Everything You Need to Know About Religion in Game of Thrones 6 April 2014
George R. R. Martin’s epic saga The Song of Ice and Fire, adapted for TV as the Game of Thrones series, is one of the most popular fantasy stories ever told—comparable to the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. Unlike many fantasy novels however, religion is central in his stories.
The Song of Ice and Fire distorts the usual fantasy tropes. George R. R. Martin writes that too often in fantasy, good and evil are presented simply – ‘here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly’. He continues saying ‘the battle between Good and Evil is waged within the individual human hearts’. This is a common theme with Martin’s stories – there are few clear goodies and baddies. Heroes have faults and villains redeem themselves. As both viewers of the television series and readers of the book will know – in Martin’s world, the good guys can die (cross-reference Seasons 1 to 7). It’s a moral universe that is not black and white like Tolkien’s, but full of the ambiguities faced in the real world.
There are other ways too in which The Song of Ice and Fire series challenges existing fantasy archetypes. One particular way is the vivid and varied religious landscape of Westeros and the lands beyond the narrow sea. Religion in the world of Westeros and beyond is not simply in the background or mentioned in passing, rather it is often the forefront of the issues at hand. This is only natural argues Martin, “if you go back to my model, the middle ages, religion was enormously important”. Thus in the world of Westeros, it is equally important.
So what are the religions of the world created by Martin?
The continent of Westeros is the focus of most (but not all) the action in the series. It is the size of South America, but in climate and culture, more closely reflects Europe from a variety of historical periods. There is the cold north ruled by House Stark, resembling Scotland and parts of Scandinavia. There is the port of King’s Landing in the Crownlands, where you can see inspiration drawn from London, Rome and Paris. There is Dorne in the south, where the climate is hotter and culture quite different from the rest of Westeros – Dorne is a vague reflection of Spain and North Africa.
Westeros was first inhabited by a non-human species, the Children of the Forest (think Hobbits). They worshiped what are known as the Old Gods, a form of pantheistic nature worship in which various deities are responsible for the cosmic and natural world. The Old Gods are a religion with few formal rules and no chapels or temples. Instead the Godswood – a forest with the unique Weirwood tree in the centre – would be the location of reverence. Soon however, the First Men came to Westeros – these First Men would go on to form House Stark and the people of the north. Rather than introduce any new gods, they accepted the gods of the Children of the Forest and worshiped them too. So the religion of the Old Gods was the first form of worship in Westeros for the early human settlers.
The religion of the Old Gods with its nature worship and pantheon of spirit gods certainly bears a resemblance to pre-Christian pagan religions in Europe – although only at a distance. If George R. R. Martin did intend some similarity (and there is much evidence that he did), it appeals to a popular conception of pagan religion rather than an actual of reflection of what it was like. That said, scholar Miranda Green argues early Celtic religion imbued many natural features with sacred qualities, especially trees. Just like the weirwoods of Westeros, there are records that Iron Age Celtics incorporated ‘wooden images of deities crudely hewn on tree trunks’ – potential inspiration for Martin.
Soon after the First Men, the Andals came to Westeros. The Andals were a new ethnic group of humans who populated the continent. Their migration led to an end to many of the kingdoms of the First Men, as well to the disappearance of the Children of the Forest. Like the
The Andals brought with them the Faith of the Seven. A more formal and established religion, with temples called Septs and priests called Septons. The Faith of the Seven worshiped seven godheads in unison. The first three are masculine, they are The Father who represents divine justice, The Warrior who represents strengths and courage and The Smith who represents craftsmanship and production. There are a further three godheads who are feminine – The Mother who represents fertility and mercy, The Maiden who represents purity and youth and the Crone who represents wisdom and experience. The final and seventh godhead is The Stranger – the unknowable and transcendent.
The seven godheads are seen to be manifestations of a single God, often referred to as ‘the seven faced God’. There are clear links to a Trinitarian theology of a Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the balance between an imminent knowable God and a transcendent unknowable Divine.
There are very prominent links too between the Faith of the Seven and Roman Christianity. Aside from theology, there is also the state support of the Faith of the Seven. The King worships the Seven, and the kingdom’s official ceremonies are done via the organised clergy of Septons (male priests) and Septas (female priests). Much like Roman Catholicism, the ruling clergy of the Faith of the Seven are elected and chosen by the council of The Most Devout.
In the series history, when a powerful ruling family (The Targaryens) conquered Westeros, they established their military dominance through their dragons, but established legitimacy for their rule by adopting the Faith of the Seven. Much like Christianity, the foreign Middle-Eastern religion became the adopted religion of Europe through the Roman Empire, pushing the native religions of Europe to distant hinterlands. In Westeros, the same happened with the Faith of the Seven which pushed the Old Gods to edges of the continent.
This conflict, between the Old Gods and the Faith of the Seven, is tied also to the conflict between the Children of the Forest and the First Men and subsequently Andals. As watchers of the show will now know, the origins of the White Walkers, which pose the most serious threat to civilization in the series, is a consequence of this conflict.
Theology and Politics
The third significant religion in the world of The Song of Ice and Fire is the religion of the Lord of Light, R’Hollor. This religion had not gained a foothold in Westeros until the events of the books, instead hailing from the foreign lands across the narrow sea to the east of the continent of Westeros. It begins to play a deeply important role in the book and series with the appearance of Melissandre, a mysterious priestess of the Lord of Light. The religion is monotheistic, considering the Lord of Light the one true God. All other gods are therefore by definition demonic and false. Whereas the Old Gods and the Faith of the Seven managed to accommodate one another on Westeros, the religious adherents of the Lord of Light had little desire to coexist. The books introduce us to a handful of priests of this mysterious religion, but most of what we learn is from Melissandre.
She teaches that the Lord of Light is strongly associated with fire – heat and light are blessings from this god. There are Gnostic and Manichaean overtones. The Gnostic religions established a stark dichotomy between light and dark – considering God and good to be attributes of the light. They saw the universe as the battlefield for a struggle between light and dark. Essential also in Gnostic traditions was the belief in the evil demiurge. The demiurge, who is the creator of the universe, is no pious god, but a demonic false god who created an imperfect world thereby bringing light and dark into conflict and chaos.
It’s celebration of fire, for the light also aligns it closely with Zoroastrianism – an ancient world religion with adherents mainly in Iran. The Everlasting Flame of Zorastarianism has echoes in the religion of R’Hollor.
The increasing prominence of the adherents of the Lord of Light in the show is the link between the Iron Throne and the promised Azor Ahai, a messianic figure. Priestesses of the Lord of Light variously throw their weight behind different potential candidates for the throne, Melissandre for Stannis Baratheon at first, others for Daenerys.
The messy relationship between power and politics is best shown through the Faith Militant, devout and zealous fanatics who, once armed, manage to take control of King’s Landing. Martin uncannily showed through the Faith Militant how legitimacy to rule is a separate issue from power to rule. The Lannister’s had military power, but had lost the legitimacy that popular religion brought, and helped cement their control over their subjects. It reminds us, as William Cavanaugh has argued, that ‘secular social arrangements are not simply a neutral way of dealing with a pre-existing social fact called “religion”‘ but in fact a way of gaining the authority that can be conferred by religion by “reinforcing the state’s role as the all-powerful source of legitimacy for both public and private spheres”. Religion in Westeros shows the different relationships religion can have with state power.
There is another religious tradition too has made its influence felt within the world of Ice and Fire. It is the religion of the Faceless Men, infamous assassins from the city of Braavos. The Faceless Men worship ‘Him of Many Faces’. Their god is sometimes called ‘death’ itself, a transcendental, unknowable other, who they believe manifests himself in religions across the world. Their infamy derives from their belief that death is a merciful gift of God and an act of worship. They are renowned assassins and, for a price, will deliver the gift of death to a chosen person.
Martin’s inclusion of a religious order of assassins is clearly influenced by the Hashashin – Shia Muslims who operated clandestine assassinations during the First Crusades. However, it is likely the Thuggee of India are a more direct inspiration. The Thuggee were supposedly infamous murderer-assassins who worshiped the Hindu goddess Kali. Kali was the god of destruction and death. They would attack travelers, strangling them to death as a means of devotion to the goddess. Or at least that is how the story is told – there is considerable question as to whether the Thuggee cult ever really existed or whether it was convenient myth invented by the British to justify the benefits of colonial rule. Regardless, The Faceless Men are an amalgation of the Thuggee and the Hashashin.
There are other small religions in the landscape of Westeros too, mainly the hyper-local religious traditions of tribes. There is the Drowned God of the Iron Islands – a god that reflects the worshipers’ preoccupation with the sea and seafaring life. There is also the Great Stallion of the Dothraki – an equine deity for a largely horse-based culture and society.
A Game of Gods
George R. R. Martin’s religious landscape in the Song of Ice and Fire is certainly more vivid and varied than perhaps any other fantasy epic. His religions are also not superficial or perfunctory. They hold important roles in society.
On one level, they are a means of social control and power. Religion is utilised to control the masses, to motivate them and exert influence. An important riddle is told in A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series:
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”
Just as in medieval Europe, the Church, the State and Barons would clash with one another over control, so too in Westeros does power exist in balance.
Religion is also a matter of identity in Martin’s world. Just as in modern society, religion and identity politics bring up questions of loyalty and belonging, the same questions arise in The Song of Ice and Fire. Whether it is Theon being baptised in the salt water of the Drowned God to reaffirm his loyalty to the Iron Islands, or Stannis insisting his followers accept his new Lord of Light along with him – religion is not simply a matter of personal choice but a key aspect of social life and politics too.
Finally, there is a unique element to Martin’s world. As the series progresses, the concept of magic moves from the periphery of a world largely sceptical of such claims, to being central to it. This is seen in many examples; Melissandre and her magic and ‘spiritual’ powers, Bran and his relationship to the Old Gods, Arya and her interaction with a Faceless Man – all these point to a world in which the supernatural and metaphysical powers are beginning to compete just as much as the temporal kings. The Game of Thrones may indeed turn out to be a game between the gods as much as men.