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Behind the Lore: Night Elves

by - 5 years ago

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The Night Elves of Darnassus, or Kaldorei, are one of the oldest and most prevalent races in Warcraft lore, and also one of the most complex from an analytical standpoint.  While many of World of Warcraft’s races have fairly pronounced similarities to one real-world culture, Night Elves are more of a cultural melting pot.

Possibly the most famous features of Night Elf civilization are their World Trees, the mighty Teldrassil, Nordrassil, and fallen Vordrassil.  Norse mythology tells of the similarly-named Yggdrasil, a mighty tree with branches twisting far into the sky supported by three main roots that lead to various mythological wells.  It is a sacred central site for gods and priests alike and is populated by a whole host of creatures, much like Teldrassil and the living forest cradled within its boughs.  The creation of Teldrassil was deemed necessary to preserve the immortality of the Night Elf race after the failure of their first World Tree, lending a “holy” significance here, too.  Though linking the wells of Yggdrasil to the moonwells found throughout lands with a heavy Kaldorei presence may be a bit tenuous — the wells listed in the Norse tales are each named and thus carry special significance — there is the Well of Eternity whose waters nourish Teldrassil’s roots.  Other cultures, from the indigenous peoples of central America to Siberian shamans, also shared similar beliefs of World Trees and included them as motifs in their art and architecture.

Given the frequency at which female hunters appear in the ranks of Night Elf NPCs and the influence of the moon on their culture, it seems likely that the Greek goddess Artemis, associated with both the moon and hunting, may have more than a few Darnassian ties.  One of the main areas of the capital city of Darnassus is the Temple of the Moon, where the Kaldorei worship the goddess Elune, whose name seems to draw from the Latin luna, meaning “moon.”  Even moonwells may have an obscure connection to Arethusa, a handmaiden of Artemis, who was transformed into a fountain or spring (depending on the translation) by her benevolent moon goddess in order to escape the lustful advances of the river god Alpheus.

Many wrongfully believe that Pandaren were the game’s first foray into east Asian culture, when in fact Night Elves have been showing traces of Korean influence since the beginning.  In Moonglade, Geenia Sunshadow sells both hanbok and dangui as wardrobe items, though some slight differences in the fullness of the skirt are present due to graphical limitations within the game.

Comparisons between dangui (top) and hanbok (bottom) in World of Warcraft and real life.

Comparisons between dangui (top) and hanbok (bottom) in World of Warcraft and real life.

Hanbok, the traditional robe garment over which dangui are typically worn, have been found depicted in ancient murals of northern Asia dated around 300 BC and were designed to fit in with the nomadic lifestyle of the early cultures who created their basic structure.  The decorative jacket, or dangui, is believed to have come into vogue during the Three Kingdoms era (a span of several hundred years between 57 BC and 668 AD) and was likely adapted from Chinese fashion which had been introduced to Korea in this time period.

Similarities between Korea and Darnassus also exist with regards to food.  A daily cooking quest given from the Craftsmen’s Terrace implores players to dig up jars of kimchi, a Korean dish made of seasoned vegetables traditionally fermented by burying them underground for long periods of time.  Yet another cooking quest find us retrieving blessed rice cakes from the Temple of the Moon, possibly a reference to a legend of Japan and Korea that tells of a rabbit on the moon eternally pounding rice cakes with its pestle.  Night Elf food and drink vendors sell several relevant consumable items, including a couple of kimchi varieties, a “Heaven Peach” (Korean legends state that eating a peach will keep ghosts at bay), rice cakes, and mandu, which is a Korean dumpling typically stuffed with meat, vegetables, and spices.

Then there’s the architecture — this Night Elf structure is nearly identical to the Namdaemun Gate in Seoul.

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Namdaemun was constructed during the 14th century and was used as to welcome foreign dignitaries, as a security checkpoint on the road to the capital city, and to protect Seoul’s citizens from the Siberian tigers that once roamed the area.  The Night Elf version also appears on the road to the capital city of Darnassus, although rather than keeping out maurading tigers, they apparently decided that they made excellent riding mounts.

Japan also lends its influence to Kaldorei architecture with torii, ornate wooden arches representing a gateway from the profane hustle-and-bustle of the outside world to sacred ground.

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In the real world, torii are often found at the entrance to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.  Their Warcraft equivalents appear frequently in areas with a strong Night Elf influence, but most often can be found surrounding moonwells, serving as a fine (if not somewhat nerdy) example of the sacred/profane dichotomy.

Kaldorei temple structures and their ruins often find far more commonality with Roman architecture than that of east Asia.  Darnassus features many circular pavilions with carved stone columns, including around its famous Temple of the Moon which also features a central fountain representing Elune herself.  Though columns and statuesque fountains were found in both Roman and Greek architecture, Rome’s domed structures and curved arches did not enter heavily into Greece’s buildings until later on in history.

Temple of the Moon (left) compared to an illustration of how the Pantheon appeared during the Roman Empire (right).

Temple of the Moon (left) compared to an illustration of how the Pantheon appeared during the Roman Empire (right).

Roman mythology borrowed heavily from the deities of the Greek, often with no real differences beyond a few name changes or slightly altered traits (Artemis, for example, became Diana in Roman mythology and remains essentially the same as her Greek origins).

Satyrs and their Roman counterpart, the faun, began as very different creatures, but over time were so frequently confused with one another that the lore evolved to make them nearly identical.  Originally, satyrs were ugly dwarf-like creatures whose main animalistic traits were a thick pelt of body hair rather than hooves or horns, while the faun were man/goat hybrids.  They are both linked to the kallikantzaroi of Greek mythology, horrible creatures who spend their days trying to destroy the World Tree.  Various regions of Greece have their own description of what they look like, but goat-like or diabolical features are extremely common.  Similarly, the satyr of World of Warcraft are goat-like creatures originating from corrupted High Elves who seem to exist only to torment the Night Elf race and spread their corruption throughout the world.

There exists a misconception that Night Elves show strong Celtic influence based on the prevalence of druidism in their culture.  Unfortunately, the real druids left behind almost no evidence of their culture or practices, with all we know of them gleaned from secondhand accounts from medieval authors and Greco-Roman records.  How much of these records are fact and how much are fiction based on scaremongering  by enemy civilizations and the “Telephone” effect, however, may never be known.  The etymology of the word “druid” seems to indicate an arboreal link, with the Proto-Indo-European roots deru meaning “oak” and weid, “to see.”  Pliny the Elder claimed that the word originated from the Greek noun drus (“oak tree”).  Nevertheless, the druidism in World of Warcraft cannot be confirmed as anything other than an Earth religion, and any possible historical accuracy may never be truly known.  Shamanistic beliefs, on the other hand, speak of the shaman being able to enter a dream world or trance-like state in order to heal or return lost souls, which is vaguely similar to the Emerald Dream in Warcraft lore; in fact, we enter the Emerald Dream to obtain a possible cure for the ailing Crusader Bridenbrad at Silent Vigil in Icecrown.

If you missed Honorary Lorewalker Bunny’s inaugural Behind the Lore article, you can read it here or monitor the Behind the Lore tag to see what you’ve missed.  Be sure to check back next Wednesday for a brand-new installment to see a whole new side of your favorite Warcraft races, quests, and locations!

 


Overlord Bunny

BlizzPro Editor, blogger, gamer, and all-around adorable fluffy thing with the sharp pointy teeth.


2 responses to “Behind the Lore: Night Elves”

  1. Paulk22 says:

    I do think that the whole naturalistic part of the NIght Elves resembles Celtic culture. Specially with druids. In Warcraft 3, you have 2 different types of druids, Druid of the Claw and Druid of the Talon… The druid of the Talon seems to resemble the Goddess Badb Catha (Battle Crow). There is also another goddess who is considered a crow goddess.

    As for Celtic Druidism, it never actually disappeared…

    “The Druid priests fell out of popular existence over time with
    the invasion of the Romans, and the push for Christianity in the British
    Isles. I say popular because they still practiced in secrecy and under
    the covering of wooded sacred areas. They were called Pagans, and some
    people still celebrate and practice their ancient customs today.”

    • The problem with Night Elves and their prevalence in Warcraft is that there’s just SO MUCH lore to tackle, I probably could have written six articles on them if I included Warcraft 3! And of course while Claw and Talon popped up strongly towards the end of Cataclysm with the events in the Molten Front, I instead chose to focus on more “general” aspects of Night Elves for brevity’s sake (although I may revisit some of them in later articles). When compared to the influence of other cultures in their lore, however, they are most certainly not predominantly Celtic.

      I understand that some druids maintained covert practices over the years, but again, you have to realize that modern Pagans are not necessarily 100% “accurate” (for lack of a better term) when compared to what went on thousands of years ago. Even if the rituals and practices were passed down from generation to generation, you still get that Telephone effect where small bits are forgotten or misremembered, and with no concrete evidence to put them up against, it’s hard to say what’s an actual Druidic ritual and what’s a modern evolution. This isn’t to dump on anyone’s religion, please don’t get me wrong, but the vast majority of historians will agree that what was originally practiced by Celtic druids is likely not what’s being practiced today (statistically, however, some of the core beliefs and ideas are probably the same).

      Thanks for reading! 🙂