What Makes Redguard Culture Unique?

First, I need to make an apology to Albert Gustafson. The latest few podcasts have made me thing that I needed to perhaps take a step back and think about what makes things different for the Redguards – jumping into the history whole cloth isn’t really producing structured episodes, so I’m going to go by themes instead, charting how they evolve and what they might mean for Redguards. At least for now, until I can get a fuller sense of their overall history.

Are Redguards Human?

I also want to start with a slight elaboration on some points that I’ve brought up before now. Redguards, as  mentioned a while back, could be seen as Afrofuturist in a way, but I’m starting to think that it might be better seen as a particular examination of the themes of colonialism and the like. Advance warning, I am someone with a life set to easy mode: a cishet white male, so not as sensitive to these things as I might be. I am sorry if I put my foot in my mouth with any of what’s to come.

With that said, I think I’ll just leap in with some clarification on a question that I’ve seen crop up in various places, and possibly strikes a bit at what makes the Redguards so different. It’s the question of whether Redguards are human. Or, more specifically, because “human” gets applied to any sentient being in the Elder Scrolls, whether Redguards are men.

The argument for this usually goes that, as all the other mannish cultures are, in some way descended from Atmora, whether that makes the Redguards something else. Where I’m usually inclined to give these things a fair hearing, you’ll hear me say quite often that Bosmer may not be elves, for example, I’m going to just stamp on this one and say Redguards are absolutely men. Unlike the Bosmer, there is pretty much nothing that I can find that states that Redguards aren’t men. If we take the Anuad as true (which is pretty much the only book to try and fit Yokuda into a unified history of mankind), then the defining characteristic of men is not that they come from Atmora, but that they are from somewhere other than Tamriel originally. That assertion is its own can of worms, and I’ve talked about where men come from before, but there’s nothing to suggest that the Redguard cannot be considered men.

Also, a note on the term of “human” – there is the implication of sentience with the term “human”, whatever species the person in question is, it’s closer to being “person” than “homo sapiens” as such. So if something is “human” in The Elder Scrolls, it’s generally worthy of respect and dignity regardless of what it looks like. There are probably many in Tamriel who consider people like beastfolk to not be people, but they’re just looking for ways to dismiss people they don’t like, in the same way as racists in this world do.

The Redguard Perspective on Cosmology

The Redguard do, however, stand apart from the rest of the mannish races. According to their tale in The Monomyth, they consider that Mundus is a false world, one made out of the dead carcasses of previous worlds. This does have some similarities with the tale told in the Anuad, but otherwise there are no other parallels. The mer do consider the world a bad place, but that’s more to do with the Aedra being tricked into creating the world itself, rather than the world being poorly created. The Redguards seem to have a different spin on it, as the world is not necessarily a bad thing itself, but a poor imitation. It’s “very far from the real world of Satakal”, and so causes things to die.

One of the questions that I’m curious about is how the Redguards would get such a perspective. Some have suggested that they come from a previous kalpa, another cycle of the world, and so they have an awareness of that cycle, and portray it in their own terms. I was thinking that this had been invalidated by some books in ESO, where Tales of the Famed Explorer and Children of the Root both reference other kalpas, or at the very least other worlds, in their own terms, having never experienced the transition. But then, the Anuad has both the Ehlnofey and the Hist as survivors of the Twelve Worlds. With the Argonians returning to the Hist upon death, they have an opportunity to experience a trans-kalpic existence. So it’s possible that something similar is going on here. The spanner in the works comes with the unlicensed text Shor Son of Shor, which puts a similar awareness into the Nords. If that’s the case, then it feels like we should have all mannish and merish races having some awareness of the kalpic cycle, as they came from another of the Twelve Worlds. The Redguards have a reason to think differently, though.

As a result of this, they tend to think of things in cycles. The text Knowing Satakal puts this most bluntly, with these lines:

“To deny that the world must end is to deny that it began.”
“Satakal is the making and the unmaking, the birth and the death, love and fear.”
“For the world is the egg that Satakal laid, and the egg that in time Satakal shall eat.”
“To know Satakal, consider a river. As a snake sheds its skin and lives on, so a river sheds its water into the sea, yet is reborn at the source.”
“To be the Worldskin is to be everything, and to be everything is to be nothing.”
“Fear not the unbelievers, for believer and unbeliever alike shall be eaten by the Serpent God.”
“Does not the serpent made of sky above reflect the serpent made of sea below? Yea, it is so.”

Redguards see things in circles, although Mundus may be something that breaks that cycle. And while there’s possibly an expectation of cyclicality in Redguard culture, making your own effort, having your own Walkabout, is important. Tall Papa set the stars in the sky so that the spirits could see how to get back to the Far Shores, but didn’t walk the path for them, after all.

The Place of the Stars and the Walkabout

That’s possibly another point of “similar difference”, if I can put it that way, to Tamrielic cultures. The stars, according to most, are holes torn by the Magna Ge. Those holes show a way back to Atherius in themselves, a way of doing things. If we can equate the Far Shores with Atherius, or a part of Atherius, then the Walkabout is a way of transcending Mundus and getting back to the space between the worlds, where the Original Spirits came from. Or, if we want to tie this up with the Psijic way of thinking, potentially becoming an Original Spirit. Varieties of Faith explicitly says the Walkabout is “a process by which they can persist beyond one lifetime”. It’s a path to immortality between worlds. That strikes me as being very similar to the Psijic way of thinking which, according to The Old Ways, is this:

“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.”

This is possibly a process similar to the Walkabout, or the original Walkabout, at any rate. There is an indication that, by the time of the Interregnum, the Redguards had forgotten the original purpose of the Walkabout. To quote Lady Clarisse Laurent, from a Loremaster’s Archive

She told me that the modern tradition of Walkabout, a sort of rite of passage for Redguard youth, is based on the ancient Yokudan legend of the Hero’s Labors, in which a great warrior of the Dawn Era traveled through the zodiac, facing a challenge at each constellation.

That, to me, sounds a bit like some conspiracy theories you’ll hear about the pyramids and ancient Egyptians in this world; that the pyramids are in essence a sort of “cargo cult” for ancient alien resurrection technology. The premise of Stargate, basically. The rite of passage that Laurent mentions feels like it remembers something of the form of the Walkabout, but nothing about how it actually gets people to the Far Shores. So I’m inclined to think that it’s just an assumed thing that Redguards go to the Far Shores in their culture, a little like Nord = Sovngarde, almost regardless of whether they die in battle or not. Quite how right that is, is another matter altogether.

The original Walkabout may be linked to some sort of Walking Way, but I’m not 100% sure on that. Both involve walking, so you can make a connection, though. Just to quickly unpack Walking Ways, for those who might not have heard of them before. They are ways to “reach heaven by violence”, according to Vivec, and ze thinks there are six of them. CHIMis a walking way, mantling is a walking way, and there are other less well-defined ones. I’m not sure which the Walkabout is supposed to be, or even whether mortals can do the proper Walkabout, but if it’s something mortals can do it’s either its own thing or some sort of re-ascension, as with Auri-El. There is some suggestion in the lore community that it’s something to do with the Serpent constellation, or the Serpent in general, but, from the Redguard monomyth, Sep wasn’t particularly good at helping Tall Papa show the spirits to the Far Shores. So while there is something to the involvement of the Serpent, I’m not convinced it’s actually a way to do it.

One possible argument against the Walkabout being a Walking Way is that it was something for the spirits to do, rather than the Redguards themselves. Indeed, Satakal the Worldskin does say  that Tall Papa “told the spirits that they must learn new ways to follow the stars to the Far Shores now”, rather than the Walkabout. So Walking Ways, which are inherently mortal, are not related to the Walkabout. Probably. Exactly what those ways are aren’t clear, but it involves Tu’wacca showing them a new way to the Far Shores, as far as I can tell acting as a proper psychopomp where Sep couldn’t manage it.

Which may also have something to do with the Redguard and swords.

The Place of the Sword in Redguard Culture

Swords are everywhere in Redguard culture. The Emperor’s Guide to Tamriel notes that:

Aboard the Sentinel-bound ship, I’m immediately struck by how martial this culture is. From the captain to the rigging boy, all wear their weapons constantly. The marines who guard this vessel are even dressed in heavy armor!
What if they fell overboard?
Compared to the temperamental Bretons, the Redguard race seems positively dignified. Standing broad-shouldered and tall, with dark skin and wiry hair, they are seemingly born with a sword in their hand.

It is possible that the author of the Guide stepped onto a warship and didn’t realise, but we have another passage further on that gives the sword a much higher place in all of Redguard society.

While the Redguard soldier carries a variety of other killing implements — which I sketched between bouts of seasickness — a marine named Wisr-al-Maeen explained that a Redguard’s sword is an extension of his soul and a symbol of honor.

In this way, a sword is an expression of a Redguard, with their personhood and their honour bound up in the sword and how it is applied. In The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, Cyrus quotes the line, “a sword sold is a sword sullied against true cause.” That sort of sentiment typically gets applied when talking about the self, or at least about being a “sellsword” in the sense of being a mercenary. The notion is that the sword and the self are the same thing; to do something purely for money is something lesser, which you’ll see in quite a few places today, although more in some places than others. It’s almost akin to prostitution in many cases; to sell your sword, as well as selling your body, is seen as a shameful act.

Quite why the sword has attained this status in Redguard culture is, I think to do with their early history. The first thing we know about the Redguards is that they fought against the Left-Handed Elves, and several of their gods were involved with, or come from, that war. Onsi showed the Yokudans how to make swords, Leki showed them how to use them, and Diagna allowed them to win against the Elves by showing them orichalcum. That would explain why Sword-Singing was a thing on Yokuda; it had religious and salvatory significance to the Yokudan men. This had its ultimate expression in the ansei, the sword-saints of Yokuda. Sword-singing was the martial art of the Yokudans.

There’s also the idea of the shehai, the spirit sword that sword-singers produce. Only a few ansei could actually fight with these swords, and so the idea that the shehai is an expression of being a sword-singer, and thus the self, is even more important.

I also want to point out a real-world parallel here for a second, which may explain the “everyone carries a sword” idea present in the Emperor’s Guide. Sikhs are expected to follow the idea of the “Sant-Sanpai” or “warrior-saint”, and they carry the kirpan at all times, which takes the form of a sword. It feels like the place of the sword in modern Redguard history is something like that.

I say modern Redguard history because, as we talked about in the episode on the Yokudans, the idea that non-Sword Singers would wear a sword was a subject of political contention in Yokuda. The way that the Redguards treat swords and the way the Yokudans do feel a little different, because there was a deliberate period of non-sword use, from what I can tell. Or, at least, a conscious choice to put sword-singing and their past more generally behind them. Sword-singing is pretty much a lost art in Tamriel, although some, like Sai Sahan, have tried to bring it back. There’s also part of me that thinks it might come back in The Elder Scrolls 6, but that’s some way off.

I think there was a conscious choice to put this behind them; the Sword-Singers were consistently singled out for their practices on Yokuda, which Frandar Hunding and the other Singers may not have wanted to repeat. There’s also this line from the True-Told Tale of Hallin:

Know then, O Prince, that after the Ra Gada had swept across Hammerfell, driving all the tusk-folk before it, a time of peace befell whereupon the people who were once Yokudans were able to lay down the sword and take up the shovel and trowel. And for three spans of a person’s life all the Redguards did delve and build, and many were the Great Works that were erected above the sands. And few did study the Way of the Sword, for all were constructing monuments to the greatness of our people.

That time of peace was long enough for Sword-Singing to pretty much disappear, as the Redguards had no need of it. However, there was a continued reverence for the “trappings” of Sword-Singing, and of swords in general. The valuing of the Book of Circles and similar all point to the valuing of the idea of the sword, but perhaps not the actual practice.

A Note on Memory Stones

However, you would have thought they would have been able to preserve their culture better than most; the Redguards, as they have things called Memory Stones, which can be used to record the thoughts of a particular individual. These are, frankly, a little confusing. They are treasured relics of the Redguard’s past, and so you’d think that they would have been able to preserve the way of the Sword Singers better than most historical records. However, they are rare even at the time of The Elder Scrolls: Online, and so how to be a sword-singer isn’t that well-recorded. There’s also a little nugget in Redguards, Their History and Their Heroes that puts the lie to a few notions about Redguards and memory stones:

The memory stone mentioned in the second chapter may not be familiar to all readers. It is a stone who’s mineral content makes it only found in the far north of High Rock, and there are few of them to begin with. At one time, there was a Mage that lived in the vastness and wastes of that region, and he in practicing enchantment spells, imbued several hundreds of them with the ability to hold and record one’s thoughts.

Memory stones coming from High Rock means that the Redguards will only have had them since coming to Tamriel; they were not a thing from Yokuda. They were also rare, so there will only have been a handful of accounts of Redguard culture at all on these things, and so getting a full picture of their old culture is unlikely. That means that the way that Redguards think of their culture is likely to be is a reconstruction based on modern feelings and nostalgia, rather than reality as such. The crowns’ and forebears’ treatment of each other is testament to that.

Which we will get to next time.


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