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Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The World of Skyrim: Religion

Religion in The Elder Scrolls is perhaps an even more complicated subject than politics, and it has a more direct impact on gameplay than history.  The gods and goddesses of the game have particular import in this study, as they form the moral framework of this fictional world.  As in the previous orientation posts, I will not attempt an exhaustive explanation of the supernatural elements of TES V: Skyrim.  Those readers who would like more detailed information are directed to the wikis in the right-hand column.

Each racial culture in Tamriel has its own creation myth and its own set of divine beings, but because these entities play a key role in the games themselves, each culture's mythos is really an ethnocentric interpretation of an objective supernatural phenomenon; because he created the Amulet of Kings (an in-game item that affects gameplay), we know that Akatosh the Dragon God of Time objectively exists in the game, even if the Khajiit call him Alkosh the First Cat or the High Elves call him Auri-El and believe he favors the races of Mer over those of Man. The ideas on which the religions concur can essentially be treated as cosmological fact.

What can be known is that the universe began as a stasis (Anu) into which came change (Padomay, or Sithis), thus creating the original spirits (et'Ada).  One of these formless beings created an identity for itself (Akatosh) thus creating time.  Other entities followed suit.  At some point, one of these et'Ada (usually known as Lorkhan the Trickster God) convinced a small group of others to help him create and populate a new plane of existence (Nirn).  These nine beings, known as the Aedra ("our ancestors" in Aldmeri), soon began to understand that Lorkhan was draining their divine essence in order to complete his project; those who abandoned the creation scheme earlier kept more of their power, while those remained later were left in a very weakened state (relative to their former existence, not to humans) -- the last of whom was Lorkhan himself, who is generally thought to have given his life for the creation of the planet itself.  The rest of the Aedra, now depleted of much of their power, are bound to their own planets in the fictional solar system.  The many et'Ada who did not join Lorkhan in his plan are known as the Daedra ("not our ancestors"), and retain the capacity to leave their own planes and interfere with the inhabitants of other realms (most notably Nirn).

Of particular interest to this study is the relationship of Tamrielic religion to real-world belief systems.  Because Tamriel is a fictional setting, it is necessary to be very fluid when drawing connections to actual religions.  Perhaps the best models for this genre are the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis that invent worlds in which neither the Abrahamic God nor His Son exist, yet nevertheless faithfully represent many of the core tenets of the Christian faith their authors professed.  Tamrielic religion, as imagined by a collective entity such as Bethesda and its fans, is likewise bound to incorporate a wide variety of belief systems, including atheism.

Given the key role of the Nords in the TES series, and Skyrim in particular, the prominence of Viking mythology is to be expected.  Sovngard (the land of the honored dead), for example, is essentially a stand-in for Valhalla.  The Aedra themselves are based on the Nine Noble Virtues distilled from the Poetic Edda and the Icelandic Sagas:

Viking Noble Virtue
 The Dragon God of Time and the chief god of the pantheon
 God of Life and Death
 Goddess of Beauty
 God of Wisdom and Logic
 Goddess of Air
 Mother Goddess and Goddess of Love
 God of Mercy
Talos/Tiber Septim
 God of War and Governance
 God of Work and Commerce

Despite the Viking influence, these Aedra (a.k.a. the Nine Divines) do not correspond neatly to the Norse gods.  While one might be tempted to draw a connection between Lorkhan and Loki, the similarity between the two disappears beyond the trickster role.  Unlike the Norse gods, the Aedra are not personally active in the world; rather, they function more like transcendent divinities (similar to the New Testament God), granting blessings through their shrines, but not manifesting themselves directly on Nirn. 

Worship of the Divines is the orthodoxy of the Empire, hence the use of the Cyrodilic nomenclature; Nords worship the same gods for the most part, but sometimes under different names.  Although there are separate sects for each deity, these groups do not see each other as contradictory, but rather as distinct in emphasis; in this aspect, they are like the priests of ancient Greece or perhaps even modern Catholic religious orders.  Other racial groups worship some combination of these gods and their own deities, some of whom are Daedric Princes.  The unisex term "Prince" distinguishes the more powerful Daedra from the less potent Daedric rank-and-file.

The Daedric Princes, as divine beings who are able to manifest themselves actively in the mortal world, read more like the gods of ancient pagan pantheons than the Aedra do.  They interfere directly with the affairs of mortals for their own purposes; the destruction they frequently cause is of little import to them.  Their spheres of influence tend toward the ignoble: Boethiah the Daedric Prince of Usurpers, Assassins, and Secret Plots; Molag Bal the Daedric Prince of Enslavement; and so on.  The less powerful Daedra usually appear in the games as Dremora, humanoids with a demonic appearance who can be summoned from their plane as bound servants or fought as enemies.  Taken together, these attributes lead to a picture of the Daedra as evil, but there are a handful of Daedric Princes who seem more benevolent (Meridia and Azura, for example).

The reality is that attempting to see these divine entities through the western or Judeo-Christian dichotomy of "good" and "evil" is problematic.  The Aedra act as makers and sustainers of the known world, and therefore represent creation and order.  Because the PC is part of that creation and order, it is natural to see these beings as the embodiment of "good."  Likewise, the Daedra view mortals as means to an end, or even as playthings, which is insulting and threatening to the player's view of himself, so the Daedra are "evil."  These ideas do not, however, necessarily correspond to conventional ideas about morality.

This issue would be purely academic were it not for the presence of Daedric quests in TES V: Skyrim.  To play as a moral agent, the player must examine the reasons for his actions, the likely foreseeable results of his actions, and the justice of his actions.  Quests undertaken at the behest of a Daedric Prince are likely to involve some inextricable combination of "good" and "evil," which can seriously complicate the attempt to adhere to a moral code.  These quests are examined in detail in later posts.

Another interesting religious issue that can create fruitful ambiguity for the player as a moral agent is the status of Talos/Tiber Septim.  As detailed in a previous post, Talos is the Nord hero who founded the Third Empire (the current Tamrielic Empire).  At the end of his earthly life, Tiber Septim was apotheosized (in a manner similar to that of Romulus in Roman mythology) and admitted to the Cyrodilic pantheon as the patron of Mankind -- a type of replacement for Lorkhan, who sacrificed his existence for the creation of Nirn.  The races of Men see themselves as created by Lorkhan alone, whereas the races of Mer think of themselves as descendents of the Aedra.  They therefore have a distaste for Lorkhan, who they believed tricked their ancestors out of their immortality, and for his successor Talos, who brought their nations into a Man-dominated Empire.  The Altmer in particular believe that worshiping the once-human Talos as a god is a kind of heresy.

About 25 years before TES V: Skyrim opens, the battered Empire ended The Great War by signing the White-Gold Concordat: the Aldmeri Dominion agreed to end hostilities in exchange for a ban on Talos worship in the Empire.  Furthermore, the Thalmor are permitted to roam freely throughout the Empire to uncover and prosecute any adherents of the outlawed religion.  Because Talos was a Nord before his ascent, Skyrim is especially grieved at this situation.  The nation is on the brink of civil war, with one side supporting the Empire (even if they disagree with the ban on Talos worship) and the other rallying around Ulfric Stormcloak, who wants to secede from the Empire in order to preserve the Nord way of life against the onerous terms of the Concordat.

An additional complication for the morally-oriented player is the obvious connection between Talos and Jesus Christ. Aside from Tiber Septim's dual nature (as a Dragonborn, he possesses the soul of a dragon in the body of a man -- not too far from the Theanthropos) and his ascent to godhood, the persecution of his faithful invites the player to read Talos as a Christ figure.  The Thalmor quickly begin to feel like Pharisees hunting down the heretical cult of the God-Man, and Heimskr's diatribes sound a lot like the fiery sermons of Christian street preachers.  Even the visual symbolism contains allusion:

Heimskr preaching in front of the cruciform Shrine of Talos.

At the start of the game, the PC enters into a setting rich in moral conflict, and in order to navigate it in a meaningful way, the player must have a handle on the religious realities of Tamriel.  While some parallels between the metaphysics of the real world and those of Skyrim exist and might provide some guidance in the thornier decisions, care must be taken not to confuse the moralities of the two realms.

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