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History of the Dragon Cult, vol. iOrigins of the Dragon Cult
The Dragon Cult has its origins far back in the Atmoran period of Nordic history and the totemic beliefs of that time. The many tribes and clans of Atmora each followed their own totem, representing a tutelary spirit that guided and protected their people, though they recognised the totems of other groups as well as other more malign spirits. A ship’s crew might follow a slaughterfish totem, for instance, that guided their ship to savage success in their raids across the sea.
The period of strife that preceded the exodus from Atmora had a profound effect upon their animistic religion as well. As warfare brought smaller tribes under the control of larger ones, the number of predominant totems shrank to a number closer to the Nordic pantheon of today. Furthermore, as the Atmorans are not believed to have had a written language, totems that did not survive into Tamriel are lost to history.
Although dominant groups established the primacy of their totems, conquered tribes continued to follow and share their own spirits with one another. At this time, accepting a plurality of totems became common - an Atmoran might follow, for example, the spirits for their family, clan, tribe and overlord, all concurrently - and the followers of the Dragon saw great success in spreading their beliefs amongst the agrarian, non-warrior classes. The Dragon had been a recognised figure throughout Atmoran mythology, but the teachings of “rebirth through destruction” resonated with those who were bearing the brunt of whatever it was that ultimately pushed the Nords out of Atmora.
By the time of the Return, it had become popular to view the greater spirits as anthropomorphised individuals (this was, perhaps, an import of merish theology brought back from Tamrielic colonies such as Saarthal). Similarly, the pressures facing the Nords in Atmora meant that they could not survive divided, and their co-mingling and cooperation led to a blending of their spirits as well - the first concrete existence of a Nordic pantheon.
The followers of the Dragon, with their influence amongst those in neither the noble nor warrior classes, rejected this reduction of powerful totemic spirits into mere individuals, and Alduin forever remained a dragon. As well as the more eschatological elements of their teachings, their practical associations with the mundane aspects of agrarian life - the cycle of the seasons mirroring the cycle of the kalpa, their oversight of crucial fire-farming practices - cemented the role of the Dragon in Nordic culture and (for a time) society.
History of the Dragon Cult, vol. iiBeliefs and practices of the original Dragon Cult
The influence of the Dragon totem on Nordic society remained all the way through the exodus to Tamriel and the settlement of Skyrim, although it took on an increasingly dour tone. Whether it was the loss of Atmora, the massacre in Saarthal and conflict with the Falmer, or some other dire portent, the followers of the Dragon (hereafter termed the “Dragon Cult”) came to believe that the kalpa had already run its course and that Alduin’s awakening had been delayed, likening it to an endless winter that held back the return of spring.
Dragon Cultists in the holds of weaker jarls and kings dared even to blame the new gods, in particular Shor, for this unnaturally-long kalpa and sporadic uprisings - a couple even temporarily successful - broke out against the upper Nordic classes and their veneration of those corrupting spirits that were preventing the world’s fiery renewal.
Singing was a central part of the Cult’s religious practice - there was, and remains, a belief that the songs of mortals influence Alduin’s moods. In the present day, this is almost exclusively lullabies to keep the Dragon sleeping (see vol. iv of this series for changes in theology) but at the zenith of the Dragon Cult’s power, great choirs would sing the notes and harmonies that it was believed would rouse the sleeping Alduin from his stupor.
Accusations of human sacrifice persist until the present day, but these cannot be verified. Although there is some evidence that the Nords of early Tamriel practiced sporadic human sacrifice, it seems just as likely that this charge against the Dragon Cult is persistent slur by King Harald and his successors.
What is known about the original Dragon Cult is their belief that Alduin’s awakening - their most treasured hope - was imminent, and that those who feared they would die before its occurrence took extraordinary steps to overcome this. Mummification was a common Nordic funerary practice at this time, but the Dragon Cult went even further: through a practice not understood in the present day, the ghosts of the dead were kept bound to Mundus and induced back into their own corpses. Although this was deeply unpleasant and nothing like true immortality, these haunted mummies allowed dying Cultists to believe they would experience the kalpa’s fiery end.
History of the Dragon Cult, vol. iiiHarald’s War and the end of the Dragon Cult
At the same time as the Dragon Cult’s apocalyptic preachings were taking hold amongst the lower classes, the brutal wars of the Nordic kingdoms - both against the Falmer and amongst each other - were reaching their own height. A cunning Nordic king and descendent of Ysgramor named Harald Hand-Free was uniting the fractured holds under his banner, through both conquest and iron-willed diplomacy, until he was able to properly take the war against Falmer and begin pushing them out of Skyrim. However, as his campaign gained momentum, a series of Cult-inspired rebellions broke out and he was forced to return home and put them down.
From this point on, Harald was always fighting a war on two fronts: one against the remaining Falmer tribes, and one against his own people. The fighting devastated the still-incipient Nordic kingdoms, but the king was able to cling to power and with great brutality reclaimed Skyrim inch by bloody inch. A very plausible legend states that holdouts in a great temple of the Dragon Cult were the last resistance Harald faced, and it was upon their bloodied altar that he declared the first Empire of the Nords (before tearing the entire structure down, brick by brick).
Although their original apocalyptic beliefs have experienced occasional resurgences through the millenia (most notably during the ominous portents of the Year of Winter in Summer in 1E668), the Dragon Cult were thoroughly crushed and reformed by King Harald. He recognised the important role the Cult played in the daily life of common Nords, and rather than ban it outright he brought the veneration of Alduin within the (admittedly loose) religious framework of Nordic kingdoms.
History of the Dragon Cult, vol. ivThe Dragon Cult today
Although Harald did not exterminate the Dragon Cult completely, he reworked it in such a fashion that veneration of Alduin today bears almost no recognisable similarity to that of the mighty demagogues of early Skyrim.
Ideas of waking Alduin or hastening the end of the kalpa were strongly discouraged. Instead, those who follow the Dragon continue their practices of harvest festivals and agrarian administration, but are also charged with singing the lullabies that keep Alduin sleeping and this age of Man alive. The renewal wrought by the Dragon’s destructive flames is kept esoteric and allegorical: Alduin may be propitiated when one seeks the destruction of want or weakness, for example, but the matter of the kalpa’s end is best left to the gods themselves.
Although ruined, the temples of the Dragon Cult (which, it should be said, represent another departure from the generally decentralised religious practices of the Nords) can still sometimes be found in use. Those near villages, in particular, may be occupied by one or two Dragon Cultists, who assist local agriculture and oversee the various rituals and rites of Alduin across the seasons. Today, the Dragon Cult is generally an institution only in rural, traditional areas.
However, during the sacred reign of the late Reman Cyrodiil a number of remote and long-unoccupied temples were excavated and opened. Forty years on, we can still only speculate what future scholars may uncover deep within the walls of these maligned spaces. A word of warning, nonetheless:
The lower levels of these ruined temples remain dangerous. Those who feared they would die before the return of the Dragon practiced strange magicks to bind themselves to their corpses, willingly trapping themselves in a tortured existence in anticipation of the kalpa’s imminent end. As the millennia have passed, a few of these baleful watchers still roam the catacombs, attacking intruders in their madness and despair. Tread carefully, truth-seeker, for the path of knowledge is overgrown with violence.