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Deciphering Religious Symbolism in Halo
Prophets, Covenants, Halos, Flood....the Halo series is full of religious references, symbolism, and iconography. But what are these symbols really trying to say?
August 11, 2020
11 Min Read
The following article is a reproduction. The original article, and over 100 more, can be found at RemptonGames.com
What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, Halo is a franchise of science fiction FPS’s that, for a period in the early to mid 2000’s, was basically the biggest video-game franchise on the planet. I’ve never been a big player of first-person shooters, but around the time I was in middle-school all of my friends were playing it, and it reached a certain level of pop cultural ubiquity that everyone at least had a basic idea what it was about. A big strong space marine with crazy guns travels to a floating ring in outer-space to fight evil aliens – done, I got it. It was sort of like the movie Jaws – even if you haven’t seen it, you probably have a pretty decent idea what happens in it, right?
I also grew up in a very Christian household, where terms like Covenant and Prophet weren’t unusual, and when these terms showed up in the game it didn’t really click with my younger self that they were deliberately trying to evoke religious, and in particular Christian, symbolism in the game. I was just like “Oh, the aliens are led by prophets, that seems like a pretty normal thing” and moved on.
However, now that the series is back in the public eye with all of the hype around Halo Infinite, I figured I would take a second look at this series, and its use of symbolism in particular. Is the use of religious terms and iconography in this series hinting at a deeper meaning, or like Neon Genesis Evangelion is it simply slapping on a coat of religious symbolism to make itself seem a little more mysterious? Lets find out with this dive into the religious symbolism of the Halo Series.
You don’t have to look far before you encounter symbols of Christianity in these games – in fact, the name of the series itself – Halo – is a religious reference. In the games a Halo refers to a group of gigantic rings in space that act basically as ring shaped planets. The word halo also refers to a common artistic motif that can be found in depictions of important or holy figures in many religions around the world. It is often depicted as a glowing disk or ring around the head or body of the figure, and is shown most commonly in western pop culture as a golden ring floating above the head of an angel. However, it didn’t originate this way – the Halo symbol has actually been used in religious artwork for thousands of years, and likely has its origins in ancient Buddhist artwork.
Symbolically, Halos are simply used to show that a figure is Holy, or spiritually significant. Similarly, in the games the Halos are seen as “sacred rings” that will take the alien antagonists – called “The Covenant” on a “Great Journey”. These halos are, fittingly, associated with sacred figures in the Covenant’s religion – specifically, an ancient alien race known as the Forerunners, which the Covenant worship like gods.
The name of these enemies – “The Covenant” – is another religious reference. In the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – a Covenant is an agreement between God and the members of the religion. There are several important Covenants in these religions, including the agreement with Abraham that his descendants would spread and populate the “Promised Land”, the Covenant with Moses that established the 10 Commandments, and the Covenant with Noah to never again flood the earth.
In Halo the Covenant is a group of alien races all bound together in their worship of the forerunners, creators of the Halo rings. The titular “Covenant” that they are named after is actually a peace agreement between the two founding species – the Sangheili (better known as the Elites) and the San’Shyuum, also called the Prophets. These two species are the reigning races of the Covenant, with the Prophets mainly serving as religious leaders while the Elites lead the military. Over time, several other alien species have joined the Covenant in various different roles, mainly serving underneath the two reigning species.
While the name officially refers to the agreement of peace between the various species in the Covenant, it could also be a reference to the religious beliefs of this group. The Covenant believes that the Forerunners used the Halos to ascend and basically become gods, and they believe that if they activate them they can do the same.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Halo rings are not actually tools of spiritual enlightenment, but are weapons of mass destruction on a galactic scale. The REAL reason the Halos were created was to contain a destructive, parasitic hive-mind known as the flood. The flood grows by feeding on and assimilating sentient life-forms, and once an infection begins it can become almost impossible to stop.
The Halo rings were created to control the flood in two different ways. First, by physically containing them within the confines of the rings to prevent them from spreading. If this measure failed, and the Flood did began to spread and infect the galaxy, the Halo rings actually could work together as a galactic Super-weapon to wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy – essentially starving the Flood of food to prey upon.
The Halo weapon had actually been activated once before – about 100,000 years ago – during an earlier flood outbreak. The only life that survived was that which was on the Ark – a gigantic space-station outside the boundaries of the Milky Way Galaxy that could be used to remotely activate the Halos while being outside of their area of effect. Knowing that activating the Halos would destroy all life in the Galaxy, the forerunners also filled it with intelligent species from all around the Galaxy so that life could be “re-seeded” in the event the Halos had to be fired.
While there are flood stories in many mythologies around the world, this story is a clear parallel to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. In that story God became angry that the world was filled with evil and corruption so he had what were apparently the only good people on the planet, Noah and his family, build a giant boat and fill it with a pair of each animal (or maybe 7 pairs of the clean animals). He then flooded the world for 40 days (or maybe it was 150).
To make the parallels between the games and the biblical story even more clear, it might help to know where the Halo flood – the alien parasites – actually came from. As it so happens, Halo actually has not one but TWO ancient empires with technology so advanced they bordered on godlike. We have already discussed the Forerunners, the race that built the Halo rings 100,000 years ago. However, it turns out that before the Forerunners there was an even more ancient, more technologically advanced species known as the Precursors.
The Precursors were a species so advanced that they were considered to be “transsentient”. They were a species of shapeshifters who were so intelligent that they were actually responsible for seeding and guiding the evolution of life throughout the Galaxy. The Precursors also created a concept known as “the mantle”, which basically gave whichever species held the Mantle the responsibility to protect and guide all life in the Galaxy, and through their genetic experiments they were trying to create a new species that would be worthy of inheriting the Mantle.
The Precursors were actually responsible for creating the Forerunners, but determined that the Forerunners were not worthy of having the Mantle and planned to destroy them. Somehow the Forerunners found out about this plan, and rebelled, destroying their creators – or so they thought.
Some Precursors were able to escape this massacre, and using their shapeshifting abilities transformed themselves into a sort of dust, with the plan of later reforming themselves. Over millions of years this precursor dust began to break down, with some unexpected effects. Instead of reforming the precursors into their original forms, this dust caused mutations in any lifeforms that came into contact with it. The precursors chose to use this to their advantage as a way of punishing the Forerunners – proving that they were unworthy of protecting life in the Galaxy by destroying and assimilating that life – in this way, the Precursors themselves became the Flood.
This parallels very strongly with the biblical flood story – in both cases, a species is being punished for their “sins” (in Halo’s case, the act of rebelling against the Precursors) with an act of global, or galactic, destruction. The only way to recover would be to wipe out all life with a catastrophe, and start a new world with new life that was protected by an Ark.
As we have seen, the number of very clear and direct references in Halo’s story to religious concepts and stories is undeniable, and these are far from the only references one can find (although some connections are much more tenuous than others, and I chose to stick to some of the references that were more clearly intentional). However, the question still remains – do these references actually mean anything? Are they just window dressing, or are they actually trying to convey some sort of deeper message?
Well…probably not. It turns out that the Halo rings were actually originally going to be hollowed out spheres, not rings. Once the decision was made that the worlds would be rings instead of hollow spheres, Halo was suggested as a name for these rings, and was later chosen to be the name of the project. None of the previous names used for the project, including – I kid you not – “Monkey Nuts”, “Blam”, and “Red Shift”, show any sort of religious meaning or intent.
Christianity is also far from the only religion or mythology that is referenced in these games. The armor worn by the Spartan warriors (including the main player character, Master Chief) is called the Mjolnir armor – a reference to Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology. There are also ships and characters named after Greek mythology, such as Tartarus and Heracles. While Christian imagery is very prominent in these games, I think that may be more a result of taking the name “Halo” and really leaning into it, rather than some sort of grander plan.
That being said, I do think you can come up with some interesting interpretations of this symbolism. One of the interpretations that jumps out to me is that the Halo games can be seen as a story of the possible dangers of religious extremism. The Covenant are a society that is completely controlled by their religion – their highest officials are known as Prophets, and their religious beliefs surrounding the Mantle and the Great Journey led the Covenant to attempt to destroy the human race – declaring war with the statement “Your destruction is the will of the Gods – and we are their instrument”.
This could be seen as an indictment of blindly following religious teachings, and show how these teachings can be used to manipulate their believers. The Covenant army fought the humans because they believed it was the will of the gods, not knowing the true reasons behind the war. Similarly, they sought to activate the Halo rings with the belief that it would bring them closer to their gods, not knowing that this would actually wipe out all life in the galaxy. This can be seen as a parallel to religious extremist groups throughout history – from the ancient crusades to modern religious terrorism – that use their religious beliefs as a way to justify violence and destruction.
Either that, or it’s just a fun game series. What do you think? Do you have a different interpretation of these games? Let me know in the comments down below!
That’s all I have for this week. If you liked this video, give it a like and subscribe for more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more, check out my other videos – like my previous entry in my Evolution of Pokemon Designs series, where I discuss the designs of Pokemon from Generation 5. And join me next time, where I will be looking at the design of some fictional games and sports. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.
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