What is Magic?

Magic is a fundamental part of the world of The Elder Scrolls. This is one of a few models for magic that you’ll see in fiction, where it’s either an inherent property of a certain class of people (like wizards and witches from Harry Potter, who can just do magic while others can’t), or an interaction with another class of being altogether, as many religions claim. In this model, magic is relational, rather than something that is neutral. However, TES follows a lot of recent fantasy in treating magic as an inherent property of the world, like electricity.

The Origins of Magic

It’s all-pervasive in TES; It’s something that is not only used by mages, but is part of the very make up of Mundus. The Third Edition Pocket Guide to the Empire puts it like this:

Imperial Theosophy teaches us that our world was born from magicka, the creative force that informs and sustains all life. The sources of magic are the many and diverse heavens beyond the void, collectively known as the Aetherius.

If this is true, then magic is essentially the Higgs boson of the Elder Scrolls universe, a thing that allows all other things to exist. However, as much as this is poetic, I have my doubts about the idea that magic is the driving force behind everything. I’m not totally sure that the Pocket Guide is reliable because it grounds its claims in theosophy, which might have a different definition from theosophy in this world, but if we run with the actual definition, it’s the idea that knowledge of God can be achieved through direct ecstatic revelation. If that’s the case, then the perception that magic is part of everything from the start is already coming from a being (a mortal) that is already surrounded by magic. Not necessarily the best position to evaluate it from.

While that perception isn’t entirely right, there is something to it. The talk of the “many and diverse heavens” that comprise Aetherius, which is the source of magic, seems to be in line with what most other sources tell us. The core of this is that magic was introduced into the world by Magnus, the architect of Mundus, and the sun and stars, holes that were torn when he and his followers fled to Aetherius, are the main places magic comes from.

However, those sources do give us some possible contradictions to that basic narrative. For the most part they associate magic with light, which you’ll hear in most places in the community. However, try as I might I can’t find any passages that directly backs up the common view that the sun in particular is a huge gateway for magic. There’s just the story of Magnus leaving, and his being associated with sorcery. Nothing that directly ties sunlight to magic. We’ll get to some of the consequences of that a little later, but for now I want to talk about possibilities for where magic does come from. One of the biggest candidates is the stars. For one thing the Ayleids put a particular emphasis on starlight in their magic. From the book Magic from the Sky:

The ancient Ayleids believed that Nirn was composed of four basic elements — earth, water, air, and light — and of these four elements, they believed the most sublime form of light was star light. The stars are our links to the plane of Aetherius, the source of all magical power, and therefore, light from the stars is the most potent and exalted of all magical powers.

Notice that the stars are celebrated here, not the sun. So it’s possible that the sun is doing something different. The book Mysteries of the Mundus Stones also indicates that individual stars and constellations have their own forms of magic that are distinct from each other, as well as (presumably) the sun:

The constellations each occupy their own magical domains, as evidenced by the observable energies that emanate from Mundus Stones and their ability to instill power into individuals. We do not know who erected these stones (which can be found across all the provinces of Tamriel) or for what purpose, but their magical resonance tells us clearly that each constellation’s signature is quite unique.

This would explain why the Celestials are quite so different; they’re condensed from the magic of particular constellations, not magicka in general. The unlicensed text Vehk’s Teaching also mentions that the Hurling Disc in particular “contains a strange mingling of magic from both the Solar and Lunar spheres”, which does indicate that the sun has some effect on the nature of magic. Quite what that is, though, isn’t clear.

Perhaps the weirdest spin on this sort of thing is that magic is fragments of Magnus himself. Varieties of Faith puts it like this:

The god of sorcery, Magnus withdrew from the creation of the world at the last second, though it cost him dearly. What is left of him on the world is felt and controlled by mortals as magic.

If this were true, then there wouldn’t be any particular link between light and magic, but instead that what would essentially be severed parts of a god floating around acting as a form of elemental particle. I’m less inclined to believe that, personally, although there are some texts that refer to Magnus and Magic synonymously. The book Before the Ages of Man directly calls Magnus “Magic”, declaring that it “left” once the Convention at Ada-Mantia was complete.

Magic vs Magicka

You’ll also notice that we’ve been talking about “magic” so far, but the stuff that is used up when casting spells is “magicka”. Magicka is the form that magic takes within Mundus. While what’s in Atherius is magic, it becomes magicka when used on Mundus.

Magic & Light

I wanted to dig into what the relationship between magic and light could mean, as well. The text I quoted earlier from Magic from the Sky equates magic with light directly, and there are some indications in the book De Rerum Dirennis that it could possibly have an impact. In particular this line:

For the most part, of course, they were used in flavoring cooking, but as you know, hardly any plant grows on the surface of our world without a magickal potential.

I am probably reading too much into this, but it feels like plants on Mundus may absorb something in the way of magicka as it grows. I’m less inclined to think that magicka and light are the same thing, because that doesn’t explain how magic works in somewhere like Blackreach, which has never seen sun or starlight.

Magic is clearly something that permeates Mundus, rather than just being a byproduct of light. My guess is that Tamrielic light is something that can permeate and rest in objects, if we’re going to equate Magic and light. But I think there are some good reasons to think they’re not entirely the same thing, based on some of the weirder forms of magic that are out there, which may come from entirely different sources.

The Exceptions: Creatia and Shadow Magic

The most obvious magic source (or perhaps channel is a better word?) are the Towers, which harness creatia, if you believe the unlicensed text Nu-Mantia Intercept. To quote:

Cultivating creatia that washed into the Void from Aetherius became the rule among Stones.


Like all of the polydox constructs of the earliest Aldmer– whatever their abnegaurbic creed– White-Gold Tower is a conduit of creatia, aad sembia sembio, built to bring about a reversal of the congealing spiritual bleed caused by the Convention. In other words, it was a focus point for (re-)reaching the divine.

The text Chaotic Creatia: The Azure Plasm goes into some more detail on this, stating that chaotic creatia is the stuff of Oblivion itself, which is then given shape by something else. Other forms of creatia clearly exist as well, but it’s not treated as the same thing as magic.

There is also Shadow Magic, which seems to come from somewhere else entirely. But we’ll save that for the end, because it’s totally outside of everything else.

Magic Classification & Schools

Or it’s just possible that it’s outside most of the classifications we have for magic. The schools of magic inform a lot of how we think about magic, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. They are artificial constructs, although there are some different accounts of how they came about. The book Proposal: Schools of Magic is written by Gabrielle Benele, a Breton who we can meet in Elder Scrolls: Online, who claims to have got the classification from a Dunmeri magic school, and so if that’s the case then they would have been relatively new by the time of the Interregnum, although we don’t know how old the Dunmeri school in question is. However, A Minor Maze credits Shalidor with their creation, while The Black Arts on Trial states that Vanus Galerion created them, and Feyfolken has a passing reference that Vanus “restructured the schools to be understandable by the masses”.

I don’t think these accounts can be entirely reconciled; although we could argue that the Dunmer could have absorbed some of the schools structure from Shalidor (in a fairly narrow historical window before the dissolution of the First Nord Empire), that wouldn’t account for why Vanus is credited with their creation, unless Gabrielle re-discovered them and then Vanus claimed all the credit for it. Possible, but convoluted.

The Effect of the Schools

Regardless of how they came about, several sources point out that the schools are arbitrary creations, not something that are inherent in the nature of magicka. However, I think that the schools do have an impact on the kind of magic that a given spellcaster can wield. This is because it defines how a user thinks about magic, in the same way that you can examine a thing from the perspective of a particular academic discipline, which will impact your interpretation of the phenomenon under study; a chemist and a biologist will have different interpretations of what happens during digestion and composition, for example. We have some indications that similar things happen with magic, but the effect gets magnified quite a bit. We have this quote from the book A Tragedy in Black that’s a succinct expression of a basic principle that gets hinted at elsewhere. It is a folk tale, but the expression puts it across really clearly, so forgive me for not going for one of the more rigorous sources.

“It is not enough to cast a spell upon an inert object. Magic requires thought, intent, will and emotion.”

The most common place this sort of thing gets called out is with Alteration magic, with the text Reality and Other Falsehoods and Gabrielle Berne’s words in a Loremaster’s Archive striking at similar themes, but I think this is reflective of a number of different forms of magic, and so I’d suggest it’s true for magic as a whole. The will of the mage determines not only what they can do, but what form it takes.

I’d go far enough to say that magic, or at least magic insofar as it pertains to the schools, seems to function like language as described by Wittgenstein. For Wittgenstein, language was a social construct, with rules enforced by different social groups interacting, that gives words their meaning, which can then change between different contexts. This means that words themselves have no intrinsic “meaning” To give a really basic example, “sinister” means something completely different in heraldry than it does in horror fiction. I think magic could function in the same way. Although independent hedge mages do exist, magic as we see it in The Elder Scrolls is generally learned within the context of formal tuition. That tuition will have an impact on what and how a given student can cast, and how they understand magic to function. It also likely has an impact on how magic is used to create different effects.

Different schools have different ways of perceiving magic, they have philosophical underpinnings that have an impact on their practice. Reality and Other Falsehoods has the most blatant example:

To master Alteration, first accept that reality is a falsehood. There is no such thing. Our reality is a perception of greater forces impressed upon us for their amusement. Some say that these forces are the gods, others that they are something beyond the gods. For the wizard, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the appeal couched in a manner that cannot be denied. It must be insistent without being insulting.To cast Alteration spells is to convince a greater power that it will be easier to change reality as requested than to leave it alone. Do not assume that these forces are sentient. Our best guess is that they are like wind and water. Persistent but not thoughtful. Just like directing the wind or water, diversions are easier than outright resistance. Express the spell as a subtle change and it is more likely to be successful.

This sets reality up as a consensus, if you like, between different beings. Magic is the way in which a new consensus is negotiated, in a world that is full of radical subjectivity. This in a sense gets back to an entirely different conception of magic than most fiction; we talked in the beginning about magic sometimes being the result of a bargaining process between the spellcaster and an entity. This harks back to that, without fully committing. You’re just negotiating with an aspect of reality to make your truth the one reality agrees with.

Mysticism is another obvious one, again because we have a textbook telling us quite a bit of the thought process behind it. That textbook, Mysticism: The Unfathomable Voyage, states this: 

The Psijics of the Order of Artaeum’s term for Mysticism is the Old Way. The phrase becomes bogged in a semantic quagmire, because the Old Way also refers to the religion and customs of the Psijics which may, or may not, be part of the magic of Mysticism.


Mysticism seems to derive power from its conundrums and paradoxes; the act of experimentation, no matter how objectively implemented, can influence magicka by its very existence. Therefore the Mystic mage must consign himself to finding dependable patterns within a roiling imbroglio of energy.

The book eventually declares that it’s not certain what drives Mysticism as a discipline at all; it’s just a “way of doing things”, which drives home this idea. It’s the practice, the context, and the way the magic is embedded in the acts that’s important, rather than using magic “properly”. The schools may be arbitrary distinctions, but they have a definite impact on both how magic is done, and what that magic does. Changes in that tuition may also explain why we have different spell sets in each game; the regions that we are in teach magic differently, which allows us to do different things with that magic.

The Exceptions

The effect of a formal structure of magic tuition on magic itself is also expressed in how people from the Mages Guild and other institutions see the magic of other traditions. A book examining the practices of Dunmeri Ashlander Wise Women says this:

A Wise Woman employs a type of magic foreign to those trained in the use of the different schools of magicka. Her magic appears to be grounded in the natural world.

Exactly what “grounded in the natural world” means is unclear, but the context says that’s very different to how traditionally trained mages operate. It’s also part of a cultural tradition that embeds the magic into other things; I don’t have anything definite for this, but I’d imagine that Ashlanders wouldn’t necessarily call what they do “spells”, but instead talk about it in terms of what ritual or customary action was being performed. The magic is one of the products, not the only one.

There are also references to “hedge mages” in some texts, generally as a derogatory term spoken by those who have formal  magical training. We don’t know a huge amount about these, as they are fairly idiosyncratic, and no one really wants to talk about them, but I’d imagine they would be quite different from the “schools” approach as well.

Tonal Magic

One of the other forms of magic you’ll see not taught as “schools” but present in discussions in the fandom is “tonal magic”. We don’t have much on this as a distinct thing; the only form of magic that’s referred to by name like this is the Tonal Architecture of the Dwemer, but you’ll find several fans talk about tonal magic more broadly.

The usual candidates for being “tonal magic” are:

  • Tonal architecture
  • The Thu’um
  • Redguard Sword-Singing
  • Bosmeri Spinners

The thing that links all these together as something important is a quote from Michael Kirkbride that was originally made in an IRC chat:

Tamriel. Starry Heart. That whole fucking thing is a song. It was made either out of 12 planets, or from two brothers that split in the womb. Either way, it’s the primal wail and those that grew up on it – they can’t help but hear it, and add to it, or try to control it, or run from it. The reason there IS music on Tamriel at ALL is because it exists. It was and is and it will not stop.

This is very similar to the music of Arda in Tolkien’s Legendarium; the Song of the Ainur made the world, although it’s ongoing. It’s not something that was played, and then realised. It’s something that is constantly ongoing, and, so the thinking goes, all the forms of tonal magic are supposed to modify the song that is Tamriel. Each culture has its own spin on that, different attempt to “add to it, try to control it or run from it”. I’ll give a quick run-down of these now.

Tonal Architecture

Tonal architecture itself is barely written about in licensed texts, but has been taken up by the community to be something the Dwemer used. I suppose it’s synonymous with the “mythopoeic enchantments” that Yagrum Bagarn talks about Kagrenac using. From what we see in the Antiquities Codex entries in ESO, Tonal Architecture is a thing that was used to create things, like literal architecture, I suppose.

We do have the briefest of hints in another IRC chat log we have where MK has said that:

Tonal Architecture can do anything synæsthesia can do. Unless you’re a dumb deaf dreamer.

From that, I’d take it that Tonal Architecture can “transpose” reality from one form into another. That schematics, if properly played, would create what the design/score said should be there. But that’s about all I can get from it.

The Thu’um

The Thu’um is widely regarded as primitive tonal magic, because it’s shouting. It’s taking that conversation with reality that we talked about earlier, and finding a way to insist, to stamp your feet and yell until reality gives in. Maybe. This is one of the ones that’s connected to tonal magic by fan conjecture, but I think it fits.

And we get more tentative from here.

Sword Singing

Sword-singing is associated with tonal magic because of the “singing” component. It involves the creation of the “image of a sword [that] is formed from pure thought.”, according to A Compilation of Redguard History. It’s also linked to the sinking of Yokuda, as that was allegedly done by a Sword Singer. So it could potentially do a lot more than summon a spirit sword, but we have no one who has managed to develop it into a systemic form of broad magic. Yet.

Bosmeri Spinners

Bosmeri Spinners are tonal mages, potentially, because they create change in reality with their stories. There’s a fantastic quest in ESO that’s part of the Aldmeri Dominion line. In that, Spinner Maruin tells you a story that sends you back into a memory, which alters that memory for all that were part of it. If Tamriel is a song, this is perhaps the purest expression of that. Although it’s also quite limited; speaking to Maruin throughout the quest he’ll say that stories are both ongoing and already told. That may very well just be a poetic expression of saying that people can influence the flow of events, although the magic to alter the past points at something that’s quite a bit deeper.

Shadow Magic

And so we finally get to Shadow Magic. Shadow Magic is one of those forms of magic that’s more “meta”; like Mysticism and Tonal Magic, it interferes with the underlying structures of magic in its operation. It’s not dealing with literal shadows, but the shadows that things leave on reality. To quote Stepping Through Shadows:

to the experienced practitioner, translocation becomes so routine that one almost forgets how difficult it was at first to learn. It is traditional to refer to this magical art as “stepping through shadows,” and indeed, the key to its mastery is the ability to “peer sidewise” and perceive the shadows cast by each entity and object in the Aurbis.These are not, of course, the literal shadows cast by the blockage of light by an opaque object, but the emanation of the limen each object possesses—the depth-impression its existence makes in the local reality of the Mundus. This requires learning to focus the hyperagonal sense through which the practitioner perceives the flow of magicka

This almost feels like the way that Einsteinian spacetime. Objects leave an imprint on the idea of reality, as if spacetime where a rug on which the objects rest. Shadow magic seem to rely on manipulating that rug to make objects, or their emanations, flow through in various directions.

That manipulation is chiefly done by forcing a form of metaphysical conflict, if we believe the First Scroll of the Shadow:

Azra was the first to realize that shadows were not a mere absence of light but a reflection of possible worlds created by forces in conflict. A light strikes a rock, and the shadow is a record of their clash, past, present and future.Other conflicting forces produced less obvious shadows, fire and water, wind and rock, or nations at war.With skill and patience, the shadows of all could be read, and patterns teased out, emphasized or eradicated.Manipulating a shadow could, through contagion, manipulate the object or force which cast it.

This is the foundational text of Shadow Magic, really, and outlines all the principles of it. It’s basically saying that shadow magic involves seeing all possible worlds, and then teasing out and altering those ones that the mage wants to become a reality. It’s a subtle form of Alteration, I guess, where you’re not altering the pattern of reality, but the stuff underneath reality.

The idea of it being created by conflict has also led some people to speculate on it being linked to Carl Jung’s idea of the Shadow. That is, the idea that the Shadow is the part of the psyche that go unobserved or unnoticed by a person. It will be different for each person, but largely negative, because we suppress negative facets of ourselves in order to retain a positive self-image. I guess that can fit with the idea of the possible worlds for shadow magic; it is manipulating the unseen elements of a thing, and therefore playing into Jung’s notion of the Shadow. I could, however, be horribly wrong there. If someone else can explain the link better than me, please do.

Perhaps the strongest link between the Shadow and Shadow Magic is in the last part of it. The idea of shadow magic manipulating and changing the caster links it quite directly to changes in the unconscious, I think. This again goes back to the relativity concept; the Shadow Mage is in essence tugging on the rug of reality while standing on it. You do that, you’re possibly going to fall over. Which in this case means fundamentally change something about yourself.

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