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
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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