The Riddle’Thar is the currently dominant form of religious practice among the Khajiit. It is a system of veneration of the moons, and a selection of spirits from among Khajiit mythology. It was instituted by the Rid-Thar-ri’Datta, known as the First Mane, in the year 2E 311, brushing aside a more varied set of beliefs. It claims to have brought order from chaos, and balance to the Khajiit. That’s certainly what it did historically to Elsweyr, which we’ll get to. But first, a rough outline of what the Riddle’Thar is there to do spiritually. To quote from the book Secrets of the Riddle’Thar:
For the epiphany of Riddle’Thar rests not within the Mane-made-mighty—not even in the sacred halls of the Temple of Two-Moons Dance. The truth of Riddle’Thar lies in the heart of true Khajiit. In the claws, the whiskers, and the soul. Think now on Jone and Jode. Think now on their wax and wane. Khajiit do not deliberate in the womb. We do not struggle for form and purpose. The Dance decides. And in that fated moment of birth, we learn what our soul already knows…
…Embrace that wisdom, pay heed to the dictates of the soul, make way for the peace and order Riddle’Thar provides, and you shall find joy in abundance.
This is a faith that is focused on harmony, and accepting one’s place, it’s quite Taoist in feeling in that way, or at least dharmic. This is also mirrored to a degree in the newer Khajiit architecture, which feels a little Chinese to me.
The way this text talks about the Riddle’Thar being within every true Khajiit speaks to the faith’s spirit ontology. It suggests that Khajiit are inherently concerned with the moons, and that this is The book Trail and Tide, originally adapted from a Loremaster’s Archive of the same name, puts it like this:
Every cat sees the Moons, feels the caress of their sweet light as it shines on fur. Every cat feels the tug of the tides, the rhythm of the Two Moons Dance that cannot be ignored.
But not every cat hears the words Jone and Jode whisper as they prowl the celestial barrens between gentle Nirni and the Dark Behind the World, protecting her from the howling in the emptiness. And this is why the Moon-Bishop leads the kittens, trailing the string of secrets as he trots ahead, teaching them of the Motions and the Tides.
This is written by a Moon Bishop, and so should possibly be taken with a grain of salt; of course moon bishops are going to say they’re necessary to the order of things. However, I’d take this truth from it, roughly: that Khajiit’s souls are inherently tied to the waxing and waning of the moons, and so need some kind of balance. Quite what that balance is has varied throughout time, I think, with the Riddle’Thar being the latest “solution” to keep the Khajiit’s natures safe.
It is possibly merish in inspiration, as it considers Lorkhaj to be a deity that leads “true cats” astray, becoming “bent cats”. There’s a similar disavowal of Mundus, particularly in a comment that was made in the Trail and Tide Loremaster’s Archive, that spells it out. This was said by an interviewee, a question-asker, possibly from the UESP, but I think it’s a decent summary of the view the Riddle’Thar has of Lorkhaj:
The Den of Lorkhaj, like everything relating to the Lost Runt, is a thing of the Mundus. Though a true cat’s spirit is bathed in the spirit-light of the moons, every cat also knows the drawing of the Darks, and feels the urge to join the Bent Dance. A true cat who listens too much to the Darks becomes a Bent Cat, whose spirit is carried by Namiira down into the Dark Behind the World, eventually to become dro-m’Athra
This links the material and the Dark, in a way that echoes of gnosticism you’ll find in several places in TES. The material is equated with the sinful here, and having a “thing of Mundus” be bad fits with that perspective. It also links to a portion of the Words of Clan Mother Ahnissi, which states that “the Khajiit will always be hungry and at war with Nirni”.
That links up, in a way, with practices around Moon Sugar; the First Edition Pocket Guide to the Empire outlines the consumption of Moon Sugar as follows:
By partaking of the sugar, the khajiit believes they are consuming small portions of their gods’ eternal souls. This drives them into fits of ecstasy and abandon, and the streets of Elsweyr’s major cities are full of catmen shivering in the grip of sugar fits
This is something of a long-standing practice among the Khajiit, from what I can tell; there is no text from a Khajiit that details its proper use, although comments from Moon Bishop Hunal do indicate that it should be used to enter a religious trance and thereby derive visions. Ecstatic religious practices in this world are intended to commune with divine beings, which is what the passage from the Pocket Guide is implying, although I don’t think that consumption of moon sugar in itself is something that the Khajiit consider an act that is “sanctifying” as such; Khajiit don’t consume parts of god to make themselves more holy, it’s to get visions, from what Moon Bishop Hunal says. Visions of what, precisely, isn’t exactly clear.
This is probably something to do with the goal of the Riddle’Thar. Rid-Thar-ri’Datta is noted as the Sugar God in Varieties of Faith, and is linked to the Lunar Lattice, despite veneration of the moons, the use of moon sugar and the office of the Mane all apparently predating the emergence of Riddle’Thar.
So I think it’s time we looked at what came before the Riddle’Thar. We only have a few glimpses of this, not least because the priesthood around the Riddle’Thar have done their best to suppress knowledge of what came before. We do however have an impression of what it was like before from a very biased source, Thava-ko, a Khajiit who is writing against the promulgation of some texts dating from pre-Riddle times. With that caveat in mind, we have this:
In the dark times before the First Mane’s revelation, our forebears held scattered beliefs—sixteen faiths that tumbled and scratched their way through history, competing for the souls of all Khajiit.
Those sixteen faiths may well have been tied to the sixteen nations and furstocks that were around before the Thrassian Plague. It also inclines me to think that there would be a distinct faith, or at least dharma, for each furstock, but that’s not explicitly stated anywhere. The quote also says that they were “competing”, so if that’s true, it would be something that individual Khajiit would decide and discern for themselves. However, remember when I said the Khajiit need an order to their place in the world and relation to the moons, because of how their soul is? I think that the main solution before the Riddle’Thar was to have a kind of dharma for each furstock, or maybe each of the sixteen kingdoms, so that they remain in balance. It was only when the balance was destroyed by the Thrassian Plague that another “solution” was needed, and the Riddle’Thar emerged.
I think I should probably unpack a word before I go any further, though, that might actually explain the difference between pre- and post-Riddle religious outlooks; that of dharma. This concept is, loosely speaking, both a form of destiny and right conduct in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. I think Hinduism and Buddhism are the most relevant here; Hinduism has 2 forms of dharma, sadharana dharma and svadharma. Sadharana dharma is a universal dharma, rules of conduct for everyone, while svadharma is the specific rules for a specific person’s station and caste. Buddhism, on the other hand, has only the universal dharma, applicable to all people at all times. The imposition of a single perspective of the Riddle’Thar over many individual paths of the faiths that came before could be described as a shift from a Hindu-esque dharma to Buddhist dharma. This is potentially an act of simplifying, as well as responding to the geopolitical shifts in Khajiiti culture. We’ll get to those in a while, but I want to highlight a telling line from the Epistle on the Spirits of Amun-dro:
Before Riddle’Thar, priests and adepts busied themselves deciphering the arcane ramblings of ancient prophets—gleaning precious little from vast and crumbling archives. How like pearl divers they were! Prying open countless ugly shells in the vain hope of finding some tiny treasure within.
This passage suggests that the primary act of the Riddle’Thar was to make Khajiit faith plainer, easier to follow for your average Khajiit. Moving things from a faith of scholars and mystics to something that all can partake it. Again, it’s a move towards unifying the Khajiit, rather than focusing on spirits as such, but that seems to be a common complaint against the pre-Riddle times, that the spirits were given primacy, rather than the spiritual life of the Khajiit people.
That said, we don’t know much about how those different faiths perceived the spirits, which are acknowledged in the Riddle’Thar, but not necessarily worshipped; we have signs that, once the Riddle’Thar was adopted, the priorities of particular spirits’ worship shifted, and even those that remained “approved”, like S’rendarr, had temples abandoned as the religious changes took hold.
Pretty much the only source that we have that gives detail of any pre-Riddle faiths are the books written by Amun-dro. They outline different categories of spirits venerated by the ancient Khajiit, and the main objection that Thava-ko’s Epistle on the Spirits of Amun-dro is that veneration of spirits will lead the Khajiit astray, as there are so many spirits and little guidance on how to interact with them. I think, given some of their other work, that Amun-dro was a priest of Azurah, as their other works all concern Azurah in some way, shape or form. We know from various other sources that Moon Priests, the precursors to Moon Bishops, already existed, and so I think we can assume that Amun-dro held a similar position to Thava-ko, Hunal and the like, and the Riddle’Thar simply repurposed the existing hierarchy to the new faith structure.
With that in mind, Amun-dro categorises different spirits into different categories, with somewhat normative categories. The books The Adversarial Spirits and the The Dark Spirits in particular highlight that there are some gods that are dangerous, or at least not entirely beneficial. Although, similar to the Dunmer, the Adversarial Spirits may serve a function. It’s perhaps noteworthy that four out of the five Adversarial Spirits are the same as the Dunmeri House of Troubles, and that the un-named spirit in The Dark Spirits can only be tamed by Azurah, Boethra and Mafala, which the Chimer/Dunmer consider the good Daedra.
Amun-dro’s omissions and differences from the Words of Clan Mother Ahnissi are interesting, too. Amun-dro misses S’rendarr and Mara, and includes more Daedra than Ahnissi. There are also a bunch of implied differences in the creation story, particularly Azurah’s relationship to Lorkhaj, Nirni’s fate and the role of Y’ffer.
The main difference, however, is Lorkhaj. Amun-dro differentiates between Lorkhaj and the Moon Beast. Lorkhaj is the Moon Prince, which is an example of the pre-Riddle’Thar Khaiit faith journey. To quote:
Lorkhaj was the first spirit to make his own path with purpose, because he was in conflict with himself as soon as he was born. His courage inspired all those he encountered, so much that he united the spirits to make the World. He gave his life to do this. We honor his sacrifice by walking the Path with purpose and resisting the call of the Dark.
This makes Lorkhaj the primary deity of Khajiit, because he is the one who showed them a path to walk. The Riddle’Thar, however, castigates Lorkhaj as the Moon Beast, and the tempter of Khajiit. The pre-Riddle theology did acknowledge the darker elements of Lorkhaj, but still kept him in high esteem, while being wary of his negative aspects.
The biggest change was the role of Lokhaj with regard to the Mane. I noted before that the Rid-Thar Ri’datta was not actually the first Mane, despite his title. There were Manes before this, and, although I can’t find anything to indicate this, I think that it’s likely that Lorkaj was linked to those Manes. Jone and Jode were considered his funeral lanterns, and the book Moon Worship Among the Cat-Men consider the Mane to be “The absolute rulers of the Lunar Lattice”. If that’s the case, then the ultimate purpose of the Lattice could well be memorialising or celebrating Lorkhaj. But that’s purely my speculation based on some loose connections.
That tradition of ruling the Lattice is an attribute of the Mane that has carried on after Rid-Thar Ri’Datta’s revelation, and I suppose it’s time we get into that.
As we’ve already said, Rid’Thar Ri-Datta came to power in the early years of Elsweyr’s formation. The old order of 16 kingdoms had been destroyed by the Thrassian Plague, and Anequina and Pelitine emerged from the ashes. Rather than a free-flowing confederation of tribes that had existed before, the book Anequina and Pelitine: An Introduction notes that the clans started to settle in different regions, and develop distinct cultural practices. That difference started to create friction; there was no balance and interaction any more, despite the creation of Elsewyr in 2E 309, replacing the old empire of 16 kingdoms, or tribes. All those tribes apparently knew their place, and flowed and reacted as required to whatever situations emerged. With the new static entities that had been the tribes and combined into Elsweyr, that accommodation wasn’t happening.
Rid’Thar Ri-Datta was a Mane at the time, although from what we can tell the role of the Mane at this point seems purely ceremonial or religious, in the sense of being apolitical. The first edition Pocket Guide to the Empire claims that the Mane “bestowed to the classes equality under the bi-lunar shadow, dividing their power in accordance with two-moons-dance of the ja-Kha’jay”, by creating a power-sharing arrangement between the two kingdoms, based on the phases of the moons, in a revelation at the Rawl’kha temple in 2E 311. There was also some reshuffling of religious priorities, with some spirits getting devalued even while they’re still accepted. Part of me wonders if this was a political manoeuvre by Rid-Thar Ri’datta, to ensure that the hierarchy of the Riddle’Thar was as he intended it to be, without alternative voices. The Pocket Guide does describe the Confederacy in the Second Era as a “thinly-veiled dictatorship of the Mane”, with other sources noting that Rid-Thar Ri’Datta founded a dynasty, mostly off the phrase “pre-Ri’Datta dynasty Anequinine deity” used to describe Lorkhaj in Varieties of Faith. I don’t think founding a dynasty is likely, because the selection process for the Mane looks like it continued after Rid-Thar Ri’Datta as it had before, but the place of the Mane as a political figure continued, as the Riddle’Thar was cemented as a large part of the Khajiit way of life, and it was certainly in Tamriel to stay for many centuries afterwards.
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