The Old Gods are some of the oldest, most mysterious, and most dangerous beings to ever dwell on the surface of Azeroth. They are beings of pure darkness and chaos; manifestations of the Void; nightmares incarnate with mountains of blighted flesh and tentacles that spread like cancer over any world they encounter. Their whispers can worm into the mind and drive people to madness and despair. They are physically powerful as well, each one being at least as large as a city, but, as we have never seen their full bodies, they could possibly be as large as small continents. What makes it worse is they are not even acting on their own, but serve even greater evils that have existed since before the physical universe came into being.
Before there was the physical universe, there was the Light. Flowing throughout existence like a sea of living energy, it was dynamic, ever-moving and the source of joy, hope, and peace. However, as it moved and flowed, some areas of existence were left empty of the Light, and thus the energies in those places faded and darkened. They became an incarnation of nothingness known as the Void. As a force of nothingness, the Void was driven to twist and devour all energy and creation, putting it into inevitable conflict with the life-giving Light. As the two forces clashed, they eventually caused several catastrophic explosions in reality, changing the fabric of creation and birthing the physical universe. Shards of Light were flung throughout this new reality, sowing the seeds of life and resulting in the creation of cosmic beings like the naaru and the world-souls that would one day grow into the titans. When the titans grew from their worlds, they set about to order the universe, find more of their kind, and nurture life on the worlds they found.
However, just as the Light sowed life and brought about self-aware beings, powerful beings coalesced from the Void, the void lords. Powerful evil spirits as cruel and hungry as the nothingness from which they were spawned, they sought to twist all of reality into a realm of eternal torment. To accomplish this, they sought to corrupt one of the titans to become an instrument of their will, as they could only exist in the Void and could not enter the physical universe themselves. Failing to corrupt one of the awakened titans, they sought to control one while it was still in its vulnerable infant stage as a world-soul. Not knowing which of the endless worlds actually contained a world-soul, they pooled their power and hurled their own dark creatures into the Great Dark Beyond between the worlds. A large but unknown number of these creatures landed on many worlds, spreading contamination and corruption, and became known as the Old Gods.
Among the countless Old Gods sent through the universe, four landed on the world of Azeroth, a planet which held the world-soul of an extraordinarily powerful titan that was ripe for the Old Gods to corrupt.
Each Old God embedded itself in a different location of the large continent of Kalimdor: C'Thun in the west, N'Zoth in the east, Y'Shaarj in the center, and Yogg-Saron in the north. All the while worming their tendrils through the world’s crust to corrupt the sleeping titan at its heart.
Two races of minions grew from their bodies who would serve them fanatically as physical manifestations of their will. The first of these were the cunning n’raqi, known to mortals as faceless ones.
The second race was the insectoid aqir, who would serve as swarming armies for their masters. Over time, the aqir serving different Old Gods would evolve into separate species.
With their new servants, the Old Gods built massive temple-cities around their bodies, with the greatest built around Y’Shaarj, as he was the largest and cruelest of all the Old Gods. Together, these massive city expanses would be known as the Black Empire. The rise of these cities attracted the attention of the native spirits of Azeroth, the Elemental Lords. Seeing the Old Gods and their empire as a threat, Ragnaros the Firelord, Al'Akir the Windlord, Neptulon, and Therazane combined their elemental powers to wage war on the Black Empire. However, they were overrun by the sheer endless numbers of the n’raqi and aqir, eventually being enslaved to the Old Gods’ will and becoming lieutenants in their armies. Due to their chaotic nature, the Old Gods also warred among themselves, sending their armies of minions against each other. At one point, N’Zoth warred with the combined forces of C’Thun and Yogg-Saron at the same time.
A map of the territories of the Old Gods and Elemental Lords during the Black Empire
Azeroth was eventually discovered by the titans while wandering the Great Dark Beyond. Seeing that the corruption of the Old Gods needed to be stopped if the world-soul was to be saved, the titan Pantheon decided to create constructs to act as their hands in battling these dark forces. These constructs would be known as the titan-forged, and the greatest among them would be called the keepers, infused with the titans’ own power. These beings were named Highkeeper Ra, Odyn, Archaedas, Thorim, Hodir, Freya, Loken, Mimiron, and Tyr. These keepers and their armies defeated the Elemental Lords—imprisoning them in the Elemental Plane—and destroyed most of the aqir swarms, driving the rest of them underground.
When the keepers turned to face Y’Shaarj, however, the Old God proved to be more powerful than they could handle, using their fears and thoughts against them. In desperation, the leader of the titan Pantheon, Aman’Thul, reached his enormous hands down out of the stormy sky and tore Y’Shaarj from the world, rending its body apart. It’s lasts breaths would birth the Sha, creatures that would later plague the land of Pandaria.
Sha creatures in Hearthstone
However, ripping Y’Shaarj from the world in such a violent manner had drastic consequences. The Old Gods had buried themselves so deep into Azeroth that tearing one out had caused a permanent wound in the world, from which now leaked the arcane blood of Azeroth. Knowing that killing the other Old Gods would most likely result in the complete death of the world-soul, the titans and their keepers decided that the only course of action was to weaken and imprison the remaining Old Gods in giant subterranean cells with enchantments to contain their evil powers. Yogg-Saron’s prison would become the titan-forged city of Ulduar, while C’Thun’s would be expanded upon by Highkeeper Ra to become the fortress of Ahn’Qiraj. The titan research facility of Uldir was also created in an attempt to study the eldritch monstrosities and find a solution to their existence. However, these experiments inadvertently created a fifth Old God, G'huun. It was subsequently sealed within the research facility.
Eons later, Yogg-Saron began to stir in its cell, regaining some of the awareness it had lost when first imprisoned. It corrupted the titan keeper Loken and manipulated him into helping Yogg-Saron taint the Forge of Wills— the device that created new titan-forged—with the Curse of Flesh. This curse transformed the previously stone and metal construct bodies of the titan-forged into weaker bodies of flesh and blood that would be far easier for the Old Gods’ forces to kill. Loken also served as the Old God’s pawn in enthralling many of the other keepers, imprisoning them within Ulduar and leaving Yogg-Saron free to work itself from its bonds without the watchful eyes of its jailers to stop it.
In the following millennium, the aqir would evolve. After resurfacing and losing a war to the ancient troll empires, the aqir would split. Those that went west and congregated in C’Thun’s prison of Ahn’Qiraj would evolve into beings known as qiraji and silithid. They would lay dormant in Ahn’Qiraj for centuries.
Those that traveled north near the prison of Yogg-Saron in Ulduar would evolve into the nerubians, developing their own culture and creating vast underground cities in what would one day become Northrend.
Some of the aqir traveled south, near the remains of Y’Shaarj, and evolved into the mantid, waging war with the titan-forged mogu in endless cycles.
From their prisons, the Old Gods hatched many plans over the eons, seeking new servants and ways to escape their confines so they could bring about the end of the world and continue their corruption of Azeroth. These plans included corrupting the Black Dragon Aspect, Neltharion the Earth-Warder, into the mad dragon Deathwing, and the creation of the Emerald Nightmare in the spiritual nature plane of The Emerald Dream. N’Zoth also gained new followers in the form of the night elf Queen Azshara by transforming her and many of her people into the naga after they almost drowned in The Great Sundering.
Centuries later, a group of night elf druids stumbled on Ahn’Qiraj, accidentally waking up the sleeping swarms of qiraji and silithid. With C’Thun’s will driving them, they warred with the night elves, led by Fandral Staghelm, in the War of the Shifting Sands. Beating the night elves back, they invaded the surrounding lands, even reaching the Caverns of Time, home of Nozdormu and the Bronze Dragonflight. Seeing the threat the qiraji and silithid posed, the dragons joined the night elves and managed to drive the Old God’s forces back and seal them within Ahn’Qiraj.
The Scarab Wall erected by the Bronze Dragons to contain the qiraji
New mortal servants would emerge to serve the Old Gods with the coming of the Orcish Horde from Dreanor. Among the members of the Horde was a clan called the Twilight’s Hammer, a doomsday cult that worshiped the Void and was led by the ogre Cho'gall. When they first set foot on Azeroth, they felt the presence of the Old Gods in their minds and set out to break their shackles in order to bring about the end of the world, The Hour of Twilight. Abandoning the Horde to serve their true masters, Cho'gall and the Twilight’s Hammer set sail from the Eastern Kingdoms to find C'Thun.
After the establishment of the Alliance and the Horde, as well as the Third War and invasion of the undead Scourge, the Old Gods subtly fanned the flames of aggression across Azeroth, stirring up hatred between factions and sowing chaos to pit them against each other and lead to world-wide destruction. These attempts were thwarted by multiple adventures, but The Old Gods also had more direct plans in mind.
At this point, the Old God's power was reemerging after eons in confinement. Cho’gall and his cultists arrived outside Ahn’Qiraj and performed a ritual to extend past the barrier of the fortress and completely shatter C’Thun’s bonds. With the majority of the Twilight’s Hammer’s orcs dead from the overwhelming power of the ritual, C’Thun ordered Cho’gall to recruit new members for the cult from all races. Thus, the new Twilight’s Hammer grew in secret, infiltrating every faction and guild it could.
Various Members of the Twilight's Hammer
Now free to extend its influence, C’Thun reawakened its armies and sent them out to take the surrounding land of Silithus. In response to this threat, the Alliance and Horde joined forces for the first time and made a joint strike, with the Horde occupying the silithid forces above and the Alliance venturing below to confront C’Thun itself. After a hard-fought battle, they succeeded in defeating the Old God, an act which surprised the remaining Old Gods and taught them not to underestimate the mortal races.
During the Northrend Campaign against The Lich King, Yogg-Saron, wishing to avoid C’Thun’s fate, attempted to conceal its presence from the Alliance and Horde. In spite of its efforts, it was discovered when Brann Bronzebeard of the Explorers’ League explored Ulduar in search of knowledge about the titans. Barely escaping with his life, Brann alerted Rhonin, leader of the Kirin Tor, to call a truce between the factions and deal with this mysteriously powerful dark being. Members of both factions stormed Ulduar, defeating Loken and Yogg-Saron’s other minions, and freeing the other enthralled titan-keepers from the Old God’s influence. The fight against Yogg-Saron itself was very difficult, with many of the adventures being lost to insanity and turning against their allies, but, with the aid of the keepers, Yogg-Saron was defeated.
After the defeat of the Lich King, N'Zoth decided it was time to take advantage of the factions’ weakness from the war and bring about the Hour of Twilight. To usher it in, N’Zoth called upon its most powerful servant, the corrupted dragon Deathwing. While the dragon was nursing its wounds from a previous defeat in the Elemental Plane of Deepholm, N’Zoth fed Deathwing some of its own dark energy, infusing the dragon with more power than it had ever known before. The Old God also reached out to the Lords of the Elemental Plane, promising them power and freedom to destroy the world. Ragnaros the Firelord and Al'Akir the Windlord gladly accepted, but Neptulon and Therazane had broken free of their old masters’ control and refused. Deathwing then burst forth from Deepholm, tearing a rift between Azeroth and the Elemental Plane to free the Elemental Lords and bring about the Cataclysm.
The natural disasters brought about by the Cataclysm destroyed and reshaped much of the world's surface
Facing the end of the world, the Champions of the Alliance and Horde fought off the Elemental Lords and stormed the headquarters of the Twilight's Hammer, the Bastion of Twilight. Here, Cho’gall met his end and leadership of the Twilight's Hammer passed to the corrupted former priest of the Light, Archbishop Benedictus. The factions did many battles with N’Zoth’s and Deathwing’s forces, culminating in a battle at the dragon meeting-hall of Wyrmrest Temple. There, Deathwing met his end and N’Zoth’s campaign to bring about the Hour of Twilight collapsed.
When the lost continent of Pandaria was rediscovered, the war between the Horde and Alliance reawakened the Sha that had been birthed from Y'Shaarj’s death. Additionally, the current warchief of the Horde, Garrosh Hellscream, and his lieutenant Malkorok unearthed the buried heart of Y’Shaarj. Seeing a vision of the world under his conquering rule, Garrosh hung the heart in his throne room and desperately absorbed its power when the Alliance and a faction of Horde rebels laid siege to Orgrimmar to put a stop to his tyrannical reign. Even this power wasn’t enough to stave off his attackers, however. Garrosh was defeated and the heart drained with nothing but a fading breath of Y’Shaarj left behind.
The Heart of Y'Shaarj in the vault below the Vale of Eternal Blossoms
Old Gods are very difficult to kill, however, and at the start of the Third Invasion of the demonic Burning Legion, evidence was found by Khadgar that Yogg-Saron was starting to recover from its defeat years earlier, though not enough to be more than a minor threat at this point. The Old Gods would work behind the scenes during the invasion, using their minion, Xavius, and the Emerald Nightmare to grow their power and delighting in the fact that the Champions of Azeroth were too preoccupied with the Legion's invasion to pay much attention to them.
After the defeat of the Burning Legion, the Horde and Alliance again turned to war with each other, encountering the growing plans of N’Zoth in the process. Working through its servant, Queen Azshara, N’Zoth had corrupted the Kul Tiran tidesages and arranged for the troll prophet Zul to try and free the Old God G’huun from the titan's containment in Uldir. Azshara further manipulated the factions by luring them to her underwater city of Nazjatar and using the blood of Azeroth, called Azerite, to power the titan device that would set N'Zoth free from its prison.
N'Zoth breaks free from its shackles
Now free, N'zoth escaped to its stronghold, the sleeping city and potential reality of Ny'alotha. From this realm of existence, the armies of the long-dead Black Empire marched on Azeroth, seeking to merge the two realities and plunge Azeroth into an eternal living nightmare. Though these armies, consisting of cultists, faceless, silithid, and mantid, N'zoth sought to capture and corrupted the titan world-forges to remake the world in its image. Leading the charge against this corruption were Magni Bronzebeard, whose body had become a living diamond and served as the Speaker of Azeroth's world soul, and Wrathion, the uncorrupted son of Deathwing who was determined to avoid his father's fate and sought vengeance on N'zoth for corrupting him. Staging their operations from a titan facility known as the Chamber of the Heart, they united with a Azeroth's chosen champions and the titankeeper, Ra. When this sanctuary was invaded by N'zoth, Ra sacrificed himself to defend it, being pulled into Ny'alotha. Determined to save him and end the threat once and for all, the champions of Azeroth ventured into Ny'alotha themselves, setting up titan nodes to direct the power of the Forge of Origination directly at N'zoth to destroy it. Unfortunately, Ra's feelings of despair allowed him to be reshaped into a tool of N'zoth and the champions had to take him down along with N'zoth's other minions. Ironicly, the champions were compelled to free the imprisoned Queen Aszhara, who was being tormented for betraying N'zoth. Before she escaped, the naga gave the heroes the dagger known as Xal'atath, which Wrathion used to open the way to N'zoth's mind where it was vulnerable.
Wrathion wounds N'Zoth in style
Resisting the maddening whispers of N'zoth's attempts to control them, the champions were able to use the Forge of Origination and the Heart of Azeroth to focus a purifying beam that utterly destroyed N'zoth, as well as all of Ny'alotha
The end of N'Zoth and the destruction of Ny'alotha
In the Hearthstone Tavern, a mysterious troll fortune-teller named Madame Lazul told stories about the Old Gods and what a world would be like where they all broke free from their prisons and ruled once more. Among the many horrors and Old God creations described in her cards were ones never before seen on Azeroth that may or may not actually exist.
The unseen horrors and creations of the Old Gods. Who knows what else could be hiding in the dark?
Apparently inspired by the power of the Old Gods, the mad genius Dr. Boom created a doomsday device in the image of C’Thun in his lair of Boom Labs. The exact reason for this is unknown, but is likely just because he could.
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Several images in this post were sourced from Gamepedia.