It’s time to gather yet again for another wonderful guest article featured on Tamriel Foundry. Much in the same spirit as Rial’s excellent treatise on the Khajiit, this comprehensive article from Saskar Darkscale illuminates the history and mythos of Argonian culture. Despite the fact that the lizard-people have become such an iconic symbol of Elder Scrolls, so much of their history and culture remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it is in-part this exotic mystique which fascinates us with them as a species.
In the Elder Scrolls V we are told that the Argonians have renamed themselves the Saxhleel – “The People of the Root” in their native tongue, Jel. As far as we know, this is the first time that Argonians have unified on such a grand scale. The end of the Oblivion Crisis heralded in the Fourth Era and this new age brought in darker times for Tamriel. In Morrowind, the Red Mountain on Vvardenfell erupted, causing massive damage of lava, ash and earthquakes. The Dunmer were quite literally, ripped asunder spiritually and geographically by this event. Before the ashes could cool, the Saxhleel invaded the land of the Dark Elves amidst their greatest tragedy. Some say they did this as an opportunity for a land grab, revenge of former enslavement by the Dunmer or both. The Saxhleel have not given Tamriel a reason for their actions but from this Morrowind-ravaged viewpoint it’s hard to imagine that the Argonians and Dark Elves would join together in an alliance during the events of the Elder Scrolls Online.
Have the Argonians always been this ruthless, vengeful and united? The Lusty Argonian Maid and The Sultry Argonian Bard are fictional testaments to the opposite, but digging through the vast lore of the Elder Scrolls series has been as challenging as traversing Black Marsh, and even then not all is revealed on the shrouded Argonians.
People of the Root
The Argonians of Black Marsh have been described as many things. They are without emotion or conscience. Alien and cold-blooded, these lizardmen only think with their cold steel or ruthless magic. Or at least this is the great misconception regarding the marsh dwellers. Just like any man or mer, the Argonians have feelings as well. The Argonians are perceived as reptilian but are technically amphibious thanks to their water breathing ability. It’s nigh impossible to talk about the Argonians without mentioning the Hist. “The People of the Root” is derived from the Hist trees, an exotic plant species found exclusively in Black Marsh. In fact, the Argonians claim the Hist are a sentient race.
We are first introduced to this sentient plant in the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion during the quest line for the Fighters Guild. As the player ascends the ranks of the mercenary guild, we are introduced to new rivals: the Blackwood Company. This rivalry soon becomes fierce and the player is sent to investigate the Company’s base in Leyawiin. Right on the southern tip of Cyrodiil and so close to Black Marsh, the predominant race in the Company was Argonian. Not only that, but the Argonians brought a Hist tree with them. This is the only account of a Hist being outside Black Marsh and it’s used cruelly. Their sap, used in Argonian rituals, was instead used to beef up the Company warriors and send them into a hallucinogenic rage. Of course their usage of the sap was their downfall by the end of the Fighters Guild quest line.
The Hist and their sap are integral to the tribal lifestyles of the Argonians within Black Marsh. The Argonians have a spiritual reverence of the Hist and these ancient trees only reside in the deepest heart of Black Marsh, where the true usage of the sap is unknown to outsiders. Having been exposed to the Hist since hatching, Argonians possess a mental connection to the Hist trees and their collective conscious. This is revealed in The Infernal City novel by Greg Keyes. Simply placing their hand on a Hist root can connect an Argonian to the trees, showing the individual visions to communicate.
“Xhuth!”—Jel Curse Word
This leads to the language the Argonians received from the Hist trees—Jel. It is a strange tongue and not just for the many hisses and grunts which only Argonians can make. Since the dawn of time, the Hist have grown in Black Marsh and despite being called sentient, they cannot walk or it has not been confirmed at this time. This gives the concept of travel, and thus time, little meaning to the Hist. The Jel language is primarily in present tense and only includes rare forms of near future and recent past statements.
“We’re all brothers in chains now.”—Ralof of Riverwood, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Although very different from the Khajiit, the Argonians have similarities to their beastman brothers. Both races are slaves to the Dunmer during the time of the Elder Scrolls Online and both are commonly perceived as back alley thugs. Like the Khajiit, they are also many subspecies of Argonians found only in their respective homelands. Unlike the cat people, these subspecies are not determined by the moons, but are just as varied.
Of the five tribes of Argonians, three of them linger in the heartland marshes. These are the strangest—the brightly scaled and needle faced Agacephs, the toad-like Paatru and the winged Sarpa. The Nagas, possible cousins of the Akaviri, are legged serpent variants of Argonians and are known to have countless needle teeth. The Archein type seems to be the tribe of Argonians, as suggested by the Argonian Account by Waughin Jarth which describes them as less strange than the other variants. One character, an Archein, is described riding a horse in one scene—a feat only the Agaceph tribe could match since they are more humanoid than the other tribes. This categorization is not confirmed, however, so the run of the mill Argonian may belong to a different tribe than the Archein.
Despite this knowledge, the lifestyle of Argonians before they were incorporated into the Second and Third Empires is largely unknown. In the dense swamps the Argonians lead tribal lives worshipping the Hist. With very little mention, there have also been titles given to Argonians seeming to govern the major cities for the Imperials. In 1E 2920, the final year of the First Era, the city of Soulrest had an Argonian Battle-Chief and Lilmoth had a King-Priest in the first century of the Third Era. Whether these are Imperial-given titles or native Argonian designations is not known. Another large information gap involves the history of Argonia—the name given to Black Marsh by those who live within and love their land.
“Everything in Tamriel flows down to Black Marsh.”—Shehs, Argonian Account by Waughin Jarth
Named after an ancient battlefield, Argonia has not only had reptilian residents within its borders. Tribes of men, the Ayleids, and the supposed fox-like cousins of the Khajiit, the Lilmothiit, once lived in Black Marsh during ancient times. The Ayleids founded the cities of Stormhold, Gideon, Archon and Thorn as the normally nomadic Lilmothiit made the city of Blackrose. How much of the Ayleid ruins remain in the four cities above is unidentified and under the Akaviri Potenate Versidae-Shae, Blackrose was transformed into an infamous jail. By the end of the First Era, the elves had either moved out or died and no sign of the Lilmothiit remained.
Besides this sparse data, not much history is written about Argonia, except by outsiders. During the Second Empire and about a century before the Second Era, Black Marsh was conquered by the Empire. But conquered is used loosely—at the Battle of Argonia, the Argonian forces fled into their dark marshes and the Imperials only asserted their rule along the perimeter of the country and inside the major cities, not being able to penetrate into the inner swamps. To the Agaceph, Paatru and Sarpa tribes, not much had changed. Tiber Septim himself treated Argonia carefully, bringing it into the Third Empire by negotiations, much like Morrowind. Even then he mimicked the Second Empire, leaving the core of Black Marsh to its own devices.
Even under Imperial rule, thugs, pirates and low lives hide in the swampy landscape and ironically the country began to be used as a location to contain the worst criminals in Tamriel. Argonia’s ports along the coasts have also provided an economic boon to the Empires.
With the waning power of the Empire during the Elder Scrolls Online, the Ebonheart Pact is uneasily made. How the Argonians treat the Dark Elves who enslave their kin is yet to be seen. However, it’s apparent soon after the Saxhleel unite to fend off Mehrunes Dagon during the Oblivion Crisis—another detail provided by Greg Keyes—that they have not forgotten how the Dunmer have treated them in the past. It’s even said that the Hist trees rallied their followers to fight the Daedric Prince and later to invade Morrowind.
As unsettling as that is, the ancient Hist have also acknowledged one singular god to exist. He is described by one Lucien Lachance as a “perfect and cloudless midnight, cold as winter and dark as shadow.” He is the Dread Father and the Patron of the Dark Brotherhood. He is Sithis and quite possibly the most reviled god on Tamriel.
In The Elder Scrolls: Arena the Black Marsh city of Gideon is referred to as a dark city with inhabitants worshipping the god Seth. This god could be the Argonian version of Sithis or a completely different deity. Nonetheless, The Elder Scrolls IV not only gave us information on the Hist, but the Argonians’ connection to Sithis.
During the Dark Brotherhood quest line in Oblivion there is an optional quest that involves hunting down and killing a renegade Shadowscale. This is the name given to Argonians who hatched under the Shadow birth sign and thereby given the ability to turn invisible. Of course this skill is invaluable to any assassin. Shadowscales are trained to be cunning and merciless killers, first employed by the kingdom of Argonia then raised in rank and given to the Dark Brotherhood to kill in the name of Sithis. Interestingly, this implies Black Marsh has some greater power over the land, at least when it comes to the business of assassination. The Dark Brother, Teinaava in Oblivion uses the phrase “kingdom of Argonia” which implies Black Marsh is more organized than originally perceived.
The last Shadowscale by the time of the Elder Scrolls V is Veezara in the Dark Brotherhood and is the only Argonian member in any guild within Skyrim. Sadly he is the last of his kind. But ESO takes places a thousand years before TESV. Fortunately it is when Potenate Versidae-Shae is assassinated in 2E 324 the Dark Brotherhood supposedly breaks off from the Morag Tong, a Dunmer guild of assassins or the Thieves Guild, different accounts stating different claims. Wherever the Dark Brotherhood was born, the Shadowscales will likely be alive and well during ESO alongside their guild. The assassination of Versidae-Shae was only the start. Just over a hundred years later, Savrien-Chorak, son of Versidae-Shae, is assassinated by either the Morag Tong or the infant Dark Brotherhood. Much like Black Marsh, the history of the Dark Brotherhood is shadowy to say the least. It is poetic that Savrien-Chorak and all of his heirs are killed in the month of Sun’s Dawn in 2E 431, kick starting the Interregnum under which Tamriel suffers during in The Elder Scrolls Online.
Official reports on the existence of the Dark Brotherhood date back to 2E 358 and 2E 412 in Fire and Darkness: The Brotherhoods of Death and The Brothers of Darkness, respectively. This confirms that the Dark Brotherhood was established before Savrien-Chorak’s murder. But most importantly, this confirms a fan favorite guild will likely be present in The Elder Scrolls Online.
With only patches of information known about the Argonians, there is much more to be desired on this mysterious race. But as the title suggests, from here on is speculation and parting thoughts for what The Elder Scrolls Online may reveal about the Argonians. TESO is the first game in the series to feature Black Marsh as an area for players to traverse. A first glimpse we get of the marshland is a jungle ruin. This ruin immediately reminded me of the Aztec pyramids in Mexico and this choice of architecture would be fresh and distinguished for the Elder Scrolls series. The influence of Ayleid architecture in some cities will also give a certain familiarity to fans. But adding Aztec-inspired cities with the worship of Sithis screamed “blood sacrifice” to me.
The Argonians’ strong connection to the Dread Father and the Dark Brotherhood has painted them in a very dark light, but keep in mind that Sithis is not their only god. They worship the Hist as well and Sithis is more pronounced thanks to him already being an established god in other cultures. The Argonians could have their own myriad of gods that have not be exposed as of yet.
The Dark Brotherhood and Sithis are of obvious importance to Argonia, but this guild being rivals to Morrowind’s Morag Tong is yet another potential line between the Argonians and the Dark Elves. By the time of The Elder Scrolls Online, the Morag Tong has been minimized to a guild that resides only within Morrowind—but the Dark Brotherhood is not limited to operate only in one country. I’m hoping these two guilds will clash somewhere within TESO and the tension between the races of the Ebonheart Pact will be apparent.
Since we’ll be traversing Black Marsh for the first time, I certainly hope we’ll be given more information on the tribes of Argonians and see them within the marshy jungles. Knowing which tribe the Argonians we know fall under would also be great to discover. And seeing what the Lilmothiit and Ayleids left behind would be great.
Another observation I made is based on the Aldmeri Dominion. This group of elves made an appearance in Skyrim and was a major antagonist at the time. But in Skyrim they are a resurgent group of the faction within The Elder Scrolls Online. Could the Saxhleel have risen during the Interregnum and become lost to history until their rebirth in The Elder Scrolls V? This unified Argonia could be the group that made the Ebonheart Pact alongside the Nords and Dark Elves.
I hope these musings have given insight and provoked thought on the veiled Argonians of Black Marsh. Finally, I know the one question on the minds of everyone reading this. Why are the Argonians Croon-Tail and Lifts-Her-Tail the main characters of fictional in-game books rife with sexual innuendo? We may be able to explore the swamps of Argonia, but even the Hist may not know the answer to this question, marsh-friend.
I’d like to express the thanks of the Tamriel Foundry community to Saskar Darkscale for his excellent insight into Argonian culture, and the role they will play in Elder Scrolls Online. Please contribute your thoughts regarding our scaly friends in the comments below