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Bosmer Part 2: Culture and Identity

  • Member
    July 2, 2014

    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.


    Culture and Identity:

    In Part 2 of our series we'll look at the basic make up of Bosmeri culture. While there is substantially less about them than some of the more in depth civilizations we still can gather a good deal about how they present themselves, why, and how they appear to the outside observer. The Bosmer, commonly called wood elves, are often seen as a primitive and tribal culture devoid of civility, but is this the case?


    The Green Pact:

    The very basis for Bosmeri culture is their pact with the god Jephre. However it is an incredibly strict set of rules that has potentially hindered the growth of the Bosmer in the post Merethic era. The Pact was enacted, bestowing Jephre's blessing on the Bosmer and allowing them to be more amiable to the animals and forces of nature. However, the pact focuses on strict rules to follow with regards to conservation.

    Valenwood is considered a sacred place, and one of the principle tenants is that the Wood Elves are not allowed to use wood or any other plant materials for construction (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). Furthermore, harvesting of Valenwood timbers is also a heinous crime (Mixed Unit Tactics). One of the loopholes is that while the Bosmer may not cut down or use any living material, it doesn't stop externally imported lumber which is both common and important (Dance in Fire). Even when it's Valenwood lumber, which is against the Green Pact to cut down, there's nothing necessarily wrong against Bosmer buying it. This becomes more important given that the Bosmer are not known for being good at masonry.

    Perhaps one of the more bizarre results of this is that the Bosmer tend to be greatly enamored with carpentry of any sort and foreigners can amaze and dazzle the Bosmer with such crafting as it is a part of their culture they are mostly ignorant of and less creative with (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition).

    But this also has other simple repercussions, something as simple as smoking can't be done with a wooden pipe and tobacco can't be used either. Instead, horn is used and pipes are filled with grubs and caterpillars, it also makes flaxen or cotton clothing out of reach for Bosmer (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). Likewise they are strict carnivores including their beverages. There is no ales, rather, the Bosmer will ferment pig's milk called jagga, or ferment molded meat with spices called rotmeth which, given the typical fermented nature of the drinks, is highly alcoholic (Dance in Fire).

    Another of the more gruesome aspects of the Green Pact's pursuit that they aren't to despoil nature is a clause known as the Meat Mandate. It ensures that they can eat any game, beastfolk, man, or elf including each other. Their only grace is that their family members are allowed to help with the task, but anything killed must also be eaten within a period of 3 days by religious sanction (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). It's not entirely clear if they cannibalize their own family when dead, but given they don't follow the burial rituals of Arkay it seems to be a possibility. While the dead are respected, necromancy is abhorred as a crime against nature, it is not conclusive (Corpse Preparation).

    In return Jephre is said to offer his protection, his affinity with nature, with animals, an ability similar to a chameleon, disappearing near trees (Mixed unit Tactics), a prophet called the Precursor (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition), and perhaps most dramatically the knowledge to return to the Chaos state in a ritual known as the Wild Hunt.

    (For anyone interested in how this relates to approaching Skyrim in game, RuneRed's work Green Pact Alchemy is a fantastic reference on the subject.)


    The Wild Hunt:

    It was as if a crack in reality had opened wide. A flood of horrific beasts, tentacled toads, insects of armor and spine, gelatinous serpents, vaporous beings with the face of gods, all poured forth from the great hollow tree, blind with fury. ~ A Dance in Fire

    That is about the best description we have gotten of the Wild hunt. It is a horrid transformation that all Bosmer may do under the right circumstances as a gift from Jephre harkening back to the memory of the Chaos times of the pre-Merethic era. The Wild Hunt is a collection of constantly shifting beasts and monsters that is quite literally unstoppable (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1stedition), and hunts by all its senses rather than relying on sight or scent alone. It was quick enough that a person falling from a tree could be torn to pieces and consumed before they hit the ground (A Dance in Fire). But they are situational, and while many will return to their place of origin, and that they are the cause of all the monsters of Nirn (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition), they can also be enclosed and trapped. In this situation they will turn cannibalistic and consume each other (A Dance in Fire).

    Some sources also say that they can disappear in water or turn into a flowing stream but in general the description remains constant. Yet when a person assumed the shape of the Wild Hunt they are lost forever and can never be turned back. It is a quiet and somber subject amongst Bosmer who see it as a necessary evil for the use in pursuit of justice and defense (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). The principle focal points for the formation of Wild Hunts seem to be a communal affair as a ritual at the secluded temples and altars in the forests. As such, these holy temples will bar non-Bosmer from entry (A Dance in Fire).


    The Bosmer Identity

    To the outside world the Bosmer are seen as almost the epitome of shiftless. They aren't seen as bad as much as malicious and mischievous. Altmer tend to see the Bosmer as tainted and unreliable (Varieties of Faith); the Nords see them as cunning, treacherous, but also outwardly meek (A Dance in Fire); the Imperials view them as easily impressed primitive tribal; the military as inherently unreliable and prone to desertion (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition); the Redguards bay as Cowards (Fav're's War of Betony); untrustworthy liars (Mixed Unit Tactics); and through Tamriel as congenial thieves and pickpockets (The Buying Game, A Dance in Fire). The book A Dance in Fire displays the rather vicious and vile practice of Undrape: the Bosmer, when displeased with diplomats at court, will give them a notable bauble and proceed to fatten them up before killing them. They are roasted and cooked as part of a dish called Unthrappa which is given back to their enemies with the identifiable bauble stuffed inside. All of these may even be true, their god Jephre is the god of 'the present' and thus it is easy to see where the focus for most Bosmer is by inherent religious teachings may lead without a fair amount of foresight.

    Yet a great number of their physical laws that are non religious in nature comes from Altmeri customs and laws. Their basis for surrender, as well as their laws governing slave ownership and compensation seem to be directly related to Alinor law (Antecedents of Dwemer Law). Even so, the Bosmer are a varied and fractured people ever since their entrance into the Cyrodiilic Empire in the first era after the devastating Thrassian plague. While we will talk about that in the next section, one thing that is important to note is that for three eras the Bosmer have been confined to localized rule with only vague oversight by their great monarchs. It is even more confused as there seems to be two separate major authorities in the Bosmeri sphere of influence. As such, the Bosmer are a very feudal organization by their very nature.

    While all official power comes from the lineage of King Eplear Camoran who founded Valenwood as a political unit, the King retains official control (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition). But an unrecognized part of the leadership is the Silvenar who is the religious and spiritual center of the Bosmeri people as a whole. Thus, much like the Khajiiti Mane, the individual kings of Senchal and Anequina being the political power and the Mane being the spiritual guide, the Bosmer adhere to a similar concept with the King in charge but the Silvenar being the center of popular internal and external leadership. The Silvenar is unique in that their physical state is indicative of the relative prosperity and condition of the Bosmer. When there is a time of plague or hardship the Silvenar will shrink in physical size, when there are more females than males, the Silvenar will turn female, and they have a full encyclopedic knowledge of every town and hamlet in both spiritual, physical, and economic concerns (A Dance in Fire).

    Below this are the individual Treethanes who govern larger settlements and population centers. These act much like Dukes and control a great amount of local autonomy, often rivaling the King and just as often, disobeying his direct commands. Treethanes are the centers of the basic political power block within their realm of influence. The Treethanes extensive regional authority is the major cause of the turmoil and division within Valenwood's political body. It makes them often obedient but disloyal to external affairs while being even worse to it's native leadership cast. Thanks to these powerful individuals, Valenwood has endured many hardships and lost a great deal of territory and respect in external relations putting them at a severe disadvantage compared to other territories.

    Either tangentially or at subordination to these Treethanes are the chieftains. These form local power blocs and are the basic representatives of the often ineffectual Valenwood tribal council which make it a partially democratic and representative system though all power, in name, resides with the King and in practice with the Treethanes (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition).

    While it' hard to determine some intermediary authority figures, we know that the smallest unit authorities rests with the Clanfathers who lead Bosmeri families (Shivering Isles: Yellowed Note). These seem to comprise the basic building blocks upon most Bosmeri culture. These small family units in 'clans' have become more and more important during the third era and into the forth. A great deal of confidence in higher authorities had dissolved leading loyalty, honor, and respect to be built upon individual clans rather than with a nationalistic whole. The tribal council did not meet for the later half of the third era (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition). Instead, Bosmer simply revere their ancestors and listen to their familial guides (Ancestors and the Dunmer).

    Because Bosmer turned to their smaller family Clans we see a resurgence of ideas based on the earlier perceived truths about Bosmer. There was no need to appeal to a whole and the 'immediate' nature of their world outlook led them to often risk these actions more frequently than others. Even so, the whole Bosmeri identity is mutable and individual can and often do buck the system. From Kings in High Rock (How Orsinium Passed to the Orcs) to Imperial advisers and trusted confidants (Words and Philosophy) the Bosmer comprise a varied whole less locked in a single identity than one based on personal preference. The Bosmer are willing to subvert a great deal of their natural inclinations and adopt the cultures of others. Of course, it also means there is a great deal of conflicts with others, and small scale clan wars and skirmishes seem to be quite common (Words and Philosophy). While this may give some inherent looks into why they adopted Altmeri culture, it also goes to show that there is a mutable and personal preference exercised ion a rather wide scale. Cyrodiilic culture and customs seemed to be readily imported, and positions such as Mayors for small communities, as well as manor houses, dress, and of course foreigners themselves were readily welcomed into Valenwood (Pocket Guide to the Empire 3rd edition, Niruin dialogue, The Black Arrow). For all their negative qualities though, the Bosmer are also seen as being inherently personable (A Dance in Fire), jovial, curious, and mentally agile (Rear Guard).


    Bosmeri Warfare

    Looking at the nature of conflict it might not be surprising that the Valenwood military forces are generally considered somewhat haphazard and inferior to that of its neighbors and contemporaries There are few records of the Bosmer effectively fighting others in a protracted war with a single, notable, and very atypical exception (Camoran Usurper, who we will deal with in part 4).

    There's a very good reason for this, much like Hammerfell there are generally no standing armies in Valenwood. Instead, they are comprised of two, and at times, three typical forces. The first is the typical bulk of the Valenwood professional armies, hired mercenaries. These will equip and train themselves with the better facilities offered outside Valenwood (Fall of the Usurper). The second group is the local militia or retainers that comprise a secondary line of defense. These seem to be typically defense and protection forces rather than aggressive armies. With perhaps some exceptions, Bosmer are universally taught to use a bow. Even Bosmeri mercenaries are expected to be taught with a bow, often to the exclusion of all other weapons (Words and Philosophy). The third contingent is that of an external power, either Thalmor soldiers from Alinor or Legionaries from the Empire. There may be a good practical albeit religious reason for this. The meat Mandate requires that everything that a Bosmer kills must be eaten, this includes opponents in war-times. By following this a Bosmer would have to be careful he doesn't kill more individuals than they and their kin could eat. As such, attrition warfare is generally avoided, and in case of a major battle being joined it means that a Bosmer force will artificially starve themselves before hand which can have the added effect of potentially sapping their peak fighting ability (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). Despite this consumption of their enemies, Bosmer on the whole do not endorse necromancy, and because of their creation mythos, they are averse to the using or trapping of souls for soul gems (Ancestors and Dunmer).

    As is noted in just about every source for the Bosmer, they are the best archers in Tamriel (racial intro screen for every Elder Scrolls game in recent memory and nearly half the books out there). The Bosmer are even credited with creating the bow in the first place (A Dance in Fire). They have a significant and often humorous ability to be archers beyond belief which had spawned several books on the subject including The Black Arrow, and The Gold Ribbon of Merit, and The Marksmanship Lesson.

    The interviewee of Words and Philosophy, Lady Allena Benoch, claimed she was a typical Bosmer who was learning with a bow from an early age and joined in the hunts when she was 14. Given that Elves mature far more slowly than other races, being sexually mature in their 20's (The Real Barenziah), and young in their 70's (Poison Song), this is a very early age for martial training. There is a great amount of subject dealing with Bosmeri training techniques with a bow. Training begins early, and accuracy is considered unimportant in the early stages. Instead, archery is taught by example from an early age. Bosmer youth will watch others and then learn to fire bows properly. Arrows are fired in the air and the youth will watch their trajectory, seeing how external aspects such as wind affect the arrows path, and will naturally learn to correct for these factors. Distance and overall comfort is preferred before accuracy is taught which may require a good deal of familiarization (The Marksmanship Lesson). A proper Bosmer archer will learn to draw an arrow, place it to a bowstring, and loose it in one fluid motion. Comparatively, a Khajiiti stance allows for a full draw, a pause to aim, and fire. Imperial doctrines teach about putting half your strain on the bow, pausing in mid draw to aim, then a full draw and loose (The Gold Ribbon of Merit). Archery training is ubiquitous and very widespread on both a personal tutelage level and in a more formal academy setting (The Black Arrow).

    Of course this emphasis on ranged combat has some negative side effects. Notably, while the Bosmer are the best archers in Tamriel, they're quite possibly the worst in melee combat. There comes from the typical training procedures; while there are academies for ranged fighting, there is no formal melee training program in Valenwood, it's all self taught at best which leaves profound gaps. Typically these can be overcome in better training institutes in Cyrodiil, the Khajiiti lands, or Hammerfell in particular (Words and Philosophy). Even Bosmeri mercenaries in the employ of foreign powers are fully expected to be good in archery and would have to learn not only close combat techniques but advanced armor techniques from those experienced outsiders (Rear Guard).

    While this lack of melee expertise is quite problematic, the Bosmer make use of other assets as well. The Bosmer are known to make use of very swift cavalry that are the diametric opposites from typical cavalry. The Bosmeri steeds are entirely accustomed to the forests and dense thickets but slow and stammer nervously while in open glades and spaces. (The Black Arrow, A Dance in Fire). This typically limits the effectiveness in literal open combat. However, there is one other theater of warfare that the Bosmer make good use of. Bosmer are known to be excellent pirates and have a great amount of buccaneers which have even started wars in the past. These Bosmeri craft are quick and possess strange living sails (Cap'n Dougl's Journal). Likewise, the Bosmer commonly use magics to enhance their positions and provide valuable support like many other races.

    They do seem to be good skirmishers and adept scouts. One of their more popular poems conveys this aptitude quite well, the Meh Ayleidon meaning “One Thousand Benefits of Hiding” (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). While this means they are very skilled in such settings, they lack some of the other traits from pop culture such as their nearly weightless quality or being able to perch on far too narrow tree limbs. On the offense they seem to employ the typical guerrilla tactics, but in a defensive posture they revert to impromptu fortifications. Bosmer can wield tree shaping magics, bending boughs to create small fortifications where they will hold out, parting the upper canopy to let in light nd allow themselves the est conditions for ranged combat (Mixed Unit Tactics). The Bosmer themselves seem to be both patient and also easily goaded. The Khajiit were able to both tactically and strategically provoke Bosmer fores during the five year war by attacking valuable imports as well as cutting down trees which angered the Bosmer who ended up being coaxed into hand to hand combat where they were swiftly defeated despite having superior numbers (Mixed Unit Tactics). Despite this the Bosmer are typically said to be good tacticians, being able to quickly use their positions and relative speed widely. Scouts and light warriors can easily turn from a simple flanking force into a tactical envelopment that will scatter and destroy opposing armies while the hardened center pins an enemy force in place (The Refugees).

    Equipment wise the Bosmer are depicted in two different lights, as being both fairly adept at using their natural abilities to compliment their arms and armor, and in being chronically under-equipped nevertheless. While the Bosmer are the best archers in Tamriel they are also ironically short of effective arrows. They lack the solid shafts for creating arrows due to the Green Pact, and have to replace this with bone or other substitutes which is typically inferior, which makes the Bosmer dependent on external supplies (Pocket Guide to the Empire 1st edition). It's unlikely the same problem exists with bows given the relative ease of use with glue, leather wrapping, bone, and other similar materials that could create a strong composite weapon.

    A typical Bosmer's 'rural outfit' is seen as being a pair of high boots, a leather vest, and breachers (Lord of Souls). The outfitting for a scout is not too much different in composition for materials. They have a soft leather cuirass, tassets (plates on the thigh), chausses (protective leggings), and grieves (calf and shin armor) which is considered quite typical (The Refugees). It's not entirely clear if the warriors described in Cherim's Heart of Anequina are Bosmeri mercenaries or native warriors, but instead of the typical leather armor, they each possess metal hauberks which would give them a substantial edge in durability over soft unboiled and unstudded leather cuirasses. It's likewise difficult to tell if this is a member of one of the retainers of personal guards of a lord such as King Camoran or the Silvenar who have a number of organized regiments at their service as personal escorts (thus it is an organized force but doesn't constitute a full standing army as seen in A Dance in Fire).


    Now that we see some of the elements that make up Bosmeri culture, we'll take a look at Valenwood itself and see what information and insight can be gleaned from its geography.

    ← Part 1: Religion and Creation Part 3: On Valenwood →

  • Member
    July 2, 2014

    The image of the lion head on a wheel  of legs looks strikingly similar to a creature from D&D 3.5 in the Tome Of Magic supplement book.