Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, and Slaanesh. These supernatural beings are the infamous Chaos Gods within the Warhammer universe – both Warhammer 40K, and Warhammer (Fantasy battle and Age of Sigmar). For those familiar with the Warhammer lore, they will know that the Chaos gods are often at the heart of the major storylines and conflicts; for those not familiar, they are described as the biggest threat to order, stability and general life, and portrayed as the major evil along with their villainous followers – even in the lore of 40k where no faction is inherently ‘good’. However, to say that the Chaos Pantheon are evil may be too critical of them, and what Chaos is and those that follow it. I’m not suggesting that Chaos are the “good guys” (if that exists in Warhammer), but neither are they the traditional “bad guys” (if this exists in Warhammer, too) expected from fantasy and sci-fi narratives.
To begin, it is probably best to review the origins of these gods and how it influences their current demeaner. Fortunately, the origins of the gods is similar for both the Warhammer and 40K universes. For the most part, I will focus on the Warhammer fantasy universe (both Old World and AoS), but will refer to 40K when necessary.
The gods, like the gods of our historical mythologies, were created. They were not entities that existed before everything but were conceived through actions, thoughts and beliefs of civilisations and it is through these that the gods continue to survive and strive. Trying to remove my ancient historian mind for this, but this is the “real” origin story of Greek and Roman Gods, too. Anyway, I’m trying not to get side tracked so I’ll continue! Through certain actions, emotions, desires and thoughts expressed through multitudes of peoples, races, and civilisations, a select few of these were practised so powerfully and so often that they gave form to direct personifications. For example, war is endemic in all of the Warhammer cultures, and that, mixed with varying levels of life-brutalities, meat that blood was an all-too-common sight, and gave birth to Khorne, the blood God – but also the god of war and combat; extreme sexual desires and practises, increasing levels of indulgences, luxuries, and ostentation – again common in all culture – created the youngest of the Chaos Gods, Slaanesh. Likewise, it is through these actions that the gods continue to exist, and the more it happens the stronger they become; followers of their specific gods will then devote themselves to acts that feed into the gods’ sustenance and power, e.g. Khorne’s followers continuously searching for worthy opponents to fight for such mighty combats mean an abundance of glorious blood for the blood god, and a worthy skull for his skill throne.
It is along these lines, that I then question whether the gods are the “big evil” as expected in our fantasy-narratives, or whether they are beings that strive to remain alive, and prosper – in which case, are they really any different from the “good guys”, or at the least different from any race that’s existed.
The gods, thus being created, have the survivalist instinct of wanting to remain alive, and like any divine or sentient being, to maintain a sense of prosperity and strength. Prosperity for the gods is power and dominance and the more this increases, the less likely they are to fade from existence; if a god is created by beliefs, then the only way they can die is when there are no more followers or believers. Likewise, one of the best ways of surviving is to become stronger and powerful – the more one becomes these, the less dangers threaten their survival. For a god, their strength and power is also reliant on their followers and how many worship that god. The Chaos gods, while often having a common enemy, were also threats to each other, with their followers and daemons often waging war on each other until such a time when alliances (or more accurately truces) were made. While Chaos spread across the Warhammer universes, it was a spread that originated out of the actions of the existing races and their darkest and more depraved traits, and was the most reliable form of survival and self-prosperity. Even some of the their followers may not be necessarily evil in black and white terms, as their attitudes and culture are very dependant on factors outside the control of themselves and even the gods – for example regional climates and environments.
The followers of the chaos gods are often those living in harsh and unforgiving environments, with resources rare and far between. In the Warhammer Fantasy world, Chaos exists in the Northern regions of the world – the most dangerous and unsustainable land in the world. The land was very susceptible to the chaos that magic presented and where the sources of magic – known as the Winds of Magic – were very strong and often out of control. With this constant danger and transforming of land and creatures, societies living there were at the mercy of the environment and climate and violence was not only a way of life, but as means of literal survival. As a result, violence and martial power become the main currency and way of life, alongside a lack of restraint for actions shunned the more ‘civilised’ cultures of the world. For these people, the worship of a god of chaos offered them not only power in a power-demanding arena, but the opportunity for advancement and the greatest forms of power in the world; with such power and chances potentially providing more than just survival, but prosperity for oneself and no longer needed to simply survive, it is of little wonder that people turned to the chaos gods for their salvation. This worship, and the rewards the gods offered those most worthy, created a symbiotic relationship – the gods were sustained through the worship and practises of their followers, while at the same time provided security, power, and escape from certain or very likely death. It’s important to remember too that the gods do not want the world to end, for no believers means no gods – the ultimate threat to any god.