What is Time in the Elder Scrolls?

Today on Written in Uncertainty we’re investigating one of the most fundamental forces of the Aurbis, that is represented by powerful gods, and affects us here on Earth. Today we’re asking, what is Time in the Elder Scrolls?
Note: I go off-script more than usual in this episode, so the audio has quite a bit more in places than this script. Stuff about Berkleyan idealism, and the nature of time in Oblivion in particular.

A Brief History of Time (with apologies to Stephen Hawking)

Time in The Elder Scrolls seems to function quite similarly to time in this world, with a few exceptions. Time in the Elder Scrolls is generally thought of to be represented, and created, by Akatosh. The ur-text fo this perspective is The Monomyth, which says this:

When Akatosh forms, Time begins, and it becomes easier for some spirits to realize themselves as beings with a past and a future.

This is then represented in various ways in the various creation myths of whatever culture is considered. It’s worth noting here that this isn’t when Mundus forms, that comes later (which we can now say, because time is a thing). What we’ve got here is time that happens in between the worlds, the time that is expressed in Satak the Worldskin, the Redguard Monomyth like this:

As the old world died, Satakal began, and when things realized this pattern so did they realize what their part in it was. They began to take names, like Ruptga or Tuwhacca, and they strode about looking for their kin. As Satakal ate itself over and over, the strongest spirits learned to bypass the cycle by moving at strange angles. They called this process the Walkabout, a way of striding between the worldskins. Ruptga was so big that he was able to place the stars in the sky so that weaker spirits might find their way easier. This practice became so easy for the spirits that it became a place, called the Far Shores, a time of waiting until the next skin.

This is one of the core texts for the concept of kalpas, that idea that Mundus is created and destroyed in cycles. I’ve done an episode on kalpas quite some time ago, so I won’t be rehashing that here. For now, note that there is a time outside of the mortal world. One opinion you’ll see in several places is that the Dawn Era was chaotic and unstructured, mostly from the text Where Were You When the Dragon Broke, which says this:

The tower split into eight pieces and Time broke. The non-linearity of the Dawn Era had returned.

That all seems nice and neat, yes? Before creation, chaos. After creation, order. That’s certainly how many real-world religious accounts go, but… it’s not the whole story for the Aurbis. We’ve just seen one example of the idea that there’s a time beyond the time of the Mundus, and then we’ve got this glorious little nugget from The Anuad:

The first ones were brothers: Anu and Padomay. They came into the Void, and Time began.

This puts Time happening before the creation of Mundus, before Akatosh, before any Et’ada really. So what on earth is going on?

Trans-Kalpic McTaggart?

I think one way of solving this, or at least moving towards that understanding, is going to the theories of time posed by John McTaggart (thaks to /u/The_White_Guar), that of A-time and B-time. McTaggart suggests that time is understood in two different ways of thinking about time. Simply put, A-time is how we experience time as beings (the past, the present, the future), while B-time is an objective time signature (say, 21st August 2021). I think that B-Time has to exist in some fashion for anything to happen (you can say “before/after event X” for pretty much any occurrence). So it might be simpler to say that B-Time is Time in the sense of measurable duration, which did not exist in any meaningful sense before the formation of Akatosh. A-Time began with Anu and Padomay, because you can have before and after events the instant you have entities, but having consistent stuff happening in a way that it can be realised and measured requires Akatosh, which can give you B-Time.

I think this is summed up quite beautifully in the text Murky Time, which gives an Argonian perspective on time and all this. 

You see, as far as I can tell, Jel has no tenses; at least nothing that we’d recognize as a tense. The closest substitution I’ve heard interpreters use is “old” and “new.” They talk a great deal about “changing” and “becoming”- words that imply forward motion. But again, these words are obfuscated by all manner of arcane terms and concepts that even I can’t decipher.

This is echoing the same thought – there’s no tenses because there’s no A-Time, in McTaggart’s sense – the primary experiential time isn’t actually a thing that’s relevant. There’s just constant change, because the states being moved from and to and not of interest to the Argonians. The state is the important thing, not any sort of fixed end state. Indeed, I’d imagine that this wouldn’t actually exist in an Argonian perception of time. In the same text, a little before the passage I’ve just quoted, we have this explanation of an Argonian calendar, from an Argonian who doesn’t speak Cyrodilic very well:

[The calendar] is like a bowl of water. The day and the night swim in the bowl.

From that, it feels like general time (“day and night”) are things that are contained by that measurement of time. It’s the calendar that gives time shape. This is possibly different because of the Argonian perspective here, but I think there’s something that applies to time as a whole; that time and events are inherently unordered in Tamriel, and it is our perception of them that makes them ordered. The act of measuring them may affect the phenomenon itself.

Akatosh as a Reality God

So in a way, Akatosh is less the time god and more the perception god, or maybe causality god. It’s his job to see everything, and in seeing it, bringing things into the reality that is time. Backing this up is a quote from the text that got me on this particular thread of talking about the Elder Scrolls and time. From the book Pridehome: A Place Outside of Time?

Before time and the tapestry, Pridehome existed. As an ideal, it has always existed. It will always exist. The Dragon God of Time, Alkosh, wove it into the tapestry and time, making it real for the rest of us with our limited perception of linear time.

This veers a bit into Plato’s World of Ideas, with things existing as ideals rather than concrete things. However, if we’re taking Akatosh (or Alkosh in this case) as someone weaving something that already existed into Time, he’s just connecting things together. Hence thoughts about him being a causality god, but this text goes further than that. 

This is saying that time, and perceptions of time, are required to make things real. This tallies with the beginnings of Satakal the Worldskin, which says this:

Satak was First Serpent, the Snake who came Before, and all the worlds to come rested in the glimmer of its scales. But it was so big there was nothing but, and thus it was coiled around and around itself, and the worlds to come slid across each other but none had room to breathe or even be

(emphasis added)

This suggests that a bunch of stuff exists in potential form, or some way that doesn’t allow them to be fully expressed as existing entities, but that they require time in order to fully exist. Plus, if we get all dimensional for a second, if a thing only exists outside of the fourth dimension, how do we mortals, as four-dimensional beings, perceive it? If it’s not subject to time, would it ever interact with things that are? Could it realistically cause any form of change? I suppose it’s possible if you consider A-Time to be purely existential and not temporal. What do I mean by that? Stuff just happens, and you orient yourself around these things just happening; there is no cause as such, just spontaneous effect. If that’s the case, what’s to stop everything from happening at once?

This sounds incredibly like a dragon break, no?

Alternative Dimensions? Possible Worlds?

Although even in dragon breaks, there are events that happen and events that do not. The text about Pridehome seems to be implying something different:

Can you imagine, you who are bound to the tapestry and linear time, knowing that Ja’darri both succeeded and failed at the same time? Just as the one called Abnur Tharn succeeded and failed at the same time? And in the same moment, outside of linear time? Perhaps you cannot. Perhaps that asks too much.
More champions heeded the call after Ja’darri, in linear time. More came. Clan Mothers came and went as well. Until, as time passed, in the common parlance, one named Ra’khajin arrived. He both succeeded and failed to become a champion, just as Ja’darri before him. How, you ask, is this possible? He succeeded until he left Pridehome in linear time, yes? But outside linear time? He succeeded and failed all at once. Or forever, if you prefer.

This is concurrent success and failure, both at once. This would suggest that there is a version of events where Ja’darri failed, and where Ja’darri succeeded. However, it doesn’t talk about the reality of those relative propositions. I think what might be going on here is possible world talk, and it is the time god that makes things real.

Possible worlds are a theoretical tool in analytic philosophy that was developed into some degree of reality by David Lewis. Lewis argued (from my fuzzy memory of it) that different worlds and different possibilities were the same thing; that the only difference between the actual world and other possible worlds is that we are in the actual world. This isn’t even a spatial relation for Lewis, but rather an indexical one; the “actual” world is simply the world which the thing referring to the “actual” world has as its frame of reference. If an entity has access to more than one frame of reference, multiple worlds are actual. Possible worlds are, in this account, no less real. Having access to multiple worlds is, I think, what is going on with Pridehome. And, potentially, the events of ESO Summerset with Crystal-Like-Law straddling multiple “dimensions”. I’m not 100% sure that those dimensions are not just different parts of the Aurbis, but if it is these different possible worlds, then it becomes even more cataclysmic for a malignant entity to get hold of it.

The Place of the Elder Scrolls

However, there is a rather scroll-shaped spanner in all this: the Elder Scrolls themselves. They become concrete records of what happened when the events they describe come to pass, like a form of the Observer Effect in quantum physics. If multiple events were happening at once in different realities, then wouldn’t the Elder Scrolls show different things?

There is the get-out clause that the Scrolls exist in a single version of Tamriel, and therefore would be subject to the constraints of a single reality as we’ve just discussed, but that doesn’t feel quite right to me. The Elder Scrolls are things that present multiple possibilities, and there are hints that there is a degree of hard determinism in the system, particularly if you believe Sotha Sil. This is the sense I get from the (unlicensed) Seven Fights of the Aldudagga, which says this about the pattern of events across kalpas:

And Dagon woke up with a hideous headache to look down on Sarthaal and look! It was not destroyed at all! There were its mighty sights, its halls, its fountain of voices, and the tusk-house of Jarl the Tongue! And arrayed before it was the Host of Hoary Ysgrim all lined up for war!
“Oh crap!” Dagon said, shaking his hurt, hurt head, “I have come too early, for the destruction of Sarthaal has not occured, for I see the army of King Ysgrim waiting for the elves that I am sending. What could I be thinking, to come before the veils are pierced? Even the laws of trickery would not help me if I did that!”

This suggests that there are certain key events that are happening in each kalpa, that there is a degree of predestination, both in the destruction of Sarthaal and Dagon’s comments here about trying to destroy everything before Sarthaal being destroyed being a fruitless endeavour. However, the Elder Scrolls suggest maybe, possibility, and all that good stuff that is supposedly at the heart of the Aurbis for particular events. The Scrolls and Prisoners do seem exempt from that hard determinism. So maybe we have a compromise here – that some events play out the same over and over, but some people can cause divergence from the accepted path, and it is these possibilities that the Scrolls and the Pridehome text are picking up on? It’s possible that Ja’dari can both succeed and fail, but others can only do one thing. 

If we take this to its logical conclusion (and I’m delving deep into speculation here, so please don’t take this as fact in any sense), maybe the Elder Scrolls are windows to these other possible worlds, which can only change at particular decision points? Are there a limited number of Possible Worlds for Tamriel because of this? I’m not sure, but that seems a likely explanation, if I’m right about the nature of the Elder Scrolls. Which I may not be. They’re often called Magnus’ blueprints, and given this sort of a model I’m almost seeing them as “world seed generators” in the sense of something like Dwarf Fortress’ worldgen (awesome game if you’ve never played it, check it out! It’s free). That these points that the Scrolls depict are points where the world can change, and then brings those possible worlds into full being through the temporal mechanism of Akatosh? That feels about right, but it’s not spelled out in those terms anywhere, so I may be getting things wrong somewhere.

Eternal Recurrence

Now we get to the first thought I had on reading the Pridehome text, which I’m now less convinced by: that of eternal recurrence, as expressed by Nietzsche. It’s not a terribly well-developed in Nietzsche’s work, with this passage in The Gay Science being possibly the best articulation of it:

What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him : “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!”

The Pridehome text does suggest something similar in that Ji’dari and Pridehome are constants, something that is “always” being replayed over and over. Although this is a little different, because it’s not always the same outcome. Eternal recurrence in the Nietzshian sense is more an encouragement to live your best life – do you want to live your life again, or would that be a terrible thought – rather than a reality in the sense that Ja’dari is supposedly reliving the moments of defeat and victory. If we were to follow Nietzsche, we would perhaps dwell on the despair and triumph of Ji’dari, and how this is a grand cosmic thing (which it is implied to be), rather than trying to put a series of events to tell of what Ji’dari did or did not do. There’s also the sense that Pridehome stands as an eternal bastion and not-bastion all at once, in a conflict that is never really resolved. That’s not quite Nietzschian recurrence. Perhaps the closest we get to that is the Seven Fights’ version of kalpas, where events replay over and over, with only occasional change? Even then, I think this is an expression of inspiration, rather than pure imitation.

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