The Ethereals (or Aun in Tau) are the leaders of Tau society and the existential space popes of WH40K (Ministorum Priest not counting). They are infamous for their supposed 'mind control' powers and their ability to inspire Cadres to fight with the religious tenacity of the Imperial Guard whenever they personally take to the field.
When we call Tau the blue space commies, Ethereals are the ones who are "more equal than others", as that old satire goes. Every single Tau loves these guys, seeing them as embodying all of the Tau species good traits and avoiding all the bad ones. Normal Tau are, despite being (almost) immune to Khorne, no less prone to being a bunch of spiteful violent fucks when left to their own devices for a few decades. Ethereals never have this problem, always in control of themselves and moving with a grace that just says "I'm in control of the rest of this shit too. Just chill out, space dad is here."
As old writers have left and new ones have been brought on the Ethereals have also undergone a large shift through the editions of the game. In the earlier editions they were mostly benevolent and were only hinted to using dubious methods to control the other races that have joined the Tau (but you had to dig a little for it) so that they could further the Greater Good. Now however they're outright evil monsters who've built Tau society and the entire concept of the Greater Good on lies.
Their arrival started the unification process between the various Tau tribes and coincided with the implementation of the concept of the Greater Good. They first appeared during a siege between the Tau of the plains (later known as the Fire Caste) and the Tau of the city of Fio'taun (later known as the Earth Caste). The Ethereals brought the two sides together to negotiate and convinced them to follow the Greater Good. Their power over the Tau is such that an Ethereal could tell a Tau to die and that Tau would do so quickly and gladly. The Adeptus Mechanicus would give much to learn the secret of the Ethereal's power. There is strong implication from the similarities between an organ possessed uniquely among Tau by the Ethereals, and an organ which Q'Orl use in pheromonal communication that this ability may be due to deliberate engineering in the Ethereals' past, this would also explain the abnormally short lifespans of the other tau castes, who are very similar to the Q'orl warriors, short lived, devoted to their cause, and able to be inspired by the mere presence of their crystal organ having superiors, the ethereals in the case of the Tau, and the queens in the case of the Q'orl, both of whom live far longer than their subordinates.
The Ethereal sometimes lead the fire caste into battle to provide inspirational leadership, so the warriors can achieve more. However if the Ethereal falls in combat, the remaining Tau are sometimes struck with grief (it really depends on if the writer remembers or not) that causes them to lose battles, however after a time (usually weeks) they get extremely enraged and charge forward, either way after a Ethereal falls the Fire Warriors lose all discipline and efficiency, which can be detrimental to any conflict if an enemy commander can exploit it.
Though the obedience of the Tau to Ethereals is natural, the other races on the other hand have long been speculated to be some sort of covert mind control. There are a lot of theories from the prenatal indoctrination or pheromonal compulsion to the presence of some veiled psychic gift possessed by the Ethereals, but as yet no confirmed proof of any such power has been secured. Those few Ethereals that has been captured and subjected to interrogation have proven less than forthcoming. Additionally, given that Farsight and his enclave managed to break away from Ethereal control; it is highly probable that total obedience to the Ethereals are indeed cultivated through artificial methods. Then again in Farsight: Crisis of Faith the Tau don't seem to be controlled by the Ethereals at all (their loyalty coming purely from idolizing them), with Farsight even arguing and yelling directly in the faces of three of them (something impossible to do in older lore) so who knows what the fuck's going on.
On their foreheads resides a small organ, smaller than the ones the other castes have. Imperial studies on the organ show no biological function, but it's suspected that the ethereal studied is a dud, or that the way the Ethereal control the Tau is more esoteric in nature.
As the leaders of the Tau, the Ethereals are enigmatic and studious, yet unfaltering in their authority and their drive to further the Greater Good. They are mystics and philosophers, possessed of knowledge and wisdom not shared by their more practical subjects. As such they had some part to play in the Tau rapid development, and to this day guide their species in its dynamic expansion, or the castes revert to the savagery that once threatened to destroy them.
Killing an Ethereal
This being 40K, there is no small amount of writing on what happens when an Ethereal gets blown the fuck up on the field of battle. Without fail this sends the rest of the Tau soldiers into a brief panic attack and state of intense grief. The enemy forces at this point have a great opportunity to capitalize; if they move quickly enough they can butcher and rout the rest of the Tau in short order. If they aren't quick enough, however, the Tau will replace "panic attack" with "just fucking attack" and set all their guns to full auto, and unload bullet after bullet into the enemy who closed the distance right into maximum rape range thinking they had an easy victory. Sometimes in especially shitty writing the death of an Ethereal has no immediate or detrimental effect, such as in the Taros Campaign and Mont'ka, where two Ethereals die but nobody cares about the first and the second is immediately covered up by a government conspiracy (no the Tau who knew don't seem bothered either). Given that the second Ethereal was Aun'Va, the most revered of Ethereals, you'd figure they'd be a bit more bothered, and instead of replacing him with a living Ethereal they've chosen to keep him around as a hologram in a chair for about 200 years or so, because apparently that makes more sense.
The crunch has gone through a few different phases of representing this. In the past, a dead Ethereal would mean all remaining Tau forces gain Preferred Enemy, but also have to take a leadership test and thus risk running off the board. This wasn't really fun, since the Ethereals were pretty damn shit in those days anyway, and your options were either find a way to get the Ethereal killed right at the start (when you're more able to regroup a fleeing squad) or just take a Shas'O instead you idiot. Starting in 6th edition they changed things around to be less fluffy but also less shit: now, the Ethereal himself gives buffs to his army, but give the Tau's opponent scores a bonus victory point if they manage to kill the Ethereal.
And now, the times have changed again. Model options remain mostly the same as 6th edition: Ethereals are HQ choices which you can theoretically take as your warlord, they can have a hover drone, and they can switch out their S5 toothpick for S3 power butterknives which increase your attack characteristic by one. Though their WS is a nice 3+, they have a 5+ save, 4 wounds, and only T3.
Ethereals have neat abilities that make them at least worth taking on occassion: a 6" aura for allowing units to use his leadership when rolling Morale tests, and and aura buff affect, of which you can choose one per ethereal per phase, until the next battleround. Two of them are utter garbage, which involve -1 for morale test results and reroll advances, which work better on Breachers than anything else.
The juicy ones are the abilities that give reroll 1's to stationary units in the shooting phase, and the other that grants a 6+ FNP to all Battlesuits and Infantry nearby. Kroot and Vespid will never benefit from either, but the latter gives your Riptide a chance to shrug off the mortal wound from the Nova Reactor, adds extra bubblewrap to your Broadsides, makes your troops that much slightly harder to kill, and adds a safeguard bonus to the ethereal if he takes a wound. The former allows your markerlight chain to have insurance in case of a miss, and is especially useful on a Cadre Fireblade or Firesight marksmen. It is redundant after the markerlights go off, but its there if you need it.
All in all they are fairly ok, but the named character ethereals are generally better choices.
|Forces of the Tau|
|Command:||Cadre Fireblade - Ethereal - Ethereal Guard - Tau Commander|
|Troops:||Drone Squadron - Fire Warrior Team - Pathfinder Team - Stealthsuit Team|
|Auxiliaries:||Gue'vesa - Kroot (Great Knarloc - Kroot Carnivore Squad - Kroot Hound |
Krootox - Lesser Knarloc - Shaper) - Nicassar - Vespid Stingwing
|Battlesuits:||Battlesuits (XV02 Pilot Battlesuit - XV15 Stealthsuit - XV22 Command Suit |
XV25 Stealthsuit - XV46 Vanguard Void Suit - XV-8 Crisis Battlesuit
XV88 Broadside Battlesuit - XV9 Hazard Battlesuit - XV95 Ghostkeel Battlesuit
XV104 Riptide Battlesuit - XV107 R'varna Battlesuit - XV109 Y'Vahra Battlesuit
KV128 Stormsurge Ballistic Suit - KX139 Ta'Unar Supremacy Armour)
|Vehicles:||Devilfish - Hammerhead - Hover Chair - Piranha - Sky Ray - Tetra - Swordfish|
|Flyers:||Barracuda - Razorshark - Remora - Sun Shark - Tiger Shark|
|Kor'Vattra:||Manta - Orca - Automated Fighting Drone |
Automated Barge Drone - Automated Bombing Drone