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For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.
—The Bible, Ephesians 6:12
These unnamed, unseen forces are pulling the strings. They can be good, evil, or ambiguous.
This trope can be thought of as a character similar to the Big Bad. This entry refers to the thing that is represented by a character, rather than the character itself. Not all Big Bads are mysterious enough to be Powers That Be, and not all Powers That Be are threatening enough to be Big Bads.
One variety of the Powers That Be is the Ancient Conspiracy, another is The Omniscient Council of Vagueness. Another one is God himself. If the powers are warring with each other, it could be Heaven and Hell. Contrast Pals with Jesus, where the relationship is entirely personal and personable. See also Physical God.
Anime & Manga
- Morganna the AI from .hack//Sign was only depicted as a voice from the sky that can smite the main character and sends out monsters. In fact, it never even states her name in this particular Anime series.
- The Data Overmind in Suzumiya Haruhi is the actual power behind the humanoid interfaces (Who are basically just mouthpieces, or better, agents). The Overmind is mainly neutral, wishing only to observe. There is however, another such entity called the "Sky Canopy Domain" which is more hostile. Also, there's the Agency that Itsuki belongs to and the whoever runs the time travellers.
- The dead Original King or Shinou Heika from Kyo Kara Maoh! could fall under this trope as well, since he has been controlling and manipulating almost every action of the great demon tribe for the past 4000 years!! Despite this, however, he is not evil and is actually working to defeat the Big Bad of the series, Shoushu. Could also fall under Ancient Conspiracy.
- ZONE in Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's seems to fit this, seeing as he can CONTROL TIME.
- He also says strange things that don't entirely make sense, like giving Yusei Shooting Star Dragon so that "all possibilities become equal".
- Tenchi himself in Tenchi Muyo!. Kajishima's cosmology in general has much in common with Gnostic worldview, except that Choushin aren't really evil, unlike the real Gnostic views about the Demiurge.
- Implied about Amaterasu in The Five Star Stories.
- In Jeff Smith's Bone prequel, "Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures", Big Johnson Bone would regularly incite their ire by asking them to unleash some unseasonal weather (such as a tornado or blizzard) by saying "If any part of my story ain't true, may the powers that be drop a full season's worth a snow on my head right now." And of course, it does.
Big Johnson: Oh, I hate it when the powers that be listen to me...
- TOAA (The One Above All), in the Marvel Comics. Even if TOAA is hinted being the biblical God (Marvel being a "mainstream" American editor, and all that).
- Those Who Sit Above In Shadows, a council of sitting grey peoples who judge the Asgardian gods from time to time, in Marvel Comics. Presumably they were based on/inspired by the Norse Fates.
- According to the final issue of the third volume of Thor, the Fates were actually their instruments, and their goals were considerably less lofty than their station suggested.
- The Presence of The DCU. It is the power behind the various angels of the DCU and seems to be a part of everything in existence. It's also the one holding the Spectre's leash. In the "Day of Judgment" lead-in to Infinite Crisis, the Spectre finally went too far and killed the last Lord of Order in his bid to destroy all magic. The Presence put an end to his rampage and sealed him in his next human host; one of the few times a Power was shown to take direct and undeniable action.
- The Source is this in Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics; it is beyond the comprehension of even those who consider themselves gods. In the wider DC canon, they are two aspects of the same being, who like The One Above All in Marvel is the Abrahamic God.
- The Powers What Is in Nodwick.
- The People In Charge (or PIC) in Wristcutters: A Love Story, and presumably, the book as well.
- In Groundhog Day, they are whatever is keeping Phil in the Groundhog Day Loop, or at least the best description for it. There are rules he is bound to and a way out in the end.
Folklore & Mythology
- For humans, it was the gods. But then for the gods, most of the European mythologies, at least, had some version of Fate/the Fates, whose edicts no god could avoid. The Greeks and Romans mentioned it every once in a while, usually in the form of prophecies, but the Norse gods were already planning for their own deaths at Ragnarok--they knew they couldn't avoid it.
- This is still true for most modern religions. The Judeo-Christian God is probably the best example here — not only is he all-powerful and ineffable, but his original Hebrew title is "YHWH" (pronounced Yah-weh), which basically means "The Power Which Is". Similarly, in Latin he is IHVH (Jehovah) which means "That Which Is". Even in English, he is sometimes referred to as "The Great I AM".
- In NERO there are the Elemental Lords, each of which except one has an opposite: Light and Dark, Death and Life, Order and Chaos, Reason and Dream, the four traditional elements and Time which is the most powerful.
- The god(ess)/angel equivalents in the Young Wizards series are actually called "the Powers that Be" (or more often "the Powers") in the series, and the universe's version of Satan is called "The Lone Power". Occasionally there are references to an even greater Power That Is, most certainly the One (God). (If this series wasn't the trope namer, it certainly could've fooled us.)
- Above Discworld gods there are eight mysterious beings called the Old High Ones. Only one is known: Azrael, the Death of Universes.
- Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones uses this up to the pommel. The "Magids" (magicians who keep the worlds running) are supervised by the Upper Table (who are rarely seen) who are in turn supervised by Them Up There. There is also known to be more above Them Up There but they are so secretive no one even knows what they're called (or something like that, I'm not entirely certain).
- In the Anne McCaffrey /Elizabeth Ann Scarborough Petaybee book series, the Big Bad of the Powers Trilogy, the Intergal company, are called the Powers That Be, or PTB for short, by the native inhabitants of the world, named Petaybee, a play on PTB, as they were settled there when their ancestral lands on Earth were too valuable for them to be left there.
- The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien's legendarium in general) has the Valar, who are essentially angels. A variation in that they are bound in the world. However, above and beyond them is Eru Ilúvatar (who is implied to intervene at 'the end of all hope' when Frodo's will fails in The Return of the King, and is described thusly in The Book of Lost Tales:
Eriol:' Who was Ilúvatar? Was he of the Gods?
- In S.M. Stirling's Emberverse the Change turns out to have been caused by what's best described as the Universal Mind having an argument with itself and coming up with the least awful option. Mind you this least awful option resulted in the worldwide collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions.
- In The Acts of Caine, most of Overworld's Devotional Powers such as Khryl are examples of this trope, as well as the Outer Powers like the God of the Black Knives (a.k.a. the Smoke God). On Earth, the Blind God is also one of these.
- In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero's Daughter, the Lady Miranda serves is one of these.
- In "I, Q", the universe almost comes to an end due to a Power That Be that lost hope.
Live Action TV
- In Angel, the Powers That Be, the official name for the higher forces of good within the show, generally act in opposition to the forces of evil. They set Angel on his path as a Champion and assist him by supplying visions through a conduit.
- For a while Cordelia had become one of the Powers, but that was ended. When Angel was trying to get her back to Earth the demon he had met before and knew what was going on also made a comment that seemed to imply Buffy's heaven might have been the same.
- Dark Messiah Jasmine was one of the Powers. Unlike the others, she took a proactive role in attempting to better the world, but at great costs. After she is drained of most of her power, she bitterly refers to herself as "this Power That Was".
- And then on the totally evil side are the Senior Partners, who control Wolfram and Hart (a.k.a. Evil Lawyers Incorporated). Though they are the final boss Big Bad and arguably orchestrate every major event in the entire series that isn't covered by the Powers, we never once see them.
- Despite the ostensibly good nature of the Powers That Be, several of the main cast have a fairly low opinion of them on account of their unwillingness to actually do anything, calling them things like the "Powers That Sit On Their Be-hinds."
- The various cabals in The X-Files.
- The Elders in Charmed, and the Angel of Destiny.
- Twin Peaks had the Little Man, the FBI, possible alien abductors, "BOB", and the woods in general. The entire series was one big, creepy Battle of the Network Powers That Be, all-nefarious, all the time.
- And how can we forget the lodges?
- The owls are not what they seem.
- "Management" in Carnivale appears at first to be this trope, but during the second season many of his mysteries a revealed and thus becomes more human-like.
- Doctor Who: The Time Lords of Gallifrey (the Doctor's own people), who are introduced in "The War Games" and recur now and then throughout the Third Doctor's era. (In later stories, as entire stories are set on Gallifrey, they become less mysterious and godlike, more human, in terms of their politics and motivations.) They sometimes take the Third Doctor's TARDIS to other planets (with him and companion in it), so he can carry out a mission (with some reluctance). Also the Fourth Doctor in "Genesis of the Daleks."
- The White and Black Guardians are the cosmic manifestations of "Order and Chaos"--or, for all intents and purposes, Good and Evil. The Black Guardian was, for a time, the Doctor's most powerful Arch Enemy, but he hasn't been seen since the Fifth Doctor's era.
- 24: The true masterminds of the events of Day 5.
Christopher Henderson: You can't touch them. But they can touch you.
- In Supernatural, the first three seasons are a case of Devil but No God. In later seasons, The Powers That Be are revealed to be Corrupt Corporate Executive, with God himself possibly being an obscure writer, attention whore alcoholic with major lack of self confidence, who gets killed in an alternate future where his possible son takes over the world. As above, so is below, indeed.
- Though they are explicitly stated to not be gods, the ascended Ancients in Stargate SG-1 tend to function this way, having the "watch how messed up the world is but don't do anything about it" mentality.
- The shadow man in Dead Like Me who leaves Rube the list every week. He is working for even higher powers, known as Upper Management by the reapers, but we never see them and know nothing about them.
- In the British kids' TV show Knightmare, the players and the Dungeon Master Treguard were representatives of the Powers that Be, facing off against the Opposition. Emphasised more in the later series — in the first series Treguard is more of a True Neutral arbiter.
- In Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the plot is dominated by Keikobad, the King of the Spirits. The character never appears in person but it's his Leitmotif with which the opera opens.
- The Dark Powers of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. They are mysterious and incredibly powerful. (Powerful enough to, through sheer power or some kind of deal, shut the Gods themselves out of Ravenloft.) The 2E version of the Campaign Setting actually had separate arguments printed for them being Good, Evil or Neutral. Although most information leads towards Evil. Their MO is mostly to punish evil... by giving someone exactly what they wish for and precisely what they do not want. Attention-seeking manipulative child? Gets mind control powers that don't work on anyone he loves AND a corresponding curse that makes anyone he loves see him as repulsive. Wizard-King seeking to live forever to master every aspect of magic? Turning into a lich, but as a side-effect cannot learn any new spells. And so forth.
- The Planescape setting is literately centered around the city of Sigil, located at the very center of The Multiverse and the only place where gods can not go and that has magical portals to every place that exists. While the city is basically pure anarchy and populated by mortals, angels, demons, undead, and even weirder beings, there is also The Lady of Pain, which is customarily considered its supreme ruler. She's unusual in that she's both a definite and well known being and that she's frequently seen physically wandering the streets of the city, but almost everything about her is a complete mystery. She appears as a completely silent figure in long robes and an intricate metal mask that covers all of her features and nobody has any clue what she is, how she came to Sigil, or what she actually does! All she does is silently floating through the streets, which causes people to also call her simply "her Serenity". Only when someone actively tries to shift the status quo of Sigil or attempting to take control over its portals, or some fool starts to worship her does she appear to the offender and causes him to be ripped apart by her shadow, to silently continue floating down the roads. While the Planescape setting is actually highly developed, the writers intentionally left the Lady's identity completly open, stating that there is no truth the players could ever hope to unveil. This doesn't stop characters within the setting to come up with theories that range from an ancient over-deity to three squirrels standing on each other shoulders dressed in a robe and using a simple levitation trinket.
- The Messengers from Hunter: The Reckoning. They imbue mortals with superpowers and give them the ability to see the monsters that harrow humanity every day. On the other hand, sometimes the Imbuing goes very wrong, and hunters who grow more powerful also start losing their grip until the Messengers take over and use them as puppets.
- There are a few hints to their nature spread throughout Demon:The Fallen. Namely, that it's angels, or Lucifer, that imbues Hunters.
- The "Hunter Storyteller's Guide" has the canonical truth: they are actually servants of the Ministers, the Ebon Dragon and the Scarlet Queen, the sentient manifestations of Yin and Yang.
- There are a few hints to their nature spread throughout Demon:The Fallen. Namely, that it's angels, or Lucifer, that imbues Hunters.
- The Great Beings have recently started to fill this role in Bionicle. Previously, we have had named characters such as Artakha, Tren Krom, and The Order of Mata Nui filling a similar role, often manipulating the heroes without really letting them know what's going on. However, we now have a web serial titled "The Powers That Be" which revolves around some of these beings getting violently murdered.
- God of War takes this trope a step further by having the main protagonist kill the forces that be by essentially becoming one by the time the plot ties up.
- The "entity", referenced only obliquely in Chrono Trigger, oddly enough plays no role at all in the story. In the sequel, the all-seeing FATE plays a much larger role.
- While they leave it vague, the "entity" is actually the planet. It's what opened the time gates, leading the heroes to eventually defeat Lavos. The main conflict in the game is essentially "the planet vs Lavos." The "entity" reprises its role in Chrono Cross by summoning Dinopolis to defend itself against FATE, only this time it fails.
- Silent Hill, where it is never clear what's causing all strange events.
- Actually this trope really only applies for Silent Hill 2, and Silent Hill Homecoming. In the others, the Powers That Be are (usually psychotic) human reality warpers.
- Nexus War originally did this with the nine Elder Powers, but in later versions they became less mysterious to the point of becoming prone to Level Grinding.
- The Powers That Be were your bosses in Afterlife, although they were decidedly hands-off.
- The Precursors from the Jak and Daxter series were an ancient race that have Physical God status, but they're rarely ever seen in person unless you count Daxter, who's been there since the first game.
- Half Life, where the G-man and his "employers" manipulate minor but crucial things to their own ends. However, as seen in Half-Life 2: Episode 1, these powers are not all powerful.
- The Reapers from Mass Effect. Oh, they're bastards, but their level of technology is beyond even the furthest reaches of the most advanced galactic science, they have almost completely inscrutable motives, they inspire superstitious awe and they've dictated the development of space-sparing civilisation for untold billions of years. And they had a creator, who fulfils this trope to the letter.
- The Elder Gods in Mortal Kombat.
- In spite of trying to come across as this, the Seven Deities from Asura's Wrath are not this trope, though they are practically Physical God's of varying power. The real example is Chakravartin, who's a Big Bad example of this. Asura kills him and destroys Naraka, Chakravartin's home plane, with a massive punch.
- In Demonology 101. those that control Hell are referred to as "The Powers That Be" or as simply "The Powers."
- Those who approve Loki in Evil Diva.
- In Vanadys: Tales of a Fallen Goddess, there is "The Light," who created the gods at the beginning of time and who is literally shown only as a large sphere of glowing light.
- In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, TAROT is an Ancient Conspiracy started originally to take over the world's economy... and they've been more successful in doing just that than anyone suspects. Their unlimited wealth and influence makes them much more than just the criminal empire most superheroes see them as, to the point that they've been able to decide not only important things like who will win an election (they put George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in office, among other politicians worldwide), but they can decide little things like what movies will win an Oscar, or what clothing style trends will become popular.
- XANA the AI from Code Lyoko is similar, although having a more direct influence on the real world.
- The Princess and the Frog: "He's got Friends on the Other Side..."