So that’s Black Library Live been and gone and it was a lot of fun. I even managed to pick up a copy of Slaves To Darkness, one of the very first projects I ever worked on at Games Workshop back in the day. It contains the very first encounter of the Emperor and Horus ever written as far as I know (written by me too!), and Adrian Smith’s excellent black and white picture in which I modelled for the Warmaster.
I very much enjoyed doing the Warhammer panel with Gav Thorpe, Sarah Cawkwell and Josh Reynolds and it brought a whole lot of ideas bubbling to the surface of my mind, particularly about elves and dwarves. It reminded me that I had actually written posts on the subject for my old Trollslayer.net site. I checked back and it seems like I only managed to salvage one of those so I thought I would reprint it here. Before I do so I would just like to point out that it’s a bit dated and none of it should be construed as being in any way official. It was just something I wrote to amuse myself and give me some insight into the background of a certain dwarf. Anyway, without further ado here it is.
Why Do Slayers Slay?
A lecture by Wilhelm of Praag
Slayers belong to a dwarvish cult whose members seek death in combat against overwhelming odds. They do not seek victory, nor do they simply seek death. If they were merely suicidal, jumping off a cliff would do just as well. If they sought martyrdom, walking unarmed into a troll’s den would do the trick. Its not just death a slayer seeks, but a particular sort of death, a glorious death in battle.
This tells us something about the tortured nature of the dwarvish psyche. It also tells us something about the sort of dwarves who shave their heads and become slayers. Most of them claim to want to atone for some sin or crime, but they want more than that-they want to be remembered, and I suspect, in some ways they want to give their famous one fingered gesture of defiance to the society that spurned them, a subject of which I will write more later.
On the Nature of Dwarves
To see why Slayers behave the way they do, you need to consider more “normal” dwarvish psychology. Dwarves are a very clannish race who live in tightly knit, very regimented communities. They are, and they perceive themselves to be, a dying race surrounded by enemies on every side who seek to take what is rightfully theirs. Virtually every dwarvish settlement of any size is a fortress. Every dwarf knows everybody else in the community, and, dwarves being dwarves, they know the deeds of everybody’s ancestors and relatives unto the umpteenth generation. A dwarf takes great pride in the deeds of his ancestors, and a deed that brings dishonour upon a dwarf also reflects upon his kin. This can result in ostracism from the very community upon whom a dwarf depends for his very identity.
From earliest childhood, every dwarf is subjected to near military discipline, and every dwarf knows his place in the great scheme of things to the smallest degree.
Age and experience are respected by dwarves, youth and innovation are not. They are a practical and hardheaded race and have a great respect for what works and, more importantly, has been proven to work over the centuries. They are also very commercially oriented, and prize gold and wealth. They value hard work greatly. Indeed one of the worst insults a dwarf can use is to call another lazy.
Hair, in particular in the form of a beard is greatly prized by a dwarf. A long grey beard is seen as a sign of wisdom, experience and having been tempered by the world. Give the violent nature of the world in which dwarves live, it’s not a bad indicator. Although the natural span of a dwarvish life is considerably longer than that of a human, few male dwarves in this age of the world will live to die a death of natural causes. If a warrior has lived long enough to acquire grey hairs and a long beard, it is a fair indicator that he is very tough indeed.
Dwarf society is very hidebound, polite and ritualistic. Less senior dwarves have many ways to prove their humility to their elders. There are eleven different degrees of respect in the dwarvish tongue, and just as many variations in bows. Dwarvish etiquette is very complex, and difficult for an outsider to master, and woe betide any dwarf who makes a mistake in protocol. The incorrect use of the second person singular pronoun has resulted in many a battle between dwarvish clans.
Perhaps to counter-balance their naturally long lives, dwarves have a very low birth-rate. It is not uncommon for many dwarvish couples to be childless. A cruel Elvish joke states that this is because both sexes are so repulsive that they cannot endure to breed. (This is not a jest that you are advised to repeat in the presence of Dwarves-on matters of courtship and breeding they are extraordinarily touchy). In any case, children are prized when they come along, and family is everything to a dwarf. A clan’s children are considered a blessing on all its members. Dwarves work long and hard to provide for their future. Many childless dwarves seem to take to commercial enterprise as a substitute for the close family they lack.
The Origins of the Slayer Cult
The origins of the Slayer Cult are lost in time. Some scholars have speculated that it is somehow connected with the death quest of the dwarven Ancestor God Grimnir who vanished into the Chaos Wastes before the dawn of recorded time. The dwarves themselves, as always, remain closemouthed on the subject to outsiders. All that is known for certain is that the primary shrine of the cult, at Karak Kadrin was said to be the birthplace of Grimnir.
On Becoming a Slayer
At its simplest level, becoming a Slayer is easy, assuming you are a dwarf. You simply decide to become one. You take the slayer’s oath, and you shave your head, and perhaps your beard, as a sign that you have done so. The symbolic importance of this cannot be overstated. In a society where hair is considered an important symbol of status, such an act is supremely shocking.
Other aspects of the distinctive appearance that most people associate with slayers come later. It would seem that many slayers seek to draw attention to what they have become by acquiring tattoos, adopting the strange spiked-strip hairstyle common to slayers, by lowering their standards of personal hygiene and developing some new, and often repulsive personality quirks.
They also become far freer of speech, less respectful of authority and much more prone to aberrant behaviour than most normal dwarves. If you look closely, you can see that in many ways they are turning themselves into the exact opposite of what is considered typically dwarvish. They stress their individuality not their membership of their community.
Most but not all Slayers choose to make a pilgrimage to Karak Kadrin to take their vow in the great shrine of Grimnir there, and ritually burn their hair, and acquire a few tattoos. From the city of slayers they normally leave by the east gate onto the so-called Slayer’s road. Even if they do not head east, to fight the gobbos, this is the traditional route out of the city. Those slayers who have not made their pilgrimage but set out immediately on their death quest, will usually, if they survive, at some point try and make it to Karak Kadrin if only to boast about their battles to their peers, and renew their vows.
Now, having considered all of this, let us take a look at Slayers. In many ways a slayer can be seen as an affront to decent dwarvish society. They do not work, they rarely concern themselves with the accumulation of wealth (except what they can loot) and they do not seek to build a well-run business or a large patrimony they can pass on to their descendants. They are a rootless, restless crew who spend much of their time engaging in two of the other great passions of the dwarvish race, fighting and drinking. They show respect to no authority figure save perhaps the Slayer King, and the priests of the gods.
It would seem only logical that such figures would be ostracised by their fellow dwarves, as indeed they are, but that is not the whole story. Slayers can and do get away with a level of rudeness within their own society that would result in blood feuds, clan wars and mass destruction among the people, if the insults were perpetrated by any other dwarves. And they are in some ways, tolerated and even granted a great deal of respect by dwarves, far more so even than their formidable martial prowess would normally command. Indeed summoning the slayers is fairly normal practise for any dwarven king or clan lord before going into battle.
It might seem that providing a pool of formidably dangerous, and fearless cannon fodder would be enough of a reason for dwarves to tolerate or even encourage the Slayer cult, but I suspect there is another reason.
In every society, even our own, there are malcontents and rebels. Many of these are drawn to the dark and the forbidden cults of Chaos and work tirelessly for the overthrow of our realms. As far as is known, there are no similar cults among the dwarves. The so-called Chaos Dwarves are a different matter, and demand separate treatment which they will be given elsewhere. Given these circumstances, does it not seem possible, likely even, that one reason for this, is such naturally disruptive characters have been given a different outlet for their rebellious energies?
I contend that the Slayer Cult is one such outlet. It channels discontented young dwarves out of the mainstream of dwarvish society and into a short-lived but useful career removing threats to the clans, and fighting on their behalf. Of course, most of these dwarves have their own reasons for wanting to slay. Many have been crossed in love, becoming slayers when the dwarf woman of their choice chooses another. Even here we can see a purpose. In a society where men outnumber women by a large number, the cult may well provide a method of removing potentially disruptive rogue males. Other dwarves become slayers when they have lost face or honour. Given the nature of dwarven society, such an individual becomes all but useless anyway-for a dwarf who commands no respect can expect little from his fellows. The career of a slayer gives such people a way out, and a method of redeeming themselves and the good name of their clan, while ensuring they will not return and provide an embarrassment for their kin. I could go on, but I think the discerning reader can see by now the basic outlines of the picture I am painting. Far from being a leftover from a lost age of violence, the Slayer Cult represents a vital and useful part of dwarven society and one which demands much further study.
Wilhelm of Praag was tarred and feathered and run out of town by a group of angry dwarves shortly after he gave this lecture at the Faculty of Unnatural Sciences at the University of Nuln. He has not been seen since.
My latest Warhammer novel, Blood of Aenarion is on the long list for the David Gemmell Legend Award this year. You can vote here.