Rock, Metal, and Time
The disappearance of the Precursors is shrouded in mystery. According to one of the last Precursors, these intelligent beings that existed millions of years before even the Forerunners’ mighty empire were slain by their own creations–the Forerunners themselves. This last Precursor was sealed away in a secret crypt, aware of its kind’s plight, but unable to do anything. The crypt became its prison.
The Precursors were first mentioned in the Halo 3 Beastiarium, during a brief note regarding the Forerunner’s rating of different species along the technological ‘Tiers’. There were seven tiers in total, the seventh being the lowest at a pre-industrial stone age, working up through the technology of the industrial age, atomic age, space age, space-faring, interstellar, and world builders. After world builders is Tier 0:
“As the Forerunners had no examples of civilizations with technological accomplishments greater than themselves – with the exception of the Precursors – this is a theoretical ceiling. It is suspected that they can travel across galaxies and accelerate the evolution of intelligent life.”
In the Terminals of Halo 3, the Forerunner story was finally told, along with the mention of their religious doctrine, known as the Mantle. In the Terminals, it was stated by name a handful of times:
“We are sworn to protect life not destroy it! That is the Mantle we were given to carry.”
“The Mantle. You still hold to that [fairy tale] after all that has happened? After this thing has consumed a million worlds?
Can’t you see? Belief in the Mantle sealed our doom!”
“The Mantle has not failed! I’ve already razed scores of worlds – sterilized systems, routed and [disintegrated] the parasite! We’re learning its tricks and strategies. We can halt this thing! And we can follow in Their footsteps!”
The Mantle is a set of doctrines which some Forerunner felt were imprinted on their species as a geas (artificially imposed instinct), urging Forerunners to care for all life and cultivate it wherever it was found, ruling with a benevolent hand. In some ways, if one views the Forerunner as an AI–an artificial intelligence created by the Precursors–then it is logical to assume that their creation was for some purpose. The Mantle is the biggest hint we have as to what that may be. The Mantle seems almost wholly Buddhist in its teachings, encouraging proper treatment of all life, no bloodshed, no destruction.
Perhaps the Precursors in their search for life discovered that they were alone, the only intelligent creatures in the cosmos. Because their society had evolved, they knew it was possible for others as well. Thus they created the Forerunner, a group akin to biological AI whose purpose was to push sentient life along the path towards intelligence and eventually civilization. The Precursor’s constructs, however, were far more intelligent than their creators intended and, in realizing their fate, rose up against their would-be masters. Then, life proceeded without the Precursors, a bitter irony to the sorrow which had caused them to create life in the first place.
On the ancient world of Charum Hakkor, a planet littered with the indestructible remains of the Precursor civilization, the last of those entities was imprisoned, sealed in a capsule for an unknown amount of time. When the prehistoric civilizations of humanity and San’Shyuum formed an alliance and declared Charum Hakkor their homeworld, they made the startling discovery of the imprisoned being, which they never saw, but learned to communicate with for brief periods of time.
When the Flood began to threaten humanity, many went to the creature, whom they consulted as an ‘oracle’. They questioned the thing about the nature of the Flood, the meaning of its existence, and its origin. When the creature answered, many of the humans present were so deeply horrified by its answer that they committed suicide. This concept of humans being unable to face the true nature of reality is a philosophical concept that has existed in literature since at least the beginning of the 20th century.
In post-WWI America, during the economic struggles of the 1920s and 30s, author H.P. Lovecraft began the cosmicism movement, which applied to any ideology wherein humanity’s existence is shown to be utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, where human minds are so inconsequential in the face of the cosmos that most of reality is far beyond our comprehension. Since that time, many science fiction and fantasy novels have utilized this concept, from classics to the lore of Halo as well.
In 1928, H.P. Lovecraft published a short story in the magazine ‘Weird Tales’, entitled “The Call of Cthulhu”. The story features the titular god-being, described as having the head of an octopus, the body of a man, and the wings of a dragon.
The “Cthulhu Mythos” built up about the creature, like much of the backstory for the Halo universe itself, is shrouded in immense mystery. Nothing said about Cthulhu and the Old Gods ever seems to be entirely dependable as fact, and information can only be gleamed as hints from a few sentences here and there throughout the associated works.
For example, Cthulhu is described by some of the fictional followers of his cult as a “great priest” of “the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky.”
Among other things, this fictional cult is known for chanting the phrase “In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
To anyone who has played Mass Effect 2, this line may sound eerily familiar. In it, you board a derelict Reaper that was determined to be either dead or disabled. Cryptic video logs indicate that researchers aboard the vessel began to feel the presence of the monstrous entity inside their heads, causing them to go insane. In one frantic message, a researcher says to the camera “Chandana said this ship was dead. We trusted him. He was right. But even a dead god can dream.”
The Reapers, vaguely cephalopod-like machines, are called the “Old Machines” by a race of synthetics who have factions that worship them as gods. In the Cthulhu Mythos, Cthulhu is but one of many of the “Old Gods”, imprisoned in the earth (among various locations) for unknown reasons:
“The Great Old Ones are currently imprisoned – a few beneath the sea, some inside the Earth, and still others in distant planetary systems and beyond. The reason for their captivity is not known, though there are two prevailing theories:
They were sequestered by the Elder Gods for using black magic transgressions, or
They are sealed off somehow from the rest of the Universe of their own volition.”
– “Great Old Ones”, 126–7.
Millions of years ago, it was confined in a stasis capsule and buried thousands of meters below the surface.
– Cryptum, 120
The creature on Charum Hakkor was given a few names within the novel Halo: Cryptum. Among them was “The Prisoner of Charum Hakkor”, linking the imprisoned concept of the Old Ones to the Halo mythology. But it goes even further, to the point where the last Precursor is referred to as “The Timeless One” and the Precursors were directly called “Old Ones”, following in the tradition of the Cthulhu Mythos (Great Old Ones, Old Gods, Elder Gods, etc.)
When humanity finally made contact with the Precursor, they did it through the creature’s own advanced technology, which is based on the concept of ‘neural physics’. Neural physics is based on the idea that all of matter is affected by the mind, a concept in many different fields: noetic theory, panpsychism (thoughts affect matter), and the New Thought movement (all sickness originates in the mind, positive thinking has a healing effect, etc). Therefore, the technology of the Precursors is linked to the minds of all living things, creating almost a metaphysical technology. There is a similar mechanic in the Cthulhu Mythos:
“Great Old Ones are telepathic and knew all that was occurring in the universe. They were able to communicate with the first humans by moulding their dreams.”
– The Call of Cthulhu, 140–141.
Halo will always have a solid grounding in the physical and technological world, but it is never hesitant to delve into the theoretical and conceptual realms of reality.
When the young Forerunner Bornstellar finally gained the knowledge of the Didact after the original Didact’s execution, he gained his memories as well, including what the Precursor prisoner had said to him before the Halo test firing released it from its tomb:
“We meet again, young one. I am the last of those who gave you breath and shape and form, millions of years ago.
I am the last of those your kind rose up against and ruthlessly destroyed.
I am the last Precursor.
And our answer is at hand.”
– Cryptum, 342
The book closes on this cliffhanger, leaving fans wondering what happens next. The book is so well crafted that it makes us forget that we already know what happens next; the Forerunner lose their long struggle against the Flood, eventually leading to annihilation at the hands of the Halo Array. It is highly possible that the Precursor’s answer to the rebellion of the Forerunner comes in the form of the Flood.
But what, then, is the tie?
Another quote from the Cthulhu Mythos goes as follows:
“The Horla concerns an invisible being who… sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind.”
– The Call of Cthulhu, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, 28.
In Halo 3, the Gravemind is never directly seen, and instead chooses to contact the player through seemingly telekinetic means, often using rhetoric and logic to persuade the Chief to give up hope and accept the inevitable. Halo 3 is also the first time in the contemporary Halo fiction where the Flood arrives on Earth (“extraterrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind”). But if the Gravemind is one of the Old Ones, and the Precursor is as well, than what is their relationship?
In the Terminals in Halo 3, players were shown Mendicant Bias, an artificial intelligence created by the Forerunner to combat the Flood, but who defects to their side after a decades long conversation with the Gravemind.
“Is this the noble sacrifice my creators spoke of? Where is the nobility in these streets paved with greasy carbon and dun ash? [My mouth is speaking at another’s behest] – that is not my voice; that is the other.
Its voice stands out as the single calm note in the panicked cacophony outside the sphere. It alone is not decrying its fate or raging against the [central government].
This anomaly bears closer examination.”
– Mendicant Bias, Terminal 1
Before Bias’ defection, the AI was in command of a single Halo ring, which it tested above the planet of Charum Hakkor, freeing the Prisoner. Mendicant Bias and the Gravemind are recorded as having conversed frequently over a period of forty-three years, the Gravemind steadily convincing Mendicant Bias that his true purpose in being built was actually to speed up the process of the Forerunner’s absorption into the Flood. At the end of the forty-three year period, Mendicant Bias announced to its creators that it was devoting its forces to the command of the Flood, by returning and destroying the Forerunner capitol, also forty-three years after the release of the prisoner of Charum Hakkor. As it seems, the last of the Precursors and the Gravemind may be one and the same.
It is possible that the Flood was created either by the Precursors, or by the last Precursor prisoner, as a last resort to preserve their race’s history if all else failed. Or perhaps it is even more sinister if the Great Journey which both the Forerunner and Covenant seemed to believe in, was actually the Flood itself… illumination and transcendence through the next step of evolution (a la Unitology in Dead Space).
The most logical answer lies within the character of the individual Precursor from the Forerunner saga, and its story. If the Precursors were the type of beings who would encourage nonviolence and peace through the Mantle they passed down, then why is this individual’s general outlook so much darker and its character so malevolent?
If the Cthulhu Mythos is to be used as a basic starting point, and the assumption about the Gravemind is that it has been the same being from the moment it began life, to the moment it ‘ended’ at the Ark, then the answer becomes clear when added to the knowledge of the Precursor’s continued existence through the Gravemind.
“Defeat is simply the addition of time to a sentence I never deserved… but you imposed.”
– Gravemind, H3
In order for one to be sentenced, they must generally first be found guilty. When the Precursor of Charum Hakkor is first discovered, it is locked away in a unique stasis capsule of Precursor construct.
“I know every corner of my tomb.”
– Gravemind (through combat form), H3
Judged by the rest of the Precursors to be of such opposition to their society and role as shapers of life, this individual was locked away indefinitely in this tomb, where it would suffer millions of years of solitude and separation from any society where its ideas would have ill effects.
This being was damned for the creation of the Flood, a force of conformity–a creation to oppose that of the Forerunners, and their cultivation of variety and life throughout the galaxy. The battle between the Precursor’s ideals of the two paths for life: variety and homogeneity. Its creation was either stripped down to its most basic form and exiled from the galaxy on unknown transport ships, or all out exterminated by the Prisoner’s brethren, causing this Precursor to launch a few ships containing its inert organic compound beyond their range of interference.
It is ironic that because of the condemned one’s imprisonment it became the last of its kind, surviving only because of its seclusion from the Halo effect. During this time the Prisoner – rotting in its grave yet unable to die – would have developed such an interest in philosophy, poetry, and general thought, focusing inward rather than outward, for outward it had nothing.
“Time has taught me patience!”
“Resignation is my virtue; like water I ebb, and flow.”
– Gravemind, H3
After its release from its prison on Charum Hakkor by Mendicant Bias, the last Precursor fled, for it risked destruction at the hands of the Forerunner. For a while, the Precursor seemed to vanish from sight. However, this is not the case, as can be seen by a closer analysis of some of the terminology used in the Halo 3 Terminals, detailing the events of the Forerunner-Flood War.
“You still hold to that [fairy tale] after all that has happened? After this thing has consumed a million worlds? … … Were we such noble [Guardians] when we drew our line and abandoned billions to the parasite? …
… I’ve already razed scores of worlds – sterilized systems, routed and [disintegrated] [b]the parasite[/b]! We’re learning its tricks and strategies. We can halt this thing!”
– Librarian and Didact, Terminal 2
The very clear separation between the titles ‘the parasite’ and ‘this thing’ are held so consistently throughout the Librarian and the Didact’s communications that it is impossible to ignore. It stands as further proof that the Precursor and the Flood are tied.
Beyond this, there is one aspect of the Flood’s life-cycle which is very revealing. We know that once the Flood gathers enough biomass, it can stop using other forms as a basis for its combat forms and instead begin crafting its own from scratch.
This so-called Pure Form stands out from the rest of the known Flood forms for the sole reason that its architecture is so vastly different. While most Flood forms possess bulbous, cancerous looking growths (from the biomass formed around a living organism to the growths seen in a Flood hive), the Pure Form displays none of these traits. It is clearly formed of the same Flood biomass, however it is assembled in a much more appealing way, seeming less haphazard and more like an actual organism one could find alive today. The surface of the Pure Form appears not unlike that of a rhinoceros or elephant, a thick and pebbly hide that appears less like a fungal growth and more like true skin. It has very distinct limbs with no strange tentacles projecting from anywhere and disrupting the design of the creature. It possesses a head that is unique among all Flood, and a set of claws that is vastly different from the ones protruding from the limbs of combat forms. This would not be of consequence, if the Pure Form was not a creation of the Gravemind/Prisoner… intelligent design at its most literal. The Gravemind/Prisoner may have adapted a familiar design for this Flood form–that of its own.
The cell contained, in temporal suspension, a genuine monster: a large creature with an overall anatomy like a grossly misshapen human, though possessed of four upper limbs, two degenerate legs, and an almost indescribably ugly head – a head shaped remarkably like that of an ancient arthropod seeded long ago on a number of planets, presumably by the Precursors, and known to some as a eurypterid. A sea scorpion.
Oval, faceted, slanted eyes bumped up from the front of its low, flat “face.” And from the rear of the head, a long, segmented tail descended the spine, ending in a wicked barb two meters in length.
– Cryptum, 277
I thought I discerned what might have been cushions or braces for a number of long, multiply jointed arms, ending in shackles or gloves designed to grip hands bigger than my own body. Hands with three thick digits and a central clasping thumb… or claw.
Two pairs. Four arms, four hand-claws.
– Cryptum, 119
Some say that the pure form only came about after High Charity became a Flood hive and enough biomass was collected, but this is not the case.
The Halo 3 multiplayer map Cold Storage is set on Installation 05 (Delta Halo) a short while after the Flood first escaped and began to form the Gravemind seen in the second game. In the facility can clearly be seen a Flood tank form, preserved in a suspension fluid since the Forerunner-Flood War, indicating that this particular design for the pure forms dates back to that era at the latest.
These are some of the deepest and most ancient mysteries in the Halo universe thus far, but they are not the only ones. Hidden in the bowels of extra materials and bonus content, starting with Halo 2, fans found references to things never before spoken of. Whispers revealed then were but the first few drops of a slowly approaching storm, one which is just now visible over the horizon… and the faint patter of rain on the back of the neck–in the form of 343i’s material thus far–feels sweeter than ever.
Awesome article as well. Mind is blown, especially since I haven’t read the Forerunner novel entirely (no biggie on Spoilers). This just shows how crazy in-depth the Halo story has became. Layers upon layers that all feed and work off each other. Can’t begin to say how excited I am for the new trilogy.
Great writeup – but I’m really surprised that with all the talk of Dreaming Gods here, you didn’t mention Pathways into Darkness…
This concept is not new to Bungie. 🙂
Yep, you can’t say Bungie has ever been ignorant of fiction 🙂
I definitely should have delved into it a bit. Never really occurred to me. I was primarily thinking about the Forerunner novel as written by a scifi author and how it tied into other classic (non-Halo) science fiction.
With that in mind though, the Ancient Ones from the PID/Marathon universe seem to be far more omnipotent than has been suggested by the Precursor’s capabilities thus far. The Precursors seem to be highly advanced organics, whereas the W’rkncacnter almost transcend the physical world. Both are inextricably tied with the works of Lovecraft, but I see some very distinct separations.
Some very specific connections between the W’rkncacnter do strike me, such as the monsters in the pyramid said to be manifestations of its dreams—clear parallels with the buried Precursor and its neural physics.
On the other hand, the JJaro seemed to act as though they possessed a guiding principle similar to the Mantle, as well as creating the S’pht out of non-sentient life forms.
The deduction that the Gravemind and the last Precursor are one and the same is a fascinating development.
The concept of the Gravemind and the Prisoner being the one and the same is nothing new–it’s been bounced around the Bungie.net forums since Cryptum was released. And though a tempting concept and seemingly obvious, I believe there is an alternative and altogether more likely theory, they are not one and the same but are allies against a common enemy.
Every big theory debated in the forums always falls flat on its face. But if you take a step back then other possible theories become possible. And this is especially true with all Halo material–we are always provided with something new and interesting. Simply throwing the Gravemind into the mix in Halo 4 again as the Prisoner is nothing new, so alternatives must be the only possible course of action. Otherwise 343i would not be showing us anything new. 343i have to capture our imagination and whet our collective appetites.
With the Gravemind (the tool and puppet of the Prisoner) gone, the situation will turn into something far more desperate. The Prisoner now has no other alternative than to take the fight directly to the enemy.
The question should not be what is the Precursor? Or what are its links to the Flood? But what tools and allies will it now utilise in its effort to crush humanity and wipe the galaxy clean of everything that is Forerunner? The Prophets or San Shyuum may come into play in this regard, but I believe there are other, more formidable opponents to face.
Here’s hoping. While there’s always a great sense of accomplishment in interpreting things correctly ahead of time, the best feeling always comes from the unforeseen twist, the newly introduced element that challenges our perception of things we thought we knew. The Precursor/Flood relationship is simply one possibility in a sea of possibilities. I agree with you, and have my fingers crossed, that this “new threat” will challenge our very perception of what we thought we knew of Halo. Perhaps the Precursor is merely a smaller part to a much larger story…
I’ve always thought that the Flood were very Lovecraftian – ancient, enigmatic, unknowable. That was the entire point of them, for me – that this an enemy that is so totally beyond human comprehension that there’s no point in trying. Converting sentients into Flood biomass? No idea. Seeming telepathy over vast distances? Nope. The Gravemind’s preference for poetry and rhyme? Seemingly pointless. But there doesn’t have to BE a point – that, in itself, IS the point.
On the other hand, I feel like the demystification of the Forerunners might not translate well when applied to the Flood. We’ve wanted to know more about everybody’s favourite Ancient Astronauts, and I love Greg Bear’s and 343i’s treatment of them, but at the same time I felt a little let down. The mystery of them was what I loved. When we demystify the Flood, when (if) we learn that they were grown in a laboratory by another ancient alien race, does that remove a key, integral part of what the Flood is? I wanted to believe the Flood truly was extragalactic, that it originated in parts unknown, in times unknown, and has consumed vast swathes of space before being stopped in the Milky Way, Thermopylae-like, by a comparatively young and small race of Forerunners. It makes their defeat so much more impressive. It also makes the Forerunners’ decision to keep samples alive for study more logical – that they expected the Flood to return, and planned for this eventuality in the hopes that their inheritors would put the knowledge gained to good use.
I’m not saying that the new concept will be bad. On the contrary, I’m sure I’ll enjoy whatever 343i and Bear bring us. But the mystery of the universe, Forerunner or Flood, and even the initial alienness of the Covenant, was what I loved when I discovered this series. We’ve seen it steadily sapped away – we played as the Covenant in Halo 2 (a decision I somewhat hypocritically loved), we’ve seen the Forerunners revealed in Halo 3’s Terminals and Cryptum, and we’re getting answers to the eternal question of the Flood. But what if that’s a question we don’t want to ask?
You bring up a valid point. And intellectually, the Flood may fit into that category. However, from a biological stand point, there are many things that just make a little bit too much sense. From my perspective, they’re still heavily grounded in reality and always have been, whereas beings in the Lovecraft mythos always tend to have this presence that seems to defy reality in itself.
I agree that the origin of the Flood was better kept as a mystery, but at the same time we’re being handed new ones that go far deeper than anything we’ve seen in Halo so far. The Flood was intimidating in its complexity, but if at some point we find that another older race was responsible for it in some way? Then that begs the whole question of how something like the Flood could have any purpose in being created, and why some elder race WOULD create it.
I think in the end, if Halo is going to continue to move forward as a series, these questions will have to be answered. Even some of the classics in science fiction, which are nearly founded on these deeper mysteries, are having these questions answered. Look at Prometheus. Odds are Ridley Scott is going to show us the origin of the Space Jockey found on the derelict ship. Is it good to have the mystery answered? Maybe not. But it opens up the door to so much more, and as long as they can introduce new questions that don’t push the bounds too much, I feel that we as fans can be happy.
thanks for your work this helps a lot
All was awesome except the final part linking the Gravemind to the Precursors.
I just don’t see humanity and the Forerunners as a direct inheritance of the Flood. Doesn’t really make sense to me given the nature of the Flood and how mismatched of a theory it is with the facts that we’ve been given.
Bungie/343i has non-linear stories that don’t really work out in the ways you’d expect. So I’ll cling to my theory of it not working out.
Apologies if this is old material, I just stumbled upon this website. As a canon junkie myself I am astounded at the physical connections between the description of the Primordium and the Pure Forms. That resemblance is uncanny and an incredible find. I too believe that the Gravemind and the Primordium are one in the same. Most doubt that due to the physical appearance of the Gravemind compared to the Primordial. I believe the Primordial gained mass and changed shape as more memories were absorbed. However I see one thing that may be an oversight, regarding physical appearances.
In Halo: Cryptum it is stated that the Forerunners and the Humans were crafted in the Precursor’s image. That doesn’t exactly go along with the idea of the Primordial being a Precursor. However, this could be because this last precursor allowed himself to be infected by the Shaping Sickness that he created. This would be a great way to also add to his isolation. Not only outcast for creating a monster but becoming one himself. The Precursors could have, as you said, broken down the Flood compound and exiled it, as well as containing the only part of the horrible creation that could not be broken down, the infected Precursor that created the monstrosity.
I do hope the connections between the Flood & the Precursors is expanded upon. Aside from the Prophet of Truth & his motives, it is the most interesting topic in the Halo Universe to me.
Now that Primordium has come out and the game has changed, will you write another one like this?
We are more or less holding our breaths until after Halo 4 and Silentium are published. 🙂
[…] you read this article, I highly suggest you read the one that inspired it here. Thanks to the guys at Forward Unto Dawn. After reading this, I was stunned by how many parallels […]