On the Nature of Religion in Warhammer

The following article was inspired by a thread on /r/WarhammerRPG, concerning Orcs and why there seemingly aren't Chaos Orcs in the world. I had been thinking about this a lot recently, due to a conversation with one of my players before my last On the Edge of Exile session, as well as just in general. Thinking about Warhammer Gods is my jam, alright?!

A lot of time is spent examining the Gods and their Cults in the various Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition books, from the Core to Tome of Salvation and Tome of Corruption. But, like with most roleplaying games, something has always rubbed me the wrong way: Why would different races have different Gods, especially when the Gods are very real. In WFRP this makes a bit of sense: Most of the Gods are clear aspects of each other, and, realistically, they're not as easy to define as the minds of mortals make them. In settings like Faerûn, it's baffling. We know who the creator God is. Everyone does. And yet, for some reason, my Fake-Egyptians still worship Fake-Egyptian Gods, just…because.

But let's get back on the subject of WFRP (and maybe save the D&D bashing for another day), shall we? I realised that the reason the different races have different Gods (in setting—the IP and real-world reasons are less cool) is that the different Gods reflect the psychologies of the races that made them, both in how the Gods manifest, and how they interact with the world. This also means that, whilst all the Gods are "real", they are more or less interested in dealing with other races, because those other races may not want to deal in the way the Gods are set up to deal… Let's take a look, shall we?

(Please note that everything in here is my opinion. Some of it is based on sources, others just on thinking about it too much. Nothing is canon. If you want canon, I dunno, read some Black Library books?)

Humans & Gods

Humans in WFRP have a very transactional relationship to the Gods. Human worship tends to be based on either fear or desire: They fear retribution for not worshipping the Gods, or they desire some benefit from worshipping the Gods.

This is also active worship. A Human changes their normal behaviours to fit the edicts and designs of the God they worship so that they can avoid what they fear, and attract what the desire. A person may worship Sigmar because they fear what will happen to their soul as a good Imperial if they don't, and they desire to keep safe their people from the depredations of Orcs. A person may worship Rhya because they fear their pregnancy will turn badly, and they desire a healthy, strong, child.

But, as I say, this is very transactional. Humans believe that if you input the actions and beliefs the Gods want you to, that the Gods will output their benefits. Whilst this is sometimes true for Sigmar, Rhya, etc., it is definitely not always the case. This is also why so many Humans turn to the worship of the Chaos Gods, because the fears they prey on (violence, disease, hopelessness, and joylessness) are very pressing in the Old World, and the desires they can grant are immediate, measurable, and, sadly, all to often granted. Praying to Shallya might work to thwart the spread of plague, but you better believe that Nurgle would be all too willing to open His arms if you come calling. He won't heal you, but He'll make it OK

This makes Humans a prime target for Chaos: Force those in league with you to spread problems that grow fear, prey on the fears of the people, convert those people to becoming in league with you, repeat. Or, alternately, grant their ambitions and desires…

This is also the reason why Norscans and the Northern Tribes fall to Chaos: They're no more evil than folks in the Empire. But they get it. They get how difficult their lives are. How terrible the land is that they're forced to live in. Folks of the Empire couldn't comprehend how terrible life would be for the Northern Tribes if they didn't get assistance from the Chaos Gods. Life would be impossible

Dwarves & Gods

Dwarves have a whole other form of divinity, completely different from that of Humans. The Dwarves venerate the "Ancestor Gods"—real, physical, historical figures from their people's past. These Ancestor Gods were, and are, paragons of their chosen fields. Grungni was the greatest miner. Valaya was a fierce guardian of her people's well being. Grimnir was the greatest Dwarven warrior the world has ever seen.

But the Dwarves don't have priests. Why? Their Gods actually existed—no one contests that. The answer is, they don't need to. They know that the Ancestor Gods won't grant miracles, nor will they intervene when the going gets tough. Nor, I think, would most Dwarves want them to. It's too counter to their culture. Instead, the Ancestor Gods are held up as symbols to aspire to. They are figures who inspire by example.

The Dwarves dig deep because Grungni taught them how. But Grungni also taught them restraint in their mining, and the folly of their greed. Valaya taught them how to govern well, and to heal the sick. The two of them represent the ideal man and woman in Dwarven society.

To be pious is to be Grungni-like, Valaya-like, Grimnir-like.

This is why you don't see many Dwarves fall to Chaos—the idea of taking a short cut is foreign to them…except for the Chaos Dwarves, right?

Wrong. The Chaos Dwarves fell to Hashut not because it was convenient, but because the teachings of the Ancestors no longer applied. They were in a situation where emulating the Ancestor Gods didn't work. Their paragons were, apparently, wrong. So they went looking for something else to guide them—and they were preyed upon by Hashut. Yes, now the Chaos Dwarves are just as scheming and terrible as any corrupted by the Gods of Chaos—but the reason they fell is far from the reasons given by most Humans.

Elves & Gods

The Elves see the Gods as truths about the world, but as Teclis has explained, they're phenomena, not deities. The Gods are stories personified. A story doesn't like nor dislike you: But it does support and maintain an ideology.

Let's look at a common story (one many reading this will be familiar with):

The Lord of the Rings. That is a story that relies on bravery, of overcoming darkness, and of defeating evil despite the fact that all hope, constantly, seems lost. This is a very fine story—but it supports some uncomfortable ideology. The West is always good in The Lord of the Rings, whilst the East is bad. Industry is inherently evil, under Sauruman and the Orcs, whilst knightly virtues, and country living, are aspirational. Kings are destined to save their people, and they hold divine right… Whether you believe in the messages of The Lord of the Rings or not doesn't matter (for this discussion), but what does matter is that you understand that the story inherently carries this ideology. You don't need to subscribe to it to enjoy the story, or to learn from it, either. That is what the Gods are to the Elves. The Gods represent stories of people and places, actions and events. They talk of ways to comport yourself, or things to avoid, or truths about the world. Most Elves don't dedicate themselves to these stories, but everyone takes parts of them and uses them to guide their lives. Some Elves do, however. They don't become priests, gaining miracles from their Gods, but they do become living embodiment of the stories (and ideologies) that they carry.

Let's look at Hoeth, Lord of Wisdom. He is said to be the embodiment of erudition, and patron of all who search for greater understanding. The Elves tell stories of how Hoeth gifted them with much of the knowledge and wisdom that their people take for granted, and that make them great. But many debate that the knowledge this brought also brought with it progress, and progress leads to the breaking of traditions and eventually ruin. It's said that Asuryan, chief of the Elven Gods, rebuked Hoeth when he did this, and torched much of his great library…and yet, there are Loremasters of Hoeth—Elves dedicated to his image—who seek to collect knowledge and share it with those who have the wisdom to use it. They use Hoeth as an example and a cautionary, inspirational, tale.

Khaine, Lord of Murder & War is another great example, because very few Elves dedicate their lives to his story, and yet there are a lot of Elves who employ his teachings when they fight. Khaine is as much a demon in their mythology as a God: He is who you channel when you need to fight, but if you embody him too much, you'll destroy yourself. This is exemplified in the stories of the Altar of Khaine, and Phoenix King Aenarion the Defender (look them up, they're super cool).

So why do some Elves turn to Chaos? Why are there Witch Elves among the ranks of the Druchii? Because Slaanesh whispered a better story: A story of supremacy, of desire, of experience. The Elves have been fading for a very long time, and Slaanesh offered a chance to be vital, to hold back the fading, and to experience life once more. Sure, it's tainted, and it comes with a lot of baggage, but to the repressed Elves, I can understand how they'd see this as a fair price to pay. After all, it's only Humans who you have to hurt, right?

Orcs & Gods

Lastly, I'll talk about the Orcs—the ones who started me on this journey.

Orcs are not Humans, Dwarves, or Elves. Orcs don't worship their Gods. They don't hold their Gods as examples, nor do they see them as stories and aspects of the world. No. Orcs know the truth of their Gods: That neither Gork nor Mork give the slightest of shits about anything other than being Cunningly Brutal and Brutally Cunning.

Just as the Orc Gods are impressive, they are easily impressed. Kill something in a brutally cunning way, and Gork will be impressed. Twist something in a cunningly brutal way, and Mork will be impressed. Maybe erect a totem in their honour as well, because that's just what you do when you have a pile of skulls and dung lying around that's not doing anything.

When the Gods are impressed, they may bless you, or not. Who knows. But it's always better to be impressive, instead of getting stomped, so you keep doing it. The more impressive you are, generally the better you do: You grow bigger, stronger, more deadly. You gain followers, massive Choppas, loot, ale, maybe a lair. It seems like the more you impress the Gods, the more impressive they make you…

But remember, the Gods don't like you, and as soon as you stop being impressive, things will go wrong. Or is it the other way around? Do you lose the battle because Gork is less impressed with you? Or is Gork less impressed with you because you lost the battle?

Who knows. Who cares. Stop arguing about it, and get back to FIGHTIN'!