Warhammer 40k’s Emperor of Mankind is the fulcrum around which Games Workshop’s entire sci-fi setting revolves. No faction has been unaffected by him, but it’s at home that his influence can be most keenly felt. Without the Emperor of Mankind there would be no Imperium, no Primarchs, and no Space Marines – and what would Warhammer 40k be without all of that?
Though he’s an incredibly impactful figure, there are many layers of intrigue draped around him, layers that Games Workshop will probably never dispel. That said, there are some things we do know, and some things we suspect – so come with us on a trip to meet the God Emperor of Mankind himself.
The Emperor of Mankind’s beginnings
Nobody knows quite where the Emperor of Mankind comes from, other than that he’d been alive for many thousands of years before Warhammer 40k. There are rumblings of him existing throughout the entire existence of humanity, popping up in the background of many historical events. Some Warhammer 40k books from the 1980s state he was born in the 8th millennium BCE, or was created as a gestalt psychic entity by a cabal of shamans – but these sources have become outdated.
What we do know is that he is old – very old – and, sometime during the Age of Strife, he decided to step out into the open to lead humanity from out of the shadows. At that time, the Emperor began to experiment with genetically enhancing humanity, creating the mighty Thunder Warriors to be his troops as he waged a war of unification against the other warlords of Terra.
This gained him allies (such as Malcador the Sigillite, who convinced him to take the title Emperor) as well as various experts in the field of genetic manipulation.
After uniting Terra, he began work on the next stage of his grand project. Using arcane sciences and a spot of the Warp, he created the Primarchs – vastly superhuman beings wrought from 20 different strains of his own genetic code. Unfortunately, before he could raise them to lead his Imperium, the forces of Chaos spirited away the infants, stopping his plans before they could begin.
The Emperor of Mankind isn’t someone to give up, however. He decided to create legions, much as he’d done with the Thunder Warriors, this time using the Primarchs’ more specialised genetic structure as a template. Thus, the first Space Marines were born, not so strong as the Primarchs, or even the Thunder Warriors, but infinitely more numerous.
Now, armed with his legions, the Emperor of Mankind set out on a Great Crusade across the stars.
The Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy
Though the goals of the Great Crusade were to reunite humanity under one banner and dispel what he deemed superstitious beliefs, it also led to the Emperor being reunited with his Primarch sons. The first of these was Horus Lupercal, with many to follow over the coming years. For his sons, this was a golden age, crusading across the galaxy with their father.
All golden ages end, however, and, after a colossal war against the Orks on a planet named Ullanor, the Emperor announced his intention to return to Terra and leave the crusade in Horus’ hands. Though the Emperor was immortal, a genius, and a psyker without peer, in retrospect this may have been a little mistake – as this moment would eventually lead to the catastrophic civil war known as the Horus Heresy.
Back on Terra, however, he was pushing hard to enact his grand plan for humanity. Despite having outlawed all worship and talk of anything mystical, the Emperor knew full well of the dangers of the Immaterium, and the Chaos Gods that swim in its depths.
By ruthlessly enforcing a completely secular society, he hoped to ensure humanity avoided contact with the horrors of the Warp for as long as possible.
The Emperor knew that humanity’s future would be to become a psychic race – but also that psykers can easily draw attention from the Immaterium. He set about building a device known as the Golden Throne that would act as a bridge between Terra and the Aeldari Webway, giving humanity a way to travel between the stars without resorting to the Warp. It was his hope that humanity could shelter there, fulfilling its potential, safe from the prying eyes of Chaos.
The Horus Heresy put an end to this hope. In a terrible act, another of his Primarch sons, Magnus the Red, tore the bridge to the Webway asunder in a misguided attempt to warn the Emperor of Horus’ betrayal. His plans in tatters, the Emperor was forced to stay on the Golden Throne, holding back an eternal tide of daemons that threatened to overwhelm Terra through the shattered Webway.
This never-ending task ensured that the Emperor was unable to take a direct hand in the Horus Heresy until the rebellious armies threatened to overwhelm the Imperial Palace itself. In the siege’s climax, the emperor roused himself from his throne and boarded Horus’ flagship, the Vengeful Spirit, with Sanguinius at his side. There the Blood Angels’ Primarch was slain by the Chaos-infused Horus, leading to a final duel between son and father.
Horus was eventually killed – but not before he mortally wounded the Emperor. A rescue force led by Imperial Fists Primarch Rogal Dorn was able to fight its way through to him, taking his broken body back to Terra. His last wish before losing consciousness was to be interred on the Golden Throne, his lasting home throughout the coming ages.
The God Emperor in Warhammer 40k
Through ten thousand long years, the Emperor of Mankind has kept his seat on the Golden Throne, its ancient technology fanning the embers of his life to keep him alive – yet comatose. Here, guarded by his elite Adeptus Custodes, he forms an essential part of the Imperium, using his psychic powers to fuel the psychic navigation beacon known as the Astronomican. This beacon is the only way to ensure safe travel through the Warp – though its psychic call also shouts to the dread Tyranids, drawing them ever closer.
Despite his shattered physical body, his psychic form is becoming more powerful than ever. This transcendence is fuelled in part by the never-ceasing worship of the Imperium. The grand irony of the Emperor’s life is that he eschewed all worship and superstition – yet the power of human belief is slowly turning him into a god.
The only insight we have into the Emperor is thanks to his son, Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the Ultramarines, who returned from the brink of death in the 41st millennium. He was able to commune with the Emperor, and reported that terrible changes have been at work.
The Emperor has become cold and distant, seeing the return of his son as a creator would a long-lost tool. All feeling has been stripped from the Emperor through his long years on the throne, leaving him something almost inhuman.
Now it appears that, in Warhammer 40k, the Emperor of Mankind is gaining strength and rumours abound that he may be close to ascension, or even rebirth. Roboute Guilliman and Archmagos Belisarius Cawl have begun a search to find a way to awaken the Emperor, bringing about a new age for the Imperium of Mankind.