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Necromancy is a time-honored profession that goes back thousands of years. A necromancer is prized because of the gifts they can bestow to wealthy individuals, specifically the noble class. When someone of noble rank dies, their soul can be transferred to an artificially created body specially constructed for them. These bodies are built with special materials and possess a neccessarily large container inside of it that houses the soul.

Naturally, this process is expensive and must be paid for beforehand, making the only ones who can afford it to be of royalty. After the process is done, the person's soul remains attached to the body, needing no sustenance or repair. However, they are seen as wizend elders and are unable to take the throne or high positions of authority. These are held by "living" members.

Now, these ranks of immortals are made up of people who are accustomed to power. They made their families or houses great and influencial, surviving years of backstabbing, machinations, etc. As such, they have decades of experience and knowledge. These people are unlikely to just give up power with a second chance in life, leaving the running of their kingdoms to younger living people.

How could societies with these kinds of immortals not be ruled by them when they are the most qualified?

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    $\begingroup$ I am kind of reminded of Harry Potter and the Black Family Portrait gallery here. Black Immortal Ancestors (=portraits) don't rule the family because they hang on a wall, but still create a lot of trouble for current generations (=Walburga Black). $\endgroup$ – subrunner Oct 17 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ "These bodies are built with special materials and possess a neccessarily large container inside of it that houses the soul" - how large is "necessarily large"? Do these immortals have the same shape, size, and mass as a regular human? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Oct 17 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ Altered Carbon in magic settings? $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Oct 17 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Schlock has something to say on the matter $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 17 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ Those immortals, given time, even it is expensive to become one, will pile up a lot (see acient Egypt). Is there a plan to deal with the overpopulation? $\endgroup$ – fraxinus Oct 18 at 14:12

16 Answers 16

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Any societal or religious taboo will eventually be overturned by the experienced machinations of the eldest undead, so the only way I see this working is if there is something in the magic itself that prevents it.

Some possibilities:

  1. The soul of the reanimated is not a complete soul; it is more like an imperfect "imprint" of the original person's personality and knowledge. Basically, it is a walking, talking "book" representing everything the deceased knew or believed at the time of death. Although it can give advice to others based on its experience during life, it cannot adapt creatively to new situations and will be unable to really take charge.
  2. The undead are physically unable to communicate with most of the living through speech, gestures or writing. The only living person who can understand them is the current king. So while they can advise the leader, they have no effective means of organizing a coup against them.
  3. Some other magic empowers the ruler, and the undead are unable to use this magic. Perhaps the ruler is a "Fisher King" and the land's prosperity reflects the ruler's nature - if a dead person takes the throne, the crops will wither and the land will die. Or maybe it's a magocracy and the undead cannot use magic, or the king must communicate with the gods and the dead cannot do this.
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  • $\begingroup$ Option 1 could make for an interesting story when one of them is too stubborn to accept that they can't lead, and has enough knowledge about how to take power that they manage it despite their weaknesses... $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Oct 18 at 13:55
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"Tom Bombadil"

In sum: Immortality made them lose interest.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Hobbits encountered Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, likely an equal to Sauron. He could see Frodo while wearing the ring, put the ring on and did not turn invisible, and he was not tempted to keep it.

Because he lived on a higher plane of existence, the petty struggles for power had no grip on him.

Your machine-soul links create a state of being that opens doors to interests far beyond that of mortals. Mortals seek legacy and dynasty because of their very mortality. By giving them immortality, they no longer care for rule and power because they will live eternally anyway. Their interests are more in knowledge, theory, and things that challenge them, like making stars go supernova and such.

So, you see, they won't fight for the throne because they're just not interested.

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    $\begingroup$ In a similar vein, see subliming in Iain M. Banks culture series: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sublimed "What little evidence of the Sublime realm exists in the mundane realm suggests that it is so wonderful that people going there simply lose interest in the mundane realm, no matter how involved they were in it prior to sublimation, or what promises they gave to come back and say what they saw." $\endgroup$ – llama Oct 17 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ There is an excellent theory that Tom Bombadil isn't disinterested, he's just waiting to escape. $\endgroup$ – Tom Anderson Oct 18 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ Love your answer, there are some things that you imply but don't state explicitly that might improve it. 1. Ruling people isn't really fulfilling or enjoyable, while they did it once (in order to get rich etc.), that's not how they want to spend their time. 2. They would need a succession strategy to transfer the kingdom to someone else so that they could go and do other stuff that's more enjoyable. 3. Coping with immortality is hard, they really need to focus on it, see Wowbagger from HHGTTG. $\endgroup$ – Mathaddict Oct 18 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ The biggest problem with being immortal has got to be boredom. But having esponsibility means dealing with a ton of annoying little problems that require authority to resolve. What could possibly be more boring than literally spending eternity listening to disputes between farmers over escaped cows? $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Oct 18 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "...because of their very mortality" $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Oct 21 at 15:51
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Each of these souls has died before being transferred. That means that each of them has gotten a glimpse of what lies on the other side before they were brought back. None of them are ever quite the same after that.

What they've seen and learned may have been enough to convince them that these worldly struggles over power are largely meaningless. What their aims are after coming back may be something that no living person can understand until they too have seen what comes after death. Therein lies true wisdom.

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You can do it the same way we prevent permanent rulers in the real world: term limits.

Positions of nobility, even kingships, are not permanent. Instead of waiting until death to pass your title to your heirs, you must also pass it on once you've held that position for (let's say) 40 years. Plenty of time to raise the next generation and train them to take your place.

What prevents them from ignoring this rule? The populace. Ages ago, there was a king who lost his mind. The people suffered through 20 years of being ruled by a man who would spend days conversing with his bedside table but was otherwise incredibly healthy. The kingdom barely held itself together. At another point in history, an king died under mysterious circumstances and was succeeded by his 19-year old son. The son could only be described as evil, and he ran the kingdom into the ground in order to build up his own wealth. The people were subjected to poverty, crime, and forced labor for nearly two generations. Eventually, the people got tired of getting stuck with terrible rulers for a long period of time and in a Magna Carta-like effort, implemented a system of term limits. All heritable positions of royalty and nobility come with an expiration date. Throughout history, everyone that has tried to maintain power beyond their term has been swiftly and forcefully deposed by a united front of peasants, soldiers, other nobles, and the heir who should now be holding that title. No matter how well-liked you may be, the people have been burned too many times to take that risk again. Your necro-bot bodies may not need maintenance, but they're definitely not invincible. If anything, they're likely more vulnerable to attack since they lack the human body's self-repair capabilities.

Side note: you call these revived nobles the "most qualified" to rule. Being an aristocrat doesn't mean that you're even remotely qualified to lead anything. All it means is that you were born/married into the right family, or that you happened to make the right friends. History is full of aristocrats who couldn't even lead a parade successfully, yet lived as if they were the most talented leader around. A necro-bot who grew too big for his britches would be easy for the living to depose. After all, it's not murder if they're already dead.

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Keep them in a box

Each family head has a special room where the 'bodies' of previous family heads are kept. These bodies are immobile and only the leader of the family has access to the room. He/she goes there to consult with past leaders for advice on how best to lead the family. Removing one of the ancestors from this room is anathema, mainly because of a sad incident in the past where one of these immortal spirits, sadly quite insane, ruled his house for generations and caused much chaos.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aka ancestral shrine. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Oct 18 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ I was expecting a screenshot from futurama, now I'm disappointed :( $\endgroup$ – Fels Oct 21 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Fels I was actually thinking of John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire. $\endgroup$ – Adam Miller Oct 21 at 15:36
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The new body does not have adrenal glands or testosterone or other hormones. They no longer get the same hit of feel-good hormones when they have successes, or feel-bad hormones when they fail. With the loss of these things they lose the same drive they had before to be the ultimate winner. In other words, they are a shadow of their former selves, although they may not realise it.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good idea to realistically explain the "seeing the afterlife changed them" type of answers. Enjoy the +1 $\endgroup$ – 3C273 Oct 18 at 12:03
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so what do they gonna do? rebel on their own family and bring ruin to the kingdom by making civil war? sue them?

beside they are immortal now why become king and burden yourself for eternity, if you can ascend into godhood or worshipped as real life founder and proof of the kingdom glory, even if they just lazily around? they still can give advise to their descendant and they still will be the head of the family the king will be just puppet or name only to not scare the populace or fear of eternal dictatorial regime.

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    $\begingroup$ The extensive history of civil wars, rebellions, coups, etc. where there is extensive fighting within the ruling family for control says yes, yes they will fight a civil war and bring ruin to their nation for the chance to be the one with the most power. And why would they want to merely advise while a "lesser" being rules? $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Oct 17 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi maybe because the populace wont support them or even burn them in a stake because they are undead people and people fear something different or thing they not understand after all, and beside as OP say "They made their families or houses great and influencial" why now they goes against their family? i assume backstabbing and all political intrigue is against rival family not their own, and as i say why choose to be king with all the responsibility and risk, if you can become Holy God Emperor of Man behind the scene you still rule the puppet king. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Oct 17 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Both because of narcissism/ego and because they had "made their families great" - clearly some would believe that the best future for everyone is one in which they are the undisputed ruler. If only they had more power they could "fix" everything. This is bad enough in reality but with an immortal the comparatively short-term cost of a war to put themselves on the throne is a negligible cost compared to millennia of their enlightened rule. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Oct 18 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi as i say why choose to become lesser ruler if you can aim to be God Emperor of Man, and people that do what you describe clearly dont know machiavelli. and you cant rule without any support especially if your entire life family is against you and hardly i cant see life populace will support him either, it best to be ruler behind the scene and turn the life family into the puppet rule if he goes against you you can dispatch him and point another one at least some of your life family member will support this and the populace wont mind either since they dont know the truth. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Oct 19 at 0:44
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Legally Dead

The first and obvious answer is that they were, at one point, dead. Even if their return is a known thing, they died and anything tied to their living form has registered that.

The first noble/monarch to do this to themselves did not arrange for a change in the laws to maintain their power after death, either through accidental or intentional action. The living heir, now ruler, does not want to give up the power to their unliving parent and so they do not arrange for the laws to be changed for them.

Fast forward through the generations, and now it is an ingrained custom for the deceased noble to step aside allow their living heirs to take their place. They still enjoy relative prestige and influence by being a entity of great experience without the responsibility of actually running the show, while also allowing them to pursue whatever ignites their interests.

This assumes, that they were/are good sources of wisdom.

But that's a bit boring, and assumes that it is all benevolent. They are undead aristocrats and businessmen … I doubt "benevolent" is in their vocabulary. This leads to the follow-ups …

Game Behind the Thrones

Of course there are people(?) that want to rule after their death and subsequent rebirth. Unless this is one world-spanning kingdom, it is likely that there are various degrees of success throughout this world and likewise many ways that it was prevented from happening.

An advisor of much influence can rule without ruling by the expedient measure of being the single most trusted advisor to the ruling line. But once you get enough of them around, it is plausible that they will turn their ambitions on each other and attempt to deal with their own cohort so that they are the one true advisor to the leaders. The cunning survive and thrive, while less apt suffer for their failures.

Basically, they play a deadly game behind the scenes that lays mostly out of public view. On occasion their experiences are tapped for advice.

Basically, an Undead version of Game of Thrones only with the R-rated stuff converted to more verbal warfare.

Ambitions of the Ghost Council

A second scenario is that they do rule, just not on paper. A shadow cabal of immortal undead keep a watch on the world, nudging events in the directions that they want through advising the leaders of the world.

However, this shadow council also has a secondary function of watching over their own to ensure that the political balance of the world is maintained. They are the ones to keep the rogue elements of their cohort neutralized through their own machinations.

This situation could arise both based on groups of any motivation, and even have multiple cabals with conflicting goals that have entire shadow wars, or manipulate events into real wars. A layer of politics under the politics that might make for an interesting intrigue setting.

In short, they are too busy allying with and scheming against each other to really achieve global rule like they used to when they were alive.

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How about this scenario:

At one time, they did take the throne, but some time after people rebelled and managed to dethrone these ghosts. The inner circle of this ghost ruler was condemned to a fate worse than death (complete erasure, sent to a prison dimension, whatever you feel like basically) and now there's an agreement between the ghosts and the living for it to never happen again.

The ghosts are free to advise and participate, but they can never hold a position of power. Maybe only because they don't want to risk the fate worse than death, or maybe there's actually a new component to the "resurrection" spell that prevents them from doing it.

I would imagine this would give a sort of chamber of ghosts that can advise the ruler with their wisdom. It could be quite cool!

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Although they have become immortals, the transfer of the soul to a new body leads to a weakness that does not allow them to operate as normal human being.

The weakness leads to rapid energy loss physically but also huge mental strain only when one deals with, is involved in political matters. One can be incapacitated for days. Any other activities does not lead to it. Although many studies have been done, no one has ever managed to explain why it happens to them. Thus, they are not interested in participating in political matters, preferring to concentrate on other aspects of life.

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Maybe they don't because the one who bound them to the body can unbind them? Considering the wizards who can do this necro craft are also immortal?

Otherwise the normal folk aren't going to put up with the egos of these shell people for long and the guards won't guard the dead? I could see this as being in one era the person's skills, methods and tactics were useful but has the years have moved forward their tactics, skills, and methods are too obscene or costing for the "modern" time.

A third scenario would be these former rules realized they aren't the end all be all in the power game. Especially if rulership is constricting and some of them probably have PTSD from their past rulerships. They realize there are ones above the ruler or who have more flexibility to change things w/o blood all the time like councils, ruler advisors, ect. They could even just play kingdoms off of one another and make bets on who wins and looses.

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Give them some sort of critical weakness that would prevent them from performing the daily tasks of ruling a kingdom.

A good classical example would be if they were like vampires, in that they can't stand being exposed to daylight. Whether it kills them or not is up to you. Maybe it just hurts their eyes so much they have to stay in the dark. Or they turn to stone during the day like trolls, and only come back to life at night. They could of course blacken all the windows in the palace, but maybe it's based on time of day instead of just light, so even in a sealed dark room they'd be out of commission during the daytime. The kingdom can't just come to a halt because its rulers are nocturnal. You need someone around to run things during the day and they just couldn't do it.

Another possibility would be if they just need to sleep a lot and only wake up for a few hours once a week. You just need them to be unavailable for a large enough percentage of the time that effectively ruling a kingdom would be impossible.

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Messy Business, Succession

The main reason your society would not want immortal undead in ruling roles is because it is already a nightmare to determine who is next in line when someone dies. Adding more people to mix, whether they are living or dead, is going to make that process even more difficult and increase the chances for coups, rebellions, and civil wars.

As a simple example, imagine a King who has two sons. Both want to be king but only one of them gets the crown when dear old dad dies. Normally if one of the brother's died the survivor would be automatically nominated. But with necromancy you can run into the situation where one brother dies and is brought back, and now you have the same situation with even worse long term prospects.

Say the king dies after passing the crown to the living brother. A few years go by and the new king has a child who is the heir apparent. Except that the undead brother is still kicking around, and could still technically have a claim on the crown if his brother and heir both died. If he were alive and that happened it wouldn't be unreasonable for the crown to pass his way as the eldest surviving member of the royal line. But does that still count now that he is dead?

Now imagine a couple more generations of undead aunts and uncles and seven-times-great-grandfathers floating around behind the scenes. As soon as there is an opening in the rulership every single one of them could make a claim to the throne. The court genealogists would go mad tracing out that family tree and figuring out who has the best claim. How do you choose between your dead uncle twice removed, and your grandfather who is so great he speaks a dialect nobody understands?

Even worse, imagine putting an undead on the throne and them ruling for a century. Then the undead king gets assassinated or destroyed or just ups and leaves. Who do you pass the crown to now? Unless your world is way darker than I am thinking, the re-dead king doesn't have a direct heir, so we are back to square one and the genealogists are seriously debating offing themselves and making it the next guy's problem.

Puppets and Puppeteers

There is also the (possibly legitimate) question of how much power a necromancer has over someone they have raised. Even if they don't have direct power they probably know ways to put down a zombie. Having someone too important to get rid of but who also has the power to kill your king with impunity is a situation that no nobility would want to find themselves. The two options at that point are to accept that money can't save you from death, or that once you die you aren't allowed to rule even if you can come back from the abyss.

I am not terribly familiar with nobles, but I could hazard a guess at which of those two options they would prefer.

There is also the added benefit that you don't actually need to wear a crown to influence policy. History is rife with advisor and councilors and sycophants all trying to push their own agenda and using the current ruler to do so. The fact that after you die you only get to play court games and not actually deal with all of the day-to-day responsibilities of being a king is probably a bonus for at least some of the nobles who can afford resurrection.

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Lack of succession would thwart the nobles ambitions.

Kings are kings only because enough of their subjects consent to be governed. That does not rely only in the king being liked but also in stability; if any time someone did not like a king he would be allowed to rebel then the country would bleed itself in civil wars; as long as the stability brought by supporting the king outweights the burden of tolerating his rule the nobles will defend him against other claimants.

But that does not mean that the nobles do not have ambitions to have a king more favourable to them: someone who is less controlling on the nobles, or someone who has a priority in helping the noble's fight against his neighbours, or someone of the noble family.

Of course, the best moment in which the nobles can try to get advantage of is during succesion, when loyalty binds have not yet been established and you can support this or that candidate against a much less organized position1. Even while the king is alive this game can be played, with the nobles getting ready to make use of the next succesion crisis by forging alliances, courting prospective heirs, establishing family ties, improving their forces...

Of course everybody knows that once an undead is at the throne there will be no more successions, and so they would lose that opportunity to increase they power2. For that reason, each time there is a risk that an undead would take the throne, they unite in refusing it and make it clear that they would not acknowledge him and would fight him.


1In fact in many kingdoms the next king would be elected by the nobles, and in many others it would not be elected but it would need the nobles to formally acknowledge him as king.

2It would also threaten their current power as the undead king could also use the nobles'own succesion crisis to gradually diminish their power.

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Tradition dictates the following:

  • "family" means blood ties
  • the head of a family must be able to have heirs

An immortal severs blood ties by choosing a new body. They have "honorary family member" status.

Now, any number of points could be made as to why exceptions could be made:

  • heirs have already been produced prior to immortalization
  • the new body has a supply of preserved sperm
  • the new body is organic and cloned
  • tradition tends to be stupid, anyway

... but YOU try to argue against customs with centuries of momentum, centuries during which every proponent of change had been grossly outnumbered by supporters of all the other successors who were not all that keen on agreeing to have their turn only after eternity ran out.

Of no help to that cause is a circulated anecdote of a family who DID allow immortals to rule due to one of those excuses (and, more to the point, their inability to oppose their ruler's ascension), and got briefly hijacked by a rival incarnated into the ruler's body (a very costly and otherwise pointless process)

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Divine Right doesn’t work that way

The right to claim oneself as ruler of a realm flows directly from the God(s). Divine Right has been the rule for generations. However, sometimes a noble chooses to break their relationship with the Divine. Once a person has broken that link between mortal and the Divine, once someone has severed their relationship with the Higher Powers and rejected the path to the afterworld, how can that person still claim the Divine Right to rule? Of course the God(s) would not bestow the gift of Divine Right upon someone who had rejected the mortal’s end of that bargain. It doesn’t work.

What people would follow a ruler who had so blatantly turned their back on the God(s)? Catastrophe is sure to follow.

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protected by Monty Wild Oct 21 at 5:42

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