If you haven't read the short story "Unbroken" by Micky Neilsen on the official site, please do so. Not only does it give you a real sense of the development of the draenei during the Rise of the Horde period and after, it helps one understand the tone of this series of posts exploring the elemental spirits of the Warcraft universe.
We experience elementals on both Azeroth and Outland as we play World of Warcraft. While some pretty significant differences between those two worlds and their elementals exist (for instance, there are four named elemental lords involved in the events of Azerothian history who do not seem to have nearly the same influence on the development of Draenor before it became Outland), the spirits themselves seem to share similarities worth exploring.
Practiced on both Azeroth (by the tauren) and Draenor (by the orcs) the art of shamanism is more akin to symbiosis than that practiced by arcanists (who control or command mystical forces) or priests and paladins (who seem to either supplicate or demand the power of the Light). And while druids and shamans share certain similarities, a druid's power comes more from a relationship with the Emerald Dream that suffuses the living world and less with the component elements. Shamans concern themselves with the complex interplay between the elemental building blocks of existence. It is almost his role to act as a mediator, allowing them to work in harmony together.
The elementals of each world comprise a kind of court or kingdom (this is a rough approximation only) independent from each other and yet linked by their common nature and the mysterious binding force, or fifth element (not Bruce Willis), that ties them all together. Whether it is the same power that the Well of Eternity drew from the Great Dark Beyond or not, what is clear is that this force (also possibly related to the spirits of the wild that Thrall encountered when initiated into shamanism by Drek'Thar) exists in all things. Everything that is, is alive.
Whether we discuss Azeroth with its elemental lords and their conflicts or the shattered, demoralized, enraged elementals of Outland, recovering from that world's destruction, we are speaking of living things. The shaman's role in dealing with elementals is to act as an intercessor for his or her people and convince the spirits of the just and right nature of his or her requests. In so doing, the shaman provides a focal point for the elements to come together around, a purpose and a goal. The shaman unites the elements with his or her presence. This is important because, left to their own devices, the elements find such a consolidation and unity extremely difficult.
Evidence of this abounds in the history of Azeroth. Before we begin a discussion of the big names, though, we'll use a much smaller and more poignant example. The water elemental Tsunaman in the Stonetalon Mountains grants the quest Elemental War, which involves mortals in the conflict between fire and water elementals in the area. So great is Tsunaman's antipathy towards the servants of fire that he even attacks a nearby campfire.
The reason for Tsunaman's antipathy is rooted in the history of Azeroth and its elementals. Long ago, before the coming of the Titans (or perhaps between visits, depending on how you interpret the Tribunal of the Ages), the Old Gods eschewed the supportive, symbiotic relationship between elementals and shaman and instead used the direct approach of simply enslaving the elements of Azeroth to their will. Appointing potent elemental spirits as elemental lords, the Old Gods used them as soldiers, slaves and even encouraged the elements' natural contentiousness for their own benefit.
At some point, the Titans put an end to the Old Gods and crushed their elemental armies, creating the elemental planes to act as interment camps for their defeated elemental enemies. It's important to understand that while the elemental lords served the Old Gods, they did not do so out of any inherent loyalty to them. Their obedience was compelled. Furthermore, their natural competition and rivalry with one another was enhanced because it served the purpose of their unfathomable masters. By means of the conflict between Ragnaros, Neptulon, Al'Akir and Therazane, the natural state of the world was one of continuous clashing elemental forces. By comparison, Draenor has elemental spirits of varying power, but seemingly (at least so far as we currently know) lacks a similar group of elemental lords to directly enforce competition and chaos between them. While they are naturally fractious (especially following Ner'zhul's destruction of the planet), the elementals of Outland are more amenable to cooperation between the various elements. At the Throne of the Elements, for example, earth, wind, water and fire elementals of massive size and power cooperate with the Earthen Ring.
The Cipher of Damnation quest line provides a tantalizing example of how the elementals may be exploited by unscrupulous arcanists. It may well be a version of the Cipher that freed Ragnaros from his prison on the elemental planes and shattered the area around Blackrock Mountain. Khadgar points out that the Cipher is not unique to Draenor, and it's possible that the Cipher is itself the means by which the Old Gods bound the elementals to their service. It's telling that the Dark Conclave of Arakkoa spellcasters was apparently attempting to summon what appears to be an Old God similar to C'thun in Shadowmoon Valley, the same location the Cipher of Damnation is found in. It would seem that Outland definitely lacks access to the elemental planes that hold the great elemental lords of Azeroth imprisoned, but still has elementals and elemental spirits of its own.
Next week we'll talk about the Therazane and the elementals of earth, and how they may have been crucial to the defeat of the Old Gods.