Long ago, before many of the worlds known in the present day were born, the illithids ruled a vast empire known to some as The Continuum. The illithid empire held many worlds and even a few planes of existence in their tentacled grip. After a thousand years of engineering, they constructed an artificial world known as Penumbra, a vast disk that circled a sun, the planet’s radius something like a hundred million miles.
And of course the empire kept slaves. Many of the slaves had originally, some sources (Polyhedron #159) say, originated on a distant world known as Pharagos, which the illithids had conquered and added to their empire. Other sources (Dragon #29821) mention a subterranean empire called Zarum in Western Oerik, where a race of humanoids dominated many other races from their capital city of Anithor.
Whatever their origin for thousands of years these once-human beings, who are remembered today only as the forerunners, were thralls of The Continuum. Some were engineered to become the ancestors of the grimlocks and distributed throughout the worlds of the empire to serve their illithid masters in their subterranean realms. On every world, the slaves were unable to escape their masters’ psionic power, and illithid might was unquestioned. It is said that the fiends paused in their eternal Blood War to determine if anything could stop the mind flayers as the empire expanded throughout the Astral Plane and Ethereal Plane and threatened the Outer Planes themselves.
It was then that the illithids first encounted the voor. The voor were one of the greatest threats the illithid empire ever faced. An insectoid race utterly immune to psionics, the voor reproduced using spores capable of floating through the airless reaches of outer space indefinitely before finding a place to transform into larvae, using whatever inorganic materials were on hand to create their bodies. The standard slave armies of the illithids were unable to stop the voor invasion, so in desperation a long-vanished illithid Creed constructed tumerogenesis tanks to impart certain physical, spiritual, and psionic enhancements on selected slave-soldiers. After thousands of years of slavery and controlled breeding, the illithid thralls were no longer recognizable as the humans they once were. They were longer of limb, with skin the tawny color of old ivory and slightly pointed ears.
After the long war between the illithids and voor ended, the voor all but extinct thanks to the efforts of these new modified battle-thralls, the balance of power in the illithid empire changed. The thralls were now battle-hardened and had become increasingly psionically adept. The illithids became more brutal in order to ensure their slaves remained obedient, which only invited more revolts and more brutal reprisals.
Then came Gith. Some say she was the personal bodyguard of a powerful illithid noble, while others claim she was only a lowly foot soldier and little more than a child. But her mental and physical powers were great, and her rage, hatred, power, and charisma was sufficient to guide the thralls to victory. The illithid empire was shattered by the slave rebellion (remembered by them as the Thrall Uprising). Not every illithid stronghold fell, but the ties that bound the empire together were broken, and even today the mind flayers have not recovered from that ancient war. They hid themselves away in the Underdarks of countless worlds, vowing to rebuild their strength and take vengeance against their treacherous former slaves, something they have not managed to do.
Having won the war, Gith continued to treat her people (who would become known as the githyanki, a word meaning “children of Gith”) as a conquering army rather than a free people. Having just won a war, she prepared to launch a new one, an Eternal Crusade that would exterminate every last illithid once and for all.
While some githyanki were comforted by Gith’s military discipline, others chafed against it. One leader, Zerthimon, was the most vocal of the dissidents. He claimed that Gith would replace the illithid tyranny with her own, and that though she had been successful in the past as a leader of war, she was unfit to lead the People in peace. He called for her to step down. Gith refused, but Zerthimon and his followers would not allow themselves to be ruled by a new tyrant. Having just won a war, now a civil war began among the githyanki, with Zerthimon’s loyalists battling Gith’s. During the civil war, an already wounded world was reduced to an uninhabited cinder.
What happened to Zerthimon is a matter of dispute. Some (A Guide to the Astral Plane) say Zerthimon was killed, while others (The Plane Below) say he defeated Gith in single combat, but chose to spare her life. Regardless, the followers of Zerthimon—now known as the githzerai, or “those who spurn Gith”—retreated to Limbo. Meanwhile, the losses the githyanki sustained in their war were too great for Gith to continue her crusade, so they retreated to the conquered illithid settlements on the Astral Plane to rebuild their numbers to the point when they could exterminate both the illithids and the githzerai.
Soon after, a wizard called Vlaakith began advising Gith in matters of state. It was Vlaakith who advised Gith to find allies to help their diminished people survive. When no god would treat with her and negotiations with the chaotic slaadi failed, she traveled to the Nine Hells. There, Ephelomon agreed to send a wing of red dragons for the githyanki to ride in exchange for the aid of the githyanki whenever Tiamat required it. Ephelomon came to the Astral Plane alone and gave Vlaakith, whom Gith had designated her successor, a magical scepter that symbolized the Dragon Queen’s acceptance of the pact.
Vlaakith continued to rule as queen of the githyanki, and after her death her scepter passed to Vlaakith II, and thence to Vlaakith III, and so on until the reign of the current queen, Vlaakith CLVII. With a total of 157 queens since the illithid rebellion, a long time must have passed (according to some it has been approximately 10,000 years, though other sources imply the time has been longer or shorter). The githyanki have become somewhat fragmented, forming isolated groups instead of a single nation. Though they almost all ultimately serve their revered Lich-Queen, each group has their own separate goals as well.