Threats and themes of undeath in the Warhammer 40,000 Universe

with Randal Henderson

The far flung universe of the 41st Millenium of the popular table-top skirmish game series Warhammer 40,000 produced by Games Workshop is indeed a dangerous place. The reaches of the Imperium of Man, as it us known in this mythos spans far and wide across the known universe, each system linked together by precarious trade routes governed by navigators who 'fold space', moving vessels from real space into the immaterium, thus travelling vast distances with relative speed. There are lots of bad thing out there which threaten humankind's survival – races of aliens bent on destruction and conquest, wayward men fallen sway to the chaos gods and the lure of forbidden powers, hordes of daemons that are summoned by chaos worshipers to unleash reckless abandon (did I mention that you pass these whilst travelling in spaceships during fold-space), and mass riots and regicide on the Imperial worlds. That's all on a good day.
In this game universe, in most of its off-shoot games including table-top battles, gang skirmish and role-play games (the later produced namely by Fantasy Flight games under licence), the strongest fantasy references in this series are from the HP Lovecraft variety on forbidden powers and unworldly creatures that present themselves in the 'real word' by being summoned or stumbled upon, but there are some themes of the undead as we might understand from the George A Romero Night of the Living Dead sense (albeit in a high tech distopia) that would threaten mankind in this universe, but themes of the dead rising up again in WH40K are not strictly defined in this way. Well it's not so much the these threats exist as the undead, but more they exist as un-death, and this singular theme is presented in numerous ways. This essay will highlight a few examples of how undeath presents itself from the most threatening, otherworldly sort contrasting to what the typical tv or film audience might accept as the 'undead'.
In the game series the really dangerous threats are superhuman characters, eternal warriors, immortal aliens and technology and forbidden lore that is concerned with everlasting life abounds in this universe. The gist of the WH40K myths as far as humanity is concerned revolves around a genius of sorts, The Emperor of Man, in fact a fantastical character who is brilliant at everything - the amount of qualities and skills this pivotal character for this universe is frightening, and quite simply absurd - master statemen, scientist, geneticist, warrior, wielder of psychic powers, the list, much like this essay, tends to go on. This character prior to the 31st century created legions of superhumans, the ubiquitous Space Marines the game is so famous for, to meet with the challenges of the galactic exploration (and conquest) head on, hence the long list of physical requirements – superhuman strength and stamina, reinforced skeletal frames, multiple organs and the ability to go into suspended animation, not to mention specialised weaponry – these genetically engineered warriors have the curse of prolonged life.

So when you get bored of relinquishing your own humanity to protect and serving mankind, gaining powers though unholy means or pursuing individual desires and pursuits can sound attractive, not to mention the stifling bureaucracy that has been created for humanity, rebellion and ultimate damnation sounds like a wild trip! Which of course is what some of these superhumans asked themselves and a great number of them became unsatisfied with their own position, and threw themselves before the Dark Gods, which in their explorations no doubt uncovered - this presents a more rewarding prospect than reuniting mankind. Those of you familiar with the game series skip this next but, but for everyone else an interplanetary revolt occurs and our Emperor character is thrown into battle against the leader of the revolt, Horus, a superhuman of immense proportions and one the Emperor created but nonetheless had goals for conquest and forbidden powers beyond unifying mankind across the galaxy. The Emperor faces Horus head on and emerges victorious, but mortally wounded as a result and lays in permanent stasis on the Golden Throne on Holy Terra. Navigators rely on his 'spirit' as a navigational beacon called the Astronomican in being able to fold space. The Emperor is too valuable to die a natural death, so his state of 'undeath' has been running for over 10,000 years and is extremely important! However, this serves as a precedent for other factions, races and creature types serves as a precedent that the greatest threats to humanity is both one that humanity created, and that almost every other faction exhibits some form of undeath.
There are a lot of characters / races who exhibit the immortality trait, and all go on some kind of Carl Jungian 'heroes journey' where they embark on quests to gain martial prowess. For example, the Eldar (think of Tolkein's elves, but in space!) by their very nature are immortals, and there are others, but using the Space Marine as the basis works well – even within their own ranks they sort of imitate the ascension of the Emperor by prolonging the useful lives of highly skilled warriors who become mortally wounded in combat by preserving them inside walking sarcophagi known as Dreadnoughts so that they may continue fighting for humanity in a deathless state. On the other side of the immaterium, Chaos Marines are another type of damned eternal warriors who on the tabletop game are above elite foes, but their experience in the any of the WH40K RPG spinoffs reveal a deeper side to these character beyond simply being foes to conquer on a tabletop – some are simply malevolent psychopaths who simply crave combat (the worshippers of Khorne below their blood-curdling catch cry 'blood for the blood god!' before taking to their foes), but others have been spurned by Humanity at large because of either a misinterpretation of Imperial dogma, but others represent a truly horrifying and sinister image of mankind with megalomaniacal views on a path to damnation. An excellent example of an eternal warrior is Abbaddon the Despoiler, a brother in arms of Horus who became maddened of his death, has roamed the galaxy for the better part of 10,000 years (thanks to being a by-product of genetic engineering, created by mankind's own Emperor) as a glorified brigand looking for conquest and the challenge of combat and during his journey has enlisted hordes of warriors to embark on Black Crusades and uncover dark powers to aid his selfish and never-ending pursuits.
Coming a little closer to the undead archetype, but one that I do not think qualifies as undead are the chaos daemons and their ilk of Nurgle, god of pestilence and decay. These beings exist in the immaterium (remember this is that infinite limbo where space vessels pass through...) and have lesser daemons such as Plague Bearers and Nurglings (not to mention the hordes of men who worship such a god and gain forbidden powers of toughness and flesh shaping), to stave off death, these creatures (and followers) exhibit qualities such as dying flesh, diseases, plagues and body- shaping powers. But are these characters and creators undead? To my mind no, but what they are concerned with is prolonged life, well of you call having decaying flesh and swarms of buzzards follow you around any kind of life, well sure.
But what threats are there of romanticised undead nature to humanity in this universe? Necrons who were introduced to the game series in 1998 are a cross between James Cameron's Terminators and any imagined beast that might lurk in an Ancient Egyptian crypt. These creatures are described as an alien race known as the Necrontyr whose cold science achieves immortality for this race, where they find the long lost Imperial Tomb Worlds their ideal resting place. These robotic legions are forever guarding lost crypts, repositories of ancient knowledge and forgotten technologies and lost souls around the universe. In either the tablettop or roleplay game they are extremely hardy and are prone to resurrection after being destroyed (I stress not killed, as they are inherently inanimate which implies they 'exist' indefinitely), and are accompanied by ethereal creatures called Nightbringers which exhibit supernatural strength and psychic abilities (can ghouls and ectoplasmic creatures exist among robots...? Well somehow this works). Hordes of Necrons guard monoliths and tombs, and yes they lurk in crypts similar to Ancient Egyptian mummies only to be awoken from their eternal sleep when their domain are intruded upon, but due to their robotic nature cannot be counted as 'undead'. But the threat to mankind in this universe is benign – only apparent when they are disturbed.

But what about the George A Ramero archetypal zombie that staggers around, moaning and bays for human flesh? Does this creature threaten the race of man in this distopian future? Each of the games within the series have some form of staggering zombie that originates from either plagues and illness or technology that thrives on dead flesh. The Fantasy Flight roleplay game Dark Heresy is where a group of acolytes, usually individuals from the darkest depths of society chosen who have been given an opportunity to rise above the ranks for a holy purpose if you like, under the leadership of a well established inquisitor would investigate and quell heresies or other anomalies that exist on Imperial Worlds, usually on cities called Hives (think of Megacity 1 from Judge Dread), whether they be of the minor illegal sort (owner-less organ and limbs on the black market, or Emperor forbid indentured miners having their own socialist revolution) or the nefarious major heresies such as cultists dabbling with dark god worship (summoning daemons and monsters, gaining access to forbidden powers). Acoloytes can meet the Night Cult in the expansion pack “Disciples of the Dark Gods” (2008) - Imperial citizens somehow get hold of forbidden technology or warp lore (the game is not clear which it is) that is able to reanimate the corpses of their dearly departed, as a way of revering the myth of the Emperor, rising again after death, but of course this results in flesh-eating zombies running amok.
The gang skirmish game that Games Workshop produced in 1995 Necromunda set on the hive world's namesake certainly had zombies. Gangs of Scavvies - mutants who lurk in the toxic-ridden underbellies of the hive would defend their territory when rival gangs looking to expand their territory would come out of the sewers and fight to their last. Scavvies can wrangle "plague zombies" to do their bidding, with the promise of an unlucky ganger becoming dinner for some. If a ganger is unlucky to be bitten, there would be a 40 percent chance that they too would succumb to brain death. Having said this, the threat Scavvies and their plauge zombies on mankind in this universe is minor at best. In this universe most Imperial worlds have standing armies and Judge Dread style police forces, and most citizens carry a simple las pistol or stub gun as a basic necessity in this distopia, but don't count on a zombie apocalypse taking over the Holy Throne of Terra, or Hive Sibelius anytime soon!
So the question is, does the undead pose a threat to humankind in this series? In short no, but the characters, races and factions that exhibit undeath beyond doubt do. Constantly warring and testing their mettle without end until of course they meet their own demise, often with no family life or other goals to express or nurture. The undead in this series is an after thought that is tacked onto some of the games within the genre over the years. Humanity gets tossed around with the tide and does its best to hold on.
There are numerous threats to the Imperium of man, both from outside to within - alien races vying for territory, men gone wild with their taste for forbidden powers from the warp and the chaos gods, the perilous nature of space travel, to religious uprisings and schisms from within. The scales of humanity's survival is constantly at tipping point.
A path that we can only assume is endless as an ultimate goal is never presented in this universe, as the theme suggests, in the far fling universe of the 41st Millenium, there is only war.