As a longtime writer for TechNews and one of the founders of the IIT "Warhammer 40k" Club, I have been issued a challenge by none other than our Editor-in-Chief Dan Marten. He suggested that I write a summary of the "Warhammer 40k" story for newcomers to the franchise, a feat I have in the past deemed nearly impossible. I say this because "Warhammer 40k" isn’t a story, not a proper one with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a living, breathing world, and events are constantly occurring and status quos changing all throughout the "40k" timeline. To put things in perspective, there are still books being written about a seven year period 12,000 years before the 42nd millennium, which is, for lack of a better term, the “present.” The grim and dark world of "Warhammer 40k" is vast, and getting into the lore of the series can present a real challenge for many new players. So, by Dan’s suggestion, here I am. I will, to the best of my ability, summate the entire Warhammer 40k timeline as briefly as humanly possible to give any newcomer to the franchise a solid basis in the lore of the grim darkness of the far future.
The War in Heaven - We start our story at the very, very beginning. 65 million years ago, shortly after the milky way galaxy was formed, a race known simply as “The Old Ones” began to nurture life across the galaxy. I told you this was going to be dense. The Old Ones are powerful psykers, meaning they can use their minds to manifest what is known as the Warp. The Warp is an immaterial realm of pure energy composed of the same stuff as souls, basically the aetherius, and psykers can tap into this energy to manifest psychic power in reality. Shortly after The Old Ones begin to colonize the milky way galaxy, another race makes their presence known. The ancient Necrontyr were a short lived race that began to build their own galactic empire. As they grew, their civilization began to struggle with infighting, the various dynasties of the Necrontyr made petty war with each other. In an effort to quell this fighting and bring unity to his people, the Silent King, ruler of the Necrontyr, declared war on the Old Ones. The Old Ones refused to share the secret of immortality with the short lived Necrontyr, making them a natural enemy to unify the Necrontyr. The Old Ones created many young alien races to fight their war with the Necrontyr, including the psychically sensitive Aeldari and the violent Orks, both of which will come up again later.
The Necrontyr lost their first war with the Old Ones, and ended up more splintered than ever. At this time, a race of enigmatic star beings known as the C’tan made themselves known to the Necrontyr. The godlike C’tan gained immense power from feasting upon stars, and the Necrontyr began to worship them as gods. The C’tan were quite happy with this, and in turn made the Silent King an offer: they would give the Necrontyr the secret to immortality, and help them win their war with the Old Ones. And so a pact was struck, and the Necrontyr began to build enormous biofurnaces to make themselves immortal robotic bodies. As the Necrontyr entered these furnaces, unbeknownst to them, the C’tan began to consume the souls of many of the Necrontyr. Emerging now as the soulless, mindless, robotic Necrons, only the nobles of the Necrontyr emerged with their souls intact. The Silent King was angered by this, but bided his time. For now, the Necrons and their gods, the C’tan, waged war once more on the Old Ones in an event known as the War in Heaven, fought between two godlike foes. With their new, robotic bodies, mindless footsoldiers, and the power of the C’tan, the Necrons brought the Old Ones to extinction. After defeating their ancient rivales, the Silent King turned his ire upon the C’tan that betrayed them. The Necrons imprisoned their gods, shattering their bodies and souls into shards which were then turned into an energy source for the Necrons. However, the Necrons were quickly running out of energy. So the Silent King commanded his people, en masse, to build massive tomb structures under the planets of their empire in which the Necrons would lie dormant for millions of years while the Silent King went on an exodus outside the galaxy to find new hope for his people.
The Birth of the Emperor - The War in Heaven was not without consequences for the rest of the galaxy. The death and destruction it caused was reflected in the fear, anger, hate, and scheming of the psychically sensitive Old Ones. These roiling emotions were reflected in the Warp by their souls, and so the once calm Warp became tempestuous and turbulent. These psychic ripples began to coalesce into malevolent entities within the Warp.
Millions of years past, and humanity would begin to evolve on earth. Around 8700 BC, the first psykers would be born within the human species. They would become the Shamans of ancient human villages, using their psychic powers to perform minor miracles. The psychically sensitive Shamans would eventually realize that malevolent entities were beginning to form within the Warp. They knew that one day these entities would bring humanity to its knees, so in order to stop it, the Shamans enacted a plan. Every Shaman on the planet would ritualistically sacrifice their souls, and then the souls of the one thousand Shamans would coalesce into a single soul. Circa 8000 BC a child would be born in a small fishing village upon the banks of the Sakarya river. This child would inherit this soul, and is known only as the Emperor.
As centuries passed the Emperor remained hidden. At the same time, humanity's many acts of cruelty would feed the malevolent entities gestating within the warp. During the dark ages, humanities brutality would birth Khorne, the blood god, and first of the ruinous powers, the Chaos Gods. The decay and hopelessness of black plague would birth the second of the Chaos Gods, Nurgle, lord of virulence, decay, and stagnation. The scheming and politicking of the Renaissance would birth Tzeentch, god of change, magic, knowledge, and scheming. Together, the Chaos Gods would form the Warp into a twisted, demented hellscape in their own images.
The Golden Age of Technology - At this point in the timeline, history largely continues as it does in the real world. Some time between 2500-3000, humanity terraforms Mars and begins to slowly expand to the stars. During this time technology would rapidly advance, and humanity would discover and begin to study the Warp. In the 18th millennium (M18), humanity would discover Warp travel. Time does not flow in the Warp, and after 20,000 years of human evolution since every psyker in the genome died, they began to appear within the population once more. Many of these psychically sensitive individuals would become “Navigators,” capable of psychically opening rifts too and navigating spacecraft through the Warp as a means of faster than light travel.
The discovery of Warp travel would allow humanity to expand into the stars, creating vast empires and developing many fantastical technologies. Among these included the Standard Template Construct, or STC, which were essentially enormous databases housing knowledge and blueprints of humanities technology. Humanity also managed to make another fantastic technology, artificial intelligence. They used this technology to create robots called the Men of Iron to act as servants to the human race.
The Dark Age of Technology - In the M23 the Men of Iron would rise up against the human race in an event known as the Cybernetic Revolt. Humanity would prevail during this near-apocalyptic war, but at the cost of the destruction of many human civilizations. Following this war, artificial intelligence would become outlawed among the human colonies.
During the M25 the Age of Strife would begin. The Aeldari, ancient creations of the Old Ones 65 million years prior, would inherit their empire. Like humanity, the Aeldari created a vast empire, and machines capable of servicing all of their needs. Free of all need, the Aeldari empire began to grow decadent, depraved, and hedonistic. These actions would grow more extreme as the Aeldari would pursue darker and more potent pleasures. This devolution of their culture would be reflected in their psychically sensitive souls, which would begin to coalesce within the Warp. This created a series of powerful Warp storms that would make Warp travel impossible for humanity for centuries. The human colonies would become stranded, with no means of faster than light travel.
The Age of Strife would see humanity stagnate, the old empires would decay and many of the technologies of the Golden Age would be lost. Virtually all scientific advancement would cease as humanity would fracture into various isolated colonies, falling into anarchy and civil war. During this time, Earth would devolve into a barren wasteland, with techno-barbarian warlords constantly battling for control of what few resources remained.
The Terran Unification Wars - In late M28 the Emperor would finally reveal himself to mankind. He would use his vast knowledge of genetic engineering to create the Thunder Warriors, super soldiers that he used to conquer Earth. The Emperor would declare the creation of his Imperium of Mankind, and would begin making preparations to reunite the fractured human worlds of the galaxy under his rule. During this time he would make an alliance with the Mechanicum of Mars, a religious order of technologists that worship machines, and would begin to create an army to conquer the galaxy. The Emperor would begin to use his own DNA to create 20 sons, the Primarchs, which he planned to use as generals to wage his Great Crusade.
The Chaos Gods; Khorne, Nurgle and Tzeentch; would begin to grow concerned about the Emperor’s plans. In an effort to waylay the Emperor’s plans, they would suck the capsules containing the nascent Primarchs into the Warp, spitting them out across the various human worlds of the galaxy. The Emperor would make plans to scour the galaxy to find the missing Primarchs, but from his research in creating them the Emperor would figure out how to create a new strain of super soldier: his Space Marines. The Emperor created 20 legions of Space Marines from the genetic stock of his 20 sons, the Primarchs. The Emperor had the Space Marines dispose of the old Thunder Warriors, and would then turn his gaze to the stars. With his Space Marine legions at his back, the Emperor would declare the start of the Great Crusade to unite the lost human colonies under the banner of his Imperium, and to recover the lost Primarchs to place them in command of their respective legions.
And at this point I’m four pages in and only about halfway through explaining the Warhammer 40k timeline, at best. So, I’m going to have to cut it here. Like I said, the series is extremely dense, and I glossed over a ton of important events that aren’t as necessary to understanding the overall story. And I haven’t even gotten to the Horus Heresy yet! If you enjoyed this very, very brief synopsis of the Warhammer 40k timeline then be sure to come back next week, where I will be talking about the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy!