We may earn money or products from the companies mentioned in this post.
Aside from Gameplay and Hobbying, the third reason that people love the Warhammer 40k universe is the lore, or the story of the setting, but getting started in Warhammer 40k lore can be daunting because there’s just so much of it. If you think worlds like Middle Earth are expansive, they’ve got nothing on Warhammer 40k, and that’s because for 30 years dozens of authors have been writing hundreds of novels about it. The Warhammer 40k universe is BIG.
So where do we get started? In this article on getting started in Warhammer 40k lore I’m going to go through a general timeline of lore and, when we get to a certain points, I’m going to point you to Warhammer 40k novels. Note that I’m not going to be going into a LOT of detail about every faction here, but that’s because I’ll be going into more detail on each when we get into then Getting Started guides for each faction. For now if you want to read more about each faction, here’s an article The Warhammer 40k Races, one on the Warhammer 40k factions, and one each on the Space Marines and the Chaos Space Marines. I’ll be linking to other articles as we go.
Getting Started in Warhammer 40k Lore: The Timeline
The C’Tan, The Old Ones, and the Necrontyr
The beginning of the Warhammer 40k universe begins with origin of the C’tan, who are also sometimes referred to as the Star Gods. The C’tan were beings of energy who didn’t have physical forms but instead existed near stars leaching the power emanating from the stars for their strength. They were powerful, but only semi-sentient and didn’t interact with the world or other races much.
Next on the scene came the Old Ones. Not much is known about the Old Ones, except that they were an extremely powerful reptilian race that was nearly immortal and highly technologically advanced. The Old Ones had done one thing very important, which was to create (or use; it’s unclear) the Webway. The Webway is a way to move through space faster than light without entering the dangerous Warp.
The Warp, which needs to be defined, is also called the Immaterium, and is a place of psychic energy where all emotions felt in the material universe (the Materium) exist and are expanded upon. We’ll get into the Warp more in the future when the Chaos Gods burst into existence, but for now it’s enough to say that the Warp is very treacherous to travel and can drive travelers mad just in the attempt. Therefore, the ability of the Old Ones to travel via Webway was extremely useful and important.
The Old Ones ruled the Milky Way galaxy for eons, but eventually came into contact with the Necrontyr. The Necrontyr were a fragile and desperate race: they were very vulnerable to the radiation of the stars and lived short and difficult lives. They sought to find a better way to live and they envied the Old Ones’ immortality. They also did not have access to the Webway or even the Warp and they traveled slowly across the galaxy. But they went to war with the Old Ones.
This was all happening about 60 million years before present.
Their war with the Old Ones was not going well until they became aware of the existence of the C’tan and the C’tan’s great power. They wanted to harness the C’tan’s power for their own benefit but they didn’t realize that the C’tan had their own reasons for wanting to unite with the Necrontyr–to get physical forms. The Necrontyr and C’tan came to an agreement that the C’tan would help in the war against the Old Ones in exchange for being given a necrodermis–a body of living metal. This war would become referred to as The War in Heaven.
The battles in the War in Heaven lasted for a long time with extreme power on both sides. The Old Ones, in their desperation to win, created races that could benefit them in the war. Among them was the Aeldari, or the Eldar, as well as the Krork (ancestors of the Orks), as well as the Slann and Jokaero.
During the war, the C’tan tricked the Necrontyr into gaining immortality by implanting their minds in bodies of metal, effectively stopping being the Necrontyr and becoming the Necrons. With this, the C’tan and Necrons were able to defeat the Old Ones.
However, the Necrons realized they had been betrayed and they found the C’tan at the end of the War in Heaven to be tired and powerless, and the Necrons made their move: they destroyed the C’tan, breaking them into shards, and then harnessing the shards of C’tan as sources of great power. Even so, the Necrons, now the last left, recognized they could be defeated by the rising Aeldari or Krork and they went into hibernation until a future time when they could come back and overpower their enemies.
60 Million Years Pass: The Power of the Aeldari and the Rise of Humanity
In the absence of these major groups, the Aeldari rose to prominence in the galaxy to the point where they were the most powerful and reigned nearly uncontested for millions of years. The Aeldari were a psychic race and they were able to make great use of the Webway allowing them to spread through the galaxy, to conquer and populate.
Skipping forward, humanity rose to become a power, somewhere around 40,000 years before present, in what is know as the Age of Terra. Humanity was a small race but were starfaring and had begun to terraform planets within the Earth’s solar system.
Among the humans was a man who would become the Emperor of Mankind. He had lived for thousands of years, being born perhaps 6000 years prior. But the man who would be Emperor lived quietly in the shadows.
The humans entered the Age of Technology, which is also known as the “Dark Age of Technology” somewhere between the 15th and 25tth millenniums. The first known psykers emerged and became navigators who could allow the humans to travel through the Warp.
Previous to this, the Chaos Gods began to emerge, the first being Khorne, the Blood God, who burst into existence during Earth’s Middle Ages. Khorne was the embodiment of all rage and anger, bravery and ferocity. Other gods would appear, including Tzeentch, the God of Change, and Nurgle, the God of Plague.
The presence of these gods made travel through the Warp extremely difficult and only these psyker navigators could do it. Still, for ten thousand years the humans traveled the Milky Way and began populating other planets, growing technologically, and becoming a major power.
This era of technology would become the zenith of human technology, with all technological knowledge formed from STCs, or Standard Template Constructs. But this is where technological advancement would come to an end because in the 25th Millennium the Age of Strife began.
The Fall of the Aeldari and the Age of Strife
The Aeldari had become so powerful that they essentially ran out of places to conquer. The human civilization was still nothing compared to the Aeldari. The Aeldari began to grow decadent and vile, finding it harder and harder to get pleasure out of life so they became hedonistic and found their joy in excess.
This continued, growing worse and worse, in a combination of lust, gluttony, and greed, until their mental state impacted the Warp so much that a new Chaos God burst into existence: Slaanesh, the God of Excess.
This nearly wiped out the Aeldari. Some had left the larger group of Aeldari early–the Exodites–or they sought refuge on Craftworlds, massive world-sized ships. The Aeldari would lose their place as the leading power in the galaxy and be a broken and disjointed civilization. While some resisted Slaanesh (“She Who Thirsts”) and became the Craftworld Eldar, others gave into the pleasure of the God of Excess and became the Drukhari (also known as the Dark Eldar).
The presence of this new Chaos presence sent massive ripples through the Warp and effectively shut down Warp travel for many thousands of years, a period that humanity called The Age of Strife. Most planets were cut off from the Earth and Solar System, and they began to meet fierce opposition from the Orks.
The Great Crusade and the Rise of the Emperor
It was during the Age of Strife that the man who would be Emperor came to power. The greatest psyker in human history and essentially immortal, the Emperor of Mankind sought to reunite all of humanity, and he began work on a Great Crusade to do just that.
The Emperor created 20 Primarchs, his “sons” who were superhumans all having his DNA. He intended the Primarchs to lead the Great Crusade but they were accosted by the powers of Chaos and spread across the galaxy while still children. The Emperor then used the DNA of the Primarchs to created 20 legions of Space Marines, transhuman warriors of great power. He also made a treaty with the Cult Mechanicum, who were based on Mars, and who led the entire Imperium of Man in manufacturing and technology. The Emperor was against the concept of religion, but in the Treaty of Mars he allowed the Cult Mechanicum to continue their worship of the Machine God.
Thus the Emperor set out with his Space Marines to reconquer and reclaim the worlds of humanity and to find the Primarchs. One by one they were found, each altered and influenced by the world to which they had been scattered. The first to be found was Horus, who became the Emperor’s right hand.
The Great Crusade lasted for 200 years and all of the Primarchs were found, and each was given a legion of Space Marines to lead.
(It should be noted that there are two legions of the Space Marines, the 2nd and the 11th, that are not known or identified. Something happpened to them that was bad enough that all record of them was expunged from the Imperium.)
The Horus Heresy
However, the reunification of the Primarchs was not going to bring peace, even though it did bring all of humanity together under one banner–the Imperium. The Emperor made Horus the Warmaster and then returned to earth to work on a secret project that he did not divulge to his sons. This was seen as a betrayal by some. (The project was to work on creating a Webway so that the Imperium wouldn’t need to travel through the Warp.)
But, worse than this betrayal, Horus was corrupted by Chaos, wounded by a Chaos-tainted blade from Nurgle, a wound that could not heal. In an effort to save his own life he fell further into the clutches of Chaos. One by one, Horus was able to draw eight other Space Marine Legions and their Primarchs under his command.
Combined, the nine Primarchs turned on their comrades, beginning at a planet called Isstvan III where Horus used virus bombs to wipe out the Space Marines there who were still loyal to the Emperor. Before it was clear what had happened, other Space Marines were dispatched to Isstvan, and on Isstvan V four corrupted legions turned on three loyalist legions in what is known as the Drop Site Massacre.
From there, Horus went on a long crusade toward Terra to destroy the Emperor, a campaign that lasted seven years and ended in the Seige of Terra. A great many things happened during the Horus Heresy (more than fifty books have been written on the subject) but ultimately Horus was killed by the Emperor, but Horus mortally wounded the Emperor as well.
The Emperor was placed on his Golden Throne, where he exists as a living corpse, using all his psychic energy to maintain the Astronomican, the method by which the Imperium can travel through the Warp. 1000 psykers are sacrificed to the Emperor every single day to power his throne and keep him alive.
The Emperor is now revered as a God.
From there on, all of the Primarchs who were still alive after the Horus Heresy were scattered, some battling each other, and others gave in to Chaos. Primarch Robute Guilliman led the Imperium, establishing the Codex Astartes, the organization of the Space Marines, and founding new chapters.
The Imperium would establish many groups, including the Imperial Guard or Astra Militarum, the Sisters of Battle, the Adeptus Custodes, the Inquisition and so on. They would fight Xenos wherever they were encountered, invluding massive wars with the Orks. And, they would battle never-ending wars against Chaos, including against the Primarchs who had ascended to become daemon princes.
The 41st Millennium
In the 41st Millennium (where Warhammer 40k gets its name) all things began to come to a head. The Necrons began to awake from their tomb worlds and to set out to conquer the galaxy. The Tyranid Hive Fleets began consuming entire worlds in an attempt to grow their biomass. The T’au became a threat. The Orks would be led by Ghazghkull Thraka in the wars for Armageddon.
Finally, Robute Guilliman would be brought back from a thousand years in stasis, and it was revealed that he had given Archmagus Dominus Belisarius Cawl the task of creating an even stronger breed of Space Marine–the Primaris marines. Guilliman leads the armies of the Imperium now, while the entire galaxy is at war.