Earlier this week deep thinker Larry Vela from popular news blog Bell of Lost Souls posited that – contrary to the beliefs of one of the principal gods of Chaos – we have reached the point where we have too many skulls in Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. Here is the article, and here is an excerpt:

“GW has already WAY overdone it in the skulls department in pretty much all it’s [sic] systems. It’s generally unwise to keep pushing cliches- else they move into farce territory.”

Personally, skulls are one of my favourite things about Games Workshop miniatures, and if a miniature doesn’t include enough skulls for my tastes I will generally add a few more.

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Images copyright Jason Stieva www.shallowgravestudios.ca. These are the finished sculptures, like Dark Mechanicus servo-skulls

The miniatures that Larry takes issue with are the Khorgorath, Korghos Kul and Archaon, three models that collect skulls for Khorne’s particular seating requirements, and though it does seem like an unusual way of carrying skulls around (compared to say, on a chain or in a manbag) it is not really out of character for daemonic creatures of Chaos and is relatively unobtrusive on the miniatures in question. I’m not a huge fan of the recent Chaos aesthetic but I think this is generally down to the fact that the ‘Eavy Metal paint jobs are not to my taste. I certainly didn’t think there were too many skulls.

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Images copyright Brian Kabusco www.museumoddities.myshopify.com. The Hellraiser type device is an instrument used for measuring.

I am not entirely sure if Larry objects to skulls in general or specifically to the skulls bursting out of skin. He uses some examples of earlier models and says ‘Sure – skull motifs, but not literal skulls themselves’ as if to suggest that it would be better if Chaos warriors just spent time drawing skulls rather than hacking off heads. Blood for the Blood God, pictures of skulls for the Fridge of Khorne. I suppose the point he is making is that it’s cool if Chaos warriors and Chaos Astartes want to adorn themselves with skull iconography, but when they decorate their armour with actual skulls it is excessive. Again, I disagree – I generally dislike elaborate armour which seems like the sort of thing a Chaos poser would wear (I worshipped Slaanesh before it was cool) whereas crude armour festooned with the skull of victims seems like the sort of thing that would be worn by the sort of Chaos worshipper that actually got shit done. In short – more skulls, less posing.

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Images copyright Jason Stieva www.shallowgravestudios.ca. Suitable frames for a John Blanche illustration.

Games Workshop is sometimes mocked for its skull fetish, particularly when carefully excavating the topsoil from a Realm of Battle will reveal a substrata of skulls that would be entirely unsuitable for planting the sort of crops that a realistic Empire hamlet would need, and so forth. But to me the skulls in the ground are a statement and they say:  this is no Hobbit village or Ewok treehouse; this is a fucking nightmare battlefield and you are treading on dead without number. The wars here aren’t about magical jewellery or trade embargoes, they are about monsters that will collect your actual head that you are using and possibly ingest it for ease of transportation. Or worse, your skull will just be put in a pile and forgotten about until years later when someone is trying to plant cabbages.

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Images of Warhammer 40k by John Blanche. I count at least seven skulls but there may be more

For a lot of people the iconic 40k figure is the Space Marine but I’d make a case for the humble servo-skull. Space Marines take these little flying memento mori around with them, constant visual reminders that these giant, armour-clad, warrior gods too will die. The Imperium of Man in the 41st millennium is fixated with death: they venerate the dead and are obsessed with martyrdom. They worship a corpse and angels of death and they surround themselves with living-dead technology. Whether you are an Astartes or a nameless wretch, a pointless end is inevitable and the best you can hope for in your useless existence is that someone makes good use of your cranium when you are done with it.

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Miniatures by Julian Bayliss, Picta Mortis, Grag (Pontifex), Neil101 and Turska. Julian and Grag feature on this site, the others are linked in the footer.

A vanitas – the word ‘vanity’ originally meant ‘futility’ – is an artwork that depicts symbols evocative of mortality; often skulls, but also the somewhat harder to model dead flowers and fruit. The art was intended to remind people of the impermanence of life and pleasure and the inevitability of death. Servo skulls, and the other macabre adornments common in Warhammer can convert a miniature to a form of vanitas: It’s not just a Space Marine miniature or Inquisitor warband, it’s a commentary on the futility of life. The super-heroic Astartes is just another doomed mortal and we are reminded that all this war and heroism is for nothing. This is something unique to Games Workshop, it’s a fundamental part of the aesthetic – not so much doom and gloom as a macabre celebration of death.

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Skull by Neil101, Vanitas by Robert Kent taken in the Parisian catacombs, 18th Century Vanitas

Lately the aesthetic has shifted away slightly from the all the nihilism: Space Marines have become more heroic particularly in 30k, which is slightly more of a traditional sci-fi setting and Age of Sigmar hasn’t had time to develop its dark underbelly yet. The Stormcast in particular are in need of some reminding about the meaningless nature of their existence in a war that can never end.

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Images copyright Brian Kabusco www.museumoddities.myshopify.com. These are made from dental practice models

So contrary to what Larry says, I think we need more skulls in Warhammer: more reminders that everything is ultimately futile in these most grim and dark of fantasy universes. And if Chaos want to have skulls bursting out of their flesh, let’s not stop and complain about how that is ‘pushing a cliche into farce territory’ but rather let’s accept that skulls and the futility they represent is integral to Warhammer, even if that’s not an aspect you personally enjoy. And if there are too many skulls for you, maybe look at one of the factions that isn’t literally all about collecting skulls.

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Images copyright Christopher Conte www.microbotic.org. These cute servo skulls lighten the mood when the Inquisitor has had a bad day.

I would really love a Jason Stevia sculpture and I love the photos showing their construction in the Admech-style workshop. The Brian Kabusco sculpture entitled ‘Failed Lobotomy’ is also a favourite. All images used without permission and will be removed at request. Click to embiggen.


30 Comments on “Skulls for the Throne of Khorne: Are there too many skulls in Warhammer?

    • Thanks, the skull sculptures are pretty cool and there are many more images on the linked sites if you are into that sort of thing/looking for Christmas present ideas.

  1. What a fantastic article; it is good to actually have a meaningful discussion of the topic.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the incredible nihilism is 40k’s most unique and important attribute, overshadowing Space Marines and Boltguns. The oppressive meaningless of existence, extolled by the countless skulls, is in the settings blood. I believe that GW has been shifting away from this a bit in recent years, focusing more on generic science fiction, which is a shame. I hope GW can reconcile this soon (admittedly, the Adeptus Mechanicus models from this year were an excellent representation of the momento mori theme).

    I think it is important that such skulls be added with care and consideration however. Some of GW’s recent models, the chaos ones in particular, seem bloated and directionless, sometimes with needless detail tacked on wherever, simply to fill space. If the skulls are not to scale with the rest of the model, or not reasonable attached/placed, they can miss the point entirely, like the sculptor does not realize their symbolism in the wider scheme of 40k. You speak to that point when you mention the elaborate “poser” skull-infused armor. Thanks again for the thoughtful article!

    • “like the sculptor does not realize their symbolism in the wider scheme of 40k.” I feel this is the problem a lot of us who truly love the “Grim Dark” aesthetic are seeing more prevalent now. There are a few sculpts with what I would consider too many skulls, but this has more to do with their placement as if they were just used as filler. I don’t think they need to overshadow the Astartes by any means but compliment them, some of the most Iconic imagery we have of Astartes are those that feature them along side skulls. Without that sense of mortality we all too easily forget what the Astartes really symbolize, the futility of man. They are not human but beyond humanity, they are the monsters humanity depends on for survival in an uncaring universe, and those few amongst humanity that ever glimpse them only see them when death has truly come to claim them. As Bruticus said, the Imperium worships a corpse and idolizes literal Angels of Death. The imagery of 3rd edition showed this far more then the current artwork, and is what made me love 40k originally. We need more skulls with thought put into why they are there not just filler, we need the Astartes to be what they truly are and not just “the bread and butter of GW”. These are the two most fundamental images that come to my mind of 40k

      • Personally I think that the problem is the ‘Eavy Metal paintjobs. Don’t get me wrong, they do a good job, but if you are painting something like the Bloodsecrator (this is probably the most skull-tastic model I can think of) then the ultra-clean paint work looks ridiculous, as if the Bloodsecrator spends all his free time polishing his skulls and decorating his armour. The same applies to the skulls bursting out of flesh on the various models Larry mentioned – I think these would look really cool if painted to look like partially digested skulls rupturing through demonic flesh, but instead they are pristine. Clean Chaos looks terrible to me, I want gore and dirt and damage and other nice things.

        That said I removed the banner from my Bloodsecrator, I don’t mind the skulls but it is far too large. This is kinda what I mean about posing, how would you realistically use such a thing? Does he carry it between fights or do they have some sort of baggage donkey? Who cleans it? Who bleached all the skulls? And so forth.

        • I certainly agree with the paintjobs. While they are talented, I feel they often miss the point, particularly with Chaos. The pristine skulls are pretty ridiculous. With things like the Bloodsecrator, I think they would look a lot better if their banners and weapons were smaller, something that they could actually carry. GW has a tendency to make all of their weapons far too big, which I think is a mistake, because it draws attention away from the actual character themselves. I am interested in the individuals, their trials and triumphs, not their generic swords and axes. And I think this applies to things like the Bloodsecrator’s banner, the amount of skulls are fine, it is just too big.

    • I agree with the bloated and directionless comment – or actually I’d say it is a deliberate direction, but one that is so over the top as to be confusing and cluttered. I prefer models to look functional. I just don’t think the skulls are necessarily to blame, and actually I think a lot of the new Chaos models would look a lot better if they were just painted differently, with fewer bright colours, less shiny trim, more grime, etc. I am working on some Chaos now, hopefully I will be able to show what I am on about.

  2. Excellent article. You touch on a lot of themes I’ve been thinking of myself while plotting the narrative of my current project. The entirety of any of the hammerverses is steeped in death, and the sometimes useless fight to struggle against the inevitable end; and it does so gloriously, reveling not only in the fight itself, but the fetishism of everything it fights against.

    • It’s always useless to fight, that futility is what makes it so cool, even the new AoS stuff. The idea that you can beat gods that thrive on violence and death by fighting them is the great irony of Warhammer, the Emperor had the right idea – the only way to beat them is to ignore them to death. Sigmar is fighting a losing game.

  3. Nice article. I agree, the skulls are fine. They’re there in that number for a laugh. But the obsequious fan cares not for humour…

  4. As always very good article and you raised some interesting points.
    The “Vanitas” was indeed a fundamental part of warhammer fantasy/40k esthetic and the skull is one of its predominant symbol (Albrecht Durer works come to mind, and they largely inspired Mr. Blanche first warhammer sketches) but I believe that the point the article you cited was trying to make is that covering things in skulls as they seem to be doing recently is not necessarily the right way to celebrate the caducity of life. Many times a miniature achieve this goal with a cleverly half hidden reminder, maybe a small pile of bones on the base, or a skull nailed to a post in the backgroung… the protagonist of the scene (be it a space marine or a hopeless empire halberdier) does not even notice its presence, but we do, it is there for us spectators and it winks us like the Death in Arnold Bocklin’s self portrait. That’s a fundamental key point of the Vanitas in my opinion, the fact that the protagonist does not realise the doom that awaits him until it’s too late, but had he just look a bit closer he would have noticed that his faith was already written in the fabric of his life. In a miniature, much like in painting, we can create that sense of unawareness, that hidden horror that almost make us want to cry: “don’t look at me you idiot, it’s right behind you!”
    That is why I agree that actually choosing to cover a yourself in skulls to celebrate the Vanitas kind of defeats the whole point, and I personally don’t feel that current gw designers are really aware of why they put a skull on a model, it just became gw tradesmark so they have to… “If we do not put enough skulls on our chaos warrior, how would people know they are the evil guys?”
    Anyway I only speak out of personal preferences, and I also love to adorn my bases and sometimes my models with some nice reminders of the hopelessness of their strife… I just try to keep it a bit more sober than gw.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. I am not sure but I think that you might be giving the deep thinker Larry Vela too much credit there, I don’t think he used the (lovely) phrase ‘caducity of life’. But actually I disagree with your thinking about the vanitas imagery: the subtlety of death is not necessarily essential. Death should be a a constant companion to a Warhammer figure, not necessarily taking them unawares, but front and center – something celebrated rather than feared. My understanding of vanitas art and other memento mori is that they are intended to be a constant reminder, and my thinking is that Warhammer without the constant reminders of death is really just Star Wars or Tolkien. 30k doesn’t have so many of these reminders of mortality and I would argue that as a result it is a much more ordinary sci-fi setting where Space Marines can be thought of as heroic rather than nihilistic death fetishists.

      In terms of sobriety – yes I totally understand, but I do think that it isn’t necessarily the fault of the humble skull. Take the skulls bursting out of Archaon’s mount – these are painted like pristine skulls in a bin bag. WIth the right paint, they could be an horrific feature. And sometimes things are overdone like the Bloodsecrator’s banner – I don’t think it is the use of skulls that is a problem, more the fact that the object is far too large.

      Talking about this I just remembered the Stormcast Relictor’s banner, which is a great example of a memento mori and probably the best part of the new Stormcast range. More of that sort of thing would be good.

      • Mmmm… You do have a point about the ‘Eavy Metal team style of paint, skulls really are not horrific and kind of pointless painted in their clean and crisp style. I would love to see one of these models painted by you (and it is probably the best way to prove I was wrong;) and yes, the Relictor banner/totem/relic is a very good example of a baroque Memento Mori as I believe skulls fits stormcast esthetic more than Bloodwarriors one (I realise the paradox in that).
        About Mr.Vela’s article, I must admit I did not read it, I just assumed I knew the content after hearing the same complain echoed on the web so many times. I did go through it now, and even if I can’t fully agree with you on this matter I must say your article was a much better reading and it actually sparkled some rather interesting reflections!

  5. Morning Jake, Superb article.. You have hit the nail on the head regarding painting work.. obviously Eavymetal try and show all the detail in a miniature as to better sell the thing.. i dont mind that actually as i know i can paint the model how i see fit.. it leaves a space for me to use my imagination .. i dont really want gw to do all the work for me tbh.. but yes as for showcasing the underlying aesthetic it doesn’t do a good job,,, one of the reason the blanchitsu articles are so successful in my mind is because .. the painters are not trying to sell the models and are actually trying to showcase another deeper meaning to warhammer..

    i am in two minds regarding the current chaos aesthetic.. whilst i predominantly am a fan of forgeworld cultists.. gas masks and a wartorn look..

    there is something that speaks to me in the the hyper detailed oafishness over the top aspect of the sigmar cultists.. they remind me of John blanches cultists.. the ones you see in the older 40k images.. in the background or dead on the battlefield the chaos cultists always looked savage and otherworldly .. massive axes that can only be wielded by chaos god skull enthused maniacs .. fangs and claws and geiger morphing backpacks.. their is something fantastical about these models that is the opposite of forgeworld realistic cultists.. something that a skill full modeller can combine and elaborate on.. something that says your not in kansas anymore .. its why the

    but yes not too many for my liking .. if i want less i can always remove some.. but its better to start with more.. i actually wish gw would release a massive and cheap skull pack collection tbh..

    thanks for using my images btw .. that was a pleasant surprise. ;-)

    now back to making that 100.000 skulls pyramid…..

    • I’m working on Fantasy chaos at the moment and I’ll show my thoughts soon, but I think we are probably on the same page. I love outlandish fantasy concepts but I also like some elements that keep things grounded. Armour and weapons that make sense for example, the wear and tear of a real campaigning army.

      I don’t find the ‘Eavy Metal paint jobs very useful, most of the time they are off-putting and I reserve judgment about the models until I have seen them painted by someone else. I did like the paint on the exhalted deathbringer though, seemed more subdued than usual.

    • “now back to making that 100.000 skulls pyramid…..”

      Neil people are going to think you are kidding with comments like that!

  6. An excellent article and I totally agree with much of what has been said in the discussion.

    Personally speaking, I’m growing less and less interested in 40k. I mean I love what the setting was. The nihilism and sense of gradual decay, the grim, gothic imagery are things that I love. However I feel like GW is moving rapidly away from that and most of their recent products leave me cold. Space Marines are now shiny super soldiers with disappointing miniatures and the dystopian setting is mentioned only in passing as we see the super warriors fighting the even more shiny Tau yet again.

    Ironically, I now find that the Horus Heresy gives me what I used to enjoy about 40k. While it might feel like more traditional sci fi on the surface, I’m drawn to the idea of the heresy as a classic tragedy. The almost godlike Astartes which were meant to save mankind become the greatest threat to its existence as a promised golden age turns to crap before it’s had chance to begin. FW’s books are clearly labours of love and things of beauty, whereas GW’s most recent effort look like costs have been cut and the quality of art and writing has declined enormously.

    The Inq28 community has done a fantastic job of keeping the grimdark alive, as has Blanchitsu. However I want a living hobby with active support, not just a nostalgic attempt to hark back to better times.

    • Forgeworld has the advantage of being such a boutique product, there is no excess fat or embarrassing older sculpts, it’s all killer and I hope it stays that way. But the Heresy only appeals to me as a prequel story to the 40k sandbox that I love. Heresy-era is too limiting, really you get a choice of what colour you want your Space Marines to be and that’s about it. I’ve read the Black Library books and mostly enjoyed them, and there are a few ideas in there that would be cool to explore further, like some of the more unusual Imperial Army regiments. But for the most part I’d rather have the freedom of 40k, even if the version of 40k we see in White Dwarf doesn’t match the version in our heads, it has ever been thus and I’ve never found it hard to ignore some aspects while concentrating more on others – usually the bloodier, more horrific aspects.

      I’ve never bought into 40k though really – books or armies I mean, not since 2nd edition, and I mainly buy FW models. Most 40k armies either don’t interest me (Tau) or are seriously dated looking (Chaos). But I’ve enjoyed the Age of Sigmar books so far, they are nicely presented and the art is of a good standard. The limited edition Archaon book looks beautiful.

      I don’t find this approach to Warhammer nostalgic, particularly with Age of Sigmar which seems very new and exciting.

      • You make very good points. In fact you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. I’m finding myself in the hobby doldrums precisely because the official version and the minis don’t match up to how good I think they could be. While I agree that 40k is potentially far more interesting than 30k, I find in practice it isn’t. It comes down to the dread of having made a beautiful 40k army and then having to put them on a table against some Tau ;)

        Going back to the skulls thing, that feeling of mortality and the fragility of existence is what appeals to me in the various Warhammers. The Imperium of 40k is a stunning creation of dark, gothic, sci-fi and the abundance of skull motifs are an essential part of that. Sadly, it often feels like GW concentrate on the least interesting aspects of it – Inquisitor and Necromunda were far more interesting games than 40k, I think because they looked inwards at the Imperium and not outwards at space marines vs Tau or Cadians vs orks.

        Age of Sigmar has yet to capture my imagination. The setting has enormous potential. It reminds me in some ways of the old D&D Planescape setting and the minis have an interesting aesthetic. Personally though, I’d want to stick skulls, checks and gothic, cod-Latin text all over the Stormcast Eternals.

        While reading your reply it occurred to me that the thing which would interest me more than anything, would be if FW started to explore the Age of Apostacy. I could have all the skulls, ecclesiarchs and gothic loveliness I wanted then. Perhaps in another ten years or so, when people have had their fill of the Horus Heresy?

        In the meantime, I could of course explore it on my own. However fear and trepidation of being a lone voice in the wilderness stops me. I need a community of people doing the same things to keep me motivated. Anyway, I feel like I’ve derailed the discussion long enough. Skulls are great. Let’s have more.

        • Bruticus and Monkey – The thing I like about the Tau is they are a force of optimism, hope and potential for a better future. But with some subtle hints that its all for nought and they are being tarnished by an unforgiving galaxy…like the Vespid mind control helms. The Tau expansion has always felt like a satirical take on the Great Crusade…..Commander Farsight (being Horus’ equivalent). Of course I am not up to date on the current Tau background (In future Tau releases I’d like to see more subjugated alien species).

          • I mainly just like things based on their relationship with Chaos, which is the main villain of the story. Tau, Tyranids, Orks – they might get a mildly diverting subplot, but if there is no Chaos I’m not really interested!

            Plus the models just aren’t to my taste, even if they are good. A bit Star Wars-y.

            I didn’t know that about Farsight and Horus though, sounds interesting.

          • Perhaps a big part of my lack of love for the Tau is that they didn’t exist yet when I left the hobby in my youth. Now I come back and there they are, all shiny and a little bit anime and looking to me like they’ve got lost and wandered in from a different sci fi setting entirely.

  7. I can only agree with all the other guys: An excellent read and some great inspiration to boot! I wanted to add something to the discussion, but everyone has raised such excellent point that I feel stupid and small now… ;)

    Anyway, one thing I wanted to point out is that even the “unrealism” of having strata upon strata buried in the soil always seemed like a pretty cool metaphor to me, because even if you were to plant a crop there, what kind of dark and twisted fruit could you possibly hope to grow? It seems like a strong, if somewhat clichéd, statement: Death is so prevalent in this world that it permeates everything, and in turn, everything growing will always be tainted by death. In that, even the skulls in the ground serve as a vanitas motif.

    Regarding the more general issue at hand, I heartily agree with you that there cannot be enough skulls. Ever. There can, however, be placement of them that is a bit more thoughtful: The skulls jammed into the eye sockets on larger skull motifs on Skarbrand’s armour come to mind: That seemed a bit too playful and silly for a daemon who is constantly burning with rage. And I also dislike the skulls emerging from Dorghar’s flesh (although you may have a point about the option of making them look much cooler with a different paintjob).

    Maybe the one danger at play here is for the designers to lose sight of the importance of skulls as a metaphor of something deeper and just keep piling them onto the models because, you know, skulls are TOTALLY THE AESOMEZT THNG EVA, MAN ;)

    • I think elaborate skull motifs on armour falls into the category of poser – although in the case of a Bloodthirster I might let it slide, they would have daemonically forged wargear suitable to their status and possibly immune to regular wear and tear. I think the right paintjob would help, too much edge highlighting and trim on the studio versions for my tastes.

      I have seen people complain that the skulls in the realm of battle are unrealistic, hence my crop comment. The same people that moan that Fyreslayers wouldn’t be able to have thatched cottages if their hair was always on fire, and things like that. Tedious people with no imagination basically.

      I am not sure skulls need to be a metaphor or have deep meaning, just so long as death is always present. Skulls and death are an essential part of Warhammer, like puppets and retro haircuts are to Star Wars.

    • In the Warhammer World, I always thought the skulls in the ground and entire terrain features of skulls was due to the Winds of Chaos. The way the winds had been described is they blow down from the northern wastes, percolate, and eventually ‘ground’ in the soil and rocks. (One reason why Dwarfs are naturally resilient towards magic?) As the last expenditure of magical potential, the winds either overtly or subtly influence the natural erosion of stone to take the shape of a skull.

      • Makes sense, I like the idea that even the wind knows there aren’t enough skulls.

  8. A good read Jake. As was the discussion below.

    However, I can see Khorne warriors bleaching, etching, marking skulls in blood and generally decorating them etc to make them worthier offerings to Khorne. Because the skull is a holy icon of their god and a visual representation of their faith. Of course Khorne does not notice or care since a version of a dedicated skulls has already manifested at the base of his skull throne.

    I just wanted to add that I think GW in recent years have produced some brilliant skulls. The Dark Eldar trophies and Chaos Lord Zhufor being my favourites.

    • It’s the cleanliness I don’t like, I’m not sure these skulls would all be so pristine. It makes more sense for tomb kings, where the bones have been picked clean by insects and bleached by the sun, but it seems a bit fastidious for berserkers. But generally speaking I like grime and dirt on my models.

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