Who are the Skaal?

The Skaal in Brief

The Skaal are a tribe of Nord-ish people that are unique to the island of Solstheim, off the north-east coast of Skyrim. They haven’t built large settlements in what we’ve seen of them, in what seems to be a lifestyle that is deliberately close to nature and is focused on hunter-gathering. They are quite insular, or at least they have been in some of their portrayals; by the time of the Fourth Era they seem to have loosened up a bit, but they also may be dying out.

Most particularly, they have a very different pantheon compared to most other faiths on Tamriel, that of worship of the All-Maker, and… well, not much else. This has led some people to say it’s effectively monotheism in Tamriel, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. We’ll get to precisely why later.

Origins of the Skaal

The Skaal consider themselves a kind of Nord, although they are distinct from them. Precisely when and how they splintered from more mainstream Nords isn’t clear, and we have possibly contradictory information here. There’s the Bloodskal blade, present in a barrow in Solstheim, which feels like it should have something to do with the Skaal simply by the name association. However, we don’t have much beyond that. Gratian’s Journal notes that there are very few records of the Bloodskal clan, and they have draugr in their tomb, indicating a link with more usual Nordic culture at the time of the Dragon Cult, at least. It is possible that the Bloodskal clan were the ancestors of the Skaal, but we have little confirmation of that.

However, I think we do have some indication that the Skaal came from Atmora, at least, rather than leaving Skyrim for Solstheim at a later date. The location of the Skaal village, which didn’t really move or grow in the two hundred and seven years between the events of The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon and The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn is on the northeast of Solstheim, which isn’t the most immediate place you’d settle if you were coming from Skyrim to the island. However, if we apply this logic to the Bloodskal clan, their tomb is on the southwestern side, exactly where you’d expect parties to land if they were coming from Skyrim. So it’s possible that, if we’re using the locations as a guide, the Skaal aren’t related to the Bloodskal.

However, we do have other connections between the Skaal and the Dragon Cult. The book The Guardian and the Traitor recounts a Skaal legend of Miraak, which notes that the Skaal remember “an age long ago when dragons ruled over the whole world and were worshipped as gods by men”. This would indicate that there is some cultural memory of the Dragon Cult among the Skaal, and indeed some overlap in events, as both Draugr and Miraak are present on Solstheim. The legend also points out that the Guardian, another dragon priest, was appointed to rule over Solstheim after the Traitor’s disappearance.

Given that, it feels like the Skaal would have the same origin point as the Nords in terms of coming from Atmora, having a totemic religion based on a pantheon of divine animals that then converged on dragon worship. Where they seem to differ is what happened afterwards, although there are some similarities, given their origin point.

Skaal Religion

Skaal & the Ancient Nordic Pantheon

Given the point that the Skaal and the Nords diverged is after the Dragon Cult, they share the same origin in the old totemic faith that came from Atmora. It’s described like this in The Dragon War:

In the Merethic Era, when Ysgramor first set foot on Tamriel, his people brought with them a faith that worshipped animal gods. Certain scholars believe these primitive people actually worshipped the divines as we know them, just in the form of these totem animals. They deified the hawk, wolf, snake, moth, owl, whale, bear, fox, and the dragon.

Given the above, we can assume that the Skaal faith has similar beginnings in the totemic faith of the old Nordic pantheon. I think this then evolved into a more animistic faith than the mainstream Nordic faith, which moved each of the totem animals into the figures of the Nordic pantheon. Divines and the Nords explains it like this:

These animals—Dragon, Hawk, She-Wolf, Snake, Moth, Owl, Whale, Bear, and Fox—seem to correspond to the Eight Divines plus Lorkhan.

Eventually, the animal-totem gods transformed into the eight gods we worship today. We call them by their true names: Alduin, Kyne, Mara, Dibella, Stuhn, Jhunal, Orkey, and Shor.

In the case of the Skaal, this transformation did not happen. There are some similarities between the Nords and the Skaal, particularly when it comes to dragons being bad, which I’d personally put down to residual memories of the dragon cult. Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it later.

In the case of the Skaal, the evolution went the other way round. Instead of the animals becoming representations of more abstract deities, the Skaal deified the natural phenomena around them. Or at least spiritualised it, if we go by Michael Kirkbridge’s word on the matter. In a forum post, Michael Kirkbride claims that “[t]he Skaal are animistic, not monotheistic.” It’s not immediately apparent what this means, I was inclined to disagree with that (although I’ve never thought of them as monotheistic), but there’s some interesting edges to a quote from Storn Crag-Strider in The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn:

The All-Maker is the maker of all things, and it is from the All-Maker that life flows like a great river. As all rivers must return to the sea, so all life returns in time to the All-Maker.

The same character also points out that the secrets of the Skaal  that Hermaeus Mora is trying to steal in the DLC are basically ways to interact with the natural world, like the wind and sky and so on. With the attitude that all natural things come from the All-Maker, the Skaal are communing with the divine when they interact with the natural world. That is close to animism, which is the belief that natural phenomena have souls.

This leads to an interesting set of assumptions about how the world works – the Skaal don’t differentiate between people, animals and other things in the same way. For them, souls are more “stuff-like” than we typically think of the term. Everything is spirit, and so interacting with the wind and earth is interacting with the spiritual. I’d imagine that even something as banal as having crumpets and tea with a friend could have a spiritual component for the Skaal. This pervasive animism has big implications for how the Skaal see the world, and in particular the afterlife. Children of the All-Maker, which is written by a Nord and so may have both some misunderstandings of the Skaal culture and some shared background that could both make it easier for the author to understand and have some assumptions not mentioned in the text, puts it like this:

For the Skaal, the All-Maker is the source of all life and creation. When a creature dies, its spirit returns to the All-Maker, who shapes it into something new and returns it to Mundus. The concept of death as an ending to life is unknown to the Skaal. Rather, death is seen as simply the beginning of the next stage of an endless journey.

This feels similar to how the Argonians see the relationship to the Hist, particularly if you take some of Alandro Sul’s Ancient Tales of the Dwemer  at their word (always a bad idea) that “the Hist are where [Argonians] come from and where [they] are going”. However, the Hist are a conduit for a consciousness and experiences to be reformed as an Argonian and part of the overall Argonian-Hist relationship. What the Skaal believe is a more universal thing, that all things have spirits that are moulded into something else upon death. It’s closer to what Spinoza proposed for how substance works in his work Ethics. In brief, all the universe is one substance (substance being defined as “that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception”), with things fashioned into different modes (“the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself”) of that one substance. For the Skaal, all souls, and potentially all of existence whatsoever, has its source and its definition in the All-Maker, which is then fashioned through the process of existence itself, changing but never really going away.

Seeing as we’ve brought him up, it’s probably time to discuss the All-Maker directly.

The All-Maker

First off, I’m not totally sure that the evolution I’ve just talked about is absolutely the case. There’s a leap from the ancient Nord pantheon to the All-Maker, which quite a few folk claim to be monotheism for the Elder Scrolls. Most particularly the combining of several disparate entities with control over limited purviews  into a handful of entities with more wide-reaching authority (or maybe influence is a better word here? I’m not sure “authority” is quite what I’m after). The Story of Aevar Stone-Singer links the various aspects of the natural world to the All-Maker quite directly, with the words of the Adversary:

“You of the Skaal have grown fat and lazy. I have stolen the gifts of your All-Maker. I have stolen the Oceans, so you will forever know thirst. I have stolen the Lands and the Trees and the Sun, so your crops will wither and die. I have stolen the Beasts, so you will go hungry. And I have stolen the Winds, so you will live without the Spirit of the All-Maker.

There are also notes of the mainstream Nordic pantheon here, and of YHWH from the Torah, where the word for “spirit” in the sense of “spirit of God” is sometimes expressed as “breath” or “wind”, conflating spirit with both in the same way as the above passage. It also links to Nordic belief through linking to Kyne, the goddess of the wind and head of the Nordic pantheon. 

These sorts of little hints get a whole bunch of speculation in various corners of the lore community about who the All-Maker is. However, there’s a bunch of pretty huge hints that come up in the unlicensed text the Seven Fights of the Aldudagga. Most particularly this:

He was the Aka-Tusk, a somewhat foreign spirit (yeah, right) from the Totem Wars, and known mainly in the tongue of Men as the enemy-brother of Shor, and he said, “Look on them, my friends, and how the North has gone insane with the beating and beating of the Doom Drum, whose father they fool-talk call their All-Maker.”

The “Doom Drum” is the key here, which is a soubriquet of Lorkhan. It’s also a fit because Lorkhan was the one who planned and built the mortal plane, and in a way made everything. However, there’s a bit of a way to go to get to the All-Maker, and for that we need to go back to The Monomyth. Particularly this passage:

In most cultures, Anuiel is honored for his part of the interplay that creates the world, but Sithis is held in highest esteem because he’s the one that causes the reaction. Sithis is thus the Original Creator, an entity who intrinsically causes change without design. Even the hist acknowledge this being.

This would put Sithis or Padomay in the position as the All-Maker, which is about as definite as we can get. There is the statement that Siths “begat” Lorkhan from the book Sithis, while The Monomyth claims Padomay as Lorkhan’s father. This puts the Skaal in a similar position to the Argonians, although the act of creation and the individual shapes are seemingly more important to the Skaal than they are to the Argonians, who put more emphasis on the overall cycle.

Where the Skaal really differ is not in the reverence of Sithis as the All-Maker, but how their general idea of what the other spirits are. Other faiths, typically those that are more Aldmeri in inclination, indicate that the more general spirits became the Ehlnofey and the laws of nature in order to survive in the limited world of Mundus. They do not link those spirits to Lorkhan in any real way, whereas the Skaal claim they are part of the same substance as Lorkhan. It’s certainly an interesting take on the supernatural genealogy of the Aurbis. Even with the Argonians having a similar attitude to Sithis, the aspects of Sithis that we see in the events of The Elder Scrolls: Online don’t seem to have dominion over any aspects of nature in the same way as is implied with the All-Maker.

The All-Maker is also, as I mentioned earlier, often claimed to be monotheism on Tamriel. This isn’t quite the case, although I can see why they would think that, particularly given the Spinoza parallels we’ve already gone over, although most don’t tend to go that deep – they just rely on the worship of a single god. However, the Skaal do appear to have something that makes them closer to monolatry – the worship of one god, but acknowledging the existence of more than one. Or maybe dualism. They acknowledge one other being and force in their cosmology, generally dubbed The Adversary.

The Adversary

The Adversary is the devil figure of the Skaal faith, and looks to take things away from the Skaal. You’ll also see several questions about who precisely the Adversary is in various places online, but I think it’s fairly cut-and-dried, although there is one exception, which we’ll get to later.

The Story of Aevar Stone-Singer points to the Adversary as formulations of the Aka-spirit. In particular, the text says this:

The Adversary has many aspects. He appears in the unholy beasts and the incurable plague. At the End of Seasons, we will know him as Thartaag the World-Devourer. But in these ages he came to be known as the Greedy Man.

The text also notes the Falmer as servants of the Adversary, and Falmer are very much into Auri-El worship. These are all little pointers towards Aka-variants being the Adversary in various ways. Particularly as the time god is one of the best examples of a deity with “many aspects”.

However, The Seven Fights does also contain some contrary evidence that seems to indicate that the Greedy Man could be Lorkhan. Maybe. The text in question has a lot going on, and I think I’d probably present it in all its messiness, from Fight One of The Seven Fights:

“Oh crap,” the Greedy Man said, “He knows my bargain with the king of leapers, I’d better hide under my mountain!” but he thought and said all this too fast and, without thinking, hid under his mountain even though its base had already been eaten and so it wasn’t all still there. (This is how the Greedy Man became trapped both in and outside of kalpas.)

The Greedy Man hiding under a mountain sounds awfully like Lorkhan’s Heart being put under Red Mountain, which would make the Greedy Man Lorkhan in this telling. However, being both in and out of kalpas also feels a little Lorkhanic – while he’s never described as such, having his Heart on Mundus and the rest of him possibly somewhere else (whether the moons are part of Mundus is something I discussed a while back) does feel like a possible way of looking at what happened to him. He’s also described as standing on top of Red Mountain. Although the Greedy Man’s mountain being described as not being all there put me in mind of Snow-Throat, although the top of that mountain is what’s half-there, not the base of the mountain. To cap it all off, both Red Mountain and “Throat Mountain” are name-checked in the Seven Fights, but neither are named in the passage we’ve just been through. So it’s a bit of an uncertain mess, but I get the feeling that the Seven Fights want us to think that the Greedy Man is Lorkhan, although that does contradict most other things we hear about him. The only real explanation I can think of is that these tales are possibly Nordic in origin, rather than Skaal; we don’t get an author, but they do put the Nords front-and-centre, while only referring tangentially to the Skaal. If that’s the case, they could be getting some details wrong about how the Skaal actually perceive their deities. I’m not totally sure about that, but it could be a reason why the Greedy Man is presented in this way.

You’ll note there that I’ve been conflating the Greedy Man and the Adversary, which the quote from Aevar Stone-Singer somewhat goes against by saying that the Adversary has many aspects. Part of this is how it’s described in Paradise Lost, but I’m also reminded of the serpent in the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 3, and the presentation of Satan more generally in the Bible. The serpent who tempts Eve isn’t identified with Satan in any way in that text, and Satan in the book of Job is more a spirit acting under God’s authority than what we in the English-speaking world think of when we say “devil”. There are other presentations in the books of the Prophets and the Law that put it at odds with what God and the Israelites are doing, but without much consistent characterisation. Where this comes into Paradise Lost is that it isn’t the serpent itself who tempts Eve with the fruit from the garden, but Satan dwelling in the mind of the serpent. I think a similar thing is happening with the Greedy Man – it isn’t the man himself that is the problem, but the force within him.

Whether this force is an actual thing I’m not sure, or whether “Adversary” is a designation like “Sharmat” for “enemy of the Dunmer” (as I’ve discussed before). There certainly seems to be an odd mix of entities in the Adversary set – we have the following, from Aevar’s tale:

  • unholy beasts
  • The incurable plague
  • Thartaag the World-Devourer
  • Greedy Man

These do make a couple of my Daedra senses tingle – the idea of “unholy beasts” makes me think of Hircine in his role as the “father of man-beasts”, while the “incurable plague” is definitely Peryite’s domain of plague and disease. Thartaag the World-Devourer is the big obvious one, as Alduin, and then we have the Greedy Man. I was quite curious about this, because it consistently casts the Adversary on the Anuic side of the Anu/Padomay divide, and then it groups an Aka-spirit with a couple of Daedra. They are possibly the only group in Tamriel to do this, I think – even the Khajiit, who are more liminal than most when it comes to their gods, broadly keep the Aedra-Daedra divide. So either the Skaal are somehow grouping things not-of-the-All-Maker together in a very arbitrary way, or there’s something else going on. I think the most likely thing for this is that the Adversary is literally that – a thing that opposes the Skaal, and as such can change from time to time.

Most of the Daedra will possibly make it onto that list at some point or another, in all honesty. We have this line from Wulf Wild-Blood in The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn, talking about werebears:

Twisted beasts, a curse of Hircine. True bears are noble and great creatures of the wild. But the Daedra have no skill for creation, so they befile [sic] the All-Maker’s workings.

This backs up some of the things that we hear elsewhere, that the Daedra can only change and can’t create and so on, and so they will ultimately just twist the All-Maker’s workings. Elsewhere Wulf says that the Skaal way is intended to respect everything and not take more than is necessary, because everything is part of the All-Maker’s creation. So the warping of it by the Daedra will earn their ire quite naturally, I imagine. The only exception I could possibly see would be Peryite and Namira, as they represent natural processes to some degree, but Peryite’s already on the list, so I don’t think that those would make it out of being considered poorly by the Skaal.

Skaal Culture

One of the reasons that the Skaal seem to have remained so distinct from the rest of the Nords is that they have remained isolated so effectively. As such they’ve developed their own culture focused on their own ways and their own secrets. This is likely due to the philosophy of non-interference with the world, that they should only leave as small a mark on it as possible. This is an overflow of their religious outlook, which implies a philosophy of non-interference with the natural world as far as is possible, similar to some forms of Buddhism that emphasise consuming as little life as possible. In The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn, Wulf Wild-Blood says this:

We take only what we need, and so we preserve the oneness with the land.

and elaborates what that means with this:

We believe that all creatures have a right to live as they will, and when we take what we need from them, we thank the beast for its gifts. The less we disturb the land and the beasts within it, the more we respect the wishes of the All-Maker.

This worldview very much lends itself to isolationism. Storn Crag-Strider notes that the island of Solstheim was given to them by the All-Maker, and so they have little need to go anywhere other than what they have already been given. The Story of Aevar Stone-Singer has this to say as well, which I think implies something similar when the protagonist returns the Gift of the Beasts:

“You have returned the Gift of the Beasts. Once again, the Good Beasts will feed the Skaal when they are hungry, clothe them when they are cold, and protect them in times of need.”

While this is very obviously an allegorical tale, it feels like this is illustrative of how the Skaal see things – the beasts aren’t being killed for their furs and meat, but are giving what they have as a gift to the Skaal.

That attitude of not taking more than they need could be behind the reason they’ve not expanded much beyond the single village they have on Solstheim. The time between The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon and The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn does, in some ways, even show them somewhat in decline. The village had a rough militia in Bloodmoon, but there’s not much more than a few hunters in Dragonborn. You can get into questions of how far the games represent the lore on this, definitely, but there’s also a note in Children of the All-Maker that the Skaal are “dwindling” because:

The ashfall from Vvardenfell has taken its toll on the plants and animals upon which the Skaal depend for their survival, and life is now a struggle for all who call Solstheim home.

Which is kind of a shame, because they take some unique perspectives with them. One particular mystery is that of Stahlrim.

The Skaal and Stahlrim

The Skaal consider Stahlrim to be a holy material, according to several pieces of dialogue in both games where we see. In Bloodmoon, Graring says this:

“The Skaal consider the Stalhrim to be holy. During the great war with the Dark Elves, many heroes fell in battle. Some could not be returned to Skyrim, and were buried here. Great magicks were worked on their tombs to protect their belongings from grave robbers, and their corpses from worse things. Energy was drawn from the land itself, and our heroes were encased in tombs of ice. That ice is Stalhrim.”

This suggests that the Skaal had some part to play in the War of Succession, where the Nords took over, and then lost, portions of what would become Morrowind. It’s interesting that the Skaal are rapidly dropped from this dialogue after the first line or so, and not really taken into account after that point. That’s possibly because they weren’t Skaal at the time, maybe? I know it’s a little out there, but it’s possible that the original Skaal were simply the tomb guardians of the heroes who fell on Solstheim, and are the descendents of the original tomb-builders. We know from various bits of dialogue in The Elder Scrolls III and V that they have a tradition that knows how to work Stahlrim, and so they may come from those who created it. However, there’s no actual evidence of that – just my speculation about a possible origin for them, as we don’t really have one for them.

That origin, whatever it was, has been obfuscated through time. In the Third Era, Graring was made an outcast for trying to work Stalhrim, suggesting that a taboo has developed around it to a degree. However, I’m not so sure that was a taboo around the material, more its application. Graring and his fellows were cast out because they mined Stahlrim from unearthed tombs. That possibly puts them on the line for desecrating burials and the like, rather than just for working the material. I’m not sure that the Skaal would object so much to existing Stahlrim, separate from the tombs, was worked. However, if they ever had the knowledge of creating it, the Skaal we encounter don’t know how to do so. Most pointedly, as far as we know it’s not the secrets of forging Stahlrim that Hermaeus Mora wants from the Skaal, so that knowledge is either lost, or was never theirs to begin with. I like to think they knew, once, but that’s mostly because the creation of Stahlrim also feels like a nice origin point for the Skaal as a separate people, where we otherwise have very little idea of where they came from. But that could just be me wanting answers where there are none.

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