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This question will be spoiling key plot details from the prequel novel Halo: Contact Harvest, as well as some story elements from the Halo video game trilogy.

First, a little background. Contact Harvest takes place a few decades before the events of the main Halo trilogy. At this point in the timeline, humanity has colonized many planets, but it is in the midst of the civil war, where a faction known as "Insurrectionists" want independence from the UNSC. At the same time, the UNSC has noticed numerous human spacecraft mysteriously disappearing near the outer farming colony Harvest. The UNSC initially believes this activity to be the responsibility of the Insurrectionists, which results in the UNSC deploying Marines to Harvest in order to train a militia for the purpose of the colony. Unbeknownst to the UNSC, at first, is that the aforementioned freighters have actually been intercepted by Covenant vessels (commanded and operated by Kig-Yar, a.k.a. Jackals). The situation quickly escalates to eventually begin humanity's desperate war against the Covenant. [SPOILERS begin here]

The Covenant have been strongly interested in the technology of the Forerunners, an ancient race of aliens that ruled the galaxy millennia before. The Covenant are devoted followers of a religion that reveres the Forerunners, believing that they ascended into godhood through the construction, and subsequent activation, of several long-lost Halo rings located throughout the galaxy; and believe that they, too, can follow in Forerunner's footsteps by activating the Halo Array. The Covnenant refer to this as "The Great Journey."

The aforementioned Kig-Yar scavengers responsible for the disappearing human vessels were conducting searches for Forerunner relics, utilizing a Covenant device known as a "Luminary," which they reverse-engineered from Forerunner technology for this exact purpose. The Luminary would automatically mark any humans that it detected with glyphs, and the Covenant mistakenly thought that the glyphs indicated "Reclamations" (in other words, relics). The Luminary notes the presence of thousands on Harvest, hence their interest in the colony.

Three Covenant leaders (each a member of the San 'Shyuum species, a.k.a. Prophets) - the Minister of Fortitude, the Vice-Minister of Tranquility and the Philologist - are finally informed by the long-dormant Oracle/Monitor of the Forerunner dreadnought Mendicant Bias that they have actually been misinterpreting the Luminaries, and other Forerunner technology, for a long time, stating that they have actually discovered "Reclaimers" (humans) rather than "Reclamations."

From what the Oracle tells them, the three San'Shyuum conclude that the humans are the living descendants of the Forerunners, which strongly contradicts virtually everything that their religion says about the Forerunners' fate. The Covenant had long believed that the reason they never discovered the remains of any of the Forerunners was that they had already ascended into godhood thanks to the Great Journey. Fearing that this information would be severely damaging to the very pious Covenant society, the three San'Shyuum quickly proceed with a conspiracy to take over the throne and to initiate a military campaign to exterminate humanity. Thus beginning the Human-Covenant War.

Part of the Prophets' plan in the war involved deceiving the rest of the Covenant about the nature of humanity and the humans' relation to the Forerunners. They convinced the Covenant that the humans were a blasphemous species that had to be destroyed, and that the reason that no Forerunner relics were found wherever humans were found (as the Luminaries would always mark the humans with the glyphs that they mistranslated a "Reclamations") was because the humans were purposefully destroying the relics to prevent the Covenant from obtaining them.
From this, we can establish that A) The Prophets are well aware that their religious beliefs are actually not true, and B) They are undoubtedly aware that activating the Halo Array will not send them on the Great Journey as they previously thought it would. Despite this, they still try to activate Halo during the events of both Halo 2 and Halo 3. I'm skeptical that they actually knew what activating the rings would accomplish, since it would have resulted in the deaths of all sentient life in the galaxy, and their attempt at activating them at the end of Halo 2 was clearly not a half-hearted attempt. So, had the attempt succeeded, it would have not only killed all of humanity, but also all of the Covenant, including the Prophets and their fleet (as they had not yet made it safely to the Ark).

So, through this grand plan of theirs, what did the Prophets believe they were going achieve by activating the Halo Array? It seems like it would have been in the Prophets' best interest to simply wipe humanity out first before making any attempt to locate or activate any of the rings. Or perhaps even make some sort of a discreet attempt to destroy the rings and blame humanity for it.

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I recall reading somewhere that although the Prophets were aware of their illogical thinking, it was because of the instability of the Covenant political spectrum that made them create this "Great Journey". They couldn't afford to lose their thrones that they had worked so hard to get, so they created a common goal for all of the Covenant to fight for, and essentially brainwashed everyone. If anyone dared to speak out, they would simply silence them (e.g. the Heretic).

It just so happened that the Prophets decided the best time for the Great Journey to begin with Installation 05 was the same time they decided to kick the Elites out. Thus, the Elites could rise in rebellion against the Prophets (the Elites probably found out through 343 Guilty Spark and how the Arbiter confronted the Heretic about the actual purpose of the Great Journey) without any real "punishment" (they were being killed off anyway, as traitors beforehand).

  • One question still remains, that being what did the Prophets think that activating the rings would do? Were they willing to commit mass suicide over all of that or was it something else? If they survived, it would probably be pretty obvious that they hadn't ascended into godhood. – Spar10 Leonidas Jun 29 '16 at 23:52
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    Resurrecting this old question because this intrigues me. I'm in the middle of the Master Chief collection now. My theory is their plan was to use the Ark to escape the effect of the rings by finding a way to put themselves into a seeded stasis like the Forerunner did with the life that appeared post-ring the first time. Figure that out, and you've got your life-insurance policy, so have at shoving the Index into the control panel of the Ark to remotely fire all rings at the same time, because you'll just resurrect later. Granted, they seemed eager to fire off Inst 05 before the Ark was found. – MissouriSpartan Apr 29 at 17:53
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My impression on reading Contact Harvest, in particular the scene in the forerunner dreadnought aboard High Charity, was that the Prophets were so offended and enraged at finding that they were not the Forerunners' chosen successors that they determined to destroy humanity, in effect so there was no more competition. They called the revelation, from their most sacred and powerful oracle, blasphemy. That being the case the "Great Journey" was basically the excuse they gave the rest of the Covenant to justify throwing the whole weight of their collective might behind the destruction of humanity.

The Journey also gave them leverage over the Jiralhanae (Brutes) who had for some time been a rising power within the Covenant by fulfilling part of their race's forerunner prophecy and moving them into the next of their religious ages.

Based on the game lore, as I understand it, from the original Halo the inhabitants of the installations are protected, by being on the rings, from their activation. 343 Guilty Spark indicates that last time the rings were used the galaxy was recolonised from the rings. That being the case the Prophets would think that as long as they could move the Covenant en masse, or at least enough of them to keep them comfortable, to an installation, any installation, they could ride out the "ascension".

  • Just out of curiosity, do you have a source to back up the idea that the rings' inhabitants would be protected from the blast? Because I'm not sure if that would work. In the first two games, the Flood were on the rings themselves. In fact, the outbreak in the first game was what led the Monitor to try and activate the ring, as he believed that the outbreak needed to be "contained." Even in that case, another problem was that Tartarus tried to activate Delta Halo at the end of the second game, and the Prophets hadn't yet reached the Ark, meaning that they would've died from the activation. – Spar10 Leonidas May 5 at 19:40
  • Also, according to the short film Origins from Halo Legends (which, as far as I am aware, is a canon short film), the repopulation of the galaxy was thanks to the Forerunners indexing various sentient species, cloning them and then transporting them to their original homeworlds, rather than because each species was safely kept on the rings until the dust settled. – Spar10 Leonidas May 5 at 20:01
  • Unfortunately, I could not find the relevant footage online, so I'm going to have to quote Halopedia's entry for Part I of Origins: "With [the Flood] defeated, the Forerunners then began to repopulate the galaxy with various alien lifeforms that had been indexed, storing DNA samples, embryos and live specimens. These lifeforms were then returned to their home planets." halopedia.org/Origins#Part_I – Spar10 Leonidas May 5 at 20:01
  • There IS a way to protect life forms from the blast of the Halo rings, both on the rings and outside of them, either by placing them inside of various "shield worlds" or placing them in stasis (the latter of which is what the Forerunners did with the Flood, as they felt that it would be wise to preserve some specimens for future generations to study in case another outbreak ever occurred; this proved to be a huge mistake, as this is exactly where the outbreak in the first game originated), but there's nothing to indicate that Covenant attempted to do this when trying to activate the rings. – Spar10 Leonidas May 5 at 20:06
  • @Spar10Leonidas No I'd have to get hold of a copy of Halo, there's a line from 343 Guilty Spark about "preserving" something aboard the rings, he may only be referring to the stasis bound specimens that escape and infect the ring. The Covenant never seem to have really understood what the rings would really do, the Prophets talk about them as a mechanism for ascension to godhood rather than the galaxy scale mass casualty weapon that they are, therefore they [The Covenant] have no reason to attempt to protect themselves, quite the opposite; they want to be as exposed as possible. – Ash May 6 at 14:04

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