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The Beginning of the End: The Fate of Nerubian and Tol’vir Culture

June 1, 2011

There’s a problem with Uldum: it’s filled with the lore of the Tol’vir but none of it easily relates to the rest of Azeroth. The zone appears as an elaborate archaeology reference to the culture of the Ancient Egyptians; add in additional skippable cutscenes and a new player racing to 85 is pretty much lost.

On the flipside is the treatment of Nerubian culture; originally intended to be a subzone in Wrath of the Lich King, it was condensed to two 5-player dungeons, Azjol-Nerub and Ahn’kahet. Everyone wants to know more about the Nerubians, wishes the instances could be expanded, and is puzzled why Trial of the Crusader features Anub’arak. Introducing a formerly-isolated culture this late in Warcraft culture is tricky; too much information and it feels disjointed, too little information and we’re disappointed there’s not more.

One way to analyze these two parallel cultures is to place them in the context of each other. The Titans created the Tol’vir to watch over Uldum and Ulduar; they flourished in Uldum but were assimilated by the Nerubians in Northrend and enslaved by the Qiraji. Both isolated for centuries with overtones of Egyptian culture, the Nerubians and the Tol’vir recently fell prey to villainous superpowers. Past the prime of their civilizations, adventurers find them a shadow of their former selves. By comparatively analyzing the sunny Tol’vir and subterranean Nerubians–a fuller picture emerges beyond the Egyptian tributes and evil bugs.

In the early days of Azeroth’s civilization, the Titans created the Tol’vir to guard their Earthen cities while the Old God C’thun corrupted the Silithid born out of the Well of Eternity’s magic to further his evil purposes.  His result, the insectoid aqir, ruled to the far west of the Well of Eternity in the kingdom of Azj’Aqir, a venomous race bent on destroying Azeroth. Constantly fighting with the Gurubashi and Amani trolls, the aqir were eventually defeated and split to different corners of Kalimdor. To the south, the ambitious and scheming aqir, later known as the qiraji, destroyed a titan city, turned it into Ahn’Qiraj, and enslaved the Tol’vir (which can be seen in Ahn’Qiraj as the Obsidian Destroyers–winged jet-black cats). To the north, the aqir eventually overthrew the Tol’vir protecting Ulduar, appropriating their architecture. This race later evolved in the Nerubians, more arachnoid in appearance than their southern counterparts.

In contrast, there’s very little information about the Tol’vir in Uldum during this formative period. The official lore talks about how the branches of the aqir enslaved some Tol’vir, yet there’s evidence in Uldum of a flourishing Tol’vir society, even in spite of Deathwing’s recent battles. The Qiraji and the Nerubians developed complex, yet contrasting, cultures after they parted ways; both utilized cultural elements from the Tol’vir, which can provide some insights into both types of archaeology fragments.

Early history

The Nerubian artifact Blessing of the Old God and the Tol’vir artifact Scepter of Azj’Aqir reference the presence of the Qiraji and C’Thun. The former artifact transforms the player into a green battle tank bug, the latter creates a blue battle tank mount: both look like the mounts acquired by players to navigate quickly in Ahn’Qiraj. The flavor texts allude to the initial battle with the trolls as well as the later Qiraji attacks in the War of the Shifting Sands and more recent Ahn Qiraj War Efforts. The flavor text on the bug disguise is untranslatable (“Pwhn’guul i ghawl’fwata ryiu wgah uul’gwan h’iwn guu’lal.  Pwhn’guul i ghawl’fwata ryiu wgah uul’gwan h’iwn guu’lal.  Pwhn’guul i ghawl’fwata ryiu wgah uul’gwan h’iwn guu’lal”) but it’s clearly a reference to Cthulu and spoken by an Old God, either C’thun or Yogg-Saron. The Old Gods play a large role in Cataclysm: worshippers of Cho’gall were found in Ahn’Qiraj during the Elemental Invasion and Cho’gall drops two items related to the Old Gods: the Membrane of C’thun and Unu’agh Fash: The Darkest Betrayal. There’s an additional Nerubian artifact related to the Old Gods, the Puzzle Box of Yogg Saron. This artifact is an unopenable box that hisses dozens of garbled messages to the player, possibly clues to N’Zoth, another Old God.

The Infested Ruby Ring could allude to the delicate craftsmanship of the Nerubians, or it could refer to the corrupted types of jewelry worn by Qiraji guards that players redeem for a number of quests in Ahn’Qiraj. The flavor text reads: “While beautiful, this ring is also disturbing. Within the huge, sharp ruby you can see a multitude of tiny creatures, spiders or mites perhaps, struggling to break free from their red prison.” Silithus and Ahn’Qijrai is littered with red crystals and swarming beetles; purifying Qiraji armor rewards players with some of the best  epics for that tier. Quality craftsmanship is a common thread between the Qiraji, Nerubian, and Tol’vir, but only the Qiraji deliberately use it for evil. Another Nerubian artifact better classified as a Qiraji one is the Spidery Sundial, which reads “While the artifact is clearly of nerubian make, it is curious what the cavern-dwelling spiderlords would have needed with a sundial. Could it be somehow attuned not to the actual sun but some light-producing, subterranean mineral? Or perhaps it suggests the divergence of the nerubians and qiraji following the destruction of Azj’Aqir.” There’s no evidence to suggest the Nerubians and the Qiraji reconciled after the split; it appears the Nerubians became independent and cultured, only attacking when threatened, while the Qiraji remained bloodthirsty.

Recent Upheaval

The player stumbles across the Nerubians and the Tol’vir in a state of recent cultural disarray. The Nerubians cultivated an elaborate underground kingdom, with tunnels that reached all across Northrend. They launched guerrilla attacks against the Lich King in Icecrown, sensing his threat. In the War of the Spider, they were narrowly defeated and raised as undead; the decisive turning point came when the Nerubians burrowed deeper into their tunnels and provoked the Faceless Ones, fighting two battles at once. Anub’arak, the leader of the Nerubians, was forced to serve the Lich King against his will, killing the remainder of his subjects and becoming a formidable asset. It’s a pity the underground subzone didn’t make it into Wrath; players don’t fully understand the scope of Nerubian culture, that it was recently wiped out, and that the Nerubians used to be friendly and peaceful. There was also talk about making Anub’arak an interactive NPC; however, most players have no idea why he is an important character.

As for the Tol’vir, the three branches in Uldum peacefully co-existed for centuries, retaining their programming from the Titans yet developing individual personalities and a vibrant culture. However, the Curse of the Flesh inflicted by the Old Gods affected the Tol’vir and Deathwing offered to remove the curse  for the price of loyalty. The Neferset tribe agreed and was granted their original form, the Orsis refused and was destroyed. The tribe of Ramkahen refused and currently needs the player’s help to fortify the city against attacks.

The Scepter of Nezar’Azret alludes to Anub’arak’s betrayal. The flavor text reads: “Nezar’Azret was a nerubian queen who was killed by Arthas Menethil and the traitor king Anub’arak in the Upper Kingdom of Azjol-Nerub. As a queen, Nezar’Azret was both leader and mother to her subjects. It is rumored that nerubian queens can genetically pass knowledge from mother to daughter.” From this artifact, we learn that in Nerubian culture, queens held significant power (as opposed to all of the missing queens in contemporary lore) aside from birthing heirs to the throne. Genetically passing knowledge is a common theme among video games and sci-fi, but it also has a basis in the habits of bees. The scepter is also worth 50g, expensive in the context of Nerubian artifacts: Queen Nezar’Azret appears to be a ruler of some worth and respect. In contrast, the Tol’vir artifacts emphasize a boy king (as analyzed below), but in general, their culture favors Pharaohs, male generals, and priests. There must be female Tol’vir, but there are no female models in game.

The Gruesome Heart Box (“This ornate box is covered with webs of gold and the skittering script of the nerubians. Inside is a heart, gray with age but still very much alive. It beats slowly, as if dormant”) reminds me of the Matthias Lehner quest chain in Icecrown, in which the player tracks down Arthas’ heart, the last vestige of his humanity. The box could be a a symbolic reminder of the lost culture of the Nerubians, preserved in the early stages of the war. The detailed decorations imply that the heart belongs to someone important. Perhaps the preserved heart, as well as other scientific experiments, was the key to the Nerubians resisting most of Ner’zhul’s and Arthas’ initial spells. There’s evidence in Warcraft literature that the Nerubians, when provoked, attacked explorers and used their body parts for experiments.

The recent strife of the Tol’vir is mostly recorded through cutscenes and quests, but there are a few artifacts that touch upon upheaval: the Scimitar of the Sirocco and the Crawling Claw. The djinns, air elementals, referenced in these artifacts are those found in the Throne of the Four Winds, a t11 raiding zone, and Lost City. The Scimitar, one of four swords scattered to the winds, symbolizes the betrayal of the Djinni, who allied with Deathwing and gave the Neferset tribe back their immortality. While the flavor text, “The wind in the desert has a name…,” is a Spinal Tap reference, it also references the fate of the Orsis tribe, buried in a sandstorm for defying Deathwing. Djinn are also portrayed as untrustworthy in the Crawling Claw: an evil djinn senses the Ramkahen want to murder him and tries to “transfer his spirit into the body of a monkey.  He was slain right in the middle of the transference, and only a fraction of his essence had moved over – only enough to possess the monkey’s paw.” The resulting pet is campy; it crawls on its fingers and periodically plays rock, paper, scissors. Yet the legend itself is dark, showing how the Ramkahen didn’t trust all djinns prior to Deathwing’s involvement.

Currently, the Ramkahen tribe is all that remains uncorrupted out of the Tol’vir, while the Nerubians are mostly mindless undead, with a few embittered survivors.

Egyptian Influences

By incorporating the architecture of the Tol’vir, the Nerubians form a shadowy underworld, a counterpart to the sunny desert of the Tol’vir in Uldum. The parallels are not apparent at first: the visual contrast is too pronounced between the sandstone sculptures of the Tol’vir and intricate winding tunnels of the Nerubians. Uldum looks like an Egyptian pastiche: there are pyramids, irrigated fields, tented cities, sphinx-like monuments, palm trees, camels, and obelisks.

The Tol’vir have some obvious references to Ancient Egypt, besides the visual similarities. The gods found in Halls of Origination parallel Egyptian gods: Isiset from Isis, the goddess of magic; Setesh from Set, the God of darkness and chaos; Rajh from Ra, the creator and God of the sun; and Amunnae from Amun, the God of Truth, featured in the Staff of Ammunae. The Vial of the Sands, a recipe learnt from a Canopic Jar, could symbolize the spirit of the deceased king, the merging of his ba, a bird with a human head, and the ka, an abstract life-force. Otherwise, it’s a bit absurd to assume that a dragon and organs are found in the same jar.

The Pendant of the Scarab Storm refers to common locust swarms, sensationalized in the Old Testament. Inexplicably, serpents attacked the river banks and were only stopped by attacking scarabs. The scarab was a popular icon in Ancient Egypt; it was a symbol of transformation, paralleling Ra’s path across the sky. The scarab also looks quite similar to the insect-themed decorations in Nerubian tunnels; perhaps this is another cultural appropriation.

The Boy Who Would be King is a self-explanatory achievement based on the young king Pharoah Ninjter. It parallels his life pretty slavishly, with stereotypical artifacts highlighted: the Cat Statue with Emerald Eyes, Soapstone Scarab Necklace, Tiny Oasis Mosaic, Engraved Scimitar Hilt, Sketch of a Desert Palace, and the Canopic Jar. In addition, the Ring of the Boy Emperor ties into his life as well. The artifacts tell the story of a boy king whose reign was greeted with much anticipation but whose life was cut short. It’s a surprising set of artifacts for explorers to collect, unless they have ulterior motives and want to affirm cultural superiority. This series of artifacts shows the Tol’vir at their worst, excessively celebrating a weak leader. It doesn’t shed much light on their ancient and stable culture; there’s a few things to be gleaned like how the Tol’vir value pets, since the Cat Statue vends for 100g, but it’s a surprising set of artifacts to feature.

The Tiny Oasis Mosaic and Castle of Sand reference the architecture found in Uldum, as does the Six-Clawed Cornice for Azjol-Nerub. Iconography is important to both races; the sun for the Tol’vir and the insect for the Nerubians continually show up on all surfaces. Both races are also concerned with creative light sources; the Tol’vir worship the sun but rely on a series of tunnels and reflective surfaces for their underground tombs, while the Nerubians developed phosphorescent plants and glittering surfaces to light their tunnels, dug by Jormungars as referenced in the Ewer of Jormungar Blood. The Six-Clawed Cornice, lacquered in gold, purple, and green, is reported to glow in the dark, similar to how the green gem in the Staff of Ammunae lights up. It also decorated a tower, which at first seems incongruous with a narrow maze of tunnels. But there are towers to be found in Azjol-Nerub, which parallel the design of the Castle of Sand, a fortress decorated with visual motifs.

In the Vizier’s Scrawled Streamer, the Nerubians have adapted both papyrus and the term ‘Vizier’ from the Tol’vir. Papyrus, made from the pith of plants alongside the Nile River, was a popular writing surface in Ancient Egypt, losing popularity much later to parchment made from animal skins. The Nerubians appear to have constructed a hybrid object, even though both papyrus and leather seem foreign to their underground kingdom. This artifact hints at the massive libraries destroyed by the Lich King, their political system based on that of Ancient Egypt which included a king and high-ranking officials (Viziers), and a highly developed linguistic system.

There’s a new wave of sinister cultural appropriation: the Lich King adopted the architecture of the Nerubians in Naxxramas and Acherus. These and other citadels have been spotted in the Eastern Plaguelands and Northrend, explaining why there are Nerubian digsites in zones devoid of Nerubian culture. It’s disconcerting to trace the roots of Scourge architecture: noting that the obelisks decorating the floating Black Citadels were inspired by underground Nerubian obelisks, which in turn were inspired by sandstone monuments praising the Tol’vir’s sun god.

The Nerubians and the Tol’vir may be at dead ends in WoW’s development; the role of the Nerubians was drastically scaled back in the previous expansion, and the Tol’vir already had an instance, albiet a short one. (Also: see the fate of Neptulon after we all hoped the Abyssal Maw patch would clear up speculation in the fossil article!) In-game, Azeroth may be tempted to downplay the achievements of reclusive, yet once-powerful, civilizations as well. But, there’s more than meets the eye with these two races beyond the Egyptian references and spider pride: their unexpected similarities lead to a fuller cultural analysis even if Azeroth wants to sideline them.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2011 8:10 am

    Great article, very well thought out and a good read!

    Just one niggling detail however: Under ‘recent upheaval’ you’ve listed that the War of the Spider was fought between the Nerubians and Arthas, but as this war took place before the Third War, Arthas has not merged with the Lich King by this point.

  2. perculia permalink*
    June 1, 2011 8:16 am

    @wulfy You are absolutely right–I should be more careful about not using those terms interchangeably. It gets lost easily in all those Qiraj and Ramkahen draft typos 😉

  3. June 1, 2011 9:43 am

    Nicely done and thought provoking. Great post!

  4. June 1, 2011 10:09 am

    Great post! I love the common Egyptian themes between the two races.

    While doing research on one of my random Anub’arak posts I noticed he actually has a headdress and wrapped “beard” very similar in style to Egyptian leaders! (I had never noticed this in-game before.) I don’t know the technical term for this adornment but it is the striped pattern/crest visible in these pictures:

    Regarding the Tol’vir, I found this fashion can be seen in the Tol’vir instances, decorative heads and statuary in both Lost City of the Tol’vir and Halls of Origination:

    What does it mean? Well, nothing, other than indicating the shared Egyptian influences / shared history between the two races you’ve already discussed. But I found it pretty cool. 😀

  5. June 1, 2011 11:41 am

    I hate you for being so smart sometimes. This is ridiculously good.

  6. Esoth permalink
    June 1, 2011 12:28 pm

    I have to confess, I thought the Tol’vir introduction had a pretty weak tie to this expansion until I read this article. The connection between the Tol’vir and Nerubians is well stated here and really adds to depth of both races as well as the lore of the Old Gods. It would be nice to see them expand on this a little more – maybe a T13 raid involving these connections? I’m thinking a Nerferset stronghold with Djinn lieutenants that descends through Qiraji tunnels and secret Cultist lairs, eventually leading to Faceless Ones and an Old God…

  7. perculia permalink*
    June 1, 2011 12:56 pm

    @Rades The leaders did wear false beards which were also carved on statues of the gods, as beards were seen as a symbol of divinity. The striped gold headdress is commonly referred to as a Nemes headdress, most famously seen on King Tut’s mask, originating during the Old Kingdom (the era of the pyramid hayday). I’d be curious to see now if other headdresses were used, like the red/white crown symbolizing the unity of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. (Also now wondering if there’s any parallels between the three Tol’vir tribes and the civil war in Ancient Egypt…)

    My mom teaches 4th grade and her specialty was Ancient Egypt; she got reproduction artifacts from a teaching museum’s collection and would set up a ‘Valley of the Kings’ and mini-tomb in her classroom. I like rambling on about it 🙂

  8. perculia permalink*
    June 1, 2011 1:12 pm

    @Esoth I think it would be great to have a t13 raid featuring N’Zoth as the final boss (unless he’s saved for an Emerald Dream related xpac, or Blizz is worried they’re killing off all the remaining Old Gods). The Quests and Lore panel said that N’Zoth was responsible for corrupting Deathwing and creating the Emerald Nightmare, and he’s alluded to several times in Vash’jir and Deepholm…it would be a big oversight NOT to include him. (Plus, I need another tentacle trinket.) The instance could start off with very ‘correct’ looking architecture–sandstone archways with carvings, maybe the initial trash ‘outside’ with nice clouds and sun, some gauntlet/tomb tunnels–and then turn really strange and dark with the Cultists porting you around to corrupted lairs, finally revealing N’Zoth deep underground (if rumor has it he’s underneath Vash’jir and corrupting it). It might also be a good ‘surprise! Neptulon is making 0 sense because N’Zoth has been corrupting him!’ ending to the removed Abyssal Maw.

    I started off pretty unimpressed with the Tol’vir as well. I was trying for realm first rogue in spite of no beta experience, and I pulled ahead in Uldum by smashing Esc every few seconds instead of taking the cut-scene opportunity to relax or get food. My initial impression was ‘enjoyable Egyptian ripoff, less fun Brann and Indiana Jones tributes’ I leveled a few casters soon after though, and they all needed to do that zone for boots/robes, so I got quite familiar with it. Initially, this post was simply going to be about the Tol’vir and how the themes in their artifacts were reflected in other Azerothian cultures–I was having a hard time integrating it. But when I outlined all the artifacts and found references to the Aqir in both Tol’vir/Nerubian artifacts, it made a ton more sense and the rest of the post fell into place.

    Also, I kind of thought of you with the silly epic solve tag, haha.

  9. Esoth permalink
    June 1, 2011 3:00 pm

    Epic solve tag?

    Also, you are right that N’Zoth seems more tied to the Naga/Abyssal Maw/water in general. If there were a Tol’vir themed raid with a connection to an Old God it would be a resurrected C’Thun if anything. I guess Med’an prevented that though.

  10. perculia permalink*
    June 1, 2011 3:09 pm

    I think you posted a few days ago about getting lucky with either the Tol’vir pet or mount with relatively few solves? At the bottom of the post, I have a blog tag called ‘lol at getting epic tol’vir solves’ covering everyone’s quest and frustration to get those two items. (The last post of the series will probably cover why I dislike actually doing archaeology.)

    Raid could always be something like ToGC, where the floor magically gives way and you end up in another zone, maybe the cultists or the Neferset port you to a more watery location at the end. There’s something about ogre magi in Vash’jir trying to reach N’Zoth.

  11. Esoth permalink
    June 1, 2011 3:18 pm

    Ah, gotcha – I make up for the bug mount by being about 160 solves into Troll without the damn sword.

    Looking forward to the arch post.

  12. June 4, 2011 8:58 pm

    Love love loved it. I sat here and my foot fell asleep while I was reading it…but I didn’t stop to mess with it!

    I don’t think I ever knew “enough” about the Nerubians to make the connections — but WOW, great job! I do like the Tol’vir oh so much…and I’m saddened for the Nerubians. They were just minding their own damn business! 😦

  13. June 11, 2011 6:10 pm

    Great article! One thing, though, I suspect that “The Boy Who Would Be King” doesn’t just refer to Pharoah Ninjter, but references the lavish tomb offerings discovered in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun too — another king who died a tragic death at a young age.

    We can only hope that more details might be added in future, there’s so much untapped potential – I was always frustrated by how much time was wasted pussyfooting around after Harrison without actually learning anything about the Tol’vir while we were there. 😦

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