Vrykul Artifacts: The Humanity of Azeroth?
“The vrykul are the missing link. They are the progenitors of humanity,” quest giver Thoralius the Wise grandly states, revealing how some vrykul nobly saved their children from genocide. Thoralius later aids Westfall, watching Vanessa, who witnessed her father’s murder, burn the human town down as revenge. Why do the humans choose to pick the vrykul as their ancestors, based on spotty evidence? And what exactly is humanity in the context of Azeroth?
The vrykul artifacts are sparse, failing to answer the major questions about the proto-race. Why did they suddenly disappear on Northrend? What was their original purpose? What was their elaborate system of magic that current wizards cannot decipher? Why did they ally with the Lich King?
Instead, the artifacts cover daily life and physical combat, with intermittent references to non-human races. The artifacts heavily reference Norse mythology, except on Azeroth, the vrykul aren’t semi-divine, they’re mortal; their blind devotion and heroic battles lead to disaster instead of glory. The parallels to Norse mythology both enrich and stifle the lore of the vrykul; it’s a complex mythological legacy that overpowers a race already overshadowed by the Titans in Ulduar, the Nerubian in ToGC, and the Scourge in Icecrown Citadel.
The vrykul saved their young from genocide, creating the human race; they also serve the Lich King and kill humans. What’s definable about them, once the Norse references are stripped away?
Vrykul in Northrend
The vrykul, perhaps one of the ancient races created by the Titans (similar to the earthen and giants), inhabited Northrend until they vanished seven thousand years ago, for a mysterious reason. With the recent appearance of Alliance and Horde, they have once again resurfaced, using Utgarde Keep as their stronghold from which to launch attacks. There are digsites all over Northrend; notable ones include Jotunheim (the site of the recent vrykul awakening), Ymirjar (the most important town for the scourged vrykul), and Gjalerbron (a fortress where vrykul are awakened and transformed into undead). Howling Fjord is dedicated to the lore of the Vrykul, with numerous quests and settlements for players to explore. One engrossing quest, the Anguish of Nifflevar allows the player to interact with the Lich King and observe a dialogue between parents deciding to disobey King Ymiron and instead save their ‘imperfect’ child over 15,000 years ago. Another quest takes you to Gjalerbron, where slumbering vrykul are awoken and transformed into undead.
Chris Metzen said about the vrykul: “The first time we started talking about these guys, there were probably six different things that defined them, right? They’re giant…dark…vampiric…barbarian…vikings…from hell, right?” This is a long list of epic attributes to live up to; not all made it into the final portrayal of the vrykul. The vrykul take their name from the Greek word vrykolakas, meaning vampire, but have no actual vampiric tendencies, which were transformed to the Darkfallen instead. They’re dark and hellish, reflected in their pact with the Lich King to raise the hibernating vrykul and turn the dead into the Scourge. There’s obvious parallels to the Vikings and Norse mythology; many Vrykul sites share mythological names and the race is based on the Einherjar, noble warriors who die and chosen to ascend to Valhalla by the Valkyries, female warriors loosely based on the Stonemaidens. The buildings in Howling Fjord in particular parallel Scandinavian architecture: an emphasis on wooden Romanesque-style buildings with pointed arches and barrel vaults, notably seen in medieval Stave churches, small wooden churches with runic decorations and timber-frame interiors. Urnes Stave Church is an example of one such church: built around 1130, it merges Christian and Viking elements, with animal-themed decorations and a mysterious portal with stylistic elements that straddle both Christianity and Norse beliefs.
There’s speculation from the Tribunal of Ages in Halls of Stone that the hibernation of the vrykul developed from Loken, a treacherous Titan corrupted by Yogg-Saron, who started a war among the giants. At the end of the war, the vrykul, earthen, and giants were relocated to the Halls of Stone and Reflection; Loken also waged war on his brother Thorim and murdered his wife Sif, sparking a series of events leading to the Sons of Hodir chain in The Storm Peaks, paralleled in the interactions between Thor and Loki in the great 13th century work Poetic Edda.
After their long hibernation, the vrykul first awakened in Jotunheim, on the cliffs of Icecrown, ruled by Overthane Balargarde. After defeating the Overthane, the player participates in the honorable battle pit at Valhalas, another reference to Norse mythology. There’s also the Underhalls, a ceremonial hall where the vargul, rejected vrykul by the Lich King, are being used for experiments. There’s a running theme in Titan-based races of unworthy prototypes and unfit races; the vargul are no exception. The vrykul sense they are viewed by the Titans as an imperfect race; King Ymiron states, during the Anguish of Nifflevar quest, “Even now, in our darkest hour, they mock us! Where are the titans in our time of greatest need? Our women birth aberrations – disfigured runts unable to even stand on their own! Weak and ugly… Useless..” This impassioned speech leads the King to spurn the Titans and order his subjects to kill imperfect children: “On this day all Vrykul will shed their old beliefs! We denounce our old gods! All Vrykul will pledge their allegiance to Ymiron! Ymiron will protect our noble race!” The vrykul are offended by the Titan’s perceived lack of loyalty; it makes sense how they’d turn to the security of the Lich King centuries later.
There’s another branch of vrykul that inhabit the sea; the Kvaldir, walkers of the fog, who inhabit the shores of Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra. They reference longboats and burial mounds common to Viking culture in their quests. In Howling Fjord, Shield Hill was desecrated by a band of pirates and later pinned onto the peaceful tuskarr. The power of the stolen artifacts causes the resulting thieves to go insane, and the Kvaldir continue to exact mistaken revenge against the Tuskarr. Reawakened in Borean Tundra, they sabotage Queen Azshara’s efforts by enslaving kraken and turning them on the naga at Riplash Strand.
As the progenitors of humanity steeped in mythology, the vrykul appear as the stuff of legends, instead of a living, breathing race. The Dwarven artifacts allude to the Earthen and Troggs, but also feature contemporary items, making the race approachable. The Vrykul artifacts do not include contemporary human ones as parallels, so what we have left to analyze are a handful of archaic artifacts that paints the vrykul in broad, and at times, contradictory strokes.
Vrykul Culture: Brawn and Loyalty
The vrykul were renowned for having a complex and ancient system of magic; current wizards cannot decode their runes. Yet they were also impressive warriors, which the artifacts emphasize. There’s the Nifflevar Bearded Axe and the Scramseax, melee axes and swords. In the text for the Scramseax, we learn about the combat style of the Vrykul: Scramseax are large, straight knives with a single edge and a simple hilt worn by many vrykul warriors as a sidearm. One common fighting style among warriors involves an axe in the main hand and the scramseax in the offhand. Such a mainhand axe would be the Nifflevar Bearded Axe; Many of the axes forged by the vrykul display an unusual style: the bottom edge of the axe blade extends down below the width of the butt. This style increases cutting area while minimizing weight; it can be used on both weapon and tools. Some dwarven axes show a similar construction.
In comparison to other cultures we’ve looked at, the vrykul depart from the tradition of ornate and tacky carved weapons—at least for melee. Their weapons are simple; the power is in their craftsmanship. Unlike the discarded weapons of the draenei and dwarves, these weapons still appear dangerous. And while the runecasting prowess of the Vrykul may be celebrated, there’s direct evidence in Northrend attesting to their physical combat skills as well. Deathbringer’s Will, the premiere melee trinket from ICC, turns you into a vrykul. Scramseax, or Seax, is also a common name for ancient Viking knives.
The Fanged Cloak Pin alludes to the skill of vrykul hunters: “his brooch would have been used to fasten a vrykul greatcloak around the shoulders. Attached to the cruciform main pin are two large but dulled teeth, most likely from an aging proto-drake. It’s unclear whether the brooch’s owner felt some affinity for the old drake or whether that creature was all he was capable of defeating.” While the owner in question was feeble by vrykul standards and the text appears to slight his skill, by most standards, mastering a proto-drake is no small feat. The pairing of proto-drakes with vrykul is a pointed choice; the proto-drakes were rejected dragons created by the Titans, as covered in the article on fossil fragments.
For a race elevated to “the predecessor of humanity,” the flavor text for vrykul artifacts can be snarky at times. More savage than any jewelry worn by humans, the cloak pin is subtly ridiculed, the teeth apparently belonging to a weak drake. The flavor text for the Intricate Treasure Chest Keys is also oddly dismissive, comparing the skills of the vrykul to the technology of the Alliance and the Horde; bizarre considering this is an ancient race. Yet another artifact, the Thorned Necklace, outright insults the vrykul’s craftsmanship, as it is “a wreath of bronze thorns, but unfortunately many of the spines point inward. It might have been worn by a runecaster or just designed by an artist with poor foresight.” (The joking text, hypothesizing that a runecaster would wear it, would also fit well into the tradition of curators skeptically viewing magical artifacts. So many useless magical artifacts that were preserved, so few powerful ones!) An immediate parallel is the crown of thorns depicted in Christian iconography, but the curator is adamant this was a poorly-constructed necklace. From this hesitation, perhaps modern-day curators are hesitant to embrace all aspects of vrykul culture, instead choosing the most noble parts to associate current human kingdoms with.
The flavor text in the Nifflevar Bearded Axe also questions the direct lineage between the vrykul and the humans. The Axe alludes to the similar style of dwarven weapons, without mentioning human ones. The idea of killing unfit children is echoed in the naming ceremony of Orcs, in which infants were held above a pool of water and drowned if they were found lacking. The architecture of the vrykul and topography of the land is reminiscent of Lordaeron as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Stormwind—it does not reflect all humans. And, as covered in the next section, the Vrykul have formed lasting connections with the Lich King, and as a result, the Forsaken.
The Flint Striker is another surprising inclusion, as the Vrykul frowned on manual labor. One would think a runecaster could create a fire easily, instead of relying upon a ‘simple striker.’ It has symbolic value though, as the ability to create fire generally is pinpointed as the starting point of human civilization. While the Titans created proto-races that were highly advanced, the act of creating a fire references a cornerstone outside of WoW. It could also reference an discreet item the escaping Vrykul took with them, when fleeing King Ymiron and settling on the Eastern Kingdoms. The Flint Striker is decorated with a proto-drake and fish, heavily laden with symbolism; proto-drakes were the discarded forerunners of dragons, deemed imperfect by the titans, and fish are a religious symbol for rebirth and a free soul.
Legacy of the Vrykul: Humanity and Death
The act of saving “ugly and weak” children is the vrykul’s legacy to humanity. In defying the will of the king, the vrykul that possessed the qualities of compassion and reflective determination escaped and raised their children in a far-away land. We learn that the mother of a doomed infant is determined to save the child at all costs, in contrast to the father’s hesitancy. (Ancient Female Vrykul says: NO! You cannot! I beg of you! It is our child! Ancient Male Vrykul says: Then what are we to do, wife? The others cannot find out. Should they learn of this aberration, we will all be executed. Ancient Female Vrykul says: I… I will hide it. I will hide it until I find it a home, far away from here…) Throughout history, the Vrykul are always serving someone blindly: their king, the Lich King, Sylvanas. In the act of defying authority, a vrykul becomes human. It is this element of free will and independence that can lead the vrykul to start the human race; its absences leads to their alliance with the Lich King in Wrath, and later Sylvanas in Cataclysm.
The portrayal of the female vrykul is more nuanced than that of the male warriors, with some parallels to the warrior-women of the Night Elves. Respected as both spiritual leaders and protectors of their land, Night Elf Sentinels and Priestesses of the Moon act in ways that play with gender stereotypes without falling into a specific trope. (Perhaps the topic for another Flavor Text roundtable?) The female vrykul are not simply docile mothers who happen to be skilled with weapons, or power-hungry warriors insanely bent on destruction. They parallel the Valkyries of Norse mythology, a term roughly translated as “chooser of the slain,” who hail from royal lineage and determine the fate of fallen heroes.
The Vrykul Drinking Horn, a rare artifact, is a ceremonial object given only to high-ranking vrykul. To handle the object was a great privilege: “the passing of such a vessel to the vrykul in question was a matter of ceremony, usually performed by the highest-ranking female present along with formal declarations of rank and deed.” Drinking horns are common to Viking and Medieval culture; the Valkyries guiding warriors to Valhalla presented them with drinking horns. Yet in history, the drinking horn remained an item of the male sphere; it was used to celebrate battles and perform community toasts. The ritual described on the artifact (While most drank mead or ale from bowls or cups, only those of great prestige quaffed wine from elaborate horns such as this) is similar to the religious and political toasts described in epic poetry or stone-carvings, but the presence of a high-ranking female shifts the gender balance slightly. In this act, the female participant also gains a voice; she is the one narrating history, telling the great warrior how his actions were perceived, instead of being the silent wife in a poem.
There’s evidence to suggest vrykul women were also trained warriors in their own right. In Brunnhildar Village and Valkyrion, female vrykul train their combat skills. The two villages hate each other, as the Brunnhildar loathe the vrykul in Valkyrion for allying with the Lich King. Brynhildr, the namesake of Brunnhildar Village, was a female warrior in Norse mythology, appearing as a queen, shieldmaiden, and valkyrie whose actions cause great political turmoil and unmask duplicity in society. The women in nearby Sifreldar Village have abducted all the goblin male warriors, and the warrior maidens in Brunnhildar Village fight the Sons of Hodir, since Thorim attacked them in rage after the death of his wife, Sif. Things turn suspicious when Lok’lira the Crone tells the player that the man-hating Amazonian hyldnir are fighting to win Thorim’s favor. The player initially tries to upset the Hyldsmeet following the instructions of Lok’lira the Crone, eventually luring Thorim out of his sanctuary and unwittingly leading him to capture at the hand of Loken, Lok’lira in disguise. In finishing the chain, the player feels duped and sheepish for buying into Loken’s plot, which reduces women warriors to vying suitors.
In the Intricate Treasure Chest Key, women hold a more traditional role as the protector of the house, but with a twist. The “woman of the household…keeps the keys, often displaying them prominently to show her status.” The key is decorated in an ornate manner, causing even the jaded curator to express awe. Just like the value of the Scepter of Nezar’Azret was highest compared to other Nerubian artifacts, this key is worth the most gold out of Vrykul artifacts. The keys were most likely displayed on a chatelaine worn by Anglo Saxon women to reflect their status, a belt that dangled keys and featured scenes hammered from metal-alloy. These are not simple household keys though; a warning message is included that this ‘Does not open Dark Cleric Salem’s chest,’ as people must think otherwise based on its appearance. And who is Dark Cleric Salem? Nobody knows, but his locked chest used to be in Tirisfal Glades, before Lillian Voss exacted revenge on the Scarlet Crusade. The chest has fueled a wide range of speculation, from hints that it’s tied to the Ashbringer to any number of Forsaken NPCs.
With the val’kyr’s recent alliance with Sylvanas, don’t rule out the possibility of interactions with Dark Cleric Salem just yet. Under the Lich King, the female val’kyr served as arbiters of the fate of the male vrykul, whether they’d either ascend as a ymirheim or be doomed as a lesser vargul to science experiments and torture. They terrorize the Argent Tournament and carry players off the platform during the Lich King encounter. Currently, they are employed by Sylvanas, raising fallen humans (and only humans) from the dead into Forsaken, an act that enrages Warchief Garrosh. They maintain key qualities of the vrykul even in undeath; a fierce determination in battle as well as a blind loyalty, causing three val’kyr to sacrifice their lives to save Sylvanas after she’s mortally wounded in Silverpine Forest.
The Bone Witch, a vrykul possessed by the banshee Lady Nightswood, is a fascinating melding of past and present. Killed by the Lich King in Quel’Thalas, the player frees her from her servitude while unlocking Rhe Shadow Vault in Icecrown. As a free spirit, she does not try to repurpose her elven body and reclaim her past; instead she inhabits the body of a vrykul, uttering statements of revenge and free will through the mouth of a creature designed to blindly serve authority. The vrykul’s body knows this too, as the quest text notes “The face of the witch breaks into a reluctant grin as if she’s fighting the will of Lady Nightswood.” In the following quest series, your player wrecks havoc upon Jotenheim as revenge against the Lich King through a variety of underhand means. In The Art of Being a Water Terror, you use the ancient magic of the vrykul against them, inhabiting a water elemental. In Find the Ancient Hero, you awaken Iskalder, one of the greatest vrykul warriors, to control his body in order to lure Vardamadra, a skilled valkyr, into the open. Lady Nightswood then inhabits Vardmarda’s body and exacts revenge on Overthane Balagarde. Unlike the emotionless reactions of many Forsaken, Lady Nightswood has an acute indescribable feeling when her revenge is complete and expresses a desire to see the Lich King dead.
Lady Nightswood turns Vrykul traditions on their head, using their magic, warriors, and obsession with loyalty against them. She separates herself from the vrykul by her free will, and from the Forsaken by her emotions. In her story, the mythological elements enhance her plot, instead of chaining her to a conventional tale we’ve all heard before. Free will and emotions, two elements devoid in so much of vrykul lore, define humanity in Azeroth, leading to great triumphs and awful tragedies.