Ancestor Worship: The Core of All Aldmeri Religions
Rather than diving straight in to Altmer religion, I want to start off by looking at merish religion more broadly. I’m defining “Aldmeri religion” a little loosely, but we’ll mostly be looking at the religious traditions that emerged from Summerset. I guess you could say that we’re therefore looking at “Altmeri” religion more than we are anything else, but there are enough elements of the progenitors of Altmeri religion that I want to stick with the “Aldmeri” monniker.
I suppose I’d better start with why I’ve gone quite so broad in my definition. It’s because most merish religions treat themselves as being descended from the gods, while, at least according to the stories we hear from the Monomyth, men consider that they’ve been created by them. I personally think that’s a little off, given the account of the Old and Wandering Ehlnofey we get in the Anuad, which both seem to be descended in some way from the Et’ada. But I don’t want to get too much into the weeds of that here. I talk about that a bit more in my podcast on the difference between men and mer.
The main point of all this is that the Aldmer, in various ways, consider themselves to be descendents of the gods, meaning that ancestor worship is the default setting for most Aldmeri religion. We do have some different offshoots of this; we have the Chimeri religion that worships the Daedra as ancestors, while the Bosmer worship Y’ffre, who the Altmer equate with Jephre, who may or may not have sung the mer into being according to The Ooze: A Fable. Then the Psijics, who we’ll get to in a bit more detail later.
Ancestor Worship & Aldmeris
This stems from the religion practiced on Aldmeris. We don’t have any primary texts on what was going on on Aldmeris, so we have to go from some other sources. The most obvious example of this is, as is often the case, in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, in this case the third edition:
Early Aldmer society was agricultural and politically egalitarian. A system of ancestor worship had been exported whole from Aldmeris, and it brought with it a communal spirit that served the early settlers of Summerset well. When the Aldmer came together as a people to create the Crystal Tower, it was not a monument to any king or god, but rather to the spirit of the elven people, living and dead.
This is a freewheeling, worship all of those that have gone before. The point about the Crystal Tower is interesting, because it indicates that the Crystal Tower is essentially a religious monument to ancestor worship. It also sounds quite generic; there are no specifics here, no particular ancestors, but all Aldmer. I would caution that this is the Pocket Guide, and so is written from a pro-Cyrodilic perspective, and is removed from those who have a stake in the Crystal Tower.
However, we have this from the book The Old Ways, written by a Psijic. In particular it says this:
What, after all, is the origin of these spiritual forces that move the invisible strings of Mundus? Any neophyte of Artaeum knows that the spirits are our ancestors, and that, while living, they too were bewildered by the spirits of their ancestors, and so on to the original Acharyai. The daedra and gods the common people turn to are no more than the spirits of superior men and women whose power and passion granted them great influence in the phantom world.
This is similar to the position of the Pocket Guide, but with the difference that the ancestors are removed from the first order of things worshipped, but instead talks of “spiritual forces that move the invisible strings of Mundus”. This isn’t entirely ancestor worship in the polytheistic sense, but animistic. That is, the world is imbued with spiritual presences that make it “go”. There is a possible distinction between these and the “gods”, but, as per the Monomyth, we know that the Psijics have a history of making their beliefs palatable to others. So it’s possible that the text is making it closer to the presumed reader’s expectations, rather than the Psijics having a definite “gods” class distinct from other sacred things.
This distinction is portrayed in the Pocket Guide as the evolution of social trends:
The religion of the people also changed because of this change in society: no longer did the Aldmer worship their own ancestors, but the ancestors of their “betters.” Auriel, Trinimac, Syrabane, and Phynaster are among the many ancestor spirits who became Gods. A group of elders rebelled against this trend, calling themselves the Psijics, the keepers of the Old Ways of Aldmeris.
This makes the Psijics part of a wider religious schism from Summerset, which I think includes the Chimer. We don’t know when the Psijics split from Summerset, and Vehk’s Teaching claims that Veloth wasn’t part of the Psijics, but they feel like both factions are part of the same reaction against the stratification and reform of the religion of Aldmeris. I’ve also argued before that the Direnni heading to High Rock forms part of the same movement, but I think there’s less evidence for that. It doesn’t help that there’s no concrete dates for any of these exoduses; the Velothi is the only one we have a date for, in the Middle Merethic Era. It feels to me like these groups are reacting to the same thing, but that’s just me.
The Altmer who followed the reforms defaulted to worship of what would become the pantheon of the Aedra. At this point it didn’t have all of the Altmeri deities, like Syrabane and Phynaster, who ascended at various points in recorded history. If they ascended at all.
Ancestor Worship, Ascension & Preservation
The Altmer have several deities who are ascended mortals. Phynaster, Syrabane and Auri-El at the least, maybe Xarxes as well, all began as mortals but became gods because of their actions. Although of these, we don’t have a whole heap of evidence that they actually achieved divinity of any sort, rather than just being revered as a god. Although whether that makes an actual difference is an open question.
Regardless of the actual method, there are several elves who have supposedly re-ascended. This is taken as something of a natural consequence, although we don’t have much evidence for that. The most direct thing we have is a quote from a Khajiit explaining how Summerset society works in Tips for a Khajiit in Summerset:
The Thrassian Plague seems but a faded scar next to the still bleeding cut of the Knahaten Flu, but it holds a deep importance to the mer of Summerset. Bezumi thinks this has much to do with the involvement of their god-ancestor Syrabane, also known as the Warlock’s God. A mage so powerful that he ascended into godhood, well, is that not the High Elf ideal?
This sort of thing is where people get the idea that the Altmer are looking to escape Mundus, and get back to being gods themselves.
That does seem to be the idea from quotes like this, but that’s not the whole story, I don’t think. The above quote mentions that Syrabane preserves the memory of the Thrassian Plague, and that’s possibly what the role of these hero-gods play in Altmeri society. With the shift to the “ancestors of their betters”, Altmer strive to preserve worthwhile deeds and acts. To become something worth preserving is possibly the goal here, to be part of the great story and lineage of the Ehlnofey, which is also something close to godhood, because the Ehlnofey were close to godhood.
I think this also explains why the High Elves revere Xarxes; it is his role to be Auri-El’s scribe, and record history. He becomes the gatekeeper of lineages to the Altmer, and, perhaps, an ultimate judge of who is worthy to be accounted an Ancestor. That makes him a door to divinity that must be respected and crossed. That’s just the sense I get, anyway.
The Altmeri concern for preservation does extend to Mundus, despite what many fans think about the Thalmor destroying the world in particular. I’ve previously questioned why the Altmer don’t have ascetic strains of their faith, and I think I’ve since found an answer. The book Corruption of the Blood says this:
For millennia we Altmer have safeguarded a divine legacy. We are all that remains of Old Ehlnofey. We were entrusted by the et’Ada to preserve what they sacrificed so much to create.
For the Altmer, their faith encourages a preservation of what was by following the old ways and traditions, rather than by innovating and being all new and different. There’s a sort of doublethink going on here, because while, to quote the Monomyth, they see creation as “a painful separation from the divine”, once creation is here as a relic of the divine, it is to be protected.
There’s also the sense that Old Ehlnofey is the thing that needs preserving. The past is sacred, while the future is inherently profane. This makes the repetition of what came before a sacred act, and perhaps one that has eschatological significance. By repeating the acts that emulate those that created Mundus, they help preserve it. Their acts of preservation, which run from their veneration of the first ancestors through to ensuring that craftsmership is to the required standard, have a religious and existential significance.
The Altmer have refined this down into a particular way of being, if a particular NPC from ESO is to be believed. The Path of Alaxon is described like this by Olnewil:
Alaxon is the state of perfection that every High Elf strives for. The Path to Alaxon represents the approach we take to achieve that state.
That she can achieve this by being an artist, rather than achieving some form of more mystical enlightenment, speaks again to the Altmer desire to preserve Mundus as an instrument created by the Aedra. She also says that it “requires constant vigilance”, suggesting it also has some sort of mental component. There’s no mention of ascending to godhood in the conversation, but as she’s distracted from everything they were doing, she probably wouldn’t be in a position to give a full breakdown of the path. As it’s quite as common as it is, as she talks about “every high elf” striving for it (yes, I know not all will, but enough must in order to make that sort of claim), I don’t expect it to actually “work” that often. There’s only a handful of Altmer who have ascended, out of the multitude that would be on the Path of Alaxon.
Unless ascension isn’t the point. To keep on the preservation stream, the cultural markers for the Altmer that everyone hates, the tight hierarchy and “way of doing things” like the “Altmer rules of dueling” or the “Proper Conflict” mentioned in Common Arms of Valenwood, are all about being in a particular way, something close to what the Ehlnofey were as a culture. To quote from Corruption of the Blood again:
To stray, even slightly, from the ways of our ancestors will have dire consequences
This feels like the notion that MK has said on Reddit that “wars
Combine this with the long lifespan of the Altmer, the constant reminders of the past that are a part of their culture, and you can almost understand the Altmer need to keep themselves closed off from the rest of Tamriel and becoming isolationist. If coming into contact with other races has always brought about pain and suffering, why would this time be any different? Such contact isn’t direct contamination, but a contamination of thought. If you enjoy the company of Men, what if you adopt their ways? The remnant of the Ehlnofey that was in you passes away, and some of the splendour of the past, a little bit of that godhood, slips away into nothingness.
This means that the Altmer likely think that the past contains all the answers. So I now want to look at what happens when it’s clear that the past and tradition don’t hold all the answers.
High Elves in Daedric Despair
I want to thank /u/HappyB3 for this, as we go into the area that’s covered by his magnificent essay, “Does the Thalmor really want to unmake the world?” — On the pervasiveness of world-ending and Daedric cults in Altmeri culture: their characterization in primary and secondary sources and on-going influences over the depiction of elven factions. We’re getting into Altmeri Daedra worship. I’d suggest you give that a read, whenever you can.
We have several examples of the Altmer taking up Daedra worship, or at least Daedric pacts, in order to achieve their goals. Happy has pointed out that these goals all seem to involve remaking the world or the self, none of them are destructive as an end. It’s not “be rewarded for Daedric service and get to rule in hell”, so to speak. At least for the most part. Talking to Earl Leythen in the ESO: Summerset expansion about why he joined the Court of Bedlam, the cult supporting the plot between Nocturnal, Mephala and Clavicus Vile, he says this:
“The Court offered me a purpose after my life lost its meaning. Our Princes promised to remake the world, turn it into a better place. A paradise. And they were going to elevate the Altmer back to their status as gods.Suffering would come to an end.“Player Character: Isn’t that what Nocturnal still wants to do?“Not in the least. Remaking the world to eliminate death and disease is one thing. Destroying everything to turn yourself into a being of infinite power—well, that’s something else entirely*..”*
And similarly, Veya who became Earl Tundilwen gives this account of why she joined the Court in her Private Thoughts journal:
Mother has given me a new name. A new goal. Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. But in the end, the world itself shall change. No more pain. No more loss.No longer am I daughter of House Redoran. Now I am a daughter of Nocturnal.My name is Tundilwen, and I will burn the world so that a better one may rise from the ashes*.*
There are several more examples of this, Mankar Camoran in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion being the most obvious. These all stand in contrast to the standard Altmeri view that preservation and cultivation is what’s needed, not revolution and destruction.
However, that older belief is contingent on things going “as it should”, of the world not going too awry. When the world stops working how the Altmer think it should, they start to try and remake the world to work the way they think it should, by violence and disregard of the older ways. This is spelled out in the Third Edition Pocket Guide to the Empire:
For thousands of years, the Altmer have implicitly believed in their superiority to all other races and cultures in Tamriel. For much of this time, they may have been right. But after the incorporation of Summerset into the Empire, doubts began to creep in. With the insularity of the Summerset decisively broken, many Altmer, particularly the young (which among the High Elves is a fairly loose term), began to take a more critical view of the rigid hierarchy of Altmer society and its strict cultural xenophobia. While there had always been discontent on the fringes of Altmer society, which was traditionally resolved by exile of the malcontents, for the first time a significant element of Altmer began to agitate for social change.
There’s a paragraph about the benefits of this approach, and then this:
A darker side of this movement, however, is exhibited by a shadowy group who call themselves the Beautiful. Originally a salon for artists with the reasonable philosophy that Summerset must let go of its past in order to move forward, the Beautiful became a revolutionary gang dedicated to the destruction of the greatest monuments of Altmer civilizations. The Crystal Tower was naturally an early target, and fortunately attempts against it have failed, but many other great, ancient sculptures and emblems of the past have been vandalized. Lately, the Beautiful have turned their attention to living symbols of the Isle, the royalty of Summerset. The particularly gruesome murder of the daughter of the King of Shimmerene has horrified and outraged the public.
The Beautiful are acting in the same way as the Daedric cultists here; they have their promised, expected heritage denied them, and so their impulse is to turn on the world that created them and tear it down. That the Beautiful are often thought by fans to be the beginnings of the Fourth Era Thalmor should give you a rough idea of where this leads.
This, in my opinion, is where the Altmeri thought turns almost fascist, in the same way that violent Islamism is fascist. What do I mean by that? In The Nature of Fascism, Roger Griffin defines fascism as “Palingenetic ultranationalism”, that is a form of nationalism that relies on palingenesis, or rebirth. Fascist movements, most violent Islamist movements, and the Fourth Era Thalmor, all rely on appealing to a return to tradition that never really existed, and a reassertion of a violent social and political identity in the face of a world that doesn’t work the way they think it should. Altmer should be the top of the socio-political food chain, but they were conquered by Tiber Septim. This means that the Altmer need to be even more Altmeri, but in a different way to before. They need to stand united, but differently to before. The preservation becomes not about the preservation of tradition, but the preservation of what supremacy and power they have, wielding cultural signifiers in order to justify it. In this way, the Thalmor justified suppression of dissent. At least, that’s how Rising Threat puts it, that the Thalmor manipulated public opinion to allow them to change Altmer society to how they wanted it to be.
This is only really possible because Altmeri beliefs did not have the tools to think that they could have been wrong. Most other cultures on Tamriel have a “coping mechanism” of sorts, that allows them to adjust their behaviour when the going gets tough. The Chimer/Dunmer and the Nords just expect life to be hard and get in with whatever the world throws at them, with the Nords particularly enjoying the fight. The Redguards know they have to walk in different ways to reach their ideal. The Khajiit tell themselves that Nirni is arrayed against them and will be harsh. The Bsomer have the Spinners to tell whatever stories they need in order to carry on being the Bosmer in any given situation. The Bretons have Sheor’s machinations behind things. The Cyrodiils have any number of different cults, and I’d imagine can change focus from one Divine to another as they need to. It’s only the Altmer that have their social expectations so baked into their faith that when the world doesn’t line up for them, they break.
- Are the Aedra really “good” or they are just weak?
- Do the gods of Mundus necessitate banditry?
- A wild theory, divines never existed.
More about The Elder ScrollsPost: "Written in Uncertainty Asks, What is Altmer Religion About?" specifically for the game The Elder Scrolls. Other useful information about this game:
- Darien Gautier and the great power of Lights of Meridia which cause a small Dragon Break
- Is the Dominion garrison at Northwatch Keep even aware of the spooky Volkihar castle?
- Finally finished my Vanilla plus modlist! What do ya think?
- Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the world of The Elder Scrolls is actually… dying since Morrowind!
- Rewriting and reworking the Dawnguard questline?
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