Elder Scrolls Lore Report - The Dragon Cult

Legend tells of black wings and iron masks, of scaled overlords and their human attendants. The Dragon Cult once ruled Skyrim with a fist of fear in the Merethic Era. Their temples, their undead servants, their priceless treasures can still be found as far as the fourth era, as seen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but what, and who, was the Dragon Cult? What led to their destruction?




In ancient times, the early Atmorans slowly began to migrate south through the Sea of Ghosts, settling in the northern tundra of Tamriel, now known as Skyrim. They brought with them their cultures and traditions, notably the worship of animals in the form of “totems”. This worship stemmed from their view of the Divines – for example, they worshipped Akatosh as a dragon. Among all the animals revered in Atmoran culture, it was dragons they worshipped most fervently. In time, the Atmorans settling in Skyrim began to almost exclusively worship dragons, who were present within the land at the time, and soon, the Dragon Cult was formed. This actually also stays true to Cyrodiilic religions, who herald Akatosh – the Dragon God of Time – as the chief deity among the Divines.


As the Atmorans turned the focus of their worship to dragons, the scaled creatures in Skyrim had little issue asserting their divinity towards the Atmorans. To Atmoran eyes, a dragon was more worthy of reverence than even the kings of old. The most faithful worshippers of the dragons eventually became the first Dragon Priests, direct servants of the winged serpents, and, for many centuries, they held the peace between dragon and man. They had only one law: the word dragon was taboo to all but the dragons themselves and their Dragon Priests.




However, sometime during, or just after the end of, the Atmoran migration to Tamriel, the Dragon Cult became more assertive, almost malevolent, in their worship of the dragons. Before long, they came to believe that, rather than that dragons were most worthy, they were the only ones worthy of worship. It became dangerous for Atmorans to openly worship the other animal totems, at least within Skyrim. The Dragon Priest ruled from their capital of Bromjunaar, which is in what is now modern-day Hjaalmarch, and, within its walls, they asserted their authority and rule over the populace of Skyrim with an iron fist. What brought about this change in culture and religion is still relatively unclear, but it is believed to have a correlation to Alduin forsaking his role as World-Eater and desiring instead to rule over the mortal worlds. This ultimately leads to the Dragon War in the late Merethic Era.


Kyne, the mother of men, took pity on the late Atmorans and early Nords and persuaded Paarthurnax, Alduin’s lieutenant, to betray his kin and teach men how to use the thu’um. In ancient times, it was only dragons that could turn their voices into magic, but the Nords were able to pick it up before too long, becoming known as the Tongues, Masters of the Way of the Voice. Even so, it was not enough to turn the tide of battle. The dragons and their Dragon Priests were still too strong. Bewildered, broken, but not beaten, the Tongues pooled their power together and created a brand new shout, one that would tear the dragons out of the skies. Dragonrend turned the course of the battle but even this was not great enough to defeat the dragons.




The Tongues fled from Skyrim, hoping to find the strength to save their comrades and their brothers in Solstheim. They had heard of Miraak, a former Dragon Priest, rebelling against and even outright destroying dragons and sought his help. Though Miraak was confident he could defeat Alduin, he had no desire to do so and refused to help. With nowhere else to turn, one of the greatest of the Tongues, Felldir the Old, came up with the idea to lure Alduin to the peak of the Throat of the World and lay siege, What he did not tell his comrades, however, was that he had planned to use an Elder Scroll to banish Alduin from Mundus, as he knew his comrades would have disagreed.


Together with Gormlaith Golden-Hilt and Hakon One-Eye, Felldir successfully lured Alduin to the Throat of the World, dragged him from the skies with Dragonrend, and watched as Gormlaith and Hakon were killed by Alduin before revealing the Elder Scroll, reading from it, and sending Alduin forward through time. They believed they had defeated Alduin and cast him out forever, but, as seen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he was simply sent forward in time and would return.




With the defeat of Alduin, the Nords turned the tide of the Dragon War and, with Dragonrend, they killed enough dragons to cause the rest to flee or surrender for survival. The Dragon Cult, though smashed and battered, somehow continued to exist. Whatever they did for the next few centuries is mostly unclear, but it was during this period they built some of the grandest strongholds to protect dragon remains, or simply build what became known as Dragon Mounds as burial sites. They believed that the dragons would eventually return and reward them for their loyalty.


The Dragon Priests themselves also went underground, most of them achieving some form of lich-dom. Even without this, the Dragon Priests were gifted warriors and powerful mages, capable of great feats of magic whether they could shout or not. The dragons fashioned them powerful armor and legendary masks that held equally legendary magic. Stories attest that the only way to remove a Priest’s mask was through death, but this is shown to be somewhat false in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim whereby fighting dead Dragon Priests, they still wield their masks – though this may also have merely been how they were buried. Some of the greatest Dragon Priests, as I mentioned, were also able to shout, more than likely taught by the dragon they served.




There was Azhidal, the first and, to this day, greatest Nord enchanter. There was Akiirdal, who is now buried in the Howling Sepulchers of Craglorn. There was Arthosiis, who was banished from Skyrim and led his followers to the Wrothgarian Mountains. There was Dukaan, who is buried in White Ridge Barrow in Solstheim. There was Haldriin, entombed in Skyshroud Barrow on Bleakrock Isle in the Sea of Ghosts. There was Hevnoraak, who was possibly the most obsessive about plotting his resurrection and was entombed in Valthume. There was Korthor, who was entombed in Vuldngrav in Skyrim and wielded the Fork or Horripilation. There was Krosis, entombed at the peak of Shearpoint. There was Miraak, the first Dragonborn. There was Morokei, possibly the greatest mage among the Dragon Priests, who had come into the possession of the Staff of Magnus after his resurrection and was eventually imprisoned within Labyrinthian by Savos Aren. There was Nahkriin, who had the honor of watching over and guarding Alduin’s portal to Sovngrade in Skuldafn. There was Otar the Mad, who was kept sealed away by two keys in Ragnvald. There was Rahgot, entombed in Forelhost, the last bastion of the Dragon Cult. There was Vahlok the Jailor, once the ruler of Solstheim, who unearthed Miraak’s betrayal, defeated him in battle, and was forever tasked with watching over Miraak’s tomb. There was Vokun, entombed in the High Gate Ruins. There was Volsung who was entombed in Volskygge. There was Vosis, also entombed in Forelhost, who once held a fragment of Wuuthrad. There was Zaan, who followed Thurvokun, who was betrayed by her followers and resurrected by Peryite who gifted her the Spellbreaker. There was Zahkriisos, entombed in Bloodskal Barrow, the only known Bloodskal Dragon Priest. And there was Ra’khajin, the only known Khajiiti Dragon Priest, who served Laatvulon and the New Moon Cult.



Perhaps the most well known of the Dragon Priests is Miraak, the first Dragonborn. His name translating to Allegiance Guide in dovahzul, eventually became so obsessed with his desire for power that he was willing to enslave himself to Hermaeus Mora for forbidden knowledge and power, who taught him the power to bend dragons to his will. In tandem with his ability to devour dragon souls, he turned on his winged masters and killed a great number of them. Three other Dragon Priests – Azhidal, Dukaan, and Zahkriisos – joined him and became his three most powerful servants, known as the Acolyte Priests. At some point in the Dragon War, Hakon One-Eye begged Miraak to help in the fight against Alduin, but he refused despite his confidence he could defeat Alduin. At some point, the dragons charged Vahlok with killing Miraak and, though Vahlok somehow managed to defeat Miraak, he simply fled into Apocrypha, where he remained until the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn and Vahlok, now known as the Jailor, watched over Solstheim even in death.




Azhidal, whose very name means Bitter Destroyer was the first and greatest of the Nord Enchanters, the first human to master elven methods of enchanting and the only human to have been taught the ways of enchanting by man, mer, daedra, and dragon. Born in Saarthal a few decades before the Night of Tears, his magical prowess was apparent at a young age and, after learning all he could from men, he left to find elven masters to teach him more. Upon his return, the Night of Tears had fallen and he swore vengeance on the elves, taking the name Azhidal. He learned the natures of metal from the Dwemer, ancient runes and dawn magic from Ayleids, the power of frost and light from the Snow Elves, the power of golden glory from the Chimer, the power of arcane might from the Altmer, and when he had learned all he could from the Mer, he went to Ysgramor and offered his services to the Five Hundred Companions. It is debated if Ysgramor and his followers might have been defeated had it not been for Azhidal’s enchantments. Obsessed with knowledge, he became a Dragon Priest and learned the secrets of magic that only the dragons knew, but even this was not enough. He sought the Daedric Princes and learned the power of Oblivion, which drove him to madness. Exiled by his fellow Priests, he joined Miraak. Unable to defeat him as they had Miraak, the dragons sealed Azhidal away with his most powerful artifacts, where time eventually rendered Azhidal little more than a disembodied soul, one still yearning for power.


Unfortunately, Dukaan and Zahkriisos each have little to no lore beyond their joining Miraak and eventually being sealed away in Solstheim, but this does bear interesting theories that each of them were superior to Miraak in that he was defeated but they three were not – this is certainly true for Azhidal; the dragons fought Miraak directly, despite his power to absorb them, but Azhidal they feared so that they immediately sealed him the moment they had the chance.




This is not a report on the Priests, so I will leave off with them for now, for the most part. Each Priest wore a powerful mask that was gifted to them by their masters, known as the Dragon Priest Masks. Each mask was unique, tailored to the abilities of the one to whom it was gifted. The most powerful of the masks was Konahrik, which was not given to a specific priest but was instead safeguarded except during times of war. Meaning warlord in dovahzul, it was kept in a secret place within Bromjunaar and could only be accessed when the eight main other Priests got together and offered their masks up to reveal Konahrik. In times of war, they would gather, appoint one Priest the Warlord, and bestow him the Konahrik mask.


There is a lot of speculation as to the origin of the masks. In the previous report, I mentioned how there was some thought that the surviving dragons from the Dragon War took up isolation, but those that remained near villages were said to have even dabbled in smithing, among other mortal trades. The dragons had, in fact, already been into smithing and creation of mortal objects with the Masks dating through the Merethic Era. Though many of the known masks are shrouded in mystery, it is known some are older than others, and some, like Konahrik mask, are more powerful and more valuable than the others. Also a rather curious bit of information is that, despite all we know about Vahlok, the Priest sworn to guard Miraak's tomb, it is known he did not have a mask. Perhaps the most interesting mask is Zaan. The priest in question, known as the Scalecaller, was rumored to have turned to Peryite after the dragon she served – Thurvokar – disappeared. She also reportedly entered a very depressive state, eventually leading her followers to kill her, believing Thurvokar would never return. In the second era, a group of Undaunted climbed her mountain to thwart Peryite’s attempts to unleash a devastating plague. Peryite gave her the Spellbreaker, but she was ultimately slain. The mask itself improves the power of spells and even attaches a beam of fire that grows in intensity the longer it affects an enemy, eventually incinerating them if it lasts long enough.



the spectral Dragon Priest summoned by the Kohnarik mask



The Dragon Cult lived in what are now little more than Nordic ruins but most have a degree of fear and fame accredited to their name. In most towns and villages where one is near, stories of superstition laced with truths linger. Perhaps the most famous is Skuldafn, with Bromjunaar, the headquarters of the Dragon Cult, right behind it, but there are many others with just as much legend to their name.


My personal favorite is Ragnvald, where the Priest Otar the Mad was lain to death. One of the higher ranking Priests within Skyrim. He carries a unique Staff of the Storm Wall, the only one of its kind, and his mask increases protection from the elements. While this is all impressive, it is Ragnvald itself that fascinates me. Ragnvald was its own city and it is one of two locations within Skyrim where it is possible that plumbing existed – the other being Riften, with its canals and sewers of the Ratways; technically Solitude has a sewer system as well, but it does not exist as a location you can go to in the game and while there is evidence to suggest Windhelm and Whiterun might also have sewer systems, like Solitude, they are unmapped in the game – but what makes Ragnvald all the more impressive is the age. It was built thousands of years prior to the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The fact it has a facsimile of plumbing is astounding. I also think the puzzle of collecting the two skull keys to unseal Otar is a refreshing touch to the normal Nordic puzzle – such as the rotating statues.



Bleak Falls Barrow


Despite their impressive power, when the Nordic Tongues shouted Alduin through time, signaling the end of the Dragon War, the Dragon Cult went into hiding. By the middle of the First Era, their followers had either been forced to commit suicide to protect their secrets or they were hunted down. The Priests themselves vanished into obscurity. Most of them became Liches when the dragons rose again though same retained power even before that, poisoning the minds of the men and mer nearest to their tombs. What more secrets of the Dragon Priests will be uncovered in future TES titles?

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Fimvul is the current master of the Skyforge Library. Interested in the Elder Scrolls from a young age, he has been diving headfirst into the richer aspects of the lore of the series for over a decade. With years of experience and research under his belt, he hopes to enlighten his readers with the wondrous mystery that surrounds the Elder Scrolls universe.

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