We talked about their origins last week (although that was primarily speculation), and we've talked about their politics and how they fit within the Horde. We've discussed Cairne and his son Baine, the great leaders of their people, and Magatha, the greatest living villain. But what of the shu'halo, the tauren people themselves? Who are they?
The tauren today are in a very unusual position. They revere the Earthmother and yet are allied to people who stripmine her very flesh to plunder her resources, chop down her forests, and poison her creatures with plague. Former nomads, harried by enemies, they now reside in their ancestral homeland due to those same alliances. The Horde gave them much and now asks for much. For the tauren, the shu'halo, the debt owed when Thrall and his people helped them reach their promised land has never faded. But who were they before it?
The ancient past
The tauren people are unlike the other races who have shared Azeroth with them. Their origins are as yet unknown. They themselves believe that they are the direct children of the Earthmother, born from her body by the shadow of her hands, and they need no other explanation. The tauren tell many myths about their history, the myths dealing with the reason the sun and moon orbit the world, the shu'halo's great prowess as hunters and how it led to the birth of Cenarius, and how the monsters known as centaurs drove them from their home. We do not and cannot know at this time how much truth there is in these myths, but they do teach us that the oral historians of the shu'halo were working to explain the world and the tauren place in it. However, one thing is certain. Unlike the trolls and the kaldorei, the tauren established no empires. They conquered no lands.
Tauren numbers have never been great. Despite their vast size, strength, and aptitude for certain kinds of magic, the tauren simply have never desired to swamp the lands under their weight. Whether or not there's any truth to the idea that the tauren helped cause the birth of Cenarius, it seems clear that the forest god did indeed know of them and teach them at some time before the coming of Malfurion (even if we distrust Xarantaur the Witness, who claims exactly this).
We know this because of the time meddler Krasus, who reached out to the tauren when he found himself completely stomping all over history. Clearly, the tauren had to exist before the War of the Ancients if only because they participated in it, even if they only did so because a dragon from the future asked them to. Huln Highmountain was the tauren representative in the War of the Ancients, and he and his people proved to be valiant warriors in that long ago conflict.
Deliberate forgetting and the rage of centaurs
However, one way or another, despite keeping to their ancient ways, keeping the elements and the Earthmother sacred, the tauren lost the druid arts. Unlike the night elves, who worshipped Elune the mother of Cenarius and who had Cenarius' student Malfurion and his allies to thank for preserving what of their society survived the sundering, the tauren retreated back to their nomadic ways.
Furthermore, as Hatred of the Centaur states, the centaur began their pogrom against the tauren after the sundering. We have no idea exactly when, but it would have had to be after Cenarius' son Zaetar sired the centaur with Princess Theradras and was slain by them in turn. The centaur exploded out of their holy site of Maraudon, the former prison of Theradras that she turned into a shrine to Zaetar, and made war on the tauren.
Why did the centaur so hate the shu'halo? Well, in part it's purely because the centaur hate everything. Remember, the first five Khans of the centaur killed their own father, a keeper of the grove and a son of a demigod, as soon as they were able. Furthermore, both the centaur and the tauren were nomadic at that time, so it's not hard to expect conflict between two such powerful races who seek a similar lifestyle, even if the centaur tend to despoil and move on while the tauren revere the land and its natural balance.
However, the Cenarius -- Zaetar -- centaur lineage helps explain not only why the centaur hate the tauren so much (since the tauren claim to have created Cenarius, they can therefore claim to have created the centaur as well) but why the tauren would come to lose the druid arts while battling the relentless, fecund and avaricious centaur. Harried from place to place by Cenarius' descendants, the arts he taught could fall out of favor due in part to necessity and also due to bias. You too might reject someone's teachings if his children were trying to kill you.
The edge of death and the new hope
The tauren spent thousands of years passing on their traditions while warring constantly with centaur tribes. Tauren warriors and hunters and their shaman leaders were wise and brave and kept the Earthmother in their hearts, but their enemies were just as fierce, could move faster than they could, and were far faster breeders, since they had no qualms about despoiling an area and moving on and thus did not try to live in balance.
It was a slow, lingering death against an unworthy adversary, a twisted mockery of a being the tauren knew as the Forestlord, monsters that mocked everything the shu'halo believed in. It was the death of their way of life, their beliefs, and their people. And the Horde under Thrall stopped it.
Cairne and Thrall became allies and friends -- so close that Cairne even led the shu'halo into battle alongside the orcs, led them to Stonetalon to help Thrall save Grom Hellscream. After the Blood Curse was lifted, the shu'halo stood alongside the orcs, the night elves (once again allied to battle the Burning Legion), and the strange pink people from across the sea named humans. Thrall and his Horde helped Cairne free his people from the long, slow death at the hooves and spears of the centaur. In so doing, they earned the shu'halo's respect and cemented their willingness to be part of Thrall's Horde. In time, Thrall and Cairne became as brothers, and the tauren stood beside the Horde when more of the pink people from across the sea attempted to take Durotar from the orcs and trolls.
To endure the future
The death of Cairne, the betrayal of Magatha and the Grimtotem, and the coming of Baine to leadership of the shu'halo has not changed the essential fact that the tauren were likely going to die without the Horde. Thrall's leaving the Horde to become the World Shaman is not a decision shu'halo would question. If the elements call him, how can he not answer? It is a decision that tauren can understand.
Likewise, while Garrosh Hellscream is young and headstrong, he is also a strong warrior who won the mak'gora (the treachery that slew Cairne was not Hellscream's doing, as galling as it was), and so the shu'halo have no reason to break the ties of friendship with their green brothers and sisters. The tauren do not forget a debt, and the Horde saved them from their great enemies and helped them start fresh in Mulgore.
In many ways, the shu'halo have become the heart of the modern Horde. Furthermore, the shu'halo's desire to balance out the aggression and (to their eyes) bad choices of their Horde allies has led them to seek balance within themselves as well. While they have reclaimed the druid arts they lost (thanks to the friendship between Hamuul Runetotem and Malfurion Stormrage), that wasn't enough for them. They have also sought out the magic of the sun, An'she, and have created new paths for their people using that light. Tauren are nothing if not obedient to the Earthmother and willing to seek balance in her name.
Next week, we continue our look at the shu'halo by looking at the tauren who walked up to Malfurion himself and asked to be taught. Today, with Cairne dead, Hamuul Runetotem is the eldest of all tauren elders. He has seen his people transform from nomads to settlement in Thunder Bluff; he has helped fight the Burning Legion and the fury of the elementals on the slopes of Mount Hyjal itself. He has much to teach us.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.