header is screenshot from Destiny 2: The Witch Queen
Dreams of Power/ Power of Dreams
Gareth Damian Martin

When the young widow Marie Berna visited painter Arnold Böcklin’s studio in 1880 she noticed an unfinished canvas of a cemetery isle. She asked Böcklin to complete the painting in memory of her late husband, calling it a “picture to dream to.” The resultant painting, The Island of the Dead, would become Böcklin’s signature piece, and he would repaint it four more times in his career. The painting, with its pale mausoleum shadowed by dark cypresses, set in a pristine lake, has a kind of talismanic power, having been restaged many times by artists and designers, and has long enjoyed a strange proximity to power being owned and admired by Adolf Hitler and being hung above the bed of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

So when I spotted it, or at least a facsimile of the painting, in the launch trailer for Destiny 2’s newest expansion, The Witch Queen, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Destiny, since the beginning, has had an art team eager to pull from fine art references, especially when it comes to The Witch Queen’s central race, the Hive, who take well-observed aesthetic cues from Wayne Barlowe’s demons and Zdzisław Beksiński’s architecture among others. But the appearance of a version of Böcklin’s island, complete with inexplicable (presumably alien) cypresses, didn’t necessarily evoke the same sense of artistic awareness and referentiality, perhaps in part because of how overused The Island of the Dead has become.

In fact The Island of the Dead has been reprinted and repainted to the extreme, famously described by Vladimir Nabokov as to be "found in every Berlin home." It is a signifier worn out by overuse, demonstrated by its appearance in Hotel Transylvania or one particularly heavy-handed reference in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. In the latter it appears in a sequence which smashes together a set of European Romantic masterpieces with the kind of artless pomp we have come to expect from late-career Scott. The Island of the Dead, recreated in CGI as if Böcklin’s work was a piece of concept art, forms the location from which the android David recites Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley before recalling an apocalyptic scene in the style of painter John Martin. The result feels more like Scott trying to evidence his Royal College of Art education than a genuine engagement with the aesthetic, context, and meaning of those works.

So I admit that when approaching The Witch Queen on release I wasn’t expecting its restaging of The Island of the Dead to be anything more than hollow symbolism or a knowing nod from the art department. However, after ascending through the expansion’s central location, Savathûn’s “Throne World”—a kind of psychic plane or existence, housing her memories and accrued power—and reaching the island itself, I found myself fascinated by the way in which Bungie and its art team had embedded a restaging of Böcklin’s iconic image into the fiction and narrative of the world. To explore this, I first want to return to the image’s leaden appearance in Alien: Covenant.

 What makes that sequence and its hybridisation of Shelley, Martin, and Böcklin, of interest, is the way Scott, searching for a sense of grandeur and mythic storytelling for his prequel, simply reaches into art history and attempts to pull these qualities wholesale from other work, bringing all the nostalgia and pretense those works have accrued over decades of canonisation with them. In Alien: Covenant this sequence represents a kind of classical past from which the Alien mythos emerges, a past not least implied by the film’s title, but also by toga-wearing aliens gathered around a Roman forum-like temple. However the works Scott chooses to reference are not Classical in themselves, but part of a 19th century Romantic obsession with the Classical period. Each of the works referenced; by Shelley, Martin, and Böcklin are 19th century revisions of classical imagery, be that Biblical pharaoh Ramesses II, Pompei’s destruction, and in Böcklin’s case the Greek mythological ferryman of the dead, Charon. Yet in Alien:Covenant Scott uses them to depict a classical alien society, skipping the importance of the context in which Shelley, Martin, and Böcklin worked. Scott reaches for the eternal, for a mythic origin, but only goes back 200 years to a revisionist aesthetic.

At first it seems that The Witch Queen takes the same approach. The Island of the Dead in this world also represents some classical origin for Savathûn It depicts the island on which she first accepted her “worm,” the parasitic creature which grants her power and began the transformation of her race into the "Hive", the religious fanatics that have featured as an antagonist throughout the Destiny games. These events have been detailed previously in Destiny; featuring in the Books of Sorrow; a bizarre and fantastical Hive religious text, written like a science fiction version of the King James Bible, in a series of verses that bristle the facist “sword logic” of the Hive’s ascension to power. Like in Alien: Covenant, we are once again seeing a gesture towards a classical origin for this alien species. 

But The Witch Queen is different, in a vital way: it recognises The Island of the Dead’s context as a 19th century revision of a classical aesthetic, and makes its own restaging of it an act of revision, too. In The Witch Queen we encounter The Island of the Dead not in the middle of a pristine lake, but at the center of a vast bone-white bowl, a piece of monumental architecture that appears almost like a flipped version of Albert Speer’s Volkshalle: a vast, never constructed dome designed for Adolf Hitler’s imperial Berlin. That building is a monument to Speer and Nazism’s obsession with classicism, and evocation of a “pure” past from which their ideologies emerged. Savathûn’s Island of the Dead, the vast bowl that contains it, and her throne world more generally, carry the traces of that same obsession. They are an aesthetic revision of the Hive’s own origins, a gesture at a past of ideological purity. That The Island of the Dead is at the centre of this monumental construction shows it is not a Classical origin in itself, but a contemporary depiction of it. It is Savathûn’s attempt to enshrine her origin into a powerful aesthetic of imperial power, not in a physical form, but within her own psychic seat of power, her dreamscape. This is only reinforced by The Witch Queen’s concluding twist: that Savathûn, the so-called “god of cunning,” was tricked by the worms, and the Hive’s origin is a lie. 

The result is that The Witch Queen’s restaging of The Island of the Dead feels totally engaged with the painting’s nature. It views it with proper context, as a 19th century evocation of Classical mythology that formed the canvas for the dark dreams of some of the 20th century's most ruthless leaders. In Destiny 2 the island is the mythical origin of the Hive, refashioned as a memorial to their great leader within the depths of her mind. It is the “great moment” which drives the entire universe-conquering history of the Hive. It is an “image to dream to” and a reminder that dreams are not just the innocent wanderings of peaceful sleep, but also the traces of material realities yet to be enacted upon the world by those who wield them.


Gareth Damian Martin is an award-winning writer, designer and artist. Their first game, In Other Waters was widely praised by critics for its “hypnotic art, otherworldly audio and captivating writing” (Eurogamer). Their games criticism has been published in a wide variety of forms and they are the editor and creator of Heterotopias, an independent zine about games and architecture. Their second game, Citizen Sleeper, is coming May 5th 2022. Find them @jumpovertheage.