What is the Religious History of the Dunmer?

We’re starting off a little before the Dunmer were a reality. We need to go into their creation and what that means, before we can discuss Dunmer history as such. It’s also probably a good idea to go back to listen to the previous cast, on the Chimer, if you want to get caught up on their history before this point.

How the Chimer became the Dunmer

That means going back to the Battle of Red Mountain. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, as I’ve already done a podcast on that event, but that is (probably) where the Dunmer as a culture really began. The battle brought about change to the society of the House mer (probably the best way to talk about this in-between state, which I’ll get to in a moment), in that the “secular” houses, if War of the First Council is to be believed, were the ones that were left. This left the “orthodox” houses, those that were most religious in their outlook. That’s probably questionable for the Telvanni, but we’ll take it for now. This means that, in a similar manner to the original Velothi exodus, the House mer were religious as such, but likely not religious enough; they were willing to live in relative comfort, where Veloth preached asceticism, we never see that in any of the Houses, even before the Tribunal arrive. Which means that what the Dunmer understand by “piety” and the like will have already shifted, before they became Dunmer.

Exactly when they became Dunmer is a bit of a question, too. The change in their skin is something that is credited to both Azura, according to the Ashlanders, and Vivec, if you adhere to Tribunal theology. I think the Ashlanders are closer to the truth here, as Vivec’s own account of the change credits Azura with it. To quote The Battle of Red Mountain:

And no sooner than we had completed our rituals and begun to discover our new-found powers, the Daedra Lord Azura appeared and cursed us for our foresworn oaths. By her powers of prophecy, she assured us that her champion, Nerevar, true to his oath, would return to punish us for our perfidy, and to make sure such profane knowledge might never again be used to mock and defy the will of the gods. But Sotha Sil said to her, “The old gods are cruel and arbitrary, and distant from the hopes and fears of mer. Your age is past. We are the new gods, born of the flesh, and wise and caring of the needs of our people. Spare us your threats and chiding, inconstant spirit. We are bold and fresh, and will not fear you.”

Embracing this idea, this difference, then became a hallmark of the Dunmer culture that the Tribunal were attempting to create, to the extent that Vivec takes credit hirself in Sermon 32 of the 36 Lessons, and links it back even to Boethiah’s teachings:

‘Velothi, your skin has become the pregnant darkness. My brooding has brought this on. Remember that Boethiah asked you to become the color of bruise. How else to show yourselves people of the exodus into the vital: pain?’

This is linking back to both an earlier statement in the 36 Lessons, and an implication in Changed Ones, where Boethiah “demonstrated the right way to wear their skin”. From this view, the Tribunal gods are just doing what Boethiah recommended the Chimer do anyway. Although it’s worth remembering that this text is probably from someone thoroughly invested in the Tribunal religious system, so they wouldn’t talk about something likely to discredit it.

Precisely when the change from Chimer to Dunmer happened is unclear. The Battle of Red Mountain has this happening “some years” after the Battle, and the ashlander account Nerevar at Red Mountain strongly implies it happened immediately after the death of Nerevar at the battle itself. I’ve not seen this resolved anywhere, and there were definitely mer around in the games who would remember the change, like Divayth Fyr. But we never get the opportunity to ask anyone about it!

The cleanest divide we can come to is that the Chimer worshipped the Daedra, and the Dunmer worshipped the Tribunal, with the change in race being accompanied by a change in belief system. This, along with the change of the orcs and potentially the Ayleids, all of which had a change in belief which then brought about a change in skin colour. MK has also referred to the idea that “Wars then [in the Dawn Era] were ideologies given skin.” However, Vivec’s account does suggest this took time, and it’s not exactly universal – the Ashlanders worship the Daedra throughout all of their history, and their skin still changed colour. That perhaps lends more credence to the idea that the Chimer became the Dunmer because of Azura’s curse, which affirms a lot of the “the Tribunal murdered Nerevar” account, which feels like it’s the most accepted version of events within the Elder Scrolls fandom at present.

The Tribunal & the Evolution of Dunmer Culture

Regardless of their similarity of skin, the Ashlanders and the House Dunmer espouse very different virtues. As we talked about last time, the Good Daedra promote virtues which are mostly helpful for an insurrection, things like Boethiah’s “unlawful overthrow of authority”. The Seven Graces virtues of the Tribunal, however, are a bit more stable in what they produce. There are some more potentially violent ones, such as Daring, Pride and Valour, but there is also Humility, Generosity and Courtesy and Justice. These are virtues which work together to produce a more stable polity, although with an edge to it.

There’s also a question about how you get from the one to the other. Taking our world as an example, societal change is generally neither quick or easy. It takes a fair amount of force applied for a new facet of culture to emerge.

If we take a rather strong view of this and follow Thomas Hobbes for a second, I think this is what probably happened. Hobbes held that humanity’s natural state is a war of all against all where life is “nasty, brutish and short”. In order to establish peace (which Hobbes holds all people to want), people give their natural personal autonomy and liberty over to a sovereign, who has absolute control over all forms of government. According to Hobbes, the reason they do this is always fear, either of death in general, or of the power of the sovereign itself. The Tribunal seem to function in a similar way, although with a few nuances.

In the first place, Vivec seems, even at the best of times, to offer some sort of threat to the Dunmer. I don’t want to go into it too much here, as I’ve already done a cast looking at Vivec, but I want to note that ze holds both the stability and violence in balance. To quote Vivec and Mephala:

As known in the West, Mephala is the demon of murder, sex, and secrets. All of these themes contain subtle aspects and violent ones (assassination/genocide, courtship/orgy, tact/poetic truths); Mephala is understood paradoxically to contain and integrate these contradictory themes. And all these subtle undercurrents and contradictions are present in the Dunmer concepts of Vivec, even if they are not explicitly described and explained in Temple doctrine.

These two sides to Vivec indicate that it’s possible, even probable, that the establishment of the Tribunal religion and society required some violence. Even its maintenance seems to need that, if you look at the Inquisition-like role the Ordinators play throughout much of Dunmer history. However, I think that we have an example of how the House of Troubles could also be useful in the life of the Dunmer polity, if we look at Vivec’s interaction with Bal in the 36 Lessons. In those, Vivec willingly submits to Bal in order to learn secrets. The dominion of a Hobbesian sovereign is similar in that it must control everything in order to be effective: legislation, executive, religion and societal norms are all within its purview. This necessarily entails a monopoly on violence, which the Tribunal have never really had. Unless we bring Lie Rock into the equation, which is implied violence against the whole of the Dunmer people by the Tribunal.

Tribunal Religion

Despite the threat of violence against their people, the Tribunal established themselves as god-kings of Morrowind through the establishment of the Temple, and through the personification of their versions of virtue. While the Chimer emphasised the beyond and a striving against adversity, there’s a definite stepping away from that and a more “settled” attitude among the Dunmer. We have this rather telling quote from Vivec’s account of The Battle of Red Mountain, spoken by Sotha Sil:

“The old gods are cruel and arbitrary, and distant from the hopes and fears of mer. Your age is past. We are the new gods, born of the flesh, and wise and caring of the needs of our people.”

Even, perhaps especially, if these words were put into Sotha Sil’s mouth by Vivec, they are telling. The Tribunal are here to care for the Dunmer. They are protectors, keeping out some of the harshness of reality. They also provide a personal relationship with their people, which is one of the defining features of both Tribunal worship and ancestor worship in general. The idea that your gods are with you has a very distinct impact on how you view the divine in general. In the text Reflections on Cult Worship, a presumably Cyrodilic scholar compares Cyrodilic and Dunmer worship like this:

The Tribunal Temple in Morrowind, and its predecessor, house ancestor cults, are, by contrast with Imperial cults, extremely intimate and personal. In ancestor cults, the worshipper has a direct relationship with a blood family ancestor spirit, and the Temple cultist’s relationship with the Tribunal is a relationship with a living, breathing god who walks the earth, speaks in person with priests and cultists, and whose daily actions are prescribed models for the daily actions of their followers.

The differences in religious temperament between Heartlanders and Morrowind Dunmer accounts in large part for consistent political and social misunderstanding between the two cultures. Heartlanders do not consider cult affairs as serious matters, where the Dunmer consider cult affairs, and in particular, ancestral spirit veneration, to be very serious matters indeed.

Heartlanders are casual and tolerant in religious matters; Dunmer are passionate and extremely intolerant. Heartlanders do not speak with their gods, and do not think of their actions as under constant review and judgement by their gods; the Dunmer feel that all they think and do is under the ever-watchful eye of the Tribunal and family ancestor spirits….

This makes religion a far more personal thing for the Dunmer, although each House subculture puts different stresses on it. There is an expectation that the Tribunal, in their wise governance of Resdayn, want the Dunmer to follow their actions, or at least, what they say their actions are. There’s an emphasis on becoming like the Tribunal, rather than becoming the same thing as the Tribunal. The divine is expressed in a shift from distant gods to once-mortal gods, but this is considered sufficient, rather than a goal for the Dunmer as a people. Particularly if we take Vivec’s various exhortations in the 36 Lessons that hir people should become “the colour of bruise”. With that transformation accomplished, they may now be a complete people.

I think this is possibly expressed by Vivec in the unlicensed Vehk’s Teaching text, in particular this quote:

The arbitrary and the motivated in regarding one’s divine ancestors: ignoring a manifest concern for belief in them as us, instead we concern ourselves with intensity and its relationship with action, valorizing ‘little narratives’ and proliferation of narratives in our native cultures to the point that there is no perch from extraneous content. Pure subjectivity is no longer possible; instead it becomes akin to sensory deprivation, yet without the fear, for we sense things that remind us of the dawn: the sacrifice into the stabilizing bones, new-built towers with broken intentions, and first metals gone blue from exposure to the long sun.

The “valourising of little narratives” is what I think is important for this aspect of Dunmeri culture. It seems to go out of its way to make the little narratives worthwhile, particularly the veneration of saints that did no real wonders but were thoroughly mortal. You look at the lives of many of the saints, and they are modeled on communal good works, more than anything else. Seeking valour in the little things done is what’s going on with those. I think we have a possible moment of candour from Vivec (if such a thing is possible), saying that praise of those saints, that do the little narratives, cuts Dunmeri culture of from its true self, and has no desire to move onwards. There’s that same contentment with the present state of affairs, so long as everyone does their bit and helps everyone alone.

At least, that’s the impression we get up until the coming of the Nerevarine in the Third Era. That sets another ball rolling altogether, but I first want to talk about the limits of the Tribunal authority.

Dunmeri Society & The Limits of Tribunal Authority

The most obvious place to start thinking about the limits of Tribunal authority is the Ashlanders. They never submitted to Tribunal authority, and see them as abominations against the Velothi faith. They carry on worshipping in the ways of the Chimer, although there is the implication that this is “tolerated” by the Tribunal hierarchy. It is only ever put down when a potential Nerevarine is involved, which could present a threat to the overall Tribunal order.

That being said, there is a history of the Ashlanders being marginalised by the settled Chimer and Dunmer clans. We have this from Huleeya’s Notes, given to the Nerevarine:

Under the civilized peace of the Grand Council, and with the strong central authority of the Temple, the economic and military power of the settled Dunmer quickly outstripped that of the nomadic Dunmer. The nomadic Dunmer were marginalized into the poorest, most hostile land, in particular, into the Vvardenfell wastes.

Beyond mistaking the Chimer for the Dunmer overall, this presents the sidelining of the Ashlanders as an economic phenomenon, which is probably broadly true. Another reason for the focus on Vvardenfell for the tribes is that, until the Third Era, it was a Temple preserve, with minimal development permitted. This means that, ironically, the Ashlanders potentially owe the Temple for having a place to maintain their lifestyle and ancestor worship. One of my patrons, Enrico Dandolo, pointed out that this is similar to how historical nomadic societies tended to operate; establishing trading relations and regular routes to settled populations has been a practice that has developed pastoral nomadic tribes back to the earliest days of the Middle East. 

It’s not entirely unlikely, however, if you consider one of the big thematic precursors to The Elder Scrolls III, Frank Herbert’s Dune. In the Dune series, the Fremen live on a harsh desert planet and turn out to be some of the galaxy’s finest warriors once they are driven to leave their planet on a jihad following their Mahdi, Muad’dib. They are ultimately kept in reserves on planets later in the series, in order to preserve something of the old way of life, although they are pale shadows of what they were. I see a similar thing happening with the Ashlanders here, that Vivec was keeping them safe in order to preserve the old ways. This is particularly poignant when you consider this is pretty much what happened after the Red Year. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that I definitely think that the Fremen served as some level of inspiration for the Ashlanders.

The Tribunal’s authority is also limited somewhat by the Great Houses, although the God-Kings do manage something like control over them. There was a tradition of war between the Great Houses, with formal rules for engagement, slights and insults, that was sanctioned to a degree by ancient Dunmeri (and possibly Chimeri) custom. So-called “house wars” are highly ritualised killing of particular nobles within houses, and rarely break into all-out war, with the biggest example we know of being the War of Two Houses between House Dres and House Hlaalu in 2E 559. Each House still maintains an independent military, rather than being centralised under Tribunal control. The Tribunal have served as generals in the wars Morrowind has engaged in, but the Houses still maintain control. We’ll look more at the Houses and how they operate next time.

The Red Year, the Reclamations & the Tribunal’s Endgame

The coming of the Nerevarine in 3E 427 turned everything upside down. The Third Edition of the Pocket Guide to the Emperor sums it up nicely:

Dagoth Ur and two members of the Tribunal, Almalexia and Sotha Sil, were destroyed in the Nerevarine’s fury. Vivec too may have been killed, but his fate is currently undetermined. The Nerevarine likewise has vanished.

I do however think it’s likely that Vivec at least may have anticipated it, to a degree. Following the Nerevarine’s defeat of Dagoth Ur, ze says this:

“Without the power of the Heart, our divine powers diminish. Our days as gods are numbered. I have told my priests that I shall withdraw from the world, and that the Temple should be prepared for a change. We may be honored no longer as gods, but as saints and heroes, and the Temple will return to the faith of our forefathers — the worship of our ancestors and the three good daedra, Azura, Mephala, and Boethiah. The missions and traditions of the Temple must continue… but without its Living Gods.”

That is pretty much what happened after the events of the Red Year, when Lie Rock crashed down onto Vivec City in 4E 5. The old Temple collapsed, the Tribunal were downgraded to Sainthood, and the Daedra returned to being worshipped as “the Reclamations”. This is possibly something that the Temple planned for, in keeping the Dissident Priests as a faction within the Temple. From Progress of Truth, which is more or less their manifesto:

While challenging the divinity of the Tribunal, the Dissidents do not challenge the sainthood or heroism of the Tribunal. In fact, the Dissident Priests advocate restoring many of the elements of Fundamentalist Ancestor Worship as practiced by the Ashlanders and by Saint Veloth.

This is more or less Vivec’s sentiments too, which makes me wonder whether Vivec planned for the mortality of the Tribunal in a more long-term game. In particular, the idea that the book The Reclamations puts forward for the role of the Ashlanders makes me think of Dune again. To quote The Reclamations:

The Ashlanders are now lauded as the keepers of the old ways and having “true vision.” It is now quite common for many of the Dunmer people to make the arduous pilgrimages into the ash wastes to seek the counsel of the Wise Women.

This feels, to me, a lot like events in the Dune universe, where the God-Emperor Leto II institutes a millennia-long theocratic rule that suppresses dissent and preserves an element of the Fremen in particular reserves. Sound familiar?

It gets even more familiar when you consider that after Leto I’s death, humanity was plunged into chaos and scattered to the stars. That sounds to me a lot like the events of the Red Year – after the death or disappearance of their gods, the Dunmer suffer a cataclysm that scatters them throughout Tamriel. Although from what we can tell Morrowind is being rebuilt, the parallels feel a bit too good to ignore. Particularly as we have this bit from Sermon 35 of the 36 Lessons of Vivec:

Later, and by that I mean much, much later, my reign will be seen as an act of the highest love, which is a return from the astral destiny and the marriages between. By that I mean the catastrophes, which will come from all five corners.

On this reading, which I’m sure I’ve spoken about before, Vivec saves the Dunmer people through causing the fall of Baar Dau and the Red Year. That signifies the end of the Tribunal and a return to the subversive ways of the Daedra, which espouse things that enable the Dunmer people to cope with crisis. What crisis beyond the Red Year? We’ve yet to find out.

Talk Elder Scrolls lore with other fans at the Written in Uncertainty Discord: https://discord.gg/Jc3r99w

Send me an email: writteninuncertaintypodcast@gmail.com

Keep in touch on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aramithius

Watch Written in Uncertainty videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzQ9_UWzSiPvTcmcPmnE-hg

Chat live during Elder Scrolls lore streams: https://www.twitch.tv/aramithius

Support the show, and get early access to all Written in Uncertainty content, including exclusive access to my notes: https://www.patreon.com/writteninuncertainty

Drop me a tip: https://www.ko-fi.com/aramithius

Check out the rest of the Robots Radio Network: https://www.robotsradio.net

Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/written-in-uncertainty/message

Liked it? Take a second to support Aramithius on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.