Disclaimer: This is an article of our former member, renown Loremaster Vix, acknowledged by Bethesda themselves. It ended up being deleted and I'm merely reposting it.
The Altmer, High Elves, they're so easy to hate in Skyrim; all it takes is a few moments of simple reaction to unusual circumstances to color one's perception not of an individual, or a group, but an entire race and culture. Tamriel's High Elves are probably, at the moment, the most hated race in the series. Not for bad reasons mind you, not from what we've seen and how we view them on first inspection. It's a simple trap, an easy bias, and one that many if not the vast majority will see but go no further into one simple question. "Why?" Instead, it's easier to just write the race off. But it is not enough to say that the elves are loathsome, contemptible, swaggering... kindly put, jerks, in the world of the Elder Scrolls. Behind that attitude, behind their speech and emphasis is a culture that has far more nuances than people give them credit for. So, in the sake of scholastic fairness to bring a fascinating race forward, lets look at the High Elves and piece them together. Throughout this, remember one thing:
”Fact is exaggerated, warped, invented, and ignored in favor of superstition and old prejudices. Even the literate and well-traveled can be believe and spread false information, depending on where they have been and what they have read.” ~Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd Edition
This is a long five part series but such is the nature of the High Elves that they require a good deal of investigation. Go into the study with a clear mind and the Altmer mindset will likely start making more sense.
1. The Creation, the Aldmer, and the Old Ways: An overview of the Altmeri creation myth, their grand ancestors, and their original culture an religion that all served as cornerstones to modern Altmeri culture and how it changed to that modern culture.
2. The Highborns: A look into the Altmer, their governments, their people, their methods of war, and their great councilors the Psijic order.
3. On the Blessed Isles: A brief overview of the Summerset Isles and mystic Arteum.
4. History of the High Elves: A history of the elves from landing on Tamriel to the Great War.
5. Piecing Together the Thalmor: An expose` revealing the problems, fears, goals, methods, and creed of the Aldmeri Dominion. Debunking myth and illuminating fact.
The Creation, the Aldmer, and the Old Ways.
To say that understanding the Elven myths and creation is an important step in understanding their behavior as a people would be understanding the matter. The truth is, the High Elves have relied on their culture, their beliefs, and their world views as a nearly unchanged constant throughout their history for all of recorded history. From the First Era to the Forth, the prime basis driving Altmer as a race and culture has been heavily weighted on these creation stories and that of a basic understanding of their Gods. This, more than anything, shapes their world view and quintessentially divides them from the races of men.
In our first topic The Creation, the Aldmer, and the Old Ways we'll look at the creation myth from the Altmeri point of view, the ancestors that the Altmer claim descent, and their first fundamental religion as told through the most accurate and complete group who still holds with these values, the Illustrious Psijic Order. For a race so long lived, these topics are related far more vividly to the High Elves by nature than any other culture. These aren't long forgotten legend, but part of a racial tapestry that is their quintessential reality. Put aside your notions of what you know about the Aedra, the Nine Divines, Talos, what not, and understand the Elven story: whether right or wrong it's the key to their personality as a race.
The Heart of the World and the Sundering
Our first look at the Altmeri belief starts at the beginning. The Heart of the World is the name the Altmer themselves gave creation. Their belief starts off in the time before time, with the single great being Anu. Anu was existence, he was all things before creation. But he was still a being, and as any being the great Anu was given to self reflection and introspective thought. He attempted to answer one of the great questions, what am I? In order to understand, he split himself, and this created the distinction between himself, and his soul. And his soul was called Anui-El. But as Anu thought about all the things, all the traits and attributes that he was made up of. But while Anu considered everything that he was, he also contemplated the imitations set by himself, everything that he couldn't or wouldn't be. And this set and series of limitations on himself became Sithis. As such, all that Anui-El was could not be Sithis, and all Sithis was couldn't be Anui-El.
This area, the void between them, separating them, was called the Grey Maybe, also called the state of Aubris. And this newly formed area was tumultuous and confusing. Anui-El thought merely for the sake of thinking, there was no comprehension how things fit together or why. But the traits and attributes that made up himself, the Aspects, needed some way to interact and fit together. The Aspects wished for schedule, order, and chance to contemplate themselves as Anui had allowed Anui-El. And so Anui-El created the foundation of reality by creating Time. And this Aspect of time was called Auri-El (Elsewhere known as Akatosh). With time defined, others aspects were able to contemplate their place in things, understanding where they fit in by relating themselves to time. And these Aspects started to take shape, and they took names, many of which are well known: Mara, Stendarr, Xen, Magnus, Jauphre, and countless others.
As each of these Aspects coming to understand themselves, finding their limits, they fell into a space between Anui-El and Sithis, suspended in the Grey Maybe in between. But there was one being made up of the limitations of the others, who could be everything they were not. And he was called Lorkhan. He was the very essence of Sithis amongst the other Aspects. Being made of the sum of the limitations of others let him be everything they were not, while they found themselves as solidified personalities, Lorkhan was the force of unfocused change. He began to speak of a place of perfection, where they could create Aspects of themselves, much like Anui-El and Sithis had made aspects of themselves.
Lorkhan spoke to the other Aspects and told them of his plan to create this Arena, and he called it Mundus. In order to be fair and unbiased, he gave Kingship of Mundus to the first Aspect, Auri-El. Mundus would become their collective souls, and as such, Auri-El agreed as did the other Aspects that had formed in the Grey Maybe. As they put this plan in place, they ceased to become Aspects and became the et'Ada, the Gods.
But it was a trick, Lorkhan's plan brought in elements that others did not see and that they didn't understand until it was too late. Lorkhan, change, brought death to Mundus, and he brought weakness, despair, and sorrow; the et'Ada ceased to be aspects of one being, and became many individual beings. This, in the Altmeri Tradition, was the moment called the Sundering (The Changed Ones). And these et'Ada gained mortality so they began to die. Some, strong and clever, having seen this result made a desperate effort to escape, to terminate Mundus. Magnus was first amongst them, and he tore the borders of Mundus, making the sun, and the many et'Ada that had sensed this left with him, ripping the holes of the stars, and they were called the Magne Ge, the source of all magic flooding into Mundus and to the realm of Nirn.
They had to find a way to survive. Some, in order to survive and to make sure that others would survive, sacrificed themselves to become the Ehlnofey, the Earthbones which form the basis of reality for the physical laws of nature on Nirn. Through them, and their vital essence, the world could survive. With this, Nirn itself was created as we know it (The Monomyth). These Earthbones gave order to the things of nature, and to reality. Jauphre, for instance, brought sound to the sea, and songs to the birds, and beauty to the lands (On Jauphre).
Others, such as Auri-El found a different path. They married, they procreated, and they had children. And their children had children, each generation weaker than the last, and thus was created the first Acharyai, the first Aldmeri Ancestor (The Old Ways). Seeing this, Lorkhan took the most malleable souls on Nirn, he enslaved them, and he made them his slave army, and he called them Men (Sithis).
Auri-El pleaded with Anui-El, realizing he had been tricked, and asked if they could escape and gain back what they had lost. The balanced world had become a world of Sithis through Lorkhan's trickery and planning. And yet, because they had created Mundus, the space of perfection between Anui-El and Sithis had been filled with Mundus. They were no longer connected to the infinity and perfection of Aetherius, but a Sithian world. As such, it was the greatest most heinous of acts that was ever concocted. While neither Anui-El or Anu could give Auri-El and his people back their perfection, they gave him something else. A bow, and a shield, and told Auri-El to protect his people. Already Auri-El's people began to splinter and separate, some listening to the voice of other et'Ada like those that called themselves the Chimer, and the Bosmer who took wives of men. News reached them, Lorkhan's host quickly over-ran Altmora, the Elder Wood now called Atmora.
The Armies of Lorkhan crossed from Altmora and landed on old Ehlnofey, it was shattered and the elves were forced to flee. But, even then, Auri-El's greatest knight, the great Champion Trinimac stood up to Lorkhan's armies. He drew Lorkhan from his host, and killed him in front of his army. Ripping his heart he left the corpse for the Men to drag away, and the Men swore vengeance on the people of Auri-El for all time. The heart of Lorkhan, Auri-El and Trinimac tried to destroy it but it merely laughed and said that so long as the world remained, it would remain, and as long as it remained, the world would remain. So Auri-El fastened it to an arrow and shot it into the sea, where he hoped it would never be found (The Monomyth). The War may have destroyed most of Nirn, sinking many of the original lands of creation, but the Aldmer retained their wisdom, their knowledge, their power, but the other races of men were now far greater in number (The Anuad Paraphrased).
Last Ancestors and the Aldmer
Over time even the great Ancestors died or left, Auri-El himself ascended so that all elves might learn how to do as he did and once more reach the infinite Aetherius and escape the mortal plane (Varieties of Faith). The Aldmer called these great Ancestors the Aedra, which literally means Ancestors (Aedra and Daedra) where as the other et'Ada became the 'not-Ancestors', the Daedra. This in itself spells out the basic dichotomy between human and elven world views. Men view creation as the creation of themselves, given opportunity. The elves though are spirits from the Gods, and view the creation and separation of themselves as a traumatic and terrible event which cut them off from each other and introduced the most horrendous sufferings into the world, a world where even they will eventually die despite their best efforts. Even so, these Aldmer came to revere their ancestors, and the memories of their first great ancestors and saviors.
Old Ehlnofey, also well known as Aldmeris, was their home that was taken away. As such the Elven creation Myth happened over an extended period of time, perhaps thousands of years. Time is difficult to judge, all records point to the date of the creation of the Adamantine tower, where the et'Ada decided to continue creating Nirn after Magnus left, at around 2500 of the Merethic Era (Now, as an aside, the Merethic Era dating system isn't like that of the other ages, it works like our BC or BCE time scale, moving from 0 backwards, in this case, to 2500 so 2500 ME is 2,500 years earlier than the recognized start of the first Era). The Elves themselves left Aldmeris after this, and many post the event known as the 'Second Exodus' of the other elven tribes between 2500 ME and likely 1500 ME (All the Eras of Man). This is still a lengthy amount of time, and a great deal of culture had developed during this period.
The Altmeri legend itself is a paradox, it occurs at a time suggesting that the Bosmer and Chimer left Aldmeris, but this in itself couldn't be as that happened after the elves were established on the Isles some time later. However, there are two groups that are widely thought to have split off here where there is little record of them. The Dwemer, who abandoned the Ancestors and and searched for 'gods of logic' while the other is the Maormer. Understanding elves also means understanding that there was this dual betrayal early in their history.
Aldmeris itself is a strange land and there is very little information about it. The Hist comprise the 'trees' of Tamriel, and speculation says maybe Altmora, but Aldmeris had no trees, no other sign of life, just being comprised of a single monolithic city build on top of itself like geological strata. The Highest peaks of the towers were used to inter the dead. The Maormer were one group of Altmer under a powerful leader called Orgnum. Orgnum used his power and finances to start a rebellion on Aldmeris and was exiled for this to a space beyond a great veil of mists where he could cause no more harm to Aldmeris. Likewise, the Dwemer, for whatever reason, left or were likely exiled at some period before the first exodus when Lorkhan's army destroyed Aldmeris. What we do know is the Aldmer we know were almost certainly not the only group that left Aldmeris. All the information housed on Aldmeris and these ancient histories were stored at the Crystal Tower.
When the Aldmer finally landed in Tamriel they had many dangers to contend with, and their society from Aldmeris was adopted. It was an egalitarian society focused around community and agriculture. It was broadly expected to foster a communal spirit of unity and harmony with each other. At the basis was reverence for their ancestors who had done so much, moving from Aldmeris to the Summerset Isles where the first colonies sprang up. Together the Aldmer build a lasting and enduring symbol, glimpsed from travels and widely expected to be in imitation of the Adamantine tower, the Aldmer created the great Crystal Tower as an embodiment of the spirit of the elven people living and dead. And much like Aldmeris based culture, the settlers and first ancestors were interred in its great upper structures to be preserved as a lasting symbol of their heritage (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition).
Of course, the people of Aldmeris and their children, still wanted to go back. It seems that there were several great boats of Aldmer who, it is speculated by Tamrielic scholars, was blown off course and Aldmeris was lost. They created expeditions, calculating the approximation of Aldmeris by the laylines of magic, and yet, the land seemed to have been lost completely (Father of the Niben). The Aldmer though, in their searches, came across many great spots to settle and the Aldmer, far and wide, set up many towers as far away as Vvardenfell, and yet they remained essentially the same people as they were from Aldmeris (Before the Age of Man). The early Aldmer spurred an enormous number of cultural inventions, the Aldmer Raven Direnni codified and created the first methods of both alchemical mixing as a codified art and science, as well as crafted the first soul gems for enchanting (De Rerums Direnni); others created the basic law texts which are still in effect in place regarding property rights and master/servant relationships (Antecedents of Dwemer Law). These matters, no matter how great or small, was seen as a positive step for future advancement (De Rerums Direnni).
The Old Ways
The best way we can learn the old Aldmeri doctrine, and thus the foundations of the Altmeri doctrine is through the Psijic 'Old Way'. This isn't just the school of Mysticism for magic, it's a whole religious ideal. While we won't discuss the order in this section, we will talk about their beliefs as they are inherently tied to the beginning of the Altmer as we know them. The Old Way is communality, but it's also a non interventionist policy. The Psijic Order, like the early Altmer in the time after the Aldmeri exploration, instituted a policy of insulation from external politics (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition). It was done for a myriad of reasons, the least of which being that they created a strong defense for their home lands so there would be no repeat of Aldmeris's fate, or Altmora for that manner (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). But the Psijics, according to the Old Ways, also believed that they should not be entirely secluded. Instead, they promote collecting knowledge, seeking wisdom, advise good council to those that need it, and cripple those that are acting against good and right council (The Old Ways).
The basis of this is to foster positive governance throughout the civilized world regardless of race or creed; so the Psijic and Aldmer are to provide good council, called seliffrnsae, to all. The goal is simply to make good individuals great and powerful, and powerful and great individuals good.
“Change is the force without focus or origin. It is the duty of the disciplined Psijic (Enlightened One) to dilute change where it brings greed, gluttony, sloth, ignorance, prejudice, cruelty... and to encourage change where it brings excellence, beauty, happiness, and enlightenment. As such, the faithful counsel has but one master: His mind. If the man the Psijic counsels acts wickedly and brings oegnithr (bad change) and will otherwise not be counselled, it is the Psijic's duty to counterbalance the oegnithr by any means necessary.” ~The Old Ways
There is a reason for this, in the mystic teachings of the Old Ways, the power of magic is found within the conundrums and paradoxes inherent in the complexities of reality (Mysticism). In a more complex nature, the power of Mysticism does not directly come from magic as many other schools but rather is direct manipulation and understanding of the universe, which creates effects identical to that of Magic (On Artaeum). As is the case with these complexities, all things, all people have different layers, it is not enough to merely identify each layer or aspect of an individual but to understand where they fit in the grand scheme of things (2920: The Last year of the First Era). This ensures that while no individual is entirely good, or entirely bad, that the more powerful entities are tempered with rational and good judgment. For the pinnacle of the Old Ways is that there are no 'Gods', those that pull the strings and control the workings of Mundus are merely the ancestors, both good who ascend to Aetherius and evil who rule in Oblivion. These are the unseen forces that act on every day events from the most severe to the most mundane. All things happen for a reason and for a plan, it's merely to understand what that is regardless of how it seems (The Old Ways).
This is the basis for the Altmeri world view, but much like the Chimer to the Dunmer, or the Bosmer from the time before Y'ffre, the Aldmer on the Summerset Isles underwent a change as well. It was not a physical change, but something that precedes this, a change in will and definition of themselves which changed them from the Elder Elves, to the High Elves.
Subtle Changes: Elder Elves to the High Born
Altmer love to say they are unchanged Aldmer, that the world had passed them by and they endured in the same way as their ancestors. But this, in itself, isn't true. The change of Mer, from Aldmer to Dunmer wasn't instantaneous, neither was this a physical change first and foremost. Instead, the changes were gradual, with the mindset of the group changing far before they physically displayed signs of alteration (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd Edition). Much like the Aldmer that followed the prophet Velothi and his Daedric pantheon of Anticipations, they were still the same physical race as their kin on the Summerset Isle. The Chimer themselves looked the same as any other Aldmer, it wasn't until Azura's wrath that the Chimer went from golden hued to dark charcoal in pigmentation. But the Daedric pantheon was still a far older issue before they ever displayed any outward anomalies.
The Altmer themselves changed too, but it is subtle as they remain physically identical to their Aldmeri ancestors. Instead, it was a mass cultural shift which marked the change from Aldmer to Altmer at the time called the Second Exodus (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). While Velothi may have been exiled (The Changed Ones) there is also evidence to say that he simply left which would explain why the followers of Trinimac, their champion of protection, would attempt to stop them (The True Nature of Orcs). Other races began to separate from the Aldmer of the Summerset Isle, not by being forced, or by having problems with the established Aldmer themselves, but because of the wealth of opportunities discovered by travelers such as Torpal. There was no single reason, the famous Ramoran Tapestries showed the mainland as a place of beauty and serenity, and thus expeditions arose which allowed for social reorientation where workers and any common Mer could be a king in a new land (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition).
But on the Summerset Isle the change was not only subtle, but natural. The earlier egalitarian society and communal living gave rise to far more complex forms of society, and this form of society began to create social stratification, separating Mer by rank and role into three primary estates:
The first estate was that of the wise sages, the priests, the teachers, and the Royal lines.
The second estate was made up of the artisans, princes, merchants, warriors, landowners, and workers.
The third estate was non Altmer with no land or prospects such as the goblins who were used for general labor. The elves used this class to perform the required works that was beneath their own dignity or simply beyond their capability. These tend to consist of the Goblin-ken which are made up of Goblins, 'orcs', ogres, gremlins, and a number of other beasts which constitute slave labor.
The second significant change in society was a religious change, codification of the ancestors. While the Old Way stresses all ancestors of all beings and splits them all as ancestors, merely as Elven ancestors or others. The religion of this new generation changed slightly; instead of revering all ancestors equally, they chose to focus on the great first ancestors and made them a pantheon. Now there were several key figures in the Altmeri religion, though many of the tenants remained the same. Now, the majority of elves followed the first Aedra and, and most of these are found within the book Varieties of Faith. These include:
The principle deity of the Aldmeri and Altmeri religion, the soul of Anui-El and the god of time. He was famous for his defense of elvenkind in the early merethic era, and most Altmer (and Bosmer) trace their lineage back to him. It was through his ascension that the elves were supposed to learn how to escape the mortal confines of Mundus. One of his prominent symbols, despite being made by Magnus, is that of the Sun.
In certain Altmeri settlements Trinimac, the Warrior Champion of Auri-El, was more popular than his Lord. He was one of the original elven military commanders, and was a great and honorable fighters. Unfortunately, when he confronted the prophet Velothi Bothea appeared, tricked Trinimac into his mouth, humiliated him, used his voice to corrupt those who would listen, and then ate and excreted him (True Nature of Orcs). This illustration of 'the Transformation' is common in the Summerset Isles (Charwick Kooninger letters) and is used as an illustrative example of the dangers associated with consorting with Daedra. This act corrupted or destroyed Trinimac and was considered a source of shame for the Altmer and the Ancestors as a whole (The Changed Ones).
While Elves don't worship Sithis as readily as some other followers, the deity does remain in their pantheon given the importance of introducing change to the Grey Maybe, and creating the conditions for existence. As such, while Lorkhan is the most vile and horrid being they recognize, Sithis still has a place for them.
One of the other Ancestor gods, Phynaster's main claim in the Altmeri pantheon is that he taught the Altmer how to live for another hundred years simply by using shorter steps.
The 'Archmage' ancestor, he was notorious for being one of the great Gods of magic for the Aldmer and Altmer alike. Syrabane notably helped Bendu Olo against the Sload invasion at the battle of the Isles in the late first era and saved a great many from their affliction of the Thrassian plague. He is also known as the Apprentice's God and favors young mages.
While an important figure for all the usual reasons of mercy and purity, Stendarr also holds the dubious title of being an apologist for men (though not an apologist for Lorkhan).
The Elven Ancestor Xarxes was Auri-El's scribe and became the god of secret knowledge. Xarxes is supposed to keep a record of all accomplishments of the elves, both larger and small, from the beginning of time. Through these records, or more specifically his favorite moments, he created a wife and named her Oghma. This is the source for the book Oghma as well.
One of the other significant ancestors was that of Jauphre. While he became one of the first Ehlnofey (Earthbones, cornerstones to reality) he was also the one that gave birds their song and the beauty of the island to the Altmer. For this price, the Birds act as his eyes and ears, and he can see and hear everything within sight of the water whether the sea, a lake, or a river. There are many temples for him throughout the Elven world (On Jauphre).
There are many more, this is just the primary paragons. Oddly, Boethia is considered to be, possibly, an Aedra as well by definition. However, she is reviled despite being one of the principles important to elven Illumination, and having led the Chimer away from the Altmer (The Anticipations). This doesn't mean that they don't revere their ancestors, far from it but they view the passing of these ancestors to Aetherius as the great transition while their great Aedric ancestors take care of them(Ancestors and the Dunmer).
Well, here is is, part one of 5. I do hope this gives a good enough indication of at least the Aldmer and the early start to the Altmeri Identity. It should serve as a reminder as to where exactly they're coming from when it comes to perspectives. So, I hope it was, likewise, at least partially useful and if there's any questions or thoughts I'd be happy to know.
I really enjoyed this article. I've developed strong sympathies for the Dominion ever since I encountered Legate Fasendil at the Imperial Rift camp. It's a shame that Bethesda kept didn't develop the Dominion more.