Bloody Laughter: Troll Culture through Artifacts (…mon)
Trolls show up every expansion with a spotlight on their lore—Zul’Gurub, Zul’Aman, Zul’Drak, Rise of the Zandalari. Their patch signifies the calm before a storm, a patch that’s a breather before the next major instance. In spite of the major plotarcs of an expansion, players can count on Troll lore, seemingly unrelated to the rest of Azeroth, to provide them with some levity and escapism. While Troll lore isn’t as much of a visual disconnect as Uldum or Howling Fjord, it does appear removed—a Disneyfied version of island life. Zul’Drak, the place of the most recent troll tragedy, was underdeveloped in Wrath; the other zones feature dancing trolls and tidy happy endings.
Well, many Troll artifacts are gruesome. Others emphasize Zul’Drak, while still others talk about relations with other races. And they memoralize the past—abandoned gods in Zul’Gurub and Sunken Temple, zones that underwent simplification in Cataclysm. The jaunty demeanor of the trolls hides years of defeat and isolation; while they seem laid-back enjoying island life, they’re also bloodthirsty. If you don’t play a Troll, the subtleties of their dark humor may be lost on you. There’s dark parts of troll lore that aren’t emphasized in Archaeology such as gender relations and canniballism—not to mention meta-commentary on racial and cultural appropriation—but the existing artifacts subvert the common perception of the trolls as a diverting, happy-go-lucky race.
Early History and Magic
Troll culture is loosely based on Voodoo with cultural references to the Aztec and Maya, from architecture to human sacrifices and cannablism. Ziggurat pyramids are a common architectural theme among the trolls; Zul’Drak is designed as one large ziggurat and the Temple of Atal’Hakkar is a sunken ziggurat. Mayan stelae are also present across Azeroth–there are several quests that require players to find these large hieroglyphic tablets covering mythological tales–as well as the distinctive reliefs carved into walls and tinted with turquoise blue. In game, trolls speak with a Jamaican accent, are generally accompanied by cheerful tribal music, and glowy neon skulls. The Argent Tournament Grounds, a location that distills each race into a few belongings, depicts the trolls with a pile of shrunken skulls, voodoo masks, many bong pipes, and haunted war drums.
The Dalaran Horde cooking trainer is a troll; he originated from Olibith’s Never Stay Tuned series, a machiminia imitating a bored player in Azeroth watching TV. He runs a BBQ cooking show in his distinctive yellow shirt, always looking for the perfect gnome to trap and cook. Olibith includes another mock-TV show featuring trolls; this time they’re dancing around on an island as the logo ‘420’ flashes in the top right of the screen. Troll violence is cartoonish in a way other in-game violence is not viewed. No matter how serious, trolls come across as happy-go-lucky.
The trolls are notoriously absent from the Sundering and seem relatively unaffected by other major events in Azeroth. The following artifact could serve as their mythological Great Flood, a warning against hubris and the awe-inspiring power of gods vs mortals. The old Zul’Gurub featured Bijous, items that could be turned into the Zandalari for reputation or goods. Removed in the new version, the Bijou lives on in the Cinnabar Bijou, a “small token formed from a volcanic—and toxic—red mineral. The inscription on the reverse states that it was once the property of Min’loth the Serpent. Traces of barnacles suggest that the bijou has spent time underwater.” Cinnabar is known for a high amount of mercury, making this a lethal mineral for most human artisans. Perhaps the trolls, with their special healing powers, were partially immune to the toxic properties—it was a harmless token shared among trolls, a lethal weapon to outsiders. Min’loth the Serpent appears in The Third Troll Legend, a long tale documenting the battle between Neptulon, the kraken, Min’loth, and the trolls. When Neptulon sends his Krakken to attack the jungle, Min’loth “bellowed…lightning tore the sky and the spell struck them, and a thousand bolts fell, boiling water and burning craters in the earth.” Yet, the Krakken “remembered when the land was first born from the sea…when magic was new.” Since the trolls were a mortal race, Min’loth’s spell failed, instead inflicting massive pain on the Kraken, who then flooded the jungle, causing complete ruin. The story ends with Min’loth missing, the Gurubashi wiped out, and the Chieftan Var’gazul despairing that his dreams of conquest are ruined with his army missing.
Two artifacts refer to ancient magic: the Lizard Foot Charm and the Eerie Smolderthorn Idol. There is not much to say about the charm; it’s like a lucky rabbit’s foot except it no longer works, in the tradition of other artifacts drained of magic like the Baroque Sword Scabbard. The Idol is interesting because it references the ancient feud between the night elves and the trolls; while the trolls dominated the territorial encorachments of the Aqir, they were less successful against the elves. The idol describes an additional way the elves learned magic, besides harnessing the power through the Well of Eternity: “when the high elves went to war with the Amani Trolls, the elves could not understand how the trolls’ weapon enchantments were more powerful than their own. The elves then stole ancient knowledge from troll spellcasters, including the famous Zanza, and used idols such as this one to craft their own versions of the troll armaments.” That sounds quite subversive—the elves have been opposed to magic for millenia, and few would admit to being inspired by their oldest enemies. (Although, the night elves do a resounding job of defeating the trolls: stealing their magic, invading their lands pre-Sundering, retaliating against the invading trolls in Darkshore.) As for Zanza, he’s a loa that provides players with helm enchants and information about the Cache of Madness. His dialogue about the “high elf heathens” and arcanums was removed in Cataclysm; it’s good to see that it’s been preserved in another medium. This explains why some enchants require Librams that drop in Dire Maul, a bastion of arcane magic among exiled Shen’dralar, and also why turning in some old quests in Zul’Gurub granted Shen’dralar reputation. Ironically, after such painful experiences, Zanza is one of the few inhabitants of Zul’Gurub who has not fallen prey to Hakkar; he states that he wants to help all friends of the Zandalari, regardless of their affiliation.
The Zandalari Voodoo Doll also pays tribute to another removed item from Zul’Gurub: the punctured voodoo dolls every class needed for enchants. This artifact talks about the mysterious origins of the loa, how they are “dark spirits and primal, often animalistic gods.” From what we’ve observed of sunny Zul’Gurub and the diverse assortment of loa in Azeroth, some of which help the players, this text appears heavy-handed, written by an outsider. In contrast, the flavor text for the Voodoo Figurine is quirky and casual: “[this pet is] powered by flasks of mojo, troll sweat, the flesh of tribal enemies, or by DEVOURING TINY PORTIONS OF THEIR OWNERS’ SOULS.” It’s both gruesome and funny–the devouring of souls is treated as a joke, but the pet is used, in the description, to clean bloodstains. As discussed later in the section on gore, munching on body parts or souls is not cause for troll concern. It’s difficult at points to see beyond the light-hearted final result (in this case, a cute pet with funny text) to analyze the implications behind a blood-cleaning pet made from dead enemies.
Zul’Gurub: History and Culture
The original Zul’Gurub, a 20-player raid removed in 4.0.3, featured five High Priests who worshipped Hakkar the Soulflayer: High Priestess Jeklik, High Priest Venoxis, High Priestess Mar’li, High Priest Thekal, and High Priestess Arlokk. These priests represented different animal aspects (Hir’eek/Bat, Hethiss/Snake, Shadra/Spider, Shirvallah/Tiger, and Bethekk/Panther respectively). These gods, who took forms on Azeroth through champions (the high priests), are classified as loa, voodoo spirits that help those in need who call upon them. Most every troll race has a loa, as any fallen spirit can be turned into one through worship—most troll-based quests have players communicating with the loas of a particular race. In the starter zone conversation with Zen’tabra, it’s hinted that the Loa may have ties to the Emerald Dream. An artifact that describes the process of creating a loa is the Ghaz’rilla Figurine: “The sand trolls summoned this huge, white hydra from a sacred pool within Zul’Farrak and then proceeded to worship it as a god.” The sand trolls’ veneration for this loa is echoed in the architecture of Zul’Farrak, which is a tribute to the electricity and unique shape of the hydra.
While the players fight corrupted worshippers of the loa in troll instances, the loa are not inherently evil. Blizzard describes the relationship between troll shadow hunters and the loa as follows: “These reclusive, wily jungle trolls are considered to be the highest authority within their respective warbands. They are masters of voodoo magics who can use their spirit-powers to both heal their allies and place curses upon their hapless enemies. Donning their ceremonial rush’kah masks — that channel the spirits of their dark gods — the Shadow Hunters walk the line between darkness and light in hopes of salvaging the future for their savage brethren.” Vol’jin, chieftan of the Darkspear Tribe, is considered to be a Shadow Hunter. However, the troll artifacts do not further emphasize this relationship between the loa and shadow hunters, an acceptable type of fighter in Azeroth (as opposed to elven demon hunters). Instead, the artifacts feature corrupted gods and abuses of power.
Zul’Gurub was considered to be a seat of power for the Gurubashi jungle trolls, a branch that practiced cannabalism with a lack of emphasis on magic. Upon release, players found Zul’Gurub a challenging instance, with numerous bosses, unconventional strats, and lethal trash. Players earned reputation with the Zandalari tribe, a branch of non-cannibal scholars who had an island outpost in Northern Stranglethorn. With enough reputation, players could purchase shoulder enchants, epic armor, and special consumables. The notion of bartering with NPCs for gear was revolutionary at the time—while players are used to reputation grinds in Cataclysm, it was novel back then. After wiping to the fiery décor of Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, running Zul’Gurub was a soothing experience where armor drops were guaranteed and everyone walked away with repu and bijous—interacting with the NPCs on that island added flavor to gearing up. Trolls were scary, as the exploding-bat trash, whirlwinding axe throwers, and health-leeching snakes attested to. Originally, the high priests were sent in to thwart the recent efforts of the Ata’li, who sought to resurrect Hakkar; they have since fallen prey to Hakar’s powers in the original instance.
Currently, Zul’Gurub is a 5-player instance. To raiders in epics, it’s easy and watered-down; to pugs, it’s miserable. The Zandalari, formerly a rational and heroic tribe assisting the Alliance and Horde, now are aligned with the Gurubashi, an alliance that has permitted the trolls to rebuild the lost cities of Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman. After the events of Cataclysm, they fear for the extinction of Troll culture and have tried to ally with former enemies in the hope of building a spectacular empire. Vol’jin and the Darkspaer oppose his decision as seen in the chain Bwemba’s Spirit, but honestly—perhaps there’s a glimmer of truth with all the cultural appropriation going on in Azeroth’s current politics. Vol’jin has clashed with Garrosh constantly and certain Horde races have been exiled by Garrosh—perhaps the Zandalari feel they are next. As the progenitors of all later Troll races, the Zandalari have a weighty cultural stake in troll heritage that poses a threat to Garrosh’s need for absolute power. The Zandalari, initially opposed to resurrecting Hakkar, help the other tribes rebuild Zul’Gurub in the hopes of using Hakkar’s powers against enemies. As we’ve learned from other artifacts, mortals believing themselves to be above the gods leads to corruption.
Much in the same way the Dark Iron dwarves are both negatively portrayed in the official lore yet highlighted through archaeology, so are the Loa of Zul’Gurub. The Atal’ai Scepter alludes to the recent defeat of Hakkar, “a being of extreme malevolence who recently tasted dfeat in Zul’Gurub, ancient capital of the Gurubashi empire. This scepter is decorated with a bat motif, possibly a connection to Hir’eek, the primal bat god.” Hir’eek is one of the gods removed in current Zul’Gurub—players will remember the agi-based Primal Bat Set and exploding bat riders. Another artifact, the Fetish of Hir’eek, explains the parallel between totemic animals, spirits, and religious followers, using the example of the bat god. The bat holds additional significance in Cataclysm: troll druids turn into bats for their flight form and trolls, like undead, ride bats instead of wind riders around Azeroth.
The Jade Asp with Ruby Eyes alludes to High Priest Venoxis, who worshipped the snake god. His encounter involved poison clouds and spitting lethal snakes. The artifact is described as having “delicate jaws on this figurine can be closed, presmably to draw blood from a finger,” again alluding to the tribla practices of the trolls. While not cannabalism, there’s something occult going on. In doing quests for old Zul’Gurub for the Zandalari, you end up collecting the shrunken heads of the priests, so the desire for dark magic hasn’t bene removed, just toned down.
The Drakkari Sacrificial Knife describes the events that unfold in norrthern Zul’Drak. The events related to Drakuru, a subtle villain who destroys Zul’Drak, are not covered in artifacts; this quest chain has its own achievement for in-game publicity. Instead, the sacrificial knife covers the sacrifices of their loa: serpent, snow leopard, bear, wind serpent, mammoth and rhino. The flavor text states that this was “one of their least sensible attempts,” but considering The Lich King’s power to corrupt and convince other races, fighting against evil took bravery, no matter what form. Players, along with the Zandalari, attempt to save the mad Drakkari trolls by communicating with the loa and recording their customs. In the quest Breaking Through Jin’Alai, the Loa from Zul’Aman, now freed, return to advice the player. Sadly, in the 4.1 trailer, we learn that Zul’Drak has fallen to the scourge—fueling the Zandalari’s need even more to preserve remaining troll lore.
Zin’rokh, Destroyer of Worlds, directly foreshadows Patch 4.1, The Rise of the Zandalari. The flavor text talks how Hakkar was defeated ages ago, in vanilla, and how the original weapon passed down through the hands of wariors and paladins. The text worries: “if the Destroyer of Worlds has returned, perhaps the Soulfayer is not far behind.” Hakkar, the Blood God of the Gurubashi, is first viewed as an Avatar in the Temple of Atal’Hakkar, later as the most powerful deity in Zul’Gurub. The in-game book Wrath of Soulflayer, talks about the alliance between the trolls and the Blood God. While the trolls were relatively removed from the Sundering, they suffered greatly in a period of “Famine and terror” and Hakkar answered their prayers, demanding victims to be sacrificed in payment. When the Gurubashi rebelled, this caused “a terrible war…spoken of only in whispers…the buidling empire was shattered.” Atal’Hakkar was built by the remaining prophets of Hakkar; two attempts to revive Hakkar have taken place in the recent Warcraft universe.
This weapon is also an interesting meditation on the hero and his/her possessions. If the weapon has passed down through the hands of warriors and paladins, was it feared? Or forgotten? How was it lost? In game, players enjoy keeping weapons as trophies but it seems for Azeroth’s heroes, this weapon was discarded or lost.
Gore and Pain
Players tend to forget that trolls have exceptional regenerative abilities in addition to practicing cannibalism in ancient times–it’s even noted as an in-game racial. Some artifacts remind the player of this in a heavy-handed manner, talking graphically about how painful these artifacts would be for non-troll races.
The Tooth with Gold Filling “has a frightening crack in it, and you wonder whether it was filled with gold to treat an injury or whether the tooth was broken for some gruesome troll ritual.” With the rejenerative qualities of trolls, it’s puzzling that this tooth remained cracked instead of healing—the hygiene must have been very bad if it was the result of an injury. The other alternative is gorier; that it was deliberately fractued for a ritual; the gold could symbolize a type of perverse pride, in showing off the pain and sacrifice. Like the tortured and prized troll drummers, sacrifice could be a status symbol. In the Bracelet of Jade and Coins, we learn that gold is a favored material among Trolls: “This bracelet was made by connecting troll coins and polished bits of jade with a silver chain. Since trolls tend to prefer gold in their jewelry, it’s possible the silver was captured from another race.” The artifact also describes “leering faces of a series of lady trolls” on the coins, rendering this artifact puzzling, a mix of high and low brow. Was this a trophy item, signifying the capture and defeat of another race? Or was this item stolen and strung together with grotesque portraits as satire? There aren’t many notable female trolls so it’s puzzling that there would be a whole series of currency featuring women, or that the trolls would employ traditional currency.
Gold as a luxury item signifying worth and pain is also reflected in the Feathered Gold Earring. The name implies delicacy, but the description is not: “The feathers are probably from scarlet and green macaws, though they have been well preserved. The gold is twisted to appear like thorns or veins. The pin used to pierce the ear looks particularly painful.” Compare the treatment of this artifact to the Thorned Necklace in last week’s entry. For the Vrykul artifact, the curator jokes at the thorns and craftshmanship, suggesting that the Vrykul were poor crafters. However, there is no levity for this earring. It is sculpted deliberately to mimic body parts—perhaps a ritual piercing done to symbolize trolls reaching maturity and full control of their regenerative powers. Several races in Azeroth are shown with piercings, but the mechanics are never elaborated upon—it’s hard to get a sense of pain when everything looks cartoonish and a change of earrings is a stop away at the barbershop. Much of troll lore is presented instead as the Skull-Shaped Planter, a fun curio. In the Planter’s case, it’s that jungle trolls can grow cute fuzzy green moss on their bodies. There’s a macabre skull planter! But it’s presented as whimsical instead of terrifying.
The Fine Bloodscalp Dinnerware addresses the tradition of cannibalism: “Okay, it’s really just a big knife, but in a culture like the Bloodscalp tribe, any use of actual utensils counts as fine dining.” The Bloodscalp inhabit Northern Stranglethorn, and as vanilla players remember, their axe flurry inside Zul’Gurub was devastating, wiping an entire raid if clumsily handled. Cannibalism is a gruesome part of troll culture that tribes give up upon joining the Horde, such as the Zandalari, Darkspear, and Revantusk. In place of killing humans, these tribes have turned to animal sacrifices and other occult practices. The hint of superiority in the flavor text, which would be written and catalogued most likely by a member of The Reliquary, the Horde archaeology organization, implies that the Bloodscalp are notable for cannibalism. This is not true—as the other tribes gave up cannibalism quite recently and also had long and dark histories of bloodshed. Cannibalism, in the Horde culture, follows a similar path to colonial attitudes—an easy way to paint the Other as savage if they engage in that practice. Tales such as Greek mythology, Hansel and Gretel, and Baba Yaga never end well for the practicers. Cannibalism is seen as a sign of evil, while to older Troll cultures, it was seen as a form of purification—by consuming an evil spirit, one vanquishes an enemy. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine how such tales would be spun positively–but remember, this is a race known for regenerating body parts. In the context of such life, complete destruction and consummation would symbolize ending a threat decisively.
The Haunted War Drum stretches the expectations of the player; it describes how in Troll rituals, drummers were flayed to provide the hide for drums. At first, the unsolved artifact is teasing: “The hide is of an unusual color and appears to have been tattooed rather than simply painted or dyed.” After you’ve completed the artifact, dropped the drum in the middle of raid, and spam-clicked it while complaining it’s a waste of a rare, you may glance over the flavor text–and be surprised. “Long ago, the most dedicated of troll war-drummers would allow themselves to be flayed alive in order to provide the right hide for their precious instruments. While a troll’s incredible natural regeneration allowed one to survive such a grueling ordeal, it was a long and escruciatig process that drove many mad with pain.” At first, the article is presented as simply a curious-looking drum, which in fact, it would appear to a Troll familiar with the rituals. But no matter how much we try to understand the nuances of Troll culture, there will always be a lingering doubt that this ritual is absurd torture, as it could not be feasible in our own lives. Players love the music of the Trolls–many mourned the loss of the ‘dancing’ Shatterspear Troll village complete with partiers and drummers–but now there’s a sinister story behind all of these seemingly festive instruments.
There are numerous distinct tribes outside of the Horde-aligned Darkspear Trolls; many dislike each other, and all are weary of years of battle and loss. They meet from time to time to plan civil councils and celebrations, returning bloodshed afterwards. It’s a culture of constant squabbles interspersed with mysticism and miraculous resilience. Trolls appear to be relaxed and living in the moment; it’s easy to remain at ease when you know you can save yourself from the brink of death inexplicably. Patch 4.1 may have been a blip on the radar for most, but the artifacts provide a darker background that challenges our assumptions.
As usual, comments are welcome and you can find me on twitter as @perculia. I’m mostly Alliance and owe a debt of gratitude to @relysh for giving it a Horde read-thru. I would love to hear more on how other Horde races perceive the Trolls while leveling, and would especially like to hear stories about old Zul’Gurub, as I have great memories of that place! Next article will cover orcs–last week’s delay was due to IRL (big) archaeology article; my master’s thesis being submitted!