Origins of the Dragon Cult
- Nowadays they’re quite harmless, observing Alduin’s festivals and singing his lullabies, but in the First Era they were a significant political force. Back then they believed that Nirn had been corrupted, and that Alduin must be awakened early to purge the world of evil. Lots of blood sacrifice and rebellion against the Nordic kings, until old Hairy-Breeks himself put their ideas down for good. You can still see his refutations of their eschatology in the High King’s Vedda, if you’re looking for it.
- 1E139-143 - King Harald wages several wars of extermination against both the Falmer and the Dragon Cult, founding the united Kingdom of Skyrim at the point of his expurgation of both
- Alduin is venerated on the winter solstice by ceremonies at ancient Dragon Cult temples, where offerings are made to keep him asleep for one more year. Alduin is also the source of many common superstitious practices before any event of significance.
- Before the reign of King Harald Hand-Free, in the first century of the first era, the Dragon Cult came to prominence. Almost monotheistic in their veneration, they viewed Alduin as a moral force who would cleanse the world of impurity and suffering and usher in a pure, newborn kalpa. They rapidly fell from favour due to their enthusiasm for human sacrifice, and today mostly exist as small groups of ascetics who worship Alduin’s ability to destroy suffering and stagnation (both at the end of time and in the present day).
- Quick idea: Anthropologically speaking, the primitive predecessor of the Dragon/Alduin Cult evolved from or became associated with very early shamanistic rituals associated with forest fires (controlled and natural), in order to make clearings for farming or vibrant new forest to spring up in place of stagnated and rotting old forest.
- When I say "haunted their own mummies", I mean like possessed their own corpse. They've gone mad from waiting so long (they believed Alduin's awakening was imminent, after all) and that's why they attack the player. Give them a distinctively-creepy wheezing sound effect, which a player who's paying attention will realise with horror is them trying to sing to Alduin, all these thousands of years later. A questline can involve a still-lucid Dragon Cultist trying to gather new worshippers and restore the old ways of Alduin worship. Unlocked by the player after they investigate some strange disappearances.
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 raids. As warfare in Atmora 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 - the Fox and Wolf tribes were particularly powerful. As the Atmoran Nords 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 spirits for their family, clan, tribe and overlord - 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 the failed harvests and lingering frosts 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 - 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 the Nordic pantheon. [A note: is Shor the Nords’ most revered god because of the Fox tribe’s historic supremacy, or were they the most powerful because they followed Shor’s totem?]
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.
Beliefs of the original Dragon Cult
This influence 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 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 below for the 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 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.
Harald’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. It is believed that holdouts in a great temple of the Dragon Cult was the last resistance Harald faced, and it was upon its bloodied altar that he declared the first Empire of the Nords (before tearing the entire structure down, brick by brick).
The Dragon Cult today
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 the Nordic kingdoms.
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, but the matter of the kalpa’s end is best left to the gods themselves.
Although ruined, the temples of the Dragon Cult (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. The lower levels of these ruined temples remain dangerous, however. 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 [insert good name for Dragon draugr here] still roam the catacombs and are known to attack intruders in their madness and despair.
Role in gameplay (dungeons, enemies, items, etc.)
Temples of the Dragon Cult will be based off the standard Nordic barrow set, but with their own architectural quirks and even unique assets nudge nudge. They will be rare, and most commonly found near rural villages, with most of the temple buried and only some outer parts visible (rather like Daedric ruins in vanilla).
Only a few of these already-rare temples will be inhabited by one or two Dragon priests (not sure if I’m wild about that name, though. Has TESV connotations that we’re trying to distance ourselves from). These priests will most likely live in the exterior - the interior will be dangerous and a dungeon crawl - and be encountered near villages.
Temple interiors are better likened to TESIII’s Daedric ruins rather than TESV’s barrows - their function is visible, but there are still plenty of opportunities for interesting dungeon design and different inhabitants. The standard DC enemy will be a [name still pending] that will generally crop up in each temple, but not with the ubiquity of TESV’s draugr. Some may even still be lucid. They could be an iteration on the standard draugr model, but they should be given a unique, rasping sound effect that represents their continued attempts to sing Alduin awake.