Vivec, Amaranth, Life
Part of what mystifies many people about Vivec and the Dunmer Velothi religion is the idea of Daedra Worship. Why would anyone willingly worship a force that can be called, at the best of times, indifferent?
The answer lies in the general philosophy of Daedra worship, one that is echoed in the Scripture of the Sword . It is the quest to rid your garden of weeds, to cut yourself into better shapes. The Sword is Discipline, self-improvement, slicing the fat from the lean.
How does Daedra worship contribute to this? Vivec knew, and he demonstrates it by submitting to the will of Molag Bal in Sermon 14. By continuously supplicating yourself to a higher power that seeks to harm you, you can learn how to remain unharmed.
Let's talk about Dark Souls for a second. Don't let that segue give you whiplash.
You've fought hard to a new boss and the moment you step into the room it swings a sword and kills you dead. Instead of giving up, or fighting an easier boss, you just head back in there again, and you get killed repeatedly until you figure out how to survive in that demon's presence. Perhaps you seek the council of others who have come before you, and they help as they can. By the time you've killed it, you're leaner for the learning.
This is what is meant by the concept of being "cut" into better shapes. The cutting is painful, but the end result is worth the pain. If you want to lose weight, you run, you exercise. The exercise is painful, but the effort is worth the work. Nothing easy is worth doing. All worthwhile self-improvement is going to involve pain. Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
Daedra worship is very similar. To understand how the Dunmer choose to worship their Daedric Lords, we have to talk a little bit about BDSM.
Is your neck okay? Maybe you should sit down.
One of the more difficult concepts to grasp in Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism is also the most obvious: why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through torture? The answer is in the Dominant / Submissive (Dom & Sub) relationship, and the concept of the Safe Word.
A Submissive is subjected to discipline by the Dominant. All kinds of horrible things can and will happen. But when things go too far, the Sub can say the Safe Word, and the Dom will stop performing. What does all that mean?
The person who is truly in control of the situation is the Submissive, not the Dominant.
The Dunmer are the Subs. They submit themselves to the dangers and torture of the Daedra, the Doms. But only voluntarily. Don't like the way one particular Daedra works? Go worship a different one.
Of course, some Daedra don't quite get the concept of the Safe Word. Like bad Dominant performers, they don't get many Subs. You know which Princes I mean... There's four of them: BAL, DAGON, MALAC, SHEOG. The Four Corners are considered "Trouble" because (among other reasons) they're far too selfish, crazy, destructive, or irresponsible to respect the Dom / Sub relationship. You've got to be a particular brand of awesome to submit to the will of those four.
In the 36 Lessons, Vivec tells us directly how we can benefit from submission:
"The last time I heard his voice, showing the slightest sign of impatience, I learned to control myself and submit to the will of others. Afterwards, I dared to take on the sacred fire and realized there was no equilibrium with the ET'ADA. They were liars, lost roots, and the most I can do is to be an interpreter into the rational."
Vivec submitted to Molag Bal's dominance (I could argue that he is the most domineering of the Daedra) and learned to control himself. He became more disciplined by allowing himself to be disciplined, to be cut into a better shape. And in so doing, he took another step down the path to attaining CHIM. A huge step, but at a huge risk, and Vivec was only able to survive that encounter because he had already attained a considerable measure of Mastery. Among the numerous lessons here: Don't submit to a dominant force you can't control.
Remember what we discussed in the previous section: Discipline is the act of being cut into a better shape. It is a painful transformation, but nothing easy is worth doing. I'm hammering this point home because I'm going to address it again in the last section.
So why, when Vivec attained CHIM, did he not ascend to Amaranth? Surely he had all the tools at his disposal?
The answer is Love, both the 36 Lessons, Vivec-ish kind, and the traditional affectionate kind.
Vivec says "I denounce the alienation of the Cloven Duality with a hammer," the division between the Divine and the Mortal. He says "I AM AND I ALL ARE WE," and that is not hyperbole. He knows that the Daedra are part of the structure of the Wheel, and as such are part of the trap that keeps Mortals from attaining Divinity. But he also calls them "The Key and the Lock," because the worshipping of Daedra contains the key to freedom from the prison of Mortality: discipline, and the knowledge and ability that comes from it.
By testing themselves against the Daedra, the Dunmer can regain their freedom. Remember my article about the Black Hands, about learning to control Logic and Terror? These are only a few of the tools the Dunmer must master before they can survive the denial of the Godhead's truth.
But if Vivec became an Amaranth, what could he offer his people? Sure, a paradise of safety and bliss, but that would be a temporary paradise, because his people had not become enlightened, as he had.
Vivec knew that everyone must attain CHIM. Everyone must endure the torture of discipline until they can become as enlightened as he. This is the process for which Lorkhan created Mundus: not just the evolution of Mortal into Divinity, but the union of Mortality and Divinity. And that is Love.
All of Mundus must become Divine. Love must be done. Love requires discipline, and discipline is the product of pain. Therefore, Vivec did not become the Amaranth, he did not become the Easy Way Out, because to do so would have meant cursing all Mortals to a life of death and blindness. They would have grown soft, complacent, bitter, angry, rebellious. That is not enlightenment. It's not bliss. It's a curse far truer than anything the Aedra could ever design.
Instead he became the Anticipation of Mephala, a Daedric echo. Part of the system, a kind but fair warden of a cruel jail. Vivec "failed" to become Amaranth so that he could show us how to do it.
This is the theme that flows in the undercurrents of the Dunmer culture. They are in love with evil. And this seems to other TES cultures to be an evil act in itself, but it is far more clever and calculated than that. The Dunmer are thieves, and they are stealing power from the Daedra by pretending to be submissive. They exploit the Daedra, who act the way they do because they are incapable of doing otherwise.
Maybe this reminds you of other Dark Elf cultures in other games, other universes? Maybe now you begin to understand just how right Kirkbride & company got it.
Part of the magnificence of Morrowind's contribution to our culture is its philosophy. That, and enabling me to write incredibly hyperbolic sentences like the previous one.
But this concept of the Dunmer religion is useful in real life. The idea of embracing Evil, that which would harm us, because with knowledge and ability we gain the confidence to submit ourselves to increasingly harmful experiences with the intent to allow them to improve us. That improvement is called competence, ability, mastery, learning.
Taking a new, challenging position at your job? Perhaps you know it will keep you up late, working until the early hours of the morning. It will sometimes feel like torture. Do it.
Want to lose ten pounds? Get abs like a Greek statue? Time to put yourself through a more intense physical routine. It's going to hurt. And you'll love it.
Is your life kicking you in the throat? Things seem hard, like you can't carry on. Remember: you will survive. You must, because this pain will make you better for it.
When I told him about the lowest point in my life, a man I admire told me: "This is work, this is work." Work is hard. Anything worth doing is hard. Murder the one who promises you an easier life.
This was Vivec's realization, at the moment of CHIM: Mundus is hell. All our mortal existence is a dangerous prison designed not to destroy us, but to toughen us, to make us harder, better, faster, stronger. To "rescue" mortality from that prison before it had done its work would have been a punishment, not a reward.
Embrace your agony. Love it. Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something. But it cuts us into better shapes.