A dissection of the Reaper of Souls story and its impact on Diablo III’s lore

Okay, if you ever read my old semi defunct blog over here, you’ll know that I wrote a thing about the gnostic overtones of Diablo III. Just like that post, this post is absolutely chock full of spoilers. I am going to spoil the ever loving crap out of Reaper of Souls and I don’t want to hear any complaints about it. I’m warning you right here, right now.

If you do not want to read plot details for Reaper of Souls then go away right now because I am so not kidding about this. Everything after this sentence could be a spoiler so if you’re still reading, I can only assume that you want spoilers because hoo boy I’m not even kidding.

We good? Okay, good.

When discussing Reaper of Souls I’m reminded of Zoroastrian doctrine, which I’ll go more into, but I’m also reminded of Iblis, the rebellious angel in the Quran who states, when asked to prostrate himself to the newly created human beings, response negatively. When asked why, Iblis’ reply is Shall the son of fire kneel to the son of clay? The former Archangel of Wisdom, Malthael, serves as the ultimate villain of RoS and although he’s not presented with humanity by a divine overlord, his response to its existence is a similar baffled disgust. Malthael admits that humanity has a capacity he lacks – they can choose between good and evil, having free will and both angelic and demonic blood in their ancestry. But Malthael sees this as a defect, trapped as they are within mortal bodies that decay and die over time in brief moments rather than imperishable angelic beings like himself, who return to the Crystal Arch to be reborn when slain. (It’s heavily implied at the end of RoS that Malthael will be reborn.) Similarly, the various Evils (Prime and Lesser) seem to have been freed from the Black Soulstone with its destruction and are likely already re-establishing themselves in the Hells. The very mortality of humans is the reason Malthael doesn’t trust them – how can such potential power as they can grow to wield be trusted in the hands of beings who flare up and burn out, as he puts it? This, combined with his belief that their demonic half is inherently corruptive, leads him to conclude that while humans can choose good over evil, the demonic essence in their ancestry means they will almost inevitably choose evil.

This is interesting because it seems to be based on a reasonable reading of the facts. Diablo, Baal and Mephisto deliberately engineered the war in Hell in order that they might be banished to Sanctuary, getting around the Worldstone and its prohibition on angels or demons interfering with the world. It’s the Worldstone that interests us here, because it’s the Worldstone and its use by both an angel and a demon simultaneously that allowed Sanctuary to come into existence. Because before the creation of Sanctuary, the Worldstone was a prize to be fought over, and what few seem to recall with any clarity is that it was the Worldstone that the forces of Heaven and Hell originally fought over. It was the Worldstone that Malthael himself found, the Worldstone that Tyrael ordered the Pandemonium Fortress created to protect, and both angels and demons used the Worldstone to create worlds before Sanctuary ever existed. But unlike Sanctuary, those worlds were doomed. Created solely by one or the other, they were flawed, incomplete – they were not whole. And thus they withered and died, divested as they were. Because the true secret of the Diablo fictional universe is this – when Anu attempted to perfect himself at the dawn of creation, and removed all negative impulses, he created two beings. The perfected Anu, and the ravaging Tathemet, the Prime Evil, personification of all baleful intent, the seven headed demon dragon. And both were flawed.

The universe entire was created out of the pearl the two halves of Anu battled inside by their destruction of one another – Tathemet’s essence was torn asunder and became the seven Evils, while Anu’s essence collected in the Crystal Arch and gave birth to the angels. And both sides were flawed. Ultimate good just as rigid, inflexible and unable to see its flaws as ultimate evil is. Sanctuary is the only world created by the Worldstone to be capable of existing independently of the Eternal Conflict because it is the only one that was created by an angel and a demon acting together, the only world to contain all possibilities. So while the Diablo cosmology contains elements of gnosticism, Manicheanism, even Zoroastrian dualism (the conflict between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainu in particular) it is somewhat unique in that it posits that both sides are wrong. Rather than arguing (as Manicheanism does) that the flesh is corrupting and only spirit is uniquely imperishable and good, what is being argued here is that without some sort of unity between the positive and negative aspects of the self (‘good’ or Light and ‘evil’ or Dark) nothing can be sustained. That the very fragility and perishable nature of humanity is what allows the Nephalem to be so powerful, because he or she is a union of opposites and leaves behind a legacy by his or her actions.

Malthael’s Wisdom fails him because he abandons it and his position in Heaven to pursue his agenda on Sanctuary. He doesn’t come to the aid of Heaven even when Diablo’s victory seems assured – he sits back and waits for the Nephalem to do what no angel could and defeat Diablo while the Lord of Terror is in possession of the power (and potentially the knowledge and minds) of all seven Evils. For the first time since the division of Anu, a being walked creation with all the power of one-half of the Primordial creator god – and only the Nephalem could stop it. Not Imperius, and not Malthael either, because they too are inherently flawed, being devoid of the other half of creation – destruction. Because the creation of art (whether it be a painting or a universe) is about selection, about deletion, about destruction as much as creation – about choice. The angels lack choice. The Angiris Council actually once served as a sort of pseudo-choice, giving them the unity needed to behave as a being with free will, because each Archangel (embodying one of the aspects of the purified half of Anu, Justice, Fate, Wisdom, Hope and Valor) could serve to bring his or her aspect to the whole. When Diablo tricked Imperius into killing him when he was captive (seen in the Wrath short film) he cracked that unity, which led the Angiris Council to no longer be able to present a united front in the Eternal Conflict. But it was not Diablo’s act that set Malthael on his course.

It was Malthael’s essentially flawed nature that could look upon and study the Worldstone for eons, but never understand what it was – a pure remnant of the destruction of Anu and Tathemet that created Pandemonium, and everything else. The Worldstone embodies duality – Light and Dark, destroyer and creator, Anu and Tathemet both. Both sides in the conflict could use it, but only if both sides used it together could it make a real world, a stable world that can continue on and endure. And only by coming together to create beings that shared both halves of that nature could that world be populated with beings who could be the true heirs to the Anu who sought to perfect itself. Because here’s a question – Why did Anu seek perfection when Anu was all that existed? By definition, Anu was perfect.

Similarly, Malthael misunderstands his own nature as thoroughly as he does that of humanity. Devoid of choice, he acts as part of a greater plan. But whose plan? Well, if we are to accept (as we must) that angels and demons lack the free choice that humans in the Diablo setting have, we must ask ourselves how and why they act at all. Are they simply prompted to act by their natures? Or, perhaps, has all of this been part of the original plan for creation that Anu set in motion at the beginning? One is forced again to consider the gnostic notion of knowledge, of the idea of the limitless light only knowing what it was through contraction. Anu could only know perfection by making himself less than he was, by creating Tathemet to serve as his opposite, and ultimately by destroying himself and her to create those that would create those that could use the Worldstone to make a new world. And on that world at last stands a being who is at once mortal, fated to die, and yet greater than any Archangel or Prime Evil. We know this because the Nephalem has bested the greatest of the Archangels (remember, Malthael was head of the Angiris Council) and all the power of the Seven Evils in one being.

The Nephalem is the true heir of Anu, and it was to create him or her and strengthen them that Malthael acted as he did, even though he doesn’t – cannot – apprehend it. Malthael turned away from the wisdom of Heaven and sought understanding in the souls of mortals as they died, but all he gained an understanding of was that death, and not the life it made possible. But the Nephalem understood it. To stand, to act despite futility and eventual failure, to deny fate, to hope beyond any reason, to unleash valor for justice’s sake takes wisdom, yes. But it also takes arrogance. It takes the ability to feel fear and overcome it, even to inflict it. To overreach, perhaps even to lie to oneself, to destroy and endure pain and anguish in doing so. And that hubris is a sin all its own, a special crime necessary to be able to make use of that power despite the frailty of one’s being. Malthael looked upon humans and saw dross waiting to die. The Prime Evils looked upon them and saw fodder for the Eternal Conflict. Neither could see the truth, constrained as they are by ancient habits and their very nature. The Eternal Conflict was over the Worldstone. The Worldstone has fulfilled its purpose.

The Nephalem exists. Heaven and Hell are no longer necessary. And that is what ultimately fascinates me about the Diablo setting – the implication is that, in time, a whole new order will come to creation, and beings who hold both Heaven and Hell in their blood will come to rule over all things, from the Crystal Arch that was born from Anu’s death to the Hells that were Tathemet’s flesh. For how can limited beings who can not know choice stands against those that can?

It’s fascinating to consider the role Zoltan Kulle plays in the Diablo III main story with this in mind. Literally everything he says to the Nephalem turns out to be correct – angels can’t be trusted as they once voted to destroy humanity and could do so again, Leah was fascinating (it’s clear in retrospect that Kulle saw that Leah was Diablo’s chosen host – I still can’t believe I missed that she was named for her paternal grandfather, Leoric) and the Black Soulstone could be used to trap angelic as well as demonic essences, essentially freeing the universe from both sides. (What Malthael intended to do to the humans of Sanctuary – draw all demonic essences into the Soulstone, killing them, could easily have been done in reverse – Kulle clearly intended to use it to trap both the angels and the demons inside it wholesale). Kulle was an egotist, a selfish manipulator, a callous, cruel and partly insane person, but he viewed the Nephalem as a peer and never lied to him. It’s also clear that Kulle proves that death isn’t as absolute as Malthael thinks, and thus, the Nephalem may well transcend it.

Tyrael’s apprehension at the end of RoS is well founded. In time, the Eternal Conflict will end – because its ultimate victors will be those that can know both sides of the struggle in themselves.

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6 Responses to A dissection of the Reaper of Souls story and its impact on Diablo III’s lore

  1. Justin

    Loved it, great read. I went back and read your previous post for some context.

    I absolutely love the lore for Diablo. I’ve just never really gotten into the game play. I played the hell out of the first one when it came out, but skipped 2.

    Im a sucker for any stories that deal with religious overtones and especially Angel lore. (I especially like the Gnostic gospel and Enoch’s writings on angel castes) And your breaking down of the story has reinvigorated me.

    I will be reinstalling D3 this week and giving it a honest go.

    Thx again Rossi

  2. I read Storm of Light before RoS, and my overal thoughts are a lot less philosophical and less fascinated, I think.

    I find that a lot of the story/design of Diablo goes against the themes it want to create. On the one hand, the game is filled with situations where everything is terrible. Barely anyone you meet in the wilderness survives, often you rescue someone just to have them be suddenly possessed or something, people die in the ten thousands all the time. But at the same time, the game communicates to me: SPIN TO WIN! WOO LEVELUP! I AM AN INVINCIBLE MEAT BICYCLE!

    These two things are constantly conflicting in my head, as if the teams responsible for both aspects had never found a solution for this conflict and chose to just let it exist. In a similar way (and this is true for WoW books too), they shy away from actually changing things within books, so usually they bring up major conflicts and problems that, by the end of the book, are resolved to a degree where they are never mentioned again.

    In Storm of Light alone, Tyrael is on the verge of turning into an evil version of himself through the chalice of wisdom, he gets expelled from the archangels, and there are all the personal stories of the human characters. By the end of the book, Tyrael just got over his addiction to the chalice, got accepted back into the council, and all the humans just left, never to be mentioned again. (I suspect none of them were present at the RoS into because in a half-sentence they mention that he let them rest for a bit)

    And in practice, everything Tyrael achieves throughout the entire book is immediately ruined during the RoS intro. (The book’s antagonist even explicitly tells him that Malthael, yet unnamed there, has planned all of this, has breached rakkis tomb and is prepared to steal the soulstone. Tyrael apparently forgets all of this and blindly runs into the trap he knows about.)

    To someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with Zoroastrianism, the major themes of Diablo always seemed kind of empty of practical meaning. The archangels, to me, seemed a lot like the societal concept from Divergent: Everyone represents one positive attribute, but being brave still doesn’t keep you from being a murderer, and being clever doesn’t prevent being a terrible person, is what I thought the aspects were about.

    The overal idea that both angels and demons endlessly are able to return seemed both helpful for future games – and just a general message to players, to make it obvious how pointless the entire struggle is. The fight between the Heavens and Hells is as meaningful and will bring us as far as the conflict between Red and Blu in Team Fortress.

    My tastes in Fantasy are a bit unusual I think, I care a lot more about how the personal life of people in the world is, how the existance of skeletons everywhere affects their routines, than what lord whatever and high king thingermajigger are doing out there, but I just soak all this stuff in and can’t stop thinking about it. For someone with only superficial knowledge like me, the Diablo story seems a bit unfulfilling and unwilling to change anything.

  3. Bullbar

    I think having Imperius be right behind Tyrael in the end-cinematic of RoS is very telling. Imperius has made no bones about the fact that he hates the nephalem, and if something were to happen to us, he wouldn’t lift to finger or care. With Tyrael thinking about how powerful we are after defeating Malthael, and recognizing that we can, and already have, surpassed both angel and demon and can vanquish anything or anyone, is it a coincidence that Imperius is the one standing next to him as he contemplates that? Has the seed of fear been planted in the angels now?

    I think the next expansion will be in Skovos though…iirc that’s the place that Tyrael and Lorath are discussing in Adventure Mode? I may be mistaken, can’t check right now to confirm. Tyrael says how they have lost contact with the Horadrim that were sent there. The Prime Evils haven’t had time to manifest themselves fully and take our a Horadrim party and assault the isles. So what’s happened there and what now threatens humanity?

    • Kazekraze

      I think what we would be looking at for another expansion would have to be more “Nephalem” types awakening. I mean figure if all of humanities bloodline had this capability and we can now crush both the most powerful of Angelic and Demonic forces without much effort the only challenge left would be a “Evil” Nephalem.

      • matthewrossi

        Dunno about that “without much effort” part. Malthael isn’t easy.

        • Kazekraze

          Took what, like 5minutes tops? I’d say that is fairly low in the effort department!

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