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Know Your Lore: The tauren peoples of Azeroth

Matthew Rossi

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.

As of right now, there are three known sub-families of tauren humanoids on Azeroth:

  • The shu'halo of Kalimdor, who believe in the provenance of the Earthmother and the sun and moon, An'she and Mu'sha.
  • The taunka of Northrend, who have grown to seek dominance over the elements via extortion and compulsion of the elemental spirits.
  • The yaungol of Pandaria, who are even more extreme in their dominant approach, viewing fire as both the weapon by which they will conquer the land and a source of mystical strength.
What's interesting to me about all three of these known offshoots of the tauren people is their diversity of beliefs as well as their physical differences from one another. Both yaungol and taunka have marked physical differences from the tauren of Kalimdor. Are any of these people similar to their pre-Sundering ancestors, or have all three groups diverged? More interestingly, despite there being no current record of the Titans having anything to do with the origin of the tauren, there are definitely tauren represented in the visual art of the Ulduar complex. Why?

At present we have no reason not to believe that the tauren are not native to Azeroth. Therefore, we have questions to ask. This particular KYL is dedicated to asking those questions, and speculating on what the answers might be.

For starters, all three tauren sub-groups have been put under extreme pressure over the tens of thousands of years since the Sundering. The taunka of Northrend were trapped in an inhospitable northern clime in close proximity to the vrykul to one side, and the spider-humanoids of Azjol-Nerub on the other. Similarly, the yaungol were pinned between the ancient forces of the mogu (and later, the Pandaren Empire) and the constantly marauding mantid to the south. For their part, the shu-halo of Kalimdor were trapped in a cycle of constant warfare with the marauding centaur.

Alone of the three sub-groups, the shu-halo of the modern Horde have retained a belief in the gentle Earthmother and her providence over their people. It's not possible at present to determine exactly why that is - it could be that the shu-halo lived in a more inviting land, although considering that they were found in the Barrens when Thrall finally arrived on Kalimdor, it's hard to make the case that they were living any more comfortably than their taunka or yaungol kinfolk. It's possible that the belief in the Earthmother as it is currently understood is a post-Sundering development used to keep the shu-halo unified despite a constant conflict with the centaur and a general bent towards nomadic living.

It's interesting to note that unlike their cousins, the shu-halo didn't have two enemies to worry about - the centaur were always their enemies, but relationships with the night elves varied from cordial to distant, yet were never openly hostile. It was easier for the shu-halo to disperse in the face of outside aggression, spreading out over what is today Feralas, Thousand Needles, Mulgore, Stonetalon and the Barrens. The taunka spread to a degree as well, making their homes in the Borean Tundra, Dragonblight, Howling Fjord, Grizzly Hills and Storm Peaks, but the yaungol were effectively confined in what is today the Townlong Steppes, only recently breaching the Great Wall and seeking to settle in Kun-Lai Summit. These cultural differences between the three groups, which all started from a common culture before the sundering of old Kalimdor, can in part be explained by the different environs in which they found themselves.
  • The shu-halo were hard pressed by a single enemy, but had a variety of climes and ecologies to sustain them as they constantly moved to exploit new lands and evade the centaur, leading to a culture of tribal nomads with a spiritual belief in a single Earthmother who supported and sustained them.
  • The taunka were not particularly important to either the nerubians nor the vrykul, and instead were forced to cope with far harsher environmental conditions. They too retained a nomadic culture, but one focused on the hostility of the world, and engaged fully in attempting to force or compel it to render enough resources to sustain them.
  • The yaungol faced both mogu and mantid, but the mogu were content with the Serpent's Spine and the mantid were often quiescent, erupting in violence on a regular time table, and the Townlong Steppes are harsh and mountainous but less so than the Storm Peaks or other Northrend locations. This led to a society that had to cope with a predictable cycle of aggression, and the discovery of flammable oil in the Steppes led the yaungol to exploit fire as both weapon and resource, and eventually identify with it. The yaungol were less nomadic than their cousins because they couldn't move either south or east freely.

Both the yaungol and the taunka have shaggier coats than the shu-halo. Again, we can see the difference in environments at play. Taunka thrive in the coldest extremes of the Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord, Dragonblight and Storm Peaks, and have developed fur and great lowering heads to cope with these climes. Yaungol have also developed prodigious horns, while shu-halo horns tend to be more extensive than taunka but less than yaungol. All have retained the massive build and prodigious physical strength so useful in survival.

It's interesting to note that the yaungol, due to the continuous and reliable pressure the mantid exerted until the most recent cycle, have developed a tradition of non-lethal combat to settle leadership disputes. When two rivals claim leadership of a yaungol tribe, they deliberately use blunted weapons and fight to exhaustion or incapacitation rather than death, ensuring both the continuation of the strongest as leader and the survival of a strong challenger so his or her strength may benefit the tribes. Ironically, the modern shu-halo have a similar tradition, the mak'gora, but that tradition may have been imported from the orcs. Also, the mak'gora does not have to be nonlethal, while the yaungol are loath to allow lethal combat between each other. The taunka may or may not have had any similar societal custom, but under the current pressure from the Scourge and their assimilation into the Horde they would of course also follow the mak'gora custom.

What I find fascinating about these three cultures is that they evolved in isolation from one another for over ten thousand years - the tauren and taunka were unaware of one another before the Horde's push into Northrend during the Warsong Offensive, and the yaungol have lived behind the concealing mists for 10,000 years. They've retained similarities to their parent culture - all three are nomadic to some extent, all three have shamanism to one degree or another, all three make use of their physical abilities (the mogu remarked on the ancestors of the yaungol being talented hunters) and there is a degree of respect shown by members of the tribe to other members of the tribe that seems universal to all these tauren offshoots.

There's still much to learn about these sub-groups. Do the taunka and yaungol still retain any aspect of the shu-halo belief in the Earthmother, or her eyes An'she and Mu'sha? Or have they entirely replaced these figures with different beliefs? The yaungol reverence of fire and taunka belief in dominating the spirit world don't necessarily preclude a belief in the Earthmother. It's potentially possible that a simple variation in concept is all that's needed.

Next week, we speculate on tauren origins again. Why is there a tauren image in Ulduar?
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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