Today on Written in Uncertainty 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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