I made this post after many years of arguing about how long Elves live in the Elder Scrolls universe. It doesn’t convince everyone, but at least all the info is in one place.
There are three sources that outright state the lifespans of elves. Two of them are more or less in agreement, but the third gives a wildly different number. None are without problems. They are:
The Real Barenziah (1996) – Although this book originally appeared in Daggerfall, it has been present in every main title since, with no alterations to the pertinent paragraph:
“…contemplating the thousand-year lifespan Elves had been granted by the gods. True, few ever actually lived that long as disease and violence took their respective tolls. But they could. And one or two of them actually did.”
Interview with Alvur Relds (1999) – Another oldie, with a focus on the common mer and a much, much smaller number.
“I've known mer still mind-sharp in their late hundreds, and heard of folk 200 and older. My family usually makes it to 120-130…”
Elder Scrolls Online Lore Answers (2015) – An out-of-character source, and relatively recent. More or less agrees with Alvur’s numbers above.
“Elves live two to three times as long as humans and the “beast-races” (Orcs, Khajiiti, Argonians). A 200-year-old Elf is old; a 300-year-old Elf is very, very old indeed. Anyone older than that has prolonged his or her lifespan through powerful magic.”
You’d think that the OOC aspect would make it definitive, but ESO’s then-Loremaster, Lawrence Schick, disagrees, saying:
“Unless it's credited to a Tamrielic source, e.g., "According to Beredalmo the Signifier...", marketing copy should not be considered to represent in-world lore.”
There’s a fourth source, though: the mer themselves. We have exact or approximate ages for 25 mer, and, together, they paint a picture that’s closer to the Barenziah figure (up to a thousand, but generally die younger of disease or violence) than to Alvur or ESO’s (200 as old, 300 as hella old).
First, a note on age distribution in a population. Here’s a handy graph from the US. You’ll notice that most folks are middle aged or younger, with the percentage of representation diminishing sharply the closer you get to the max lifespan. If Alvur’s and ESO’s numbers were correct, most mer we encounter should be somewhere around 100 years old. Instead, here’s what we see:
While there are some folks representing the 100-149 and 150-199 ranges (4 individuals each), the majority are clustered around the 250-250 range (9 individuals), with another bump in the 350-400 range (3 individuals). Then, after a lull, we get some long lived mage representation at 750+ (4 individuals charted, plus Iachesis, Gelebor, and Divayth who are thousands of years old). What’s more important, though, is that the majority of these elves are still going strong at 230+, and not showing signs of being very old, as the ESO answer would have them be.
Let’s take a look at who is actually represented, starting with folks for whom we have exact ages at time of death:
|Name||Age at death||Cause of death|
Symmachus, who was born a commoner and did not as far as we know practice any life-enhancing magic, lived 75 years past ESO’s “very, very old” mark before being killed. While we don’t know what Fyrre died of, he, too, lived quite a bit past the 300 years mark. The only one here who could conform to ESO’s numbers would be Ketil, if he died of natural causes as opposed to in battle.
Next, let’s take a look at mer who for whom we can at least guess at an age at death, and those who are still alive.
|Name||Age||Cause of death||Notes|
|Brara Morvayn||100+||Natural||We first meet her in Morrowind (3E 327), at which point she’s already a married adult. She dies around 4E 65, which would make her at least 100 years old assuming she was around 30 in TES3.|
|Hidelith||110+||Natural||First mentioned 2E 486, already king at that point (94 years of known rule). Assuming he was not commanding armies as a child, this makes him at least 110 years old. Because nothing special is said about his death, I am assuming that it was due to natural causes.|
|Sinderion||116+||Unnatural||Died in Skyrim in 4E 58. He was already looking elderly when we met him in Oblivion, with his editor age marked as “58”. While this is age in human terms, let’s just use it literally to make him at least 116 years old.|
|Sondas Drenim||130+||Alive||Says he’s been “digging up ore for more than a century”|
|Rythe Verano||150+||Unnatural||Alive during the “potentate assassinations”, which would make him at least 150 or 260 years old. Murdered.|
|Lleril Morvayn||160+||Alive||Has ruled Raven Rock for 137 years.|
|Adril Arano||160+||Alive||Says he came to Raven Rock with Lleril Morvayn.|
|Brand-Shei||194||Alive||Born 4E 5, alive and looking fine in Skyrim.|
|Senise Thindo||200+||Alive||Called a “mere child of 200” by Neloth.|
|Ambarys Rendar||200+||Alive||Remembers the Red Year.|
|Teldryn Sero||220+||Alive||Says he met St. Juib, who died prior to the Oblivion Crisis.|
|Avrusa Serethi||230+||Alive||Used to have a shop in Vivec City, and therefore must have been an adult in 4E 5.|
|Aduri Sarethi||230+||Alive||Used to have a shop in Vivec City, and therefore must have been an adult in 4E 5.|
|Rythe Verano||230+||Alive||Alive in both Oblivion and Skyrim.|
|Dravynea the Stoneweaver||230+||Alive||Mentions remembering the Red Year and mining in Morrowind before it happened. Must have been an adult in 4E 5.|
|Ravyn Imyan||230+||Alive||Says he was a member of the Morag Tong before the Red Year, must have been an adult in 4E 5.|
|Aranea Ienith||230+||Alive||Came to Skyrim as an adult before 4E 5 as an adult.|
|Rilis XII||370+||Unnatural||First mentioned in 2E 230, already king. Dies of unnatural causes in 582, which makes 352 known years alive.|
|Barenziah||430+||Unknown||Born at the end of the 2nd era, and was alive at the end of the 3rd.|
|Neloth||500+||Alive||In both Morrowind and Skyrim, which makes him at least 205. Combined with him calling Senise Thindo a “child” at 200, I would assume that he is at least 500 years old. Still the youngest of the Telvanni. Mage.|
|Lilatha||600+||Unknown||Assuming that she really was a student in 2920, she would be at least 600 years old by the time we meet her in ESO. Mage.|
|Vorien Direnni||610+||Alive||611 when writing De Rerum Dirennis. Claims to be nothing special.|
|Therana||750+||Unknown||In both Morrowind and ESO, alive. Mage.|
|Gothren||750+||Unknown||In both Morrowind and ESO, alive. Mage.|
|Dratha||750+||Unknown||In both Morrowind and ESO, alive. Mage.|
|Celarus||750+||Unknown||First mentioned in the Alinor Codex (where he is already a Psijic), and still alive in Septim’s time. Mage.|
|Iachesis||3500ish||Unnatural||First mentioned in 1E 20, and alive and well in ESO in 2E 586. Mage.|
|Gelebor||4000ish||Alive||Has served as the Chantry’s sentinel since the Merethic (or, at the latest, the first era).|
|Divayth Fyr||4000ish||Alive||Famously the oldest lived mer|
Finally, there’s one more data point to consider – in engine age. Skyrim features a set of three age skintones for its NPCs – default, 40, and 50, with any human older than that being assigned the Elder Race instead. If we say that Tamrielic human lifespan is about the same as Earth human lifespan — 85ish years — then the 40 skintone corresponds to middle age and the 50 slightly past that. Obviously, these skins are used more as approximations of aged complexion than exact age, but they still yield interesting results when combined with the numbers above.
Here’s what skin ages a few of the Skyrim mer are given:
|Name||Editor Age||Actual Age|
|Lleril Morvayn||Default (rough)||160+|
|Ambarys Rendar||Default (rough)||200+|
Simply put, the notion that a 200 year old elf is old and a 300 year old elf is at death’s door just does not work with what we’ve seen in game and in lore. While there are a few examples that might fit, there are far more who exceed those numbers, sometimes dramatically so.
Instead, the “thousand year” lifespan given in the Real Barenziah seems to be closer to the truth as far as maximum potential is concerned (just like humans are capable of living up to 120, though most make it to something like 80). Mages and nobility that live to be 500+ likely aren’t extending their maximum lifespan as much as curing/preventing the sorts of things that would kill regular mer (disease, injury, war, etc.). Once you approach and exceed 1000 is where you get into your actual life extension territory, as would be the case with powerful mages like Iachesis or Divyath, or gods-blessed individuals like Knight Paladin Gelebor.