The iconic RPG series gets its name from powerful ancient artifacts known as The Elder Scrolls, which recount past and future events simultaneously.
Ancient documents It takes its name from actual elements in the realm of Nirn, but Elder Scrolls are rarely seen or used in games. In fact, only the two most recent entries, I forget and Skryim, let the player see an Elder Scroll. The Elder Scrolls are immensely powerful artifacts that tell the events of the past and the future simultaneously and have been coveted throughout history, changing hands as different inhabitants of Tamriel seek to divine prophecies from them.
The origins of The Elder Scrolls are unknown. Many refer to the Scrolls as the Aedric Prophecies, believing that they are creations of the Aedra, immortal beings who elaborated Ancient documents‘realm of existence. However, this is likely a religious interpretation of the Elder Scrolls’ origins, as a subset of Aedra is worshiped as a pantheon of gods throughout Tamriel, the Nine Divines. Although the Elder Scrolls may or may not have been created by the Aedra, the artifacts are known to have a close connection to Akatosh, the Dragon God of Time.
On Skyrim, Paarthurnax explains that dragons are especially susceptible to the powers of the Elder Scrolls, as they are descended from Akatosh. It was an Ancient Scroll that sent Alduin through time from the Merethic Age, before the age of Men in the Tamriel timeline, to the Fourth Age, where it instigated the Dragon Crisis in Skyrim. This use of an Elder Scroll demonstrates their powerful nature and shows that they are capable of much more than predicting the future, although the full extent of their abilities is unknown, as they have a strong relationship with the flow of time itself.
What exactly are The Elder Scrolls?
Physically speaking, Elder Scrolls are actual scrolls, usually gold in color and quite large. There are numerous Elder Scrolls, although it is impossible to know their exact number. The scrolls can be physically stored, but their number is uncountable as they appear to exist both within and beyond the physical realm. Any attempt to count the number of Elder Scrolls has been unsuccessful as they apparently change places and numbers at random.
The most common use of The Elder Scrolls is as a reference for past and future events. Each ancient scroll contains a variety of possible futures, but once a prophecy is fulfilled, it is permanently recorded on the scrolls. This makes The Elder Scrolls an objective record of past events. These records of the past are immutable by any known magic. In «Guessing the Elders [sic],” one of Ancient documents‘books in the game I forget, an anonymous author posits that reading an Elder Scrolls is like glimpsing the flow of time itself. Due to its extremely mystical and unknowable nature, reading an Ancient Scroll is not just a matter of opening one.
Being able to decipher the contents of an Elder Scrolls requires years, often decades, of preparation and training. According to Justinius Poluhnius’s “Effects of the Elder Scroll”, those who attempt to read an Elder Scroll unprepared have reported seeing little more than messy runes and unfamiliar engravings, often arranged in the form of constellations and birth signs. Some are able to decipher the Elder Scrolls without extensive training, but go permanently blind or go insane in the process. Although they may have lost their sight, these readers who managed to retain their minds are granted a fragment of the knowledge contained in the Ancient Scroll.
Deciphering an Elder Scroll with proper training will only grant one knowledge of possible future events. Every attempt to read an Elder Scroll is a transaction of insight or sanity in exchange for a deeper understanding of its content. The Graybeards in Skyrim’s High Hrothgar consider the study of the Elder Scrolls to be blasphemous. Only the Dwemer, a bygone race, were able to read The Elder Scrolls without side effects thanks to advanced technologies like Lexicon. The Last Dragonborn may attempt to read an Ancient Scroll in Skyrim, but he will only be blinded if Paarthurnax does not adequately prepare him for the task.
Who keeps The Elder Scrolls throughout Tamriel’s history?
Throughout the ages of Tamriel, the Elder Scrolls have fallen into many different hands. Wars were fought for their control and prophecies that would remain dormant for thousands of years were guessed with them. By the time the main line Ancient scrolls games take place, divine artifacts are possessed primarily by the Cult of the Ancestral Moth, although the nature of the Scrolls makes it impossible for the Cult to possess them all. Under the control of the Septim Dynasty in the Third Age, the Cult of the Ancestral Moth has the Ancient Scrolls in the Imperial Library of the White Gold Tower, although the Cult of the Ancestral Moth is an ancient organization. According to tradition, only moth priests can read the ancient scrolls and do so to decipher divine prophecies for the emperor.
Only a select number within the Cult of the Ancestral Moths have the ability to decipher the ancient scrolls. These chosen to be moth priests are taken to one of the many sacred ancestral groves throughout Tamriel, where they use a special knife to remove the bark from the chant trees. The bark is then ground and spread over the bodies of the priests to attract the ancient moths, whose ancient magic allows them to read the ancient scrolls. The moth priests then dedicate their lives to periodically reading the ancient scrolls and reflecting on the knowledge they have been given, while their vision gradually fails.
Eventually, each Moth Priest will participate in what is known as the Penultimate Reading, an act of prophecy where the only knowledge given by the Elder Scroll is the warning that the next reading will be the Priest’s last. The Ultimate Reading then imbues the Moth Priest with final illumination, permanently blinding them. Moth Priests who have been blinded leave the Imperial Library, leave Ancient documents‘Imperial City, and live the rest of their lives in the Temple of the Ancestor Moths in the Jerall Mountains of Cyrodiil. There, the priests feed the moths that gave them the power to read the Elder Scrolls, and they weave their silk into powerful garments that allow cult adepts to acquire limited powers of foreknowledge without being granted permission to read the Elder Scrolls.
Despite the long tradition of the Cult of the Ancestral Moth, there are inexplicable examples of others using the Elder Scrolls for more than just a prophecy. On I forget, the Gray Fox of the Thieves Guild tasks the Hero of Kvatch with stealing an Ancient Scroll from the Imperial Library. With him, Gray Fox breaks the curse of Nocturnal’s Cowl and restores his identity as Corvus Umbranox, the Earl of Anvil. How Gray Fox uses the Elder Scroll is never explicitly addressed, but it seems to contradict the lengthy training moth priests must go through.
Following the events of I forget, the Elder Scrolls are inexplicably scattered throughout Tamriel, disappearing from the Imperial Library. The Last Dragonborn later also uses an Elder Scroll to look through Time Wound and learn Dragonrend’s scream to defeat Alduin. This is equally contradictory to the actions of the Gray Fox, but the prophesied role of the Dragonborn in the history of Ancient documents, to save Nirn from Alduin’s destruction, makes it much more plausible that they can use the artifact.