[Spoilers are kept to a minimum in this article, but it is assumed that the reader has either seen the first four seasons of Game of Thrones or read the first three novels in the series.]
Religion plays an essential role in the worldview of characters locked in the struggle for power within the grim world of Game of Thrones. The plurality of beliefs on the continent of Westeros raises the question of whether these antithetical religious views can be reconciled, that is, among the religions, do any show signs of being authentically linked to the divine, or are these beliefs merely delusions, with the gods being either misunderstood or nonexistent? In addition to the parallels with real world religions, the cataclysmic themes present in Game of Thrones bear semblance to certain eschatological prophecies found among several traditions, and these symbols will be examined here as well.
Before delving into this analysis, it is relevant to note the personal beliefs of the author. George R. R. Martin has explained,
"I suppose I'm a lapsed Catholic. You would consider me an atheist or agnostic. I find religion and spirituality fascinating. I would like to believe this isn't the end and there's something more, but I can't convince the rational part of me that makes any sense whatsoever.”
Given Martin’s Catholic upbringing, it is natural to find many Christian themes within the religions of his A Song of Ice and Fire series: the baptism, death and resurrection of the Drowned God worshipped by the Ironborn, the light and love of R’hllor worshipped by the Essosi and their missionaries found in Westeros, and the protection and grace of the Seven-faced creator worshipped by the majority of Westerosi. Martin takes special care not to explicitly prove one or more of these gods to be actual, living entities within the world, but rather provides fleeting evidence of supernatural, or possibly preternatural, intervention in response to prayers and rituals offered by characters. For example, the symbolic dreams of the three-eyed raven and sentient weirwood trees of the Old Gods, and the prophecies and visions of the Red God R’hllor -- not to mention the restoration back to life of one mortally wounded performed in this god’s name -- are clear occasions of the natural world being affected by spiritual beings, or at the very least, an impersonal source of magic.
|The parable of the blind men and the elephant|
If practitioners within each of the different religions in Westeros experience the reality of their gods, is this a case analogous to the parable of the group of blind men touching different parts of an elephant, each claiming to hold exclusive and total knowledge of the Truth? Is there an Absolute, which the finite minds of the inhabitants of Westeros are incapable of grasping in totality? Or does the author intend to suggest a postmodern viewpoint, in which there is no ultimate reality, and the individual’s subjective beliefs to be the only measuring rod of truth? Perhaps he means to impart that the superstitious mind of man grasps in the dark to find or invent meaning in a world where human life is as inconsequential and fragile as ants trying to understand sunbeams from underneath a magnifying glass. The adage that the sky in Westeros is blue because its inhabitants reside inside the eye of a blue-eyed giant seems to reflect this bleak outlook.
While not knowing the author’s intentions, it is at least possible to formulate a theory of the religions of Westeros, seen through a Traditional lens. To do so, it is necessary to draw parallels from these fictional practices to historical accounts of religion in the real world.
The False Paradigm of Dualism
As mentioned above, the religion of the Red God, R’hllor, Lord of Light seems at first glance to reflect the Christian idea of a loving deity who is opposed by the forces of darkness. Added to this is the exclusivity of the faith, in which unbelievers are condemned for worshipping false gods and burned at the stake, which is evocative of the era of the Inquisition and witch trials of Europe. However, this religion only bears some similarity to Christianity on its surface, given the dualist bearing the followers of the Lord of Light have on the world and the divine. This religion teaches that there are two gods: the god of light, heat and life, and the Great Other, the god of darkness, cold and death. The current world is seen as hell -- the only hell -- which implies that the Great Other is the dominant deity of the world, with the White Walkers beyond the Wall and their undead wights being manifestations of this evil.
The dualist belief of two gods in eternal opposition has existed since at least the third century A.D., propagated by the Gnostic Manichaean movement in Persia, and for a time it was one of the most widespread religions in the world. The Manichaeans believed that the world of matter was inherently evil and ruled by the demonic god Ahriman, the King of Darkness, whose fallen angels waged perpetual war against Zurwan, the Father of Greatness, god of light. The early Christian Fathers denounced Manichaeism as a heresy, due to the erroneous placement of Satan on equal ground with God, which suggests both beings to be eternal and proportionate in power. St. Augustine delineated that evil is not a force in equal opposition to good, but rather evil is the absence of good and holds no substance of its own; in a similar way to how cold is the absence of heat, and dark is absence of light -- these are not opposing qualities, but rather nondual deprivations. Lucifer is a creature, not a god, and therefore has finite power, while God is infinite, having no equal. Evil is the result of fallen free will -- not an eternal principle -- but the depravity of good confined within the realm of manifestation.
|Thoros of Myr|
If one were to shed light on who this Red God really is in the world of Game of Thrones, it is best to judge by the fruits of this religion. First, there is the Red Priest, Thoros of Myr, a drinking and whoring companion of King Robert, who coats his blade in wildfire to deceive crowds into thinking that he wields a magic sword during combat. Then there is Jaqen H’ghar, the “faceless man” who seemingly assassinates enemies by merely giving the names of those he wishes to kill to the Red God. And most prominently, there is the Red Priestess, Melisandre, who uses various deceptive and violent methods to spread “the one true faith” across the continent of Westeros, including blood magic, sex rituals, and human sacrifice. It should be of interest just how well the Red Woman fits the description of the Whore of Babylon found in Revelation 17:3-4:
“And I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was clothed round about with purple and scarlet, and gilt with gold, and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand, full of the abomination and filthiness of her fornication.”
The idea that there can be multiple sources of evil is an interesting one. Some exorcists, such as Malachi Martin and Gabriele Amorth, have said that Lucifer and Satan are separate entities. In this view, Lucifer is the original fallen angel, the light-bringer, whose nature fell through pride and envy, and Satan is considered among the third of the angels in heaven who followed Lucifer and embodies death and destruction, the dragon of Revelation. Perhaps this is why the Bible makes a distinction between the “spirits of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12) and the “beast, that ascendeth out of the abyss” (Revelation 11:17). Following this categorization, R’hllor could be considered a luciferian being, giving the false appearance of light and divinity, while the Great Other embodies a satanic nature of chaos and annihilation. In Westeros, this false dualism attracts followers to one demon, out of fear for the other.
Sorcery Contrary to the Supernatural
The display of unnatural psychic phenomena will often draw followers to a religion or spiritual movement, such as Spiritualists conjuring the appearance and voices of the dead, unfathomable healings through Voodoo, or even Word of Faith preachers sending their audience to the floor in hysterics by what appears to be subtle energetic manipulation. Because these sorts of phenomena are generally inexplicable to a rationalistic approach, oftentimes they are mislabeled as ‘supernatural’ occurrences. In reality, these practices have nothing to do with the supernatural, as the word pertains solely to the divine; instead, these are preternatural acts of sorcery, drawing power from the intermediate spirit world, ruled by the lesser daemons.
In the world of Game of Thrones, there are similar cases of preternatural power being mistaken for divine intervention, the Red God being one example. However, the Faith of the Seven seems to fit the description of a traditional religion with ties to the divine, but evidence for this is not apparent, considering that those characters who worship their god in any of the aspects of Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, Smith and Stranger rarely see their prayers answered, nor witness any miracles. Perhaps this lack of tangible presence of the Seven-faced God implies an intention by the author that this is a false religion, with the seven gods being fabrications of the warlike race of the Andals, in need of a doctrine to keep the Seven Kingdoms in subservience. Or it could be that this seven-faced creator is something akin to the traditional view of God in the Abrahamic religions, as a being who resides outside of time and space and may intervene in the world through dramatic miracles from time to time, but more commonly intermediates through subtle acts of grace. In fact, the aspect of seven-Gods-in-one draws similarities to the Christian Trinity of three Persons in one Divinity.
|A prayer wheel|
Catelyn Stark is often seen weaving a prayer wheel to the God of Seven to protect her children. To the audience, it is unclear whether the gods are real and if they hear her prayer, but it could be the case that Bran was spared after his fall because of her intercession. This would be an example of the supernatural at work, which is less apparent than the preternatural wonders of other faiths, but would be no less real in its effects, the difference being where the power is drawn from within the cosmic hierarchy, that is, either from the transcendent Creator or from lesser deities, such the benevolent nature spirits worshipped by the Northmen or even from demons as discussed above.
Fissures in the Great WallIn Hindu cosmology, the realm of manifestation is believed to pass through successive stages of a downward cycle. As the world falls progressively further from its spiritual Principle, mankind becomes more materialistic, and spiritual truths become hidden, especially in the final dark age -- the Kali Yuga -- of which many believe the modern era to be a late stage. As the current cycle draws to a close, chaos will continue to spread until the world is finally dissolved and creation begun anew. The metaphysician René Guénon described the materialist worldview of the current age as a "solidification" of the sensory world. This complete dependence on rational empiricism has in a sense cut off humanity from experience of the spiritual world; however, as this age comes to a close, what Guénon describes as "fissures in the Great Wall" begin to appear. These fissures are seen to be infernal forces breaking into ordinary existence, and the increasing presence of sorcery and psychic phenomena in society are a manifestation of this chaos.
Despite Game of Thrones taking place in a fantasy setting, initially there are not many occurrences of magic or other fantastical phenomena in the world. As Maester Luwin tells Bran:
"Perhaps magic was once a mighty force in the world, but no longer. What little remains is no more than the wisp of smoke that lingers in the air after a great fire has burned out, and even that is fading. Valyria was the last ember, and Valyria is gone. The dragons are no more, the giants are dead, the children of the forest forgotten with all their lore."
However, the world begins to change once Daenerys Targaryen has a dream of how to hatch her dragon eggs. After paying for life with the death of three others, her dragons are born from a funeral pyre, and magic is reawakened in the world. The Warlocks of Qarth are once again able to cast illusions, the pyromancers of King’s Landing find their wildfire spells be more potent, the followers of R’hllor experience prophetics visions, and the dead rise in the North beyond the Wall. From this it would seem that Westeros is undergoing its own form of the Kali Yuga, with dormant powers awakening as a precursor to impending calamity.
Accompanying the traditional doctrine on the end of the world, ‘the fissures in the Great Wall’ is symbolically described as the appearance of Gog and Magog, the demon harbingers of Armageddon, with their infernal army, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in other traditions, known as Yajuj and Majuj in Islam, and Koka and Vikoka in Hinduism. All versions of this story describe these sinister beings leading an unhallowed army to breach a Great Wall, which was constructed as a barrier against hell.
While the Wall in the north of Westeros bears resemblance to the historical Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain, it undoubtedly mirrors this age-old legend of Gog and Magog as well. The Wall in Westeros was constructed through the use of magic to keep out invading creatures, such as wildlings, giants, wights, and the demonic White Walkers. Not only is it a 700-foot wall made of ice, it is presumably sealed with magical spells to keep those unwanted out. The cardinal direction of north is of particular significance, as the demon brothers Gog and Magog are described as giants who invade from the north. Coincidentally, the name of the giant king "Mag the Mighty" bears a striking similarity to the name Magog. As for the icy wilderness beyond the Wall, in Dante’s Inferno the ninth circle of hell is described as a vast frozen wasteland ringed by giants, yet another parallel.
Interestingly, the brothers of the Night’s Watch who guard the Wall parallel certain aspects of the monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Medieval monasticism was the only societal institution which admitted members from all classes, from those of noble birth to lowborn serfs. In much the same way, the brothers of the Night’s Watch are a mix of nobles, peasants, and even thieves, and the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are reflected in the oath the Black Brothers take:
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post..."
In much the same way that monks in the Middle Ages were seen as defenders against demonic influences in the world by keeping nightly vigils, so too the Sworn Brothers are the shield of the Realm against the creatures of darkness that seek to enter the Seven Kingdoms, bringing everlasting night and death.
If the world in Game of Thrones is undergoing its own sort of Kali Yuga with the increase of magic and chaos, it seems to be approaching the end of an age, if not the end the world. In Westeros, seasons last for several years and with the advent of winter, there is the threat of the Long Night, which is a period of cold and darkness that can last a generation, when the White Walkers awake and spread death across the land.
The Long Night calls to mind the Catholic end times prophecy of the Three Days of Darkness, in which following a "bitterly cold night", the entire world will be covered in a dark pestilence with the "air infected by demons who will appear under all sorts of hideous forms", whereby many will perish before the end of the world.
A rain of fire is also said to play an essential role in the final destruction of the world among the prophecies found in several traditions: the hurricane of fire described by Catholic visionaries; the seven suns of destruction foretold in Buddhism; the fire from the sky that will boil the oceans and burn the land as told by the Hopi. One particularly noteworthy prophetic tale comes from the Norse tradition, in which following the harsh period of Fimbulvetr, which consists of three successive winters without summer, a great war will breakout and the demon giant Surtr, wielding a flaming sword, will fling fire across the nine worlds, submerging Midgard into the ocean as the world comes to an end.
Many of these eschatological prophecies carry the same theme, that of destruction by ice and fire. Given that George R. R. Martin’s book series’ official title is not Game of Thrones but A Song of Ice and Fire it can certainly be assumed that not only do the ice demons beyond the Wall play a central role in the strife in Westeros, but inevitably Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons will come to the fore. But what part will these creatures play? Will they really be a salvific power for good, as the audience is led to hope for? Or will there follow a wake of destruction with their arrival in Westeros?
During the portentous times the characters in Game of Thrones live in, there is an occasional message of hope found in the prophecy of a savior. Melisandre tells of the Champion, whose coming was first prophesied 5000 years earlier. The Champion is the Prince Who Was Promised, who will be reborn "amidst salt and smoke" when "the red star bleeds" and will wield the flaming sword "lightbearer" to combat the darkness.
The Targaryens also had a similar prophecy of the "Prince That Was Promised", who would be be a savior in a dark time. In A Clash of Kings, there is a scene in the House of the Undying in Qarth that was not depicted in the television version, but it bears significance. Daenerys has a vision of the past and sees her eldest brother Rhaegar naming his newborn son, declaring, "He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire." The Targaryen family was all but annihilated with the exception of Daenerys and Maester Aemon. Could it be that Melisandre was wrong about Stannis Baratheon being the Champion, and it is Daenerys and her dragons who will fulfill this ancient prophecy?
But what sort of savior would come from Melisandre’s demonic religion? This seems to suggest that the Champion is someone who appears righteous but is actually evil, akin to the Christian prophecy of the Antichrist or the Dajjal of Islam. When Daenerys was with Khal Drogo’s child, the Dothraki also had a prophecy that their son would be ‘the Stallion Who Mounts the World’. This foreboding title did not come to fruition, as the child was delivered stillborn, having the appearance of a deformed monster with the wings of a bat -- an ostensibly ominous image. Moreover, blood-hungry dragons by no means bear the characteristic of a divine protector, especially considering the medieval association with dragons and the diabolic.
Incidentally, there is a clear example of inversion of Christian symbology in the fourth season of the television series. Instead of granting mercy to the slave masters of Meereen, Daenerys crucifies those who had previously nailed slave children to the city’s mileposts -- which is an obvious contradiction of the symbol of the cross as portrayed in the Christian tradition. After all, what is an antichrist but one who gives the appearance of virtue but who is in truth covertly malicious? As Origen says, "...evil is specially characterized by its diffusion, and attains its greatest height when it simulates the appearance of the good, for that reason are signs, and marvels, and lying miracles found to accompany evil, through the cooperation of its father the devil."
Of course, Daenerys does seem to hold more or less good intentions, so these comments are intended merely as speculation and are not meant to incite umbrage among readers with regards to a well-liked character. However, given the power found in symbols, it is necessary to draw attention to images and themes that echo inverted spirituality.
Final ThoughtsComparing fictional religions to those found in the real world runs two risks: 1. it may seem odd to give such importance to a make-believe world, finding significance in its fanciful tales and magic, as if these say anything about genuine truth, or 2. it may cast real world religions in a poor light, as being fictional creations of the minds of men. The first category of opinion is more likely to be found among some devout religious who fail to see the universal power of symbols, while the second opinion might be expected of those who feel aversion to religion, believing it to be an antiquated body of superstition.
In lieu of either of these standpoints, it is helpful to recall the words of Confucius, "Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws." The use of symbolism carries a significant weight, whether it is found in fiction or dogma. As Plato reasoned, symbols exist independently from the human mind, and originate in an unchanging, eternal realm of the intellect; that is to say, symbols are universal because they derive from a supernatural realm. For that reason, the implementation of symbols wields the power to affect change in the world, which is why it is essential to scrutinize symbolic content when used in fictional forms of entertainment, as oftentimes the audience will passively forego analytical judgment and inattentively accept whatever message is presented from the writers’ point of view, whether it be sound or fallacious.
Moreover, it is sometimes the case that certain truths cannot be grasped until viewed from a mythological approach, which is why some stories will hold the attention and permeate a deeper meaning within the audience's lives, due to the enfolding of universal truths within a fictional setting.
Game of Thrones utilizes many universal symbols, as touched upon in this article, and whether or not the author himself is fully aware of the import of such symbolism is extraneous to the effect this has on his audience. Matters of gods, magic and creeds hold a place deep in the human psyche, and therefore merit proper reflection even when encountered in a fictional world. By contemplating a myth, ever and again it is possible to arrive at Truth.
[Thanks for reading. Please do not discuss any upcoming spoilers in the comments section.]