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The Philosophy of the Aeldar

"oh god, delete" - First response to this project.

With feedback like that, you'd think I'd stop. I think I can see why though, as the original title of the project was a bunch of weighted labels and didn't really reflect the intent of the project. What I'm aiming to do here is point out the underlying ideas and philosophies of 40K, to create more depth to the (frankly shallow) debate on Feminism and Social Politics of our game.

To do so for a table top game about elves with guns sounds like the very definition of time wasting. As my students in the boarding house would say, "Sir, why you dragging it, it's not that deep." But it's a hobby we all spend far too much time thinking and playing in anyway, so why not?

It also might seem like a funny spot to start with on a series of Feminisim and diversity in 40K, but I'm going to begin with the Eldar as a race. Most people jump into talking about the Space Marines or the Astra Militarum, as these are the obvious humans in the universe. But one of the wonderful things about Science Fiction is that ALL the aliens are human.

You may think that Star Trek was pretty silly, as the majority of alien life looked like humans with rubber parts, but there is a very good reason for that little conceit. And it has nothing to do with special effects budgets. Well, maybe a little bit, but the main reason is that aliens represent amplified aspects of humanity. Klingons represent our war-like and honour bound nature, Ferengi represent our greed, and the Vulkans and Romulans the battle between our logical and feeling minds.

The same is true of the Eldar/Aeldar, and they present a very interesting side of ourselves.

Eldar are complex.

As much as we'd like to think the concept of space elf as being simple, what the Eldar are is so much more than that. For a start, we have a variety of flavours of space elf, making them the second most culturally diverse race behind the Imperium. Indeed, because of the monolithic nature of Imperial Rule, it could even be argued they are the most diverse.

The Background

As a brief overview, the Eldar may or may not have been creations of an older race called The Old Ones. They may or may not have been created as psychic muscle to defeat the Necrons, the old ones mortal enemy at the time, but even then the lore gets muddy. We can somewhat safely say that Eldar history starts around the time known as The War of the Heavens, where the galaxy (or galaxies) were afire with unimaginable potent weapons being flung around by near-as-gods.

And then nothing for a really long time. Old ones vanish or die, Necrons go to sleep after defeat/victory. Again, muddied lore, the truth depending on which codex you read.

The Eldar built up a galactic civilisation on the ruins of the Old Ones empire. They were more or less unchallenged, having the technological edge on pretty much every other race out there, backed up with a psychic presence that is still fairly unmatched in modern 40K.

And this bred arrogance. They began working and playing to excess, going ever further without any thought to consequences. The vast psychic energies built up to them striving towards ever greater and more fulfilling pleasures came to a head with the birth of the Chaos god Slaneesh, who promptly ate every Eldar they could find. The summary destruction was known as The Fall, and the psychic vortex left a massive blot on the galaxy called the Eye of Terror... which still persists today.

This led to the once 'unified' civilisation being split into a few broad categories.

The Facets of the Aeldari

The first one written about were actually the Harlequins. They are bard style groups of entertainers, dressed up in a lot of celtic lore, and given the battle prowess of a ninja. They patrol the Webway, the Eldar sub-space highway, and guard the Black Library. The Black Library contains knowledge stretching back to the beginning of time. Were anyone to breach it and find it's secrets, there would be untold destruction.

The second Eldar to come along are now known as Craftworld Eldar. These are Eldar who boarded vast colony-world ships and fled the Eldar homeworlds before The Fall. Seeing how their excess could lead to disaster, they practice a rigid and controlled existence. They will only allow themselves to follow a single path of mastery at a time, and will generally give it up before the search for greater and greater perfection consumes them.

If it does, then the Craftworld finds them useful, but will generally isolate them from the rest of the population. The game example is the Aspect Warrior Exarch, a veteran analogue who has lost themselves to the pursuit of combat perfection. They can never join other Craftworlders in their version of the afterlife, and are forever confined to their suit of armour if they should fall in battle.

The afterlife of the Craftworlders is their ultimate response to the threat of soul destruction by Slaanesh. All of the craftworld aeldar will wear soul stones, which capture their spirits on death. These soul stones will then be placed in the Craftworld's Infintiy Circuit, sort of the Matrix crossed with a Graveyard, where the aeldari souls can find refuge from the constant predations of warp entities.

There were two more factions that were created at the time of the Craftworlders, being auxiliary units for a Craftworld army; the Exodites and the Corsairs. Corsairs are essentially craftworlders who reject the path system, and run the knife edge between a free existence and succumbing to their drive to seek pleasure. The Exodites are eldar who left even before the Craftworlds did, seeking a more balanced life in harmony with nature. As this is still 40K, home to the hyperbolic and often silly wish fulfilment, this means they go into battle riding dinosaurs they call dragons.

The Exodites have an Infinity Circuit tied to their planets, somewhat similarly to the Craftworld Eldar. This means that the planet is genuinely alive, in a sense, and with the combined psychic energies can do certain things. Corsairs... well corsairs don't wear soul stones, and if they do they're generally lost in the void. They risk everything for their freedom. Literally all of their being is on this gamble.

The last ones to be written about came as an extension to the idea of the corsairs; what happens to Eldar who succumb to their pleasures. The Dark Eldar, who feel the pull of Slaneesh draining their souls slowly over time, and are compelled to acts of deplorable, horrific violence and excess to replenish whatever essence has been stolen from them. This means they can somewhat live forever...provided they entertain themselves to a high enough degree.

In new lore, we have the Ynnari popping up, which seek to side-step the issue of dealing with Slaanesh entirely by working with their own god, Ynnead. At once both traditionalists and radicals, they count on Ynnead helping to reincarnate Eldar souls lost in the warp, a new god to perform an ancient function of the aeldar... soul-cycle? I think that's the right term. In terms of practicality, I'm not sure how this works, as it appears the Ynnari simply eat the souls of fallen aeldari themselves, like some kind of celestial recycling.

And that's a brief overview. When someone comes along and offers a blanket statement saying 40K is sexist, do feel obliged to ask what part of it, as there is an awful lot of data you need to crunch through to get any sort of conclusion.

Craftworld Eldar Social Politics

Looking first at Eldar in general, we can say that there is absolutely nothing sexist about them. It is canon that Eldar of both genders can assume any role in a craftworld, and even warrior cults that look to be populated by females are actually males in female looking armour. The reverse is also true. In fact, you literally can't tell what gender an Eldar is by looking at armour.

For Craftworld Eldar in particular, gender is an entirely fluid concept. If you want to be a Howling Banshee, you assume the identity of a mythological woman. If you want to be a Dire Avenger, you simply assume the identity of the perfect warrior, and you don't even consider your own gender. If, on your path to be the most perfect bread maker, you discover success in being a man rather than a woman, then you take on that persona, and drop it when you're done.

In recent years there's been some discussion about gender pronouns and labels for sexes. Without getting to involved in the politics of that, I can safely say this debate would be loved by the Eldar. Their language is complex to the point where no other race can follow it, and they'd love nothing more than to add new vocabulary to describe a she-elf-turned-he-elf-for-the-sake-of-the-path-of-perfect-bread-making. They most likely have a unique pronoun for that very situation.

The Craftworld Eldar are a lot like Vulcans, in that they desperately clamp down and control their emotions to avoid disaster. But what of the other factions?

The Outcasts and Dark Eldar

Exodites are the most rural Eldar, living in tribal groups. From this we can assume they have an entirely egalitarian society, much as you would expect from a people who need to work every day to survive. If someone can do a job well, they do that job regardless of gender. Identity is largely secondary to making sure the dragons don't eat your face off.

Corsairs and Dark Eldar are where things get very interesting. They are the opposite of the Exodites, opting for more and more complex societal interactions. They are the craftworlders with no brakes. Whereas Craftworld Eldar would create a new pronoun to describe a unique eldar, the Dark Eldar would begin creating new eldar for the sake of creating new pronouns.

These are a race who simply must drive themselves towards greater excess. Whereas we sometimes hear the 'Slippery Slope' argument of allowing same-sex marriages, other genders and various progressive ideas, the Dark Eldar live on that slope, and are accelerating. They show us the consequences of a life of indulgence, and a life of no boundaries. They show us what we could be without moderate voices asking if we've gone too far.

Gender politics, in this case, is simply ignored in the drive for ever greater experience. What some people would call deviant practice in our culture would be common place for the Dark Eldar. The very notion of transgenderism is nothing compared to the body modification done by the Scourges, who have horrific surgeries done to them to allow them to fly.

With that said, their are still some areas considered taboo in Dark Eldar society. Psykers are outright banned due to the damage they could do the the Dark Eldar city, and not even the most volatile hedonist drukhari would attempt such practices. It's interesting to see a race with no boundaries having a somewhat strict rule that everyone adheres to... that's what makes these villains rather complex for a tabletop game.

As for a word on the city of the Drukhari, Commorragh, it's a hidden city in the webway. It's literally cut off from reality, and you could argue this is exactly the Dark Eldar mentality. Burying their heads in the cosmic sands, and putting a pleasure driven band-aid on their all consuming problem of Slaanesh. That may well be a criticism of those living hedonistic life styles.

Corsairs present us with a fatalist approach to life. There is no thought for the afterlife, or at least no consensus. Some will wear soul stones, but with little chance of them being found or placed in an Infinity Circuit. Some will indulge in Drukhari acts of excess, but without the consistency to make it worthwhile. There will undoubtedly be experimentation on both sides, but for the Corsair there is no real solution... simply survive in the material world, and hope not to die. This is why the table top army has such low morale.

The Ynnari death cult are an example of all this pressure given by Slaanesh gone... and as such are somewhat boring as a faction. Once you get past the novelty of the new god and rebirth imagery, you're left with what the Eldar really are; arrogant, and determined to conquer the galaxy. At this stage they are very much surface value and shallow, and the whilst the choice to have a female eldar as their leader might be seen as a progressive option, Yvraine might just as well be a male eldar for all it impacts the story.

Where the interesting discussions will be had is in the new lore built for them. What does it mean for an eldar soul to be consumed by the aeldar around them? Is Ynnead a positive force, or simply another controlling deity which will enslave the aeldari? We'll just have to wait and see.

What does this mean?

The Eldar are wonderfully complex. They feel emotions more strongly than humans, and they experience the world to a degree that we can't comprehend. For them, there is always the temptation to get lost in a sea of experience and entertainment. The Exodites and Craftworlders fight against this with discipline and forced, harsh living conditions. The Dark Eldar do not, and show us how destructive it can be to live only to satiate whatever desires we have. The Corsairs are a middle ground between these two outcomes, walking the razors edge of freedom and moderation.

This is not to say one side is better than the other. Whilst the Dark Eldar do commit heinous acts of villainy, Craftworlders will often ignore compassion when dealing with other races, and other Eldar too. Exodites are isolationist, and care nothing for the galaxy beyond their planets. Remember this is 40K, and no one is clean. Even the 'moderate' corsairs are fickle and flighty, and are possibly the least trustworthy faction.

The aeldar very much show us reactions to Nhilism. As humans we see the cold indifference of an infinite universe, and somewhat realise how meaningless our life is. You could well conclude that there is nothing to life, and that death is an absolute destruction of your existence. For the aeldar, this is true. There's an abyss called Slaanesh waiting for their souls, and no matter what works they have done in their lifetime, they will be claimed by it.

Ultimately the Aeldar are all about a strong, visceral reaction to death. Their doom occupies their every waking moment, and the various sub-factions of aeldar show us our own reactions to as humans to the inevitable... fight against it, distract ourselves with either hard work or entertainment, or simply run away from it.

Craftworlders seek to stave off the inevitable through discipline. Exodites by preserving nature around them, using a hard life to distract from it. Dark Eldar use distraction and pleasure to ignore it as much as possible. Corsairs simply run from the issue. The Ynarri... well they have a somewhat interesting solution.


The Eldar are humanity with their emotions dialled up to eleven. The different Eldar factions show us different ways of dealing with those emotions, particularly the strong reactions to death, and no option is particularly preferable to the other.

What this means for Social Politics is simply a caution for thinking entirely from emotion, either ignoring it or indulging in it. There are no good outcomes if that's all you can do.

What this means for Diversity is showing how a single race can have such hugely different reactions and evolutions from the same starting point. These are all pointy eared space elves, with the same history, but with different solutions to a shared problem... all of which are flawed in some ways, but have been successful in keeping them alive. There are, perhaps, many civilisations of aeldari who haven't made it to the 41st Millenium.

What this means for Feminism... I'm not sure. But hopefully it's helped you to come up with some conclusions of your own.

It's also worth keeping in mind that this is a very brief discussion of Eldar society, and with a good deal of conjecture and assumptions taken. If you disagree, please let me know. Despite a lifetime scouring codices and the internet for scraps of lore, I haven't read any of the Black Library novels, and will most likely have gotten something wrong. Give me a comment so I know what I missed.

My final caveat here is to remind everyone that people on the internet are usually wrong, particularly teachers who write blogs. Please add what you like to the discussion, and if you write eloquently enough, I may just quote you directly in the post.

I didn't mention much about the Harlequins. Put it this way; no matter what I wrote about them would not be true, and would only be the punchline of some very long convoluted practical joke. As for what's going on behind those masque's and diamond pattern cod-pieces,  god only knows and is laughing about it.

Thanks for reading.

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  1. Wow, I was expecting a diatribe about Sisters of Battle or all male Space Marines but this really made me think. Thanks.

    1. Success! And yes, in the current tone of "debate", you were perhaps right to expect a diatribe. Next week I'm taking a look at Ork Kulture, and how it represents a savage and crude meritocracy. Hope you'll like it, and thanks for the comment!

  2. That was a surprising and deep take, thanks - I learned a lot. I am glad someone is tackling this issue from a different angle.
    One point I'd like to add, however: A lot of the stuff you talk about is found way deep in the WH40K lore and does not translate well to the table or first impression the game makes. If you look at the model range and the named characters you encounter in the codices etc, the Eldar still appear overwhelmingly male - not as extreme as the other armies, but still...
    You post really showed me the discrepance between the deep background and the gaming table and I hope GW will aim to bring these fascinating parts of the lore more into the foreground with future releases.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you learned something from it. As a teacher, I can feel a sense of professional achievement!

      The thing is, though, that all this information is in the codices. I haven't read any of the GW novels, and everything I know is from the various editions of codex for Eldar, Dark Eldar and Harlequins. Even the notion of Eldar assuming genders is from the standard description of Howling Banshees.

      What I'm saying is that all the pieces of information are not that deeply hidden, and are usually displayed in full on models. It only takes a look at the Yncarne to see how gender fluid the Eldar are. Admittedly that's a newer model, but Slaanesh, the eldar-created god, has been rocking the hermaphrodite look since the 80s.

      So I can't agree with your point. I think the lore is in the foreground enough, without it having to be spelled out in bullet points. When three eldar factions all have rules specifically about how they deal with the impending doom of Slaanesh (Power from Pain, Ancient Doom, and Dancing on the Blade's Edge), I think GWs is doing quite well in translating the character of a race to game rules.

      But of course, I'll never say no to new female models!


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