worshipped across Tamriel, and having looked into what shapes many of these beings, today we’re asking, what actually IS a god in The Elder Scrolls?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the idea, and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server. I’ll also be linking the sources that I quote, so please go through and read the sources rather than just taking what I say at face value.

The tl;dr

This is one of those questions that will give you entirely different answers depending on who you ask, and as a result, there’s no single answer, or at least not one that’s markedly different from the question.

The closest that we can get to an answer that will satisfy everyone is this: if it’s worshipped as a god in Tamriel, it’s a god.

This ties into what we were talking about last time, the idea of myth-making and myth-altering as being part of how the Aurbis and the et’ada (the original spirits) work in the Elder Scrolls. However, we don’t need mythopoeia to think about what constitutes a god as such.

With that absolute definition in mind, I’m going to look at the various ways in which the inhabitants of Mundus (and TES fans) have categorised gods in various ways, and what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Et’ada

The most obvious definition of a deity, in most senses, is whether something is an et’ada, which has been used as a definition of “gods and demons” within the series, the Aedra. Daedra and Magna Ge. Most races on Tamriel worship one or other of these groups, although they will argue what beings should be considered in or out of these groups.

Aedra

The Aedra are the most usual candidates, with each race putting different emphases on different areas of the group. The mannish races and the Altmer and Bosmer has a core of eight, who are considered to be the ones that hold together Mundus, as well as a smattering of other, more culture-specific deities. These other deities are referred to as “culture heroes” or “culture gods” in a few places, most obviously Varieties of Faith. Whether these are Aedra depends on who you ask. The term “Aedra” literally means “our ancestors” to mer, which means that they also include gods like Syrbane, Xarxes and Phynaster, who appear simply to be mer which did a variety of good deeds for the mer people, typically Altmer. We’ll talk a bit more about this kind of god later.

Daedra

The Daedra were worshipped by the Chimer, and later the Dunmer after the Red Year, and various scattered groups throughout Tamriel. These are typically based on the claim that the Daedra are more powerful or more present in the world than the Aedra, or have the best interests of their worshippers at heart.

Both

Worshippers of Aedra and Daedra are typically exclusive, with worshippers of one group not including the other in their pantheons. However, they are acknowledged to a degree by some. The Divines faith of the Empire focuses on a small group of Aedra as the Divines, but includes the Daedra as the “acceptable blasphemies”, accepting their status as powerful entities that can be worshipped, even if it is not socially or even legally acceptable to do so.

However, we do have one group that considers worship of both Aedra and Daedra, which is the Psijic Order. This group considers that Aedra and Daedra are simply those ancestors that did great things. The book The Old Ways says this:

What, after all, is the origin of these spiritual forces that move the invisible strings of Mundus? Any neophyte of Artaeum knows that these spirits are our ancestors — and that, while living, they too were bewildered by the spirits of their ancestors, and so on back to the original Acharyai. The Daedra and gods to whom the common people turn are no more than the spirits of superior men and women whose power and passion granted them great influence in the afterworld.

The worship of the Aedra that comprise the typical merish pantheon was the driving force in the separation of the Psijics from the other inhabitants of the Summerset Isles, who began to focus on a small group that would become the Aedra. What’s the difference here? The key is that some did deeds that were worthy of emulation or admiration, and others did not. The Third Edition of the Pocket Guide to the Empire says:

The religion of the people also changed because of this change in society: no longer did the Aldmer worship their own ancestors, but the ancestors of their “betters.” Auriel, Trinimac, Syrabane, and Phynaster are among the many ancestor spirits who became Gods. A group of elders rebelled against this trend, calling themselves the Psijics, the keepers of the Old Ways of Aldmeris.

These betters became the Aedra, but are presented here as a “better” set of ancestors, which goes against the traditional Aedra/Daera narrative; the Aedra aren’t just ancestors, but a select group of ancestors that are worthy of worship because they achieved noteworthy things. This telling makes the Aedra, and thus the Divines, cultural hero-gods of the Aldmer. But what does this actually make them? Are they original spirits, or deified mortals? The Aldmer treated them as both. However, while deified mortals are common in TES, they typically have a lesser status than the et’ada.

And the others, the Magna Ge?

So far, we haven’t discussed the Magna Ge, those et’ada that signed up to help Lorkhan with Mundus, but ran when they realised it would cost them part of their being. Magnus is part of the Altmeri and Bretonic pantheons, as the god of magic and sorcery. However, beyond this association, there isn’t much worship of the Magna Ge in mainstream Tamrielic faith. The only references we have to worship of the Magna Ge is the Mythic Dawn in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. We’ll go over their roles in the constellations and similar in another episode, but despite their place as et’ada, they stand as the only glass that aren’t really worshipped on Tamriel. Magnus is the only one that’s explicitly connected with Mundus at all, and that may well be why he is the one that is worshipped in this way.

Deified Mortals

Subjects of worship that aren’t part of the Original Spirits are typically called Cultural Hero Gods, or similar. Whether these actually are gods is a little uncertain. The most prominent example of this is Talos, who the Fourth Era Aldmeri Dominion are very determined to say is not a god, but also includes figures like the Dunmeri Tribunal, who were also declared false gods through the Dunmeri religious reformation of the Fourth Era.

However, there is the consideration that, at least for Talos and Vivec, they have completed one of the Walking Ways. You’ll hear the term apotheosis used as a way of describing this, of making a mortal become a god, but these kinds of figures are not universally accepted as gods throughout Tamriel. Whether they are is generally dependent on their culture and whether the figures in question do things for that culture.

Several fans of The Elder Scrolls will rate the divine status of a mortal on whether or not there are game effects that can be derived from their worship at shrines; this is certainly a common defence of Talos being a god. However, this is questionable at best, as we see shrines to Dunmer saints also giving mechanical bonuses in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The quest Blood of the Divine in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion requires the blood of a god, which the translated Mysterium Xarxes describes as the “tinder of Anu”. This means that Talos’ ascension potentially changed his nature to become something like the Aedra. The Tribunal, Reman, Morihaus and other Dunmeri or mannish hero-gods don’t have this claim, which why Talos is a special case. This makes him a figure that is similar to a pneumatic in Gnostic belief, a spirit that has transcended the material world. This is similar to CHIM, which I’ve talked about before. However, this feels a little different, as we don’t have any indication that Vivec, the other possible achiever of CHIM, became an et’ada. While CHIM allows a vision of the Aurbis and what is beyond, it doesn’t seem to automatically make that person part of that higher order of the Aurbis. CHIM makes you god-like, but not exactly a god.

The Role of Subgradience

So are we to consider that this, being associated with Anu or Padomay directly, qualifies someone as a god? If descent itself were enough, then most mer would consider that they would be gods, but they don’t. I think the common line here is being able to subgradiate. Subgradience is a process whereby a being self-reflects and creates an independent being from its own substance. The Altmeri Monomyth describes it like this:

“Anu encompassed, and encompasses, all things. So that he might know himself he created Anuiel, his soul and the soul of all things. Anuiel, as all souls, was given to self-reflection, and for this he needed to differentiate between his forms, attributes, and intellects. Thus was born Sithis, who was the sum of all the limitations Anuiel would utilize to ponder himself. Anuiel, who was the soul of all things, therefore became many things, and this interplay was and is the Aurbis.

“At first the Aurbis was turbulent and confusing, as Anuiel’s ruminations went on without design. Aspects of the Aurbis then asked for a schedule to follow or procedures whereby they might enjoy themselves a little longer outside of perfect knowledge. So that he might know himself this way, too, Anu created Auriel, the soul of his soul.

This is a process that is common in various strains of gnosticism the idea of the aeons emanating from the godhead, which in turn have other beings and ideas sourced within themselves. Mortals don’t have beings within themselves in the same way, and so by some definitions wouldn’t qualify as a god.

Higher Order Beings

However, although some could define gods as beings that subgradiate, there are relatively few cultures that directly revere the original Anu-Padomay duality that creates the Aurbis. In particular, none venerate Anu or Anui-el, although their role in creation is acknowledged. You’ll hear the phrase “the will of Anui-el” mentioned in a few places, but this isn’t really described as the will of a conscious being; Phrastus of Ehlnir claims that “When a High Elf says that she ‘advocates the will of Anuiel,’ this is just a flowery Elvish way of saying that she wants to make up new rules for others to follow.” The unlicensed Nu-Mantia Intercept uses the term to describe the worldview of the Altmer as being to advocate the will of Anu, but doesn’t say quite what that is. Most of the inhabitants of Tamriel seem to consider Anu and Padomay as cosmic forces of order and chaos, not personified gods, and not worshipped as such. For the most part.

The big exception to this is Sithis, which is described in general terms this way in the Monomyth:

In most cultures, Anuiel is honored for his part of the interplay that creates the world, but Sithis is held in highest esteem because he’s the one that causes the reaction. Sithis is thus the Original Creator, an entity who intrinsically causes change without design.

Most cultures and organisations don’t hold Sithis in high regard as an object of worship, although some elements of Dunmer society during the Tribunal period hold him in high regard. Vivec in particular describes Sithis as “the start of all true houses” in Sermon 10, and a similar term is used in the book Sithis, which implies that Vivec is perhaps the author there. This book gives Sithis the role of prime mover of creation, in line with a few other things, but this is still in line with cosmic force rather than a god.

There are however two groups that worship Sithis directly, Argonians and the Dark Brotherhood. Argonians view Sithis as a protector, although the biggest text we have on this, Children of the Root, never actually uses the name Sithis. It’s a little different to worship as such, although this seems to vary by tribe. The book comes from the oral traditions of Murkmire, and the Shadowfen Argonians refer to Sithis directly as a father, because it is the producer of change, similar to how it is revered in general as the “original creator”.

The Dark Brotherhood, on the other hand, see Sithis as an entity that speaks and is active, which is more reminiscent of the Aedra and Daedra than the higher-gradient beings. The Brotherhood doesn’t exactly have a detailed theology, but Sithis in this context seems to be linked to being both the original creator, the “Dark Father”, and the Void where he lives being the deserved end of all things. This is marketed at odds with how the afterlife and how Sithis as a force is perceived, that several fans consider that the Sithis of the Dark Brotherhood is actually someone else, typically thought either to be Mephala or Vivec. But again, I’ll go through those ideas in detail in another podcast.

Differences in gods

So we have points of origin revered in general, whether ancestors or creators. However, these aren’t necessarily direct relations, and there is no clear “god material”. What each culture considers a god is more reflective of what each culture values and how the world is perceived. Those perceptions also inform the way that even the same gods and spirits are viewed. Tying into the discussion of mythopoeia we had last time, different cultures will tell different stories, which will create different perceptions of spirits, which will potentially split the perception of spirits themselves.

These attributes will produce different names and characters, based on the stories that are told about these entities. The Aedra are particularly susceptible for this, as they aren’t that inclined or able to challenge whatever stories have been constructed about them. Which may ultimately create truths that shape the gods themselves. As I said last time, this isn’t necessarily the same thing as belief or faith making or shaping gods, but one that puts storytelling as the key thing. This even affects those gods that aren’t et’ada, as Vivec makes every clear. The Warrior-Poet writes hir own history in the 36 Lessons, and we have very little way of knowing whether or not this was actually the case; did ze rewrite the events of history, or just tell outrageous stories about it? The lines are blurred, as is the nature of divinity in TES. I won’t go into specific examples here, as they’re in-depth enough that they deserve their own episodes at some point. The key for now is that gods typically have different manifestations, and that these are generally either real or might as well be.

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen/read, and if you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcatcher, I’m now most of the ones out there. If you fancy a chat, please join the discussion on the Written in Uncertainty Discord.

I’m also collating a list of the best longform essays on TES lore. If you have any you think should be in there, please let me know. Check out the existing ones here.

Next time, the last time I’ll be deciding it myself, having looked at godhood in general we’ll be looking at a very specific sort-of-god, sort-of-family, sort-of-plant. Next time, we’ll be asking, what are the Hist?

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty Episode 12: What is Mythopoeia?

Listen on: Anchor | iTunes | Spotify | Full list

Today on Written in Uncertainty we’re discussing some of the most fundamental laws of the Aurbis, that shapes everything from the most powerful of deities and how cultures see themselves, right down to the bedtime stories told to children. Today we’re asking, what is mythopoeia, and is Alduin Akatosh?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the idea, and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server. I’ll also be linking the sources that I quote in this podcast in the blog post, so please go through and read the sources rather than just taking what I say at face value.

Mythopoeia IRL

To start with, I’d like to go into what mythopoeia is in real life. Mythopoeia (also mythopoesis), comes from Greek μυθοποιία, μυθοποίησις and means “myth-making”. It’s also a fiction genre, where the author is not just telling a story, but building a world as well, with its own myths and legends. Tolkien used the term when referring to how he thought about Middle-earth (including writing a poem on the subject); he wasn’t just writing stories, he was building a world full of stories, complete with its own myths that the characters reference throughout the tales that we are told.

While few other authors explicitly call out what they’re doing as mythopoeia, pretty much any act of creating background for a world that exists outside of the story as an act of mthopoeia. You could call the creation of the in-game texts in TES a mythopoeic endeavour by Bethesda, as it’s an attempt to build a series of stories and myths to make a world feel more in-depth. However, it means something a little different in-universe. The key takeaway to remember from this is that it’s the act of making myth.

Where can I find it in The Elder Scrolls?

It’s also a fairly obscure word in The Elder Scrolls series, showing up in only one place in the games. In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Yagrum Bagarn mentions that Kagrenac’s Tools were ”created to forge mythopoeic enchantments”. We don’t hear about it anywhere else. However, Yagrum goes into a little more detail with precisely what mythopoeic enchantment entails:

“In his search for the secrets of immortality, Kagrenac sought to control supernatural forces that you might call ‘divine’. This artifact — called ‘Wraithguard — was one of the tools that he created for this purpose. Some believed his tampering with such forces was profane, and terribly dangerous. You know the Dwemer disappeared? His use of these tools may have been responsible.”

This gives us a fairly quick definition that mythopoeic enchantments are enchantments that control or influence the divine, and so mythopoeia and mythopoeic forces are those forces which can control or influence the divine.

So what can Mythopoeia actually do?

However, actually applying it isn’t quite that simple. To start with, the Aedra and Daedra are different classes of divine beings, are they affected differently? We have the book Aedra and Daedra, which states this:

“Aedra created the mortal world and are bound to the Earth Bones. Daedra, who cannot create, have the power to change.
As part of the divine contract of creation, the Aedra can be killed. Witness Lorkhan and the moons.
The protean Daedra, for whom the rules do not apply, can only be banished.”

This isn’t an outright statement that one group will be affected by mythopoeia and one won’t, but it can be taken to imply that only the Aedra can be affected by Mythopoeia. This may also have something to do with how the various Aedra and Daedra are perceived. We have this piece of speculation from Phintias, in the thread Amulet, Amulet, who put her in the Amulet:

If you got a theological expert from each of the races of Tamriel, Akavir, Pyandonea, Thras, and a Dremora in a room and asked them about the nature of Akatosh and Lorkhan, they’d argue for days. If you asked them about the nature of Sheogorath, they’d be able to reach a pretty quick consensus. The Daedra have that advantage of one, uber-strong unified belief; this would effect [sic] creatia far more that many, split beliefs like those of the Aedra. Perhaps that is even why the Aedra cannot effect the mortal realm as much as the Daedra; the unified belief, and therefore unified soul, gives Daedra more ability to control creatia. The Aedra, in the meantime, are weakened by the lack of unified belief; the mythopoeic forces cause the Aedra to split into many seperate [sic] manifestations, each with only a portion of the capabilities of the original Aedra.

Mythopoeia and gods

Does this mean we have a situation where the gods gain strength from worship and belief? This is a reasonably common trope in some fantasy worlds, like American Gods or Discworld. But does it apply to Tamriel? We have this from An Overview of Gods and Worship:

It has been theorized that gods do in fact gain strength from such things as worship through praise, sacrifice and deed. It may even be theorized that the number of worshippers a given Deity has may reflect on His overall position among the other Gods. This my own conjecture, garnered from the apparent ability of the larger temples to attain blessings and assistance from their God with greater ease than smaller religious institutions.

I don’t think quite it, however. We do have some instances of new gods emerging, like the creation of the Eight Divines pantheon and Akatosh being stripped of his merish aspects. These events didn’t not involve the wholesale shifting of a culture overnight, but the actions of a few particular people. So it’s not the belief that’s powering it, not the worship itself. The creation of the Eight Divines, in particular, wasn’t necessarily getting large numbers of people to believe something new; it was twisting the old in a different way, a “refraction” in belief rather than a change in focus. Also, a key is in how this is done; through story, through myth, going back to the original meaning of the word. The Made-up Word Roundup thread had a quote by Allerleirauh, which is this:

As in “mythopoeic enchantments” which is what Kagrenac was supposedly doing with the tools. Would appear to mean, “shaping reality by means of altering archetypes and myth.”

The use of archetypes is important here; in Jungian psychology, there is the idea that certain types of character (archetypes) are universals throughout all people. These then emerge as literary constructs that conform to certain patterns. Figures like the mother, the child, the warrior, the trickster will, according to the Jungian model, express certain constant patterns. If we take this as true, then altering those archetypes through manipulation of myth, through the use of mythopoeic force, is incredibly powerful. It’s not that things are shaped by belief, but that believe adheres to archetypes. Change the archetype, and you change the belief. That’s what Alessia, the Marukhati Selectives and arguably the Tribunal were all doing.

The Dwemer probably were as well, but I don’t think that they were doing the same kind of manipulation as the others. While the others were aiming at specific examples (the creation of the Divines pantheon and the expression of Akatosh), the Dwemer seemed to be aiming to manipulate what the nature of divinity itself was. They were looking to adjust what they were and what the gods were to being the same thing once again, making them the same sort of archetype. But I’m digressing slightly.

Myth and Truth

Now, if you think back to the second part of Allerleirauh’s quote, and the base of the word itself, myth… myth derives from the Greek mythos, which is the counterpart for logos, which are both words for “truth”. Myths therefore convey truth. Or truths, is probably the more accurate way of putting it. While logos is aiming at factual, logical truth (see what I did there?), mythos is dealing with more subjective truth, truths of the human condition. That’s what people mean when they talk about “the power of myth”. In order for a myth to be a myth, it has to express a truth about existence. Literal truth, not so much, or it would be logos, but truths about underlying human patterns.

Going back to The Elder Scrolls, it appears that all truth is mythos to some extent; we have texts like Reality and Other Falsehoods that indicate that the idea of a factual, immovable truth is very unlike the world of TES, which Lawrence Shick has also indicated:

“This is a world of myth. This is a world where reality is actually changeable, where the Divines can change not only what happens going forward, but what has happened in the past. So, you know, the idea there is an objective reality behind all these different people’s opinions is not necessarily the case in the world of Tamriel.”

Given this, shaping myths is shaping truth in TES. So, to quote Pontius Pilate, what is truth?

What is Truth?

Truth in TES has various associations beyond simply being what actually happened. As I’ve said before, the straight truth is something that TES tries desperately to avoid. And is always generally quite limited. The Truth in Sequence, a text that talks the most about truth more than most texts in TES, talks mostly about a specific truth, that of Anuic unity and Padomaic falsehood and deception. Even here, we have the implication that truth itself is not a categorical thing; it encourages readers at one point to:

smash the old machines! Topple your mind’s idols! And from the wreckage, assemble new truths – flawless and water-tight.

Even here, a book called “the truth”, indicates multiple truths. It’s also quite an active thing – taking things and making them true. The things in themselves aren’t the truth. This is even more the case in the 36 Lessons of Vivec, where truth is repeatedly associated with blunt violence. We have this from Sermon 31

Truth is like my husband: instructed to smash, filled with procedure and noise, hammering, weighty, heaviness made schematic, lessons learned only by a mace.

And this from Sermon 36:

Ayem took from the star its fire, Seht took from it its mystery, and Vehk took from it its feet, which had been constructed before the gift of Molag Bal and destroyed in the manner of truth: by a great hammering.

Alongside these, which effectively equate truth with violence, truth is also compared with water, which The Elder Scrolls: Online links with memory. This is also dismissive of objective truth, in that memories are coloured by subjectivity, and not an accurate record. Truth is what it is made to be by people and their actions.

This is accepted at the most basic level by students of the school of Alteration. Reality and other Falsehoods has this to say on the matter:

To master Alteration, first accept that reality is a falsehood. There is no such thing. Our reality is a perception of greater forces impressed upon us for their amusement. Some say that these forces are the gods, others that they are something beyond the gods. For the wizard, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the appeal couched in a manner that cannot be denied. It must be insistent without being insulting.

This means that there isn’t necessarily a single truth behind a thing; it may not be events perceived from different angles, like the story of the blind men and the elephant, or the idea of looking at a cylinder at different angles to get a rectangle and a circle. We are likely dealing with something that is actually reshaping reality in specific instances, through the imposition of force. Like the Thu’um.

The Thu’um is, actually, a good example of this. Arngeir says this:

There is no difference in the dragon tongue between debating and fighting. Shouting comes as naturally to a dragon as breathing.

Dragons use the Thu’um to impose their will on reality. The debating example is pretty apt; the Thu’um is used to say “This. Is. SO!”, which is the point of a debate, generally; asserting your version of events, your reality, in an effort to convince others.

We’re going to get a little headcanony here for a second. I have my own theories about how and why faith and the like work, and I think it’s tied to myth. Faith, in the sense of “being convinced of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1) doesn’t really happen, as the gods can be seen. People are comforted by the obvious ethics of a deity which either manifests directly and spells out their right and wrong, and if that doesn’t suit them, they can always pick another one. Sigillah Parate makes this abundantly clear in the book Invocation of Azura; she chooses a Daedra to worship because it suits her, not because of any ethical or faith-based problem. Aela chooses to continue to follow Hircine for similar reasons.
However, while faith is a lifestyle choice in TES, it is not the end of the story. While Jean-Paul Satre sees that choice is both fundamental to the human condition and not bounded (as expressed in the quote “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent”), the way that choice is made is not merely preference. It has far-reaching subjective consequences, insofar that it informs our very idea of reality. To quote Satre further, from the book Existentialism & Humanism:

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.

This is basically saying that no one acts in the way that they consider would be wrong for anyone. In acting, everyone affirms that their actions are truth – a truth that is both subjective and universal in the same instant. Mythopoeia is when it goes beyond that, and you impose that truth on others by reshaping the archetypes that people use, changing how they think. This is how we wind up with different gods in different places, for the most part; the archetypes are manipulated and combined through the re-telling and reshaping of myth.This has resulted in several gods being recombined and altered, like Akatosh and Arkay, but the best example of this that I think we have, or at least the cleanest, in my view, is Akatosh. I should probably address the others at some point, but we’ll go with the dragon god for now.

Akatosh, aka… Lots

The Time God is a figure that is a relative constant in Tamrielic mythology; only the Dunmer, Redguards and Argonians don’t have an easily identifiable cognate of Akatosh in their pantheons. Some, most particularly Cyrodilic scholars equate all aspects of the time god with Akatosh. We also have the term Aka appearing in a few texts (particularly the Song of Pelinal and the unlicensed Et’ada, Eight Aedra, Eat the Dreamer), which implies a “higher order time god than Akatosh or whatever name gets used. This entity refers to Alduin as an “aspect” in the Seven Fights of the Aldudagga text, which could be seen to imply that we have a single being with many facets.

I’m a little sceptical of that, or at least the idea that it relates to a cohesive whole; as I said earlier, what we have in The Elder Scrolls in relation to gods doesn’t seem to be a single entity seen from different angles. It’s different entities, different archetypes. And time has many different archetypes that can be applied.

Is Aka Time Periods?

This is most obvious when you think about different periods of time, put most simply as beginning, middle and end. Real world myths play off this a lot, with the maiden-mother-crone archetypes for female characters, as well as the riddle of the sphinx.

In relation to Aka, the most common breakdown is the following:

  • Auri-El/Auriel as the beginning of time
  • Akatosh as the middle of time
  • Alduin as the end of time

This plays very nicely into where we see these different entities the most; Auri-El has less and less to do with the myths we hear the further away we get from the Dawn Era, whereas Alduin has always been associated with the end times. However, Akatosh puts a spanner in the works here, and that’s because of some potentially weird things going on. I know, you’re all shocked – paradoxes connected to the nature of the time god! Whoever could have seen that coming?

Akatosh became what he is in the time of the games through the interference of the Marukhati Selectives, in the First Era. The Selectives caused a dragon break in order to remove some perceived merish elements from the time god. You’ll see some claim that this is the point that Akatosh is created, that the actions of the Selectives made Auri-El into Akatosh, or at least separated the two. Where Were You When the Dragon Broke points out this quite explicitly by saying:

A fanatical sect of the Alessian Order, the Maruhkati Selective, becomes frustrated by ancient Aldmeri traditions still present within the theological system of the Eight Divines. Specifically, they hated any admission that Akatosh, the Supreme Spirit, was indisputably also Auriel, the Elven High God.

However, we also have texts like Shezarr and the Divines that assert that Akatosh was originally an Aldmeri god. If that’s the case, why do we have Auri-El as the head of most merish pantheons?

I think the answer lies in what the Selectives did, but more specifically when and how. The Selectives created a dragon break in order to meddle with the nature of Akatosh, which can be seen as a return to the Dawn Era, before time. If this is the case, it’s possible that any changes wrought during a dragon break could potentially have retroactive effects. So, if Akatosh was split from merish aspects in the untime of the Middle Dawn, we could conceivably create two different gods who have both existed for the duration of linear time, but are frequently confused with each other.

I saw a post on this years ago in the old Bethesda forums. I have no idea who originally posted it, I’ve tried in vain to find it again, although I’m probably mangling the phrasing. The quote as I remember it is this:

Alduin is the son of Akatosh, who has always existed. But Auriel and Alduin were Akatosh before he always existed.

If this is true, then we have an imperfectly overlaid new version of the time god, created by the Marukhati and superimposed over Auri-El, that we now call Akatosh. Or maybe there was a version called Akatosh that the Marukhati just enlarged; we can’t know for sure based on our current knowledge and position within the Aurbis.

So what does that mean for Alduin?

To (finally) get to the original question for this podcast, comparing Alduin and Akatosh, we see Alduin as his own being in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, despite claims from some that Alduin and Akatosh are one and the same. Alduin also doesn’t have an explicit “birth point” in the same way as we can point to for Akatosh, and he isn’t around much at the beginning of the universe either, despite being called the “wellspring” of the Nordic Pantheon in Varieties of Faith. There was never any real confusion with Akatosh in the same way as there has been with Auri-El, despite there being some clear separation.

So either we have Alduin being associated with the time god at a lower subgradient, that is Akatosh self-reflecting enough to birth another soul, or something else is going on. Or maybe it isn’t Akatosh self-reflecting at all, but something else…

The Seven Fights of the Aldudagga and the Eat the Dreamer unlicensed texts both point to there being an Aka above Akatosh, that there is an entity from which Alduin is derived. Various other of MK’s writings and forum posts also call Alduin Akatosh’s “Mirror-Brother”. The whole quote is actually this:

Don’t forget that gods can be shaped by the mythopoeic forces of the mantlers– so Tosh Raka could be an Akaviri avatar of Akatosh with a grudge against his mirror-brother in Cyrodiil.

Just like Akatosh-as-we-usually-know-him could time-scheme against his mirror-brother of the Nords, Alduin, to keep the present kalpa– perhaps his favorite– from being eaten.

Notice all the coulds.

All those coulds notwithstanding, this feels like the forces of mythopoeia can break up various parts of the Time Dragon into his component aspects. This makes sense if you think about how stories are told about time; even in common speech, time is a healer, a hound always at our heels, a relentless force that wipes everything away, and probably a bunch more metaphors that I can’t think of right now. Each of those roles require different types of stories, different myths and archetypes in order to be told coherently. So it is pretty much inevitable that a time god, connected to the changeability of the material world, would wind up being different attributes.

And we also have a potentially adversarial relationship between Akatosh and Alduin hinted at in the above quote. This is also a consequence of so many different tales being told about time. This is more or less spelled out in the unlicensed et’Ada, Eight Aedra, Eat the Dreamer:

The Aedroth Aka, who goes by so many names as to perhaps already suggest what I’m about to commit to memospore, is completely insane. His mind broke when his “perch from Eternity allowed the day”

That fragmentation would allow for different aspects of Aka to both exist and be Aka all at once, being extracted from a bigger whole. If we also allow the possibility that Aka is insane, Akatosh and Alduin can both be the same and having different drives, in line with the aspects of their mythic archetypes. The two are defined by the mythopoesis that they are associated with, but are only manipulated when the underlying archetypes are changed; Alduin is therefore the longer-lasting in the mythic history of Tamriel and, despite his statements, probably prior to Akatosh, in the timelines before the machinations of the Marukhati changed the nature of Akatosh when they broke the dragon even further.

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen/read, and if you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcatcher, I’m now most of the ones out there. If you fancy a chat, please join the discussion on the Written in Uncertainty Discord.

I’m also collating a list of the best longform essays on TES lore. If you have any you think should be in there, please let me know. Check out the existing ones here.

And a note to those listening as these are released, this will be the last episode before Christmas. I’ll be travelling before next episode is due, and then away from my recording kit. Once I get back I’ll also be looking into using a more convenient host for the podcast, which will hopefully be a little less manual than the processes I’ve been using up until this point. This may mean that there is some downtime or glitches if you’re trying to listen to things during the migration. Hopefully not, but you never know.

In the meantime, I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season, and I’ll be back with more episodes in the new year.

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty Episode 11: What is Mantling, and How is Talos Three People?

Listen on: Anchor | iTunes | Spotify | Full list

Today on Written in Uncertainty, we’re discussing one of the most contentious ways that mortals can become gods, and potentially one of the most famous results. Today we’re asking, what is mantling, and how is Talos three people?

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Before we begin, the usual disclaimer: I’d like to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the idea, and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as well. You may have other ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below. Please go through and read the sources rather than just taking what I say at face value, and join the conversation on the Written in Uncertainty Discord server.

I’d also like to add something to last time’s episode; I had a comment on /r/teslore that highlighted that I hadn’t properly explained a few things. In particular, why the player characters disappear once they’ve finished the events of the games. One comment pointed out that I hadn’t addressed the exile of the hero. I admit, I don’t know the precise theory that the commenter is referencing, but it feels like the alienation of the Hero after they return to where they came from, but come back changed. They are alienated from their context, because they are different. The Hero in the Elder Scrolls has no context to be alienated from, but they never stick around. Their actions still change them, in the same way that the observer of an enantiomorph is maimed.

We also have the insinuation in The Elder Scrolls III that the Hero is a scapegoat – the Nerevarine “eats the sin” of House Dagoth, in the same way as the scapegoat takes the sin of the people of Israel. Then the Nerevarine is rumoured to go away to Akavir, bearing the sin away to somewhere else. It’s not as explicit elsewhere, but it is similar; it is an outsider coming in, fixing a problem, and never attaching themself to the society in which they find themselves. They are always an outsider.

But now we should probably talk about what we’re here to talk about: mantling!

What is Mantling?

Real-World Inspiration

The term itself is taken from a turn of phrase that in turn comes from the Old Testament, specifically 2 Kings 2:11-14:

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan; And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.

To engage in a little Biblical analysis here, in taking Elijah’s mantle, his cloak, Elisha is taking up Elijah’s role as a prophet when he picks it up, as is seen in the way that he took the cloak and performed a miracle with it. This is the essence of mantling in The Elder Scrolls: taking on the role of another, and thereby assuming their power and status as well.

So where do we hear about this in the series? Not very often, actually… there are hints at it in several places, but it’s very rarely spelled out.

Mantling and the Walking Ways

Mantling is one of the Walking Ways, a way that Vivec says “Six are the formulas to heaven by violence” in Sermon 6, which is also called the Walking Ways in the Scripture of Numbers (Sermon 29). “Reaching Heaven” in this sense is commonly seen by the fans as being a form of apotheosis. Pretty much all the Walking Ways are used to essentially “become a god”, but note that this is not the same thing as becoming an et’ada. It’s just a way of becoming… something else. Changing the kind of being that you are, but note that whether that makes you a god… depends on your definition of a god in TES. I may get round to that, but in the meantime check out the Selectives’ Lorecast on this topic.

With regard to mantling, we get the fourth Walking Way, called the Steps of the Dead in Sermon 32:

‘The sage who is not an anvil: a conventional sentence and nothing more. By which I mean dead, the fourth walking way.’

The fourth walking way is linked to mantling in Nu-Hatta and the Sphinxmoth Enquiry Tree, which says this:

Tiber Septim: “The Stormcrown manted [sic] by way of the fourth: the steps of the dead. Mantling and incarnation are separate roads; do not mistake this. The latter is built from the cobbles of drawn-bone destiny. The former: walk like them until they must walk like you. This is the death children bring as the Sons of Hora.”

Small digression here: I’ve seen this read to mean there may be different ways of mantling, of which the steps of the dead is the fourth. However, because of the quote from Sermon 32, I think it’s far more likely that it’s simply the fourth walking way.

So how do you actually do it?

The most relevant part of that quote is “walk like them until they walk like you”. It implies that someone who wishes to mantle someone else must imitate them, do the things that they would do, until you’re essentially the same person. Put simply, it’s a form of “fake it until you make it”, tricking the Aurbis into thinking that you are the person you’ve been trying to do. However, it also has a comment on identity, similar to what I talked about last time: the Hero of each Elder Scrolls game is what they are because of what they do, not the other way around. The Elder Scrolls V has muddied the waters a bit here, but it’s very explicit in most places.

In addition to imitation, mantling also seems to involve replacement; one of the best example of mantling is the Champion of Cyrodiil and Sheogorath. It even gets called out on the box to the 5th anniversary copy of the game, which says:

“Do you have the strength to survive his trials, to tame a realm fraught with paranoia and despair, and wear the mantle of a God?”

This only happens when Sheogorath disappears and is replaced by Jyggalag. The other case that we have for mantling is Talos, which is mostly taken to be that they are mantling Lorkhan, who is the missing god. So it’s possible that mantling can only happen when there’s a gap somewhere in the Aurbis to be filled. We do however also have MK posting as Vivec during his Trial saying that the Tribunal may have mantled the Anticipations:

“And so from their basis did we spring, called to heaven by violence, our people throwing our mantles to us across stars, and across time, and magic and dream, and here we remain.”

This is a little different because the Anticipations are not gone; they are still present and doing things. However, I also think that the context of this remark means that it is not exactly mantling in the sense we discussed earlier. It feels like mantle as role, not mantle as in metaphysical status. But they do have some similarities, most explicitly in the book Vivec and Mephala, which points out that Vivec acts very similarly to Mephala in a kind of open secret. However, while ze has attributes that are similar to Mephala, and replaced her in the Dunmer faith, but I wouldn’t call it an attempt at mantling, although some do.

I also think it’s worth talking briefly about precisely what can or can’t be mantled; can the Last Dragonborn mantle Shor? is the Nerevarine mantling Nerevar? etc Given that we don’t have many confirmed examples to work with, we can’t say for sure what the limits of mantling compared to basic imitation actually are. This is what I can work out, given the examples we have, but this is not much beyond my own speculation and what I’ve seen others do similarly.

Mantling is a process whereby an entity gains more power, and another identity. I think the “more power” thing has to be a coherent part of it if mantling is to mean anything other than imitation and possible mental illness. As a result, I think that the thing that you are mantling needs to be above you in terms of creational gradients. This means that mortals imitating other mortals, even those chosen by the gods, doesn’t make much sense. There’s an usurpation of the role they take on, but not mantling as such, which I think is what happens with the Tribunal.

The mantling of Sheogorath during the Greymarch is also touched on by a Loremaster’s Archive, in which Haskill mentions that he is a Vestige, in this quote:

I am a Vestige, all that remains of a mortal from your world who ‘mantled’ Sheogorath during an event in a previous time. As a fragment, my memory of the event is … fragmentary. I am hazy on the entire concept of ‘mantling,’ but it had something to do with Lord Sheogorath, myself, and this Jyggalag of whom you speak.

This implies that there is some remnant of the original thing left over when mantling occurs, or at least there can be. Haskill is different from the Champion of Cyrodiil in that he clearly failed to free Jyggalag, while the Champion of Cyrodiil did not. However, does that mean that Haskill did not mantle Sheogorath? I’m inclined to say that there was a mantle passed here, in the sense of a missing gap in the Aurbis filled, but one that did not result in Jyggalag’s defeat. So we have a situation where Haskill both is and is not Sheogorath at once, as a result of the mantling process. Bear that in mind, while I talk about the biggest and most contentious example of mantling that we have.

Talos

Mantling by Way of the Fourth

According to the orthodox account of the Talos cult, Talos is an Atmoran who creates the first empire to conquer and unite all of Tamriel. There aren’t that many explicit accounts of how this happened; it feels like it’s just assumed. Even Heimskr just handwaves the process.

However, there’s quite a few holes in this. The most obvious is the “of Atmora” moniker. Talos exists at the end of the Second Era, while the Pocket Guide to the Empire states that the last migrants from Atmora arrived in 1E 68, well before Talos was born. Then there’s also the fact that there were no mentions of Talos before The Elder Scrolls III. This is a little weird, as you’d expect one of the most pivotal figures of the Divines pantheon to be a little more prominent. There is a whiff of retcon here, as well, as Talos is shoehorned in in The Elder Scrolls III as the deified Tiber Septim. As well as picking holes in the conventional in-universe orthodoxy, the major god that defines much of Cyrodilic faith just appears out of nowhere.

I should clarify here that I’m talking about Talos the god, not Talos the man: Talos as a name for Tiber Septim has been around since The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, noted in the First Edition of the Pocket Guide to the Empire.

So, this is being The Elder Scrolls, the fans and a particular text put together the dots to work out what was going on here. That text was The Arcturian Heresy, which claims that Tiber Septim was an identity created by a cabal of three men who wanted to run the empire together. Apart from casting the main Tiber character in a far less flattering light and accusing him of multiple murders as part of his rise to power, it ends with a really interesting scene, which is the basis for associating Talos with mantling:

Pieces of Numidium trickle in, though. Tiber Septim, always fascinated by the Dwarves, has Zurin Arctus research this grand artifact. In doing so, Arctus stumbles upon some of the stories of the war at Red Mountain. He discovers the reason the Numidium was made and some of it’s [sic] potential. Most importantly, he learns the Underking’s place in the War. But Zurin Arctus was working from incomplete plans. He thinks it is the heart of Lorkhan’s body that is needed to power the Numidium.

While Zurin Arctus is raving about his discovery, the prophecy finally becomes clear to Tiber Septim. This Numidium is what he needs to conquer the world. It is his destiny to have it. He contacts the Underking and says he was right all along. They should kill the Tribunal, and they need to get together and make a plan. While the Underking was away he realized the true danger of Dagoth-Ur. Something must to be done. But he needs an army, and his old one is available again. The trap is set.

The Underking arrives and is ambushed by Imperial guards. As he takes them on, Zurin Arctus uses a soulgem on him. With his last breath, the Underking’s Heart roars a hole through the Battlemage’s chest. In the end, everyone is dead, the Underking has reverted back to ash, and Tiber Septim strolls in to take the soulgem. When the Elder Council arrives, he tells them about the second attempt on his life, this time by his trusted battle mage, Zurin Arctus, who was attempting a coup. He has the dead guards celebrated as heroes, even the one who was blasted to ash… He warns Cyrodiil about the dangers within, but says he has a solution to the dangers without. The Mantella.

The Numidium, while not the god Tiber Septim and the Dwemer hoped for (the Underking was not exactly Lorkhan, after all), it does the job. After its work on Summerset Isle a new threat appears — a rotting undead wizard who controls the skies. He blows the Numidium apart. But it pounds him into the ground with its last flailings, leaving only a black splotch. The Mantella falls into the sea, seemingly forever.

Meanwhile, Tiber Septim crowns himself the First Emperor of Tamriel. He lives until he is 108, the richest man in history. All aspects of his early reign are rewritten. Still, there are conflicting reports of what really happened, and this is why there is such confusion over such questions as: Why does Alcaire claim to be the birthplace of Talos, while other sources say he came from Atmora? Why does Tiber Septim seem to be a different person after his first roaring conquests? Why does Tiber Septim betray his battlemage? Is the Mantella the heart of the battlemage or is it the heart of Tiber Septim?

The key for this is the event where the Underking is deceived. We have someone being betrayed, and a heart being torn out as a part of that betrayal. This seems very like what happens to Lorkhan at Convention, when he has his heart torn out as punishment for creating the mortal world. However, there are multiple deceptions and betrayals going on here; while we have Wulfharth being soul-trapped, Zurin has a hole torn through his chest. So which is Lorkhan?

The most obvious answer, if we take MK at his word, is both. MK produced a list of people he considered Shezzarines, or shards of Lorkhan. This list includes all the various characters involved in this event. We have Talos being Lorkhan from “all angles”, so to speak, and in a sense potentially imitating Convention as a whole as well as Lorkhan, an idea I discussed in the episode on the man/mer schism. In brief, it is the idea that Talos mantles not just Lorkhan, but Convention itself, fortifying the structure of the Aurbis by taking the Missing God’s place. If you want some more discussion on this, check that episode out.

For those of you tracking the timelines here, this is a little off so far. After all, Tiber Septim unified Tamriel in the Second Era, and Talos only appeared as a god after the Warp in the West, in 3E 417. So why the difference? To understand that, we need a brief recap of the events at the end of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall.

One of the endings to Daggerfall involves allowing the Underking to use the Totem of Tiber Septim to reunite with the part of his soul trapped within the Mantella. If you take the Heresy as true, the description of Wulfharth’s heart getting torn out implies a possible mingling of souls takes place. This means that when the Underking’s soul is reunited during the Warp, it connects with Wulfharth and consequently all the other bits that are Shezarrine souls. This creates Talos, which wasn’t possible while part of the three was bound to the mortal plane.

As a result, Talos is three souls stacked into one, and moreover, three potential incarnations of Lorkhan. The various participants also take up a range of roles within their lives, if the Heresy is to be believed, which, in the most common telling of things, get linked together in various ways.

The most important of these for mantling, I think, is Ysmir, a title that is shared by both Wulfharth and Hjalti, and is described in Varieties of Faith as the Nordic version of Talos. Ysmir, particularly given how the Greybeards talk about him, is a role that some people have taken on, similar to how Redguards consider the Hoon’Ding to be a role that can be taken on by different people. But anyway, back to the Hjalti-Wulf-Zurin Triumvirate.

A nice, neat image of the various characters in the Heresy. Just a shame that it’s wrong.

In one of the more common tellings I see of this, the three characters involved in the enantiomorph in the Heresy each have two titles applied to them: Hjalti and Wulfharth is Ysmir, Hjalti and Zurin is Tiber, and Zurin and Wulfarth is the Underking, with all three making Talos.

However, this doesn’t quite match even what we’re given in the Heresy; Skeleton Man’s Interview identifies Zurin and Talos as Tiber, not Zurin and Hjalti as Tiber, while all three (Hjalti, Wulfarth and Zurin) are identified with Tiber in the Heresy. So while Talos is the three combined, it’s not as simple a combination as it’s often made out to be.

I feel I should point out here that this isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. There are quite a few leaps made in the Heresy that aren’t backed up elsewhere, most particularly the linking between Wulfharth and the Underking, where it is Zurin alone who is the Underking in the game, and no ending in Daggerfall brings up Tiber’s deification, despite the book The Warp in the West explicitly mentioning that people were aware of the change surrounding the dragon break, that there was suddenly a new set of kingdoms that people were suddenly aware of; there wasn’t a. There is no similar mention of Talos appearing as a new god. The Arcturian Heresy is the only text that makes the Talos-as-mantling-product version of events seem obvious. It’s been taken by many fans to be the truth, particularly given MK’s comments, but there isn’t too much evidence backing it up apart from that book, so there are regular questions within the fandom about how legitimate this whole thing is.

Ebonarm and Talos

There is, however, one more theory I want to discuss regarding Talos’ ascension, which may involve mantling and replacement. In the books prior to Morrowind, Ebonarm was a god of war in several pantheons. It has been suggested by some that, rather than mantling Lorkhan and taking his place, Talos has instead supplanted Ebonarm as a god of war. It would certainly fit with the militant beginnings of Tiber, and doesn’t require a huge deviation from the orthodox account that the theory surrounding mantling Lorkhan does. There’s also the possible evidence that Ebonarm was subsequently removed from everything that previously mentioned him, although this is usually thought to be an editorial out-of-universe decision that hasn’t been entirely explained. I’m also a little sceptical of that particular idea, as beyond conquering, Talos did very little that could be linked to Ebonarm. Indeed, the book The Ebon Arm, which details a manifestation of Ebonarm, describes him as a peacemaker who discouraged people from making war. You could apply that to Talos I guess, in a Pax Romana, “making a desert and calling it peace” sense, but Tiber didn’t end conflicts to the mutual benefit of both sides and make conflict seem unnecessary. So I’m a little sceptical But it’s entirely possible, given that one of the biggest pieces of the most common mantling theory relies on a single text. It feels like there’s enough material that you can take whatever story you like, although there does seem to be an unofficial consensus on the matter.

Which, I guess, is an appropriate point to draw this to a close. Mantling is a really little-understood area of TES lore, as much as there’s a lot of talk about it.The examples we have have lots of variables, which make each example pretty much unique although in theory following the same pattern. Mantling involves imitation, until the universe thinks you are a different thing, but what that means for both the original being and the being attempting the mantling feels very unclear at this point.

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen/read, and if you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favourite podcatcher, I’m now most of the ones out there. If you fancy a chat, please join the discussion on the Written in Uncertainty Discord.

I’m also collating a list of the best longform essays on TES lore, from whatever source. If you have any you think should be in there, please let me know. Check out the existing ones here.

Next time, having touched on a few ways of going near godhood in TES, we’re going to look at one of the bigger underlying principles of godhood in the universe. Next time, we’re asking, what is mythopoeia, and is Alduin Akatosh?

Until then, this podcast remains a letter written in uncertainty.

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Written in Uncertainty Episode 10: Why are Elder Scrolls Protagonists Always Prisoners?

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Today on Written in Uncertainty, we’re discussing a figure that is both towering in scope and very personal, infinitely variable and one that often follows a pattern. And it’s one that we’ve all been. Today we’re asking, why are TES protagonists always prisoners?

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Before I begin, I just like to thank ProfessorJimbles for his very kind review on iTunes. I’m really glad you appreciate the content I’m putting out and I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to see your review. I’ve only just managed to work out how you see various iTunes reviews in different territories, and as you’re in Australia, it’s taken me a while to find you. So thank you ever so much.

As usual, the disclaimer before we kick off. Just to remind everyone that this is my own understanding of the ideas I’m talking about and not necessarily the whole truth of the matter, although I’ll do my best to bring in other viewpoints as we go through. If you have any other ideas, I’d absolutely love to hear them. Please leave comments below, or join the conversation at the Written in Uncertainty Discord server.

Where does the idea of the Prisoner come from?

Ever since The Elder Scrolls: Arena we have had the protagonists in the Elder Scrolls games being prisoners to various degrees. I think there’s a few exceptions in the spin-offs, and you can argue that the start in The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall isn’t really a prisoner because they start off in a cave. But I seem to remember they have a slightly more definite backstory to the prisoner in Daggerfall at the start is someone who has been a prisoner in the past.

But why is this particular thing important? This is because you have Prisoners who become Heroes and Heroes have a particularly important role within the cosmos and the metaphysics of The Elder Scrolls. There’s a beautiful quote that I think started all this off, in The Elder Scrolls III, the game starts with this line:

Each Event is preceded by Prophecy. But without the Hero, there is no Event.

This has several of implications for precisely what the Hero is, what the Hero does, and how they function with relation to Prophecy, and by extension, the games. The idea of the Prisoner as a mythical figure, as an important type of character within The Elder Scrolls universe has been touched on at some parts in the games, very explicitly in the Clockwork City storyline in The Elder Scrolls Online, which has solidified some of the ideas that fans have been bouncing around for a few years about what the Prisoner is and how it works. I’d also like to extend my thanks to IceFireWarden or Al-Hatoor, depending on where and when you’ve known him for his absolutely brilliant text, Anuvanna’si – Heroes, Prisoners and the Godhead with a Thousand Faces. He’s collated the vast majority of stuff relating to the Prisoner within the Elder Scrolls universe, what it means how it fits together in a marvellous 56 page document and put forward a very convincing case about what the hero is in the Hero’s role within the Aurbis. I’ll be touching on some of his ideas as we go through this, I don’t agree with him on all the particulars, as I’ve noted here.

The Prisoner as Game Design

On one level, the Prisoner started off as a game design choice; it makes the beginning of a game very, very easy to micromanage and set up tutorials, as a prison is by its nature, a closed environment. So you’ve got no real artificial reason for limiting what the player character can do. If they’re already in a prison, you’ve got all the constraints you need. So it’s very easy to run through tutorial. teaching someone how to move, how to jump, how to pick things up, how you use them etc, because a prison is such a self-contained environment. It’s since evolved into something of a tradition within The Elder Scrolls; it’s the way that the majority of games have introduced things since 2002, with The Elder Scrolls III. However, there’s also been coincidences to go alongside that which have kind of hinted at that sort of a setup. The reason for that if you think about the exception that we’ve got the Daggerfall start, a cave is very similar in terms of how restricted you are in comparison to the outside world; you can still only really go one way, you will have a very few limited things that you can do, and there’s not generally going to be many people around in the wake of a shipwreck. So it was done for entirely the same reasons.

This is a definite person, and not a Prisoner.

From a story-writing perspective, it also means that there’s no need for a backstory, you have an environment where someone is entirely cut off from anything, they are a totally blank slate that can then be expanded on as the players want. They can be used however the player sees fit without the game developer imposing their own views on what sort of a character the protagonist is going to be. That may be a weakness or a strength, depending on your perspective on what a role playing game is. If you look at something like the Witcher series that’s got a defined protagonist with a definite viewpoint which implies how they should be played and written; their reactions are woven into the narrative of the game. But with the Elder Scrolls, it’s always been Make Your Own Adventure, make your own person, and the ability to have a prisoner as a totally blank slate is something that serves The Elder Scrolls‘ purpose very well.

Prisoners and Heroes

We also have the notion that a prisoner can become a Hero. If you look at the Zurin Arctus quote that I started us off with, it’s a capital H “Hero”, it’s a Hero who determines something, it’s the sense of the Hero makes the Event. Without the Hero, there is no Event; it determines the ultimate outcome of that event, and whether the Event itself happens at all. It is a way of making something that’s possible into the real. We have a quote from Sotha Sil in The Elder Scrolls Online, saying that, “The Prisoner wields great power, making reality of metaphor.” That’s absolutely what’s going on here. When we talk about the Hero creating the Event, it’s making a possibility into a certainty, or at least something concrete; the idea of linking prisoners with certainty is something that we absolutely shouldn’t be doing at this stage.

Prisoners are Free

Part of the power of the Prisoner, why you have Prisoners that become Heroes, is because you have Prisoners as things without anything really constraining them. That seems paradoxical, but bear with me.

You have a Prisoner who starts with nothing, they have nothing to lose, and therefore they can do or be anything without consequence. If we think back to last time, we were talking about radical freedom and the Existentialist notion that

Tyler Durden is definitely about understanding freedom and imprisonment. In more ways than one.

what’s actually constraining you from jumping off a cliff or clubbing the person nearest to you with whatever you’ve got in your hand is just social convention and your own conscience. If you have a Prisoner who is entirely divorced from any sort of social context, which all the characters in The Elder Scrolls are, then it’s just down to their own sense of what they want to do, how they understand the world. They are self-creations, in that sense, who do what they want, unlimited by anything around them. This is similar to how Tyler Durden presents his philosophy in Fight Club; the idea of hitting bottom before you can rebuild yourself is very similar to this idea. It’s the idea of you break yourself, tear everything that matters away, and you find out what the core of you is, and then you can start rebuilding, constructing your reality into what you want.

 

Prisoners Understand Limitation & Break Causality

To move on to exactly what Prisoner is, the Prisoner is a thing that inherently understands imprisonment and limitation, and sees beyond that we have a great definition or the Prisoner within The Elder Scrolls Online from Sotha Sil, who says:

“The Prisoner must apprehend two critical insights. First, they must face the reality of their imprisonment. They must see the determinative walls – the chains of causality that bind them to their course…
“The Prisoner must see the door to their cell. They must gaze through the bars and perceive that which exists beyond causality. Beyond time. Only then can they escape.”

That’s going beyond even radical freedom, because with radical freedom you’re still bound by the laws of physics and causality. There’s been a somewhat interesting relation with causality and philosophy; throughout philosophy’s development, there’s been debate about what exactly causality is, is it necessary, how are things linked together in terms of an event chain, and some of the more modern philosophers, starting with David Hume in the 18th century, but has moved beyond that most explicitly with Giles Deleuze, who is essentially said that empiricism (that is the study of how events happened in the world, and what we based the scientific method on) is “the science of imagination”, because Deleuze is taking Hume’s idea that you can’t necessarily say that just because, for example, a billiard ball hits another billiard ball, that second billiard ball will necessarily move. There may be other constraints that we’re not aware of that they stop it, or we may not understand the basic laws governing it. So we can’t determine causality as a necessary thing. Deleuze moves beyond that, and says that what we understand as causality is based on our own experience; all lived experience before each event determines how we understand everything fitting together, which leads him to call empiricism “the science of imagination”. He’s saying that if you start looking at how things fit together, you have to imagine how events going to turn out and how causality is going to unfold, because you don’t know that it’s necessarily going to be the case.

This kind of works, if you think about how athletes and snooker players, for example, see things: they visualise how they see things are going to turn out and plan and make their reality out of that, which is what’s going on here with the Prisoner. They are seeing or existing beyond time beyond causality. They’re saying, “this is my situation, I refuse to accept it, I will change my situation because I have no connection to my context, I have no connection to the reality in which I find myself so I can remake it into absolutely anything.” So from this, we have the idea that the Prisoner can be anything, can do anything, in some senses.

Prisoners and CHIM

Where else have we heard that sort of language before? The ability to reshape reality to define it as they wish? That’s very similar to CHIM, and has various links to the Tower that CHIM has as its central realisation.

Michael Kirkbride talks about the way that the constellations the Thief and the Tower interact in a particular part of Vehk’s Teaching. The way that he talks is this:

The Thief is another metaphorical absolute; in this case, he represents the “taking of the Tower” or, and sometimes more importantly, the “taking” of the Tower’s secret.

What is the Tower’s secret?

How to permanently exist beyond duplexity, antithesis, or trouble…

Another part goes a little further and says:

One that knows CHIM observes the Tower without fear. Moreso: he resides within.

Being within the Tower is how a Prisoner can in theory start. If we’re thinking about this on a metaphysical level, they are imprisoned in a place that is a tower, it as a strong thing to hold things that are worth looking away, and the Thief which is potentially the most common role of the proagonist within the Elder Scrolls, also also linked to the Tower and getting to the tower and taking the Tower’s secret.

Just to pick up on the main point here in the biggest implication of the lot, does that mean that the Prisoner and therefore every Elder Scrolls protagonist in series has CHIM? You can certainly make that argument because you can say that the Prisoner must reside within the Tower to start with and will then go beyond. There’s the similar breaking of chains, breaking of causality going beyond limits that is part of CHIM (particularly the Psijic Endeavor in my reading), but I don’t really think the Prisoner connects to that.

As much as we have talk of the Prisoners seeing beyond Mundus and thereby determining their own destiny because they’re not connected to causality, the Prisoner feels far too connected to Mundus for that to be something that I think is linked to the concept, it’s possible that the Prisoner is an indeterminate state that being locked in the Tower in a metaphysical sense, and then realising the stuff beyond the Tower and reaching beyond it to the realisation that the Tower is the self, which is the central realisation of CHIM, which I discuss more here.

In order to reach that realisation, you need to start from the Tower, and then you start to make another kind of destiny. If you become a Hero, it’s possible that the Prisoner could achieve CHIM or is in a better place to achieve CHIM, but I’m not sure that every Elder Scrolls protagonist therefore has CHIM. I know there are some disagree with me on that one, and I entirely understand how you can come to that kind of conclusion, because the relations of very, very similar I kind of think of it in the sense of the difference between Bodhisattva and a Buddha, if I can go there. Both can achieve the Enlightenment that comes with understanding the universe, but the Bodhisattva puts it off to stay behind within the circle of reincarnation to teach others how to achieve enlightenment. I don’t think there’s any particular prescription for a Buddha to particularly stay behind; as much as they probably won’t seek out death, once they die, they will then achieve Nirvana and be removed from the cycle whereas the Bodhisattva explicitly remains within the material in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Which also now I think about it sounds very similar to why Lorkhan fails at CHIM in his creation of the Mundus: to allow others to transcend, which is pretty much the Bodhisattva role.

I’m sure there’s some irony in the Tribune that wants to make everything ordered desperately want uncertainty. But I think that’s for another time.

I think the Prisoner fits that particular archetype, because they can potentially see Tower that “I” and say, “Well, no, this is just me, and I’m going to do what I will”, rather than reaching the full realization of CHIM that is “I am the universe and can do anything”. That being said, the Prisoner still can in theory do anything; we have the idea of a Hero creating the Event, and that means that they decide how the event goes. This is similar to the observer role within an enantiomorph. One of the biggest metaphors for how the enantiomorph works is the way that quantum superpositions, are resolved; the observer collapses the waveform and says, the superpositions are going to be one thing or another, depending on their observation. We also have a Sotha Sil’s words that “maybe” is the word he craves above all else. The Prisoner is the maybe, is the uncertain element, because they can do anything.

Heroes, Names and Prophecy

Doing is really quite central to how I understand the Prisoner working, particularly as Prisoners become Heroes, so I’m going to transition now is talking about how the hero works. The Hero to my mind is a thing that does, it’s not a thing that is. Certainly that’s true in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, but I think that’s still potentially the case for an awful lot of other things as well. The Hero of Kvatch is another big example of this , because they’re not chosen. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim breaks this formula little, because they are the chosen one, in that you are definitely the Last Dragonborn, and will do this that and the other. Or maybe it’s that you can do this that and the other; if I remember Arngeir’s dialogue right, he talks about how the Dragonborn is separate from the way of the Voice and is connected a bit more to Akatosh and has their own separate destiny. This is a way of saying, “you will not do something the way that we know it’s done, it’s still What are you going to do”. There’s still that element of maybe about it.

The core idea of this for me, for the Hero, is that the Hero is something that does, it’s not something that is, and that potential explains why each Hero is always referred to as a title
and not a name: because it’s not a person, it’s a role. The Nerevarine is the person who defeats Dagoth Ur and fulfills all the various prophecies. The Last Dragonborn is the one who appears when you’ve got various prophecies coming true according to the Book of Dragonborn. So even when you have got pre-prescribed things happening, they’re just things to be done. Or there are people who will do certain things, you can then choose to do those things, and then become the hero. This turns the maybe into the is, in that you could be this thing and then are that thing because you are doing a particular series of actions which something that’s called the Nervarine, or the Last Dragonborn, or whatever is said to have done.

Heroes and Histories

We also have an interesting idea that kind of come up when people try and work out whether the protagonists in The Elder Scrolls games have an actual history.

I’ve seen this most commonly when people try and look at what the Last Dragonborn’s meant to be when talking about their past in The Elder Scrolls V, and the options you get are fundamentally contradictory. You can say that you never knew your parents, or you did, in the Dawnguard questline, as well as why you were crossing the border in the Cidhna Mine quest. You can give any of those answers. The game doesn’t make you choose any particular one because you can choose your own background. The Prisoner can be anything The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind takes this a little further. You are openly accused of being fake in the course of main questline, of being an Imperial plant and spy. You kind of are, but you are you actually the Nerevarine, and you’ve been getting these visions from someone claiming to be Azura. Whether you actually are, the choice is yours.

When speaking with Dagoth Ur, you get asked What are you going to do with the tools, and who you are. You can give any answer, ranging from “I am Nerevar”, “I am no one” or “I’m doing this all for my own gain.” And he doesn’t question you on any of it. He doesn’t say, “no, you must be Nerevar, because you are here before me with the Tools”, or “I feel it within you, and you have Moon-and-Star” etc. It doesn’t say “No, you’re wrong” to any of those points. You can be whatever, so long as you go through the motions of the quest. So long as you do the things that that the Nerevarine does you are functionally the Nerevarine. The Hero is
that sort of an archetype: they are always the creator of the Event and we don’t really need to know that much more about them, which is also potentially a reason why they fade from Tamriel after they fulfill their purpose.

Heroes as Scribes

One of the comments that Michael Kirkbride has made on the forums talking about how he sees the hero functioning relative to the Elder Scrolls themselves and within what the Elder Scrolls are, we have this quote:

Until a prophecy is fulfilled, the true contents of an Elder Scoll are malleable, hazy, uncertain. Only by the Hero’s action does it become True. The Hero is literally the scribe of the next Elder Scroll, the one in which the prophecy has been fulfilled into a fixed point, negating its precursor.

So you have the Hero as the scribe of the Elder Scrolls, it’s resolving the uncertainty that is an Elder Scroll into something definite, into something true. They are making reality into a particular way, and thereby writing an Elder Scroll, making it into those absolutely indelible historical records that they become once the events they described come to pass.

Are the Heroes “Meant” to be Heroes?

Now back to that little thought I had on predestination and freedom that The Elder Scrolls Online drops in with us. That’s in the text Chaotic Creatia: The Azure Plasm, which has this interesting little nugget at the end of it:

Such are the facts. What follows is speculation, born of conversations with the Sojourner during his infrequent and unpredictable visits. His theory is that the Soul Shriven’s bodies are flawed because they have lost the focusing principle of their Anuic souls, so their vestiges are imperfect patterns. I concurred that this was likely, and then proposed the theoretical possibility of a Soul Shriven who, despite having lost his or her soul, possessed some other intrinsic Anuic aspect. This shall-we-say “paragon” Soul Shriven would form an unflawed body in Coldharbour that was a perfect duplicate of the body worn in Mundus. In fact, if this paragon bore a sufficiently high Anuic valence, upon contact with Padomaic creatia its body would form almost instantaneously.

The Sojourner scoffed at my theory, but seemed taken with the idea nonetheless. He went on to speculate that if such a thing were possible, it would probably occur in a situation where the Mundus was in existential jeopardy. In that case the Heart of Nirn would spontaneously generate such “paragon” individuals as a way of defending itself from destruction, in a manner analogous to the way the mortal body fights off infection.

This sounds very like how the Vestige is formed. I think the purpose of this text, or at least the conclusion that we can very easily draw from this text is that the Vestige is a paragon Soul Shriven, that they’re intended to be that thing which saves Mundus from existential jeopardy. However, the question that I’m wrestling with at this point is whether we can say that Heroes as a whole are created in a similar way. Can you then throw together those different types of creatia and say that this is the thing that will save Mundus from its existential jeopardy? Is this the nature of the Hero because of the way it’s put together?
that kind of feels fundamentally against the freedom of the Prisoner, but it also feels quite powerful call as well, because the Soul Shriven starts out as nothing, and becomes the Vestige and the Hero and so on and so forth. But were they meant to do that all along? Or did they choose to do that? Was there something in particular that was guiding what they were doing in order to save them?

I don’t think that we can necessarily say that the Prophet and all of those events would really suffice as guidance in this sense, that feels a little too convenient, particularly because it doesn’t work out quite how the Prophet went about getting a new Emperor on the throne. There’s no real way of connecting the prophets so much with this kind of immune system response that this text seems to imply, but it’s certainly an interesting little aside, in terms of what the Prisoner isn’t represented sense.

As much as we talked about choice and everything that entails, the ability to be anything, do anything etc, are we really able to do that? If we can go meta for a second, would you really do anything but complete the main quest of the game? Yes, you can run off and do all the subquests, not touch the main storylines within the games. But is that really enough there to say that the Prisoner wasn’t put into that specific place to not be the Hero? You can take this to another level and say there are mods that mean that you’re not necessarily a prisoner when you start up in some cases, depending on what set of mods used in for each particular game. But that’s not quite the games as designed, in my view. The idea that you are this thing that’s bound, constrained and then released to this this fundamental freedom, and then you do what you were designed or programmed to do? Not sure that that’s quite the intent here, but if we can generalise the stuff that Chaotic Creatia was talking about, I don’t really see any other conclusion at this point. I don’t know whether it is generalisable beyond the Vestige, but as the Vestige functions in the same way that other heroes do, then it’s probably something that we can apply to the other heroes.

Heroes and Towers

There is one final point I’d like to put as a contrast to that idea that these prisoners are being spawned as a self-defense mechanism. It goes back to the notion of the Towers we have in pretty much every single Elder Scrolls game since Daggerfall. The main series games have each seen the destruction or deactivation of a Tower. In Daggerfall, it was the Numidium. In Morrowind, there was the freeing of Lorkhan’s Heart and the consequent probable deactivation of Red Mountain and then in Oblivion, the destruction of the Amulet of Kings and deactivation of White-Gold Tower. Within Skyrim, the Snow Tower lies “sundered kingless, and bleeding”, and so I don’t know whether we’re meant to take that as the Tower been deactivated or not. If you want to hear my full of thoughts on that, please go back and listen to the episode on the Towers.

Given that we’ve got that full list of all of these Towers potentially being deactivated by the actions of Heroes, then are these things really the saviors of Mundus, are they really agents of stability and survival? I’m not totally sure, because part of the function of the Prisoner as Sotha Sil says is to look beyond the walls that comprise Mundus to see beyond that, to
potentially go beyond that if we want to extend the idea of breaking out of prison to breaking out beyond Mundus. I know I said earlier that I didn’t think that Prisoners necessarily have CHIM, but if the drive of a prisoner is to move beyond Mundus, beyond the walls of the prison, can we extend that say that they are breaking the prison as well? That they are going through and deactivating the spikes of unassailable reality that are the Towers in some sort of an effort, maybe to return Mundus to a state of existence within Oblivion to destroy it entirely? I don’t know. But it’s another thought that could explain why the Prisoners are doing what they’re doing. You had a little sense of the things beyond Mundus and the prison is then have that subconscious drive to go along with events, to the extent that they will start to bring about the fall of Mundus.

That’s a little interesting in terms of what the Prisoners are doing; if you’re saving the world, but at the same time destroying it, are you really saving the world? I don’t know. I’m going to leave that with you.

Thank you ever so much for taking the time to listen/read, this has turned a little bit more rambly than I first envisioned when I set this out. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. If you have any answers to the questions that I’ve been posing in this cast, please let me know. I would absolutely love to hear your opinions on what the role of the Prisoners we’re all playing, whether there’s any ultimate purpose to it.

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Next time we are finally going to get around talking about mantling. I have mentioned it in several casts and I’m finally find a space to fit it in. At long last we will be asking, what is mantling, and how is Talos three people? Until then this podcast remains a letter in uncertainty.

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