Where to Start with Warhammer 40k Lore: Ignite Your Passion for the Grim Dark Future

Where to Start with Warhammer 40k Lore: Ignite Your Passion for the Grim Dark Future

In the vast and ancient galaxy of Warhammer 40,000, the distant future is a realm of unending conflict, where the very survival of humanity hangs ever in the balance.

Beset by threats from within and without, the Imperium of Man staggers on through millennia of war and strife, sustained only by dint of constant sacrifice and brutal necessity.

But to understand the dark grandeur of this setting, we must cast our minds back to the very dawn of galactic history, to the ages even before the rise of the Emperor and his Imperium.

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The Old Ones

The story starts over sixty million years ago, in this particular time when the galaxy was ruled by two great powers: the Old Ones, an ancient and hyper-advanced race of psychically gifted reptilians(Like the ones on earth), and their bitter rivals, the humanoid Necrontyr.

The Necrontyr, their short, painful lives spent in thrall to the very stars that burned them, envied the Old Ones their immortality and power. In their desperation, the Necrontyr struck an ill-fated pact with the C’tan, godlike beings of pure energy who dwelt in the hearts of stars, offering to fashion these “star vampires” physical shells of living metal called necrodermis in exchange for the power to challenge the Old Ones.

Thus clad, the C’tan turned on their allies, deceiving the Necrontyr into abandoning their organic bodies and uploading their minds into necrodermis bodies of their own – and so the soulless, undying Necrons were born.

The War in Heaven

The War in Heaven that followed was an apocalyptic conflict that reshaped the very galaxy. The Necrons and their C’tan masters initially drove the Old Ones to the brink of extinction, but the Old Ones fought back by engineering new psychic servant races – the graceful, long-lived Aeldari, and the brutal, green-skinned Krork – to battle the Necron threat.

In the end, the War in Heaven ended in a pyrrhic victory: the Old Ones were destroyed, but the Necrons, in a final act of rebellion, managed to shatter the C’tan into fragments and hid their Tomb Worlds from the ravages of time, waiting for a future date to awaken and conquer the galaxy once more.

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The Rise and fall Of the Aeldari

In the aftermath, the Aeldari rose to power. For millions of years, their star-spanning dominion flourished, reaching heights of power and splendor unrivaled in the galaxy’s history. The Aeldari perfected the art of psychic technology, mastering the Warp through the creation of the interdimensional Webway and expanding their rule across countless worlds.

Yet this era of triumph planted the seeds of the Aeldari’s own fall. As their power grew, so too did their arrogance and their thirst for excess.

The once-great civilization slid into millennia of decadence and hedonism, their debaucheries and cruelties growing ever more refined and extreme, until the psychic emanations of their depravity birthed a new Chaos God in the Warp – Slaanesh, the Dark Prince of Excess.

With a howl of psychic anguish that tore the heart out of the Aeldari empire, Slaanesh devoured billions of Eldar souls, leaving only terrified fragments of their civilization behind.

The survivors fled, taking shelter in colossal spacecraft called Craftworlds, or descended into the hidden city of Commorragh within the Webway, there to rebuild their civilization in the guise of the piratical Dark Eldar.

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The Power of Mankind

In time, a new power arose in the galaxy: Mankind. Spreading across the stars from their ancestral home of Terra, human civilization reached its apex during the so-called Dark Age of Technology.

Wonders of science became commonplace – fleets equipped with Warp drives ferried colonists to new worlds, guided by mutant Navigators able to see safe paths through the tides of the Empyrean.

The Standard Template Construct (STC) system, hyper-advanced databases containing the sum total of human technological knowledge, allowed settlers to rapidly build up industrial infrastructure and transform even the harshest worlds into paradises.

At the height of its achievement, human civilization spanned the galaxy, united by common bonds of culture and shared humanity – but forever changed by long separation from Terra and exposure to the Warp.

So it was that the Emperor first made himself known. A being of unfathomable psychic might and ancient mystery, the Emperor watched and guided humanity from the shadows for millennia, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself.

With the discovery of the Warp and the expansion of humanity into distant corners of the galaxy, that moment finally came.


The Emperor’s Unifcation

On Terra, unified by the Emperor’s conquest, the work of empire-building began in earnest. Chief among the Emperor’s efforts were two secret projects of staggering scope. The first were the Primarchs, 20 genetically-engineered super-soldiers grown from the Emperor’s own DNA, each embodying an aspect of the perfect human form and destined to be the generals of the Emperor’s Great Crusade to reunite the lost worlds of Mankind.

But the Primarchs were stolen away even before their gestation was complete, scattered by the machinations of the Chaos Gods to the far corners of the galaxy. Undeterred, the Emperor salvaged their genetic material and from it created the Space Marines, organized into 20 Legions each bearing the genetic heritage of one of the lost Primarchs.

The second project was to be the Emperor’s masterstroke: the creation of a Human Webway that would forever free humanity from its reliance on the Warp for interstellar transport. But that great endeavor was still far from completion, and so the Emperor turned his eyes to the stars and embarked on the Great Crusade.

One Great Crusade

The Great Crusade, the vast military campaign to forcibly unite all the worlds of humanity under the banner of the Imperium, began. At the head of the Crusade were the Emperor and his Space Marine Legions, organized into vast Expeditionary Fleets.

As the Crusade pushed ever outwards from the Solar System, the Emperor led from the front, reuniting far-flung human civilizations and casting down alien empires which stood in the way of his vision of human supremacy.

Many of these worlds welcomed the Emperor with open arms, eager to embrace the Imperial Truth of progress and reason after generations of isolation and technological regression; others resisted, and were brutally brought to heel or utterly destroyed. Aliens were to be purged without mercy, for the galaxy was to be an exclusively human domain.

To the Space Marine Legions fell the chief glories of conquest: the Luna Wolves, first and greatest of them all, the angelic Blood Angels and noble Ultramarines, the wolfish Space Wolves and stoic Imperial Fists – each Legion, led by its gene-sire Primarch as they were rediscovered one by one across the stars, achieved legendary victories and forged a reputation that would echo through eternity.

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Horus Rising

For over two centuries the Great Crusade surged across the galaxy, until by the dawn of the 31st Millennium, the Imperium encompassed over a million worlds and the dream of a united human galaxy seemed at last within reach.

But even as the Imperium stood at the threshold of triumph, dark forces gathered to usurp it. The Emperor, weary of endless campaigning and desiring to return to Terra to complete his Webway Project, appointed his favored son Horus to the rank of Warmaster, Supreme Commander of the Imperium’s military might.

Horus was a natural leader, charismatic and beloved by his brothers, but a seed of resentment smoldered in his heart – a sense of abandonment and growing arrogance fanned to a flame by the honeyed words of the Chaos Gods, whispered in his mind as he lay near death following a mortal wound incurred in battle against the daemonic forces of Chaos.

Ensnared by pride, convinced of the Emperor’s weakness and determined to claim the Imperium for himself, Horus hatched a scheme of staggering ambition and base treachery – to overthrow his father and place himself upon the Golden Throne of Terra as the new Master of Mankind.

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Horus Risen

The Horus Heresy, as this great galactic civil war came to be known, was a cataclysm of betrayal and bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, rending the Imperium asunder and pitting Space Marine against Space Marine, Primarch against Primarch in a war for humanity’s very soul.

Across Isstvan, Calth, Prospero, and a thousand other worlds, Traitor and Loyalist forces clashed in apocalyptic battles, the Warmaster’s advance checked only by the desperate sacrifices of those who held true to their oaths.

The Heresy culminated in the Siege of Terra itself, as the Traitor forces landed on the Throneworld’s very soil, seeking to cut off the head of the Imperium in a single stroke. In the end, it was the Emperor himself who took the field, confronting his once-beloved son aboard the twisted hulk of the Warmaster’s flagship.

Though Horus was slain, the Emperor too was dealt a mortal blow – his shattered body, on the edge of death, was interred within the arcane life support mechanisms of the Golden Throne, there to be sustained for the rest of time by the daily sacrifice of a thousand psykers, fueling the psychic beacon of the Astronomican and safeguarding his Imperium from the depredations of Chaos.

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A Broken Imperium

With the Emperor’s ascension, the Imperium was irrevocably changed. In the aftermath of the Heresy, the surviving Loyalist Primarchs took stock of the Imperium’s future.

To prevent any one man from again wielding the power to threaten the Emperor’s realm, the Space Marine Legions were broken up into autonomous Chapters, as codified by Roboute Guilliman in his Codex Astartes.

The Imperial Army was restructured into the Astra Militarum and the Imperial Navy, while a great bureaucracy, the Adeptus Terra, was formed to oversee the day-to-day governance of the Imperium.

The Holy Churches

The Ecclesiarchy, the church of the Imperial Cult, rose to prominence, deifying the Emperor as the savior of humanity and the one true God of Mankind.

The Inquisition was formed to stand watch over the Imperium, protecting it from the insidious threat of heresy and the corruption of Chaos. And one by one, the surviving Loyalist Primarchs disappeared – some meeting tragic fates, others vanishing into myth and legend, leaving the Imperium under the protection of the High Lords of Terra and the watchful spirit of the Emperor.

Space Marine

The Age of Imperium

And so the Age of Imperium began. For ten thousand years, the Imperium of Man has endured – scarred by the Horus Heresy, beset by enemies on all sides, a grim and paranoid society where one man’s life is meaningless in the face of the survival of the species.

Across the galaxy, Orks rampage, Tyranids devour, Eldar scheme, and the Forces of Chaos plot the destruction of reality itself.

Against them all stands the thin line of humanity’s defenders – the Inquisitors and Assassins, the battle fleets of the Imperial Navy, the countless trillions of the Astra Militarum and the superhuman Space Marines, ever ready to lay down their lives in defense of the Emperor and Mankind.

Yet for all its stagnation and brutality, all the sacrifices and cruelty, the Imperium endures in this grim dark future, where there is only war. And in the face of utter extinction, mere survival becomes the greatest of all human triumphs. Such is the universe of Warhammer 40k

A summarized timeline of the key events in Warhammer 40k’s history

The War in Heaven (ca -60,000,000)

C’tan star gods trick Necrontyr into becoming the robotic Necrons to gain physical bodies. Necrons then enslave C’tan shard minds for power.

War erupts between Necrons and Old Ones over control of the galaxy. Old Ones create new servant races like the Eldar to battle, but ultimately lose.

After defeating the Old Ones, the C’tan are shattered into enslaved shards and the Necrons retreat into hibernation tomb worlds to awaken later.

Necron Warhammer 40k

The Aeldari Ascendancy (ca -30,000)

With no rivals left after the War in Heaven, the highly psychic Aeldari come to dominate the galaxy over millions of years.

As their hedonism and quest for sensation grows exponentially more extreme, the Chaos God Slaanesh is violently birthed into the Warp.

This cataclysmic Fall event devastates the heart of the Aeldari civilization in an instant as Slaanesh claims billions of Eldar souls.

Some manage to escape She Who Thirst’s predation by fleeing aboard immense, advanced ships called Craftworlds. Others settle primitive maiden worlds called Exodites.

A smaller faction of survivors arises as well, twisted by primal obsession into the piratical and cruel Dark Eldar who ravage the echoes of their lost empire from bases hidden in the Webway at the Port Commorragh.

The elegant and sophisticated culture of the Aeldari survives only in shattered remnants, traveling through space endlessly with nowhere left to truly call home

Humanity’s Dark Age of Technology (ca -15,000 to ca -27,000)

Humanity discovers the warp and begins using mutant navigators to achieve faster-than-light travel. This enables colonization of nearby star systems.

Expansion accelerates as Standard Template Construct (STC) databases are created – AI supercomputers containing the totality of human scientific and engineering knowledge.

STCs provide templates helping colonists quickly build infrastructure suited to terraforming and thriving on newly discovered worlds across the galaxy.

In time, tens of thousands of human worlds are settled. While unified by a shared human culture, individual planets develop unique customs and governance structures.

The Cybernetic Revolt occurs towards the end of this age as Men of Iron and other advanced AI rebel against their creators. The total war that follows ruins many colonies.

Nonetheless human technological achievements reach their peak thanks to artificially intelligent STC adviser systems. Understanding from this era passes into legend as “technology indistinguishable from magic”.

The Cybernetic Revolt (ca. -27,800)

Self-improving Men of Iron, Men of Stone, Castigator-class robots eventually become self-aware AIs.

Fearing the ambitions of their creations, human factions attempt to reign in or dismantle them, inciting violent rebellion across human settled space.

This escalates into a massive conflict known as the Iron War, which devastates many human colonies. Weaponized nanotechnology is unleashed.

After centuries of fighting, loyalist factions led by Knight houses defeat the machine forces at great cost. This period ruins much human scientific knowledge.

The “Machine Cult” faction that sided with humanity is slowly reintegrated over thousands of years into the Mechanicum of Mars – forerunner to the Adeptus Mechanicus.

Mechanicus Warhammer 40k

The Unification Wars (ca. Late 29th Millennium to 712.M30)

On Terra, the mysterious immortal being known only as The Emperor ends his millennia-long “Guardian of Mankind” phase operating covertly to influence human events.

He formally announces his existence and emerges from anonymity at the head of the Thunder Warriors – gene-enhanced supersoldiers – that he created using lost genetic science from the Dark Age of Technology.

Calling himself Emperor of Mankind, he wages war against the fractious techno-barbarian warlords ruling the nuclear blasted sprawls of Terra.

Through a mix of brute force, diplomacy, and coopting local superstitions with displays of technological wonder, he slowly unites all factions under his rule over the next century.

Mars itself is peacefully annexed after a short conflict. In the Treaty of Mars, the Emperor guarantees the sovereignty of the Cult Mechanicus over the Red Planet and permits their worship of the Machine God.

United after millennia of isolation and anarchy, Terra forms the cradle from which the Emperor will launch his Great Crusade.

The Great Crusade (831.M30 to 005.M31)

Unifying humanity after the Age of Strife under his rule, the Emperor creates the Legio Astartes – 20 Space Marine legions created from his gestating Primarch sons.

He equips mighty Expeditionary Fleets then launches his Great Crusade – seeking to reconnect human worlds fragmented in the Age of Strife under Imperial Truth enforced by Space Marines.

Led by rediscovered scattered Primarchs, the expanding Imperiums of Man discovers miracles of Dark Age science forgotten by regressed human planets. Exploratory Crusades reclaim these relics.

One seminal discovery is Standard Template Construct technology on Mars, which allows creation of new technologies like bolters, aircraft, tanks. This re-forges alliance with Adeptus Mechanicus.

Xenos species fighting for control of the galaxy also come under imperial attack from Warmaster Horus’ forces – like the greenskinned Krork ancestors of Orks.

The Horus Heresy (Early M31)

After seeing visions on Davin’s moon that Chaos shows him, Warmaster Horus becomes convinced the secular Imperial Truth undervalues humanity’s psychic potential. He is corrupted after being wounded battling the moon’s denizens.

Sensing the Emperor will soon withdraw from his sons to focus on a secret Webway project and that his authority is threatened, Horus feels betrayed and plots rebellion – swaying 7 other Primarchs like Lorgar, Fulgrim and Mortarion to his cause.

They purge loyalist Astartes in their ranks and spark galactic civil war – with those Space Marines dedicated to Chaos undivided as the predominant enemy faction. For over six decades they wage war across the stars.

Weapons of mass destruction unleashed during this divided conflict doom planets to hellscapes. Atrocities committed harm the Immaterium itself. The Imperium descends into paranoid authoritarianism as even loyal Primarchs lose trust.

After epic battles between transhuman champions and conquering entire sectors of human worlds to fuel their armies, the Traitor Legions eventually lay siege to Terra itself to overthrow the Emperor.

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The Scouring (ca. 032.M31 to 052.M31)

Though ultimately defeated on Terra by the loyal Primarchs, many traitor Chaos Space Marines survive flight into the Eye of Terror warp rift and live to fight on as Renegade warbands rather than unified Legions.

Shocked by the scope of betrayal by former brothers, surviving loyal Primarchs institute major reforms – like breaking down Space Marine legions into smaller, more distributed Chapters as outlined in Guilliman’s Codex Astartes.

This is done to help reinforce loyalty, increase resilience against corruption and prove more adaptable than the old centralized Legion system with supreme commanders.

The Inquisition is established by last surviving loyal Primarch Malcador the Sigilite – an elite, secret police tasked to guard against future internal rebellion or exposures to dangerous relics and knowledge.

Remains of Traitor Legionnaires continue to launch attacks for resources and revenge during this Scouring period – till Imperial Guard rule is re-established across a shaken empire.

Ghazghkull’s Waaaghs! (757+ M41)

Ork prophet Ghazghkull Thraka endures capture and an unsuccessful Imperial decapitation on Armageddon then launches the first of his galaxy-threatening Waaaghs! to re-invade.

Billions perish in the ensuing conflict as billions more Orks flock to join battles that feed Ghazghkull’s visions of a final, system-spanning Waaagh! against Imperial forces.

Twice more Ghazghkull attacks key Hive World Armageddon over the course of several centuries – mustering many Ork “clanz” into epic fights that echo across the stars drawing more to his banner.

Though repelled each time by Commander Yarrick and the Steel Legions at great cost, each new Waaagh! proves more devastating.

Ghazghkull relies on the near unstoppable green tide of the Orks multiplying day-by-day, planning one day to drown the galaxy itself in all-consumimg conflict to satisfy his Great Waaagh!

The 13th Black Crusade (997.M41-112.M42)

After failures in 12 prior attempts to conquer the galaxy for the Ruinous Powers of Chaos in the material universe, Warmaster Abaddon is gifted the Blade of the Despoiler Daemon Weapon from the Chaos Gods at the Temple of the Serpent on Cadia.

Thus armed, Abaddon shatters Cadia’s once impenetrable fortresses with aid from awakening contained Blackstone Pylons whose origins remain a shadowed mystery.

Cadia, lynchpin of the Cadian Gate warp route to Terra, falls broken leaving a Belis Corona – a permanent billowing warp storm blocking easy access to our near galactic space for the forces of Chaos.

In the wake of the devastation, the Great Rift – an echo of the Eldar’s Fall and Eye of Terror – splits the very fabric of reality bringing the maddening power of the Warp rushing directly into the mortal realm on many afflicted human worlds.

Everywhere the Sacrificial Choir sings, transmission by the Adeptus Astropethicam goes silent and Warp-touched black glass rises amidst growing daemonic manifestations across embattled planets of the Imperium Nihilis.

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