What is Mythopoeia?

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 in this podcast in the blog post, so please go through and read the sources rather than just taking what I say at face value.

Mythopoeia IRL

To start with, I’d like to go into what mythopoeia is in real life. Mythopoeia (also mythopoesis), comes from Greek μυθοποιία, μυθοποίησις and means “myth-making”. It’s also a fiction genre, where the author is not just telling a story, but building a world as well, with its own myths and legends. Tolkien used the term when referring to how he thought about Middle-earth (including writing a poem on the subject); he wasn’t just writing stories, he was building a world full of stories, complete with its own myths that the characters reference throughout the tales that we are told.

While few other authors explicitly call out what they’re doing as mythopoeia, pretty much any act of creating background for a world that exists outside of the story as an act of mthopoeia. You could call the creation of the in-game texts in TES a mythopoeic endeavour by Bethesda, as it’s an attempt to build a series of stories and myths to make a world feel more in-depth. However, it means something a little different in-universe. The key takeaway to remember from this is that it’s the act of making myth.

Where can I find it in The Elder Scrolls?

It’s also a fairly obscure word in The Elder Scrolls series, showing up in only one place in the games. In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Yagrum Bagarn mentions that Kagrenac’s Tools were ”created to forge mythopoeic enchantments”. We don’t hear about it anywhere else. However, Yagrum goes into a little more detail with precisely what mythopoeic enchantment entails:

“In his search for the secrets of immortality, Kagrenac sought to control supernatural forces that you might call ‘divine’. This artifact — called ‘Wraithguard — was one of the tools that he created for this purpose. Some believed his tampering with such forces was profane, and terribly dangerous. You know the Dwemer disappeared? His use of these tools may have been responsible.”

This gives us a fairly quick definition that mythopoeic enchantments are enchantments that control or influence the divine, and so mythopoeia and mythopoeic forces are those forces which can control or influence the divine.

So what can Mythopoeia actually do?

However, actually applying it isn’t quite that simple. To start with, the Aedra and Daedra are different classes of divine beings, are they affected differently? We have the book Aedra and Daedra, which states this:

“Aedra created the mortal world and are bound to the Earth Bones. Daedra, who cannot create, have the power to change.
As part of the divine contract of creation, the Aedra can be killed. Witness Lorkhan and the moons.
The protean Daedra, for whom the rules do not apply, can only be banished.”

This isn’t an outright statement that one group will be affected by mythopoeia and one won’t, but it can be taken to imply that only the Aedra can be affected by Mythopoeia. This may also have something to do with how the various Aedra and Daedra are perceived. We have this piece of speculation from Phintias, in the thread Amulet, Amulet, who put her in the Amulet:

If you got a theological expert from each of the races of Tamriel, Akavir, Pyandonea, Thras, and a Dremora in a room and asked them about the nature of Akatosh and Lorkhan, they’d argue for days. If you asked them about the nature of Sheogorath, they’d be able to reach a pretty quick consensus. The Daedra have that advantage of one, uber-strong unified belief; this would effect [sic] creatia far more that many, split beliefs like those of the Aedra. Perhaps that is even why the Aedra cannot effect the mortal realm as much as the Daedra; the unified belief, and therefore unified soul, gives Daedra more ability to control creatia. The Aedra, in the meantime, are weakened by the lack of unified belief; the mythopoeic forces cause the Aedra to split into many seperate [sic] manifestations, each with only a portion of the capabilities of the original Aedra.

Mythopoeia and gods

Does this mean we have a situation where the gods gain strength from worship and belief? This is a reasonably common trope in some fantasy worlds, like American Gods or Discworld. But does it apply to Tamriel? We have this from An Overview of Gods and Worship:

It has been theorized that gods do in fact gain strength from such things as worship through praise, sacrifice and deed. It may even be theorized that the number of worshippers a given Deity has may reflect on His overall position among the other Gods. This my own conjecture, garnered from the apparent ability of the larger temples to attain blessings and assistance from their God with greater ease than smaller religious institutions.

I don’t think quite it, however. We do have some instances of new gods emerging, like the creation of the Eight Divines pantheon and Akatosh being stripped of his merish aspects. These events didn’t not involve the wholesale shifting of a culture overnight, but the actions of a few particular people. So it’s not the belief that’s powering it, not the worship itself. The creation of the Eight Divines, in particular, wasn’t necessarily getting large numbers of people to believe something new; it was twisting the old in a different way, a “refraction” in belief rather than a change in focus. Also, a key is in how this is done; through story, through myth, going back to the original meaning of the word. The Made-up Word Roundup thread had a quote by Allerleirauh, which is this:

As in “mythopoeic enchantments” which is what Kagrenac was supposedly doing with the tools. Would appear to mean, “shaping reality by means of altering archetypes and myth.”

The use of archetypes is important here; in Jungian psychology, there is the idea that certain types of character (archetypes) are universals throughout all people. These then emerge as literary constructs that conform to certain patterns. Figures like the mother, the child, the warrior, the trickster will, according to the Jungian model, express certain constant patterns. If we take this as true, then altering those archetypes through manipulation of myth, through the use of mythopoeic force, is incredibly powerful. It’s not that things are shaped by belief, but that believe adheres to archetypes. Change the archetype, and you change the belief. That’s what Alessia, the Marukhati Selectives and arguably the Tribunal were all doing.

The Dwemer probably were as well, but I don’t think that they were doing the same kind of manipulation as the others. While the others were aiming at specific examples (the creation of the Divines pantheon and the expression of Akatosh), the Dwemer seemed to be aiming to manipulate what the nature of divinity itself was. They were looking to adjust what they were and what the gods were to being the same thing once again, making them the same sort of archetype. But I’m digressing slightly.

Myth and Truth

Now, if you think back to the second part of Allerleirauh’s quote, and the base of the word itself, myth… myth derives from the Greek mythos, which is the counterpart for logos, which are both words for “truth”. Myths therefore convey truth. Or truths, is probably the more accurate way of putting it. While logos is aiming at factual, logical truth (see what I did there?), mythos is dealing with more subjective truth, truths of the human condition. That’s what people mean when they talk about “the power of myth”. In order for a myth to be a myth, it has to express a truth about existence. Literal truth, not so much, or it would be logos, but truths about underlying human patterns.

Going back to The Elder Scrolls, it appears that all truth is mythos to some extent; we have texts like Reality and Other Falsehoods that indicate that the idea of a factual, immovable truth is very unlike the world of TES, which Lawrence Shick has also indicated:

“This is a world of myth. This is a world where reality is actually changeable, where the Divines can change not only what happens going forward, but what has happened in the past. So, you know, the idea there is an objective reality behind all these different people’s opinions is not necessarily the case in the world of Tamriel.”

Given this, shaping myths is shaping truth in TES. So, to quote Pontius Pilate, what is truth?

What is Truth?

Truth in TES has various associations beyond simply being what actually happened. As I’ve said before, the straight truth is something that TES tries desperately to avoid. And is always generally quite limited. The Truth in Sequence, a text that talks the most about truth more than most texts in TES, talks mostly about a specific truth, that of Anuic unity and Padomaic falsehood and deception. Even here, we have the implication that truth itself is not a categorical thing; it encourages readers at one point to:

smash the old machines! Topple your mind’s idols! And from the wreckage, assemble new truths – flawless and water-tight.

Even here, a book called “the truth”, indicates multiple truths. It’s also quite an active thing – taking things and making them true. The things in themselves aren’t the truth. This is even more the case in the 36 Lessons of Vivec, where truth is repeatedly associated with blunt violence. We have this from Sermon 31

Truth is like my husband: instructed to smash, filled with procedure and noise, hammering, weighty, heaviness made schematic, lessons learned only by a mace.

And this from Sermon 36:

Ayem took from the star its fire, Seht took from it its mystery, and Vehk took from it its feet, which had been constructed before the gift of Molag Bal and destroyed in the manner of truth: by a great hammering.

Alongside these, which effectively equate truth with violence, truth is also compared with water, which The Elder Scrolls: Online links with memory. This is also dismissive of objective truth, in that memories are coloured by subjectivity, and not an accurate record. Truth is what it is made to be by people and their actions.

This is accepted at the most basic level by students of the school of Alteration. Reality and other Falsehoods has this to say on the matter:

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.

This means that there isn’t necessarily a single truth behind a thing; it may not be events perceived from different angles, like the story of the blind men and the elephant, or the idea of looking at a cylinder at different angles to get a rectangle and a circle. We are likely dealing with something that is actually reshaping reality in specific instances, through the imposition of force. Like the Thu’um.

The Thu’um is, actually, a good example of this. Arngeir says this:

There is no difference in the dragon tongue between debating and fighting. Shouting comes as naturally to a dragon as breathing.

Dragons use the Thu’um to impose their will on reality. The debating example is pretty apt; the Thu’um is used to say “This. Is. SO!”, which is the point of a debate, generally; asserting your version of events, your reality, in an effort to convince others.

We’re going to get a little headcanony here for a second. I have my own theories about how and why faith and the like work, and I think it’s tied to myth. Faith, in the sense of “being convinced of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1) doesn’t really happen, as the gods can be seen. People are comforted by the obvious ethics of a deity which either manifests directly and spells out their right and wrong, and if that doesn’t suit them, they can always pick another one. Sigillah Parate makes this abundantly clear in the book Invocation of Azura; she chooses a Daedra to worship because it suits her, not because of any ethical or faith-based problem. Aela chooses to continue to follow Hircine for similar reasons.
However, while faith is a lifestyle choice in TES, it is not the end of the story. While Jean-Paul Satre sees that choice is both fundamental to the human condition and not bounded (as expressed in the quote “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent”), the way that choice is made is not merely preference. It has far-reaching subjective consequences, insofar that it informs our very idea of reality. To quote Satre further, from the book Existentialism & Humanism:

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.

This is basically saying that no one acts in the way that they consider would be wrong for anyone. In acting, everyone affirms that their actions are truth – a truth that is both subjective and universal in the same instant. Mythopoeia is when it goes beyond that, and you impose that truth on others by reshaping the archetypes that people use, changing how they think. This is how we wind up with different gods in different places, for the most part; the archetypes are manipulated and combined through the re-telling and reshaping of myth.This has resulted in several gods being recombined and altered, like Akatosh and Arkay, but the best example of this that I think we have, or at least the cleanest, in my view, is Akatosh. I should probably address the others at some point, but we’ll go with the dragon god for now.

Akatosh, aka… Lots

The Time God is a figure that is a relative constant in Tamrielic mythology; only the Dunmer, Redguards and Argonians don’t have an easily identifiable cognate of Akatosh in their pantheons. Some, most particularly Cyrodilic scholars equate all aspects of the time god with Akatosh. We also have the term Aka appearing in a few texts (particularly the Song of Pelinal and the unlicensed Et’ada, Eight Aedra, Eat the Dreamer), which implies a “higher order time god than Akatosh or whatever name gets used. This entity refers to Alduin as an “aspect” in the Seven Fights of the Aldudagga text, which could be seen to imply that we have a single being with many facets.

I’m a little sceptical of that, or at least the idea that it relates to a cohesive whole; as I said earlier, what we have in The Elder Scrolls in relation to gods doesn’t seem to be a single entity seen from different angles. It’s different entities, different archetypes. And time has many different archetypes that can be applied.

Is Aka Time Periods?

This is most obvious when you think about different periods of time, put most simply as beginning, middle and end. Real world myths play off this a lot, with the maiden-mother-crone archetypes for female characters, as well as the riddle of the sphinx.

In relation to Aka, the most common breakdown is the following:

  • Auri-El/Auriel as the beginning of time
  • Akatosh as the middle of time
  • Alduin as the end of time

This plays very nicely into where we see these different entities the most; Auri-El has less and less to do with the myths we hear the further away we get from the Dawn Era, whereas Alduin has always been associated with the end times. However, Akatosh puts a spanner in the works here, and that’s because of some potentially weird things going on. I know, you’re all shocked – paradoxes connected to the nature of the time god! Whoever could have seen that coming?

Akatosh became what he is in the time of the games through the interference of the Marukhati Selectives, in the First Era. The Selectives caused a dragon break in order to remove some perceived merish elements from the time god. You’ll see some claim that this is the point that Akatosh is created, that the actions of the Selectives made Auri-El into Akatosh, or at least separated the two. Where Were You When the Dragon Broke points out this quite explicitly by saying:

A fanatical sect of the Alessian Order, the Maruhkati Selective, becomes frustrated by ancient Aldmeri traditions still present within the theological system of the Eight Divines. Specifically, they hated any admission that Akatosh, the Supreme Spirit, was indisputably also Auriel, the Elven High God.

However, we also have texts like Shezarr and the Divines that assert that Akatosh was originally an Aldmeri god. If that’s the case, why do we have Auri-El as the head of most merish pantheons?

I think the answer lies in what the Selectives did, but more specifically when and how. The Selectives created a dragon break in order to meddle with the nature of Akatosh, which can be seen as a return to the Dawn Era, before time. If this is the case, it’s possible that any changes wrought during a dragon break could potentially have retroactive effects. So, if Akatosh was split from merish aspects in the untime of the Middle Dawn, we could conceivably create two different gods who have both existed for the duration of linear time, but are frequently confused with each other.

I saw a post on this years ago in the old Bethesda forums. I have no idea who originally posted it, I’ve tried in vain to find it again, although I’m probably mangling the phrasing. The quote as I remember it is this:

Alduin is the son of Akatosh, who has always existed. But Auriel and Alduin were Akatosh before he always existed.

If this is true, then we have an imperfectly overlaid new version of the time god, created by the Marukhati and superimposed over Auri-El, that we now call Akatosh. Or maybe there was a version called Akatosh that the Marukhati just enlarged; we can’t know for sure based on our current knowledge and position within the Aurbis.

So what does that mean for Alduin?

To (finally) get to the original question for this podcast, comparing Alduin and Akatosh, we see Alduin as his own being in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, despite claims from some that Alduin and Akatosh are one and the same. Alduin also doesn’t have an explicit “birth point” in the same way as we can point to for Akatosh, and he isn’t around much at the beginning of the universe either, despite being called the “wellspring” of the Nordic Pantheon in Varieties of Faith. There was never any real confusion with Akatosh in the same way as there has been with Auri-El, despite there being some clear separation.

So either we have Alduin being associated with the time god at a lower subgradient, that is Akatosh self-reflecting enough to birth another soul, or something else is going on. Or maybe it isn’t Akatosh self-reflecting at all, but something else…

The Seven Fights of the Aldudagga and the Eat the Dreamer unlicensed texts both point to there being an Aka above Akatosh, that there is an entity from which Alduin is derived. Various other of MK’s writings and forum posts also call Alduin Akatosh’s “Mirror-Brother”. The whole quote is actually this:

Don’t forget that gods can be shaped by the mythopoeic forces of the mantlers– so Tosh Raka could be an Akaviri avatar of Akatosh with a grudge against his mirror-brother in Cyrodiil.

Just like Akatosh-as-we-usually-know-him could time-scheme against his mirror-brother of the Nords, Alduin, to keep the present kalpa– perhaps his favorite– from being eaten.

Notice all the coulds.

All those coulds notwithstanding, this feels like the forces of mythopoeia can break up various parts of the Time Dragon into his component aspects. This makes sense if you think about how stories are told about time; even in common speech, time is a healer, a hound always at our heels, a relentless force that wipes everything away, and probably a bunch more metaphors that I can’t think of right now. Each of those roles require different types of stories, different myths and archetypes in order to be told coherently. So it is pretty much inevitable that a time god, connected to the changeability of the material world, would wind up being different attributes.

And we also have a potentially adversarial relationship between Akatosh and Alduin hinted at in the above quote. This is also a consequence of so many different tales being told about time. This is more or less spelled out in the unlicensed et’Ada, Eight Aedra, Eat the Dreamer:

The Aedroth Aka, who goes by so many names as to perhaps already suggest what I’m about to commit to memospore, is completely insane. His mind broke when his “perch from Eternity allowed the day”

That fragmentation would allow for different aspects of Aka to both exist and be Aka all at once, being extracted from a bigger whole. If we also allow the possibility that Aka is insane, Akatosh and Alduin can both be the same and having different drives, in line with the aspects of their mythic archetypes. The two are defined by the mythopoesis that they are associated with, but are only manipulated when the underlying archetypes are changed; Alduin is therefore the longer-lasting in the mythic history of Tamriel and, despite his statements, probably prior to Akatosh, in the timelines before the machinations of the Marukhati changed the nature of Akatosh when they broke the dragon even further.

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.

And a note to those listening as these are released, this will be the last episode before Christmas. I’ll be travelling before next episode is due, and then away from my recording kit. Once I get back I’ll also be looking into using a more convenient host for the podcast, which will hopefully be a little less manual than the processes I’ve been using up until this point. This may mean that there is some downtime or glitches if you’re trying to listen to things during the migration. Hopefully not, but you never know.

In the meantime, I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season, and I’ll be back with more episodes in the new year.

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

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