Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In Defense of Slaanesh

I know that I said I wouldn't be posting much, but there's an article on Bell of Lost Souls that I felt that I had to weigh in on. It discusses Slaanesh's role in 40K, specifically how Slaanesh is a symbol both of 40K's roots in the 1980s and displays an immature understanding of sex that is detrimental to the game. You can read it here.

Overall, I think the article is well-thought out and well-written. I complete agree that Slaanesh isn't the most mature thing in the game (though I would argue that this is a game where green football hooligans can fight chainsaw wielding knights in space, so maturity isn't really that necessary). I also agree that Slaanesh will likely hurt 40K's marketability with children. However, I believe that the author misattributes the influences that shaped Slaanesh, and in doing so does the early writers at Games Workshop a great disservice.

If you've read this blog for a while, you know that I really like to dissect the influences that shape the background of 40K. In the aforementioned article, the author states that all 4 Chaos Gods are based on genres of heavy metal album covers from the 80s. I'm right on board with him for Khorne, Nurgle, and Tzeentch (though I would say that's more prog rock than metal), but I think he really misses the mark on Slaanesh. He attributes Slaanesh to the covers of glam rock bands like White Snake and Poison. These commonly show scantily clad or nude buxom women, mostly tanned and blonde, sometimes in a fantastic situation. Because Slaanesh is based on these, the author states that Slaanesh is an outgrowth of a very widespread male sexual fantasy.

Do me a favor and think back to all of the Slaanesh artwork and models that you've ever seen. How many of them involve that type of sexual representation? I can't think of any. Demons of Slaanesh certainly have some sexual features, but they're mixed with disturbing imagery like chitinous claws, taloned feet, and sharp teeth. Initially, they were mostly androgenous, with Daemonettes having only one breast. Some were clearly bovine, with elongated snouts and rows of breasts like many other mammals. These are not things that are part of a standard male sexual fantasy, and I've never seen something like a Daemonette of Slaanesh on a White Snake album. I also suspect that if you ask a member of the original writing team how they felt about White Snake, they'd spit in your face.

I would posit that Slaanesh was mostly influenced by another artistic movement that was very popular in the 1980s. This style (I'm afraid I don't know of a specific name for it), mixed sexual and disturbing imagery, and is exemplified by the likes of Clive Barker, H.R. Giger, and the controversial British series Lord Horror. However, I think the most likely thing to influence the Games Workshop team was Heavy Metal Magazine, which was one of the premier science fiction and fantasy magazines at the time and was quite full of shall we say challenging and confusing sexual imagery. Most people are more familiar with the Heavy Metal cartoon, which I assure you was tame compared to the comics.

If this is the case (and I believe that it is), then it changes the intent of Slaanesh. Whereas the Bell of Lost Souls piece paints Slaanesh as a perpetuation of widespread and societally acceptable fantasies and goes so far as to say that it is alienating to people of non-standard sexuality, I would say that it is in fact an outgrowth of the counter-culture of the time, where young people were rebelling against the traditional sexual norms and were interested in investigating other lifestyles. The inclusion of homosexual, transexual, and hermaphroditic imagery would not be a way to villify these lifestyles but rather a way to discuss them, however immature. I completely agree that now there are far better fora to discuss these issues, but at the time they were extremely taboo in polite society. The works of this entire movement were a way to bring up these issues in a relatively safe space (the realm of fantasy) where people who would judge you for talking about them wouldn't be present.

The author of the Bell of Lost Souls article also states that these alternative lifestyles are villified in 40K because they are associated with an evil Chaos God. He goes so far as to say that it represents sex as evil, an extremely puritanical view. This is fairly correct currently, when the asexual, repressive Imperium is widely considered the good guys. However, that wasn't always the case.

It's commonly said that there are no good guys in 40K, though this is less and less true as the Imperium, Eldar, and Tau are portrayed as more beneficent and the Chaos Gods more malevolent in order to appeal to a broader audience with a standard good vs evil narrative. When the game was created, this was very different.

Slaanesh is officially the god of excess, but he's informally called the god of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We've already talked about how the Games Workshop writers were really into heavy metal, going so far as to base some of the Chaos Gods on themes prevalent in heavy metal album art. Noise Marines are the most direct outgrowth of their love of heavy metal. If you've read any interviews with the original writing staff, you also know that mind-altering substances were extremely prevalent. It seems parsimonious to extrapolate that they weren't too puritanical in their ideas about sex. This begs the question, why would the writers establish a god of things that they clearly like and then label it evil?

The answer is that they didn't. The initial background presented the Imperium as a decaying and backwards establishment that was doomed to fall before more free-thinking, radical factions, such as the Orks and Chaos. Chaos Marines weren't evil. They were Marines that had thrown off the yoke of mindless authority and now acted in their own interest, seeking out the ideals that they thought were right. It's easy to see how this setting would come from the minds of a counter-culture struggling to learn about subjects that their parents' generation considered taboo. In the minds of many of the early designers and writers, Chaos was the good guys, so it's easy to see why attention was lavished onto the Chaos Gods in Rogue Trader and 2nd Edition. All of the Chaos Gods were supposed to be morally ambiguous, rather than evil. That noble warrior that fights to defend his home and family? He's as much a servant of Khorne as the wildest berserker. Do you have a thirst for knowledge? Congratulations, your academic learning feeds Tzeentch.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my little journey through the origins of Slaanesh. While I agree that the way that he's represented is outdated, I have to give the original writers more credit than just to say that they played on male sexual fantasies. With a bit of context, I feel like the creation of Slaanesh goes from being "something that was okay in the 80s" to something that was both counter-cultural and progressive.

So what do you think? Am I giving early Games Workshop too much credit? Is Slaanesh just as embarrassing as the other article claims?


  1. That's a really interesting article, and I suspect the only real answer would be to ask those early writers what their influences were.

    The whole debate does rather remind me of a critic's assessment of Bagpuss though, where each character in the series was related to a strata or cultural group within the wider society at the time. Sadly when the originator of this theory discussed it with the writer, he was told that Bagpuss was about a cloth cat. ;)

    Or in other words, the moral of the story is that things don't always have a hidden meaning.

    Of course if you really do want to attribute meaning to all these things, then you only really need to look back as far as the greek gods, and there's plenty of inspiration there - Dionysus for example - the Greek God of wine, parties, festivals, madness, chaos, drunkenness, drugs, and ecstasy.

    It's easy enough to see where the inspiration may come from...

    1. I completely agree that Slaanesh is based on several ancient gods, Greek and otherwise, that ruled over similar things. Some of them were even hermaphroditic.

      I was more concerned with where the original imagery came from that was used in the art and models for Slaanesh. While there's definitely some originality there, GW is known for drawing heavily on other sources.

      I've read a lot of interviews with those early writers but Slaanesh has never come up. As you say, there may be no hidden underlying meaning, but I definitely think we can speculate on what other sources influenced the imagery that eventually came to represent Slaanesh.

  2. Nice post. Now there's some food for thought.

  3. well said, I agree with every word. I said some similar things on the thread. Whats your Disqus handle by the way?

    1. On Disqus, I post as Codicier Ignatius, but I don't post on the BOLS comment section. It tends to be way too confrontational for me.

  4. Nice counter argument to the bols post. The article on bols was well written and made several good points but your own post sums up my own feelings in a far more eloquent manner than I could mentally muster, let alone blog.

    Hopefully slaanesh will be a bit too much of a p.i.t.a to retconn or squat from 40k, what with the background of the eldar so dependant on it.

    1. I can't see how they could get rid of Slaanesh in 40K. The Eldar of all factions are heavily intertwined with him/her, and Slaanesh plays a massive part in the 30K background.

      What I could see them doing is pulling back from the sexual imagery and moving toward more psychedelic representation. I feel like seekers of Slaanesh, the chariots, and even the latest, more modestly clothed Daemonettes are all headed in this direction. Nothing sexy about them.

  5. Beautiful critique. Very well written and knowledgeable. It has been roughly 30 years since the initial writing of Slaanesh as an entity and historical context is definitely relevant. It is sad the GW is trying to push the good vs. evil moralism, and even dumbing it down. Makes it more of an unrealistic childs game IMO. Again, great piece of writing, thanks.


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