What is the Psijic Order?

The Psijics in Brief

The Psijic Order are a group of mages in The Elder Scrolls, potentially the oldest on Tamriel, if you believe the claims made in Fragment: On Artaeum. The same text also claims they’re a “monastic order”, which also has a faith or several practices that are something close to a religion. The Order has its home in the island of Artaeum, which is, when it’s on Tamriel, accounted among the Summerset Isles, but the island has occasionally phased out of existence at various times, either by becoming insubstantial or leaving Mundus altogether.

Despite their relative isolation, they do have a fair amount of influence across Nirn, at least at certain portions of the order’s history. The book The Old Ways exhorts Psijics to provide “grave and faithful counsel” to the rulers of Tamriel, which is where they get much of their influence and reputation from. They are also some of the most powerful mages on Nirn, which On Artaeum claims is in fact distinct from magicka itself, a claim which we’ll get to in a bit.

Psijic Philosophy

Despite their reputation as powerful mages, the Psijics don’t see that as the end goal of their way of doing things. They see, or at least have seen, it as an outflowing of their way of life. The text Mysticism: The Unfathomable Voyage puts it like this:

The Psijics of the Isle of Artaeum have a different term for Mysticism: the Old Way. The phrase becomes bogged in 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.

It seems that it’s somewhat difficult to tell it apart, because the Psijics are producing effects like magic, but which may not be magic, in stead being far more dependent on an individual’s mindset than your usual spells. The On Artaeum fragment puts it like this:

The Elder Way is a philosophy of meditation and study said to bind the forces of nature to the individual will. It differs from magicka in origin, but the effects are much the same.

This could also explain why mages that study mysticism more broadly can’t get predictable effects. The discipline itself is possibly part of a practice that is far more dependent on an individual and their state of being than magicka, to the extent that it’s not really magicka at all, but another kind of theosophy altogether.

The out-of-universe explanation for that is, I think that the Psijics were hinted at being psychic. The names are similar enough, and I remember hearing that MK had once said he put the Psijic Order in in order to stop people putting psychic powers into The Elder Scrolls. Writing off psychic powers as an unidentified form of magic is an elegant way of cutting them off, even if the Psijics’ capabilities and doctrine has gone beyond that.

The Place of the Ancestors

The basis of those practices goes back to the original form of ancestor worship practiced on Summerset. The Third Edition Pocket Guide to the Empire says this:

Gradually, as [Aldmer] society grew, social stratification increased. A hierarchy of classes began to form, which is still largely enforced in Summerset to this day. At the top are the Wise, teachers and priests, followed by the Artists, Princes, Warriors, Landowners, Merchants, and Workers. Below Workers were the beasts, such as the enslaved goblins, who the Aldmer used to perform the jobs beneath the dignity of the very least of them. The religion of the people also changed because of this change in society: no longer did the Aldmer worship their own ancestors, but the ancestors of their “betters.” Auriel, Trinimac, Syrabane, and Phynaster are among the many ancestor spirits who became Gods. A group of elders rebelled against this trend, calling themselves the Psijics, the keepers of the Old Ways of Aldmeris. With their mystical powers, they were able to settle in Arteaum [sic], away from what they considered the corruption of their society.

This is primarily expressed in a continuation of worship of all ancestors on Tamriel, rather than just those that the current people deem “worthy” in some way. The Psijics’ worldview seems to incorporate that idea of ancestor worship into the nature of Mundus more than any other religion on Tamriel. This strikes me as being similar to Shinto in some ways. It’s not precisely the same, though, because the kami aren’t necessarily ancestors, but they are seen as the spirits of place in an almost animistic sense. The Old Ways puts it like this:

What, after all, is the origin of these spiritual forces that move the invisible strings of Mundus? Any neophyte of Artaeum knows that these spirits are our ancestors — and that, while living, they too were bewildered by the spirits of their ancestors, and so on back to the original Acharyai. The Daedra and gods to whom the common people turn are no more than the spirits of superior men and women whose power and passion granted them great influence in the afterworld.

If this is an understanding that is applied to how the Psijics view the world, their rituals are not really magic, but instead conversations with the spirits of the ancestors, which is how the Psijics think about the Earthbones. Possibly. The term “Acharyai” may stop a little short of that. The term appears in one other in-universe text, Skeleton Man’s Interview with the Denizens of Tamriel. The portion of the Interview that uses the word appears as the book Changed Ones, which uses the term “Aldmer” instead of “Alcharyai”. However, given that the Psijics are inclined to worship all of their ancestors, rather than “the ancestors of their betters”, it’s possible that the Psijics consider “aldmer” and “Aedra” as synonymous. If that’s the case, then their religion involves communing with the Earthbones and a whole variety of other spirits. If not, then the following thoughts about the nature of Psijic magic may need some other basis. I personally think the aldmer-as-Aedra explanation fits too well to not be the case.

Those religions and customs are seen as the same thing as Psijic magic, from what I can tell. As we’ve already seen, mysticism is already close in nature to the customs of the Psijics, which may be the same thing. We have this line from On Artaeum too:

The Elder Way is a philosophy of meditation and study said to bind the forces of nature to the individual will. It differs from magicka in origin, but the effects are much the same.

So the Old Ways are a direct conversation with the spirits that make up the physical laws of Mundus, without the need for magicka. This sounds a lot like the account of Alteration magic in Reality and Other Falsehoods, but doesn’t To make things a little clearer, we have this line from Iachesis in ESO: Summerset:

There is very little we cannot accomplish through the application of the Old Ways. Every object remembers its history. The trick involves selecting the correct ritual to reveal those buried memories.

This dialogue, apart from sounding a bit like the idea of homeopathy for Tamriel, makes me think that the Psijics’ use of the Old Way is similar to Shinto, as I’ve already mentioned. In Shinto (from my limited understanding), various rituals are performed to appease the kami, which is variously translated as spirits, gods, but also may refer to the divine nature of the world itself. It’s a very fluid term. Apply this to The Elder Scrolls, where the world is made up of the combined sacrifice of the ancestor spirits, and even things like Shinto ritual purity take on this element, where the acharyai and the world are the same thing. I could be very off-base here, as my understanding of Shinto is very basic, so please let me know if there’s a better way to understand this, or if I’m wrong in any way.

The Eleven Forces

One thing that seems somewhat distinct from the ancestor worship element of the Order is the Eleven Forces. These are only referenced in a handful of places, but there’s been various ways they’ve been stitched together into a coherent whole, from the pieces we have.

From what I can see, we have Change as the most sacred of the Eleven Forces in The Old Ways, which the Psijic Crafting Motif expands to 3 unnamed Kinetic Forces, and the Middle Forces of Balance, Envelopment and Contemplation. The UESP has the others listed as Memory, Time, the Rites of Moawita and Stasis, on the basis of what’s included in the Psijic skill line, along with the assumption of Deflection and Absorption being 2 of the 3 Kinetic Forces, based on how they’re talked about in the Psijic Crafting Motif. I think Deflection and Absorption are possible, but not definite.

I’m also not sure of a few of these on a conceptual level. I guess it’s elegant to have Change and Stasis as opposing forces, but I’m not sure that Stasis is a force in and of itself. We don’t really have much of an indication of what constitutes a “force”, as the examples of the Middle Forces are all over the place as concepts, particularly “envelopment”. Similarly I’m not sure if Memory and Time should coexist, although I can certainly see Memory having a separate existence as the possibility of water being memory is a thing. And the Rite of Moawita… feels like a leap. Lawrence Shick did comment that the Psijic skill line in ESO did use the Eleven Forces, and I think that’s fairly intuitively the case for things like Time, but I don’t think that necessarily applies to the Rite of Maowita. It’s a ritual, but is it a force in itself? Or are the rituals expressions of the Eleven Forces, with the Forces themselves being something deeper? That’s what it feels like to me, but I have little to back that up.

Regardless of the precise nature of the Eleven Forces, they feel like expression of the PSJJJJ, from which the order takes its name in-universe. The unlicensed text Vehk’s Teaching notes that the Order was formed not just from the ancestor worship split, but from a heterodox perspective on Anu and Padomay:

It is interesting to note that their original views were very unorthodox for Altmer, and thus their exile from Alinor. These views included the suggestion that Anu’s son, the Time Dragon, was formed in reaction to Padhome’s influence. In effect, Anu had finally done something. This inconceivable effect gave rise to an equally inconceivable cause, and so PSJJJJ was named and the Order eventually took his name.

Notice that this is entirely the wrong way round in terms of causality: the effect gives rise to the cause. It’s possible that the Eleven Forces are expressions of things in a similar vein; that the Psijics see things not in terms of simple causality, but the nature and relation of those causes (in the sense of their disposition, relative position and relation before, during and after any given event) also determines what those causes are. So PSJJJJ is not just a reaction, it is Anu’s reaction, which changes the nature of what the effect or cause is. It would not be PSJJJJ if it happened to another pair of beings, in other words. That might explain why the Forces are in what I would consider to be subdivisions or subsets of the same overall force. Envelopment and Balance for example, don’t really feel like “forces” to me, but states. However, if we have the actors determining the nature of the forces at play by their very existence, then the differences in determination between an Envelopment, a Surrounding or an Encircling may become causally important on some level.

This would also play into the ancestor worship, if you’ll indulge me in some entirely baseless speculation off my own conjecture for a moment. If the nature of the causer affects the effect, then appeasing the causer or getting another causer to to cause a given effect is vitally important to the outcome, and so negotiating with the ancestors is an inherent part of bringing about a desired effect. This makes the entire of the Old Way’s rituals a complex set of negotiations with the various spirits that makes up reality.

The Psijic Organisation & Mission

The Psijics are a mysterious organisation, and we get glimpses of what they are in The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset, but even then they seem to be past their best. Artaeum has a bunch of ruins that are effectively areas that have fallen into disuse, which makes me think that the place was designed to be more inhabited than it is by the time of ESO. I don’t want to make inferences on overall membership from what we see in ESO because lore ≠ gameplay, but I get the feeling from the various texts we have, and the state of Artaeum during the Interregnum, the feeling of a small cloistered organisation is not intended to be the norm for the Psijic Order. There are ruins on Artaeum, for starters. Why would things have been allowed to be in such disrepair if the Order was operating at full capacity? Iachesis is noted to draw the Psijic Order back at various points in history, for reasons that we never get fully explained, but several texts imply that’s not the intended condition of the Order.

Exactly how many Psijics there actually are is difficult to say, because several sources note their selection processes are somewhat obscure. They are noted to pick their members based on their ability, rather than the “can you pay?” philosophy of the Mages Guild. The Psijics are much more… hand-picked. Quite why each member is picked isn’t exactly clear, but it lends itself to a more mission-oriented organisation.

That organisation is also small. We never get exact numbers, but there is this nugget from the Pocket Guide to the Empire, Third Edition:

The Imperial Geographical Society is not allowed to visit Artaeum to survey and document it, but there is little doubt that the Psijic Order is increasingly popular among the young, and is willing to exploit this. Over the past thousand years, only seventeen new initiates were brought into the order. In the past two years, however, another thirty have joined.

With the organisation only having seventeen new members in a thousand years, and thirty coming onboard in two years being portrayed as a large step-up, means that the organisation has to be very small. That’s not necessarily a problem when most of the members are Altmer, and therefore live for centuries even when not augmented by magic, but it means the Psijics have to extend their influence beyond their physical presence.

This is also emphasised by the Psijics’ main source of their power: politics. While the Psijics do practice a lot of magic, or at least magical effects, their primary tool in creating change is in advising and counselling rulers, giving advice and manoeuvering them in particular directions. Celarus, a previous Loremaster of the Psijics, quotes another Psijic to explain this, in The Old Ways:

Perhaps the sage Taheritae said it best: “In Mundus, conflict and disparity are what bring change, and change is the most sacred of the Eleven Forces. Change is the force without focus or origin. It is the duty of the disciplined Psijic [“Enlightened One”] to dilute change where it brings greed, gluttony, sloth, ignorance, prejudice, cruelty… [here Taheritae lists the rest of the 111 Prodigalities], and to encourage change where it brings excellence, beauty, happiness, and enlightenment.

However, there is nothing in the book about the need to bring about change by the use of magic. Celarus puts this in towards the end of the book, which has before this point been talking about the Psijics’ religion and their duty towards others, to highlight how changing people is the greater necessity, and more effective. Celarus describes even the Order’s preferred way of dealing with despots as one that is involved in shaping character:

“We recognize the multiple threats that a strong tyrant represents — breeds cruelty which feeds the Daedra Boethiah and hatred which feeds the Daedra Vaernima; if he should die having performed a particularly malevolent act, he may go to rule in Oblivion; and worst of all, he inspires other villains to thirst after power and other rulers to embrace villainy. Knowing this, we have developed patience in our dealings with such despots. They should be crippled, humiliated, impoverished, imprisoned. Other counsellors may advocate assassination or warfare — which, aside from its spiritual insignificance, is expensive and likely to inflict at least as much pain on the innocents as the brutish dictator.

I think this explains a lot about how the Psijics work. If changing the character of a person is more important than whether they live or die, then the exile of Mannimarco suddenly makes a lot more sense – if the Psijics don’t want him to attain more understanding of their world but instead to experience failure and ruin before he dies, sending him to Tamriel is one way to potentially achieve that. Having said that, I would then expect the Psijics to be actively hunting him down and directing forces and circumstances against him quite actively in order to ensure that he is properly “crippled, humiliated, impoverished [or] imprisoned”. It’s a little strange that they didn’t.

This is particularly odd as the Order, in some places, claims that they are Tamriel’s defenders. I did have some more definite references to this, but they walked from my notes when my PC had a cleanup, and the only one I can find is in the Psijic Style Crafting Motif, which says:

Psijic bows are adorned with Mundial Globes that represent our order’s equal commitment to the defense of all mortals that walk the surface of Nirn.

That indicates that the Psijics feel like they have a mission to protect Tamriel, which is potentially behind their actions that we see in the lore and the games. The Psijics have essentially been protecting Mundus through several of their actions, most obviously when they destroyed a fleet of Maomer en route to Summerset, so they have been inclined to more active in Tamriel’s politics from time to time, but have withdrawn from their involvement over time. Ritemaster Iachesis does withdraw at a very odd time, and we don’t entirely know why. The historical novel series 2920, The Last Year of the First Era puts words into Iachesis’ mouth, saying this:

“In a few years, the mists will move over Artaeum and we will be gone. We are counselors by nature, and there are too many counselors in Tamriel as it is. No, we will go, and return when the land needs us again, perhaps in another age.”

This would put it that the Order has made a definite decision to withdraw because they don’t think they’re needed. Shortly after this, we have the rule of the Potentates, and the Interregnum, which led to a lot of chaos and death. I don’t think that Iachesis got this one right, personally, although the Psijics are sensitive to some things that others are not; Loremaster Celarus notes that the Psijics being present at all is in some ways a problem for the Order. When the player asks Loremaster Celarus why they’re needed, he says this:

Psijics like the Ritemaster and I exert tremendous stress on the Aurbic forces around us. Our very existence presents arcane risk.

It’s possible that the Order’s influence as a whole would present problems, although Celarus does note that the Order may have become “too reclusive”. I think this is possibly an error of judgement on the part of Iachesis, although it wouldn’t be just down to him alone.

The reason I say it’s not just down to him is because the Psijics are in theory guided by the Conclave of Eleven Forces, but we don’t really know enough about them to say precisely how it works. We know that Iachesis doesn’t really consider himself the “leader” of the Psijics, so I’d imagine there’s at least some degree of discussion or democracy in the Council’s decisionmaking. Quite how that works, though, we have little indication. It’s a body that has been in place for much of the Psijics’ history, as Iachesis was noted as being present in the first documented instance of the Order, in the first century of the First Era. As Iachesis is present at the time of ESO, that the Psijic Order has had organisational continuity for at least three and a half thousand years. That will create a lot of organisational inertia and conservatism, but also would mean that its values are deeply imbued, even when the membership does change, or a particular member wants to change something. I imagine there’s a lot of “the way things are done” exerting an influence on the Psijics, which would mean they’re one of the most directionally consistent bodies in the history of Tamriel.

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