Know Your Lore, TFH Edition: What are the Old Gods?

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|11.04.13

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Know Your Lore, TFH Edition: What are the Old Gods?
Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods
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 malignant entities, forces of chaos and destruction that were locked beneath Azeroth long, long before most of the sentient races we know today came to be. The Old Gods, horrific creatures capable of warping mind and thought, bending "lesser creatures" to their whim, once reigned supreme on Azeroth until they fell to the Titans. Yet they persisted still, even from within their prisons deep beneath the soil. C'thun, Yogg-Saron, N'zoth, and even the haunted last breaths of the Old God Y'Shaarj have presented a persistent menace that simply will not go away.

And according to at least some accounts told in Titan records, it's because they can't go away. They can't be killed. Destroying the Old Gods would result in the destruction of Azeroth itself, which is why the Titans chose to merely imprison them instead of flat-out destroy. But one question lingers, in the midst of all the this muddled history. Who -- or perhaps more appropriately, what -- are the Old Gods? Where did they come from? Which version of their history is correct ... or is the truth simply sitting somewhere in between the two?

Today's Know Your Lore is a Tinfoil Hat edition, meaning the following is a look into what has gone before with pure speculation on how it happened. These speculations are merely theories and shouldn't be taken as fact or official lore.
Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

The Old Gods
Brann Bronzebeard Old Gods eh? So they zapped the Earthen with this Curse of Flesh. And then what?
Kaddrak Accessing. Creators arrived to extirpate symbiotic infection. Assessment revealed that Old God infestation had grown malignant. Excising parasites would result in loss of host.
Brann Bronzebeard If they killed the Old Gods Azeroth would have been destroyed.
Kaddrak Correct. Creators neutralized parasitic threat and contained it within the host.
Depending on which variant of Azeroth's history you might be looking at, there are two distinct versions of the Old Gods' tale. The first suggests that in the beginning, there was Azeroth -- put to order by the Titans, arranged in quiet beauty and splendor, and then abandoned once the Titans had completed their task. At some point after the Titans left, the Old Gods arrived and began their campaign of chaos, recruiting the Elemental Lords to lead their armies and wreaking havoc upon the fragile world. The Titans, having sensed that something was wrong, returned to find the planet in ruins. They fought a war with the Old Gods, defeating them and imprisoning them deep within Azeroth itself. It was after this that the Titan Watchers were created to oversee these prisons, and the Aspects created to watch over the various aspects of the world. Job complete, the Titans once again left Azeroth, this time never to return.

In the alternate version of this tale, the Titans came to Azeroth to set the world in order, but found it overrun by the Old Gods. The war took place, the Old Gods were imprisoned -- all of the second half of the tale, really, but none of the first. The two tales come together at one specific point -- the Curse of Flesh. It was placed on the Earthen, turning them from stone to flesh, and far more susceptible to corruption. Other races were affected by the Curse of Flesh as well -- the gnomes evolved from the mechagnomes, the human race evolved from the vry'kul. It could be argued that perhaps it was the Curse of Flesh that transformed troll to night elf, although history states that was Elune's doing.

But one thing is common between both tales: The Old Gods were imprisoned, not destroyed. And according to the Tribunal of Ages in Northrend, this was because the Titans discovered that parasitic link between the Old Gods and the world ran so deep that destroying it would also destroy Azeroth. Each time we've defeated an Old God, we've only defeated it -- we haven't killed it. The only exception to this is perhaps Y'shaarj, who was dead before we arrived. We merely stomped out what remained of it, the last malignant breaths it gasped as it perished thousands of years ago.

You know what's weird? The Old Gods aren't the only things on Azeroth we cannot kill.

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

The Ancients

Long ago, possibly before the Titans even reshaped Azeroth in the first place, the Ancients were born. Well, they weren't really born exactly -- in the novel Wolfheart, the Ancients are described as guardians of the world. The Aspects were also guardians of the world, but there's a big difference between the two -- the Aspects were created by the Titans, and the Ancients ... well, they simply came into existence from Azeroth itself. Each Ancient seems to take the form of various species of animal life found on Azeroth, and these creatures are eternal.

Oh, you can kill them. Cenarius infamously died to Grom Hellscream's hand during the Third War. Aviana was killed during the War of the Ancients, as was Malorne. But they will never truly die -- all of these supposedly dead Ancients were brought back just after the Cataclysm, reborn to live life anew. And if the thought of animal spirits that have unusual life cycles sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the August Celestials. These animal spirits are essentially Pandaria's version of the Ancients. When Pandaria separated from the rest of the world and drifted off to sea, hidden away in dense mists, the August Celestials went right along with it.

When we, the players, first encounter Yu'lon, she is at the end of her life cycle -- or if you look at it differently, approaching the beginning of her life cycle. Every hundred years, Yu'lon transfers her essence into a statue of jade, and is reborn anew. We interrupted that cycle and destroyed the jade statue before Yu'lon could complete her task. We don't, however, know if the other August Celestials follow this peculiar life cycle, but if they are Pandaria's version of the Ancients, it would make sense that they are just as eternal, in one form or another.

Isn't it weird that both Azeroth's greatest guardians and Azeroth's greatest threat can't really be killed? Isn't that just the strangest coincidence you've ever heard? You know what -- I don't believe in coincidences.

What if the Ancients and the Old Gods are one and the same?

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

The Curse of Flesh

History states that the Old Gods released a parasitic infection called the Curse of Flesh, in order to wreak havoc with the Titan's creations, making them susceptible to corruption. What if that history is in the wrong order? What if the Curse of Flesh actually created the Old Gods -- by infecting the Ancients with the Curse of Flesh and essentially devolving them into these malevolent creatures that were bent on unleashing chaos? In other words, the Old Gods didn't create the Curse of Flesh, they were Ancients, spawned by the world itself, that were in fact the first victims of the Curse?

Let's go back to that Lovecraft theory I concocted, just after last BlizzCon. In that theory, I suggested that Azeroth itself was not an Old God per se, but the malignant center of chaos in the universe -- Warcraft's equivalent of Azathoth in the Lovecraft mythos. I also suggested that Azeroth itself was a prison, a casing that the Titans wrapped around this giant cloud of chaotic malevolence in order to contain it. If this is the case, perhaps what the Titans discovered upon their return was not, in fact, the arrival of the Old Gods.

The Titans actually discovered their prison was defective, and Azeroth itself was leeching into and infecting its own prison, warping the guardians it had spawned -- the Ancients -- into horrific versions of itself. But the Titans didn't want to rebuild the prison and risk unleashing Azeroth upon the universe, so instead, they locked the cell down even tighter, and shoved the evolutionary mistakes into prisons deep beneath the world. Then they added their own, better guardians for these prisons, beefing up the security as it were, and took off for parts unknown.

And all was quiet.

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

Tears of the Ancients

Wouldn't it be the most horrific thing in the world, to one be one of the most powerful forces of good in existence, solely devoted to protecting a precious world with the noblest of intentions, and finding yourself slowly fading away? Wouldn't it drive you slowly mad, knowing you are succumbing to that thing, that core of darkness that you were born to keep locked away? And wouldn't that horror, that madness increase infinitely when the gentle creators that made that prison, the Titans that crafted that fragile world that in turn made you, returned and saw what had happened to you -- and didn't bother trying to find a cure? Just gave up trying to find a way to excise the corruption and return you to what you once were, that creature of infinite, pure good?

Instead, they lock you away. They lock you in the selfsame prison which you had been spontaneously generated to guard, and they leave you there to rot. And all you can think, as you rot away beneath the earth, is that once, you were better. Once, you were greater. The Titans don't care that your evolutionary existence, a miracle in and of itself, was suddenly brought to an end through no fault of your own. You were a means to an end, and having failed your purpose, they simply cast you out and threw you away. And in that realization, the whispers from deep below, the soft, dark call of Azeroth would sound all the sweeter to you.

If the world that spawned your very existence is such a failure, then the correct course of action would be to destroy it. And so you being your work, whispering to the tiny, insignificant specks that walk the world above. Making them do your bidding. Bringing about chaos, destruction -- the Titans deserve it. They deserve to see their creation fail, after what they've done to you. After they watched you suffer, fall into darkness, and turned their backs on your suffering, convincing themselves that their actions were the "right thing."

Now that's a creepy little tale. And it puts an entirely different face on the Old Gods -- one that makes them, oddly enough, a little sympathetic. But only a little -- they're out to destroy the world, after all.

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

The connection

So far, the only fragile connection between the Ancients and Old Gods is that they both cannot really die. But there's one other connection to consider, when you're looking at this comparison. The Ancients are aspects of various emotions of good. Chi'ji is hope, Yu'lon is wisdom, Xuen is strength, Goldrinn is cunning, Tortolla is persistence -- the list goes on. Each embodies a different aspect of life itself. And then you have the Old Gods.

Where the Ancients are various forces of positive emotion, the Old Gods represent the other end of the spectrum -- illustrated most vividly by the remnants of Y'shaarj, the Sha. C'thun's whispers represent terror, Yogg-Saron represents paranoia. N'Zoth is quite literally the nightmare. Y'shaarj's original connotations are unknown, but his last breath spewed hatred, violence, fear, despair, violence -- all negative emotions, embodied by the Sha. Where the Ancients are good emotion, the Old Gods represent the bad.

One thing that Pandaria has absolutely hammered home is that in every person there is both good and evil, and life is striving to balance between the two to live in peace and harmony. This dichotomy of good and evil is reinforced over and over again -- Pandaria can not be separated from the rest of Kalimdor without taking the enemies of the pandaren along with the allies. The Horde cannot exist without the Alliance, and vice versa. Your enemies are sometimes your greatest strength. Pride is good until it is bad.

There's one other place we can take this theory, but it jumps from the sort-of strange to the really, really implausible. Bear with me.

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods

Dreams of a Titan
Do you dream while you sleep or is it an escape from the horrors of reality? -- The Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron
Early this year, I threw out another wild theory -- that Azeroth isn't a cloud of malignant chaos, it's a baby Titan. While incredibly far-fetched, the idea is interesting. And it's even more interesting when you take into consideration that dual nature of Ancient and Old God. The strangest thing about both isn't their propensity for not dying, it's the fact that they all seem to embody some form of emotion, one way or another. And if Azeroth is a being, then the presence of both would make a heck of a lot of sense. The Ancients are its good thoughts, the Old Gods are its really, really bad thoughts.

The Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron has a ton of weird messages contained therein, but there's an ongoing thematic element of sleep and dreams. So let's just take this one step further -- what if we aren't actually ... real at all? What if everything on Azeroth as we know it are just the dreams of a sleeping Titan? We aren't antibodies, we aren't there to excise some corruption, we're just part of a Titan subconscious, struggling to come to terms with its own reality? Our fights, our struggles, the Old Gods, the Ancients, all part of a kaleidoscopic series of visions experienced by a sleeping Titan. Let's take that one step further, and name that Titan. We know him very, very well. He was once a bastion of purity and all that was good in the universe, until doubt and corruption began to set in.

Know Your Lore, TFH Edition What are the Old Gods
We are the dreams of Sargeras.

Our history, our eternal struggle of good versus evil is nothing more than Sargeras trying to come to that decision about corruption versus remaining part of the Pantheon. Sargeras is attempting to grasp the horrors of reality through a series of dreams in which he's already given in -- he leads the Burning Legion to destroy, and meanwhile this tiny planet of Azeroth is that light of hope somewhere deep within the recesses of his mind. His fear, paranoia, anger at the universe is trying to attack that last spark of hope from every different angle, but that light stubbornly refuses to go out. If we win, he realizes that there is always hope, and stays with the Pantheon. If we lose ... he plays out his fate, and becomes a force of destruction, a thing born of his worst nightmares.

Admittedly, this is likely the most tin-foil of tin-foil hats, and not at all likely to be true. But the question of the Old Gods -- what exactly they are, where they came from, why they decided to descend on that world so carefully put into order by the Titans -- is one that has yet to be answered. It could go in any direction -- and if nothing else, these wild theories prove that despite its age, Warcraft is still chock full of endless possibility.

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.
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