I’ve been enthralled with Warhammer 40K for nearly a decade now, my first experience with it being a poorly cracked version of Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War before I went to high school. Provided, the Blood Ravens are not the best chapter, and the story was not amazing, but the beauty of the death and destruction, meshed with the zeal of the Space Marines and the righteousness of their wargear was too much for me to ignore. But until I was about 14, I knew nothing about the deeper lore of the Warhammer 40K universe, I was more interested in the gore and badass “good guys” who defended the Imperium of Mankind from the many xenos threats.
And now, about three years into my painful journey into becoming 40K loremaster, I only begin to understand the depravity, helplessness and philosophical views that Games Workshop have spent 30 years putting into the Milky Way Galaxy.
The Emperor Protects…
We are the slayers of kings, the destroyers of worlds, bringers of ruination and death in all its forms. These things we do in the name of the Emperor and in the defense of Mankind. Let none stay our wrath.
-Cato Sicarius of the Ultramarines
Warhammer 40K was created by Rick Priestley in 1987 to accompany the already existing Warhammer Fantasy. A miniature tabletop wargame, the lore, at the time, was merely meant to accompany the game and provide substance for its players. However, they must have realised they struck gold because a whole team was created to pump out lore and fluff, many good, some terrible, and fans have been faithfully reading it for well over a decade.
This is probably because the universe of Warhammer 40K is as grimdark as it is massive, filled with many pieces of elaborate lore. The writers try their best to keep it consistent, because unlike with comics, timelines cannot simply be reset and characters cannot be resurrected without dire consequences. Things are, for the most part, permanent and that means lasting effects and characters that will be remembered for their deaths as much as for their deeds in life, and the vast number of characters, races, species and cultures means that there’s an abundance of stories to be told. And while I would love to drone on and on, which I can considering my impressive well of knowledge on the subject, however that would quite possibly make this article the size of a small novel even if I tried to shorten it. So I will instead focus, on what exactly, makes the Emperor’s domain so void of hope.
To give a brief introduction, the universe of Warhammer 40K revolves around The Imperium of Mankind, otherwise known as humanity and the “rulers” of the galaxy. They have been ruling it for over 10 millennia, and longer if you count the Dark Age of Technology. In the 30th millennium, after a particularly nasty period of time known as the Age of Strife, one individual known only as The Emperor of Man came forth, and leading his savage and powerful genetically enhanced Thunder Warriors. After conquering Holy Terra, he created the Primarchs, 20 of the mightiest warriors the galaxy had ever seen. And from them, their gene “sons”, the mighty Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines. However, his beloved Primarchs were scattered across the galaxy, so he launched the Great Crusade to “reclaim” the galaxy that so rightfully belonged to humanity. After centuries of nonstop war and bringing the imperial yoke down on lost human civilisations cut off during the Age of Strife, it looked like the Imperium would go back to a time of peace and prosperity. However, the Horus Heresy occurred, a civil war initiated the Emperor’s most skilled and most beloved son, warmaster Horus Lupercal. Untold trillions died, and countless worlds burned during this short but brutal conflict. 9 traitor Primarchs sided with their brother who who had been manipulated by the ruinous powers of Chaos, and so at the climax of the Heresy, the Emperor slew his fallen son, and annihilated his very soul, the battle leaving him broken, and a shell of his former self. After being interned in the Golden Throne, a massive life support system that requires the lives of thousands of psykers every day just to keep his corpse “alive” and powering the Astronomicon, the beacon that guides ships through the warp. Humanity had everything, and was about to secure a future for itself, but through the treacherous actions of a few, an empire was brought to its knees. For over a hundred centuries after the heresy, the Empire has existed in a form of suppression, and misery, Its citizen’s live in the worst time imaginable with no technological advancement to speak of in a state of unending war. He is taught to fear the mutant, the xenos and the heretic, whilst praying to his Corpse Emperor whom is now revered as a god, because no matter how bad it is under the Imperium, it could always be worse.
Fear the Mutant, The Xenos, The Heretic
Things are very seldom what they seem. In my experience, they’re usually a damn sight worse.
-Inquisitor Titus Drake
I think after reading that brief explanation you can see how dire of a situation the Imperium of Man is in. It is assailed at all sides by foul Xenos (aliens), the Ruinous Powers of the Warp, mutants, rogue psykers, other humans who threaten its structural integrity, and a thousand things besides. Which is already tragic considering the bright future humanity had with the Emperor at the helm and ready to expand its borders, perhaps even past the known galaxy. The Emperor himself was the only person who could have brought forth this new golden age. Someone who had a vision for mankind based on the experience he had, considering he was born, presumably in 10,00 B.C. He wanted a purely secular empire, free from any religious excess or unchecked technological advancement, despite the fact that he could have easily set himself up as a god, or advanced technology to the point where it could take care of all of humanity’s basic needs. Instead, he chose a safer pass, but as he was mortally wounded, any positive future was destroyed. The Imperium became a cesspool of religious zealotry and corruption, mixed with an authoritarian norm and a pool of technological stagnation. Everyone in power knows it, but can’t do anything. Every military man knows that older weaponry is more powerful and probably more reliable because technology has stood still for more than 5000 years, if not totally regressed.
But despite all of these shortcomings the human race faces, it is hard to not see them as the bad guys. And it is a shame that you thought that because there are things out there infinitely worse. And that is arguably one of the most terrifying things about 40K, the enemies. There are too many to count, but the major ones are as follows. The Tyranids, extragalactic aliens who pretty much devour worlds, creating terrifying creatures to conquer planets and drain them of their biomass. Search them up, they’re basically what you’d get if Xenomorphs shagged Necromorphs, and then merged their babies with some crap out of Starship Troopers. However, they are just one of the more recent threats facing the entire Milky Way galaxy, and another one such threat are the Necrons. Undead organisms made out of “living metal” who desire the destruction of all sentient life in the galaxy. Even if you destroy their physical bodies, which is incredibly hard, their command protocols simply move to a new body, ever ready to inflict pain and suffering. They forfeited their souls long ago, and they are untold billions of them scattered across the galaxy, so there is no bargaining, no compromise, and no delaying the inevitable. Perhaps the most persistent however, are the brutal Orkz, the near primitive but extremely violent alien species that infest he galaxy due to their unique physiology. Asexual reproducers through spores, the Orkz cannot effectively be killed off, and thus have plagued the galaxy for millennia, spreading death and destruction, not only because it is in their nature and culture, but because it is in their DNA. They live for war, die for war, and they worship the war, and when it comes to the Imperium, they know it will be a hard pressed fight with the greenskin menace. Next up are the Eldar, a grim look into what humanity could become. Tall, inhumanely beautiful and graceful, they’re basically space elves, extremely advanced space elves. Able to feel human emotions much more intensely, they reached the height of technological advancements millions of years ago, moving on from altruistic endeavours to self-fulfillment and hedonism. Their hedonism reached unheard of levels due to the fact that Eldar Souls return to new bodies in a cycle of rebirth, allowing them to shag, murder and maim each other toll the streets were running with blood and a new Chaos God was born, Slaanesh, She who Thirsts. With the birth of Slaanesh, came the fall of the Eldar, as trillions of souls were devoured never to return.
And as terrifying as they may seem, my greatest fears are the Ruinous Powers of Chaos. They are absolutely horrifying, not only by virtue of them being literal gods embodying various aspects of life itself, but by the fact that they can’t be truly understood by human minds. Because the very nature, of the Dark Gods, is incomprehensible to humans, and though they claim to bring ultimate freedom and the unshackling of the soul from the material universe, it is not worth it. It stands against everything the human condition is, and unless you’re willing to part with it, heresy should be far from your mind. But because of the many faces of Chaos and the different philosophies and ideologies each god represents, I’ll give them their own little section.
Everything Human…and Inhuman
Chaos is devious, subtle… The way of shadows.
-Inquisitor Silas Hand
By the time Chaos has its grips around your world, its already probably far too late, and without the aid of the Adeptus Sororitas, or the Adeptus Astartes, you’re probably fucked. A bullet to the head is the only way to go after that happens. Chaos is something that can only be combated by the few special individuals stout of heart, strong of mine, and utterly ruthless. The strongest, are of course the Grey Knights, Chapter Millitant of The Inquisition’s Ordo Malleus, and the Ordo Hereticus. They deal with matters purely involving daemonic activity and heresy, respectively. However, they are not enough, because there are 4 Chaos gods, all of them heading immensely dark, twisted and magnificent armies.
Each Chaos god represents a primordial aspect of the human psyche and thus can never be truly defeated despite the fleeting but hard won victories the Imperium achieves. Nurgle, perhaps the oldest of the Chaos gods is the god of, death, rot and decay, and disease. Plagues, and festering sores that give birth to mutated and disgusting creatures mark Nurgle out as a pretty disgusting god, and his gift to his followers is decay. Because Nurgle is a psychic manifestation of the oldest sentient fear…the fear of death, and one he can abate. Those afflicted by his plague become afflicted in the worst ways imaginable, and are kept from dying by any normal means, so those poor souls who cannot end themselves turn to Papa Nurgle to take away their suffering.
The next Chaos god is the youngest, Slaanesh, Prince of Pleasure or She Who Thirsts. Born from the collective psychic debauchery of the Eldar race, Slaanesh promises to fulfil your strongest desire, at the expense of your freedom. And your desires will be warped and turned against you, and you become a living thing of pleasure, seeking only to fulfill your dreams and those of your master. And while that does not seem as bad, and you may think that you’re safe, Slaanesh is so dangerous because he can offer you anything, and that means no one is safe.
Khorne, the Blood God. Maybe the second oldest Chaos god, he encompasses war and strife, and is so powerful because the galaxy is rife with these things. His followers are blessed with anything that increases their strength and their ability to draw blood. It doesn’t matter where your allegiance lies, ultimately, as long as you are in the business of drawing blood, destruction and pain, you serve Khorne, who never shies away from blood, gore and more blood. If you’re willing to give away rationality and peace for death, destruction and everlasting then glory is waiting for you as a champion of Khorne.
The final and, in my honest opinion, most frightening god, is Tzeentch, The Lord of Change. He is knower of all things and the patron of sorcerers and those who scheme. No mortal can ever comprehend him and his, machinations, wherever thwarted or successful are but a small part of his grand plan. Eternal enemy of Khorne who sees all psykers as weak and without honour, Tzeentch’s followers come to him for knowledge, or to find some sort of meaning in such a bleak galaxy, only to be ensnared in his web of deceit, lies, and the intricate strings that entangle all living things, as all things are to be manipulated by him, to his own end. Which happens to be total dominion over the galaxy, however even this is but a step because he would still strive for change, ultimately bringing his own kingdom to ruin. Only the maddest, not most logical can take even the slightest glimpse into Tzeentch’s mind and hope to gleam even a tiny bit of knowledge, and those who do not follow the criteria, are lost.
You see, the Imperium must fight these foes almost daily, and if that wasn’t enough to break your spirit, then this might be. Chaos, is completely unconquerable, because no matter how many victories you win against them, they recollect and are reborn in The Warp, another dimension ships use to travel, impossibly large and impossible to navigate as well. See, as long as Chaos represents the baser emotions that humans, or most other living beings have, they will never truly die. The universe is in a constant state of war thanks to the Horus Heresy, and in such a universe everyone fears the death that waits for them at the end of their short, miserable lives. Because of this, living things will most likely turn to anything to escape the suffering, including the literal god of hedonism, and this, it can be argued, all falls into a maddeningly grand plan. The Chaos gods will never be defeated, and that is true, because humanity alone, which counts in the trillions, inhabits the galaxy. And as long as humanity exists, so will Chaos. It is a never ending struggle, but to submit is to lose all semblance of humanity and become something foul and horrid, to human eyes at least, whilst to fight on is simply a futile and soul crushing act of defiance, one sure to drastically shorten your life, and end in pain.
So Easy to See…
We may be few, and our enemies many. Yet so long as there remains one of us still fighting, one who still rages in the name of justice and truth, then by the Allfather, the galaxy shall yet know hope.
– Wolf Lord Ragnar Blackmane
So it’s clear to see how fucked everyone is, and perhaps that’s why 40K is so scary. Because everyone is so, so fucked, it’s hard not to pity them as you read through the fluff. Normal citizens, those who aren’t Imperial Navy or Guardsmen are in such a sorry state that’s been going on for so long that they think it’s normal. It might be considered lucky to live until 20, or to manage to get some scraps to eat for the first time in 4 days. Despite having a more technologically advanced civilisation than us, their standard of living is way lower. In a galaxy populated by trillions upon trillions of citizens, it becomes easy for the average citizen to see that he is not special in the slightest. The guy next to me would kill to have my job if i start bitching about the low food rations, and it’s much easier for a commissar to put a bullet into a soldier for insubordination and replace him, that try and talk the soldier down.
Whole worlds are sometimes slaughtered to keep threats from spreading to other worlds, and this vast expanse of thousands of planets is ultimately ruled by a throng of extremely corrupt individuals who care only for their well-being in the end.
One of the saddest truths to come to a realisation to in Warhammer 40K, and one you realise only after much reading and analysis, is that the universe of Warhammer 40K is perhaps one of the most logical paths for the human race as we know it to go down. While the existence of the warp and Chaos is highly unlikely, the lore details almost exactly how the Imperium was brought to its knees, and the results of over a thousand years of despotism. Religious excess leads to mass worship of a mere man, not a god, but it is this faith that keeps people going, and the zealotry is more often than not harmful rather than helpful. An example that can easily be seen in today’s world through the Moorish invasion, the Spanish Inquisition and many more examples besides. Technological ruination ultimately came at the hands of AI, something the Imperium had under control initially. We are soon running towards the time that AI will be mainstream, and we can only speculate on the effect it will have, however people are not too optimistic. And the everlasting war in 40K is not too far-fetched. We’ve been on the Earth for millennia ourselves, but rarely have great steps been taken through peace, and even today we threaten each other with violence, or acts thereof.
And with prefrontal lobes too small, and adrenal glands much too large, it stands to reason that no matter how far we will advance, we’re still uncivilised monkeys with a penchant for hierarchy and violence. And that if any species could live and thrive in such a cruel environment, it would be us. Humanity is endearing, and it is that relentless grip on our ideals and the right to live that makes us so…human.
To steel your hearts for the rest of your, ultimately meaningless lives, Skold Greypelt had a few wise words, especially for an Astartes. “We may be few, and our enemies many. Yet so long as there remains one of us still fighting, one who still rages in the name of justice and truth, then by the Allfather, the galaxy shall yet know hope.”