Is the Emperor in "Warhammer 40,000" Dead?
May 27, 2014 2:42 PM   Subscribe

It seems to me that the Emperor could very well be dead without making much difference to how the society functions. Is he?

I have a very cursory understanding of Warhammer 40k lore, and I'm aware that the Emperor is "kept alive" in what's passed off as something like a comatose state, by sacred machinery that takes up several cities' worth of space. I know that somehow the will of the Emperor is supposed to play a role in maintaining the psychic beacon that enables their entire esp-enabled transportation system. I gather than no character with whom one is ever likely to come into contact (in either the tabletop game, the roleplaying offshots, or the video games), is likely ever to have seen the Emperor in person.

So, is there an implicit joke going on here where the Emperor is actually just straightfowardly dead, and the whole horrific religiofacist structure surrounding him is a sham? Is there any textual support anywhere for either the "yes" or "no" answer to this question?
posted by Ipsifendus to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm drawing a blank right now, but in one of the better 40k books I've read (Eisenhorn? Ravenor?) the emperor exists on the psychic plane and is able to stop time and give orders to psykers.

So yes, his "body" is essentially a corpse being kept in a state of undeath by the golden throne, but it's really just a anchor that keeps his mind tethered to the Empire.
posted by Oktober at 2:56 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is said that the Emperor's existence is one of endless pain and suffering, and that it is only his utter devotion to the human race that keeps him from accepting the death he now desperately longs to embrace. Should the Emperor die, then the Astronomican will become useless, and humanity will no longer be able to safely travel through the Warp using its current technology (although this may be disputed by the fact that humanity traveled the stars before the Emperor sat upon the Golden Throne, during the Dark Age of Technology and the Great Crusade). The Imperium would then become fractured and disintegrate into civil war.


The reach of the Astronomican is said to be around 70,000 light years, which by default becomes the maximum radius of Astronomican-assisted Warp-navigable space. According to some sources, the decaying Emperor is a cause of the Astronomican's slowly weakening intensity. Presumably, this would progressively affect Warp navigation over the centuries in the outer limits of the Imperium.
via warhammer40k.wikia
posted by xqwzts at 3:14 PM on May 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This is a difficult question to answer, because the various (real-world, literary) sources that could prove or disprove the Emperor's death have changed over the years. Games Workshop is no stranger to the retcon.

If you try to trace this question back to the Rogue Trader days, the answer is pretty clearly "he's alive", because he was depicted as still being able to talk (albeit only a little bit) to psykers and the like. However, in the current iteration of the fluff, he can't talk, and is more or less a corpse on life support, excepting maybe (depending on which books are canon at the moment) he's able to manifest in the psychic plane, and maybe really he wants his body to die so he can reincarnate, and it's more or less an anchor keeping him around, as mentioned by Oktober.

The most obvious thing pointing still to "alive" is that the Astronomican (the psychic beacon required for warp travel) is still working, and supposedly he's required to run it. However, some poking around on the internet seems to imply that Malcador the Sigilite (a character from 40k lore) basically took over those duties while the Emperor was waging his crusade, and it stands to reason that if someone else could stand in for that once, he may not be required to keep it running.

All that being said, to approach this question a bit differently: it almost doesn't matter.

Regardless of whether the Emperor is dead, or if he's just been comatose all this time, the bureaucracy around him is pretty clearly a sham. The Emperor (or his corpse) is attended to daily by an inner circle that can use his silence as a reason to do anything they want, and it's pretty clear from the fluff that they do just that. Whether or not a lot of the movers and shakers of the Imperium of Man are true believers, their orders are coming from mortals who have their own agendas who nonetheless claim to be speaking with the voice of god.

The end result is that it's pretty clear that the Imperium of Man is actually just as bad (and causes just as much suffering) as the forces it claims to be protecting mankind from. Whether that's intentional satire on the part of GW, or unintended consequences of believing too much in the heroism of their chosen "good guys", is certainly up for debate.
posted by tocts at 3:42 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's been about 20 years since I've read it, but in the novel Inquisitor, the titular Inquisitor, Jaq Draco, sees the Emperor on the Golden Throne and has a psychic conversation with him.
posted by chrisulonic at 3:48 PM on May 27, 2014

I've always understood it to be quite deliberately ambiguous; while certain authors might have gone one way or another in novels, in the game world itself I'm pretty sure it's intended to be an open question. There's always been some built-in moral ambiguity to the Imperium and the fate of the Emperor is part of that. (Is the Emperor alive? If he isn't, does that change the legitimacy of the Imperium? Does the Emperor actually want to die, but is kept barely alive by the Golden Throne? Would the Imperium be justified in pretending he's alive in order to prevent mankind from falling into Chaos?) So I think there's plenty of textual support for both "yes" and "no" as answers.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:52 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The God-Emperor of Mankind is still alive! You can tell because the Astronomican still guides Mankind through the immaterium, carrying His word to the stars and beyond. His spirit maintains dominion and protects the faithful from the corruption of the Warp. Jaq Draco even spoke with parts of His faceted mind. His psychic power guides inquisitors in their duties via the Emperor's Tarot. Humanity shall rule the stars in His name for ever.

The False Emperor is dead! He's been dead for ten millenia, and the Astronomican is sustained not by the will of some shaman's husk, but by the Golden Throne itself and the sacrifice of untold millions of psykers to power it. Jaq Draco, rogue inquisitor and consort to Chaos, spoke not with the Emperor but with the warp-sustained conglomerated psychic remnants of psyker minds burned to feed the fire of the Astronomican. Humanity scuttles like insects, serving Chaos in deed if not word, all the while venerating an emperor who neither desired worship in life not deserves it in death.

Couple other points: during the time that Big E was definitely alive, he didn't seek worship and in fact it was worship of him (and his rejection thereof) that started the Horus Heresy (which really should be called the Lorgar Heresy in my opinion, rabble rabble). Also, there is at least one person alive in M41 that has laid eyes on and probably spoken to the Emperor: Bjorn the Fell-Handed. In The Emperor's Gift, Bjorn remarks with some semblance of humor that it was the idea of worshiping the Emperor that started the whole heresy and thus the need for the Inquisition.
posted by Sternmeyer at 4:37 PM on May 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

Given that the last time the Emperor tried to step down as the actual head of government, the galaxy burst into flames with the Heresy, there's also the idea that it is mankind itself preventing him from ascending on to the next stage of being by ensnaring him in the Golden Throne. It requires all those psychers to keep him trapped, thus allowing the Imperium continued warp access and making sure nobody else tries to take over from the bureaucracy. Humanity needs him, even though he clearly does not need them.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:00 PM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"If the quasi dead zombie emperor did not exist we would invent him" -Fake Voltaire

I think the "life" or "death" of the emperor is an issue of faith. It plays into the not at all subtle Christ imagery the writers like to learn on. If you think he's alive you are a worshiper if you think he's dead you are a heretic. I think it's intentionally vague.

I can tell you one thing, if life or death would sell more miniatures GW would pick that one in a fucking second.
posted by French Fry at 7:50 PM on May 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Whether that's intentional satire on the part of GW, or unintended consequences of believing too much in the heroism of their chosen "good guys", is certainly up for debate.

I'm pretty confident that it's intentional satire.
posted by wilful at 4:26 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

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