What are the Dunmer Great Houses?

The Origin of the Great Houses

The Great Houses evolved from clans that banded together for mutual protection and support, and, possibly still function as families in some way, if you believe Councilor Lleril Morvay. Despite a terrible description of them as “political parties” in the book Great Houses of Morrowind, I see them as to function more like self-contained states, with each maintaining a military, independent infrastructures for worship, learning, trading and several other functions. This is also telling in that House Telvanni didn’t join the Ebonheart Pact, and wasn’t compelled to do so by any central authority. Perhaps the best way to describe Resdayn and later Morrowind is as a federation, or federal state?

The Houses’ nature as clans also means that they are families, although it’s not exactly necessary for the original families to necessarily hold power within the Houses. Each House has a council of its own that makes decisions for it, and the original families that bear the names of the Houses as a family name may have prominent positions within their House, but those that we see are not directly in control of House business. It is clear that, by the time of the Interregnum if not before, some degree of either merit or wealth, rather than pure blood, has become part of the House hierarchies.

The Nature of the Houses

Each Great House has different things it values, and expresses different archetypes. These seem to have been set up, at least for The Elder Scrolls III, to be an expression of the Enantiomorph, with Redoran as the Warrior or King, Hlaalu as the Thief and Telvanni as the Mage or Observer. This seems to have also been shorthand for how several of the Houses’ histories played out. Until the Red Year, House Hlaalu was in ascendancy, in contrast to declining Redoran, as the Rebel overthrows the King in the enantiomorph model. However, the Red Year in 4E 5 turned that very much upside down, which we’ll get to a bit later. It’s also worth noting that the Great Houses overall don’t fit this model, as there are five of them, each corresponding to different 

The Houses rule jointly for the most part in the Grand Council, which is an explicit successor to the First Council set up by Nerevar. It feels like there’s meant to be five Great Houses on the council, to make a “casting vote” type system. We hear mention of House Sadras being on the council after House Hlaalu lost its Great House status, which suggests that there’s the convention that there should always be five. As such, it’s likely meant to establish government by consensus, at least until the establishment of the King of Morrowind, following the Armistice with Tiber Septim.

This even holds when there were six houses; remember that while House Dagoth was around, the Dwemer were also on the scene, who would have had some say on the First Council. Whether they would have had just one vote, as I suggested last time, or many, is a little up in the air. Either way, it’s possible that a system which resulted in an odd number of votes would still be the result.

Each of the Great Houses, which we’ll include Hlaalu in as they were one for most of their history, have a motto that roughly summarises their stereotypical characteristics. These are all taken from the book Mottos of the Great Houses.

House Redoran’s motto is rather self referential, and an instruction manual: “A Redoran is a warrior whose duty is first to the Tribunal, second to House Redoran, and third to family and clan.” These are the warriors of the Dunmer, the most straightforward of the Houses. As such, they were concerned with honour to a greater extent than other houses, as well as three cardinal virtues of duty, gravity, and piety, according to the True Noble’s Code.They’re basically the Dunmer “straight men”, the paladins of the Dunmer. This has meant that they’ve suffered for some of their history, and in the Third Era were waning thanks to being out-politicked by the Hlaalu and Telvanni. They can come back in the aftermath of the Red Year because they’re implied to be the altruistic ones, the ones willing to promote such radical acts of charity. Although I guess it’s also fortunate that their power base is far away from the epicentre of the Red Year and the Argonian invasion that followed it. It’s also worth noting that the virtue that spurs all this on, charity, isn’t among the Redoran virtues. I guess it’s possible that this is a cynical power move by the Redoran, in the same way that the Hlaalu usurped Indoril’s positions on a variety of councils after the Armistice. It certainly put them in a strong position to seize the ebony mines on Raven Rock after the Imperial troops supposedly left during the Oblivion Crisis, and leave them in a place to assume control of the Grand Council.

And House Indoril are next on the list, with the motto “Justice knows no sleep: Indoril shall order, the Temple shall judge.” House Indoril is intimately tied to the Temple, and claims all three Tribunal members as originating from its ranks. The First Edition of the Pocket Guide to the Empire notes that, “the Tribunal priesthood (which is one and the same as the bureaucracy of civil government) is dominated by the Indoril and their subclans”. The motto to “order” also backs this up, although the portrayal of the Indoril is typically one of the Ordinators, Temple enforcers, rather than the bureaucrats as such. That said, I do remember some Ordinators in The Elder Scrolls III that felt very much like pen pushers, despite their armour.

This twin authority over the spiritual and civil apparatus meant that the Tribunal Temple was therefore dominated by House Indoril for much of its history, with the result that the Temple itself has been used as a vehicle for Great House politics, and the fate of Indoril has been very much tied to the fate of the Temple. This was even the case when the Temple was reformed after the Red Year, where the book The Reclamations notes that those who join the Temple have “joined Indoril”. It’s just that what happened there was that House Indoril folded further into the Temple infrastructure.

That finishes a story of perpetual decline throughout the history of Morrowind, at least since the rise of Tiber Septim. Most leaders of House Indoril at the time of the Armistice with Tiber Septim’s Empire were either murdered by House Hlaalu or committed suicide, which gutted their leadership of many places throughout Morrowind. 

House Haalu’s motto is, possibly a little cynically, “To trade fairly and freely is to honor the Three.” Part of me wonders whether this is some attempt at an echo of the Grace of Humility, but I don’t think that the virtues of the Houses map onto the Graces that neatly. I think it’s just an attempt, like the Telvanni, to justify what they’re doing with the gloss of piety, much as the Telvanni do.

House Hlaalu had been billed as the most “forward-looking” of the houses, which I think is reflected in a little obscure phrase we get from Skeleton Man’s Interview with the Denizens of Tamriel, “May We Seek Forever the Seyda Neen”. The context of the quote ties it to Hlaalu Brevur, presumably one of the House founders. I seem to remember Pilaf the Defiler mentioning that this is a way of saying “we look to the future” in a Selectives Lorecast. That feels like it fits, to a degree, but it’s also not what really happens for the House. Plus, the speaker in that statement is convinced that House Hlaalu is going to be the last remaining Great House, which really wasn’t what happened.Put a pin in that notion of being the only Great House, we’ll be discussing it in a bit.

House Hlaalu has been an underdog for most of its history, more or less forced into being pro-empire by its weaker status. As the fate of Indoril was tied to the Temple, so the fate of Hlaalu was tied to the Septim Empire. When the Empire began to disintegrate with the Oblivion Crisis, House Hlaalu’s influence started to fall away, and they were ultimately stripped of Great House status.

House Dres’ motto is next on the list, and frankly, I don’t know where the start with it… “To spread culture and truth to the benighted: this is our commitment and burden.”

I hear that, and my mind immediately goes to the “white man’s burden”, which was a point of view espoused in the 19th century as a justification for empire, most particularly the British Empire. There were some that saw that they needed to go to Africa and “educate” the natives, which meant stamping out a good amount of their native culture and making them good little servants of the motherland. This Dres motto is pretty much a restatement of that. Couple that with Dres having established its Great House status through trading slaves, and you’ve got a rather nasty imperialist mix.

Which is a little strange, as the Dres haven’t really been too imperialistic. Even when they have gone to war as a House, as they did against House Hlaalu in 2E 559, they weren’t the aggressors.

Or maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. The motto talks about spreading culture and truth, and Vivec does admit that “House Dres represents the past of pre-Tribunal Great House culture, a persistent tradition of Daedra- and ancestor-worshipping civilized Dunmer clans.” If we look at it that way, the Dres may well be the closest to the old Velothi way, in that they worship the Daedra more than the other Houses. The culture that they would spread is that of the old way, the kind of “ancient wisdom” type thing, which makes some degree of sense. Particularly as slavery was upheld in the terms of the Armistice with Tiber Septim because it was a longstanding tradition.

They are also apparently “proud isolationists”, if you listen to Solamar Dres in the book Understanding House Dres. That sort of an attitude I guess amplifies a superiority complex that lends itself to slave-taking. They are also focused on agriculture, that not only requires plantations and the slavery that tends to go with that, but also encourages self-sufficiency; why trade with the Empire when the Dres can give you grain? That sort of thing.

House Telvanni’s motto is “The forceful expression of will gives true honor to the Ancestors”. This is, on the one hand, an institutional excuse for the Telvanni to be entirely selfish. They are the wild cards of the Dunmer, but it’s also worth remembering that they were counted among the Orthodox Houses, although that may well have just been by default; we don’t really have much in the way of indications here. However, as they sided with those who supported a treaty with Tiber’s empire after “seeing which way the wind blew”, according to On Morrowind, the Imperial Province. That being the case, I think it’s possible that their attitude to religious orthodoxy was similarly pragmatic; appear as orthodox as necessary to not ruffle any unnecessary feathers. The language of “the Ancestors” here is flexible, and they can claim to be referring to either the Tribunal or the spirits of other ancestors as their needs require.

The House as a whole feels quite Machiavellian, which makes it a little curious that they didn’t join the Ebonheart Pact. They aren’t quite as dependent on slavery as the Dres, although the Brown Book of 3E426 does highlight that they continue to consider slavery to be a righ that they wish to uphold, even in the face of what would turn out to be opposition from the High King of Morrowind.

And… then there’s the Sixth House. House Dagoth, who, along with the Dwemer, were destroyed following the Battle of Red Mountain. We don’t know a whole lot about House Dagoth, and it’s one of the least educated books that actually gives us the most about them. Even then it’s only a few lines. The book War of the First Council calls House Dagoth and House Dwemer “less numerous, but politically and magically more advanced” than the other houses. Former developer Douglas Goodall has also said that they were “linked to the Dwemer”, which suggests that they were politically connected in a way that the other Houses were not. There’s also the way that Dagoth Ur “recapitulates the ancient blasphemous folly of the Dwemer”, which indicates that House Dagoth was aligned with the Dwemer in the way it thought, that they other Houses weren’t. Their main location at Kogoruhn, close to Red Mountain, would lead to quite a bit of ideological cross-over in a way that it didn’t for all the other Houses, which have their bases on the mainland (House Hlaalu based in Narsis, Redoran in Blacklight, Telvanni in Port Telvannis, Dres in Tear and Indoril in Mournhold).

House Dagoth was eliminated as a political entity either at or following the Battle of Red Mountain in 1E 700, but what happened after that is unclear. Some accounts flat out say they were wiped out, while there are other sources that suggest that the members of House Dagoth were distributed among the other Houses and re-educated in other traditions, although there are no “official record” type sources that say this is what happened. The book The Poison Song, which I believe is an in-universe novel, and the events of the Kogoruhn public dungeon in Elder Scrolls: Online suggest this, however.

The post-Battle House Dagoth is more akin to a cult, that worships Dagoth Ur and will be bringing about his return. It is very Lovecraftian in its tone, worshipping a dreaming god under the earth and all that. They walk the line that other Houses do in inducting new members and keeping the family as part of the hierarchy, although there appears to be a much more definite distinction here. Both Poison Song and the Kogoruhn ESO quest suggest that the bloodlines of House Dagoth are susceptible to Dagoth Ur’s dreams and visions in a way that other Dunmer are not. The Sixth House plans that the Tribunal Temple manged to discern similarly hint at a two-tier system:

Establish a theocracy in Morrowind based on the worship of the new-born god Akulakhan [Second Numidium] to be created by Dagoth Ur from the heart of Lorkhan and a body constructed according to the principles and rituals pioneered by the Dwemer Kagrenac. Establish the ancient heirs of House Dagoth as the god-priests of Akulakhan, and the Sixth House of Dagoth Ur as the dominant political power in Morrowind. Through charismatic conversion, unite the Dunmer under the guidance of Dagoth Ur to battle against the foreign animals who hold Morrowind in subjection.

In a way, I see this as an expression of what every Great House represents; they are not just institutions, although that’s a big part of what they do; they are also movements, ideological camps. Paulus Hlaalu expresses the opinion that, “The day when Hlaalu is acknowleged [sic] as the only remaining Great House can now be foreseen with some assurance.” Aside from being very wrong about House Hlaalu, Paulus suggests that a single House dominating Morrowind is a possible outcome for Morrowind; that all institutions could be bound up within a single system, and unified in purpose. This is also what the House Dagoth of the Third Era is aiming for, using religion and charisma to persuade, rather than the mercantile and economic power that the Hlaalu would use. House Redoran also acts this way, with their preoccupation with honour and seriousness; if everyone was a Redoran, then they would be happy. Everyone would always act the right way, because everyone would be honourable, and so honour would work as a universal virtue. We already have Dres and Indoril acting to “spread culture” and enforce righteous thought. I think only the Telvanni, with their commitment to wilfulness and individualism, would actually not pursue the idea of asingle Great House uniting all of Morrowind.

The Place of the Morag Tong

This has led to a situation where the Houses have typically tolerated each other, in the same way you acknowledge people have different political beliefs to you, but they’ve not always been peaceful. There’s the “ancient custom” of House War, which is actually intended to prevent out-and-out war between the Houses. Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition suggests that this was instituted by the Tribunal, but whether that counts as “ancient”, I’m not really sure. The Tribunal had been around for millennia by the time the Pocket Guide was written, so I suppose the answer is “probably”.

The Tong itself probably predates the Tribunal. We don’t know that for sure, but consensus opinion of Tamriel is that it has been around for a long time. I suppose it’s even possible that the Tong were formed to aid the Chimer in their exodus, but that’s wild speculation on my part. With the rise of the Tribunal, the Tong continued, but there appears to have been a bargaining to retain the loyalty of the Tong, if Sermon 22 of the 36 Lessons of Vivec is accurate.That talks about Vivec subbourning a “Treasure-Wood Sword” and then Vivec “found the darkest mothers of the Morag Tong, taking them all to wife and filling them with undusted loyalty that tasted of summer salt”. This is generally taken to be an account of Vivec subduing or otherwise taking control of the Morag Tong. There’s also the text Fire and Darkness, which says this:

In order to exist, the Morag Tong must have appealed to the highest power in Morrowind, which at that time, the Second Era, could only have been the Tribunal of Almalexia, Sotha Sil, and Vivec.  Mephala, whom the Tong worshipped with Sithis, was said to have been the Anticipation of Vivec.  Is it not logical to assume that in exchange for toleration of their continued existence, the Tong would have ceased their worship of Mephala in exchange for the worship of Vivec?

I’m not totally convinced of all this, to be honest. I think the Tong kept on worshipping Mephala, both because of what we see in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which includes Mephala’s direct involvement with the Tong, and the way that Vivec relates to the Tong in the 2920 series. They’re in-universe historical novels, sure, but if they are based on fact in how they interpret Vivec’s response to the Tong assassinating Prince Juliek, then I think it very unlikely that Vivec was actually directing them in any meaningful sense.

The Tong may also have different rules, or a different purpose, beyond simply preventing war between the Houses. The book Sanctioned Murder suggests that the assassins were used for more general vendettas:

My victims were mostly unaware that I was coming for them. Some knew they had wronged others: murdered an innocent, stole from the Houses, even bedded another’s lover. But they would always claim they had done nothing wrong. That I was mistaken. That I had the wrong man or woman. With a blade at a throat, however, it’s amazing how honestly and completely one makes a confession.

If this is true, that may explain why the Tong fell out of favour, not with Mephala, but with the Houses in general. The Dark Brotherhood then emerged from those of the Tong who wanted to carry on killing for non-political reasons, potentially. However, exactly how Sithis as an entity fits into that I’ve yet to puzzle out. There are questions on who the Night Mother is, and what her relation is to Sithis, that I’m not about to get into here, but that may reflect on the relation between the Brotherhood and the Tong. It does however seem a little strange that the Dark Brotherhood proliferates outside of Morrowind while the Tong did not. The Tong did get banned following the assassination of Reman III and his heirs, but I don’t think that a Dunmer organisation that’s not focused around House Hlaalu would be as accepting of other races in their membership as the Brotherhood has been.

In fact, it’s probably about time to start thinking about the way that Dunmer deal with other cultures. Generally with contempt, to be fair…

Foreign Relations, or War by Another Means

The Dunmer are famously disdainful of foreigners. This is potentially understandable, when you’ve survived one of the harshest environments on Tamriel, and got gods in your corner while other cultures’ divines are far more distant. Perhaps it’s a little unsurprising, then, that most relations the Dunmer have had with other nations have been violent. The most long lasting of these has been the taking of slaves from various populations, most commonly the Argonians and Khajiit. There are hints that others are taken, and Nibani Maesa suggests that the Urshilaku stopped taking Argonian and Khajiit slaves because they were usually bad slaves. She doesn’t say anything about not taking slaves of other races, though.

Several houses joined the Ebonheart Pact to drive back the Akaviri in the Second Era, which was perhaps a little uncharacteristic… there were tales that Vivec drove them all back by hirself, for example, undermining the whole idea of the alliance. Couple that with the fact that the Telvanni didn’t join and you have the idea that the Pact is something the Dunmer really didn’t want, and that the Tribunal have tried to airbrush away, right down to Almalexia being the one to summon Wulfharth’s ghost for the war, which the book Jorunn the Skald-King credits to the Greybeards.

I think part of this is because the Dunmer see themselves as having overcome something, mainly the land of Morrowind. They have “earned” their supremacy because they have beaten a harsh environment into submission. We don’t have any exact accounts (that I’ve found anyway) of how they treat the Redguards, however; the Ra Gada’s own mastery of Hammerfell should, I would have thought, gained some respect from the Dunmer, but we have no real record of that.

This feeling spills over into their metaphysical attitude as well. The Temple forbids necromancy on Dunmer corpses, but is fine with other races being messed with. Coupled with the idea of the Dunmer overcoming the land of Morrowind, it reminds me a bit of the Irenaean Theodicy, which claims that humans are made by God as imperfect beings, but the exposure to evil in the world and responses to it create a pure human soul. I think the Dunmer could have a similar way of looking at the world, that it is the suffering that they undergo by being part of Morrowind that makes them “complete” in a way that the other races are not.

That mindset means that accepting the rule of others is a hard pill to swallow. Morrowind was the only region that was not incorporated into the Reman empire, and was only taken into Tiber’s empire because of internal divisions at the time. Quite why the Dunmer were united against Reman in a way they weren’t against Tiber is unclear, but the end result was assimilation to a degree in the Empire, although the Armistice allowed a preservation of Morrowind’s traditions, including a large degree of self-government.

Since joining the Empire, Morrowind was involved in the Septim dynasty, although never as a truly unified front. There was even a Dunmer Empress regent on the Ruby Throne for a time. Ebonheart and Mournold have been the two seats of power here, and have generally been played off against each other by the Empire, with each being brought to prominence and rewarded by Cyrodiil as the other became more troublesome. Katariah I, Empress-Regent, became involved because Ebonheart needed to improve its reputation after supporting Potema in the War of the Red Diamond. I get the impression it was more mutual need than anything else that brought Ebonheart and Cyrodiil together here, and there’s no sense that the Great Houses particularly benefited from it.

The Hlaalu did benefit from the creation of the King of Morrowind, which the Armistice required. I did think it was because the Empire wanted a single “satrap” or governor-type figure, but then we don’t see that single authority in many other places; while Skyrim has the High King, Elsweyr its mane and the like, there has been no King of Argonia, or a single authority in High Rock. That makes its creation a little strange, although it feels like an attempt to stabilise Mournhold, if you take The Real Barenziah seriously on this; the place had been under military rule, and re-introducing Barenziah as the familiar-but-subservient queen gives the people a figure they respect, who is granted by Imperial authority. 

The institution of the King of Morrowind started with a relatively minor house (Mora), and progressed to members of House Hlaalu. This then targeted traditional Dunmeri power bases, possibly to give Hlaalu more power overall. As the underdog house, outlawing slavery and other measures would supposedly decrease the power of their rivals while elaving their trade unaffected. But then the Red Year hit…

That’s where I think we are going to leave the Great Houses for now. It’s felt a bit like a whistlestop tour; if there are particular events you want me to go over, drop me a line (EMAILS, TWITTER ETC) and I’ll get to it.

Next time, we will be looking at some Tamrielic invaders, looking at where they came from, and what they brought to Tamriel when they arrived. Next time we’re asking, Who are the Redguards?

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

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