Note: This article discusses material that was once considered canon but whose canonicity is now questionable.
The Old Ones were an ancient and technologically advanced intelligent race of cold-blooded reptilian beings or an alliance of individual advanced species who established an interstellar empire across the Milky Way Galaxy tens of millions of Terran years ago. The Old Ones ruled over the Milky Way before the development of most of the other sentient species of the galaxy.
The Old Ones may have been the first species to attain sentience in the galaxy, and the first species to cross the "sea of stars," making them the first star-faring race in galactic history. The Old Ones were the original crafters of the Webway, and may be the creators of the Aeldari and many other intelligent races of the galaxy such as the Slann and the Jokaero, as well as the Krork, which makes the Old Ones the possible ancestral "Brain Boyz" of the Orks.
The Old Ones were also the creators of the early, tree-dwelling primate ancestors of Mankind on primordial Earth who eventually rose to full sentience. The existence of the Old Ones is known to humanity mainly through Eldar Mythology and their long-ago war with the Necrons.
The Old Ones are an ancient intelligent race of nearly immortal creatures of a slow and cold-blooded intelligence who may have been reptilian in nature. The Old Ones were probably the first species in the Milky Way Galaxy to have evolved sentience -- though the C'tan, born at the creation of the galaxy, predate the Old Ones.
Despite their great age, the C'tan did not partake in galactic affairs until the Necrontyr gave them physical bodies just before the War in Heaven began, and the early galaxy was shaped solely by the Old Ones.
The Old Ones possessed extremely advanced technology and potent psychic powers that made them essentially the masters of the Immaterium. It was the Old Ones who first created the Webway that was later perfected and expanded by their Aeldari servants, and they used its labyrinthine corridors to travel through the Immaterium instantaneously, moving between pairs of Warp Gates established on many planets across the galaxy. A supposedly benevolent and gentle race, the Old Ones appear to have wished to nurture the younger intelligent races of the galaxy and spread life and intelligence across the cosmos.
On their travels, the Old Ones seeded many other worlds across the galaxy with life, and encouraged the development of indigenous intelligent life on many more, including Terra. On the primordial Earth, the tree-dwelling primates the Old Ones had helped to evolve and set on the path to sentience were the direct ancestors of humanity. They were a part of the ancient aliens' interstellar ecosystem but otherwise had no greater role defined for them by the Old Ones.
According to the Deceiver, the Old Ones once waged a war against the race of energy beings known as the C'tan. This was a conflict that the C'tan lost and in the aftermath they went into hiding in order to avoid the Old Ones' wrath.
Creators of the Webway
The Old Ones were inherently patient as a species, and before attempting to journey out into interstellar space they made an extensive study of astronomy and astrophysics, which led them to eventually discover the Immaterium. At the time, the Immaterium was unaffected by the psychic emissions of other intelligent races (since there were so few present in the galaxy), and it was a calm and steady realm of existence.
The Old Ones were able to exploit the Immaterium, allowing them to travel across the galaxy at a whim through the development of transdimensional Warpspace tunneling technology and a network of Warp Gates later called the Webway that instantaneously connected their far-flung interstellar colonies.
Such was their advanced science that they had the capacity to cross vast tracts of space with a single step by way of their Webway portals and through such means they managed to spread their spawn to many other places. They believed that all life was useful and had value and they are known to have brought about the rise of numerous new species and impregnated thousands of worlds with new life which they made their own.
The War in Heaven
Before the creation of the Aeldari, the Old Ones were at war with the Necrontyr over 60 million Terran years ago, a conflict later remembered as the "War in Heaven." One of the few already sentient races the Old Ones had encountered as they traveled across the galaxy were the humanoid Necrontyr, who at the time were in the midst of a slow, sublight interstellar expansion to distant planets beyond their home star system. The lives of the Necrontyr were short and painful due to the deadly radiation of their world's sun. When the Necrontyr met the Old Ones, they developed a deep, jealous hatred of the reptilian aliens due to their near-immortal lifespans. The Necrontyr are said to have petitioned the Old Ones for the technological secret of eternal life but they refused, engendering an even more terrible rage in them.
This resentment led to the first interstellar war ever fought in the galaxy. Possessed of far inferior technology, the Necrontyr's war against the Old Ones to claim the secrets of life everlasting proved futile and they were forced back to their remote world in the outer rim of the galaxy's Halo Stars. The fury of the Necrontyr cooled over thousands of Terran years of imprisonment by the Old Ones, but they eventually turned their hatred against their jailers to all other forms of life.
The Necrontyr had studied their star for millions of Terran years. In their quest for a weapon to use against the Old Ones who had prevented their interstellar expansion, they found the intelligent race of energy beings known as the C'tan. Gradually the Necrontyr managed to communicate with these ethereal beings of pure energy who fed on the solar energy of the stars, but the C'tan knew they would never be able to fully comprehend the material universe without a material body.
So the Necrontyr built the living metal bodies from the alloy they called necrodermis that the C'tan are still adorned with. The C'tan were soon worshiped by the Necrontyr as their Star Gods, as their powers and intelligence were far beyond anything the Necrontyr had experienced before, even in their encounters with the Old Ones. As the C'tan became more manifest in their new physical bodies, they began to enjoy certain aspects of material life more, including pain, suffering and slavery.
The C'tan next provided the Necrontyr with an escape from the curse of their short lives. The C'tan offered to transfer the Necrontyr's minds into living metal bodies comprised of necrodermis, much like the C'tan themselves. The C'tan eventually tricked the Necrontyr into transferring their own consciousnesses into robotic bodies made out of the same necrodermis material. Once the Necrontyr had done so, they discovered to their horror that their new bodies erased their psychic impressions in the Warp, effectively rendering them as soulless as the C'tan themselves.
Whether the Necrontyr knew what they would lose by undertaking this biotransference will never be known, but the process essentially destroyed their people. The Necrontyr gained the immortality they had so craved but lost their free will. Their minds were dulled and only a few members of the race, the Necron Lords and Overlords, retained any independent thought. Unfortunately, the side effect of this process was that the Necrontyr, now calling themselves Necrons, gradually lost the ability to feel any emotions at all and became the soulless, mechanical slaves of the C'tan, culling the sentient lifeforms the C'tan now craved as sustenance in the terrible "Red Harvests."
With the Necrontyr destroyed and the terrible new cybernetic species called the Necron born, the C'tan began the war against the Old Ones once more with their legions of undying warriors, the cosmic confrontation that would later become known to the Aeldari as the War in Heaven.
To combat these terrible foes, the Old Ones created new warrior races to battle for them, including the Aeldari, the Rashan, and the K'nib. According to later Aledari legend, the paradise the Old Ones had created for their "Younger Races" was desecrated by the C'tan, whom the Aeldari knew as the "Yngir." During ancient times, the Aeldari learnt a great many secrets of the Warp from the Old Ones. From this knowledge, the Aeldari developed the technologies that ultimately led to their own exploiation and expansion of the Webway in later times.
Knowing that the C'tan were vulnerable to psychic energies, the Old Ones had designed their new warrior species to be psychically linked to the Immaterium and able to use its power in destructive ways. Unfortunately, the raw emotions and collective unconscious beliefs of these new sentient races altered the psychically-active Immaterium, creating both the Aeldari gods and the daemons of Chaos.
The introduction of these warlike and psychic races into the galaxy had the side effect of warping the Immaterium -- the death, pain, suffering and destruction unleashed upon the galaxy during the conflict was reflected in the Immaterium, literally changing its nature into that of the current chaotic and intrinsically hostile psychic dimension called the Warp. The innocuous entities composed of psychic energy which had naturally existed in the Immaterium before the war were gradually twisted into voracious and hostile predators.
By the time the Old Ones marshalled their forces, there were only four C'tan known to still be in existence, but much of the organic life in the galaxy had already been extinguished. But the C'tan empire proved unable to counter the new form of psychic warfare unleashed by the Old Ones' warrior servant races. Eventually, in an effort to save themselves, the C'tan and their Necron servants became devoted to severing reality's relationship to the Immaterium in order to make psychic powers useless through the deployment of what were later known as the Cadian Pylons.
Yet, even as the C'tan and the Necrons seemed to finally be driven back, the younger races' psychic instability allowed the Enslavers, a terrible species of Warp entities who could enslave the minds of psykers to create living gateways into the material world for others of their kind, to enter realspace.
From cracks in reality, these denizens of the Warp sought entry into the material universe which forced the Old Ones to bring about the emergence of even more new intelligent species to defend their last strongholds. Among their creations at this time were the green-skinned, hardy Krork, who may be the ancestors of the Orks, and the technology-mimicking Jokaero.
This Enslaver Plague further devastated the population of intelligent beings in the galaxy. The Old Ones were ultimately devastated by the aftershocks of what their psychically-active creations did to the Warp, and are now believed to have either gone extinct or fled the galaxy, though the Aeldari later built an interstellar empire by extending what remained of the Old Ones' Webway into a Warp tunnel network of their own.
The Enslavers' depredations also made it impossible for the Necrons to gather enough sentient beings to feed the C'tan's ever-growing hunger for life energies. At the same time, the Necrons revolted against their Star God masters and reclaimed their independence, transforming the C'tan into C'tan Shards who could be used as living weapons against the Necrons' foes. Above all else, the Necron nobility now sought a way to reverse the process of biotransference and restore their organic bodies.
But the galaxy had been utterly devastated and the Aeldari were clearly replacing the Old Ones as the galaxy's new power. Devastated by the War in Heaven and their revolt against the C'tan, the Necrons chose to enter hibernation on thousands of "Tomb Worlds" scattered across the stars, where they would sleep for tens of millions of Terran years until the Aeldari Empire had fallen and the galaxy was ripe for Necron conquest once more.
Legacy of the Old Ones
The implacable onslaught of the C'tan and the Necrons during the War of Heaven combined with the transformation of the Immaterium into an unmistakably hostile dimension and its unleashing of dangerous Warp spawn ultimately destroyed the Old Ones' great civilisation. It is unknown whether the species went extinct despite all its efforts or its survivors simply fled the galaxy outright to find a less dangerous region of the universe where they could recover.
The Necrons and C'tan took great pleasure in their victory, despite the fact that they could not enjoy it for long before the Necrons' revolt against their masters forced both into hibernation for over 60 million Terran years.
In the power vacuum left in the Milky Way Galaxy after the Old Ones' disappearance, the "Younger Races" created by the Old Ones such as humanity and the Jokaero continued their evolution, though now unguided they began to develop in ways unintended by their original creators.
The overall mantle of dominance over the galaxy would pass from the Old Ones to their successors the Aeldari, who had fought alongside the Old Ones as their staunchest allies and most willing pupils during the War in Heaven. The Aeldari would establish their own interstellar empire using the Webway, ultimately expanding and deepening its labyrinthine network.
The Old Ones would long continue to feature in Aeldari legends. For instance, the runesingers of the Asuryani Craftworld Kaelor told of how the Webway had originally been created by the Old Ones who used it to traverse the galaxy.
The Old Ones' legacy may contain more destructive elements as well. It is rumoured that the Empathic Obliterator used by the Necron Overlord Trazyn the Infinite was constructed using technology originally invented by the Old Ones.
Other References to the Old Ones
The Old Ones did not appear in the 1st Edition of Warhammer 40,000. There was a similar race in their place in the form of the Slann or "Old Slann" that featured in Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader and Codex Titanicus (1st Edition), in which they made early contact with the Eldar and taught them the technology to create the Webway. Rogue Trader also states that the Slann were responsible for the genetic manipulation of various intelligent species of the Milky Way and suggested that the Jokaero were one of their creations. In the 3rd Edition , starting with Codex: Necrons, the Old Ones are first mentioned and their backstory elaborated by stating they genetically manipulated early life across the galaxy and fought an ancient war against the Necrons and their C'tan masters. Sources of later editions such as Codex: Eldar (4th Edition) and Codex: Chaos Daemons (4th Edition) also stated that the Old Ones had a hand in teaching the Eldar to make use of the Webway whilst Codex: Dark Eldar (5th Edition) mentioned that the Old Ones had actually been the original creators of it in the first place.
The Old Ones were mentioned in Liber Chaotica Slaanesh in the chapter "Echoes of the Birth" where they are called the "First Ones". This section covers the Eldar race, stating that they were raised by figures of shadow and light that were an ancient as well as powerful alien race. These First Ones are said to be the first to have reached into the starry night and to be older than gods yet still mortals who are subject to time. The First Ones are said to have left the Eldar and returned to the sky in order to allow their charges to develop over the millennia.
Afterwards, they returned in strange, vast vessels that were worn and scarred. This is because the First Ones were already engaged in an unending war against the Yngir with the First Ones returning to inspect the Eldar and determine whether they were fit for the battle that lay ahead.
The First Ones are known to have encouraged their younger race to focus their psychic abilities in order to create Warp-derived beings as weapons against the the vampiric gods of starlight. The battle that continued was long and the First Ones dwindled in number to the point that they lost influence among the Eldar. Without their creators' wisdom, the Eldar's psychic emissions in the Warp changed from sentient weapons into living gods of the Immaterium who were the first of their kind. After the absence of the First Ones, the Eldar heroes Eldanesh and Ulthanesh proved to be the only beings that could harness the power of the Warp gods to battle against their foes until they fled from a daemonic plague. In the aftermath, the Eldar are said to have adapted, refined and perfected the First Ones' skill in measuring the Warp and predicting its movements.
The background book Xenology also makes a potential reference to the Old Ones. They are referred to as the "Old Gods" who lived prior to the birth of Slaanesh when they fought a war in heaven and hell against Star Devils. According to the author Kurdo Salvador, the Star Devils emerged victorious in this war and killed all the Old Gods, though one managed to survive. This survivor hid away where he continued his Old Ways of tweaking, dabbling, poking and prodding. When he was done with his work, he departed into the Warp in order to hide and watch. When "She" was born of the "longears," Slaanesh chopped the remaining Old One into millions of pieces with the shards kicked into the cold void in order "to linger like always..." These shattered remnants, according to Salvador, became known as "the Umbra." The entity that was sent to linger also shares many qualities to that of Qah, a deity within the Hrud pantheon.
Codex: Necrons (3rd Edition) explained that the C'tan still hold an unbending hatred of the Old Ones despite their civilisation being no more and actively seek out any degenerate descendants that may possibly exist on backwater worlds. Codex: Necrons even suggests that a Warhammer Fantasy Lizardmen army can be used as a placeholder for the Old Ones' descendants.
The Old Ones are also identified as possibly being the true identity of the Brain Boyz, the creators of the Orks. They are also assumed to be identical to the Old Ones mentioned in Warhammer Fantasy mythology, however recent editions of the games have removed most of the surrounding evidence for this to maintain more separation between the two universes.
Connection to Warhammer Fantasy
It is possible that the Old Ones are the same Old Ones that the Lizardmen worship in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, as in the Lizardmen Army Book it states that the Old Ones came from the stars and discovered the Warhammer World, then proceeded to terraform it and create intelligent races like the Slann, the Elves and the Dwarfs to live upon it. However, in recent years, Games Workshop has gone to great pains to emphasize that the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy universes are entirely separate and unconnected realities.
It should be noted that the Old Ones in the Warhammer 40,000 universe may be related to the Old Ones of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos. The term "Old Ones" often applied to the Great Old Ones or the Elder Things which created life on Earth (Terra) in the H.P. Lovecraft mythos.
- Codex: Chaos Daemons (4th Edition), pg. 18
- Codex: Dark Eldar (5th Edition), pg. 8
- Codex: Eldar (4th Edition), pg. 12
- Codex: Necrons (7th Edition), pp. 9, 24-25, 31, 61
- Codex: Necrons (5th Edition), pp. 6-7, 59
- Codex: Necrons (3rd Edition), pp. 9, 24-25, 31, 61
- Codex Titanicus (1st Edition) (1989), pg. 33, 52-53
- Liber Chaotica - Slaanesh (Background Book) by Marijan Von Staufer, "Echoes of the Birth"
- Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness (1st Edition), pg. 215
- Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1st Edition), pp. 194-195
- Warhammer 40,000: Rulebook (4th Edition), pg. 139
- Chaos Child (Novel) by Ian Watson
- Eldar Prophecy (Novel) by C.S. Goto, pg. 151