I actually answer these questions in Act 2 of Not Drake but Jill but the answers are spread out across a couple chapters so I thought I’d condense them here.
How did 500 Nords defeat the Snow Elves?
The Nords defeating the Snow Elves is supper impressive as the Snow Elves had magic and the 500 didn’t have the Voice yet, right?
1. Well, no, the Emblems on the 7000 Steps are misleading.* Ysgramor was, quite clearly, capable of Shouting as were several of his companions listed in “The Five Hundred Mighty Companions or Thereabouts of Ysgramor the Returned*”, as are a fair few of the draugrfied dragon-cultists the Last Dragonborn encounters throughout the game. So Kyne’s gift of the Voice to men was clearly not in response to the tyranny of the Dragon Cult. Claiming that it was is probably historic revisionism on the part of the Greybeards who worship Kyne.
2. The 500 Companions were already dragon worshipers.
Well, duh. Atmora was ruled by dragons. Everyone knows that.
But, I didn’t say they served dragons I said they worshiped them. The placement of dragon priest knife in Ysgramor’s Tomb indicates the transition of the dragons from feudal lords to god-kings was already present in the belief structure of the 500 Companions. Perhaps that is why they were willing to leave Atmora to help Ysgramor as it would allow them to colonize new territory and build a religious state.*
Furthermore Kurt Kuhlmann has stated that:
If Ysgramor was indeed a “dragon”, most likely he was a Dragon Priest - in the Late Merethic Era, it would be unlikely for a leader of Ysgramor’s reported stature to be unconnected to the Dragon Cult. (Kurt Kuhlmann, Ysgramor is a dragon?*)
So there you go. Also, have you seen Ysgramor’s statue’s armor? It has “I want to look like a dragon” written all over it. Especially the helmet.*
3. Still, 500 Shouting Nords against an entire race of elves is pretty unbelievable, right?
If they had done it alone, it would be. They didn’t. Dragons accompanied the Nord war bands and raiding parties.
Then there should be evidence of Dragons killing Snow Elves.
And there is! If you visit the Forgotten Vale before completing Dragon Rising, Voslaarum and Naaslaarum will not spawn, indicating that they are actually dead at the bottom of the lake but, after Dragon Rising, Alduin has seen fit to fly out there and revive them. A quick look around the lake (after killing them yourself) indicates both that the Snow Elves fought them (Image1) and that slaying the dragons came at great cost (Image2). Furthermore, given the way the Dragon Cult worked out, it is pretty obvious you’d edit being on the dragons’ side out of the stories about your folk heroes.
But connecting the Nord hero Ysgramor with the now-reviled Dragon Cult is of course anathema to those who favor chauvinism over historical truth. (Kurt Kuhlmann, Ysgramor is a dragon?)
Okay, so, what, aside from explaining how it would be possible for 500 people to destroy a whole nation, indicates that dragons were actually involved in the raiding parties?
Mythopoeic recreation. But lets address the next question before I explain that.
Why was the Dragon Cult of Tamriel so brutal?
In Atmora, where Ysgramor and his people came from, the dragon priests demanded tribute and set down laws and codes of living that kept peace between dragons and men. In Tamriel, they were not nearly as benevolent. It’s unclear if this was due to an ambitious dragon priest, or a particular dragon, or a series of weak kings. Whatever the cause, the dragon priests began to rule with an iron fist, making virtual slaves of the rest of the population. (Skyrim, Book: The Dragon War)
So what really happened?
"Alduin… claimed for himself the lordship that properly belongs to… our father Akatosh." – Paarthurnax.
Alduin grew tired of simply being a feudal lord over man and sought to become a god. Alduin was, arguably, already a god. But we are told he sought to take Akatosh’s place. Assuming that this is meant literally, how could such a thing be achieved? Again, Mythopoeic recreation.
By recreating the circumstances under which the Nord pantheon transcended from being the leaders of the Wandering Ehlnofey to being Gods, Alduin, and seven other dragons, could – conceivably – go from being leaders of the Nords (the children of the Wandering Ehlnofey) to being gods. Or, in Alduin’s case, being the god he wanted to be rather than the one he was?
Lets talk it through:
1. In the Mythic Era there were 10 Nord gods, 9 dragon priest masks, and 8 dragon priests (individual cults).
Gods: 1) Akatosh, 2) Alduin, 3) Dibella, 4) Orkey, 5) Tsun, 6) Mara, 7) Stuhn, 8) Kyne, 9) Jhunal and 10) Shor.
Since Alduin sought to replace Akatosh we end up with 9 gods and 9 dragon priest masks suggesting that it wasn’t justAkatosh the dragons were attempting to replace but the entire Nord Pantheon.
2. There may have been 9 masks but there were only 8 priests, indicating that there were only 8 dragons being worshiped as the gods they sought to replace.The mask that was not being worn by a priest was Konahrik “warlord”. Assuming that the mask names relate to the god the priest is serving this mask would belong to the priest of dragon replacing Shor. Shor, traditionally, had no cult. So having a dragon replace Him would not have worked.
3. If there was no cult of Shor why have a mask?
Because Shor’s presence was necessary for recreating the events of the Ehlnofey Wars.
4. If His presence was necessary for the recreation, and no dragon – or dragon priest – could play the part, how did Alduin expect the recreation to work?
To begin with, symbolically. Shor is the god of Man. Mankind, therefore, could become Shor’s replacement until a better representative became available. The reason Skyrim’s Dragon Cult was so abusive is because the pain of the worshipers was needed to mimic the pain of the dead god.
5. A better representative?
This is where the actual mechanics of mythopoeic recreation come into play. Mythopoeic recreation is about recreating a known set of events (a “pattern” within creation) in order to achieve the same results as the original event.
With mythopoeic enchantment of an object – like Kagrenac’s tools – the event(s) can be recreated symbolically. The stronger the symbols used the stronger the enchantment. But the dragons were pretty literally recreating the events they wanted to echo. Make the pattern recreation strong enough and the pattern could self-complete. All the dragons had to do was keep doubling down on the beginning part of the pattern and, eventually, the world would be forced to provide the being required to wear Konahrik and play the roll of Shor. Theoretically.
6. In order to recreate the Ehlnofey Wars – after which the Nord Pantheon became gods – the dragons needed to lead men into battle against mer (as Kyne and Shor had done). So the dragons continuously stoked Nord hatred for elves and lead them to war against the Snow Elves. Which is how the Snow Elf civilization was destroyed even before the beginning of the Dragon War.
7. Wouldn’t Alduin (as Akatosh) have needed to, eventually, rip some great warlord’s heart out to complete the recreation?
Yes. Again, not possible with a fellow dragon, they just aren’t built like that. Which is another reason they needed the world to supply a person to wear Konahrik.
8. So why didn’t it work?
It did… to a point. You see the dragons weren’t attempting a perfect mythopoeic recreation, as a perfect recreation would have had them, and their worshipers, retreating to Atmora in defeat, which they didn’t want to do. The place was in the process of becoming a barren ice sheet after all. So the dragons attempted to alter their recreation slightly so that men, not mer, would be the ones left in control of Tamriel.
The pattern resulted in someone who could wear Konahrik (Miraak). But the changes made to the pattern – meant to give the dragons and mankind dominion over Tamriel – resulted in a pattern the end of which was that Shor’s representation (Miraak) would slay Akatosh’s representation (Alduin) rather than the other way around. Ooops!
Not only did Alduin not approve but, for the pattern to compete, He would need to be killed within the realm of Nirn – an impossibility (as the Last Dragonborn discovers).
So Hermaeus Mora got involved, Miraak ended up in Apocrypha, Alduin got Elder Scrolled into the future, and the pattern failed to complete... Sort of.
9. The Nords, unaware of what the dragons had really been up to, continued their portion of the mythopoeic recreation by finishing off the Snow Elves. Meaning enough of the pattern was still in play that the next time a “real moment*” rolled around the pattern was still strong enough to conjure myth-echoes of both Akatosh (Alessia) and Lorkhan (Pelinal Whitestrake).
Pelinal Whitestrake’s dismemberment finally completes the pattern and men become the rulers of Tamriel as the dragons (sort of) intended.
The moral of this story is: even Alduin shouldn’t play with mythopoeic forces!
So there you go, my theory.