Lore: Elder Scrolls Cosmology
The Elder Scrolls game world has one of the most interesting, complicated, and rich metaphysics of any fictional world I know, but the universe is not shaped like ours and doesn’t follow the same rules, and understanding the form of it requires digging through a ton of in-game books and visual references. As players we are involved in plots spanning both the physical planet of Nirn and the celestial structures around it, but it can be difficult to understand where you are or why.
This post will be a primer – I may at some point come back and explore some aspect further, but for now I’d like to share a basic overview of Elder Scrolls cosmology.
If your eyes have already glazed over, this is probably not the post for you. For the rest – I’ll meet you after the cut. 🙂
Almost every lore topic in Elder Scrolls requires returning to the beginning of time. I laid out the creation myth in this post, but here’s my usual summary:
In the beginning (and still), were Anu and Padomay, and from them came an infinity of shapeless, immaterial spirits: the et’Ada. The et’Ada learned how to manifest as physical beings, and one of them, Lorkhan, conceived of the idea of physical reality, then tricked/convinced the other spirits to help him create it. When they realized the act of creating reality was depleting them, most of the spirits escaped the physical plane to return to Oblivion, but eight stayed to finish the job… after they killed Lorkhan for getting them into that mess. Those eight spirits are the eight Divines, the Aedra, and all the rest are the Daedra.
So what was it the et’Ada made, exactly? Let’s start with the ground under our feet, and some vocab. Everyone loves a good vocab lesson, yeah?
Tamriel: the continent, the land mass, where TES games take place. Tamriel is not the only continent on Nirn, however, it’s just the one we know best.
Nirn: the physical world – all continents, oceans, etc. It is a round planet like ours, though sometimes fans assume it’s flat, since we typically only see flat maps.
Here is a fan-made, not-canon map of Nirn showing all the continents, but note that it is not meant to be strictly accurate. (Art is by Okiir and is available on Deviant Art as a print; this map is so amazing the artist deserves a shout out.) The map shows the continent of Yokuda on the west, which no longer exists because it sank beneath the ocean – that’s why the Redguards migrated to Alik’r. And as you might recall from my Summerset / Aldmeri post, the continent of Aldmeris, shown in the southwest corner, is also missing, or perhaps never existed at all. This map was made before Summerset was released; I believe Pyandonea, home of the Maormer, is closer to the Summerset islands than is shown here.
Atmora, in the north, was the original home of Ysgramor before he and his companions migrated to Skyrim, and Akavir in the east is the home of the “Akaviri”. The Akaviri are a collection of four races: the Snow Demons of Kamal, the serpent-men of Tsaesci, the Monkey People of Tang Mo, and the Tiger Dragons of Ka’Po’Tun. You know them mostly because they keep invading Tamriel and have caused problems for the races in the Ebonheart Pact.
Despite that it isn’t canon, I think the map is valuable since it’s so common for us to see only the continent of Tamriel, and it’s helpful to see it in relation to the other continents.
So that’s Nirn, the ground under our feet. Now let’s look up…
The sky is a lie.
In our world, the sky is atmosphere, held in place by gravity, and beyond it we see stars, which are distant balls of burning gas. None of that is strictly true on Nirn.
Nirn exists as a bubble of physical reality inside the sea of Oblivion. That “bubble” has a “skin”, and when the Daedra fled the world, they left so quickly they punctured holes in that skin. The “stars” you see in the sky are those holes, and they twinkle because Aetherius glitters beyond. “Shooting stars” is a misnomer; what you see falling are small amounts of Aetherial matter coming through the holes in the skin of the sky, and that’s how we get the objects that become enchanting runestones, as well as other magical crystals and flotsam.
A mortal standing on Nirn looking up at the sky cannot deal with all the conflicting infinities represented there, so… they don’t. Instead, the mortal mind constructs a limited-but-understandable view of that information, and that’s the biggest single reason it all appears as it does.
The two moons in the sky are Masser and Secunda, and most myths agree the moons are two halves of Lorkhan’s dead body, while his heart lies under Red Mountain. This is a good example of what I mean when I say mortal minds construct an acceptable, understandable reality – the god is seen as a dead planet, rather than a decaying body in the sky.
And the body is broken and decaying. The moons are sometimes seen as crescents, but not because they are covered by Nirn’s shadow, as happens with our moon – if that were they case the shadowed area would be solid black with no stars showing, but when Nirn’s moons are in crescent form you can see stars inside the crescent. That’s because the moons are broken and are missing chunks – when we see a moon in a crescent shape, we’re seeing it turned in such a way that those broken edges show, and when we see a solid disk, it’s because the moon has rotated so we’re seeing the undamaged side.
Past the moons, we can see planets. As you might be guessing by now, the planets are also a lie.
The Daedra left Mundus, but the Aedra stayed. They stayed… where, exactly?
The Aedra are the planets in the sky, literally, like the moons are Lorkhan’s dead body. Just like with the Daedric Princes, the physical realm is merely an extension, or a metaphor, for the being – Coldharbour IS Molag Bal, who IS, in turn, Brutality and Domination, as concepts. In the same way, the planet Mara is a place, but it is also the goddess Mara, her body, while also being entirely a metaphor about Love and Devotion.
The gods are infinite, as are the plane(t)s that are their bodies/homes. Each one of them has infinite form, simultaneously. Seeing that conflicting truth in the sky would break a mortal mind, so the information is recast into a more acceptable form – planets.
To continue with our vocab lesson, while “Nirn” is the ground and water, etc., “Mundus” is the larger area, the entire bubble of reality inside the “skin” the Daedra poked holes in when they escaped. Masser and Secunda are part of Mundus, as are all the Aedra-planets – they orbit around Nirn, or orbit each other.
Oh, you say you’d like to see a layout of the orbits? Of course, here you go:
Okay, I know you didn’t actually ask for that, but isn’t it cool? The fan art in this community is stunning. This image also exists as a moving .gif, because of course it does. Check out the gif, as well as a vid showing the game location where the fan pulled this information, at the Imperial Library’s “Planets” page.
From the inside outwards –
Nirn is orbited first by the moons Masser (Ms) and Secunda (S). Beyond them, Zenithar (Zn) orbits Nirn and is in turn orbited by Mara (Mr), who is orbited by Dibella (D). Arkay (Ar) actually orbits Nirn’s tilted axis, so its orbit looks like a figure 8 when smashed flat like this. Kynerath (Kyn), Akatosh (Aka), and Julianos (Jul) are the farthest out, and Julianos is orbited by Stendarr (St).
Oblivion & Aetherius
Beyond the Aedra-planets, Mundus ends and Oblivion begins. Each of the Daedric Princes has their realm here, and just like with the Aedra, each realm is a physical representation of the Prince as much as it is a “place”, per se.
And beyond Oblivion, there is Aetherius, a sea of pure magickal energy. Aetherial essence seeps into the physical realms and congeals into matter – I mentioned runestones earlier, but the blue “water” in Coldharbour is Aetherial essence in liquid form.
Our last vocab word of the post is Aurbus, which is the name for the entire structure: Nirn, Mundus, Oblivion, Aetherius, and the Void. Time for another of Okiir’s extrodinary fan-art pieces: Note: Okiir has chosen to depict six of the Daedric realms, but many more exist.
The effect of Aetherius on Nirn is profound – it is the source of all magick, and different branches and approaches to magick explore that interaction in differing ways. Every time you see a word with “Aether” as a root word – such as in the Craglorn trial The Aetherian Archive – it’s a reference to Aetherius and/or magickal study.
Over and over again, we see astrological underpinnings to magickal work in TES games. Queen Ayrenn has to consult the Orrery before being crowned as Queen – the Orreries in TES games are celestial models that depict the orbits of the planets around Nirn, and their relation to different star signs as they move. The constellations/birthsigns are important because they affect the way the Aetherial flow was falling on Nirn at the particular moment someone was born. Quest plots such as the Maw of Lorkaj trial and the entire Celestial storyline of Craglorn are driven by the idea that the moons and constellations have magickal effects on Nirn.
Which means all the cool mages have an Orrery or star map handy; they’ve been in every game. You’ve seen them, looked at the fuzzy sigils, and probably moved on with your life. But those star maps and corresponding planets, star signs, Daedric symbols, and basic cosmological layout have been consistent in every game, for years, and it’s been obsessive fan analysis of those fuzzy images that’s gotten us most of the information in this post. (Props to the obsessive fans; you are my people. ❤ )
The Astrology & Astronomy page of the Imperial Library has images/vid from every game – from the birthsigns of Arena to the Orrery Ayrenn visits in ESO – as well as book excerpts and explanations.
Now that you’ve seen the overall structure, let’s close with just a bit more about the constellations.
The stars are holes through which magick falls on Nirn. The exact nature of the magick is affected by the dominant star sign, the relative strength of its related signs, whether or not its energy is supported by the planets in that part of the sky at the time or is diminished by them, the locations of the moons and their phases, and a thousand other variables.
There are 3 Guardian constellations (The Mage, The Warrior, and The Thief) and they each have 3 “charges” or subordinate constellations. The thirteenth constellation is The Serpent, who belongs nowhere and wanders the sky, threatening the others. The Guardian constellations guard their charges from The Serpent. (Or they don’t, and you get the Craglorn story.)
You can see the arrangement of Guardian constellations with their charges when you open the Champion Points menu:
The Mage: Apprentice, Atronach, Ritual
The Warrior: Lord, Lady, Steed
The Thief: Tower, Shadow, Lover
These are also, obviously, the designations for the Standing Stones, or Mundus stones, which give the player bonuses. A lot of what is presented in-game is broken down to fighter/mage/thief categories, because this is a video game and those are the classic archetypes, but because the writers used that framework to construct the magickal systems, it all ties neatly together.
Nirn is rotating and the planets have fixed orbital paths, so the exact arrangement of constellations / planets / Nirn locations varies in a pattern, hence the Orreries, which mages use to track the many correspondences. The Standing Stones are where they are because those spots frequently receive powerful energy via their particular constellation, and over the millennia, those places absorbed the power of the star-sign.
The premise of the Craglorn story (which I friggin’ love, btw), is that the constellations have been a force for so long they achieved sentience, which was helped along by the fact that a cult started worshiping them – in the Elder Scrolls world, worship generates magickal power. As the Tribunal will tell you, half of being a god is convincing other people to play along with the idea.
And thus concludes today’s pedantry! High-five to everyone who made it this far. : ) As always, give me a shout if you’d like something explored in more depth.
And also “as always”, here are my references:
Imperial Library, general “Genesis” page – Creation myths of all races
Imperial Library, general “Astronomy/Astrology” page – Collection of all related info, with links to specific topic pages
“Cosmology” vid by YouTuber Roshank Redemption – excellent summary, with equally excellent reference images
“Elder Scrolls Lore: Prologue – Setting the Stage (Creation, Nirn, and Tamriel)” by YouTuber ShoddyCast – what it says on the tin
Okiir’s Deviant Art Page – main Deviant Art page for the artist of the Nirn map and Cosmology diagram I used in this post
Imperial Library’s “Planets” page – the planets, their orbits, and the Orreries
Imperial Library’s “Constellations” page – info about the constellations, with all in-game birthsign art
Imperial Library’s “Star Maps” page – a collection of all the star map images from all the games; I recommend going to this page just to see the work fans have put into deciphering the information