The Essence of a Shaman
Whether we like it or not, Blizzard continues to homogenize the classes. The mantra “bring the player, not the class” causes the spreading of abilities that were once unique. I’m not really opposed to this philosophy – it certainly makes raiding more feasible for a small guild with limited class choices. The key for me is that each class maintains its own flavor.
I wrote a post a long time ago about the essence of a rogue. Now that my shaman is my new main, I thought it was time to identify what being a shaman “feels” like to me. Obviously how I view shamanism in WOW won’t hold true for everyone – and I certainly respect your interpretation, and ask you to respect mine. I also realize I’m not a lore expert, so forgive me if I make some grievous error.
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What Is A Shaman?
A shaman works with the elements, or elemental spirits, seeking to bring balance and harmony to their chaotic nature. Shaman can have an affinity with particular elements, and as with any magic user some are greater in power than others. Traditionally a shaman does not command the elements, or force them to do his bidding.
“The relationship between the elements and the shaman is one of synchronicity. The shaman’s influence helps to calm and unite us, just as our influence enriches and fulfills the shaman. When you have completed your training, you will be able to call upon the elements in times of need. If the elements deem your cause just, we will assist you in any way possible.” – Water Spirit, ”Unbroken”
The shaman does not have ultimate control over the elements – and they can refuse to aid him/her. The elements were angered by the orcs fel magics, and as such abandoned the call of the orc shaman for a time.
“I am granted these things because I ask, with respect in my heart, and I am willing to offer something in return. I request only the barest needs for myself and my people. At times, I ask great things, but only when the cause is good and just and wholesome. In return, I thank these powers, knowing they are borrowed only, never bought. They come to me because they choose to, not because I demand it! These are not slaves, Thrall. They are powerful entities who come of their own free will, who are companions in my magic, not my servants.” –Drek’thar, Lord of the Clans
Elemental spirits are not to be toyed with. They are incredibly dangerous, and this is respected by most shaman.
“True knowledge and understanding will take years, but if you stay the course, in time we will be yours to call upon… but never to command. Yet if you respect us, and your motives remain unselfish, we will never abandon you.” –Water Spirit, “Unbroken”
We will see, however, that not all shaman view their role quite in this way.
If shaman are the ones with a connection to the elements, why do mages seem to have power over water and fire? Traditional magic is very different from shamanism – mages do not bargain with the elements, but rather use their arcane powers to force them to do their bidding, or use the magic to draw from them. The water elemental that mages summon is not all that powerful (as elementals go), and therefore can be controlled.
“We have a bond with the things of the natural world, and strive always to work in harmony with them. Warlocks would term them spells, but we shamans simply term them calls. We ask, the powers we work with answer. Or not, as they will. I can call the snows, and wind, and lightning. The trees may bend to me when I ask. The rivers may flow where I ask them to.” –Drek’thar, Lord of the Clans
WOW uses the four classical elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. There is also a “fifth element” which is much harder to define. This element is part of everything, and not all shaman even have the power to reach it. Thrall called it “the Wild”, while Nobundo simply said “Everything that is, is alive”.
“Out here in the void was another element, one that seemed to bind the worlds together, one composed of unspeakable energy. If he could call upon this one– but he knew immediately that he was far too inexperienced at this stage of his journey to commune with this mysterious new element. This was just a glimpse, a gift of understanding…” –Nobundo, “Unbroken”
Many cultures throughout our history viewed these elements as the basic building block of everything in the universe, so it is no surprise that Blizzard chose to incorporate them into their lore.
Shamans in the Lore
There are many important shaman in WOW’s history, and the new expansion has only increased this number. While I’m not going to spend a ton of time here (otherwise I’d end up needing to do a whole series of posts), I thought I would touch on a few key figures.
Thrall (and His Teachers)
Thrall is the most obvious shaman that comes to mind. Chris Metzen is obsessed with Thrall, and as such has turned him into a messiah type character. He has gone from slave, to savior of his people, to strong warchief, to a possible savior of Azeroth itself. There are two books that have a strong focus on Thrall and his ascent to shamanism, both written by Christie Golden. The first book, Lord of the Clans, details Thrall’s escape from human slavery and his experience learning about the elements through the wise orc shaman Drek’Thar. The second book is the most recent WOW novel, The Shattering. Although Thrall has been a shaman for many years, he never truly understood what that meant. When the chaos of the shattering began, Thrall realized he did not know enough to even figure out why the elements were so upset. He returned to the orc’s ancestral home in the Outlands to discern if there was anything he could do to help the raging elements of Azeroth. Aggra, a young female orc of the Mag’har, is charged with properly showing him how to interact with the elements. When Thrall returns to Azeroth, he works with the Earthen ring in a desperate attempt to calm the elements and prevent the world from being ripped apart.
Ner’zhul was a respected shaman elder among the orcs, but was deceived by Kil’jaeden. He was tricked into doing evil things (like slaughtering Draenei) until the elements would no longer respond to him. His apprentice, Guldan, was far more easily manipulated and greedy for power, and even when Ner’zhul discovered the trickery, it was too late. Ner’zhul’s one redeeming act is that he warned the orc chieftains about drinking the Blood of Mannoroth– and one listened – Thrall’s father.
Eventually he became the first incarnation of the Lich King, after again being used by the Burning Legion (but that is another long story).
The Earthen Ring
The Earthen Ring is a neutral faction, essentially the Shaman counterpart to the druid’s Cenarion Circle. They play a vital role in Cataclysm, with a large presence in Vashj’ir and Deepholm. I’ve seen members of every race that can be a shaman represented in the Earthen Ring. Their main purpose is to maintain balance and harmony between the elemental spirits of Azeroth, preventing them from causing destruction. They have a lot of work to do after the Cataclysm, as the elements are quite distraught, and the elemental plane has been breached.
Farseer Nobundo is a strong leader of the Draenei people, although he is still somewhat mistrusted due to being a Broken. A fantastic short story was written about him, and I would highly recommend giving it a read if you missed it when it was published. (The official Blizzard published version seems to have been misplaced, but you can find the text here on Wowpedia). Nobundu, once a paladin of the light was corrupted by the fel energies used in the orc attack on Shattrath. In his desperate search for the light, he discovered another power – the power of the elements. He then brought the shamanistic arts to the rest of the Draenei. Although they were hesitant to accept anything from a Broken, the Prophet Velen saw the potential of this new power.
Each of the races communes with the elemental spirits in different ways, and incorporates their own traditions.
It’s easy to see why the Tauren became shaman. They are in touch with their surroundings, with nature (druids) and the elements (shamanism). Tauren are caretakers of Azeroth, and a peaceful race that strives for balance in everything they do. They value their long lineage and ancestral traditions. They view shamanism as a way of connecting with the Earth Mother, interpreting her wishes. Tauren shaman are considered spiritual leaders, and usually rank highly in the tribe.
Troll shamanism has a distinct Voodoo flavor, original residing in sacrifices and other more witch doctor type things. They now attempt to follow similar practices to the Orcs in order to gain their approval, but the dark voodoo magic is still blended in, if in secret. Troll shamanism is where our Hex ability originated from. The trolls worship gods called Loa, which are likely where the troll shamanistic power came from.
Orcs were once a noble tribal race not too dissimilar from the Tauren. Once, shamanism was the dominant way of life. Managing the chaotic nature of the elements fit well with a strong race that had high standards of honor and balance, and ties to the natural world. Unfortunately the manipulation of Kil’jaeden caused the orcs to turn toward other magics, such as those of warlocks. A few orcs have held true to their ancestral roots, such as the Mag’har (the uncorrupted orcs left in quarantine in Nagrand). Thrall was the first shaman accepted by the elements after the corruption. Following in Thrall’s footsteps, other orcs picked back up the mantle. So much was lost about the art of shamanism, that even Thrall had to return to Nagrand to fully understand what little he actually knew. Shaman were once the spiritual leaders or the orcs, and although they lapsed from existence for a time, they are still considered valuable advisors and are honored (even if Garrosh ignores them).
Goblins are a very intriguing introduction to the shaman lore. In true goblin fashion, they treat the elements like any other resource – bargaining in attempt to make a profit. Goblins are motivated by greed, not a desire for harmony with nature. They often use strange engineering devices to harness the power of the elements, such as the shaman in Vashj’ir making “totem modifications” for his Earth Elemental. Another interesting goblin shaman is Goldmine in Deepholm, who asks us to take his Fire Elemental, Magmatooth’s heart (who yells, “this is not in my contract!”). This shouldn’t work out well for him at all, as upsetting an elemental seems like a terrible idea – but when the Fire Elemental finally makes his move, the goblin simply uses us Heroes to defeat him.
This whole concept of exploiting the elements for profit seems at first to be counter to the basic principles of shamanism. It doesn’t seem that unlikely, however, that the weaker elementals would allow themselves to be manipulated or forced by someone with enough power (mages anyone?). Also, it seems that although the goblins are using tactics to get the elementals to serve their own purposes, the elementals still receive some benefit from the “transactions”. It is more of a business deal than something full of reverence and honor. It is also important to remember that the elemental spirits are not “good” or “bad”. They do not have morals like us – their definition of right and wrong is not the same as ours. It’s one of those “if the means justify the ends” type of scenarios. The elements go along with the goblin’s requests either because they are weak, or because the goblin’s ultimate result is what they actually wanted. There is a give-and-take going on in the relationship, that while different from that of most other shaman, is not completely antithetical.
“Even though the goblins may first and foremost be looking toward personal gain, their actions in-turn happen to be defeating horrible demons, life-stealing undead, and world-killing dragons. The Light and the elements probably don’t mind that too much.” –Bashiok, Blizzard CM (link)
While most elements strive for balance, and are cultivated by shaman who help ensure this, it is obvious that elements can also be turned to chaos. The Old Gods used the elemental lords and their minions to wreak destruction upon Azeroth. I only hope that the goblin shaman do not drive the elements to further chaos, and learn more quickly than the few NPCs I’ve encountered.
The Draenei did not learn shamanism until recently. With the imminent destruction of Draenor, the elements reached out to the former paladin, Nobundo. He brought the knowledge to the rest of the draenei people, even though he feared they would never accept him, he gave his gift generously. As the orcs abandoned shamanism, the draenei took their place.
“Our people call you Krokul, Broken, but I believe you may present us with our greatest hope.” – Prophet Velen, “Unbroken”
They could not save Draenor (the Outlands), but continued to learn the ways of the shaman after crash-landing in Azeroth. Young draenei now learn the shamanistic arts on the isle of Azuremyst, with Farseer Nobundo’s guidance. Now they fight desperately to save their new home, which may yet bear a similar fate to Draenor.
The dwarves are of the earth – formerly earthen afflicted by the curse of flesh, therefore they have an innate connection to at least one of the elements. The Wildhammer dwarves, however, are where the main roots of dwarven shamanism lie. Unlike the solid Ironforge dwarves, they are rather untamed and carefree. They live in communion with nature and the elements, bonding with gryphons of the wild and soaring through Azeroth’s skies. The recent events in Dwarven politics have caused the Wildhammer to be more involved, spreading shamanistic influence amongst the dwarves. I’m still disappointed that their totems aren’t beer kegs.
One notable dwarf shaman is Stormcaller Mylra, a lovely feisty female dwarf shaman. She works with the Earthen Ring to save Deepholm, and does not hesitate to use the elements in violent ways to see her task to completion.
While not a playable race, the Furbolg clearly understand the concept of shamanism.They revere nature and its spirits. Most tribes of furbolg are now corrupted or enraged, but there are still a few friendly tribes left, which remember their alliance with the night elves. The furbolg on Azuremyst have also befriended the draenei, with one of their members, Gurrag, even teaching shamanism in Exodar. An interesting fact is that you can identify the shaman by their gray fur.
The Taunka are a tauren-like race that lives in Northrend. It is said that they force the elements to bend to their will, but realistically this is probably similar to the goblin shaman relationship. The Taunka have learned that the only way to deal with the wild elements of Northrend is to make a show of strength, and use powers of persuasion.
There are other known shamanistic races, although very little information is available about their beliefs. Murlocs, Quilboar, Tuskarr, and even Ogres practice shamanism of some form.
Identifying Class Abilities
Obviously every shaman ability has a shaman flavor, but these are some that I consider more iconic and visible.
Water Walking / Water Breathing
Having power over the element of water gives us two very convenient abilities. Other classes/races have similar abilities, but ours still retain that shaman feel.
Fire Elemental / Earth Elemental
Summoning an elemental to fight for you is a very powerful ability. It’s on a long cooldown which makes sense – summoning should have a cost to the shaman, and shouldn’t be something engaged in lightly.
Totems are what undeniable mark us as the shaman we are. The totems are carried by shaman as conduits to the elemental spirits, and give shaman their fantastic powers.
The loss of Cleansing Totem, an always-on Tremor Totem, and even Sentry totem are a bit heartbreaking. The improvements to the class of Fire totems, however is a huge boon for DPS players who don’t have to choose between a lovely buff or more personal DPS.
As unique as the totem mechanic is, it also harms us from a game mechanics standpoint, making us less mobile. The buffs we provide, even given equal stats, are not as useful as counterparts in other classes, simply because it costs us DPS/healing to cast them, and to move them if necessary. However, we provide a wide range of buffs making us very valuable in a smaller group given our utility.
Ghost Wolf as a shaman ability is a manifestation of the fifth element, or “the wild”. The orc Frostwolf tribe has a unique bond to wolves, which is probably where the concept originated from. Enhancement shaman can also call spirit wolves to fight for them.
Shields (Water, Lightening, Earth)
The shields can be seen as lovely balls that orbit a player. All three are extremely vital to the shaman. Water shield fits in with the healing water theme that resto shaman use. Earth is considered to be protection, and is a powerful ability for healing tanks. Lightning is a manifestation of fire and contributes to the damage dealing abilities of enhancement and elemental shaman.
Shaman can imbue their weapons with the powers of the elemental spirits. From Rockbiter, to Earthliving, to Windfury, Frostband and Flametongue, they aren’t loved equally, but we couldn’t play without them.
Chain heal draws from the power of water to send a bolt of healing to a party member and other nearby members. It has waned in strength from its days as the only heal that Shaman cast, but it is still valuable in certain situations. There is something incredibly satisfying about seeing it bounce around a raid.
- Lord of the Clans, By Christie Golden
- Rise of the Horde, By Christie Golden
- The Shattering, By Christie Golden
- “Unbroken“, By Micky Neilson
- World of Warcraft: Shaman, By Paul Benjamin and Rocio Zucchio
Wowpedia articles (that I used as reference):