In which I go all Christopher Hitchens on Westeros.
The theology of Game of Thrones is one of the more detailed aspects of George R.R. Martin’s creation. Indeed, it is because of this level of detail that the Seven Kingdoms is so immersive. Along with the politics, history, culture (although more than two songs would be even more believable) and cuisine, the multifaceted and highly regional religions of The Song of Ice and Fire paint a fully realized tapestry, rather than just a fragment of a still image. But, in light of recent events on the HBO adaptation, this might be a good time to take a deeper look at the gods of this world, and what the implications of their presence may mean for these characters. For the purposes of this discussion, only events from the television series will be examined, not from the books, and will contain spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones, including the most recent season six.
Let’s start first by looking at the various religions that permeate the world of Ice and Fire. Westeros, benefiting from the fact that the bulk of the narrative takes place there, has the most illustrated faiths. The majority of the Seven Kingdoms worship the Seven Gods, brought to Westeros by the Andals, much like the Romans brought Christianity to England. The Seven, despite being a pantheon, are worshiped in much the same way as the Abrahamic religions of Earth, with churches, priests, nuns, chauvinism and hypocritical positions concerning violence part of the institution.
In the North, and beyond the Wall, the Old Gods are worshiped, with a parallel again able to be drawn to the Celtic and Pictish religions worshiped in Ireland and Scotland before the Romans declared them pagan faiths and tried to wipe them out. Like pagans, the Old Gods are worshiped through celebrations of nature: praying near trees, flower ornamentation, and holding animals in high esteem. To the west, the Iron Islands worship the Drowned God, a reactionary faith to the fact that the Iron Islanders live on craggy rocks surrounded by harsh seas. The Drowned God is loosely based on the Norse faith system, at least as far as the Gods welcome the company of mortals after death, and tend to be assholes.
Across the narrow sea, in Essos, there is the Gods of Ghis, worshiped in the cities of Slaver’s Bay. This religion is little detailed, mostly because Dany keeps setting its worshipers on fire. It bares some similarities with the ancient Greek or Egyptian city cults, with each city hosting a massive temple to a local deity figure, and only through alliances and the occasional invasion does a broad religion knit itself together. The Dothraki worship the Great Stallion, which like the Iron Islanders, is a reactionary religion based on the most prominent and important fixture in their culture: horses.
There is the ancient and extinct religion of the Valyrians, which seems to have had shades of the Roman pantheon. The Many-Faced God of the Faceless Men is a catch-all God, generic in description and able to be molded to fit whatever God of Death from a more austere religion it needs to. And finally, there is the Lord of Light, worshiped across the globe, but coming from Asshai. Of all the religions in the Song of Ice and Fire, R’hollor and his counterpart Voldermo… er, He Who Must Not Be Named most resemble the modern Jehovah and Satan in their positions of dichotomous absolutes. Of course there are other smaller cults and deities on the series, mentioned or glimpsed, but these are the heavy hitters. These are the ones that keep messing up the lives of the characters we hope won’t be horrible killed in each episode.
What made me want to start this discussion was the fact that two of these religions have shown themselves to have a little more heft in the veracity department: the Old Gods, and the Lord of Light. But first, a personal aside: I am not a man of faith. If you were to use similar nomenclature, I would be a man of science (though science is not the opposite of faith. Science is a method. The opposite of faith would be doubt, as it is just as blind and requires no corroboration). The reason science comes up against faith so often is that science requires evidence in order to make substantive claims. Faith, bizarrely, both revels in the absence of evidence and delights when miracles occur. It’s in those miracles that I want to examine the religions of Westeros and Essos. Because all of these religions that I’ve summarized above make bold, demanding claims, but only the Old Gods and the Lord of Light have actually produced any substantive evidence of their existence. Increasingly so as the series has progressed, in point of fact.
The Old Gods, the myriad of nature sprites and world-bound forces, have been shown to gift several characters supernatural abilities. The ability to Warg, to move your spirit from your body into that of an animal or another person, is practiced by Northerners alone. Likewise, Greenseeing and using the Weirtrees to quantum leap back in time are gifts bestowed upon those in deep communion with nature. If the Three Eyed Raven is any indication, unnatural long life is also a side effect of this communion. And then there are the Children of the Forest, the original worshipers of the Old Gods. These pixie hobbits are preternaturally long lived, and can perform all manner of magic, ranging from throwing fireballs at skeletons to reanimating the dead (and giving birth to the plague of White Walkers). R’hollor likewise has been shown to gift his priests with abilities beyond nature. Melisandre has lived far longer than she appears, thanks to a fire red jewel in her necklace. And both of the Red Priests we are most familiar with have been shown to be able to resurrect the dead.
Do these acts provide evidence that these two belief systems, out of the dozens in Westeros and Essos, are worshiping something substantial? Because the others exert considerable influence over the cultures and people who follow them, but only in a political manner. The Seven dictate the day-to-day actions of the faithful, much as the actions of the Iron Born are done in the name of the Drowned God. But it is not the Gods themselves doing so, it is a deeply held tradition kept aloft by zealous priests. It is only through the interpretation of the acts of men that these Gods can be said to be acting, but it was not the Stranger himself who smashed Oberyn’s head in, it was the Mountain. Yet it wasn’t Melisandre who brought Jon Snow back from the dead.
Or was it? One of the things that sets the Song of Ice and Fire apart is that, unlike other fantasy books, magic is considerably downplayed. And when it is used, it is used sparingly and with a certain sprinkle of reasonable doubt. Dragons aren’t shown to be magical creatures, they are just animals. Flesh and blood and fire, and more than possible to have naturally evolved on this planet. And those characters that have shown magical abilities are possibly just in possession of genetic aberrations that, in the absence of a deeper knowledge, is best explained by the use of magic. Certainly, an explanation for the magical effects of the Old Gods and the Lord of Light is that they are the true Gods of this world, that R’hollor exists on some alternate plane of reality, channeling his powers into his faithful followers through fire. And that the Old Gods represent the Great Other, the ice-bound villain who stands as R’hollor’s eternal opposition. And that all the other religions on the show are the product of men, desperate for power and to subjugate those they deem lesser than. But, could there be another explanation? A more scientific rationale?
Let’s look at who the ‘magic’ is affecting. Dany has proven to be fire proof on several occasions. Is this a magical side effect, or a genetic predisposition? The Targaryens are well established as being the last remaining bloodline of ancient Valaryia, where it is possible that such abilities were common, given their proximity to a volcano range (some form of evolutionary adaptation to the constant heat). We know already that, due to centuries of inbreeding, Targaryen genetics is a mixed bag, resulting in a sliding scale of sanity, but also giving a reasonable explanation as to why Viserys wasn’t fire proof. Bran uses magical abilities frequently, warging and time travelling through the use of weirtrees. Could this be a similar biological predilection? Certainly, telepathic communication with animals stretches the realm of scientific plausibility, but the Northerners are rumoured to have blood of the Children of the Forest in them, again creating a predisposition for certain gifts. Like the Westerosi version of male pattern baldness. This might explain why characters like Bran, Arya, and Jon have shown more supernatural tendencies, while Sansa – who is noted for being much more like her mother – has shown few to none.
Jon is an interesting case, as he would have both Targaryen and the blood of the Children in him. And the show made it very clear that it was the Children, not some God from above, that made the White Walkers. So what about the White Walkers, or any of the characters that have returned from the dead? Walking skeletons seems like a big flashing magic sign. Well, walking skeletons is pretty damning evidence towards “hocus pocus.” But resurrection, like any modern zombie movie is prone to say, could be the result of an infection on the recently and “only mostly” dead. Caster’s baby was transformed into a White Walker only when in proximity to the Night’s King, who could just be a carrier for some pathogen. The same might be true of the Red Priests that resurrect elsewhere. Both Melisandre and Thoros come from the far East, with Melisandre specifically mentioning that she was chosen as a Red Priestess when she was of a young age. Perhaps the priests of R’hollor have some sensitivity for determining which of the population have these naturally occurring abilities, and foster in them the belief that they are gifts from their God. It would certainly make them loyal.
Reading back over that, it seems like the strongest argument against supernatural intervention in Westeros is the equivalent to the X-Men, a genetic minority gifted with abilities that set them apart in the world. So, what if the easier answer is the correct one? What if the actions of the Children and the Red Priests are proof conclusive that R’hollor and his icy counterpart are actually real. That these two beings are floating in high orbit, like so many balls of light that used to terrorize the Enterprise. What does that mean for all those other cultures, with people numbering in to the millions, that worship potentially demonstrably false Gods? I keep thinking about this in the context of the politics. Everything that has happened in King’s Landing, every action Cersei has taken, will be immaterial once they learn of the threat posed by the White Walkers in the North. The culture shock of that discovery – hell, the culture shock of dragons swooping in from above is enough to rewrite the entire culture. It would be on par with, in the midst of Brexit and Donald Trump and civil unrest, an alien invasion happening. All that other shit would stop mattering so much. So, in the same way, what if tomorrow irrefutable evidence was presented that… let’s say the Loa turned out to be real. What is the fallout to all the other religions of the world? How to the Christians react to that? The Buddhists? The atheists?
As I see it, there are two plausible outcomes, and neither of them are great. Option one: there is a flood of new worshipers to the religion with a tangible god. Because at their heart, every follower of every religion is looking to get something out of it. Be that an answered prayer, an eternal afterlife, extra bonus karma points, or just that your heart weighs the same as a feather. A person gives their faith to that which is unseen in the hopes that they will give back in equal measure. What that translates into very quickly is putting demands on the unseen. And seeing their action in every victory, and seeing their absence in every defeat. How many people assuage medical treatment in favour of prayer? How many football players claim Jesus guided their throw? How many blame an absent god when tragedy strikes? And all of that is on the basis of faith. Now, imagine that there is evidence absolute that a god exists. That there is actually someone there to hear those prayers, and to doll out rewards. Ask the faithful and they might say they’d stick it out, but I’d bet folding money that given the chose between a maybe and a yes, the vast majority are taking the yes. The result would be a single religion, which would quickly deteriorate into factions and cults and interpretations, and attempts to merge the old familiar, discarded religions into the new. In time, things wouldn’t look much different from how they are now. But at the moment, there would be anarchy as everything crashed together.
The second option is a stubborn resistance. The true believers of each religion would see the evidence of one god’s existence as proof further in the existence of their own. There might even be a push to discover that evidence, and kick off a prolonged period of deeper and increasingly bitter instance that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But they would hold even tighter to their faith, certain all the more in their own god’s existence, and their own god’s superiority. These new entrenched religions would be even less resistant to interaction, or swayed by reasonable argument. And in the centre of all this would be the agnostics, the wedding-and-funeral crowd and the fence-sitters. The ones who would be alienated by this increased xenophobia within their religions, but not willing to give up on their traditions just in case they are wrong. The result would be a religious class system, with the zealots at the top, and the doubters at the bottom. Which probably wouldn’t look much different from how it looks today.
What would this look like in Westeros? Well, thanks to Cersei, the zealots of The Seven were pretty much wiped out, as was the seat of the church. While there will be pockets of the faithful throughout the country, this also leaves a void that the Red Priests arriving with Dany can take advantage of. Which would a simple farmer choose between: an unseen, unfelt personification, or a fire god on dragon’s wings who can protect them against an army of ice zombies? The White Walkers will be less of a threat to Essos, and its religions are old, more entrenched and less likely to bow under pressure. But I think that between R’hollor and the Old Gods, we will see the Seven come to an absolute end sooner rather than later.
Of course, there is also the God of Tits and Wine down in the Summer Isles. And I think everyone can agree, given the choice between all possible options, that’s the smart choice.
Valar Morghulis, all men must die. In this season it holds true. Season 4 is preparing to have a steady stream of OMG moments throughout with lots of twists, action, intrigue, suspense, and breath taking scenery that Game of Thrones has come to be known for. game of thrones season 7 episode 1 onlineReplyDelete