There's something about shamans that gets us thinking and talking. Whether it's something as simple as the proper pronunciation of "shamanism," or something as profound as a shaman's humility in relation to the source of his or her power, the lore and ideology of the shaman class often resonates with players more than many others in the World of Warcraft.
One reason for this is that shamans have been such a pivotal force in the lore, possibly more than any other class in the game (depending on your point of view). Other classes, such as warriors, or paladins, come as a sort of pre-defined archetype in fantasy games that don't seem all that different from their original forms in other fantasy settings. The actual beliefs of a priest, for instance, don't seem to matter so much to many players, so long as the class can heal like we expect them to. Even the druids, with their central place in night elf society, sometimes seem more like nature-based magic users rather than true philosophers in their own right.
Shamans, however, have a major burden to bear in one of the central plot shifts of the Warcraft storyline -- namely that the orcs, who entered the Warcraft stage in the Warcraft 1: Orcs and Humans computer game as rampaging demonic evildoers bent on destruction, and actually turned out to be a peaceful race that just got tricked into being evil. Shamanism had to be much much more than just an archetype with some special powers -- it had to be a way of thinking, a system of belief that could be taken over by demonic corruption and yet at the same time act as a beacon of truth and goodness once that the demonic taint had been defeated. Shamanism has got to be complex and profound, or else the story wouldn't make sense.
The fifth element
Playing through the game as a shaman, the vast majority of your shaman-specific quests will be about the four elements we talked about in last week's article. But there is a fifth element in shamanism, one which is probably the most important of all to those who dare commune with it.
Historically, there has almost always been a fifth element in any classical Earth philosophy concerning the elements, most notably in the case of the Chinese, for whom 5 elements were standard. The other elemental systems tended to have a feeling of 4 practical elements plus 1 mysterious element they didn't understand very much, with names like "space," "void," or "aether."
In Warcraft shamanism, the fifth element is similarly an all-encompassing element that defies concrete explanation. It is called the Spirit of the Wilds, and it seems to have to do with life, growth, restoration, and rebirth. You won't see any "Wilds elementals" walking around Azeroth, however, perhaps because this element may be the sum of all the others. As the Spirit of Air says in a short story about shamanism, "Everything that is, is alive." In a sense, every living animal in the world is a "Wilds" elemental, and every plant a totem. There is tremendous energy in this spirit, perhaps more than in all the other elements combined, and yet this spirit may lie hidden for years without a shaman ever coming to know of it.
The Earthen Ring
Last week, we noted how shamans call upon and serve the elements in a reciprocal relationship rather than a dominating one, such that shamans "call" their magic into the world rather that "casting" spells as other magic users do. In this way, they reflect the calm relationship with nature that we see in many animal species, where all the various parts of a system reinforce each other.
But the spirits of the elements should not be misunderstood as a happy-family pantheon of cheerful nature gods. Sometimes, the elements can rise in opposition to one another if the balance between them is not maintained, and end up wreaking great damage upon the system as a whole.
About 150 years prior to the current setting, the shamans of the tauren founded the Earthen Ring in order to work together to maintain this balance and prevent the elements from stepping out of place to wreak havoc upon the world. Orcs who regained their shamanistic heritage were invited to join the Earthen Ring, and now make up roughly half of the Earthen Ring's number. Since draenei and the broken have also started along the path of shamanism, some of them are now included in the Earthen Ring as well, thus strengthening the neutrality of the Earthen Ring (much like the Cenarion Circle of the druids).
It is said that the Earthen Ring as the primary voice in support of allowing the Forsaken to join the Horde. Thrall had originally wanted to reject the Forsaken, until prominent shamans of the Earthen Ring suggested that the Forsaken were much like the orcs, in their need to overcome their own inner demons. Also, the Earthen Ring believed that the Forsaken curse of undeath might possibly be curable, and to this day are conducting research that might bring this end about.
Role of shamans in society
Shamans are the spiritual leaders of their people among the tauren, orcs, and to a lesser extent, trolls. Shamanic beliefs tend to guide these races, even when they belong to another class (with obvious exceptions in the case of, say, an orcish warlock or a troll who still follows voodoo).
To play such a spiritual leader in World of Warcraft might be a little difficult, though, unless you spend some time thinking about the sort of wisdom that your character would have gained. There's no need to insist that your character is a spiritual leader in the game, but rather, it would work best to simply share whatever insights you can find based on your own reflection on the elements and the spirits of nature. If you've studied a little bit of real world philosophy that you think will fit, go ahead and put that in there, but be careful to try and just fill in the holes in Warcraft lore for the sake of consistency with other players.
Shamans in draenei society have the same wisdom of their Horde counterparts, but not the accompanying social status as spiritual leaders. The draenei, of course, already had a firmly established system of spiritual leadership before shamans came along, involving priests and paladins and their faith in the Holy Light. When Farseer Nobundo first introduced shamanism to draenei society, many draenei had trouble accepting it, especially since Nobundo himself was a "Krokul," or "Broken" -- a kind of outcast whose connection to the Light had been mysteriously severed by demonic energies during the war with the orcs on draenor. For a while it seemed that most draenei would treat Nobundo as an enemy until the prophet Velen stepped in and declared to all that shamanism was also a valid path.
In the game itself, you may see some degree of prejudice against shamans in the low-level quests for draenei (which are actually set to take place right around the release of The Burning Crusade), but these drop off completely as your character grows and eventually reaches Outland (and now, of course, Northrend). Although some players may wish that the prejudice continued, it seems that the majority of draenei society has actually taken Velen's assertion on the value of shamanism. Even if they don't think the path of the elements is as good as the path of the Light, neither do they necessarily treat all shamans as outcasts. Many draenei shamans may even combine the teachings of the Light and of shamanism together in a number of ways. Draenei shamans do not lose their "Gift of the Naaru" ability, of course, so it stands to reason that they don't lose their faith in the Light either.
Any roleplayers who wish to do justice to a draenei shaman character should really read the short story, "Unbroken," which Blizzard published around the time that they released The Burning Crusade. It tells the story of how Nobundo became Broken and established the first draenei connection with the elements. Keep in mind that many of the events you read about in that story take place about 30 years prior to the current setting, before Medivh first opened of the Dark Portal, at one of the darkest times in draenei history, when the future of the entire race was in grievous peril. Many of the draenei act in unpleasant ways that they wouldn't necessarily repeat today now that things have settled down quite a bit for them. The same people who rejected Nobundo then might sincerely respect him today, or even follow his teachings as a shaman in their own right.
Players who are serious about getting into shaman lore, especially on the Horde side, would do well to read the novels Rise of the Horde, and Lord of the Clans, which deal at great length with shamanism and shamanic philosophy as it pertains to the orcs. The circumstances of the orcish war on the draenei (which drove the elemental spirits away from the orcs) also features prominently.