Welcome to Ask a Lore Nerd, the column that answers your questions about the story and lore of the Warcraft universe. Click the Comments link below, ask your question, and blogger/columnist Alex Ziebart will answer you in a future installment!
Two weeks ago, when I was going through my queue of questions, one stuck out as especially complex. Sean Riley inquired about the beliefs and practices of the various Azerothian religions. This topic really excited me as I kind of have a thing for analyzing religion and faith. I would never claim to be an authority on theology, but it's stlil something that is very interesting to me. Warcraft lore combined with theology? Yes please! Obviously this isn't really the place to analyze and debate religion, but taking time out to research the gaps in my knowledge on this particular topic was incredibly fun for me.
Unforunately, I didn't have the space in that week's column to fit the answer to that question in, nor did I really have the time. It was a broad question and needed to invest a hefty amount of time into it. This one question has filled today's column, and while that may be disappointing to some that are waiting their turn, I hope it's an interesting read regardless.
Sean Riley asks...
What do we know about the moral beliefs of the World of Warcraft religions? Does the Church of the Holy Light have any teachings on marriage, honor, morality, etc? How should a priest of the Holy Light be behaving, what sort of activities should they condemn and praise?
And what about the other religions?
Answer: Before I really get into the nitty gritty, I'll say that Blizzard keeps a lot of their religions fairly vague. A basic structure is put in place, and the gaps are left to be filled by players. Things such as marriage aren't really covered in the information they give us, but they use clearly defined motifs for each of the religions. It's safe to assume marriage ceremonies, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, et cetera, match that motif fairly well. The Light probably uses Christian-esque marriage ceremonies, the Tauren reflect Native American culture, Voodoo matches up with... well, Voodoo (Vodou).
So I unfortunately won't be able to answer every piece of your question, but hopefully I can supply you with something you can work with to combine with some creativity, so you can come up with something of your own to fill the gaps.
The most easily recognizable religion/faith in Warcraft is The Light. Others are clearly religions, but The Light uses a motif that is most visually defined. Contrary to the motif used, practitioners of this faith do not worship any god or gods, at least not directly or knowingly. The Light is actually a philosophy, a set of morals, and a path to transcendence. The Light is meant to bring out all that is good and righteous in the world.
Due to this faith being more philosophy and less worship, there are a lot of interpretations of this faith, even within the Cathedral of Light. If you ask Archbishop Benedictus a question, his answer may be different than that of the person standing next to him. Debates about these things are common, and there isn't necessarily any 'right' answer as long as both people believe they're working toward the greater good and aren't bringing innocent people harm.
There are three main virtues that must be the focal point of all practitioners of the Light, but everything in between is up to the individual, more or less.
Those three virtues are:
- Respect - Working towards the greater good is fine and dandy, but you also need to recognize the existence of others in the world. If your actions are interfering with other peoples' ability to live their lives and believe their beliefs, you're not doing them, the world, or yourself, any good at all. This virtue also reinforces that though you need to respect all things, sometimes things like war do happen. In these situations, harming people can't always be avoided, but you should work toward the best possible outcome rather than fall into blind destruction.
- Tenacity - Tenacity is, essentially, the 'don't give up hope' virtue. You cannot change the world in a day. Enlightenment can take an entire lifetime, or longer. Also, not everything you do will have instant, noticeable effects on the world, but that doesn't mean that you haven't made a difference. Helping individuals is just as important as helping entire nations. Just because you haven't changed the world in a day doesn't mean you haven't had an effect on someone.
- Compassion - This virtue is regarded as one of the most difficult to balance and understand. The practitioner of the Light should be conscious of others wants and needs, and be eager to help others gain happiness and joy. However, being too zealous in this virtue can be damaging, and step on the virtue of Respect. Does the individual want your help? Will your help, in the end, bring harm to this individual? Will giving them too much help hinder their growth or progress in life? It is possible to do more harm than good with your help, and it could ultimately be very, very damaging. Knowing who to help and how is a very important part of this virtue. Forcing yourself upon someone is never, ever good.
The ability to wield the Light seems to stem more from Faith than from your actual actions. If you feel the Light has abandoned you, it is likely you'll lose your grasp on it. If your actions are not in line with the philosophy of the Light but you still feel what you are doing is right, your grasp will still be possible, hence the Scarlet Crusade. There are exceptions to this in both directions, but those are all extraordinary situations.
The Cult of Forgotten Shadow
This is a corruption of The Light, practiced by the Forsaken. Many of its morals and tenets are basically the same, but twisted in on themselves to form a more self-serving view. Respect and Tenacity remain, but Power replaces Compassion in the primary virtues. Compassion is still part of the faith, but it is a footnote rather than a focal point. This faith is attractive to Forsaken who have become desperate for direction in undeath, or those who seek vengeance, or desire some way to justify their actions. Many who practice this faith do so purely out of spite, feeling the Light has abandoned them, and they want to spit in its face somehow.
The Light believes that you improve yourself by helping others, and through helping others you have the power to change the world. The Shadow believes that you must improve yourself through any means necessary, and it is not through others that you change the world. Your will and your might alone can do it. Anybody who gets in your way is trash. This practice is referred to as Divine Humanism. Trascendence via the Shadow is possibly just as it is via the Light, but in a corrupted form.
This religion is young, no more than a decade old, and has many branches and pockets of belief throughout Forsaken culture. The Holy Light is a highly debated philosophy, but it is that way because it's a very old philosophy. The Shadow is debated in a different way, and is debated because it's so young. Nobody has managed to pull all of the pockets of faith into one organized 'church' yet, though it is probably only a matter of time before that happens.
It is actually an aspect of the Forgotten Shadow to not forget the Light. The Light exists, and it must exist, but the Shadow is the more powerful of the two and the origin of all things. A balance between them needs to be maintained. As stated above, believing that you are doing what is right is often enough to keep your grasp on the power the Light grants you, so it is no surprise Forsaken Priests are still able to use Holy spells. Not all of them deny the Light, and it is asked that they don't deny the Light, and they believe in their hearts that their morality is true and proper. The Shadow simply overtakes the Light in their minds, and this is reflected in their racial abilities in WoW.
While not a religion in the traditional sense, Shamanism is still a spiritual journey with a set of beliefs. It is a little more chaotic (not to be confused with evil) than the other Nature-based faith, Druidism. While Druidism focuses primarily on the wilds and the balance of living things, the wilds is only a small portion of what a Shaman does. Shaman are a little more primal (being one of the oldest faiths across multiple worlds), interacting directly with the elements. This is why it is the Earthen Ring working to stop Lord Ahune during the Midsummer Fire Festival. The elements are directly their territory.
Shaman also put a lot of weight in visions, which they receive fairly regularly through various means. Shaman also play the role of general spiritual leaders, acting as guides and what we would call counselors.
Druidism is a lot like Shamanism in that they're very natural systems of belief. Whereas Shamanism is a little more primal and chaotic (reflecting the elements), Druidism has a higher emphasis on the balance of the wilds and is a bit feral (like the animals they worship/emulate). Shaman commune with the elements, and Druids commune with spirits of nature. Animals, trees, and other living creatures. It is believed that these spirits, at their base, are good and kind.
For both the Tauren and the Druids, there's an added level of worship for the demigods of Kalimdor, though both races have some of their own interpretations of these gods. While not a direct aspect of Druidism (besides Cenarius, anyway), their culture is reflected in this demigod worship.
Druids also have a connection to Ysera and the Green Dragonflight, and the Emerald Dream through her, but this is more an aspect of culture rather than faith.
The Moon Goddess, Elune
The Night Elves have been worshiping Elune in some capacity for as long as they have been known to exist, and the Goddess of the Moon is the only known true god or goddess on Azeroth. Some even believe Elune is the mother of their race, in a literal sense. This system of beliefs is a more 'traditional' religion, in that it is a very clear, direct worship of a deity. There is a set of morals attached certainly, but revering Elune, her ways, and her children are above all else.
Worship of the moon and the night is obvious, as that is all Elune's domain. Elune has a deep distaste for violence and war, and is seen as a Mother figure for the world. Elune, quite simply, will not allow violence in her presence, but largely doesn't (or can't) interfere with the realm of mortals directly. The Moon Goddess also has a special place in her heart for nature, and empowers certain followers with the ability to protect it in their own little ways.
It is these things that the Night Elves revere and try to practice themselves. Like practitioners of the Light, they are not so naive as to believe that war doesn't happen in the realm of mortals. It may seem like a slap in the face to what Elune stands for, but in the world the Night Elves live in, it's fight or die. This is made worse by the pact they took from Ysera.
To a lesser extent the Night Elves also worship certain demigods, many of which have ties to Elune. These are demigods such as Cenarius, Aviana, et cetera. Some of those demigods' beliefs are reflected in certain pockets of Night Elven culture, but it varies.
A very large amount of Night Elven faith is reflected in the beliefs of Tauren, though it has different interpretations. Elune is most likely the Tauren Moon figure Mu'sha, who represents one of the eyes of the Earth Mother. Cenarius and Malorne make appearances in Tauren mythology as well.
In addition to the mythology shared with the Night Elves, the Tauren believe in a being known as the Earth Mother. Believed to be the creator of all things, the Tauren see her as a kind, motherly type. Nature and the earth are, obviously, her largest focus, and the Tauren follow her example.
The Tauren strive to embrace and nurture the earth, and harm it as little as possible. It is a fairly straightforward belief, and if you understand the concept of Mother Nature in our world, you can probably understand the concept of an Earthmother in Azeroth.
Unlike Elune, whether the Earthmother actually exists or not is unknown, but the Tauren believe in her regardless. If there is a real Earthmother, the most likely match is Therazane the Stonemother, one of the Elemental Lords.
The Old Gods
Those who worship the Old Gods suck and are bastards. An example is the Twilight's Hammer, which wants to do little more than cause an apocalypse on Azeroth. Pretty straightforward deity worship.
Voodoo and the Loa
Voodoo can almost be described as a twisted Shamanism. Voodoo believes that all things have spirits, but is of the opinion that the spirits are, at their very core, malicious beings. Voodoo is a very dark religion, focusing on dark rituals, hexes and curses. Due to this, practitioners of voodoo (trolls, mostly) are very superstitious, fearing the worst in all things. Witch Doctors are held in high regard because of this, as it is their role to interpret visions and exorcise harmful spirits.
Many voodoo rituals involve mutilation of one's body (and sometimes, soul) to one extent or another. The Troll death ceremonies are especially gruesome.
Particularly powerful spirits are given the title of Loa. The Loa gods are usually very strong entities, but one can become Loa simply by being highly respected. The animal spirits in Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman are Loa gods, for example. They're spirits of nature. Zanza is also revered as a Loa, and he was a Troll in life. The beliefs of many Forsaken are in line with the dark, grim nature of voodoo, so it has been stated that it is possible for Forsaken to ascend to Loa in death. It can be assumed that most any race is capable of this then, and it is then possible that the faith and respect given to that person in death is what causes their ascension. Zul'jin, for example, may ascend to Loa if enough of his people remain and have faith in him.
There are a lot of mixed, minor religions and faiths in Azeroth and Outland. Deity worship is vast and varied. Many of the demigods have pockets of worshipers, and the Titans have garnered more and more followers recently with the increased Dwarven interest in them. There are no specific sets of morality or virtue attached to them necessarily, though followers usually try to practice what their deities practice.
Hopefully all of this was helpful, because I certainly had a fun time writing it. I do not believe I missed any of the major Azerothian religions, though I may have! If I did, point it out to me and I'll see what I can do. Thanks, and I appreciate your patience, Sean!
If I didn't get to your question this week, never fear! Ask a Lore Nerd will be back next week Sunday, answering as many of your questions as possible. Remember, don't be afraid to ask us your questions, no matter how large or small. Post them in the Comments field below, and I'll get to them as soon as I can. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!