What is Lycanthropy?
In TES Lycanthropy occurs when an individual becomes the physical host for one of Hircine’s beast-spirits. Specifically, the events of the Companion’s questline in TESV: Skyrim, indicate that the beast-spirit does not attach itself to the body of its host, but to the soul, as death, the soul’s separation from the body, does not separate the individual from the beast-spirit.
We also know that lycanthropy is not a disease but a daedric curse, or blessing, and so is not affected by “cure disease” effects and that it is Hircine’s method of claiming souls.*
What are the Affects of Lycanthropy?
The host gains unnatural speed, strength, and endurance, but the personality of the host is also affected. While “Living with Lycanthropy” counsels that it is necessary to practice restraint against the fury and hunger that come with the “blessing” of lycanthropy, not everyone’s will seems to be strong enough to maintain such restraint indefinitely, especially when alone.* But it is not just the hunger, the call of the hunt, or the sudden fury, that the lycanthrope experiences due to the addition of a beast-spirit to their soul. An excerpt from journal-type entries of “The Pack of Archon’s Grove” indicates a broader impact on the reasoning of a lycanthrope than might be assumed from the Companion’s questline.
Speaking of gaining numbers, I’m glad our den mother is finally listening to reason. We need to strengthen our pack, and the only way to do that is through force. There are few here who would freely accept our blessing. Capturing and turning travelers may be risky, but we must fortify our numbers in case of attack. (The Pack of Archon’s Grove, ESO)
The language used, in the above quotation, indicates that the wolf-spirit is playing a significant role not only in this set of decisions but in defining the situation of a reduced “pack” size as a problem that needs fixing even if it is by force.
It is this exact issue that causes Skjor and Aela to go against Kodlak and initiate the dragonborn. A choice that suggest that the Companions greater control over when they change hasn’t lessened the impact of the beast-spirit on their reasoning.
What do we know about Beast Spirits?
- They originate from the Hircine’s realm in Oblivion, which means they are daedra.
- Their connection to a soul allows Hircine to claim it.
- They always take animal form.
Yep, that’s pretty much it.
What do we know about Daedra?
They are the natural denizens of the Oblivion realms, of which, broadly speaking, there are two “functional” types:
Lord Fa-Nuit-Hen says, “…In common with the greater Princes, my realm of Maelstrom and myself are indistinguishable — my pocket reality is a projection of my mind, nature, and will… There are [also] physical realms, such as Infernace, home of the flame atronachs, that exist as collective extensions of their numerous, less-powerful inhabitants. (Lore Master’s Archive: Q&A, Oct 19, 2015)
From this one can extrapolate that those daedra – like atronachs or dremora – that serve multiple princes originate in realms organized by collective will. They are autonomous beings oath-bound* to the service of a prince. While those daedra native to the realm of a daedric prince are – literally – manifestations of that prince’s thoughts.* Hircine’s beast-spirits, as we lack any example of them serving other princes, most likely fall into this second category.
How sapient is a lesser daedra?
Assessing a daedra’s intelligence isn’t easy. We are told that atronachs are “highly intelligent” while scamps and spider daedra are only “semi-intelligent”,* which means that simply being humanoid, or not, doesn’t relate to the relative intelligence of a daedra.
The author of “The Insatiable” would have us believe that:
Daedra are creatures of purpose. They embody a need to be fulfilled. (The Insatiable, ESO)
In some ways this simply reiterates Lord Fa-Nuit-Hen’s description of what an Oblivion Realm is or Lyranth the Foolkilller’s assertion that:
In Oblivion, order and hierarchy are wrested from the roil of chaotic creatia by the imposition of the will of the mover.*
(Lyranth the Foolkiller, Q&A)
So, it would seem, those types of daedra native to the realm of a daedric prince - as manifestations of a daedric prince’s organizing principles for his realm - would each fill an ecological niche within that realm and be the embodiment of the need to fulfill the requirements of that niche. Their level of sentience/sapience would, likely, be only that required to fulfill their purpose and their free will would likely be close to nonexistent as they are literally part of the prince’s mind. On the other hand those daedra native to realms made real through collective will would likely range from bestial to highly intelligent, depending on species, but all of them, by definition, would exhibit free will.
How sapient is a beast-spirit?
Beast-spirits, as far as we know, are native to Hircine’s Hunting Grounds. As such they are fragments of Hircine’s mind and so lack free will. Similarly their level of intelligence would depend upon how much intelligence is necessary for them to fulfill their job of claiming souls for Hircine. So how much intelligence is required to change a person into a man-beast bound, forever, to the Hunting Grounds?
As of the date I wrote this I am unaware of any direct evidence of the intelligence of beast-spirits without a host. On the other hand we know that the feral instincts and physical attributes of the beast-spirit are passed on to their host. So, logically, if the beast-spirits are fully sapient beings, capable of reasoning and judgment, you’d expect their sapience to be added to that of their host in the same way that their instincts are.
But the lycanthropes of TES show very little awareness of anything but the emotional instability their condition causes. Never in the literature, or game play, is it suggested that they recognize that there is some non-human logic at play in the concept of forcing people to drink your blood in order to be better friends. Or that converting the unwilling might lead to unfortunate group dynamics within their “packs”.
If anything the lycanthropes of TES are profoundly lacking in self-awareness of everything up to and including their own shift in vocabulary. The author of the “Pack of Archon’s Grove” missive actually indicates that, though the pack does not need to fear competition from other packs, the member’s overwhelming need to strengthen their pack has actually driven their “den mother” to allow them to forcefully recruit travelers. An action utterly opposed to the rational, reasoned, earlier statement that playing it smart will keep them safe and out of the public eye. Forcefully recruiting people is not playing it smart and so I can only assume that their beast-spirits are immune to that sort of reasoning. It would also seem that the logical reasoning of the lycanthrope will, with time, be overwhelmed by the needs of the beast-spirit and they may not even be aware of a shift in their priorities or that their werewolf actions run counter to their stated – more human - goals.
Based on this I would submit that the beast-spirits have instinct, and basic sentience, but are in no way sapient and that the lycanthrope cannot truly communicate with their beast-spirit in any constructive fashion. (No matter how much fun that trope is for adding angst.)
Hircine’s beast-spirits are mind-altering soul-parasites from Oblivion that are, quite literally, tiny parts of Hircine’s mind.
Side Note: The Circle
It is interesting that the slide of the Archon’s Grove werewolf pack, away from standard cultural modes of thought and action, is not observed in the Companions. But the Companions have something the Archon’s Grove pack does not: non-lycanthrope pack members. My reading of TES lore would suggest that lycanthropes, even in groups, without non-lycanthropes around to provide normalizing social pressure, will fail to notice how many of the givens upon which their reasoning is built have been altered by the addition of the beast-spirit to their soul. The members of the Circle, unlike the members of the Archon’s Grove pack, remain fairly human because the rest of the Companions are around to call them out on any unusual behavior.
For a real world example of mind altering parasites (yes, they exist) consider toxoplasmosis. (Warning: toxoplasmosis is a fairly disturbing, and surprisingly widespread, condition. You have been warned. Video)