Table of Contents

Legal Principles

The study and application of necromancy is an authorized discipline in the Empire, and as such it is not illegal. However, it is subject to several kinds of legal restrictions both across the Empire and in specific provinces, and it is quite unpopular across most cultures and population groups.

The following legal principles apply to the practice of necromancy:

  1. The body and spirit of Empire citizens are protected as property by Imperial law. Much like property, they are protected against theft, but are subject to the rules of transactions.
  2. The legal ownership of souls and bodies can be defined by contracts and testaments. In most cases this is purely a defensive formality, though in domains that permit it, a citizen can offer another the use of their body and soul after death (subject to contractual restrictions and obligations).
  3. Ownership of body and soul can thus be bought and sold, though using these remains for necromantic purposes is not permitted everywhere.
  4. Citizens in the custody of the Imperial penitentiary system can lose the rights to their physical remains. After their execution, their bodies become the property of the relevant Imperial authorities, who can (in some cases) provide them to accredited necromancers.
  5. The soul of a citizen is always protected, and can not be made forfeit through criminal action.
  6. Public display of undead revenants is widely prohibited. Exceptions are made for permitted study, religious affairs, and some matters of state.
  7. In some provinces and states, transactions involving body and soul are explicitly forbidden by local law. In other places it is technically permitted, or even practiced by authorities. Likewise, the study and practice of necromancy is also subject to various local laws.

Types of Necromancy

Sacred and Philosophical

When speaking of necromancy, a distinction must be made between various traditions common across Tamriel, the most important difference being that between sacred and philosophical necromancy.

Sacred necromancy is best exemplified by the practices of the Dunmer, who raise the dead as part of their religious practices. Many other rites across Tamriel can be classified as sacred necromancy, and some scholars claim that all races and cultures have their own form of sacred necromancy. On the whole, local customs will be very permissive to these forms of necromancy, and will often not consider it a type of necromancy at all.

Philosophical necromancy is the study and practice of necromancy from an arcano-scholarly perspective, for the betterment of mankind and the increase of knowledge. The ability to raise the dead is considered a natural phenomenon, and is as such subject to study within a safe, controlled environment. In areas where necromancy is considered taboo, this is the most common target of popular ire and legal restrictions.

Schools and Traditions

An alternative classification of necromany is that of different cultural “schools”.

The most infamous of these is the so-called Mannimarcean tradition, practiced by outlaws across Tamriel but most common in Summerset, Thras, and High Rock. This form was pioneered by the Elven necromancer-king Mannimarco, and is philosophically underpinned by the use of necromancy as a tool to reach immortality. This form of outlawed necromancy is not considered a part of either sacred or philosophical traditions, though in the minds of many people there is no distinction between this and the philosophical tradition. Mannimarco is often credited with the invention of lichdom – a dubious claim, though he no doubt perfected the process and published his discoveries for others to replicate. Likewise, it is often said that his methods of creating revenants are the most practical and reliable. It is an open secret that, while Mannimarco is shunned and his followers branded as evil, most of the underpinnings of legitimate necromantic study borrow from his older works.

Other notable schools are Dunmeri necromancy, characterized by the creation of composite bonewalkers and other revenants from multiple sources, and the Nibenese practice, which focuses on the creation of taxidermied simulacra of living creatures for aesthetic purposes. The making of ancestor silk from the souls of the dead is also a part of this tradition, though Imperials do not consider it necromancy from a cultural perspective. The creation of Draugr is often seen as a distinct Nordic tradition, though it is no longer practiced today and the true nature and origin of Draugr is uncertain. Some have proposed the existence of an Argonian tradition of necromancy, said to be focused on the capturing of souls in unfertilized eggs. The extreme ends of Altmeri life-prolonging measures are also considered a type of necromancy by some.

Provincial Attitudes

While necromancy is legal, it is not safe to practice everywhere. Few citizens of the Empire have an enlightened view of the practice. Even in places where neutral or positive opinions towards necromancy exist, public opinion can quickly be swayed against someone suspected of raising the dead at random. Among less well informed parts of the public, necromancers are widely confused with vampires and other occult threats.

While social pressure against a (real or suspected) necromancers usually takes covert forms in civilized areas, this is not the case in the fringes of the Empire. Indeed, there is even record of Legion officers sanctioning the murder of necromancers as a means of placating local sentiments (see: Sorkvild the Raven). Even within the Mages Guild, a common opinion is that practicing necromancers are bad for business and cast the organization in a bad light.

Among the provinces, Morrowind and Hammerfell stand out as exceptionally hostile to necromancy. The former has outright banned the practice through the terms of the Armistice, on punishment of death. Most Dunmer take extreme offense to comparisons between philosophical necromancy and their ancestor worship practices – to the Dunmer, ancestor worship, including the making of bonewalkers and summoning of spirits, is not and will never be necromancy. Ancestor veneration is holy and pious, while necromancy is godless, perverse sorcery. The traditional Dunmer practices of sanctified invocation of spiritual and bodily remains to protect sacred and family property are universally approved and protected by Temple and Imperial law. However, in Telvanni districts, necromancy is privately practiced in defiance of Temple censure.

Hammerfell has a less airtight legal foundation, but many city-states and principalities have introduced similar harsh laws on their own accord. Others (especially Forebears) have neglected to do so, either due to Imperial influences, or because they consider it a waste of time – worship of Tu'whacca/Arkay is so strong that very few corpses in Hammerfell are exempt from Arkay’s protection.

Valenwood and Summerset are similarly hostile, though the latter allows for exceptions so that a select few within the upper castes can study necromancy as a way to understand mortality. Like most Elven nations, their ancestor worship practices include certain necromantic aspects, though less overt than those of the Dunmer. Neither province has enough standing in the Empire to make necromancy itself illegal, but they actively seek to restrict it through social actions. Among the Valenwood tribes, opinions on necromancy vary from tribe to tribe, though they have been generally negative in light of the Usurper’s actions.

In Skyrim, High Rock, and the newly founded Orsinium, public opinion towards necromancy is universally negative, though less virulent than other provinces. Indeed, some of the Imperial estates within Skyrim have in the past instituted the Imperial practice of donating the corpses of criminals for necromantic study. While these laws have never been rescinded, the practice has fallen into disuse nearly everywhere, and no Nordic lord would think of restarting it. In High Rock, King Gothryd of Daggerfall has considered instating corpse donation, and there are rumors that Gortwog of the Orcs is considering it too. It is a public secret that almost all noble rulers within the Iliac Bay area have dealings with necromancers, often even with Mannimarco himself.

The Khajiit are considered friendly, or rather, indifferent towards necromancy, legal or otherwise. Fresh corpses are readily available for sale in many towns and port cities. Argonians, likewise, take a philosophical approach to the art. In the lawless, remote regions of these provinces, many necromancers can work almost undisturbed by the authorities or the locals. Many Sload maintain a presence in Argonia. It should be noted that many classically-educated necromancers refuse to work with Argonian or Khajiit corpses as they are inexperienced or prejudiced towards their physiological differences.

In Cyrodiil, the question of necromancy is not as tied up in religious sentiments as elsewhere. While the priests of Arkay are, like everywhere else, staunch opponents of necromancy, the priesthood of Julianos takes a much more tolerant position, as they espouse no moral philosophy other than the goodness of knowledge – any knowledge. Smaller legal cults, such as the worship of Nephtia, also dabble in both sacred and philosophical necromancy.

Testaments and Contracts

Contracts handling the postmortem ownership of body and soul are routinely handled by the Guild of Barristers. In fact, the legal ownership of the soul is a common addendum in some Imperial testaments, though rather than a deity or afterlife these tend to determine which silk-house or psychopomp cult is to be entrusted with handling the Arkayn duties and soul manipulations which are part of a common burial within their tradition.

Less common (though by no means rare) are contracts handling the sale and acquisition of the body and soul by practicing necromancers. As a rule, this sort of contract arrangement occurs only in Cyrodiil, though it has been known to appear infrequently in places where such practices are not explicitly outlawed, such as Elsweyr, Argonia, and some of the Breton kingdoms.

This practice essentially serving as something like a long-term loan – a licensed necromancer agrees to pay a sum of money, which the debtor can either pay back (with interest), or, if they fail to do so before their demise, have their remains be used in necromantic study. Other, rarer contracts do away with the loan part entirely, and give blanket postmortem ownership of the body to the necromancer.

Most of these contracts have a time limit, privileging the necromancer to the use of these mortal remains for a period of five to ten years before they are expected to arrange a burial. However, these stipulations are rarely enforced, and most revenants created under these contracts tend to be destroyed utterly long before the contract runs out.

Such arrangements may seem predatory and unfair, but for a necromancer there is a real risk that the investment will not pan out: the debtor’s body may be unrecoverable, too old, or mutilated by the cause of death.

If a necromancer dies before his debtor, the latter is customarily freed from his obligation – although this is not a principle enshrined in law, but rather the logical result of the necormancer’s inheritors not having the licenses – or moral flexibility - to traffic in mortal remains. Still, there are some known cases where the body was claimed by the descendant of a necromancer, either for personal use or to sell on the open market. This is considered a legal minefield by most barristers.

Transfer of bodily or spiritual ownership is sometimes a clause in other contracts or bonds – some Nibenese aristocrats, cults, or even merchant associations expect it as a show of loyalty and submission from their agents. In these cases the intention is often not to practice necromancy, but to sell the bodies to other licensed necromancers. The legal ownership of bodies and souls by companies and similar entities is a legal grey zone.

Some people voluntarily grant ownership of their body or soul, for a variety of reasons. This is common for practicing philosophical necromancers who wish to further the cause by any means necessary. Study partners and friends in the field of necromancy sometimes pledge the use of their bodies to each other should one of them come to die first – a practice which has at times led to unfortunate ends.

Criminal Actions

Some classes of criminals and traitors can lose the rights to their corpse. After execution, their bodies become the legal property of the Empire, which can do with them as it deems fit. Most are sold to necromancers who have served the Empire in some capacity, often (though not exclusively) as Imperial Battlemages.

While bodies are in this way available, it should be noted that the souls of criminals cannot be legally made forfeit. Some individuals accused of exceptional forms of high treason (such as regicide) have in the past been condemned to obscure punishments said to affect or destroy the soul itself (ancestralcide, zero-sum, etc.) but these events and the laws that mandated them are an Imperial state secret.

This reliable flow of young, strong, and relatively intact research material has tempted many less resourceful students to join the Imperial Legion. However, this is a hard-won privilege, only available to a lucky few who can boast of accreditations and officer endorsements. Additionally, such mages are often targeted by their fellow soldiers who label aspiring necromancers “license vultures”.

The privilege can also be granted by the Emperor directly, although this is a rare occurrence – necromancers who have served the Empire in a less direct capacity are sometimes honored in this way. The archmagisters of the Mages Guild and members of the Council of Mages are often honored in this way, though depending on the political allegiance of these individuals, the Emperor has at times seen it fit to deny them the license – or even revoke it.

The practical aspect of corpse distribution is handled by a sub-branch of the Imperial Curia known as the Corporeal Redemptions Office. This office has a similar status as the Census & Excise Office, maintaining offices within imperial prisons.

In practice, corporeal redemption is run as a kind of auction house, where more intact or unusual corpses warrant higher prices. Wealthy necromancers thus tend to have first pick, leaving mere scraps for their less fortunate colleagues. Corruption within this office is rampant, with desirable corpses often being sold under the table or disappearing from the gallows.

Wild rumors claim that unscrupulous agents conspire with magistrates and prison wardens to drive up the number of eligible criminals, and that accidents tend to befall prisoners with unusual or desirable physiologies. Luckily, there traditionally exists a deep-seated animosity between the Imperial Curia-affiliated Corporeal Redemptions agents and the Imperial Legion-run prisons, which makes any such conspiracy almost impossible.

Display of the Dead

Public display of the living dead is widely prohibited. There are a handful of exceptions to this principle: the undead can be displayed for educational purposes, albeit only by accredited mages in a private setting or in academic institutions. Proof of the identity of the deceased must be available for presentation to the authorities, as well as evidence that the deceased has forfeited his rights to corporeal integrity. The practicing necromancer and his pupils must also be able to produce their licenses (in practice, a license to study necromancy is easily acquired from any number of academic sources for a small bribe).

A number of cults and other religious institutions are also exempt from this law in order to practice traditional rituals – the Order of the Ancestor Moth is a well-known example. These exemptions are based on judicial precedents preceding the Septimite system of law, usually pardons by local lords.