By the Old Gods and the New: Religion in Game of Thrones

Posted: March 18, 2014 in Game of Thrones
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post will discuss the some of the faiths presented on HBO’s Game of Thrones. I’ll try not to drop any plot spoilers, but in general I’ll be talking religious observances and possible miracles shown during the first three seasons of the show. If you are not up to date on your Game of Thrones watching, I have no idea why you’d be reading this, but it won’t be super spoilery. (Just slightly spoilery, I guess.)

nedAndTree

Don’t Sit Under the Weirwood Tree, With Anyone Else But Me… With Anyone Else But Me… With Anyone Else But Me.

George RR Martin doesn’t do things halfway.

His stories are populated by dozens of major characters and hundreds of secondary characters who represent many cultures, speak many languages, and worship different gods. Some of the faiths appear monotheistic, some polytheistic, some with organized rituals, and some with hardly any dogma at all.

Why do we care? I don’t know. I’m just looking to write about something Game of Thrones-related and I’ve already covered helmets and crowns. But I’ll try to be entertaining.

I’m not a religious scholar and this post will not be a Westeros comparative religion essay.  Instead I’d like to make some random observations.

Exactly How Many Religions Are There In Game of Thrones? A Billion, Right?

No no, it’s not that crazy.

  • There’s the Old Gods
  • and the New.
  • Oh, and the even newer god, R’hllor, the Lord of Light. (Melisandre says R’hllor is the only god.)
  • And the Drowned God of the Ironborn.
  • And I think the Dothraki worshipped a mountain near Vaes Dothrak.
  • Mirri Maz Duur mentioned her god, abstractly.
  • And the Summer Islanders apparently have a goddess with a lot of breasts.
  • Syrio Forel explained that there was only one god. And that god’s name was Death.

Okay, that is a lot of gods. Or not a lot of gods, if Syrio is right. Or Melisandre.

So Who’s Right?

I don’t know. Maybe they’re all the same god.

Even the Seven (aka the New Gods, as in “by the Old Gods and the New”) are kind of abstractions: Father, Mother, Warrior, Smith, Maiden, Crone, Stranger. Those aren’t names so much as descriptions, so maybe they’re just seven aspects of one god. Like the trinity. Which is three, not seven. Don’t beat me up.

But since Melisandre, whom we presume is taking orders from R’hllor, is ordering the burning of the idols of the Seven, that implies that the Lord of Light doesn’t consider the Seven as different aspects of Itself.

The Seven Have No Names, Just Titles. Any Other Gods Have Names? Other Than R’hllor?

Nope. Not that I’ve heard on the show.

The Drowned God Doesn’t Have a Name?

Not that I’ve heard.

Could It Be, CTHULHU?

Whoa!

cthulhu

Boo!

Hey now! The sigil of the Greyjoy’s is the Kraken. And the Drowned God religion does have an interesting phrase:

“What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”

Contrast that with the classic Lovecraftian couplet:

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

But I don’t think Game of Thrones has a gigantic alien monstrosity slumbering off the coast of Westeros just waiting for the stars to be right, so it can rise up and blast everyone’s sanity.

Although, there is this Shadow Over Innsmouth type situation going on over at the Sister Isles off the East Coast…

Assuming All These Gods Are Real, Who Do We Put Our Money On? Who Wins the Game of Celestial Thrones?

Fair question. So far, the most flashy overt exercise of miraculous powers has been from Melisandre of Asshai. For birthing the shadowy assassin that killed Renly Baratheon.

Melisandre-Fire-2

Watching Ye Olde Medieval Television.

The show has explicitly shown that she has that trick up her, er, sleeve. And it’s been implied that she can see the future and might be immune to poison. Not really super-miraculous-only-a-god-can-do-that kind of stuff. We know magic exists in this world, so this might all be under the same magical umbrella.

got-game-of-thrones-33715120-500-281

But R’hllor the Red God has apparently invested others with different powers. Badass red priest Thoros of Myr has demonstrably resurrected Beric Dondarrion over a half-dozen times, and Beric has the power to ignite his freaking sword with his blood. Again, this might just be magic and not divine miracles. But it’s impressive.

It’s not as flashy, but Ye Olde Gods appear to have power too. They seem to be associated with animal-centric magic, dreams, and prophecy.

Game-of-Thrones-Poster-North-of-The-Wall

And up near the Wildling border is a pretty spectacular and solidly physical example of supernatural power: The Wall. You can’t get any more Old Gods Nature Magic than a huge and improbably proportioned glacier that doesn’t move.

Otherwise, the Old Gods are pretty low impact. They don’t have temples, the northerners consider the white weirwood trees sacred objects of the religion, but don’t pray to them (despite what the worshippers of the Seven might imply.)

Over on the Iron Islands, there’s worship of the Drowned God. They have priests, there’s baptism-like rituals.

Game-Of-Thrones-Theon-Baptism

But the show hasn’t shown us any evidence of the Drowned God’s power. DG seems more like a deity to be placated and not necessarily called out to for help. Whenever a ship doesn’t sink, I’m sure the Ironborn consider it a miracle.

There also doesn’t seem to be anything overtly miraculous about the Seven, although their worship is certainly the most visibly organized.

great-sept-of-baelor-game-of-thrones-and-now-his-watch-is-ended-01-1280x720

It Appears that the Father Forgot to Put on His Divine Pants. Dude!

People build temples to them, have spiritual advisors and teachers to represent them, construct idols to them, swear oaths to them, and pray to them. To be an anointed knight in the Seven kingdoms implies a connection to the worship of the Seven (which is why there are fewer knights in the North.) But it seems to be a lot of idolatry without evidence. I haven’t seen on the show anything conclusive about the gods manifesting in the world or directly interceding.

Catelyn Stark might disagree, she’ll tell you that the Seven do answer prayers (according to the television show.)

game_of_thrones_-_03x02_-_dark_wings_dark_words-720p-immerse_1402192

She was so hurt and offended when as a newlywed (more or less) her husband Lord Eddard brought home Jon Snow, whom he declared was his illegitimate son, that Cat began to pray to the gods for the little boy to die.

As if her prayers were answered, he fell sick.

Horrified that she might have caused this, Catelyn prayed to the gods to spare the child and in return she would be a righteous loving step-mom for the little boy.

Jon recovered, but she couldn’t go through with her promise to the gods. Later, she blamed her lack of follow-through as the source of all the miseries befalling her family.

So, That Means the Seven Have Power?

No, it just means that Catelyn has a pretty puffed-up opinion of herself. (In my puffed-up opinion.)

SCENE: WINTERFELL

Catelyn: I wish this Jon Snow boy would die.

SCENE: THE SEVEN HEAVENS

The Father: Whoop! Drop everything, godlings. Cat Stark wants this kid to die.

The Stranger: I’m on it. And put some pants on, man.

SCENE: WINTERFELL

Jon Snow: *cough, cough*

Catelyn: Crap! I didn’t mean it!

SCENE: THE SEVEN HEAVENS

The Father: Whaaaaaat? Hey Stranger, I hope you haven’t killed that kid yet! Have you?

The Stranger: He’s as good as dead, won’t last the night.

The Father: NOOOOOOOooooooooo….! Cat changed her mind! This is awful.

The Stranger: Oh, for the love of Us! Look, I’ll zip down there and fix this, but if Lady Stark pisses me off, it’s on, man. IT’S ON!

Hey, If the Seven Gods are So Rough on People Breaking the Rules, What About Walder Frey? Shouldn’t They Turn Him Into a Rat?

Didn’t they already?

walder

Ha Ha. A Rat Am I? Don’t Care. Getting Laid.

Seriously, I don’t know if the Guest-Right-Protection is an Old God thing or a New God thing.

Bran told the story about the Rat Cook up at the Night Fort, so the guest-hospitality-rite sounds like it might be a northern tradition, but the Twins are down in the Riverlands which is territory of the Seven. Walder Frey and the Starks did formally perform the eating of salt and bread ritual, and (at least in the books) Cat was pretty relieved by that. So it’s probably a tradition of the Seven.

This might be one of those deals that both religions support. Don’t murder your guests, yo.

What About the White Walkers? Where Do They Fit In?

Well, they’re certainly magical. I prefer to call them the Others (since that’s what the books call them, and Ned does refer to them as Others in the first episode when talking to his brother Benjen.)

The Wall was apparently built to keep them out. So my gut says they’re tied in with the religion of the Old Gods. Maybe they’re the antagonists to the Old Gods, the way Giants were to the Norse Gods, or Titans were to the Greek Gods.

game-of-thrones-season-4-white-walkers

Brrrrr…. Boo!

Unless… the Others ARE the Old Gods.

GET OUT! They Can’t Be Gods, They’re Evil!

Okay, that’s not a serious theory, I just like thinking about things from both sides.

Of course, this guy might be all-in with the Others being the Old Gods.

game-of-thrones-craster

I Be a Godly Man!

Melisandre has said that in her religion, there is only one god, R’hllor. But in her religion there is also The Other, who she says is evil. R’hllor is primarily a fire god and the Others north of the Wall are pretty icy, so it seems like a straightforward connection. I guess that’s another point for the Lord of Light to be the legit deity. I’m just not convinced.

But since we’re talking evil, whose to say any of these gods aren’t evil? Defining evil is hard when the gods are doing it. Melisandre’s pretty adept at rationalizing any underhanded and unfair act, provided it’s in her interests. I mean, in the interest of R’hllor, of course.

Really, if she wasn’t popping out smoke monsters, I’d think she was just making this all up. Maybe everyone is just making up this stuff.

So, There Might Not Be Any Gods?

Sure, it’s a possibility. Although, on a show with dragons, frozen zombie-controlling monsters, shadow assassin demons, and shady face-changing assassins (hey Jaqen), I’m not sure what we mean when we’re talking gods, actually.

And I think, neither do the people of Westeros. There’s a reason that when swearing oaths, they tend to hedge their bets.

“By the Old Gods and the New.”

Just in case.

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.

Cthulhu Image found at wrathofzombie.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/cthulhu.jpg

I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there. (Except for the GRRM Ironborn quote and HP Lovecraft’s couplet. Obviously.)

© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved

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Comments
  1. ecarasella says:

    This is awesome!

    Like

  2. anabbloggin says:

    Great post! Martin is cery vague about gods and gods existing. In fact, it sounds like he doesn’t believe they exist at all.

    R’hllor seems to be the most godly entity so far but I’m still too puzzled to decide if any of them exist at all or if its just magic, or a manifestation of energy that is somehow interlinked with what happens in the mortal realm, or what should happen, so that there is balance.

    As with most of the book, I mostly just fully believe it is simply yet another was for Martin to fuck with our minds.

    Like

    • Thumbs up! You’re probably not wrong about Martin wanting to mess with us.

      I think it’s kind of cool that there are these varying levels of “power” and belief in the gods. Instead of literal pantheons duking it out overtly.

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on mystichuntress and commented:
    I’m always interested in faiths and religions in fantasy settings (even though I’m not a religious person myself). Brilliant post.

    Like

  4. I may have to reblog this at some point as well, I do a series on Science Fiction and Religion, because religion is often absent in scifi… As opposed to fantasy, like with Game of Thrones, where there is this glut of religions!

    A lot of the theories I talk about with friends about the religions in Game of Thrones has to do with whether there is some overlap amongst some of the religions… is The Other from R’hllor worship the same as The Stranger? How about the Drowned God? Is there almost more of a Life and Death religious duality going on? I mean, story-wise, yes, but diety-wise? Maybe!

    Also, not sure if you’ve read all the books (new to your blog!) or if you were just sticking to your avoidance of spoilers, but I will say that later on there is more exploration of the New Gods, and what their worship and history looks like. Interesting stuff. Well, and of the Old Gods as well, I suppose. Anyway, these aren’t themes that Martin just drops, but definitely ones he explores and expands on. However, I doubt he will ever answer the question fully – it’s the nature of religion to have these sorts of doubt questions hanging out there!

    Great post!

    Like

    • Oh, and you gave me the opportunity to vote like Syrio, so I voted like Syrio.

      Like

    • Hey, thanks for the comments. I’ve read all the books, but I tend to focus just on the television show and what it has revealed. I wanted to approach it from a TV perspective, since we book readers have all this unfair background knowledge, I wanted to kind of limit myself.

      I’m waiting on the show to hopefully flesh out the Drowned God practices (Drowned Men, yo!) and all the temples over at Braavos.

      Super-happy to have you commenting on my stuff, particularly the Other of R’hllor and the Stranger. The Stranger is such an axis for beliefs.

      Like

      • JackG88 says:

        It amazes me how you manage to separate the books and the TV show in your posts. I’ve read the books (or I’m one chapter off finishing the latest one, to be exact) and I’ve watched the show, but sometimes when talking to my girlfriend, who has only watched the show, I struggle to remember what has and hasn’t happened so far! George R.R. Martin’s study must look like serial killer’s lair with all the post-it notes, charts and scrawlings on the wallpaper.

        Brilliant post, by the way.

        Like

        • Wow, thanks! My wife will tell you that I can’t remember important things, but I’m rock solid on Game of Thrones. I’d say I’m an idiot-savant, but I’m mostly not a savant.

          (Thanks again for the compliment, I appreciate it!)

          Like

  5. Helxas says:

    At one point the children of the forest were warring with the First Men, who at the time were crossing over from Essos by a sort of land bridge from Valyria to Dorne, which was called The Arm of Dorne. To prevent any more men from coming over from Essos again, the children prayed to the Old Gods, and a massive tidal wave or some such went and sunk most of the Arm.

    The Old Gods win for continent splitting, I should think.

    Like

    • Right on! I’m hoping we get more religious discussion on the show (with the High Septon showing up next season, I’ll be able to talk more about the Seven, and I’m dying to talk more about the practices of the Drowned Men) so I can post a follow up to this article.

      Thanks for dropping in with the Children of the Forest/First Men conflict lore, it’s much appreciated.

      Like

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