Please read this first.

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, August 20, 2013

Beyond Death: Soul Gems Revisited

Not long after I first wrote about the moral vagaries surrounding the use of soul gems, a reader pointed out that Dawnguard sheds some light on the issue.  At the time, I had not yet done the Dawnguard questline, and so I looked forward to finally getting some firm ideas about the ultimate fate of the entrapped souls.  Now that I have explored the Soul Cairn, I have more questions than answers.

What I know:
  • Upon death, a Soul Trapped being’s soul is absorbed into a soul gem.
  • Said gems may be used to enchant or recharge weapons and other items.
  • The Soul Cairn is populated by entrapped souls.
  • The Soul Cairn is vast and depressing -- more Limbo than Hell.
  • Some souls deal better with the Soul Cairn than others (Jiub, Morven Stroud)
  • Not all of the entities within the Soul Cairn are entrapped souls.
  • Soul Gems can be filled by activating Soul Fissures inside the Cairn.
  • During The Black Star, when Malyn Varen dies inside a soul gem, his soul is utterly destroyed (Nelacar refers to it as non-existence).
  • As demonstrated by the encounter during The Black Star, the space inside a soul gem is not the same as the Soul Cairn.
What I still don't know:
  • Soul husks are plant-like objects, but the name suggests that they are something left behind.  Are they the residue of a soul being used in an enchantment?
  • Are the souls in the Soul Cairn currently trapped in gems and awaiting annihilation, or are they here because their souls were already used up in an enchantment?
  • Is the Soul Cairn only for the souls of man and mer?  On the one hand, aside from Arvak, I only encountered sentient souls. On the other, the fissures filled up my petty, lesser, common, and greater gems.
Therefore, there seem to be two viable ways of understanding the Soul Cairn:
  1. The Soul Cairn is a way station for entrapped souls.  A soul is trapped and transported to the Soul Cairn, where it waits until the soul gem to which it is tethered is consumed.  When the corresponding gem is used in an enchantment, the soul is obliterated.
  2. The Soul Cairn is the ultimate destination for souls used in soul gems.  The soul remains trapped in the gem until the item is used for enchanting, at which point the soul is cast into the Soul Cairn.  It is not annihilation per se, but rather an eternal nowhere.
Without further information, I'm just counting angels on the head of a pin, but in a way, the metaphysical details don't really matter.  Soul Trap still stands as an awful thing to do to a sentient enemy, and should be used only on the worst of the worst, if at all.  I, for example, refuse to use it on Stormcloaks, Forsworn, random thieves in Riften, or the Afflicted, but I'm comfortable using it on Thalmor agents and bandits.

For another view, I suggest this thread from The Escapist.


  1. Eh, that's only when ones using BLACK soul gems, which are noted to be the only things that can be used to capture human souls. REGULAR soul gems, on the other hand, are used to capture animals, daedra, and magical creatures like spriggans. THOSE soul gems are the ones that are most commonly used. And using black soul gems is HIGHLY frowned upon, to the point where only criminals and necromancers use them. If you want proof of the "animal capturing part" (besides arvak), than explore the cairn a little, and you'll find a farmer soul surrounded by cow souls.

    1. Oh yeah! I forgot about the cow souls! Does anyone have any idea what the justification for cow souls might be? Sure, Bethesda might have just been sloppy here, but is there a way to make sense of non-sentient souls in the Cairn?

    2. Not sure. We can't exactly ask the cows about how they feel regarding the Soul Cairn (Honestly, I'm not even sure if they're aware of the fact that they died). The most we could possibly ascertain is that they don't seem to care. They aren't moaning (one of the few things that cows can do to indicate they don't like something), and just seem to be grazing...despite the fact that there's no grass to graze. Heck, Arvaak seems to be getting along just fine, even if he is a flaming horse skeleton. I'm guessing that the morality of THAT issue wis simply up to the player. On a side note, what would you do with the black soul gems (already filled) that you find on your adventure? You can't save them, it's too late for that, and I have no idea if selling them is a better option, morally, or if you should just use them up and at least let the souls have company in the Soul Cairn. That's about the only positive thing that can be said: there are plenty of souls in the cairn, so at least the souls will never be lonely.

    3. There was a glitch in Oblivion that allowed you to find black soul gems with lesser souls. There's you cow.

      Jokes aside it's explicitly stated some necromancers can straight up drop people in the Soul Cairn horse and all. It's how the carriage merchant got there, who's to say the farmer wasn't the target and the cow just happened to be standing right next to him when he was sent.

  2. I recall discussing the Soul Cairn with Serana, and it would appear that point 2 is the in-game explanation: using a Black soul gem for an enchantment delivers energy, and the soul itself is then sent to the Soul Cairn, under the watchful eyes of the Ideal Masters. Possibly something similar happens to animal (white) souls, only they do not normally go to the soul cairn. Before being used, the soul is inside the soul gem. Morally speaking, only the evil will use black soul gems, since you are using human souls, and condemming them to purgatory in the soul cairn. Is the use of normal soul gems evil? I guess that depends on what you feel about animal and monster afterlife...

  3. Before declaring the Soul Cairn an unendurable evil, it's worth considering - what are the alternatives? Where else might a soul end up?

    Sovngard, obviously, seems like a pretty nice place. However, it's not the only option. We know souls also end up on various planes of Oblivion, which, if the game of the same name is anything to go by, may be just as unpleasant as the Soul Cairn.

    Then there's the possibility of having one's soul eaten by a daedra, or destroyed utterly. Is the Soul Cairn better or worse than that? Would you be doing Malyn Varen a favour if you trapped his soul in a regular black soul gem, when killing him inside Azura's Star? (Is that even possible? It's never occurred to me before now.)

  4. Finally caught up with the rest of the blog. Really enjoyed reading it.

    Personally, I always thought that the Soul Cairn was where souls ended up after a gem was depleted, since we never really see them disappear and there's not much to really suggest the alternative is the case. But parts do confuse me. I'm sure other people have their theories or there might be some subtle in-game suggestion, but for the life of me I can't make any sense of things like the soul husks, the fissures, or the cow souls and Arvaak.

    What really mystifies me is that the presence of the cow souls seems to suggest that animals can end up in the Cairn, but they're definitely a minority there, while I know for a fact that animals are more widely used than the black soul races like men, mer and beastfolk. I'd normally guess that the white souls are therefore the ones in the fissures while the black souls get to walk around, but then that begs the question of why those cows and Arvaak are exempt from that rule?

    I know the Cairn as a whole is bigger than what we can actually explore in the game, and there are probably more souls beyond the invisible walls, both human and animal (because what we see in-game can't possibly be all the trapped souls in all of Tamriel, unless the Soul Cairn is region specific to Skyrim for some nonsensical reason), but I still really don't get the inconsistency.

  5. As I recall, it's more or less clarified during conversation with Serana that this is the place souls arrive at after they've been trapped and "used," and that animals (white souls) generally do not arrive at the Cairn. As for the animals we DO see there, I have an explanation.

    We can guess that the presence of cows can be explained the same way as Arvak's. In the horse's case, it's possible that a loyal spirit simply followed its old master to the Cairn of its own volition, driven by instinct. My guess is that the cows were similarly motivated, following their farmers out of habit or basic affection. The implication is that the animals are just free to go where they wish after death (demonstrated by Arvak's later utility in the physical plane), unlike sentient beings, who are specifically enslaved.

    In any case, the Soul Cairn provided me with excellent opportunities for my own character's moral growth, which I think I'll get into after reading your Dawnguard article...

    1. Is it possible to trap an animal soul in a black soul gem? It would be a waste, from the point of view of someone who would carry around that sort of thing, but it could happen by accident. If the Ideal Masters take whatever soul is put in a black soul gem regardless of sentience that could be an explanation.

  6. Hey, Haven't been here in awhile. I'm dissapointed to see you still haven't posted anything new since soul gems. Todd, don't let this little group die, Post topics on all the remaining quests in skyrim that you haven't done. finish what you started with this little project.

    1. Thanks, guys! I appreciate the encouragement/kick in the pants. The first quarter of the school year always gets a little crazy, but you're right -- I need to make time for this.

      I just posted on The Whispering Door, and I should have a few more coming soon. I want to "clean up" my first playthough before I start posting about the second.

  7. uhhh no i do not think that how it works

  8. The answer is actually in an earlier game talking about the Soul Cairn that lets you converse with the Ideal Masters: Battlespire. In it you learn that using a Soul Gem sentences the used spirit to infinite torture for enchanting the weapon, and that soul trapping itself shunts the soul into the Cairn, as Jiub tells you in Dawnguard. So you're throwing people and animals into Limbo, and if the souls are used to enchant, you torture them until the item is destroyed, presumably in the process of disenchanting. So the only good action is to disenchant and to never use gems at all.

  9. The answer is actually in an earlier game talking about the Soul Cairn that lets you converse with the Ideal Masters: Battlespire. In it you learn that using a Soul Gem sentences the used spirit to infinite torture for enchanting the weapon, and that soul trapping itself shunts the soul into the Cairn, as Jiub tells you in Dawnguard. So you're throwing people and animals into Limbo, and if the souls are used to enchant, you torture them until the item is destroyed, presumably in the process of disenchanting. So the only good action is to disenchant and to never use gems at all.