It has been said that to live in Skyrim is to change your mind ten times a day lest it freeze to death. This adage is clearly attested in the history of Nordic religion. We worshiped totems and the animals they represented, until we gave those totems names and acted as though they'd always had such. We adopted and then scorned the Slave Queen's doctrines, despite her best efforts to appease us in her theology. Now we offer praise to Akatosh, doubtless to the rage of our ancestors who worked so diligently to keep Alduin asleep, when even in the final days of the Septims only Ysmir Who Is Talos was worthy of such praise.
As High Priest of the Divines in Solitude, the task is set me to tend the spirits of all citizens of the High Kingdom of Skyrim, while keeping the lore and history of the Nordic faith. In the best traditions of ancient clever-men and totem monks, I have gathered our oral traditions, corresponded with our Hearth Priestesses, spoken with lorekeepers from amongst our most ancient clans, to offer this text which I hope will give context to our foreign brothers and sisters as to the shape of the Divines in Fourth Era Skyrim. Herein let us consider, one by one, the Gods through the eyes of the North, shaped by our history and our kinship with the other peoples of Tamriel.
She was Kyne first, the Kiss at the End, the Hawk, Blessed War-Wife of Shor, the Mother of Men and Beasts whose veil is the storm. When the gods walked the earth, she led the armies of men against the Elven Giants that would murder Shor again and again in a cycle of birth and death and rebirth, and when those men died her winds carried them to Sovngarde, to await the next cycle. Her breath formed Skyrim, the Throat of the World, and granted Nords the gift of the Thu'um. She weeps for Shor and her fallen children, but always takes up her spear in vengeance for them.
Kyne was worshiped widely in the ancient world, and in the Imperial Cult she is credited with being the first of the gods to join Shor (Shezarr) in making the mortal world. Nordic theology has traditionally given little consideration to Creation, and Kyne by any name has always been first among our gods since Shor's death. In the Fourth Era, however, she is more widely worshiped as Kynareth, an import of her Imperial shape, and to answer why the modern Nord has accepted this evolution we may look to Creation for an answer.
It has been widely believed for thousands of years in Skyrim that this kalpa (a Nordic cycle of time) is unique, that the gods gave something more of themselves to fortify this turn against the World-Eater of myth. Kyne's contribution is to the land itself, fortifying the kalpa with her own body so as to ensure its strength against Alduin's hunger. She is become Kynareth, "the Land of Kyne," and to stride across the surface of Skyrim or indeed all of Tamriel is to walk in the domain of Kynareth. She has more fully taken her position as head of the pantheon by becoming one with the land the gods rule; as such, the Kynareth of Skyrim, while perhaps adapted from the Kynareth of Cyrodiil, still towers above her southern image in the minds of the Nordic people.
The Handmaiden of Kyne, the Wolf, Tear-Wife of Shor, whose parleyed with the various tribes of gods each cycle to no avail. In ancient times her faith was kept and ministered by the witch covens of Skyrim, and even as late as the Third Era these covens still held esteem as wise women, learned in the ways of life and the natural order, empowered to bargain and parley as Mara did with the gods of old and disperse her wisdom to the masses.
The Oblivion Crisis touched every culture in Tamriel in ways that will still be reckoned many centuries from now. Many covens were lost to the Daedra, and many more lost favor with their communities as suspicion of mysticism rose to the fore in the Nordic mind. The crisis in Whiterun surrounding the Witch-Queen Jsashe of the Silent Moons Coven, contemporary with the Daedric invasion, did little to ease this cultural shift away from trust of hedge magic. Reachman mystics and wicked hagravens absorbed much of what Skyrim's people cast aside, turning witching practices of Skyrim away from holy Mara and into the hands of the demons of the west.
In the most remote villages and holdings in the province, you may still find a local wise woman learned in the craft dispensing cures and performing marriages in the way of the Old Gods. But much of Mara's ministry has passed into the hands of her temple in the Rift, who to their credit are conscious of her history and work to keep her Nordic identity alive for our people. The modern usage of an Amulet of Mara as a token of marriage dates back to the earliest traditions wherein a wise woman would bestow a totem blessed with powerful magic on a couple she wed.
The Goddess of Beauty, the Moth, Bed-Wife of Shor, who tends the camp of the gods after battle and whose youthful countenance is seen in the stars of the Lady. Dibella's worship is perhaps the least changed in the Fourth Era; while she maintains a dedicated temple in Markarth, you will find her worshipers in every corner of the province, as befits the goddess of art, beauty, and eroticism. Where once the most important women of a hold or settlement tended her faith, in the modern age Dibellan worship is a more personal affair, befitting the overall personalized attitude most Nords have toward the gods.
Note as well that the Temple of Dibella in Markarth keeps well her status as a warrior of Shor's tribe. Her priestesses are known to be battle and blood-ready, and still offer ancient blessings to those youths who venture out into the wild to earn their way to adulthood in traditions dating back to the early history of the Old Holds. Alone among her pan-Tamrielic worship, the mothers and daughters of the Moth are led by a sybil, a prophetess of Dibella who guides her worship in the Reach and communes with the goddess directly. To have a daughter chosen as the sybil is an honor among the Nords of the Reach, though it is unknown whether the sybil must be a Nord, or can originate from the Reachman or any other race. The methods by which a sybil is chosen are well-kept secrets, and my correspondence with Mother Hamal yielded no revelations there.
It is impossible to talk of Dibella in Skyrim without making mention of the Reachmen, who in times past have worshiped Daedra and their own heathen gods out of Markarth. There have been tales from adventurers and scholars of Reachman tribes that have seemingly adopted the worship of Dibella, albeit in a bloody and savage form that forsakes her status as Goddess of Beauty. Doubtless the forsaken Reachmen emulate the Dibella they hear in the war cries of the Nordic warriors and clans of the Reach: a goddess of artful battle and boundless glory.
Stuhn, the God of Ransom, the Whale, Shield-Thane to Shor, who died in battle against the Elven Giants and whose corpse formed the Whalebone Bridge to the Hall of Valor. As a Dead God, Stuhn has never had dedicated temples in Skyrim; he has traditionally been worshiped by the whaling and reaving clans of the north, for whom hostages and ransom are sacred, and invoked in times of war to temper the natural Nordic blood rage in the aftermath of battle. It was Stuhn who exhorted the Companions of Ysgramor to take Falmer captives and slaves to learn the land and build the ancient glories of Skyrim. As such, he is remembered as a god of wisdom.
In modern Skyrim, Stendarr has come to prominence through his Vigilants, who guard against future Daedric incursions, and through the Imperial Legions, to whom Stendarr is patron. Nords have been the backbone of the Legions for centuries, of course, and so Stendarr has had an easier time being adopted by modern Nords. Oral traditions have come to claim Stendarr is Stuhn reborn to serve at the head of Talos' army, the Legion, in the coming battle for the kalpa and against elven aggression. He rides a great whale, his ancient form returned from death, and pours milk from his horn in preparation to blow it for war. That the Vigilants of Stendarr have occupied and relit Stuhn's Beacon, an ancient warning signal against the Dark Elves of Morrowind, is a call to arms in itself to join Talos' Empire in battling the encroaches of the Aldmeri Dominion.
Tsun, the God of Trials against Adversity, the Bear, Shield-Thane to Shor, who died in battle against the Elven Giants and now guards his brother's corpse in Sovngarde, testing those warriors who wish to enter Shor's Hall. The position of the God of Work and Commerce has always been tenuous in Nordic culture, but modern theology associates him with Tsun on the grounds that work and toil in Skyrim has always been a trial against adversity. The land is cold and hard, the beasts fearsome and huge, to survive at all is to struggle against the odds. One cannot farm or build within Skyrim without acknowledging this truth; one cannot travel and trade, do commerce, without fending off frostbite spiders larger than hounds and sabrecats faster than the desert scorpions of the west.
Modern Nords do not necessarily believe Tsun and Zenithar are the same entity; Tsun stands vigil in Sovngarde, and will need to remain behind to guard the Hall of Valor when this kalpa turns. Rather, Zenithar represents in the Fourth Era what Tsun championed in the Merethic: trial and toil. There is some discordance with the Imperial Cult; most Nords think of Zenithar as a symbol, not a full-fledged god in his own right. But in Skyrim, where smithing is one of our most ancient and honored trades, that symbol is potent. A Nord who wears the hammer and anvil of Zenithar is committed to smithing herself into a better shape, to honor the trials set by Tsun and ultimately forge a Nord worthy of meeting him on the Whalebone Bridge in Sovngarde.
In the most ancient myths of the Nords, he was Jhunal, the Rune God, the Owl, Clever-Man to Shor, who gave language and math to the gods to better form strategy against their enemies. Jhunal's transformation into Julianos was written into the Nordic faith long ago; after losing favor with Shor for giving too much consideration to elven virtues (some myths attribute this falling out to the defection of the god Magnar) Jhunal fled south and was adopted by the Nedes in their rebellion against their elven slavemasters. He counseled Alessia in the creation of the Eight Divines and was given the Cyrodiilic name Julianos. Thus, Jhunal and Julianos are considered one and the same.
It is important to note that Jhunal is not remembered as an elven apologist; rather, his strategies relied on knowing the elves and their ways, and he counseled retreats when he believed elven virtues to be ascendant. Virtues and gods being one and the same, Jhunal would see Shor's tribe as outnumbered. In the Fourth Era, the Temple of the Divines holds the only notable totem of Julianos in Skyrim. His association with magic has caused him to lose what little favor he had regained in the north, a befitting cycle for this god. Jhunal was still held in some reverence by ancient clever-men and was said to aspect within the greatest mages of Skyrim, Shalidor among them. As such, his worship still exists in some sense through the hero cult of Shalidor in Winterhold, though even that was much diminished by the ravages of the Great Collapse.
We start the difficult gods with Orkey, Old Knocker, the Snake, the ancient enemy of the Nords who steals away our years and shortens our lives before the elves. He was venerated by the ancient Nords as one of several Testing Gods, Daedric Princes among them, who had to be appeased or outwitted to keep them at bay. Orkey was also known to be patron to the Orcs, among whom he was known as Mauloch, or Malacath.
The path from this sordid god to worship of Arkay in the Fourth Era is winding and circuitous and I beg that you'll stay with me for the journey. Certainly as time has passed, comprehensive knowledge of the Daedric Princes has become more common, and it has become easier to call Orkey's association with Orcs as the cultural posturing that it is, rather than any insight into the identity of this Divine. More significant is Orkey's association with Halls of the Dead, stretching back to the Second Era or earlier. Not every Nord died in glorious battle or on a path of honor; those Nords to whom it was certain Sovngarde would be denied were given over to the snake priests of Orkey to be interred as befitted those who had fallen victim to Orkey's curse, never to see life again. Over time, these Halls of the Dead became cultural touchstones among clans and cities who still wished to revere even those kin who didn't make it to Shor's Hall.
Starting from the First Era onward, the Nords had not just the mirror of Arkay to contrast with Orkey, but also the Redguard shepherd of the dead, Tu'waccha, who tended their warrior heaven, the Far Shores. Nordic myth has always been and will always be vulnerable to nothing more so than a good story, so as tales of Arkay as an ascended mortal and Tu'waccha battling the evil serpent of Redguard myth made their way to Skyrim's shores, the Nords were primed to receive the Imperial Cult in the Third Era, who preached that Arkay tended the souls of those Nords who couldn't make the journey to Sovngarde, refreshing them in new Nords in a new cycle to try and earn their valor again.
Popular oral traditions today claim that Orkey was slain by Talos, who reached into the snake's entrails and pulled his skin inside out, a metamorphosis that will be undone unless Alduin is finally defeated in this kalpa.
Akatosh, Alduin, Ysmir, and Talos
I have saved the Dragon for last, in all his incarnations, for no other entity has proven both so crucial and so vexing to the Nords. In the Atmoran totems he was the dragon, greatest of the beasts to walk the earth or fly in the sky, gods on Mundus. From this came Alduin, the World-Eater, the ravaging firestorm that destroys this world to begin the next. Saint Alessia's pantheon dubbed him Akatosh, the Great Dragon, the King of Spirits whose blood guards against the hordes of Oblivion. Simultaneous with Alduin and Akatosh were the Dragonborn, mortals blessed with the souls of dragons who strode the world like kings, whom the venerable Greybeards, servants of Kyne, dubbed Ysmir, Dragon of the North. One Dragonborn would rise above all the rest to become the first new Twilight God of this cycle, the first Nord to master the Empire of Men and ascend to lead the gods as none had since Shor himself: Talos, the Dragonborn God.
Much has been said of The Alduin/Akatosh Dichotomy, published by the Akatosh Chantry of Wayrest, a Breton temple of the Imperial Cult. I will encourage you to forget that text as we move forward: We speak of Nords now, and Nord gods. Time has ever been an enemy to the Nords, and that has not changed. The cycle continues, the kalpa will eventually end, and when it does Alduin will emerge to consume Creation in a firestorm neither man nor god will avail. This is the belief of the Nord people. But as Time is the enemy, it is the duty and honor of a Nord to fight it, and we honor those who fight it best. This is the source of our Dragonborn myths, great heroes and dragonslayers who battle the essence of Time and win. Alduin is our foe, but Ysmir is our champion: The Dragon of the North. When Talos ascended to lordship of the Divines, he represented to the Nords our best hope to preserve the kalpa and defeat the Dragon once and for all. He is Shor come again, and we rejoice for it.
For thousands of years, Akatosh has been a southern import; worse, a vessel by which ignorant foreigners have either revered the elven king Auri-El or worked to wake Alduin and hasten the end of the kalpa. But as I have said, the Oblivion Crisis may just be the singular event on which much of the fate of this cycle turns. When Emperor Martin Septim, heir to the blood of Talos, summoned Akatosh to banish Mehrunes Dagon, he redeemed the Imperial Dragon, merging it once and for all with the mortal paradigm of Ysmir. The Akatosh of the Fourth Era is not the Akatosh of any previous; Martin Septim has taken his place alongside generations of Dragonborn as the mantle of the Dragon, ready to aid Talos in war against the World-Eater.
This is why Akatosh has found new veneration among the Nords of the Fourth Era. Seek out any clanfather or wise woman and they will tell you. Martin is the potential of Talos realized, the Dragon subsumed to Man, and the first real proof to the Nordic faith that yes, this kalpa is different, it can be survived, and Shor's dream of a mortal world fulfilled.
Blessings of the Nine go with you.
Addendum: 4E 176, In Accordance with the White-Gold Concordat and with the Input of the Thalmor Embassy of Skyrim
This text has been reprinted several times since I originally wrote it, and it has given me time to reflect on the conclusions drawn by my study of Nordic lore. Certainly it is good that so many Nords have found the light of true faith under the proper Divines, but the Great War and its aftermath have proven conclusively the folly of ascribing godhood to mortal endeavors, and in that vein I offer these revisions.
While tales of Arkay's apotheosis are fanciful and inspiring, they are just that: Tales. The Divine Arkay has existed in the heavens since the dawn of time, and no amount of superstition on the part of the Nords surrounding death will change that. Likewise, we all rejoice for Martin Septim's salvation of Cyrodiil from the hordes of Mehrunes Dagon, but acts of divine intervention do not imply apotheosis on the part of the intervened. Martin Septim remains an honored saint of the Imperial Cult, standing alongside Saint Alessia and the martyred Saint Errandil of Arkay.
The kalpic cycle of the Nords, while imaginative and vivid, is but one of many religious traditions of Tamriel, and far from the best attested. The supreme divinity of Akatosh, or Auri-El as he is known to our elven peers, knows no equal and shall certainly never manifest as a storm of destruction bent on annihalating the world. More than anything, this text injures the faith of the Divines by comparing it favorably to tall Nordic tales and naming the greatness of Tiber Septim as equal or exceeding the gods. For these missteps, the Temple of the Divines offers its revision and apology.
Blessings of the Eight go with you.
High Priest Rorlund of Solitude
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