Elder Scrolls Lore » Discussions

On Magic: Origins and Applications

  • July 10, 2013

    What could burning an attacking draugr, drinking a health potion to heal a saber cat gash, or raising a dead thrall have in common? Each scenario would be impossible without magicka.  Yet where does this very useful essence originate?  And what exactly is it anyway?  Why do some races seem to revel in its use, but others shun it?  How does magicka take so many forms and what are their varied purposes?  Let’s take a journey into the limitless possibilities of magic in the world of The Elder Scrolls.


    What is Magicka?

    Simply put, magic is the power of existence itself.  All things are infused with Magicka (King Edward, Book XII) .  Yet where does this magic come from?  Most creation myths agree that Mundus was created by the sacrifice of the et’Ada, or Original Spirits/Ancestors.  Once Magnus and other spirits realized the depth of what would be required of them, they escaped the confines of the world and returned to Aetherius, rending holes in the sky that would become the sun (Magnus) and stars (Magna-ge).  The et’Ada that remained to form the world became the Earthbones and suffused it with raw energy.  The light pouring forth from the sun and stars nurtures life and imbues it with magicka potential.  Currents and eddies of magic flow throughout Nirn, waiting to be harnessed and manipulated, but also content to remain in its pure form.   At its very base form, magicka is the interaction between all living things and the et’Ada, or those that many of the races on Nirn refer to as gods.  (King Edward, Book XII).  Since the Aedra represent limitless possibility, so too does the potential of magic.

    Magnus, however, is chief among them and revered primarily as the god of sorcery by the Altmer, or the god of Sight, Light, and Insight by the Ayleids (Varieties of Faith in the Empire).  It is no wonder that two of the most powerful artifacts found in Tamriel, the staff of Magnus and the Eye of Magnus, are related to the architect of Mundus himself.  


    It is theorized that the interaction between mortals and gods encourages the flow of magicka throughout the Elder Scrolls universe (Overview of Gods).  It is also suggested that mortals, through their worship power, focus this energy to the gods who then convert it to a stronger level of magic that can be used to cast spells (King Edward, Book XII).    Emotions and actions feed the gods, whether Aedric or Daedric (The Old WaysThe Book of Love quest in Skyrim).   For example, acts of cruelty please Boethiah, thereby making her stronger and her sphere of influence 

    more potent.  Daedra or demons can literally be fed by anger and other actions pleasing to them by allowing mortals to draw power from them (King Edward, Book VI).  By contrast, the actions completed by the player character in The Book of Love quest for Mara resolve certain ruptures in the fabric of her domain, and allows her Aedric principles to flow more smoothly.   Both examples involve a transfer of power, or energy, facilitated by the streams of magic surrounding and permeating each being on Nirn. 

    Mortals, powered by the mystic energy inherent in all souls (Souls, Black and White), are a conduit for magical energies.  This life force, so elegantly explained in Kyrielle’s article Two Parts of a Whole Make a Soul, is more complex than simply being a container for magicka, but it is filled with tremendous potential that we do not fully understand.   The journal of Skorm Snow Strider mentions how a group of dragon cultists cast a spell, whose potency was aided by their self-sacrifice, to secure a door.  The magical barricade created by such an act would not be breached for decades.   Souls, in tandem with mortal willpower and intelligence, are vital for the discernment and transmission of magic in Tamriel.


    Schools of Magic

    Vanus Galerion, who we will discuss in more detail in our third article, codified the magical disciplines into various schools, which we will examine here.  For purposes of organization and categorization, I would like to borrow the designations used by the main character in Palla to describe the various schools of magic.


    The mage in Palla chooses to study Illusion, as “the idea of warping imperceptible energies of light, sound, and energy” appealed to his nature. Illusion “alter(s) the perception of objects without changing the physical composition” (Incident in Necrom).   Illusionists have the ability to remove sound or smell from the air, add light or darkness, or change visibility, but it is a magic that exists in the minds of the caster and the target, and while the rules of nature appear to be changed, nothing is further from the truth. It is a rather intimate and intrusive school of magic that requires the caster to enter the mind of its target, and bending their awareness to match the reality of the caster, forcing the caster’s will on its subject.  It is a bit like creating a picture in someone’s mind, being very careful to alter small details so that the subject is unaware that their concept of reality has been transformed.  As a Nightblade in the service of the Empire stated in The Mystery of Talara, Part IV, illusion changes perception, but “if you do or say anything that would normally anger or offend your target, the power will weaken.”  The incredible power of Illusion spells allowed the battle mage Jagar Tharn to take the place of Uriel Septim VII, for ten years, with little suspicion from those around him.  


    Alteration is about “learning the rules of the cosmos and then breaking them” (Breathing Water).  Alteration does involve changing the rules of nature, or as Reality and Other Falsehoods states, “to cast Alteration spells is to convince a greater power that it will be easier to change reality as requested than to leave it alone.”  It is important to completely believe that reality is false, and that subtlety will alter the patterns of magicka to accomplish what the spell caster desires.   The danger inherent in Alteration spells is that they are only temporary, and reality will eventually break any spell, whether water-breathing, levitation, or flesh spells.   Spectacular effects can be achieved through Alteration, most notably the passage of an Imperial army underwater to take a city in Morrowind (2920, Book Six: Mid Year).  Ayleids were also masters of Alteration and known as shape shifters, bending the rules of nature in the very fiber of their beings.

    Destruction is the obvious school of choice for most battle mages as it usually requires the harnessing and manipulation of the elemental powers of nature but as the Response to Bero’s Speech points out, a significant amount of subtlety and tactical understanding is required to cast Destruction spells.  “The means of delivering the spell matters more in the School of Destruction than any other school, whether it is cast at a touch, at a range, in concentric circles, or cast once to be triggered later.  What forces must be reigned into cast the spell: fire, lightning, or frost?  And what are the advantages and dangers of each…(many) curses fall under the under the mantle of the school, sometimes affecting generation after generation in subtle yet sublime ways.”  It is not always a school used for nobly conceived battle, but sometimes as an instrument of torture (Horror of Castle Xyr) or a path to madness (Liturgy of Affliction).



    These two schools are not considered to be one of the “great” schools of magic (Imperial Charter of the Guild of Mages), though they are deeply important to serious practitioners.  Restoration seems to have been developed more recently in the Second Era than other schools (Feyfolken), and indicates the complexity of harnessing the magical potential to heal and protect mortals.  The Four Suitors of Benitah describes how a man learns how to utilize fortification spells to woo his beloved, and provides an insight into how the Restoration school works.  In learning a spell to fortify his strength, “it took him some time to master it, visualizing magicka streaming through his body, pumping through the very fibers of his muscles for a time, giving him strength far beyond the puny power nature had intended.”  Sotha Sil, the wizard-god of Morrowind, describes the mechanics behind a fortify endurance spell, which essentially functions as a resist fire spell that allows him to pass through a blaze unharmed:

    “The charm is intensified by the power that you bring to it, by your own skills, just as all spells are,” he said.  “Your imagination and willpower (emphasis mine) are the keys.  There is no need for a spell to give you a resistance to air, or a resistance to flowers, and after you cast the charm, you must forget there is even a need for a spell to give you resistance to fire.  Do not confuse what I am saying: resistance is not about ignoring the fire’s reality.  You will feel the substance of flame, the texture of it, its hunger, even the heat of it, but you will know that it will not hurt or injure you.”  (2920, Book Four: Rain’s Hand)

    Both quotes demonstrate the necessity of a Restoration Master to have a deep understanding and awareness of the physical world and a powerful mind to envision what it would like to physically achieve: knitting flesh back together to heal wounds, weaving magicka together to create a ward to shield the caster from incoming damage, and even pulling attributes from another to fortify one’s own health, magicka, or stamina.

    Conjuration is the flip side of this power to visualize and perhaps requires more imagination, as items, creatures, and even souls are pulled from the realm of Oblivion.  “Conjuration, for the layman unacquainted with is workings, connects the caster’s mind with that of the summoned.  It is a tenuous link, meant only to lure, hold, and dismiss, but in the hands of a Master, it can be much stronger.”  (The Doors of Oblivion).  The following excerpt from 2920, Book Ten: Frostfall describes a summoning from Oblivion.

    “The creature before them blinked, senseless, its eyes glazed, mouth opening and closing as if relearning a function.  A thin glob of saliva burbled down between its fangs, and hung suspended.  Turala had never seen anything of its kind before, reptilian and massive, perched on its hind legs like a man.  Mynistera applauded enthusiastically.

    ‘My child,’ she crowed.  ‘You have come so far in so short a time.  What were you thinking when you summoned this daedroth?’

    It took Turala a moment to recall whether she was thinking at all.  She was merely overwhelmed that she had reached out across the fabric of reality into the realm of Oblivion and plucked forth this loathsome creature, conjuring it into the world by the power of her mind.

    ‘I was thinking of the color red,” Turala said, concentrating.  ‘The simplicity and clarity of it.  And then I desired (emphasis mine), and spoke the charm.  And this is what I conjured up.’”

    Bound weapons and armor have lesser Daedric spirits attached to them, which provide the power and energy to appear in the caster’s world, but are only short term bindings, as the spirits return to their realm of Oblivion.  Long term bindings are the physical manifestation of daedric servants, whose supernatural essence return to Oblivion if their bodies are destroyed.  Also, “Daedric artifacts, like Mehrunes Razor and the Mask of Clavicus Vile are examples of long term bindings” (Darkest Darkness).  These items do not need soul gems to power them, as they are energized by daedric souls themselves.



    The mixing together of various organic components appears to be a simple science to many inhabitants of Tamriel (Imperial Charter of the Mages GuildThe Cake and the Diamond) but is in truth a branch of magic.  “Hardly any plant grows on the surface of our world without a magickal potential,” states the author of De Rerum Dirennis, and so the flora and fauna of the world contains the possibility to be more than it is in its pure essence.  With all of the alchemical equipment required to make a potion--mortar and pestle, alembic, retort, and calcinator—it appears that a potion is a scientific creation, more akin to baking bread or making soup.  Yet the magic in each ingredient must be discerned, understanding the potential in its entirety.  A marriage of ingredients creates something greater than the individual ingredients, but it is also rumored that masters of Alchemy can distill one ingredient into a potion of purest magical essence.

    Enchanting involves imbuing ordinary objects with magical properties through the power of a soul gem. Yet “the skilled enchanter is also a catalyst.  The same mind that can create something new can also provoke greater power from something old.  A ring that can generate warmth for a novice, on the hand of such a talent can bake a forest black” (Palla, Volume 2).  The process of learning an enchantment requires an extraordinary amount of will from the enchanter, focused on the object in question.  This is an act so powerful that it destroys the object, allowing the full knowledge of that enchantment to be absorbed into the mage.  It is theorized that the reason that enchanted armor and clothing do not need to be recharged, as the wearer contributes some of his/her energy to its maintenance, while weapons continually need to be charged, the soul leaking out a bit a time with every strike of the weapon (A Primer on Enchanting).  Palla also mentions that spells cast on an item have the ability to grow and ripen, maturing and creating depths of potential that deepen over time.



    When is a magic school not technically a magic school?  When it is Mysticisim!  Skyrim completely did away with mysticism, but that does not mean that it is not important to the concept of magical studies.  The most famous practitioners of mysticism, the Psijics, appeared most surprisingly in the College of Winterhold, both slowing time and transporting the Eye of Magnus.  The incomprehensible power of divination appears to be at their disposal (Hope of the Redoran).  Yet they call their study the Old Ways, which have been exquisitely explained by Vix in his article on the Altmer.  We can say for certain that few mages devote themselves to the study of mysticism, as they need to be finely attuned to the changing patterns of physical energy in the world and their spiritual underpinnings, waiting to understand something that is predictable so that it can be acted upon.  Soul trap used to be a part of the school, and the perversion of such a spell leads us into a discussion on a forbidden school of magic that practitioners follow secretly.


    Necromancy is a direct profanation of the soul guiding and protective power of Arkay (Necromancer’s MoonArkay the Enemy).  It is universally condemned, though individual groups still manage to practice, guided by the teachings of Mannimarco, a former Psijic.  Oblivion’s Mages Guild storyline revolved around a confrontation with the King of Worms and his necromantic followers.  Like mysticism, necromancy involves magic revolving around the life force and energies of others, in hopes to transcend the permanency of death.  Black soul gems form the power to raise the dead, but when creating one and trapping a soul, it is “dangerous to the caster to handle them for long.  If the gem is not precisely the size of the encased soul, small bits of the caster’s soul may leak into the gem when it is touched” (Souls, Black and White).



    All physical and spiritual matter “has a unique resonance, a negative aspect, a duplicate version, relative paths, true meaning, a song in the cosmos, a texture in the fabric of space, a facet of being that has always existed and always will exist” (2920, Book Two: Sun’s Dawn).  As long as Mundus exists, magic will exist along with it, weaving new patterns, providing the energy for new possibilities and discoveries.  Understanding life is the pursuit of all mortals, and understanding magicka is a key component to comprehending the secrets and complexities of the cosmos of the Elder Scrolls universe. 


    Kyrielle continues our discussion in our next article On Magic: Magicka, Nirn, and You.

    Special thanks to Jo'Daro, who engineered the lovely images throughout the article.  And to RuneRed for his wonderful screenshot of Magnus.

    Additionally, much gratitude goes out to UESP.net, who maintains a tremendous library of Elder Scrolls information, and copies of all in-game lore books.


  • Member
    July 10, 2013

    Very well written, I approve of this! Personally, I think Magicka and it's essence is the power left behind by Magnus when he gave his life to Mundus.

  • July 10, 2013

    Except, Magnus didn't give his life.  He was the one who notably "fled the scene" when it was obvious what would happen to the other Aedra.

  • Member
    July 10, 2013
    Great discussion idea Kyrielle ! :)
  • July 10, 2013

    *psst*  This is Kynareth's masterpiece, not mine!  She's been planning this for a loooong time.

  • Member
    July 11, 2013

    Amazing article Kynareth! Great to see Alchemy here, you made an excellent point of it being a unique form of magic!

    What do you think of this theory on a person's magical skills?

    I think that connection of a person to Aetherius is shown by his magicka regeneration - the stronger the connection, the faster will the person replenish his magicka. I see a magicka pool as an indicator of a person's willpower and mental strength. Magicka pool can be increased with experience while magicka regeneration can only be increased by ingesting various substances, wearing enchanted items or using Apprentice Stone which already implies connection to Aetherius. 

    Also, is there any information on differences between black and grand soul gems? The ritual alters the physical properties of gems, an edged grand soul gem becomes a ellipse-shaped black soul gem (more closer to the lesser soul gem in form), but is still able to contain Grand souls. So I guess it's not connected to the physical properties? Also, is it possible, that the difference between grand and black souls lies in subject's intelligence? Will it mean that black soul gems will be a little empty even when filled with Grand souls?

  • July 12, 2013

    Vazgen, I actually like that theory very much, and is an intriguing way to connect a game play mechanic to lore.  (I have another article in the works that should examine this a bit more).  I can readily see how magicka regeneration indicates a more unimpeded flow of magic from Aetherius while a magicka pool is strictly experience based.

    Regarding soul gems, based on Souls, Black and WhiteI do believe that black souls will be a little empty if filled with a grand soul gem.  I also agree that it has to do with the subject's intelligence, and in the game Oblivion, Dremora/Golden Saints/Dark Seducers were also able to be placed into black soul gems.  I would speculate that the ritual used to create the black soul gem creates some sort of barrier to Aetherius, which would be the typical destination of a soul released from its bodily confines (in the case of intelligent humanoids from Oblivion, I think their soul would simply return to Oblivion,).  

  • July 12, 2013

    Just to throw out a question to those who have read, did you find anything surprising or unexpected?  Personally, conjuration really surprised me.  So now, when I conjure a creature, it is not simply some misty image that can do damage.  It is a living, breathing sentient creature that smells, gives off heat (or frost, etc), and could be touchable.  That realization never sunk in before.

    Additionally, when wearing enchanted clothing or armor, the thought of it binding closer to one's life force and perhaps even drawing a bit of one's own life source is just interesting for thought.  I think a deeper understand of enchantment and conjuration makes me want to be stricter on deciding which characters will use those skills, as I think a lot of moral questions need to be answered before those schools are employed.

  • Member
    July 12, 2013

    I kinda feel bad whenever I conjure a sentient being to go off to its death... About the same as how I feel like enchanting is just as evil since you destroy the soul that was used to enchant the item with.

  • July 12, 2013

    Technically, that being you conjure (atronachs, etc) actually return to the realm of Oblivion that they lived in.  You really cannot destroy creatures from Oblivion...their souls just return "home."  However, in order to conjure a creature from Oblivion, the caster of that spell must cast their mind into Oblivion, which then touches the mind and soul of that creature in order to bind it and pull it into the world of the caster.  So it is a rather intimate thing I think, to touch the mind of another living creature, ones we think of as monsters.

    I agree about the enchanting, and if a person really likes to role play their characters, it is something that should not be considered casually. 

    A lot of magical studies can have a slippery slope morally...but then we need to consider if we are judging by our moral standards, or the standards developed in game.  Thanks for responding, by the way.  I think it is fascinating to discuss.