Slaanesh’s Promise – Exploring Hedonism in the Warhammer series
When the word ‘hedonism’ pops up, it’s rarely positive and always naughty. You’re probably thinking about some lavish orgy of food, drugs and bodies over indulging in the above at a nightclub or rave (my research uncovered something NSFW just like that). Or for some my age, you're thinking of Hedonismbot from Futurama, a golden robot, shaped like a lounging Roman emperor often feeding itself grapes or having himself rubbed in liquids. Both these images, whilst somewhat accurate of a type of hedonism, are incredibly reductive.
Hedonism, in one way or another, has been cultivated by several people over the recent decades to be this stereotypical raunchy image, but the core its ideal is almost completely detached from it entirely. Not many people know that there is a vast amount of philosophical thinking behind it that dates back over 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks and its ideal were once followed by a great deal of the ancient world. And I don't mean the sort of parties ancient Greeks were known for. Whilst the use of the word may refer to the pursuit of self-indulgence, a more accurate definition of hedonism is ‘obtaining pleasure (and alleviating pain) is the goal of human life’. How this pleasure is obtained and the general morality behind it has been up for debate over the millennia, by various cultures and philosophers. The one I want to focus on was developed by the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
Epicurus researched for years what would eventually become Epicurean hedonism, creating a practical approach to defining hedonism, separating his views of pleasure into two types. The first is ‘kinetic hedonism’, which is about finding immediate and physical happiness from doing something that creates a sensation within us, such as eating and having sex. This is the hedonism we recognise and often refer to today, and is often viewed as morally corrupt or sinful, though it is not defined in hedonistic philosophy. The second type, and the one Epicurus said people should aim for, is katastematic hedonism. This view sees pursuing a ‘happy state’ where you no longer desire anything, and because you lack the desire for more you are as happy as can be, the logic goes.
He came to this conclusion after observing a lot of the problems within his society seeking material, romantic and political gains to be happy, but were never fully able to attain it through such means. He founded a school based around katastematic hedonism, eventually moving to a remote location with small community of friends living simply i.e. owning few clothes, dining on basic food and focusing on each of their own personal pursuits and socialising with each other. He found that these conditions created a contentedness that made him and his compatriots as happy as could be. He taught this to others and it was revolutionary. Producing thousands of other communities like it across the ancient Mediterranean world, for hundreds of years after his death, Epicurean hedonism became a key part of human philosophy.
So, what does an ancient philosopher have to do with a miniatures game made in the 1980s, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Games Workshop (GW) are a Nottingham based tabletop and board games maker, known for making miniature-based games primarily for their three main properties, Warhammer Fantasy (now retired) and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, both of which are set in the same fantasy universe and Warhammer 40,000 (40k), a sci-fi setting. Over the decades and several iterations, these games have developed their universe over the decades, creating characters and worlds that have expanded well beyond the works that influenced hem, like J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books (which they also made a game for!) and Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. They produce several board games a year, have multiple video games based on them and produce enough books exclusively about Warhammer to have their own publishing house and even their own real-life pub based on their games. They’re a big deal.
The universe that GW foster have been massively influential in both science fiction and fantasy as ever and they’re still going strong, with their profits even doubling in the last year. Each Warhammer setting shares common elements between them despite being in separate settings, primarily through the inclusion of the Chaos Gods. These are forces that are Lovecraftian in nature, as they come from somewhere beyond normal reality, their forms unable to truly be perceived by mortals and considered evil beings who are attempting to destroy all life. They are, like many traditional mythologies, representative of aspects in people and manifested into existence as a a result of intelligent life’s indulgence in certain actions and emotions, which is where the youngest Chaos God comes into play.
Slaanesh, also called the Dark Prince and She Who Thirsts, is the god of excess, passion and, importantly for us, hedonism. The being itself is genderless but is gendered by different species as female or male, appearing with both male and female traits, sometimes in an androgynous manner whilst at other times having one half of its body masculine and the other feminine, but always with a set of two horns (an often-daemonic symbol in European mythology). Like all major Chaos Gods, she has a realm made in her image (a sort of Dante’s Inferno hell dedicated to pleasures) and a hoard of daemonic underlings meant to carry out her will and primarily act as her direct influence in reality.
As Slaanesh embodies hedonism in ever part of her creation and lore, and the Warhammer series has immensely influenced fantasy and sci-fi over the last 35 years, I became curious as to how a complex, ancient and almost fundamental human philosophy is represented as an important aspect of these universes.
In all Warhammer iterations, Slaanesh is historically said to have been born as a result of the intelligent life’s emerging decadent and hedonistic lifestyles due to technological and cultural progress. She has always existed in some form but was only able to fully develop as a result of intelligent life’s advancing civilisations allowing them to no longer struggle with daily toils but pursue more pleasurable aspects of life, such as arts, science and entertainment. In the Fantasy setting, this was often restricted to the monarchs, nobles and elite of society of the intelligent species, such as Humans and Aelves who possessed wealth and power, allowing them to indulge in more pleasurable acts. This is similar in Warhammer 40,000 but expands on the actual birth of Slaanesh in greater detail.
The Aeldari are an ancient and advanced humanoid alien species whom were at the height of their power when Slaanesh was born. They are innately psychic and more attuned to emotion compared to other intelligent life, so as their society reached its pinnacle, their pursuit of personal, excessive desires began. At some point, thanks to several major pleasure cults appearing across their empire and the unending amount of people indulging themselves in more extreme ways, Slaanesh was born. She appeared in the physical realm, ripping open cosmic storms in space, consuming the souls of the vast majority of the Aeldari, leaving only a small fraction of their species alive and forever a shadow of their former selves. Whilst the exact details of the event are unknown, excessive hedonism is attributed to the creation of this Chaos God and the main distinguishing characteristic of its godhood.
What is interesting is that the pleasure cults appear as a direct parallel to the Epicurean enclaves that emerged around the Mediterranean as a result of his teachings being spread. Though, instead of these cults being ended thanks to the Christians finding his teachings incompatible with their ideals, the Warhammer world birthed a dark god to destroy. Arguably, a step up. However, these hedonistic cults of the Aeldari seem to largely be kinetic in nature, with participants seeking to indulge in the most extreme pleasures possible and pushing their boundaries, unlike the katastematic approach Epicurean cults were pursuing. The more faithful interpretation of these Epicurean enclaves would be mirrored in the Exodite Aeldari, descendants of a splinter faction in in the Aeldari who saw the excess of their culture and left it behind. They formed small tribes on planet far away from most of society and lived simpler, if harsher, lives that resulted in most of them avoiding the cataclysm of Slaanesh’s birth. By rescinding their pleasures and focusing instead on survival away from the empire, they avoided the connection to her that would’ve consumed them too had they stayed, something the Epicurean enclaves would have likely done.
It’s interesting that ancient history is metaphorically mirrored within the Warhammer universe, whether intentional or not, because it speaks to the representation of hedonism. Hedonism in the Fall of the Aeldari is criticised as pursuing kinetic pleasure or even the notion of hedonistic philosophy altogether causes society to break and that only by leaving behind hedonism can said society successfully survive. However, like Epicurus recognising the unhappiness of Greek society, the Exodites chose to leave behind a corrupted society to attain true hedonism, the story doesn’t seem to completely condemn the pursuit of all hedonism, but primarily the corrupted version that Slaanesh feeds from. The complexity and nuance of hedonism in the Warhammer universe genuinely seems to question this dilemma to some extent, about what is good and bad happiness to pursue and always questioning which is which, especially in the simple view of Slaanesh herself.
Most usages of hedonism and media portrayals of it are an extension of sexual pleasure, which is to say lustfully and completely self-centred, which has a long history in fantasy and science-fiction genres, including Warhammer and especially of Slaanesh. Futurama’s Hedonismbot, as mentioned earlier, is a satire of this as he selfishly does not apologise for his flagrant pollution and keeps a sex-toy-body-part in his pleasure dungeon. His excess is played for laughs, especially with his rotund frame and Roman motif, but this type of comedy is primarily reserved for male hedonist figures as something to mock, and is a rare interpretation altogether.
Most cultures have a representative figure of sexuality, whether benevolent or malevolent, who embody these temptations and are often defaulted to a female body. Whether it’s the Borg Queen promising to awaken new feelings and sensations or the succubus, a tale of a woman who drains their partner’s life force by luring them into having sex, these feminine entities are often seductive in appearance or manner, luring in partners so as to use them in some selfish way. These portrayals show a corrupted form of sensuality and sexuality, a sort of deviation from the norm that’s taken to the extreme and even fantastical. In many instances, these figures represent a sexual hedonism that are warnings or trials of the victim to overcome, both in mythological stories and fiction, sometimes in ways to challenge conventional thought of sex whilst others to reinforce the heteronormativity of our society.
These tropes are present in Warhammer’s depictions of Slaanesh and her daemonic servants as well, and largely present sexuality as a dangerous thing. Daemonettes, the most numerous of Slaanesh’s daemons, are feminised or gynandromorph humanoids who appear as the most attractive or pleasurable being to their victims. They are the epitome of a femme-fatale type, using sexual wiles to distract or lure in and eventually torture or kill their enemies using their deformed, crab-like limbs. This is also true for the hulking Keeper of Secrets who are often bovine in features yet somehow beguiling despite being horrific, crippling their victims in ecstasy and, like many other Slaaneshi daemons, have several sets of exposed breasts. It’s hard to deny the sexualised image of Slaanesh with the ideas of ‘ecstasy’ and the nudity on feminine figures, which some of the fanbase like to play up in increasingly graphic ways, but they are rarely, if ever, explicitly sexualised. Most of these elements are more about body dysmorphia, where the excessive number of breasts, long tongues and gangly or claw-like limbs give the sense of malformed creations that are equally sensual yet disturbing. It feels that their very existence is a taboo against nature, for they imply a lot more than they're telling behind the simple designs. Except for a few coded elements on the models and the language used in various texts, little properly promotes Slaanesh as a god of sex.
It has been speculated that certain things have been toned down for the various models and art in the Warhammer series than in the past. A version of the Daemonette models were once very human, with ‘female-presenting nipples’ (see below), along with the more sexually suggestive artwork, has been ‘covered up’ over the decades. This was perceived to keep the range generally kid-friendly for sales purposes, though Games Workshop have never said so officially. Whether true or not, there is still an explicit display of sexualised female bodies being produced by the company which doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
There have also been criticisms of the problematic elements in representing sexuality through Slaanesh, such as potentially associating trans and intersex traits with daemons, and that a primarily female-coded faction uses seduction as their main source of power. However, some people who identify as trans and intersex find that they are at least being represented and see that as a positive thing when other media has ignored them. The Slaanesh range is always in a difficult place, but it is worth emphasising that much, if not all, of the sexualised imagery is only explored on surface level within the lore. The sexual element, so often the focus of hedonism in media, is purposefully obscured from being the focal point of Slaanesh’s hedonism. Coding, that is to say, the implied interpretation, is all we have to go on to even conclude this, and the fact that we do it so regularly and without question about Slaanesh misdirects us from the truth behind it. It's an interesting way to approach the topic and a rare one, which the Warhammer series capitalises on, concentrating on other hedonistic pursuits in these settings.
Out of all the gods, Slaanesh is the one most fuelled by the varied emotional states and goals of humanity. There are remarks in books that Slaanesh taking note of a variety of both simple and complex feelings. Parental happiness in the birth of a child, prideful fulfilment in passing a test or the relief in expressing a secret to a friend. These slight joys are the minor embers of kinetic hedonism in action, simple pleasurable feelings that people can gain that have the potential for Slaanesh’s influence to build upon. Once these pleasures have been established and a behaviour pattern emerges, the acts become a passion, and that passion can be expanded upon to reach new heights of pleasure.
Artists and philosophers looking to expand their minds by pushing moral boundaries. An athlete who’s trying to be the fastest or strongest in their discipline, pushing past the limitations of their body. Bankers looking to make more and more money than is ever ethical for them to achieve. All these types of people look to perfect themselves and their positions in the world, which makes them prime targets for corruption. Unlike the kinetic hedonism of instant gratification, these people seem to pursue a katastematic view presumably, as they are attempting to reach a state in which they will no longer desire for more. However, this is rarely the case in Warhammer. Slaanesh will often approach or influence these individuals, offering them pathways to these states of greater strength, thought or wealth, but like most pacts with a god, these come at a cost.
What Slaanesh does is tempt beings to go beyond the regular limitations, and so appeals to both the kinetic and katastematic hedonists. As these Warhammer settings are a volatile and unceasing battles for survival, she can give an instant hit of pleasure, to regular folk looking to get out of their miserable lot in life. Yet, she also appeals to the more sophisticated types reaping rewards form world at war, offering the desires beyond material want and instead towards personal pleasure and perfection. This often means to the warriors or commanders looking to be better fighters or tacticians or to bask in the pleasure of winning over other, whilst even more indulge so as not to lose the pleasures and perfections they have already received.
Sigvald the Magnificent in the Fantasy setting is one such case, an angelic looking human who lived as a prince, basking in the praise he received for his beauty as well as fulfilling his desires with anything he wanted, eventually pushing his new pleasures to consuming humans. As his corrupted desires continued, Sigvald gave himself to Slaanesh to keep his perfect beauty and gain a host of followers who would allow him to be basked in praise and admire his own reflection in their shields. He took his perfect beauty as a given, and any others who tried to rival his beauty he would attempt to kill, such as the High Elves, who were known to be naturally beautiful. When he was wounded in battle, his perfect visage having been blemished, he felt anguish and lost his mental capabilities over the permanent blemish on himself. His hedonistic pursuits had caused him to obsess over his narcissistic image, and the pleasure he gained from his own looks meant that when they were eventually lost, Sigvald had succumbed to a deep pain that lead to his death. Slaanesh’s promise of hedonistic indulgence here demonstrating that the obsession she cultivates is either unobtainable or ultimately doomed, gaining as much pleasure and pain before the individual expires.
Some of the most recognisable followers of Slaanesh in Warhammer 40,000 are the Emperor’s Children, one of many groups of super soldiers who began to seek new heights of titillation and skill. Their leader, Fulgrim, was obsessed with perfection in everything, eventually leading him to turn on his emperor and commit his forces to the young Chaos God. As his troops fell into their corruption, the Emperor’s Children started to become numb to the regular pleasure they pursued in battle and inevitably tried even more horrific things in order to feel anything at all. Slaanesh’s corruption of hedonism is that through the pursuit of a never-ending need for kinetic stimulation, the abuse and overstimulation from pursuing it eventually leads to the numbing of the senses that were once stimulated and instead a loss all pleasure. In some ghastly way, this is Slaanesh’s corrupted conclusion of katastematic hedonistic pursuit of being happiest when you no longer desire anything more, and under Slaanesh, if you cannot feel anything, then you cannot desire to feel anything and therefore must be as happy as can be. This opposes something Epicurus himself wrote, that “after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us”. His explanation posits that losing sensation altogether is a form of death, and therefore, the Emperor's Children can be seen living an Epicurean undead state, where touch is meaningless nad happiness is a struggle. As with many of Slaanesh’s gifts, it is a dark, twisted conclusion on Epicurean philosophy.
As established within the definition of hedonism, what’s also important is the distinction of pain and its link to hedonistic pleasure. Whilst typically the goal of hedonism is to avoid pain as it disrupts the attainment of pleasure, according to Epicurean philosophy, certain schools of thought inspired by hedonism began to see pain as a form of pleasure. Namely, the philosophy of sadism and masochism, which are about inflicting or receiving pain, respectively, to gain pleasure. Though a great deal of Slaanesh is about pleasure for her followers, there are times where her followers revel in their own pain, or primarily their enemies who are meant to suffer in continual pain, which she also draws power from. This is again a key concept to the coded portrayal of several daemons of Slaanesh, themselves a physical representation of their god.
Bondage type apparel is apparent in several daemon models, including the Fiends of Slaanesh, which in the official paint scheme are shown to wear shiny, latex thigh-high boots and a harness around its torso. One of the common weapon types used by Slaaneshi daemons are whips or whip-like appendages, some similar in design to stockwhips or cat o’ nine tails, both of which are linked to the fetish tools used in sadomasochistic imagery. The chariots of Slaanesh themselves also appear to be a subtle reference, as their mass of spinning blades are similar in design of the Roman wall of death as shown in the 1979 film, Caligula, itself known for depicting hedonism in busy, erotic scenes. Again, for Slaanesh most of the sexual elements are coded and not explicit, meant to evoke the ideas rather than outright say them. But there are thematic threads that seem to link the concepts of the varied ideas of Slaanesh and of hedonism together in a comprehensible way when looked at closer. It is not stated that these sadomasochistic associated objects evoke any type of sexual pleasure, especially for any enemies, the act itself is evokes a pleasure and enjoyment, enjoying the act of heightened intensity that coems from the act of power by torturing (as well as receiving it) or killing others. Power itself from doination seems to be the ultimate pleasure in the worlds Slaanesh inhabits.
This also continues within Slaanesh mortal servants, sentient beings who have turned to worship the Chaos gods, and those specifically worshipping themselves become tainted by the need for extreme pleasures. One such is Lucius the Eternal from Warhammer 40,000, once a leader within the Emperor’s Children, he was renowned for never receiving a scar in all his battles because of his expert swordsmanship. When he was jokingly chastised for his soft skin, he started to scar himself as a feat from winning battles, eventually, equating the pain of scarring with success and revelled in this masochistic act, desperately seeking battles to fulfil himself.
Once more, we are given ideas that Slaanesh’s concept of hedonism is a corrupted and twisted version of the Epicurean idea of it. Despite the view of pleasure being key to the corruption of people, the threat of pain that is ever lasting can cause a great fear and stress within those enemies. There is a simple effectiveness with Slaanesh’s hedonistic offerings which in a twisted way match the Epicurean idea that the promise of pleasure and the fear of pain are compounded together, as following Slaanesh seems a lot more desirable then opposing.
What defines Slaanesh, and why I find it the most interesting deity in the Warhammer universes, is the corruption of seemingly simple actions and the deep exploration of the concept of happiness. Most inherent ideas of hedonism start and end at the exploration of sexual gratification, often through extreme acts, and in the fantasy and science fiction genres, they reinforce those ideas. Even in a setting like the Warhammer universe has historically failed, and continues to fail, the representation of overly sexualised. Slaanesh distorts that narrow, even in only some small way, to make the feminine not only an ideal or something to attain, but also something powerful and to be feared. There is complexity within the idea of Slaanesh’s hedonism and coded sexuality.
Even without that, the hedonism present of Slaanesh extends to every facet of worthwhile living. Anyone can be corrupted and turned to seek something more and better for themselves, so anyone is susceptible to her. The threat that simply being happy from something benign could eventually lead to yours or others absolute ruin or obsession dissuades people looking for happiness, lest they become tempted to go further. The terror to be happy is a dark thing, and in a primarily war-torn setting, creates an environment where people are conditioned to see darkness in every waking moment of their life, which becomes. This paradox can wear at an individual that eventually leads them to succumb to any sort of pleasure, and within this, Slaanesh still wins. She knows that Epicurean hedonism, to obtain a state of not wanting to be any happier, can only be offered by her powers in a universe full of war and constant threat.
She is also the only god to actively try and keep mortal beings alive, because Slaanesh relies on the pleasures and pain born from existing which seems to contradict the notion that the Chaos gods are bent on the destruction of sentient life. Without people who seek pleasure and people to inflict pain on, Slaanesh cannot exist. Unless the entirety of sentient life is wiped out, she will always exist. There is no state of happiness under her hedonism, because there is always a new height of pleasure or pain to be reached, willingly or otherwise.
Slaanesh is like Epicurus’ corrupted nightmares of the Greek world made into a god that touches every corner of the galaxy and bends it to a wry, lithe smile.
Further Cited Sources
PhilosophyTube. "Hedonism and Pleasure." YouTube. Web. 6th Feb 2015. Accessed on 19th Dec 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZmFDVYolQ4&t=6s
The School of Life. “PHILOSOPHY – Epicurus.” YouTube. Web. 16th Sep 2014. Accessed on 19th Dec 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kg_47J6sy3A&t=25s
“Epicurus Principal Doctrines”. Translated by Robert Drew Hicks. Web. Originally published 1925. http://classics.mit.edu/Epicurus/princdoc.html
“Epicurus”. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Web. First published Mon Jan 10, 2005; substantive revision Mon Apr 16, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/
“Epicurus (341—271 B.C.E.)”. Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/epicur/