What are the Bosmer?

Bosmer in Brief

The Bosmer are the elves of Valenwood. They are the closest thing that you’ll get in Elder Scrolls to “traditional” elves, but even then they don’t really fit the traditional mould. They live in a forest, and they are proficient with bows, but that’s about it. They are strict carnivores, have very strict rules about when timber from their forest can and can’t be used, and are also cannibals when the need arises. They also have a bunch of different sources of political authority, which we’ll get to later.

The most defining feature of Bosmer as opposed to other elves is their veneration of Y’ffre, the first of the Earthbones. This has a huge impact on their overall culture, so I wanted to start with the description of Y’ffre from Varieties of Faith:

Y’ffre (God of the Forest): Most important deity of the Bosmeri pantheon. While Auri-El Time Dragon might be the king of the gods, the Bosmer revere Y’ffre as the spirit of ‘the now’. According to the Wood Elves, after the creation of the mortal plane everything was in chaos. The first mortals were turning into plants and animals and back again. Then Y’ffre transformed himself into the first of the Ehlnofey, or ‘Earth Bones’. After these laws of nature were established, mortals had a semblance of safety in the new world, because they could finally understand it. Y’ffre is sometimes called the Storyteller, for the lessons he taught the first Bosmer. Some Bosmer still possess the knowledge of the chaos times, which they can use to great effect (the Wild Hunt).

That description has a lot of pieces in it that I want to unpack, but I’ll save most of it for later. In this world, it’s telling that this came with Morrowind. The Bosmer are one of the cultures that got a major reboot in the Pocket Guide to the Empire and TESA: Redguard. The Bosmer’s cannibalism and Green Pact both date from this document, in the real world at least, which I believe is down to Michael Kirkbride’s dislike of traditional wood elves. To give you an idea of the kinds of transitions that happened, we didn’t have Y’ffre until after TES2: Daggerfall. References before that are to Jephre, who was the Green Singer, who named the beasts of the field but wasn’t among the earthbones in the same way that Y’ffre is.

The multiple sources of cultural authority came later,and I think that’s mostly down to what feel like different interpretations of the wood elf theme. I get the feeling that the Bosmer have been seen as more of a blank canvas by Elder Scrolls developers, and so we’ve had multiple different forms of history inflected onto them.

How were the Bosmer created?

The uncertainty around the Bosmer comes across in their creation myths. There are two major ones for the Bosmer, although it feels like some have only been hinted at. We have a “mundane” creation myth for the Bosmer, if I can call it that, and a “fantastical” one. I think it’s mildly telling that we only have the mundane story from non-Bosmer, but that could just be a coincidence.

The Mundane Tale

The best telling of the non-fantastical myth is from the book Valenwood: A Study:

*Life for many in the Aldmeri Dominion begins in Valenwood. Green, forested, filled with a wide variety of plant and animal life, and home to some of the first Elves from Old Ehlnofey. [*also called Aldmeris]
Over time and through generations, these early settlers adapted to the woods. They learned stealth and cunning by studying their new prey. Eventually, they became Wood Elves, or Bosmer. Slighter than the Altmer, intense and agile, the Bosmer are renowned archers and scouts.

You see variations on a theme in a few places; that the Bosmer left Aldmeris and came to Valenwood, and became the Bosmer when they were there. There is possibly an intermediate step here, as Aurbic Enigma 4: The Elden Tree calls them the Boiche Elves, rather than Bosmer, before they made Green-Sap, their Tower. The only other book to mention “Boiche” as a term, the Daggerfall book The Wild Elves, treats boiche as a synonym for bosmer, but Aurbic Enigma at one point calls them “boiche-become-bosmer”, which suggests that boiche was the stage before they were bosmer, in some sense. There’s multiple ways that that could go, so put a pin in it for now and we’ll come back to it later.

The Fantastical Tale

The fantastical creation myth is the one that I place the most stock in, because I think it links up better with other accounts, most notably the Khajiiti myth in the Words of Clan Mother Ahnissi to her Favoured Daughter. The best tale we have of this from a Bosmer perspective is the tale The Ooze: A Fable, which says this:

But Y’ffre took the Ooze and ordered it. First, she told of the Green, the forest and all the plant life in it. She gave the Green the power to shape itself as it willed, for it was her first tale.
The Elves were Y’ffre’s second tale. As Y’ffre spun the story, the Elves took the form they have today. Y’ffre gave them the power to tell stories, but warned them against trying to shape themselves or the Green. Shifting and the destruction of the forest were forbidden.
Instead, Y’ffre commended the Wood Elves to the Green, so that they might ask the Green to provide them with shelter and a safe passage, and as long as they respected the Green, it would obey. This is called the Green Pact.

and ends with:

Any Wood Elf that violated the Green Pact, either by shifting or by damaging the Green, would be condemned to return to the formlessness of the Ooze. Their names would be scrubbed from the story Y’ffre is telling and replaced with silence.

The way this is told feels like it happens quite a bit earlier than the tale that simply has them split from Aldmeris. It holds that Y’ffre ordered the Bosmer, giving them shape where before they had no shape. The Khajiit tale says this:

But Nirni soon forgave Lorkhaj for Nirni could make children. And she filled herself with children, but cried because her favorite children, the forest people, did not know their shape.
And Azurah came to her and said, “Poor Nirni, stop your tears. Azurah makes for you a gift of a new people.” Nirni stopped weeping, and Azurah spoke the First Secret to the Moons and they parted and let Azurah pass. And Azurah took some forest people who were torn between man and beast, and she placed them in the best deserts and forests on Nirni. And Azurah in her wisdom made them of many shapes, one for every purpose. And Azurah named them Khajiit and told them her Second Secret and taught them the value of secrets. And Azurah bound the new Khajiit to the Lunar Lattice, as is proper for Nirni’s secret defenders. Then Azurah spoke the Third Secret, and the Moons shone down on the marshes and their light became sugar.
But Y’ffer heard the First Secret and snuck in behind Azurah. And Y’ffer could not appreciate secrets, and he told Nirni of Azurah’s trick. So Nirni made the deserts hot and the sands biting. And Nirni made the forests wet and filled with poisons. And Nirni thanked Y’ffer and let him change the forest people also. And Y’ffer did not have Azurah’s subtle wisdom, so Y’ffer made the forest people Elves always and never beasts.  And Y’ffer named them Bosmer. And from that moment they were no longer in the same litter as the Khajiit.

In this tale, the Bosmer and Khajiit are both “forest people”, whatever that means, and they split off from other cultures before they were even elves. One thing that’s similar across both tales is that neither mentions Aldmeris.

As Aldmeris is the mythical origin point of all elves, these tales would imply that the Bosmer are not, in fact, mer, but something else. They are potentially another type of Ehlnofey that doesn’t get mentioned elsewhere. This is going very much against the grain of the popular understanding of the Ehlnofey, which has everything as simply the Old and Wandering Ehlnofey that then became mer and men, but that distinction only really gets made in the Anuad. If the Anuad isn’t true, then it’s possible that the Bosmer were some other form of Ehlnofey. This is possibly a little strange, as the Anuad was originally linked to the Bosmer in its title, but also had links to the Ayleids, but would make this a good way of reconciling the two myths.

A Tale of Tales

Except maybe they don’t need to be reconciled. Maybe they both happened, on some level. The Bosmer are a people that hold quite a bit of power in stories themselves, that means that actual events can be altered to some degree. Exactly how far isn’t clear, but we have this passage from the Green Lady from a Loremaster’s Archive describing the power of the Spinners:

“A Spinner’s power is in the strength of his storytelling, fostered by talent and increased by experience. As you say, a great Spinner can actually SEE the stories of the nearby world—and these stories can reveal the true natures of persons or objects. But to change a story, a Spinner must engage its protagonist, who on some level must accept the new turns in the tale.”

This is talking about events in Elder Scrolls: Online that affect a single Spinner and a single protagonist, but if there was a reason to change the whole tale of the Bosmer as a culture, then Spinners could potentially have changed Bosmer history, or at least its perception of it. There are indications at the settlement of Ouze that the Bosmer were at some point at a crossroads. Several texts that describe the history of Ouze indicate that Bosmer changed from one story to another at some later point in their history. Oathbreakers of Ouze suggests that this was the result of the winners imposing their will on the losers:

The secret of Ouze is now clear. The Bosmer, it appears, did not all accede to the Green Pact. Something happened … civil war? A disagreement between their gods? It does not matter. One contingent of the Wood Elves lost to the other.

Exactly what those factions are, I don’t think we find out, but it’s clear that one faction lost. There are several texts that link the Bosmer to story and song; Remember how The Ooze fable says that the elves are Y’ffre’s second tale? We also have a Hircine worshipper, probably a Bosmer, call upon people to “Rise up and reject the tyranny of shape and story!” in the text The Blessings of Hircine.

This means that the Bosmer’s origins are the maxim of “history is written by the victors” writ large. A victorious faction of Bosmer won a battle to determine what their culture was, and in doing so changed the stories, and possibly the events, of the past in doing so.

The Bosmer and Perchance

That said, the Bosmer are still subject to a metanarrative of sorts; they are still subject to a degree of uncertainty and change that other elves are not, regardless of what they think of their past. This is expressed in the magic of the Spinners, which as we’ve seen, can change history. That everything is so obviously mutable to the Bosmer expresses a deeper truth, I think, that, for the Bosmer, history is what you make it. It doesn’t really matter a whole lot. Y’ffre is the “spirit of the Now” according to the Bosmer, remember, and so the past isn’t a definite thing for them.

Their very nature seems to be grounded in uncertainty and change, in perchance. That is potentially defined by the Tower Green-Sap, or expressed as the Tower Green-Sap (or both at once?). That is the “truth behind truths” for the Bosmer I imagine, particularly given this passage from Aurbic Enigma 4: The Elden Tree.

The Boiche Elves were of the Earth Bones who most hearkened to Jephre and his greensongs. They did not build a Tower, they grew it, a great graht-oak whose roots sprang from a Perchance Acorn. And this was their Stone. And because the Acorn might perchance have been elsewhere, thus was Green-Sap manifold and several. And each could walk.
Therefore each Green-Sap was also every Green-Sap. Within each were told all the stories of the Green, with every ending true*, so doors therein were not always Doors Certain. But to this the Boiche-become-Bosmer became inured, and indeed grew to relish these Doors Equivocal, for such was their nature in the schism of the prism. In this way the Bosmer learned which songs made the trees dance, and which dances they might do.*
(emphasis added)

Note that line towards the end. That indicates that all stories are true, and therefore that the Bosmer can never be certain; they can just tell different stories. That does change slightly with Anumaril messing with the Stone of Green-Sap, but the core principle still holds, I think. The Ayleids did not seek to change “the schism of the prism”, that is the sundering of Aldmeris, and so the core nature of the Bosmer remained within the same set of parameters.

Bosmer and the Ayleids

Having mentioned Anumaril and  the Ayleids, I probably should explain their relation in all this. Several groups of Ayleids sought refuge in Valenwood following Alessia’s victory in 1E 242, and then began to interact with the Bosmer culture. The Anuad’s subtitle points to some interaction between the Ayleid and Bosmer culture, but the narrative of the Bosmer subsumes that of the Ayleid, according to the book Ayleid Survivals in Valenwood:

These clans all worshiped Daedric Princes, but they seem to have done so with less fervor after their enforced migration to Valenwood—possibly due to the fact that the Princes, when called upon, had offered little or no help to the forsaken clans. Fortunately their new hosts, the Bosmer, were remarkably generous in welcoming the Ayleids into their realm, so long as the Heartland Elves agreed to adopt aspects of the Green Pact and refrain from harming the forest. Having little choice, the Ayleids agreed, and this probably contributed to the dilution of their culture.
For diluted it was, absorbed over time, and eventually forgotten. I have walked the great Ayleid ruins of Valenwood—Hectahame, Rulanyil’s Fall, Belarata, Laeloria, and a dozen more—and none of them, not one, was still occupied only two thousand years after the Diaspora. For some reason, once the Ayleids were under the great graht-oaks they, and their distinctive culture, simply melted away.

Aurbic Enigma suggests that there was some degree of interaction the other way as well:

Anumaril brought forth Segment One among the roots and showed it to the golden nut, and this told an ending, so that the stone became a Definite Acorn. That Elden Tree would not walk again, but Anumaril yet had further intentions for it. Using his dentition as tonal instruments, he dismantled his bones and built of them a Mundus-machine that mirrored Nirn and its planets. And when he had used all his substance in fangling this orrery, he placed the segment-sceptre within, hiding it between the Moons.

This indicates that the Ayleids messed with Green-Sap, which changed the nature of the Bosmer to a degree. The Ayleids influenced the Bosmer story, and in doing so changed Bosmer culture. Green-Sap is still perchance, but changed.

Who Rules the Bosmer?

That perchance is probably the best explanation for the multiple sources of authority in Valenwood, unless we want to simply chalk things up to the out-of-universe explanation. There are several, and they all seemingly come from different points in the Bosmer social fabric. Whatever the Bosmer are, it is not something that is determined by their rulers. Rather, it’s the other way round.

The Silvenar & Green Lady

The one that gets the most attention is the Silvenar and the Green Lady. These two represent the duality, the contradictions of the Bosmer people. The Silvenar is an expression of the elves, and the order of Valenwood, while the Green Lady is described as a “force of nature” in a few sources. I think it’s telling that there’s also a city called Silvenar in Valenwood, too.

The Silvenar is a sympathetic expression of the Bosmer, and a lever to change and affect the Bosmer as a whole, if the book The Voice of the People is to be believed. The book A Dance in Fire implies that he makes laws, but we don’t see that in ESO as such, although the Silvenar is documented to have represented the Bosmer and Valenwood to the Dominion, when I would have expected the Camoran king to be the one making the formal representation. One thing I see as a possibility here is that the Silvenar is whatever the Bosmer need him to be at the time, and if they are needed to make diplomatic overtures to foreign powers, it’s the Silvenar that does it. That’s the best explanation I can come to on why it wasn’t the Camoran monarchy, but if there’s any culture where it’s ok for the edges of authority to be fuzzy, it’s the Bosmer.

If the Silvenar is the representation of the Bosmer, the Green Lady is the representation of Valenwood, with the feral nature of the forest a core part of her. We don’t have much on the Green Lady that’s written down, but her state when the Silvenar is assassinated implies that the nature of the Green Lady is “unleashed”, so to speak. Part of it is likely grief for the loss of her ordained mate, but it also feels like the Silvenar holds the Green Lady in balance, which is then knocked out once the Silvenar is dead. Although I suppose I should also point out that the physicality and feral nature of the Green Lady is sometimes attributed to the Bosmer, rather than Valenwood as a province. I’m inclined to go with her being more of Valenwood than the Bosmer, although there are arguments to be made in both cases.

The book The Eldest: A Pilgrim’s Tale suggests that the Silvenar and Green Lady were a couple that tended to an ancient Strangler plant in their old age, while A Tale Forever Told suggests that the Silvenar and Green Lady were mystically joined when they met. A Tale Forever Told also has the Silvenar named as the Silvenar before the pairing with the Green Lady. That could just be the nature of the tale, that it’s a given that these two will come together, but if the Silvenar title was there before the match with the Green Lady, then it could be more an expression of the Silvenar as a mystic being joining with the wilder sides of the Green.

The Camoran Dynasty

The Camoran dynasty has been present in Valenwood for pretty much all of recorded history. Indeed, the Nords apparently used the founding of the Camoran dynasty to start the calendar for the First Era. The dynasty has however remained a loose confederation of sorts, that the Third Edition pocket guide notes has to be loose with how Valenwood is. That may have meant that the Spinners and the Treethanes have a relatively large amount of authority of their own.

The Camoran dynasty serves less as a seat of direct rulership than a nominal root that can potentially be refreshed or drawn from whenever Valenwood and the Bosmer needs to have a central authority. As with the Silvenar, it’s when the Bosmer need it that the Camoran dynasty can step up and perform a function.

The Camoran dynasty also may perform a a diplomatic function simply by being a dynasty; it’s been leveraged by the Altmer, at least; we have this from the First Edition Pocket Guide:

Formerly divided into the two realms of the Summerset Isles and Valenwood, the Aldmeri Dominion has its origins in CE830, when the heirs of the Camoran Dynasty began to fight over the Valenwood throne. When a faction of the Bosmer (Wood Elves) made overtures of peace to their longtime enemies in West Cyrodiil – territorial concessions in return for Colovian support for the faction’s claimant – the Altmer (High Elves) of Summerset invaded the Valenwood Nations. Citing a stewardship clause in a treaty from a thousand years before, the High Elves quickly established a provisional government, the Thalmor, on behalf of their own claimant, Camoran Anaxemes, whose bloodline had struck the pact with the Aldmeri Council in the first place.

The Green Pact

However, it’s debatable that the dynasty has much authority beyond that; there is another source of authority within the Bosmer that we’ve touched on a little, but has run throughout the whole thing. That is the priesthood of Y’ffre and the Green Pact itself. I think this is best summed up by this quote from The Wood Elves of Valenwood:

The Bosmeri race is governed—if one can describe this loose hegemony as such—by the Royal Camoran Dynasty, but there seems little rigidity or exertion of jurisdiction among the disorganized tribes of the Bosmer. Only slightly more stringent are the clan lines, which are matrilineal in nature. Ruled by the Treethane, or head tribesman, these serve little purpose other than providing protection during times of war. The real power is wielded by the priests of the forest deity Y’ffre, known as Spinners, who enforce the Green Pact, a bizarre code of conduct forcing the Bosmer to feed carnivorously and never use living vegetation of any kind, for any means.

The true power over what the Bosmer are is determined by the Spinners and the Green Pact. The Spinners get to determine what makes a Bosmer a Bosmer, through the Green Pact. We’ve already discussed how the Green Pact made the Bosmer into a distinct people, but I also think that this wasn’t a one-time event, but a process that is ongoing, and changing within Bosmeri culture.

Certainly we still have transgressors from the Pact, and these are not necessarily wiped out, or subject to the same sort of metaphysical transformations as the fable of the Ooze suggests. There’s a quest in ESO that suggests that a bunch of Bosmer who didn’t agree with the Green Pact, the “oathbreakers”, were just cast out and buried. The book Why We Farm gives solid support to this idea:

We planted and sowed and were going to harvest until we were found out and cast down here, beneath the surface, to die for our transgression against the Green Pact.
(emphasis added)

This shows the oathbreakers being buried, rather than returning to formlessness. There’s a quest in ESO that highlights that Ouze is a place, rather than a state of being, and you meet spirits of the Bosmer who didn’t agree with the Green Pact. I’ve seen these beings called changelings on the UESP, and their apparent abilities would match that description, but I’m hesitant to say that all changelings are unreformed Bosmer without solid evidence to back it up. Either way, this shows that the reversion to formlessness isn’t necessarily a punishment, just a group of Bosmer who refused to sign up to the Green Pact.

I think means that the Green Pact is a form of social power, rather than necessarily something that’s metaphysical. The Green Lady’s Loremaster’s Archive seems to back it up, putting the power of the Spinners in this regard like this:

“The second tenet you mention is better known as the Meat Mandate, but how strictly it is followed varies from tribe to tribe and, indeed, from individual to individual*. However, dairy products, honey, mushrooms, and insects are eaten with zest by all but the most ultra-zealous of Pact Bosmer.”*
(emphasis added)

This means that, if you can persuade your Spinner that something is acceptable according to the Pact, it is ok to do that thing according to the Pact. The main focus of the Pact is to define the Bosmer, and the extent of that definition will vary from place to place.

I see this like a distinction between statute and common law, if I can put it that way. The lawbooks say one thing, but if a precedent exists for a particular interpretation of that law, that’s good too. The Spinners and the stories they tell act as living sources of precedent, which can be changed and added to as the Spinners see fit. This makes Spinners the guardians of Bosmer cultural identity by both enforcing the Green Pact, and telling stories about the Bosmer. This constructs a social identity and a body of practice to go along with it, and the two inform each other.

I think the Green Pact also potentially acts as a form of social contract, which is implied in the name. This is at its most obvious with the Wild Hunt, when Bosmer can revert back to the formlessness of before in order to protect themselves and the Green. This reminds me of a concept from Thomas Hobbes, who I’ve talked about before on this podcast in relation to the Dunmer. The thing I want to bring out here is that Hobbes believed that people gave over their personal autonomy to a sovereign, who exercised violence against others in order to protect them. One wrinkle of this is that Hobbes believed that people who were sentenced to death by the state were no longer protected by the sovereign, and were therefore entirely within their rights to struggle, fight and kill any agents of the state who tried to kill them. The notion of the “outlaw” is what is going on here – a suspension of civil relations that allows violence towards, and expects violence from, those outside of the system.

I hope it’s not too much of a leap to see how this relates to the Wild Hunt. If the Green Pact and its forest cannot protect the Bosmer, then the pact between Y’ffre and the Bosmer becomes void, and they revert to being able to shapeshift in order to preserve themselves.

I hope this goes some way to showing that what the Bosmer are is not in any way settled; it’s an ongoing story, a conversation that began when what would become the Bosmer began to have a conversation with the forests of Valenwood. Exactly what that conversation was and when it began has several different answers, but I think the Bosmer would agree that the conversation as it is happening “now” is what matters.

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