- "When the people forget their duty they are no longer human and become something less than beasts. They have no place in the bosom of humanity nor in the heart of the Emperor. Let them die and be forever forgotten."
- — From Prime Edicts of the Holy Synod of the Adeptus Ministorum.
The Imperial Cult is the official and only state religion of the Imperium of Man. It is devoted to the worship of the God-Emperor of Mankind as the ascended divinity and saviour of humanity. Those who believe in the Cult's teachings hold that the Emperor is a living spiritual entity and the only true divinity of humanity. The Imperial Cult is led by the Adeptus Ministorum, also known as the Ecclesiarchy, who devote their lives to spreading the Word of the Emperor and doing His will. Almost all variants on the Imperial Cult are tolerated by the Ecclesiarchy's priests, but all worship of the Emperor must comply with certain Imperial values including, but not limited to: unquestioning political loyalty to the High Lords of Terra and the various agencies of the Adeptus Terra, diligence in carrying out the Emperor's will, belief in the Emperor's ultimate divinity, and conscious contributions to the Imperium's overall well-being, even if this means nothing more than helping to improve one's own homeworld or even just home city or town.
In the 41st Millennium the Imperial Cult has almost unrivaled power and influence within the Imperium. Heresy against it is punished severely. The religion is formally administered by the clerics of the Ecclesiarchy. The Imperial Cult is the Imperium's state religion, and in many ways the religion is the state itself since it is the glue that binds humanity together in the service of the Emperor and the Imperium. The precepts of the Imperial Cult, called the Imperial Creed, include the belief that all of humanity must be brought into the Imperium wherever in the galaxy humans live, the absolute abhorrence of aliens as dangers to humanity's rightful domination of the Milky Way Galaxy, and the realisation that the existence of unsanctioned psychic powers and human mutation is a dire threat to the human species which must be controlled. All of these precepts have their origins in what the Emperor himself preached during the Great Crusade of the 31st Millennium, though they ignore the Emperor's most fundamental teaching that he was not divine and that human beings should give up superstition and the trappings of organised religion in favour of scientific rationalism. Yet, because of the existence of Chaos and the true, psychic nature of the Immaterium, the Imperial Cult has ironically proven to be a powerful source of protection for humanity from the dangers presented by the Ruinous Powers.
While the ordinary citizen of the Imperium believes that the Emperor has always been venerated as the immortal and omnipotent God of humanity throughout the history of Mankind, Imperial historians and the Battle-Brothers of the Space Marine Chapters know that this was not always the case. At the beginning of the Emperor's Great Crusade in the 31st Millennium, the Imperium of Man functioned very differently. Firstly, there was no Ecclesiarchy, and the veneration of the Emperor, in the form of a cult known as the Lectitio Divinitatus, was frowned upon and outright condemned by the Emperor himself. The official Imperial doctrine, known as the Imperial Truth, was that the Emperor was an extremely powerful being, the rightful ruler of all Mankind, and the perfect physical, mental and spiritual embodiment of humanity, but no matter how supreme, he was still only a human being. During the Great Crusade, however, many ordinary Imperial citizens found that the light of reason and truth brought by the Emperor was not enough to fulfill their basic human psychological desires or provide protection from the real supernatural threats that existed in the universe, and so they took to worshiping him as a deity to fulfill their spiritual needs.
During the Great Crusade, many different religious cults appeared throughout the Imperium worshiping the Emperor of Mankind as a God, each with their own subtle variations and differences. These forms of worship appeared first in those primitive planets that had regressed technologically during the Age of Strife. The numbers of these cults multiplied immensely with the Emperor's ultimate sacrifice to save Mankind from the Warmaster Horus during the Horus Heresy and his subsequent incarceration upon the Golden Throne, which was hailed as the Emperor's "ascension" back to full divinity. Most of these cults would gradually fade away, while others prospered, eventually absorbing the weaker ones. The more successful Emperor-worship cults spread their forms of worship to other planets.
The strongest of all the early Imperial cults was the Temple of the Saviour Emperor. This cult had the advantage over the others in that it was based on Terra and that its leader had been a successful and respected officer of the Imperial Guard who had fought at the Battle of Terra, defending the heart of the Imperium. This leader had re-named himself Fatidicus and had begun to preach his teachings concerning the divinity of the Emperor to anyone who would listen. This faith spread among the members of the Imperial Guard and the Imperial Navy, but also to lowly scribes and minor adepts of the Adeptus Terra (the Administratum). The faith was then spread by these individuals to other planets. When Fatidicus died at the age of 120 standard Terran years, the Temple had more than a billion followers on Terra and untold faithful throughout the Imperium's Segmentum Solar.
In the wake of the chaos and anarchy of the Horus Heresy, the Temple of the Saviour Emperor provided a message of hope and reunification through a common faith. Cults who rejected being absorbed, or who couldn't be absorbed, saw themselves being persecuted by fanatical mobs who preferred the Saviour Emperor theology. Officially, the Temple rejected this violence performed in its name. This development culminated in the 32nd Millennium, by which time almost two-thirds of the Imperium's population followed the teachings of the Temple of the Saviour Emperor, the exceptions being the Space Marines, who have never formally acknowledged the divinity of the Emperor and the Adeptus Mechanicus, who had their own form of worship in the Cult of the Machine. The Temple's importance, influence, and power rapidly outmatched any other Imperial cult dedicated to Emperor-worship.
The Emperor became an object of general religious veneration across the Imperium following the Horus Heresy and his internment within the Golden Throne on Terra. Over the decades after that conflict many individual Imperial cults sprang up throughout the Imperium, with their central theme being the redemption of humanity through the Emperor's self-sacrifice. After a few hundred years, a single cult known as the Ecclesiarchy was formed from the unification of a number of smaller cults with the Temple of the Saviour Emperor, which gradually absorbed the main body of diverse believers in the Emperor's divinity. In the 32nd Millennium this cult was recognized as the official state religion of the Imperium, granted the official governmental title of the Adeptus Ministorum and incorporated into the Adeptus Terra once the High Lords realized how useful the religion could be in protecting, unifying and energising the citizens of the Imperium from the myriad dangers of the galaxy. Remaining religious cults which differed in their primary theology from the Imperial Creed taught by the Ecclesiarchy were persecuted and mostly destroyed.
A few centuries later Ecclesiarch Veneris II received a seat amongst the High Lords of Terra, and after 300 years, this seat was made permanent. The political power of the Ecclesiarchy continued to grow, increasing its hold over the minds and beliefs of the Imperial citizenry. Those who wouldn't follow its teachings were declared unbelievers and heretics, ostracized, and on occasion even executed. The vast territories of the Imperium were organized into dioceses led by the Ecclesiarchy's Cardinals. These powerful religious and political figures were responsible for Missionaries and Preachers on hundreds of worlds. Lavish shrines, impressive temples, and majestic cathedrals dedicated to the God-Emperor of Mankind were built throughout the Imperium. Millions of religious pilgrims soon began making their way across the galaxy to visit particularly important religious locations, such as the world where a particular Imperial Saint had performed their most famous miracle. In time, the sheer number of pilgrims who arrived on certain worlds became an economic activity in itself and entire planets were dedicated to worship and directly ruled by the Adeptus Ministorum as shrine worlds. Particularly important shrine worlds could become the religious seat of an entire diocese and so a Cardinal would take up residence there. These planets became known as Cardinal worlds.
The only threat to the Ecclesiarchy was the Confederation of Light. Based upon the planet Dimmamar, this penitent faith's ideals of poverty and humble living clearly contradicted the teachings of the Ecclesiarchy, whose view was that sacrifices of wealth and money to the Adeptus Ministorum in taxes, tithes and other gifts were necessary to enhance the Imperium's citizens' access to salvation and ensure that the Emperor's light reached every corner of the galaxy through his Missions. The Confederation proved too difficult for Ministorum agents to infiltrate, and the Ecclesiarchy turned to violence, supported in this effort by the unanimous vote of the Senate of the High Lords of Terra, who declared the onset of the first War of Faith, largely to ensure that Imperial stability was not damaged by the emergence of religious plurality. The entire Confederation was declared heretical and the forces of the Imperial Guard, the Imperial Navy, and thousands of fanatical zealots from the Frateris Militia were unleashed upon it, bent on its destruction. Only a few cells and hidden shrines of the Confederation managed to survive, and the power of the Ecclesiarchy over the minds of men, for better or worse, was made unassailable. By the end of the 33rd Millennium every Imperial world was furnished with its own cathedral and the coffers of the Ecclesiarchy were filled with the offerings and tithes from the teeming billions of the God-Emperor's faithful. This wealth was squandered by building additional, ever larger and more lavish churches and cathedrals and to fund Wars of Faith intended not to save the souls of humanity but to secure the Ecclesiarchy's political power and wealth.
The Age of Apostasy in the 36th Millennium was one of the most destabilizing events in Imperial history after the Horus Heresy, beginning during the long struggle between the Ecclesiarchy and the Administratum for power over the Imperium. High Lord Goge Vandire, the 361st Master of the Administratum, was a power-hungry tyrant who eventually gained direct control over the Ecclesiarchy as well as the Administratum by usurping the position of the Ecclesiarch. This made him the most powerful individual in the Imperium, and allowed him to place his own rule above even that of the Emperor. His time in power became known as the Reign of Blood, consisting of massive purges of the Ecclesiarchy, and the killings and assassinations of countless perceived traitors and conspirators. This period was eventually ended by the Ecclesiarch Sebastian Thor's new Confederation of Light, a sect of the Imperial Cult that sought to end Goge Vandire's corruption of Imperial theology. The Apostasy ultimately resulted in a major reformation of the Ecclesiarchy, the creation of the Imperial Inquisition's Ordo Hereticus to police those enemies of the Imperium who lay within its own structures and the creation of the Adepta Sororitas to serve as both the Ecclesiarchy's new military forces and the Chamber Militant of the Ordo Hereticus.
The Cult of the Emperor
The Cult Imperialis is one of the few common factors that link the disparate worlds of the Imperium together. No matter what conditions prevail upon a world within the Imperium, the Imperial cult will be found there. The ways in which the Emperor is worshipped are multitudinous. To some He is revered as a distant patriarchal and human figure. Others identify Him with some aspect of nature or, like the primitive Epheisians of Dwimlicht, regard Him as a star-god, for His agents only visit occasionally and they descend from the heavens when they do so. But all the creeds of the cult agree upon this one thing: there is only one Emperor. To worship a pantheon of gods and put other gods alongside Him is heresy. However, there have been many individuals over the millennia who have been seen as His saints, people visibly touched by the Emperor, and they are venerated all over the Imperium. There are saints for every aspect of life and there is a thriving trade in their relics on many worlds.
The worship of the Emperor is, in the main, highly organised. Cathedral complexes can be found in the capitals of all worlds of any meaningful populations. On the densely populated, teeming hive worlds, these can occupy entire spires. The graceful structure of the Emperor Triumphant, constructed after the Second Armageddon war at Hive Primus on Armageddon, climbs delicately skyward, its main tower nearly a full kilometre in height. The statue of the Emperor at the top brushes the troposphere, looking benignly down upon the seething, polluted world below. Most towns will have a church or temple to the Emperor, and even the crudest village of the most primitive tribesmen will sport a sacred cave or grove dedicated to his name.
Of course, in some places, the worship of the Emperor supersedes all other aspects of life—these are the shrine worlds of the Imperium, where perhaps one of the great saints, or even, in the distant past, the Emperor Himself, performed a great deed. These planets can be single, vast religious complexes, or huge Cemetery Worlds such as Granithor, where the wealthy spend vast fortunes bringing the dead scions of their families for burial, usually those who have perished in the service of the Emperor. Then there are the cardinal worlds, which attract millions of pilgrims and are the strongholds of the cult. These planets are directly governed by the Ecclesiarchy and are the seats of functionaries high in the Cult, responsible for the spiritual health of vast areas of space.
The Ecclesiarchy maintains and promotes the cult galaxy-wide and, where possible, tries to sanction the worship of the Emperor no matter how bizarre it may seem. Very few practices are proscribed, and even such abominations as human sacrifice to the Emperor are useful to the Imperium, for it is easy to convince a newly encountered culture that approves of such custom to give up its psykers to the Black Ships. One of the Ecclesiarchy’s tasks is to record this multiplicity of tradition with which the Emperor is honoured. In that way, two preachers from opposite sides of the galaxy will know, no matter what their title or manner of expressing their devotion might be, that neither is a heretic. The Ecclesiarchy sends out mission fleets for precisely this purpose, and its flotillas of blessed spacecraft slowly circle a particular part of the galaxy, recording new variants of the cult, correcting serious heresies and proselytizing to newly discovered populations of humans.
To all, the Emperor is a living god. He may be tens of thousands of light years away, but that He exists, the inhabitants of the Imperium know, so faith is an easy thing. Some amongst the Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition may argue that men should be more ardent in their devotion to Him, but though some may be lax in their adulation and may blaspheme or heretically curse the Master of Mankind for their lot, it is nevertheless rare to meet a man who would dare to deny the Emperor’s divinity.
A Life of Worship
The Emperor has a profound effect on the lives of the people he protects. To most, He is everywhere and everything. Part of every citizen's life is to honour the Emperor, often on a daily basis, for the protection and guidance that He provides. How they honour Him, however, will of course vary depending on where they live and just how they choose to view the Emperor. For example, on the world of Acreage, the priests of the High King teach that the Emperor is the "King of the Sky"; sky-mill workers must keep their eyes averted from the heavens when they work high above the ground, lest they anger Him with their impudence. Villages often make "candle-balloons" in which to offer their prayers. On the mining world of Luggnum, the pit-shafts are so dangerous that all miners undertake hour-long blessings by the station abbot before they descend. Miners that have refused or avoided such blessings are scorned (or even killed) by their co-workers, lest they bring ill-luck to all, proving that perhaps the blessing does in fact protect from harm. Then there are worlds like Dwimlicht, a feral world far from the civilized core of the sector, where primitive locals see the Emperor as a mighty star-god and shave their heads so that at night He might look into their minds with His million eyes and see that they are faithful.
Whatever the world's particular teachings, almost universally, citizens pray before work, before meals and before downtime. They thank the Emperor for what they have and pray to Him for what they desire. As most citizens of the Imperium are poorly educated, often knowing only what they need to do their jobs, prayer and the teachings of the Ministorum are all they know of the galaxy or world beyond their homes. They often believe wholeheartedly that if they do not pray to the Emperor and follow the instructions of His clerics, they risk their very souls (a belief unfortunately justified on many worlds). Over time, citizens become entwined in the rituals of worship, so that daily prayers to the Emperor are as natural to them as breathing. For most, this is as far as they come in their religious observance, convinced of their faith, living and dying without ever questioning the Ministorum or the god it serves.
Of course, there are those who stray from the path. Paying no more than lip service to the Imperial Creed, these people forget their faith (if indeed they ever had it) and instead choose to see the Emperor as a distant overlord, ruling an empire that He will never see from a state of neither death nor life. Such folk choose to live by their own set of morals and ethics, though usually they have little of either. On many advanced worlds these kinds of people thrive. Where the rise of technology has overshadowed spirituality and wonder, so too does it undermine the belief in a power greater than mankind. Such places can be breeding grounds for the faithless or for those that would scorn the power of the Emperor for more tangible and immediate rewards. For many citizens, however, the truth is, as always, somewhere between fevered worship and the brink of heresy. Most citizens pray at their local shrine once a ten-cycle, and invoke the Emperor’s name to protect them from evil; but beyond this they go about their daily lives like everybody else.
The Imperial Creed and Spirits of the Immaterium
The official position of the Ecclesiarchy on the spirits of the deceased is that the Emperor judges all faithful humans after death and, if they are worthy, grants them a place in his celestial army. Differing interpretations of the Imperial Creed offer a wide variety of explanations for what happens to those souls deemed unworthy of joining the God-Emperor’s ranks, but who are not so heretical as to be damned out of hand. Some versions say they are reborn to try again, others, that they must wander the afterlife for a time, braving the dangers of the warp as penance for a life ill spent until their actions have redeemed them, proving them worthy of the God-Emperor’s service. There are also many tales of legendary servants of the Emperor returning from the Immaterium to the world of the living when the people of the Imperium once again need them. Some versions of the Creed refuse to acknowledge the sentience of such entities, referring to them in technical terms such as “post-life warp signatures” and “the aetheric charge contained by a residual personality”. Regardless of the fine points of doctrine, the Ecclesiarchy does acknowledge the existence of spirits of the dead.
The tenets of the Imperial Cult, known as the Imperial Creed, are actually highly flexible and are tailored by the Adeptus Ministorum's Missionaries to fit the native culture, existing religion, and cultural practices of whatever world it exists upon. As such, Imperial Cult practices adhered to on one world within the Imperium may be held as abhorrent on another. The Adeptus Ministorum tolerates this vast range of practices and beliefs as it would be impossible to maintain the faith by a rigid adherence to a standardised orthodoxy. However, the Ecclesiarchy does enforce several basic tenets of the Imperial Creed, deviation from which is considered heresy. These tenets include the following beliefs:
- That the God-Emperor of Mankind once walked among men in their form and that He is and always has been the one, true God of humanity.
- That the God-Emperor of Mankind is the one true God of Mankind, regardless of the previous beliefs held by any man or woman.
- It is the duty of the faithful to purge the Heretic, beware the psyker and mutant, and abhor the alien.
- Every human being has a place within the God-Emperor's divine order.
- It is the duty of the faithful to unquestionably obey the authority of the Imperial government and their superiors, who speak in the Emperor's name.
Another recurring theme of the Imperial faith is the notion of the End Times, which gained particular momentum in the Imperial Cult towards the end of the 41st Millennium. Often tied to the notion of the End Times is the belief that the Emperor will rise from the Golden Throne and complete the work that He began ten thousand Terran years ago, and deliver the faithful from all the evils of the galaxy. While most view the End Times as a time of deliverance and spiritual salvation, it is also believed by many within the Ecclesiarchy that the God-Emperor will sit in judgement of all Mankind, and those who lack faith in Him will be damned for all eternity.
Aside from these central tenets of the Imperial Creed, there exists a great body of both sanctioned and unsanctioned additional dogma which varies from sector to sector and world to world and is the subject of constant debate within the Ministorum's hierarchy. The subject and nature of the afterlife is one such regularly debated topic, with many teachings mentioning the form of an afterlife in which the faithful take their place beside the Emperor of Mankind for eternity. However, other elements of the Holy Synod maintain a different version of the afterlife, and the nature of the belief in an afterlife varies greatly depending on the culture and technological sophistication of a given Imperial planet.
- Codex Imperialis, pp. 32-38
- Codex: Sisters of Battle (2nd Edition)
- Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook (RPG), pg. 263
- Dark Heresy: Blood of Martyrs (RPG), pp. 18-19
- Dark Heresy: Disciples of the Dark Gods (RPG), pg. 198
- Dark Heresy: Purge the Unclean (RPG), pg. 76
- Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness, pg. 214
- Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1st Edition), pg. 268
- Horus Heresy Novel Series