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- “None will be left behind when our Great Journey begins! That is the Prophet's age-old promise. And it shall be fulfilled!”— The Prophet of Regret
The Covenant Empire is founded on and united by a single religion, based upon the worship of the ancient race of beings known as the Forerunners. According to the Covenant religion, the Forerunners, being nearly omniscient and all-powerful beings, discovered a method to transcend the physical world and achieve divinity. They were believed to have accomplished this through the construction and activation of seven monolithic installations referred to as the Halos. Though these installations were also referred to colloquially by the Covenant as the "sacred rings". According to the Covenant belief, upon activation the Halos initiated a sublimination event known as "the great journey" propelling the Forerunners into a state of transsentience. However, all lesser species were inherently unworthy of this journey and were left behind. The Covenant Empire, or at least their leadership caste -the San 'Shyuum, believe themselves to be the chosen inheritors of the Forerunners divine technology. The foundation of the Covenant Empire is built upon the desire to reclaim lost Forerunner technology and use these gifts of divinity they left behind in the physical world. Their ultimate purpose, however, is to locate and activate the Halo Installations. In doing so, they believe that all faithful adherents to the Covenant Religion will be allowed to transcend the limitations of the physical world and walk among the Forerunners as divine beings. All client races of the Covenant Empire follow the San 'Shyuum prophets in the hopes of also ascending into godhood.
On Installation 00, during the Halo 3 campaign, several terminals can be accessed, describing the activation of the Halo Array as the "Great Journey." Through such terminals on other Forerunner installations, the Covenant may have learned of the name and applied it to their religion in yet another case of misinterpretation.
The Covenant's beliefs
The Covenant believe that the ancient race of beings known as the Forerunners ascended into divinity through the use of seven artifacts known as the Halo rings. The very fabric of the Covenant is built upon activating the Halos, believing this will be akin to following in the footsteps of the Forerunners and propel them into the "Divine Beyond", a heavenly paradise they will share with the Forerunners. All races who are non-adherent to the Covenant faith or unworthy of the journey will be left behind.
The Sangheili were once the most devout believers in the San 'Shyuum' vision. Following the events at Installation 05, and their replacement by the Jiralhanae as the military leadership caste of the Covenant, have disillusioned them to the Great Journey as interpreted by the San 'Shyuum. This resulted in the formation of the Covenant Separatists led by the Sangheili who actively oppose those that continue to believe in it. At the final battle against the Covenant Loyalists at Installation 00 and its triumphant conclusion within the Citadel, the High Prophet of Truth told Arbiter Thel 'Vadam that he always had felt that the Sangheili race "never believed in the promise of the Sacred Rings."
The Jiralhanae, however, were blindly loyal to the their Prophets, obeying every command with unshakeable conviction. They fought as the leadership caste of the Covenant Loyalist Empire against the defected Sangheili to the last breath. After their destruction at the hands of the Sangheili the survivors are more than likely deprived of central leadership, with the Hierarchs dead and many of their Chieftains killed in battle.
Many Unggoy care little for religion, likely a result of their forced induction into the Covenant, but those that do stayed loyal to the Prophets during the Great Schism, though it was speculated by Arbiter Thel 'Vadam that this was primarily out of fear. As a species, their opinions may be divided; in Halo: Contact Harvest, while many of the Unggoy that Dadab attempts to sermon to are too unintelligent to give any thought to religious matters, the fact that at least some Unggoy are shown to hold mass prayer sessions lasting up to an hour or more as well as Dadab's adopted role of a Deacon in itself is testament to the fact that a large number of Unggoy are active participants of the faith.
The Kig-Yar served primarily as mercenaries than devout worshippers, they are pragmatists that act on the promise of wealth rather than devotion. They chose to remain with the Covenant Loyalist Empire and fought with the San 'Shyuum during the Great Schism. Their religious beliefs are unknown, but their loyalty to the San 'Shyuum is unquestionable, though this is more likely because they preferred to be alligned with those who possessed the most resources. This choice later proved to be an unwise decision.
The artificial sapient bio-mechanical organisms enslaved by the Covenant, the Huragok, were initially created by the Forerunners to maintain their dormant installations. They have no interest in religion or faith, rarely deviating their focus from the technology of which they are responsible for. Even prior to the Great Schism, Huragok generally seem to remain neutral in any conflict, but appear to prefer assisting those oppressed or harmed by the Covenant Empire. Just prior to the First Battle of Harvest after first-contact with humanity, one went as far as to create a gift symbolizing peace for the humans (a vehicle design which would ironically be used by the Jiralhanae as a deadly weapon to kill them for decades to come) and then later assisted the humans in their escape. Yet another Huragok repaired Ascendant Justice's engines and even repaired a Needler in combat for John-117 to use in battle against the Covenant while another repaired his damaged shielding system. They are revealed to possess morality and generally resent their oppression by the Covenant, repairing their technology thus ensuring their technological stability and superiority against other species who also suffer at the hands of the Covenant's wrath.
Likewise, both the Yanme'e and Lekgolo seem to feel no compulsion for religion in their societies, but continued to follow the San 'Shyuum out of fear of punishement or loyalty. As a result of their hive-minded lifestyle, the Yanme'e obeyed their Prophets without thought or question. Individual beliefs may have played a part in the Lekgolo's decision, but they may have sided with the Loyalists for the same reason as the Kig-Yar. At least some of the Lekgolo sided with the Sangheili in their opposition, however.
The Heretic rebellion
- “Ask the Oracle about Halo...how they would sacrifice us all for nothing!”Threshold and happened to come into contact with what they labeled an "oracle" of their faith, the monitor for the Halo installation in the system that escaped its destruction. This unit was led by the Sesa 'Refumee, who discovered the true purpose of the Halo Array from this "oracle", 343 Guilty Spark, and came to the realization that the Great Journey and the road to salvation was false. Rather than taking the Covenant on a path to divinity, activating the rings would mean the destruction of all sentient life within three radii of the galactic center. 'Refumee convinced the others to renounce their religion, thus beginning the Heretic movement, and began openly preaching the truth about Halo to the rest of the Covenant. In response to this, the High Prophets sent a group of Special Operations Sangheili and Unggoy to infiltrate their base of operations, the Threshold gas mine, accompanied by the new Arbiter, Thel 'Vadamee, to silence the Heretics. Sesa 'Refumee was assassinated by the Arbiter before he could escape, and the heretic movement was silenced.
- “Here rest the vanguard of the Great Journey, every Arbiter from first to last. Each one created and consumed in times of extraordinary crisis.”
The currently living Arbiter, an important member of the separatist movement, is aware of the true function of the Halo installations. At first, he was told this by Sesa 'Refumee, the Heretic Leader, and shortly after from both the central intelligence of the Flood parasite and the demon. However, it seemed as though he refused to believe the truth at the time. It was after speaking with 343 Guilty Spark, a Monitor of the lost Installation 04 who is considered by the leading Covenant caste as one of the holy oracles, he finally accepted this. Following this conversation, he, with the help of one of his former enemies, a Marine of the UNSC, attempted to stop the Brute Chieftain Tartarus from activating Installation 05, and hence the entire remaining Halo network, at which he was partially successful; the activation was interrupted, but the array was put into standby status, allowing its remote detonation from the Ark. The Loyalists were eventually defeated, and the Great Journey was, to a certain degree, discarded as a religion.
- “There are those who said this day would never come. What are they to say now?”— The Prophet of Truth
As John-117 and the UNSC discovered, the Halos were not built as religious icons and representations; they were galactic weapons of mass sterilization built by the Forerunners to contain a parasitic species-devouring race known as the Flood. After exhausting every viable strategic option to destroy the Flood, the Forerunners activated the rings, killing all sentient life within three radii of the galactic center, including themselves. This eventually starved and killed off the Flood, though many still remained in Forerunner labs for study in the event of a reemergence.
Originally, there was a planned, organized process by which the Forerunners would survive the activation (which relied at least partially on the Shield Worlds), but due to internal conflict and 032 Mendicant Bias' defection to the Flood at the end of the Forerunner-Flood war they were unable to do so, as he had revealed their locations to the Flood. In the ensuing conflict as the Forerunners were forced to face the incoming assault of the Flood armada on the Maginot Sphere, the Forerunners hand had been forced. The Iso-Didact subsequently activated the Halo Array, killing all sentients not stored on the Ark or the Shield Worlds. This included nearly all of the Forerunners, who had left behind an array of automated mechanisms to return the indexed life forms to their homeworlds.
- “In a moment, I will light the rings! And all who believe... shall be saved!”— The Prophet of Truth
The High Prophet of Truth traveled to Earth to begin the Great Journey by activating the massive structure buried beneath New Mombasa which was once thought to be the Ark. Apparently, the sole purpose of this unearthed construct is to generate a portal which leads to the true Ark, Installation 00, which lies 218 (262,144) lightyears from the center of the Milky Way galaxy and outside of the maximum range of Halo installations.
The Prophet of Truth attempted to begin the Great Journey by forcing the captured Avery Johnson to activate the Halo Array from the Citadel on Installation 00 but was slain by Thel 'Vadam, who impaled Truth with an Energy Sword. John-117 aborted the firing sequence, once again stopping the Great Journey.
Following the Great Schism and the death of The Prophet of Truth, the Covenant Loyalist Empire effectively dissolved. For more than six years, the member species of the Covenant fought a brutal civil war. Immediately following Truth's death, the San 'Shyuum sought to save themselves from the rage of the Sangheili, and so provided the Jiralhanae with new weapons, ships and other tools to aid in their protection. During this period the Prophets, who already had been few in number, largely disappeared, leading to rumours that they had actually finally achieved the Great Journey.
Even amongst the Covenant Separatists their ancient religion continued to survive and was not completely abandoned. As one Sangheili Shipmaster believed, "he knew his gods were out there, but he had no idea what they wanted." The species of the Covenant had always relied on the Prophets to lead them in spiritual matters. The devout Sangheili in particular had not had any need for their own religious leaders for centuries, and now found that no one among them had the knowledge or the ability to comprehend the will of the gods. For a people whose sole purpose had been enforcing their gods' will, this was terrifying.
This period can perhaps be understood as somewhat being akin the Protestant Reformation in Western Christianity. A loss of faith in a society's religious leaders did not lead to a complete abandonment of said religion's deities. Rather it led to a period of intense conflict as various factions began to develop their own new interpretations of ancient beliefs. Although the Sangheili no longer believed in the Prophets as the messengers of the gods or in the Great Journey as they had described it, many still believed in their gods.
Throughout the Covenant religion are mythological events and characters that play significant roles in the Covenant belief system.
- The Great Journey - The rapturous journey initiated by the activation of the Halo Array.
- The Promethean Awakening - A lesser event in the Covenant mythology that foretold the return of the legendary Ur-Didact and the unlocking of his fortress world.
- Age of Abandonment - The age of technological and social reduction that followed the disappearance of the Forerunners.
- The Didact and the Librarian - The legendary couple whose exploits near the end of the Forerunner era became part of the Covenant's quasi-historical mythological tradition.
- Many components of the Covenant religion are based on Biblical references. For example, the Ark is a reference to Noah's Ark that was built to survive the great flood.