Telling What You Believe: Mythopoeia and Faith on Nirn

IceFireWarden’s fantastic piece on the Prolix Tower got me thinking about how the Walking Ways interact with what we understand of as religious faith. It is still there in Tamriel, just a little different from what it is on Earth.

Proof Denies Faith

While many of the gods in Tamriel have priests, the interaction that mortals have with their gods (whether Aedra or Daedra) is on quite a different level to what it is for Earth religions. Because the existence of the Daedra is obvious, and the existence of the Aedra can be strongly inferred, there is little room for the kind of faith that is “being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). Even less so for the kind of faith expressed by Søren Kiekergaard as the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. That is, having the faith to suspend your ethical principles for the purpose (Greek telos) of serving God’s purposes.

People in TES have no need to do this – they are comforted by the obvious ethics of a deity which either manifests directly and spells out their right and wrong, or the deity’s teleology is intricately bound up with the ethical – I can’t remember any examples where any Divines have caused people to act in ways contrary to the good of society. Any tragedy is to do with personal loss for doing the right thing, not fin doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Ethics is primary in TES, while faith either completely overrides it or is completely in alignment with it. Sigillah Parate makes this abundantly clear in Invocation of Azura; he/she chooses a Daedra to worship because it suits him/her, not because of any ethical or faith-based problem.

Faith as a lifestyle choice

This means faith manifests in TES more a lifestyle choice than anything else – adherents mostly follow whichever deity feels ‘right’ for them, which is reflective of their own opinions. For example, Aela’s character in Skyrim revels in belonging to Hircine, while the rest of the Companions have a preference more closely aligned to Sovengarde and Nordic culture in general.

However, while faith is a lifestyle choice in TES, it is not the end of the story. While Jean-Paul Satre sees that choice is both fundamental to the human condition and not bounded (as expressed in the quote “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent”), the way that choice is made is not merely preference. It has far-reaching subjective consequences, insofar that it informs our very idea of reality. To quote Satre further:

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. -Jean-Paul Satre, Existentialism and Humanism

That is to say, no one acts in the way that they consider would be wrong for anyone. In acting, everyone affirms that their actions are truth – a truth that is both subjective and universal in the same contradictory instant. This is conceptually similar to the idea of Truth in the Sermons of Vivec – it is conceptual violence done to others by imposing your perspective on them by virtue of your very being.

Talking Truth with the Prolix Tower

As Truth can be understood as violence, expressing that truth is also violent. Saying “I think X is the case” is saying that you cannot consider that not-x has any worth. Despite the choice not being necessarily ethical or based on faith, the act of expressing it makes it normative (that is to say, statements of “I think X is the case” and “I think X should be the case” are functionally the same thing).

The link between words and reality is well-established in TES, most particualrly with the example of Thu’um and the Prolix Tower. Thu’um is simply being more able to say “this should be so” more loudly. And if something is not the case, it does in fact link back to the notion of faith as expressed in Hebrews, although not directly – people say that something should be/is the case, and if it is not, they are in effect saying that they are sure that something they do not see is/should be reality.

The Prolix Tower is the ultimate expression of this – achieving divinity by talking a lot, which is repeatedly asserting your reality upon the world. IceFireWarden’s fantastic analysis of this concept also points out that the Prolix Tower is ‘walking alongside’ a legend in order to become one. This is attained by lots of people talking about their view of reality, which includes you. This is possible only because assertions of reality ultimately aspire to be categorical.

This means that any instance of retelling legends has metaphysical significance in TES. Why would people consider that which they do not want to be so? Retelling the legend reinforces it, because you are asserting it to be the reality for all. Because of this, “faith” is not merely belief, it is in talking about a divine object that defines your reality. This both lends itself to a more “relaxed” faith, mentally speaking, as it does not require acts of devotion or even necessarily a spiritual component, but on the other it needs to become all-consuming, because it is a part of each person’s definition of the ideal reality. And it is that striving towards that ideal, thinking, talking and acting to impose that view of reality on Nirn that allows belief and faith to form and act as a mythopoeic force.

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