The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
They are about the only thing you're happy to see when you're dead. Beings of ghostly blue, these winged saviors of Azeroth's adventuring masses have been there since the very beginning of WoW, and are the closest thing Azeroth has to angels. They possess the power to bring the dead back to life, when said adventuring masses have had their adventuring cut abruptly short by accidentally pulling one or two more murlocs than they could handle. Gracious and kind, it seems that these beings only exist to help Azeroth's lost find their way back to the world of the living.
You only see the true scope of their power when you're dead, and it's safe to say if you're coherent at the time, you're probably not prepared or happy for what comes next. From quietly resting beneath the earth to a shambling mass of undead material, these ghostly creatures exist to pull the dead back to life -- at a cost. Where once was a whole and complete adventurer, now there is only forsaken; a living corpse with free will, although it's questionable as to how much of that will is actually free.
One brings players back to life; the other curses them with a life of undeath. Is there a connection between the benevolent spirit healers of Azeroth, and their dark doppelgangers, the Val'kyr? It's a question that's been posed to me on more than one occasion, and since we've slogged our way through the order of the Warcraft cosmos, it's one we can take a look at now.
The spirit healers of Azeroth aren't technically angels, although they certainly look like they could be. But there have been references to angels scattered here and there throughout Warcraft's history, from the manual of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans which mentions "archangels," all the way through Warcraft III where paladins resurrecting allies appeared to summon a ghostly, winged being of light. In addition, there are depictions of angels here and there within World of Warcraft -- the ceilings of the opera house in Karazhan depict "baby angels", and the ceilings at the bottom of Wyrmrest Temple feature winged women that also look like slightly more human versions of the spirit healers we see when we're dead.
Generally speaking however, Warcraft has been very careful with any religious references, keeping them to a bare minimum. The spirit healers of Azeroth may appear to be angels, but typically, angels in religious history don't resurrect they dead, they are what the dead become when they have lived a "holy" life. In Azeroth, the spirits of the dead remain as spirits, or move on to parts unknown.
In relation to the Warcraft cosmos, spirit healers exist on the spirit plane. This plane overlaps Azeroth, but lies separate from the mortal world. Speculation suggests that the spirit world and the Twisting Nether are one and the same, but since the spirit healers of Azeroth have remained unharmed by any agents of the Burning Legion, and the Legion makes their home in the Twisting Nether, we can safely assume it's not.
The only task of a spirit healer seems to be to resurrect those who shouldn't be dead by all natural rights. Spirit healers simply float, silently, waiting patiently for the abruptly fallen to come before them so that they may return them to the natural order of living. But there may be more to these spirit healers than we've observed from vanilla WoW to now -- they may have more of a purpose than simply raising the dead.
In Azshara, the blue dragon Azuregos has mysteriously gone missing. Over the course of an incredibly entertaining quest line, players finally manage to track him down. Azuregos hasn't just disappeared -- he's hiding in the spirit plane.
Azuregos: I've met someone. Met someone? I didn't know there were any other dragons out here. Azuregos: A dragon? Hah! Don't be ridiculous. You know, you're awfully rude. She's standing right here! ...the spirit healer? Azuregos: She has a name, you know. Anara. You'd do well to treat her with the respect she deserves. How many times have she and her sisters brought you back from the grip of death itself? You're just all kinds of inconsiderate, aren't you? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude, I just... Azuregos: I know. I KNOW. We could never be, right? Dragon and Spirit Healer... two different worlds! Not to mention the physiological problems. But you're wrong. We have a deeper connection than that. Anara and I, we're involved.
Although it's a cheeky sort of side quest, Anara does indeed seem to care for the blue dragon -- implying that the angelic residents of the spirit plane do actually feel, have lives, and do things when there aren't dead players around waiting to be revived. However, spirit healers are apparently unable to leave the spirit plane, so whatever these exploits may be, they remain unobserved.
On the other side of the equation, we have the val'kyr. Originally servants of the Lich King, these dark, winged beings also possessed the power to bring life back to the dead -- but at a cost. Those returned to life were no longer really "alive"; they were undead servants of the Lich King's army. The val'kyr watched over these servants -- death knights -- and if they fell in battle, the val'kyr would return them to their unlife.
The val'kyr are a creation of the Lich King. They were created from the female vrykul of Valkyrion, who fought and trained to receive the Lich King's unusual "gift." Those that were deemed worthy underwent the transformation from simple vrykul to val'kyr. But it's the purpose of the val'kyr that is a little muddled. It is said that the val'kyr serve to judge the fate of vrykul combatants, transforming the favored contestants to ymirjar, and the failed contestants to the ranks of the undead vargul.
Beyond this, the val'kyr also watched the fates of the training death knights of Acherus, making sure the newly born warriors didn't fall in battle before their time. In fact, these val'kyr were acting much like spirit healers -- the spirit healers of the undead. Which leads us to an interesting quest, and an interesting question. Alliance players first traveling to Howling Fjord find an Alliance encampment under attack by vrykul, and a draenei shaman named Thoralius the Wise, who sends Alliance players off to discover a secret -- a secret held within the spirit plane.
The spirit world has fallen under the sway of the Lich King. Fearsome creatures made of pure nightmare now stand watch over the realm of the elements. I sense that these val'kyr are guarding a terrible secret. I am too old and weak to survive another journey. You must go in my place. Take this incense burner to Wyrmskull Village and use it to enter the spirit world. Find the large dwelling in the northeast! Avoid the val'kyr at all costs lest they make you a permanent fixture in their world.
Traveling through to the spirit plane reveals that Wyrmskull Village has been overrun by val'kyr -- and that someone is there, waiting for your arrival. If you venture too far into the village, the Lich King waits to greet you.
The Lich King turns to face you. The Lich King grins. The Lich King says: Shamanism has brought you here... Its scent permeates the air. I was once a shaman. Val'kyr Soulclaimer says: Shall we prepare it for you, my lord? The Lich King says: No, minion. This one is not ready. The Lich King says: Do you feel it, mortal? Death seeps through me, enveloping all that I touch. With just a snap of my finger your soul will languish in damnation for all eternity. The Lich King says: But... It is not yet your time to serve the Lich King. Yes, a greater destiny awaits you. Power... You must become more powerful before you are to serve me. The Lich King says: Now watch, val'kyr. Observe as I apply pressure. Can you see that it is not yet ripe? Watch as it pops and falls lifeless to the floor.
Now here's the question in all of this: Players that complete the quest and avoid getting too close to the Lich King uncover the first signs of the true origins of human evolution on Azeroth. ...Why is the Lich King hiding this? Why are the val'kyr so concentrated in that particular corner of the spirit world, and why is the Lich King sitting there waiting for you? What's so important about this particular piece of information that the Lich King would want to guard it and keep people from finding it out?
With the death of the Lich King in Wrath, it is doubtful we will ever see an answer to that question. With the Lich King's death, the val'kyr had no one to rule over them, to tell them what to do. They had nobody to serve. And so, the val'kyr turned to the one person who would have a use for their unique talents -- Sylvanas Windrunner, Banshee Queen of the Forsaken.
Sylvanas was left in a dilemma after the death of the Lich King as well -- her unlife devoted to seeking out vengeance against the being that had created her. Once that vengeance was complete, Sylvanas was left with the unsettling decision of what to do next -- both for herself, and for her people. The forsaken had one major flaw working against them; they could not reproduce. The Lich King was the one who created the Scourge, and now that the Lich King was gone, there were no Scourge left to turn to forsaken.
Somewhere in all of this, Sylvanas encountered the val'kyr, her salvation and solution to her dilemma. Since the val'kyr could raise the undead, they were essentially the key to keeping the forsaken "alive" as a viable race. With the val'kyr, new forsaken could continue to be created. With the val'kyr, the forsaken would continue to thrive. And so Sylvanas made a pact with the val'kyr of Northrend, promising them something in return for what they did for her -- continue to populate her motley race of living dead.
The terms and agreements of that pact are an unknown at this point, but we do know this: as a result of the pact, the val'kyr will gladly give their lives to keep Sylvanas alive -- well, as alive as a walking corpse can be considered. This implies that the val'kyr were promised something important; it would have to be important in order to warrant that kind of sacrifice. Whether or not we'll see more of this peculiar pact and the val'kyr of the forsaken in Cataclysm is unclear at this point.
So let's look at the similarities between these two races and see what kind of conclusions we can draw, shall we?
Both val'kyr and spirit healers possess the ability to ressurect the dead. In the case of spirit healers, the dead are returned to life, in the case of the val'kyr, those raised are undead.
Both val'kyr and spirit healers exist on the spirit plane, this much was shown in Wrymskull Village. In fact, Thoralius points out that "the spirit world has fallen under the sway of the Lich King", implying the val'kyr presence there is some sort of attack on that plane of existence.
Both val'kyr and spirit healers possess wings and an ethereal glow, reminiscent of angels referenced in real life religion. While spirit healers seem to remain stationary for the most part, the val'kyr are free to move around at will.
But this is pretty much where the comparisons end. Though both beings are similar in shape and in the actions they perform, they don't really have a connection with each other. Val'kyr are capable of moving between the spirit plane and the material plane -- the spirit healers of Azeroth are either unable or unwilling to travel between the two. While both creatures can resurrect, there is a critical difference in how the mortals that are resurrected actually return to life.
The only tenuous connection that could be argued is that the val'kyr appear to be acting as spirit healers for the Lich King. The Lich King and those that follow him are not, apparently, the sort of creatures spirit healers care to deal with on a regular basis. So if there's any tie between the two, it's simply that -- the two creatures share the same task, but for different purposes. The val'kyr worked for the Lich King, and now they work for Sylvanas -- the spirit healers don't appear to be working "for" anyone at all.
If we wanted to step out on a very, very thin limb and go back to the tinfoil hat theory that the Lich King is a walking plane of existence, we could make the case that as a walking plane of existence, the Lich King required spirit healers to ressurect the denizens of its realm. Thus, the val'kyr -- created specifically to fulfill that purpose for the Lich King's plane. Except for the fact that the val'kyr don't really seem to exist in the spirit realm all that often, choosing instead to carry out their duties in the Material plane.
Unfortunately, for those intrepid tin foil hat wearing lore enthusiasts out there searching for a missing link between the val'kyr and the spirit healers, there isn't really a logical leap to make. The brief, somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to a spirit healer's capacity for love doesn't really reveal much about the elusive spirit healers of Azeroth. As for the val'kyr and their ultimate purpose behind teaming up with the forsaken ... well, we'll just have to wait and see.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
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.