The Zandalari and Mesoamerica

By Aditi, 19 Sep 2018


It’s been about a month since the Battle for Azeroth expansion went live in World of Warcraft, and players have explored the two new areas: Zandalar and Kul’tiras. Zandalar is the home of the Zandalari trolls, one of the oldest kingdoms in the history of of Azeroth. The developers at Blizzard have drawn from multiple ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica and South America to give this area a distinct aesthetic, King_Rastakhan_concept_artand contrasts particularly well with the late 19th century London feel of Kul’tiras. I’ll be using my experience studying archaeology to find the potential real-world inspiration behind different elements of the game, including character design and architecture.

In terms of the character designs, the developers primarily have drawn from Aztec influences, both ancient and modern. The concept art for King Rastakhan appears to be heavily influenced by the costumes modern day Azteca dancers wear. This ehecatlaztecdancersis a syncretic dance form that contains elements of both Aztec and Spanish Catholic forms of worship which became a culturally significant folk dance in Mexico during the 20th century. They wear loincloths known as maaxtlati, as well as large feathered headdresses, decorative arm bracers and rattles on their lower legs. The concept art shows the king wearing similar garments, though his lower legs are decorated with some kind of metal rings instead.

Shifting from a specific character to more general character designs, Blizzard released a new look for the Zandalari trolls with this expansion. The troll carries a weapon that appears to be a wooden club with black blades sticking out of the outer fourth of the length. This closely resembles the macuahuitl that Aztec warriors used. The blades of the macuahuitl were made of obsidian and inlaid into the side of a long rectangular paddle, with a leather wrapped handle. Obsidian, when skillfully knapped, is one of the sharpest materials known to humanity. Modern surgeons use obsidian scalpels in certain contexts to reduce the damage caused by incisions and reduce scarring, however they are not in widespread use or approved by the FDA.

722179-zandalari-hunter-for-bfaMoving from weaponry to armor, the images of various Zandalari warrior caste show very unusual designs. Several of the higher level characters are wearing shoulder pauldrons which depict a skull motif with the signature troll tusks sticking out from Macuahuitl_Felipe Dávalos and british museumthe skulls represented on the armor. This is very reminiscent of the Chaac faces on the corners of some Maya buildings, including the “Nunnery” in Chichen Itza. These ornaments on the building corners represent the deity Chaac, god of rain. He is usually represented with fangs and a prominent nose.

2_iv_character models_chaac facesMoving forward with an analysis of the architecture used in the game, the most obvious similarity is the use of pyramids. Both the Maya and Aztec cultures created their own pyramids, which were 2a_v_chaac_nunnery_chichen itza_stephen slater.jpgprimarily used as temples. Upon entering the inner corridors of the main pyramid in the city of Zuldazar, the shape of the hallways is a very distinct trapezoid shape, exactly like the hallways inside the Temple of the Inscription created by the Maya and located in Palenque.

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The most prominent feature of the same pyramid in the game is the large wheel inset in the center. Once inside the pyramid’s large central room, the player notices that the wheel has a face in the center, and that it is slowly spinning. Along with the triangular shaped decorations on the outer edge, all of these elements suggest the most famous archeological artifact in Mesoamerican history, the Aztec calendar stone. It was discovered underneath the main plaza in Mexico city, and depicts the face of the sun god, Tonatiuh, symbols of eras in the Aztec mythological history, and glyphs representing important dates in Aztec history. Without heading into spoiler territory, this wheel factors into the the current expansion events.

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It is clear that the artists and developers at Blizzard did a lot of research when creating the characters, buildings and details of the Zandalari, and represented many different aspects of the Aztec and Maya cultures. A similar exploration of the other new area Kul’tiras, will likely show the same level of detail and investigation.

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If you enjoyed the Maya and Aztec design elements in World of Warcraft, you will probably also enjoy handmade artisanal crafts, garments and home goods made by Maya artists. The organizations Maya Traditions Foundation and Cojolya are excellent places to start.


Aditi is a professional belly dancer, costume designer and cosplayer. You can find her work on Instagram and follow her dance streams on Twitch.