What is Oblivion?

Oblivion and Place

The first thing to know about Oblivion in the Elder Scrolls is that there is no set definition of it. It’s paradoxical; it is a place that is not a place; it’s both somewhere that people can go from Mundus, appears to surround it, and possibly overlaps with it. It’s described as both a sea, and a myriad of different realms. Maybe a volcanic archipelago is the best analogy for it? That Oblivion itself is a sea, and that the various Daedric realms within it emerge and coalesce as if volcanic matter could be shaped and constructed by the bigger fish out there, who then cocoon themselves in those islands? That really feels like stretching a metaphor, but it’s the best way that I can express having those two ideas coexist at once. In fact, the phrase “waters of Oblivion” is used heavily in what sources we have, suggesting this metaphor isn’t a million miles off.

Oblivion also gets used in Tamriel as something equivalent to hell. The way that Mehrunes Dagon’s plane of the Deadlands is certainly presented that way in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  “To Oblivion with you!” and similar quotes are made by characters all throughout the books we find. I think this comes in part from the Alessian Order, which equates Daedra with demons, and in part from the need for the writers to have some idiomatic equivalents in Tamriel for stock phrases in English. Also,the Alessian Order explanation has its origins in the original design patterns that were present in Arena and Daggerfall, which have since been moved away from.

There’s also this quote that sums up not only where Oblivion is (or seems to be) in the current understanding from the lore, but the basic involvement that most people have with Oblivion. From the Pocket Guide to the Empire, Third Edition:

Indeed, simply staring into the night sky is enough to visit Oblivion, for it begins where Mundus ends and surrounds those terminals on every side……Since Oblivion is coterminous with the plane of Nirn, travel there has happened since time immemorial. Because of this, its quarters are the most mapped and charted of all the outer realms, though there is still much more mystery than understanding. While it is easiest to think of a Void being exactly that, Oblivion is anything but, and while it is true that much of it is black and empty sea, through every era magicians and emperors and villains have all visited its borders and returned with tales of countless isles of wonder and cosmic whimsy. The Daedra Lords, here from the start, have through long eons hoarded so much surplus of existence that they have built not only their own domains, but much more besides.

The idea of Oblivion being the night sky is one that gets repeated elsewhere, and reinforces that notion of an archipelago I talked about earlier; Mundus, as well as the realms of Oblivion, is adrift in a sea of other stuff. However, that doesn’t feel like the whole of what this quote is saying. It uses the word “coterminous”. On the one hand, this feels like it’s just saying “next to”, but I’ve also see the word used to mean “having the same extent”, which implies that Mundus and Oblivion cover the same “area” as such. That’s not quite the same thing as saying TAMRIEL AE DAEDROTH and that we’re all playing in a Daedric plane, as Mankar Camoran claims, but instead that Oblivion exists “out of phase” with Mundus, and is instead just another “layer” of existence, if I can put it like that. That makes a little sense with what we know of shadow magic, with things that lie hyperagonal to Mundus, if I can put it like that. However, that does throw out one of the more popular models for how Oblivion could work, because it disregards the wheel model for the Aurbis, which I’ve talked about before.

The reason that it does that is because the realms of the Daedric Princes are the “gaps” between the “spokes” of the Eight Aedra, suggesting a very rigid difference between the material and Oblivion. If Oblivion is everywhere within and beyond the material plane, then that division doesn’t exist. The wheel model aso doesn’t quite work because it means that there isn’t anything to Oblivion beyond the realms of the Princes, which isn’t true according to the descriptions that we have of Oblivion as a sea, somewhere that can be contested and the like. We also have the line from ESO that Nocturnal’s realm is adjacent to every other plane in Oblivion, which also blows a hole in the wheel model.

One thing that has mystified me, if the wheel model isn’t true, is what makes Oblivion Oblivion? The Wheel model has some nicely contained princedoms, which are made up of beings that are nicely distinct from both Atherius and Mundus. If Oblivion is just a roiling sea of creatia, what makes it any different from Atherius? I don’t think we have a definite answer, in part because of the difference between the Magna Ge and the Deadric Princes; there’s a difference of intent and not much more, and so that intent must be part of the difference, but if there’s neutral ground in either of the two realms, as much of Oblivion is implied to be, what isn’t owned or subject to intent, how are they different? I don’t have an answer I’m happy with.

The quote from the Pocket Guide also brings up another angle that’s intriguing; that Oblivion is a place where the Daedric Princes hoard the surplus of existence. That could be an explanation of why the Deadra hoard souls and soul energy, as well as various other bits of creation. Or of creatia, maybe? That strikes me as closer to the truth, because that’s what the stuff of Oblivion seems to be, which would be more useful for the Daedra. Unformed creatia strikes me as a good fit for “surplus of existence”, particularly given this passage in the book Chaotic Creatia: The Azure Plasm:

Back on Mundus I had naively envisioned this creatia as some sort of misty, amorphous material swirling in a void somewhere. After our arrival in Coldharbour, it was some time before I realized that its ubiquitous pools of blue slime, the substance we’ve come to call “Azure Plasm,“ was in fact the form that creatia takes upon this plane. By extension, I reasoned that chaotic creatia takes a different but planar-appropriate form in every realm of Oblivion — and this theory was later confirmed for me by the rogue Xivilai known as the Sojourner, who has had direct experience of numerous planes of existence.In fact, it was the Sojourner who first introduced me to one of those secret grottoes where one can observe the process of plasm-accretion in action. (To find such grottoes, where Daedra are “born,” it is necessary only to observe the slow flow of the Azure Plasm and follow it to its destination—for plasm-accretion causes a slow drain on adjacent pools.) It was fascinating to watch a vestige gradually absorbing Azure Plasm and converting it from the general to specific, so that over time it slowly took on the size and shape of a hulking, reptilian daedroth.

This seems to suggest that the creatia of Oblivion is both shaped to the presence of a Daedra’s dominant will, and used to define the Daedra in question, kind of like how the grit that forms the core of a pearl and the pearl itself eventually become indistinguishable. A suitable will in Oblivion cannot help but have a creation form around it, but it seems that mortal minds are generally incapable of this. It’s possible that this has something to do with the “valence” of the soul in question. Chaotic Creatia: Azure Plasm suggests that this “valence”, which sounds like something like a “charge” or polarity maybe, but is unrelated to the nature of a soul or similar, because it’s something that’s used to describe the Vestige. It’s the changing of some other essence, to make sure that the will is more amenable to the shape of Oblivion. We’ll speak a bit more about that later.

Speaking of pearls and the like, the phrase “waters of Oblivion” gets used in various places when the nature of Oblivion is non-specific, and this text seems to highlight where the non-specific stuff and creatia of Oblivion becomes something more specific. As it’s talking about wills, I suppose it’s time to start discussing the realms of the Daedric princes, and Daedra in general.

Oblivion & the Daedric Princes

The Daedra are those beings that refused to take part in the creation of Mundus, and instead made worlds for themselves in Oblivion, although we have some differing accounts of how this was done. Before we get into the meat of how the Daedra relate to Oblivion, I wanted to go over how the Daedric realms, which make up much of Oblivion, were made. The Cyrodilic monomyth, Shezarr’s Song, puts it like this:

“Now when the Daedra Lords heard Shezarr, they mocked him, and the other Aedra. ‘Cut parts of ourselves off? And lose them? Forever? That’s stupid! You’ll be sorry! We are far smarter than you, for we will create a new world out of ourselves, but we will not cut it off, or let it mock us, but we will make this world within ourselves, forever ours, and under our complete control.’

However, I think that’s wrong. As it says, they created worlds “out of themselves”, and from what we’ve talked about already, I hope it’s clear that the substance of Oblivion, creatia, is a distinct thing in some ways from the Princes. The Psijic tale, The Myth of the Aurbis, has what is possibly a more balanced view, even if it is more vague:

The Daedra were created at this time also, being spirits and Gods more attuned to Oblivion, or that realm closer to the Void of Padomay. 

That passage suggests that it’s a being’s “affinity” to Oblivion that makes one a Daedra or otherwise connected to Oblivion. If that’s the case, it would also explain how Malacath and Meridia are accounted as Daedric Princes. While the word “daedra” means “not our ancestors”, and most Daedric Princes were those spirits that didn’t want to take part in the creation of Mundus, there are exceptions, Meridia and Malacath being the most obvious. Neither of these were among those who outright refused to partake in creation, and so wouldn’t be “daedra” by the strict meaning of the term. However, both are considered to be Daedra now. If I can make another hamfisted attempt at a complicated metaphor, they are “attuned to Oblivion”, whether by choice or by force, and so share the same “operating frequency” as Oblivion. Their being now consists of things that harmonise with the state of oblivion, vibrate at the right rate to be part of the waters rather than a solid, if I can mash some state of matter physics into it.

Their will also seems to form a part of the Daedric planes, although I do want to stress that, contrary to Shezarr’s Song, Oblivion is not just the Daedric planes. The planes are Oblivion, but not all Oblivion is part of those planes.

The planes are the extent of the influence of the Princes’ will. There are several texts that point out that the planes themselves are the will of the Princes, but that’s not all there is to Oblivion. For starters, the nature of that will must be inherently different. Tutor Riparius has some of the most comprehensive outlines we have from a single source on the nature of Oblivion, and his comments on this matter claim that “The Princes themselves are, almost by definition, quite distinct and different from each other, each with his or her own ideas of hierarchy and allegiance”, and that “[a] major Oblivion plane is an expression of its Prince’s very nature”. However, from what we see of the planes in a variety of places, that will is not necessarily unitary; it’s not like the planes we visit are entirely composed of one object or type of objects. When it comes to Molag Bal’s plane as well, he also seems to like to collect things and bring them to his realm, whether Hist trees or tribes of Valenwood Bosmer. You’ll often hear the claims that the Princes can only act in accordance with their nature, that they lack free will in a sense, because of their lack of interaction with Mundus. Yet the nature of that will is incredibly complex, if the nature of their planes are any indication. They have independent personalities that will react inconsistently to stimuli, at the very least, meaning they’re not just slaves to their base drives.

Oblivion & Lesser Daedra

Lesser Daedra have what appears to be an equal measure of uncertainty about their relation to Oblivion. Once again, the Cyrodilic Monomyth seems to take a simplistic view on the matter, stating this:

“So the Daedra Lords created the Daedric Realms, and all the ranks of Lesser Daedra, great and small. And, for the most part, the Daedra Lords were well pleased with this arrangement, for they always had worshippers and servants and playthings close to hand.”

That states that the Lesser Daedra are all simply playthings of the Princes, and that they exist to serve their every whim. However, we see Dremora serving Mehrunes Dagon, Molag Bal and Clavicus Vile and Peryite, with distinctions made by clan rather than by type of Daedra. To me, this indicates that they aren’t the sole creation of a single Prince. Darkest Darkness also indicates that atronachs only serve Princes intermittently, stating that “Atronachs have no binding kinship or alignments with the Daedra Lords, serving one realm or another at whim, shifting sides according to seduction, compulsion, or opportunity.” We know that all flame atronachs come from Infernace, which Fa-Nuit-Hen notes to be a type of plane formed by the “collective extensions of their numerous, less-powerful inhabitants”. I don’t see that this form of realm is possible if they are simply the creations of the Princes, which should be bound to their will, so it’s clear that something else is going on. There are also remarks from the Dremora Imago Storm that the Seducers are bound to Dagon’s service at the time of the Imperial Simulacrum, and if they are related to Dark Seducers, they serve Sheogorath during the Oblivion Crisis. This means that the lesser Daedra’s allegiances are much more mutable that we typically hear about in books on them.

Oblivion Politics

Although we have it that the Princes and their Planes are inextricably linked, where the Daedric Princes end and the generic “stuff of Oblivion” begins is much less clear. There are several texts that indicate that many planes have a degree of autonomy from the Princes. Rulantaril’s Notes suggests a far looser form of control, which I would describe as almost feudal:

“The sea of limitless dimensions contains an endless series of islands. Some are controlled by the mighty Daedric Princes; others are loosely connected to one minor Daedra Lord or another. On these islands, creatures dwell who possess secrets out of time. Some are there of their own volition, but others are banished there for crimes either heinous or imagined.”

The degree of control that the Daedra exert over the various realms of Oblivion in their purview will vary from Prince to Prince. Fa-Nuit-Hen states that: 

The Princes themselves are, almost by definition, quite distinct and different from each other, each with his or her own ideas of hierarchy and allegiance. So their methods of managing their realms, sub-realms, and pocket realms vary wildly. A major Oblivion plane is an expression of its Prince’s very nature, so to say that each ‘craves absolute control’ of his or her sphere is inexact, as a desire for ‘absolute control’ is not central to every Prince’s nature. 

So exactly how a Daedric Prince exercises control over their realms and how far they extend will depend on what agreements they can make with others, what other Daedra they can corral to their banner, and so on. In other words, it’s political. Exactly what different Princes and Lords can offer Daedra for their service is unclear, though; “a home” might be something close to the truth, because we have hints in Sentinels of the Isles that there is a distinct process of having a Daedra return, that is dependent on the nature of their home and their relation to it that makes a difference:

But reports of the time it takes for a Daedra to return to the realm from the Waters of Oblivion are anecdotal and inconclusive; the process by which this return occurs remains shrouded in mystery. Based on behavior patterns and strength of numbers, it can be deduced that the stronghold for each race plays some major part in this process. Common phrases in language (such as “May the chimes call you home”) suggest that rather than merely a metaphor, sound may play some role in the sequence of events. It is believed that the chimes referenced by Saints and Seducers do indeed exist and are considered almost holy relics. Attempts to gain information about these chimes, or the process by which they are used, has been met with exceptional hostility and so have been abandoned.

If any given Prince can offer deals that make their existence more pleasant or otherwise appealing to the lesser Daedra, I imagine that some would be able to gather more followers and expand their influence, but we have little concrete means to know what influences those deals. However, I’ve seen suggestions in the fandom that souls perform that function. There’s the assumption, based on the Loveletter from the Fifth Era, that the politics of Oblivion are waged for “lunar currency”, the “transaction” whereby the souls of mortals go to their “aligned AE”. I’ve talked about souls before, so I don’t want to rehash all of that here, but the ability to get more mortal energy, or souls, gives a given Prince more influence within Oblivion. The information we have from ESO suggest that Bal uses them directly for energy, but it’s possible they could be traded, much like currency; melt them down for the gold value or trade them for something else.

Beyond simple influence, both in the mortal realm and within Oblivion itself, we have suggestions that emotional concerns are part of the calculus of Oblivion politics, as well as basic loyalty. As a result, I’d suggest they’re closer to mortal politics than Daedra would like to admit; there are equivalents to party loyalty and personal concerns, as well as claims to have principles. However, we don’t get an awful lot of visibility on what those principles could be. There are some mentions of Oblivion institutions in the 36 Lessons, with the mention of the “coincidence guild”, but we don’t know anything else from that beyond the name.

Pocket Realms & Artificial Planes

As well as the primary planes of the Daedric Princes, there’s also things that are called Pocket Realms, which are… quite vague in their actual definition. The only things called Pocket Realms in official material are the Soul Cairn and the Crow’s Wood, which give us some definition problems right from the start, because these realms don’t really have a lot in common. The Soul Cairn was created out of raw creatia by the Ideal Masters, and the Crow’s Wood is described as “within Evergloam” in The Blackfeather Court. That’s within Nocturnal’s realm, not just ruled by Nocturnal. Unless, of course, there’s no functional difference between those two statements. This is not to mention anything about Mankar Camoran’s Paradise, the Battlespire or other thing that’s commonly accepted as a pocket realm by most fans.

However… There is a text that mops all of this up nicely.

The second interview with Fa-Nuit Hen and Tutor Riparius has Riparius say this:

The catch-all term ‘pocket realm’ may apply to any minor plane of Oblivion, whether linked to the major plane of a Daedric Prince or not, that is, whether incorporated, semi-autonomous, or autonomous.

This gives us a nice neat definition that, unfortunately, tells us nothing more about what these realms can be or how they can function. Fa-Nuit Hen deliberately avoids saying more on the matter, because he doesn’t want to give mortals clues on how to become something like the Ideal Masters that could create their own Oblivion realm.

The other mortal that we know of that created their own Oblivion pocket realm is Mankar Camoran’s Paradise, created using the Mysterium Xarxes. There’s also a fan theory that suggests that Camoran created Paradise using Mehrunes’ Razor, which can be used to adjust a person’s nymic, their identity. That may carve his personhood into something that can form a “pearl” in Oblivion, to use my earlier metaphor, but we have very little information on what that could be. Given the Ideal Masters, such realms depend on the wills of those that create them to survive. That would seem to suggest that the immortality of the Daedra is something distinct from their relation to Oblivion, that the animus is something fundamentally different from the soul of mortals. Quite what that is, I’m not sure at this stage.

—-

Some links mentioned in the episode:

On Countable Infinities: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elvOZm0d4H0

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