Warhammer 40K’s God-Emperor is surprisingly active for a skeleton


John Blanche’s iconic art of the God-Emperor of Mankind, a fossilized skeleton sitting on the massive mechanical structure known as the Golden Throne.
Image: Games Workshop

The Emperor is starting to show up in some big ways

The God-Emperor of Mankind is, as you may have guessed from the name, a pretty important guy in the universe of Warhammer 40,000. He’s the closest thing the setting has to an actual protagonist, but he is in the unfortunate position of being a corpse shackled to a powerful psychic throne. In recent years, the Emperor’s precarious position has become a major plot point in the greater galaxy of 40K. Is it possible that he’s up to something? He may be a dead body used to plug a hole in reality that would otherwise be full of demons, but according to some recent books in the 40K canon, the Emperor has more presence and agency than we may have originally thought.

The Emperor is made up of tropes that Games Workshop liberally borrowed for the early editions of Warhammer 40,000; he very clearly draws a great deal of inspiration from Dune. Despite this, he is critical to every aspect of the Imperium of Man. He is the religious figurehead of the galaxy-spanning empire, and it’s so illegal to be an atheist that you’ll get burned at the stake for it. Ten thousand years ago, the Emperor had a bunch of big sons called Primarchs, and half of them rebelled in a giant civil war called the Horus Heresy. The Heresy was engineered by the Emperor’s most terrible foes: the four Chaos Gods, and their endless hordes of demons from the extra dimension known as the Warp.

The God-Emperor of Mankind aboard Horus’ flagship, the Vengeful Spirit, in his final showdown. This iconic art has been referenced for the events of The End and the Death Vol. 3.
Image: Games Workshop

In the final confrontation of the Heresy, the Emperor was nearly killed. In a DIY improv fix for the ages, his sons hauled him on the powerful psychic conduit called the golden throne. The battery life isn’t great, but there’s a workaround — feeding thousands of human souls every day to the big man in the chair.

In earlier iterations of the Emperor’s lore, it was up for debate whether he was actually alive, or whether everyone was literally worshiping a corpse out of ritual and tradition. But the recent books from the Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing arm, and other media in the 40K universe makes it clear that he’s definitely around, he’s awake, and he’s pretty gosh darn angry.

The End and the Death

Cover art for The End and the Death Vol. 3, showing Horus and the Emperor engaged in mortal combat.
Image: Games Workshop

The Horus Heresy is too big to cover in one article; the series is literally dozens of books long, and it culminates in a subseries called the Siege of Terra. The Siege of Terra ends with its own trilogy series, The End and the Death. The third book in this series, and the conclusion of the Heresy, was released at the start of 2024. The End and the Death tells the story of the Horus Heresy coming to Earth itself, culminating in an epic showdown between the Emperor and his favorite son, Horus.

The most important thing to know about the Emperor in this trilogy is that he very nearly ascended to become one of the Chaos Gods. He knew he would have to face Horus, who had become swollen with power — sort of like Violet Beauregarde, except instead of blueberry juice it was corruptive Warp energy. As the Emperor geared up for this conflict, he very nearly fell into a convoluted trap. In order to defeat Horus, the Emperor would need to slurp down his own reservoir of Warp energy — except that would have caused him to ascend to Godhood, assume the mantle of the Dark King, and nuke the entire cosmos.

Luckily, the Emperor got a pep talk from one of his closest confidants, who convinced him to reject the mantle of the Dark King and its seductive power. In the End and the Death trilogy, we also learn that the Emperor cast out his mercy and compassion, sending it out into the Warp, so that he could face Horus without hesitation. Will that come back up at some point in the future? Is it a reference to a plot point from the ’90s about the Emperor being reborn via a Star Child? Maybe! But for now, as grimdark as things get, at least we know there’s no Dark King among the pantheon of Chaos Gods.

Godblight and Guilliman

Warhammer 40,000 - Roboute Guilliman, the Primarch of the Ultramarines, leads soldiers of the Imperium into battle.
Image: Games Workshop

One of the Emperor’s sons, Roboute Guilliman, ended up returning to the Warhammer setting after being stuck in stasis with a mortal wound for 10,000 years. He officially returned in the Gathering Storm campaign books in 2007, but the Dark Imperium trilogy of novels — which were released over the course of 2017 through 2021 — goes into much more detail as to how Guilliman feels about the current Imperium, his dad, and the general status of humanity.

While Guilliman is the only loyal Primarch remaining, there are still tons of traitor Primarchs active in the setting — and so they all have taken a swing at Guilliman or at the Imperium in general. One of the books about Guilliman, Godblight, came out in 2021 — and it shows what happens when the Emperor decides to back his boy in a fight to the death.

Despite a ton of brotherly beatdowns, Guilliman managed to make it to Terra and have an audience with the Emperor. The two did manage to have a conversation — but unfortunately, it was barely coherent on the Emperor’s end, with dozens of fractured voices overlapping each other. We didn’t get to hear much of a mission statement from the Emperor until much later in Godblight, when the Primarch Mortarion brought Guilliman into the Warp. There, in the fetid gardens of the Chaos God of decay, Nurgle, Guilliman was briefly killed. But just when all seemed lost, Big E seems to have grabbed the wheel. Here’s how it went down in the book:

Guilliman looked over the Garden of Nurgle. He was between two worlds. The warp was a shifting thing, never constant. The garden was a collection of ideas. It had no true form, and through it he could see a million other worlds that underpinned it, the dreams of souls living and dead, and past that, as if glimpsed through banks of glittering sea mist that evaporated before the morning sun, the battlefield of Iax.

‘Hear me!’ Guilliman’s voice boomed through eternities. The sword blazed higher, until the fire of it threatened to burn out time. ‘I am Roboute Guilliman, last loyal son of the Emperor of Terra. It is not your destiny to end today, God of Plague, but know that I am coming for you, and I will find you, and you will burn.’

He gripped the Sword of the Emperor two-handed and raised it high. Rising waves of fire ripped into the garden. From the great manse a cry of rage sounded, as a wall of flame hotter than a million suns devoured everything in its path, finally breaking and receding within yards of the black walls of Nurgle’s house. Its infinite halls shook. Mossy tiles fell from the roof. Sodden timbers steamed.

‘This is a warning. The warp and the materium were once in balance. For too long, you have tipped the scales. Understand that it is not only the warp that is capable of pushing back. This realm is not real. Only will is real. And none may outmatch my will. Be assured, Lord of Plagues, and convey this message to your brothers, that I do not speak for myself.

‘I speak for the Emperor of Mankind.’

Then he was falling, falling, falling forever until his knee hit the ground, and he woke into reality once more.

This is pretty unprecedented in the entire setting of Warhammer 40,000. Not only did the Imperium of Man manage to take the fight into the realm of the Chaos Gods, but the Emperor was able to burn down part of their territory. He may not be the Dark King, but the God-Emperor of Mankind seems like he’s well on his way to being a deity for all of humanity.

The Emperor also continues to show up in Warhammer 40,000 media on the sidelines. In Darktide, it’s strongly implied that one of the psyker personalities has a hotline straight to the golden throne and is chatting it up with the Emperor. In The Lion: Son of the Forest, a second loyalist Primarch returns. Lion El’Jonson continually meets a wounded king as he awakens and explores the Warp; the king is both a clear reference to the Fisher King from Arthurian myth, and also the Emperor.

So what is the God-Emperor of Mankind actually up to? No one knows; you can’t exactly have a scrum meeting with the guy anymore. But in a galaxy on the edge of complete and total ruin due to Tyranids, Chaos, and other terrible threats, he’s probably the last and best hope humanity has in its arsenal.

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