The Elder Scrolls game universe was created by Bethesda Softworks, beginning with the release of Arena (1994), then Daggerfall (1996), Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006), Skyrim (2011), before passing the torch to Zenimax Online for the MMO Elder Scrolls Online (2014), with a number of expansion packs released in the spaces between development of numbered titles. All of the games take place in the land of Tamriel with its nine regions united (at times contentiously) under the flag of the Septim (aka Third) Empire: Skyrim, High Rock, Hammerfell, Summerset Isle, Valenwood, Elsweyr, Black Marsh, Morrowind, and Cyrodiil.
The first Emperor of that Third Empire is Tiber Septim, a Dragonborn, who upon his death was deified as the god Talos, one of the Nine Divines. As in the real world where the busts of political figures often grace currency, so it is with the coin of the realm, the Septim (obverse pictured below).
The bust of the Emperor faces right, sports a goatee and medium-length hair. The bust is set atop a starburst flanked roughly to the left and right with a diamond lozenge set on a circular band separating the field from a crenelated border. A motto runs top and bottom in all caps: “The Empire is Law” and “The Law is Sacred”. Turn the coin over:
The reverse of the Septim shows the stylized dragon familiar to visitors of Tamriel. It is the Seal of Akatosh, the symbol placed over a starburst surrounded by a circular border and crenelated edge. A single diamond lozenge is at the top of the circle. The seal is flanked left and right with another inscription: “Praise be, Akatosh” and “All the Divines”. The dragon symbol gives Septims their nickname: “Drakes”. Compare this to the Canadian dollar coin with the loon, affectionately called “loonies”.
The Septim is literally the coin of the realm. It has the appearance of either gold or electrum, but is considered to be gold in Tamriel. Its value is of one gold piece. Absent from these coins is the mint stamp or mark of manufacture. For a world as large as Tamriel, there are no mints to be found, not even in each region’s capital cities. The coins are theoretically limitless, and they weigh nothing in a player’s inventory, not taking up space in the adventurer’s pack (or that of his/her carl (i.e., valet)). There are no other denominations of currency, and change cannot be made. Despite the intersection of multiple cultures from regions, at least one of which joined the Empire by treaty (Morrowind), the Septim rules as currency.
Septims are found throughout the Empire, and are acquired by the player as a reward for completing a quest. Players can also loot corpses for varying amounts of gold, and have the ability to pickpocket. Septims can often be found in coin purses and loose on furniture in homes and hideouts as well as in tombs. It is curious that coins bearing the image of Tiber Septim can also be found in Nordic Tombs and on Draugr (undead, entombed warriors in Skyrim), both of which predate the Empire’s foundation.
As mentioned above, there are no mints, but there are a scant handful of treasuries scattered throughout the games: Markarth, Redoran, and Hlaalu. The gold used to mint the coins apparently comes from the hundreds of mines scattered throughout Tamriel, but playthrough demonstrates that none of these are explicitly dedicated to the mining of gold for Imperial coinage. The mines merely serve as spaces in which to have adventures and complete quests, and have nothing to do with the in-world economy or the creation of coinage to fuel the engines of the Empire itself.
For such a vast world as Tamriel, I personally would have expected a diversity of currency. On further exploration, I found that there are actually two other forms outside of the Septim: moon sugar and Dwemer coins.
Below is an image of moon sugar crystals taken from Morrowind:
Moon sugar makes its first appearance in Elder Scrolls III, and is the ingredient from which the illegal drug skooma is made. In the impossibly vast world of Morrowind, 24 samples of moon sugar can be recovered from various locations (by looting boxes and barrels) and non-player characters (NPCs): Sarys Ancestral Tomb, Addamasartus, Yasamsi, Zanabi, Unexplored Shipwreck, Panat, and as quest rewards for “Blades Trainer” and “Inner Beauty”. Moon sugar is the underground currency of bandits and in later games by some members of the Khajiit race. Players who acquire moon sugar may opt to use it as an ingredient for alchemy, in which it has the following properties: Fortify Speed, Dispel, Drain Attribute, Drain Luck. Players may also sell moon sugar for Septims. Moon sugar in and of itself cannot be used directly to purchase goods.
The other non-Septim currency found in the Elder Scrolls universe is the Dwemer coin (pictured below).
Found exclusively in Morrowind, the Dwemer coin can be found in only one of the 15,000 places that can be explored in the game: Ald Sotha, a Daedric shrine for the Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon, located NE of Vivec City within the region of the Ascadian Isles, once the Home of House Sotha.
The coin appears to be of silver and only the obverse is rendered in the game and sports a “Celtic” knot pattern inside a double-ring, dotted border. The coin, unlike Septims, does have a weight of 0.05 in a player’s inventory. It cannot be used in the game as currency, but can be kept as a curiosity or vended for gold. There are two denominations of Dwemer coins, one valued at 50 gold, and the other at 125 gold. Nothing more is known of these coins, and little is known of the Dwemer race that created them long before the Third Empire.
As described in the Elder Scrolls Wiki, the Dwemer were “an advanced race and civilization, and were far ahead of other races and civilizations. They were well known for their revolutionary developments, skills and achievements in technology, engineering, crafting methods, metalwork, stonework, architecture, city-planning, science, mathematics, magic, and the academic arts.” The Dwemer disappeared in 1E 700 without explanation, leaving behind the remains of their technology, and also scant examples of their currency.
It remains to be seen (for me anyway) if Elder Scrolls Online continues the tradition of a single-currency realm, or if other coins (as real money or as artifacts) will appear. Thinking on that, I was curious to see how the appearance of these Septims changed from game to game. In Oblivion, players don’t really see coins at all, and instead add numeric gold to inventory, which is flagged with a Septim icon, a stylized version of the bust on the coin so well rendered in Skyrim:
Going further back to Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the graphics were such that gold coins could only be rendered in yellow and brown bits, usually in piles of loot (see below):
With Skyrim, and now with Elder Scrolls Online, the photorealistic graphics make showing detailed designs easy, which in turn drives the need for graphic design when it comes to even the most everyday thing found in the gaming world: money. For such an omnipresent object, it’s exceedingly rare for gamers to take screencaptures of the currency they find, but for those who play Skyrim and ESO, they are rewarded with something so well realized that the coins have jumped from the games and into real-world production (see below):
Several Septims are currently on auction at Ebay going for nearly US$40, most from the collector’s edition of Oblivion. With sweetroll recipes and Skyrim helmets being crafted in the real world, it is no surprise that Septims have also followed suit and arguably command their own value in a strange kind of real/virtual currency exchange.
This post is my first foray into exploring the use and appearance of coins and currency in games. Please send comments, questions, and corrections to me via the Comments, or to archaeogaming at gmail dot com.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming