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Cultural Necromancy: Being More Than a Cliche Villain

  • Member
    May 25, 2019

    I've never really looked all that deeply into the subject, but going through older sources on necromancy has been quite interesting while I went back and forth on the class and what approach to take that isn't "I'm EVIL! Mwahahah." It's never really been something I've looked into with any great depth - I find magic far less interesting than the various cultural viewpoints  and morality of its use.

    Surprisingly, even after all this time the book Corpse Preparation Volume One: The Acquisition of the Corpse is a decent source to start with. So I thought I'd jot down a few quick thoughts I had about potential angles to take in terms of how to approach the Necromancer Class using that book as a guide.

    It starts off with Dunmeri points of view which pretty much remain sound: Dunmer of the Great Houses hate necromancy because they hold their ancestors in such high regard, and actively use those ancestors (with their consent or, in extreme cases of punishment, without) in necromantic practices as long as they're carried out legally and by Tribunal Priests. Other races are "lesser" so the practice of necromancy on those corpses is barely illegal:

    The Dark Elves would never think of practicing sorcerous necromancy upon any Dark Elf or upon the remains of any Elf. However, Dark Elves consider the human and orcish races to be little more than animals. There is no injunction against necromancy upon such remains, or on the remains of any animal, bird, or insect.

    Ultimately it's all BS:

    "In the Empire, necromancy is a legitimate discipline, though body and spirit are protected property, and may not be used without permission of the owner. But in Morrowind, the Dunmer loathe necromancers, and put them to death. That's absurd, of course, since the Dunmer summon their OWN dead to guard tombs and defend the family. Sacred necromancy is righteous, while philosophical necromancy is evil. It's primitive superstition, that's all."

    The book then looks at Black Marsh and Argonians but doesn't offer much. From Murkmire we get told that the saxhleel aren't into necromancy as a general rule because they live so much in the now. Dead is dead, the past is the past. Only the Veeskhleel tribe really get into it. That said, reanimated corpses aren't uncommon due to the cultural use of Grave Stakes which are their equivalent of our tombstones and serve to pin a corpse down. These cadavers can rise as Bog Blights if the stake is removed, zombies bloated with volatile swamp gasses.

    Next the book talks about Elsweyr and how the Khajiit "show remarkably enlightened indifference to graves being uncovered." This is pretty much backed up in ESO Elsweyr, leading us to surmise they view the corpse as but an empty shell when the real thing of value, the soul, has gone. Elsweyr dialogue bears this out to a degree, although there remains a huge difference between resurrecting an honoured ancestor and finding some old bones in the desert to raise.

    Intent and respect are the key factors in how individual Khajiit react to necromancy, but they are pretty chill and dislike it as much as they dislike any other magic. Bent Cats who have strayed from the moons' light could find themselves on the path to becoming a dark spirit, a dro-M'athra, who use the corpses of the fallen as their puppets. Wise Khajiit necromancers new to Elsweyr could benefit from making the Ashen Scar's Temple of the Hidden Moon an early quest in their career.

    Next is the Bosmer. The book gets very interesting because it details the Wood Elves dislike of necromancy as well as mentioning the greenpact practice of eating the dead. Newer sources, like the research logs from Bone Orchard, tell a different story and how the Bosmer find it funny to see their laziest departed actually made to do work:

    I must write a treatise on necromancy and the Bosmer. Their people are not as perturbed as others by the sight of deceased relatives walking around performing menial tasks. Indeed, they experienced no small amount of pleasure seeing particularly lazy ancestors doing something constructive for a change.

    Perhaps it is the lack of flesh, though I suspect it has more to do with the Bosmeri sense of humor.

    So, like the Khajiit, maybe intent and use of necromancy can be justifiable. As a culture they use bone extensively, having a fetishistic form of magic called the Death Story and they believe the weapons crafted from the bones of the particular creature they were taken from grant those weapons different properties:

    The bones of every beast have stories to tell. They have memories of stalking through the vines, of flying through the canopy. Of hunting and killing and eating. When we shape the bone into arrows, we prepare a Death Story, and the bone we choose has great meaning. Some laugh at this or roll their eyes, calling any arrow "just an arrow," but the Bosmer know bones tell the best tales.

    The Bosmer believe in the Ooze, an afterlife of purgatory for breakers of the Greenpact. The condemned of the Ooze are forgotten, struck from the song of Y'ffre and replaced with silence. An argument could be made that using the spirits confined to the Ooze to reanimate the bones the Bosmer use so extensively in all walks of life would be acceptable. Also, the Third Era's Haymon Camoran "The Usurper" could act as an example for evil Bosmer necromancers to follow.

    Summerset is next, and holds up really well with what we've learned from the chapter: "Some Altmer born into the most respected noble and scholarly families are actually allowed to study the dead in the open. Their research, however, seems to be centered on finding ways to extend their lives even further rather than the more practical uses of our Art. A Necromancer of any other race caught in Summerset Isle can expect the worst possible punishments."

    We get to see one of those punishments meted out to one of their own, an Altmer noble who we meet in the quest Lauriel's Lament. The punishment was severe:

     "All her heart's doors closed and locked, the sister's power grew—her gold eyes fixed on graves and tombs, the necromancer's muse."
     "At length the eldest did return, flush with arcane might. She found her sister's undead thralls, and wept long at the sight."
     "Knowing death could not contain her sister's newfound power, the eldest and her Direnni kin buried me alive … here, screaming into the black."

    The book takes a look at the Redguards  after and mentions Arkay's Law. They take their burials very seriously, desecration of the dead being a crime in Hammerfell as we see in Alik'r - the zone's story is pretty much dedicated to the topic. The Ash'abah, a faction of exiles who sometimes are called upon to deal with undead threats, are the Redguard's barely tolerated taboo-breakers.

    Though a Ra-Netu is an abomination in the sight of Tu'wacca, and an offense to the godly of all peoples, it is not therefore to be treated with disrespect. For a human body is a sacred chalice, whether it be filled with the divine liquor of a mortal soul, or the profane offal of an unholy essence.
    To that end the Ash'abah are charged with banishing the unholy essence while doing all that is needful to preserve the sacred chalice. And so we smite the Ra-Netu with the Seventeen Strikes, while uttering the Plea for Forgiveness.

    Although they don't technically practice necromancy themselves, a Redguard necromancer could find their knowledge and skills  to be invaluable among the Ash'abah if their intentions are pure. Fighting fire with fire, perhaps? Or possibly an exiled - exile, a former Ash'abah warrior or priest who has been shunned even by the nomadic exiles.

    The Orcs of Orsinium are the next topic in the book, and the Orsinium dlc added a lot of avenues to explore, as does the new Elsweyr chapter's protagonist Zumog Phoom:

    "The Orc necromancer, a self-proclaimed “lord of the dark arts,” reportedly hails from the northernmost climes of Wrothgar. I have found no direct evidence for this assertion, but the wilds beyond Orsinium are unforgiving, and life among the Orc strongholds is bleak, harsh, and brutal. I could see the frozen north giving rise to a vile sorcerer such as Zumog Phoom."

    Phoom isn't the only powerful necromancer to grow up in Wrothgar as we see in Karver's Legendary Figures: Thukhozod the Eternal. In addition, the book Strange Rituals of the Orsimer describe Orcish burial rites and a fetishistic, almost-necromantic,  practice known as the Death Forge, a means of empowering weapons with the remains of their dead:

    I finally found an old Orc female who was willing to share some of their death rituals with me. Specifically, she was willing to discuss the practice of "beshkar-nor", the death-forge. Apparently, what happens to the bodies of Orcs of great stature-leaders, heroes, and revered elders-is that they undergo a process known as the death-forge. The old Orc described the process in confusing terms. I'm not sure if the blood is drained from the body and saved for later use or if the entire body is burned and reduced to ash, and then the ash is saved. Either way, the saved remains wind up mixed into molten metal, allowing the revered Orc to become one with a powerful tool or weapon, usually a sword, hammer, or shield.

    Bretons get analysed next, the book mentioning witch kings that excite the imagination. In the Third era, we can perhaps  see an example of one of these in the form of the Lich Lord of Dwynnen, defeated in the Battle of Wightmoor. The Bretons are of Nedic descent, and the Reachmen - the Witchmen of High Rock - practice a very primal magic which often includes necromancy as we have seen in TES V Skyrim. 

  • June 6, 2019

    Shit Phil, there's some insanely fascinating stuff here. The Ooze and the relationship Khajiit have with bones are of particular note to me because they're just...well so fascinating. It's interesting to see how varied the reactions to Necromancy are across the different Races and even how some treat their own Necromancers versus other Races practising it (or using it on other Races versus their own). There's just so much variety here and you've brought it all together in a really fascinating way. 

  • Member
    July 5, 2019
    Damn, fascinating. Hell, even IRL, Necromancy wasn't always seen as evil in folklore and myth