Early seasons of Game of Thrones were largely focused on the political and military wranglings of kings, with some trying to secede, some trying to settle grievances, and some with their eye on securing the Iron Throne.
The approaching season will most likely revolve less around kings and more around the actions of two queens: Cersei Lannister (political insider and new incumbent on the throne) and an idealistic outsider with a destiny, Daenerys Targaryen.
Although there are many points of similarity between these two royals, for this post I’d like to focus on just the intersection of religion with their current political situations. Both involve winged creatures and fire. (And I’m not necessarily talking about dragons.)
Cersei Lannister: Sparrows and Wildfire
Cersei’s involvement with religion and how it became a sticky situation for her is rather straightforward. Thanks to the strife and upheaval in the Riverlands, King’s Landing was flooded with refugees and religious folk called sparrows.
Cersei had previously been resigned to exercise power through her relationship with the succession of kings in her family: her husband, her eldest son Joffrey, and her remaining son Tommen, who reigned after Joffrey’s death. Her power has always had some limits:
- Robert was not particularly fond of Cersei
- Joffrey was independent and impulsive
- Tommen was young and impressionable, but Cersei was forced to jockey for position against her father Tywin and then against the influential new queen, Margaery Tyrell.
Cersei seized an opportunity to replace the somewhat impious High Septon of the Faith with a popular yet humble religious figure called “the High Sparrow” with whom she had cultivated an acquaintance. Cersei’s goal was to empower an armed militia, one with whom she believed she had some influence, as part of a scheme she was concocting against her daughter-in-law Margaery.
This sort of worked, but not exactly as Cersei expected.
Cersei’s goal was to implicate Margaery (via accusations against Margaery’s brother Ser Loras) in various infringements of the laws of The Seven. That did happen, but Cersei was not immune to the grasp of the new Faith Militant, and found herself experiencing imprisonment, publicly shaming, and then house arrest while awaiting a trial for crimes against the realm.
The stakes for Cersei raised dramatically when her newly-devout son Tommen, acting as a puppet of sorts for the High Sparrow, outlawed trial by combat (removing Cersei’s mountainous advantage) in favor of a religious tribunal for the queen.
Although this represented Cersei’s most ironic powerlessness, being entirely at the mercy of the very group she had armed and legitimized with authority, in the end these actions directly led to the destruction of her enemies, both House Tyrell and in the Faith Militant.
The trial collected all of her enemies in one location, one that was standing on top of one of King Aerys’ doomsday caches of wildfire. Boom. Cersei has reason to thank the Mad King’s mad plans; if she’d gone to trial, I don’t things would have gone well for her. She certainly wouldn’t be sitting on the throne.
In a sense, Cersei had put her faith in religion and despite being her own worst enemy, managed to fail upwards and onto the seat of power.
The takeaway is not all that ground-breaking. Cersei appealed to religious fanatics who had no reason to respect her authority once they were granted power. That’s a risky move. When politics and religion are interwoven, care must be taken to untangle them when actions and consequences are considered.
Daenerys Targaryen: Harpies and the Red God of Fire
Across the Narrow Sea, past the smoking ruins of Valyria, and on the far side of
Slaver’s Bay the Bay of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen had been growing in power.
Using her dragons as leverage, Daenerys ended up stealing an Unsullied army, disrupted the political hierarchy in the slaver cities of Astapor and Yunkai, and then took direct control of the Bay’s crowning jewel, the city of Meereen.
Meereen was not easily ruled, with an insurgent group known as the Sons of the Harpy nearly assassinating Dany during a public sporting event, forcing her to flee on dragonback. After a brief stay with the Dothraki, Dany returned with an army of horselords to recapture the city and rout a naval blockade from the grudge-holding slaver cities, who were financed and supported in part by the powerful metropolis of Volantis.
Okay, none of this sounds very religious, it’s all a secular power stuggle motivated by Dany’s idealism versus the slaver’s economic status quo, right?
Well, not quite. I omitted some stuff, and I believe there are some subtle religious underpinnings to Daenerys’ troubles in Meereen that she ignored (along with the show.)
- Daenerys: Here lies a fallen god, her fall was not a small one…
Dany captured Meereen largely by appealing directly to the large population of slaves, who were agreeable in rising up against the ruling class of wealthy slave-owners. Once in a place of power, Dany began to proudly display the three-headed dragon sigil of House Targaryen, as dominant over the symbolic Harpy of Meereen.
One of the earliest fifth season scenes in Meereen showed the toppling of the huge statue of the Harpy from off of the Great Pyramid, Dany’s new home and base of power.
Shortly after, one of the Unsullied who had played a part in the toppling of the statue gets murdered, kicking off Dany’s efforts against the insurgent Sons of the Harpy.
Team Dany seemed a bit confused by the resistance that they were running up against in Meereen.
The former slaves on Dany’s council insisted that the wealthy masters were behind the Sons of the Harpy, as part of a plot to re-enslave the freed slaves. Hizdahr zo Loraq, Dany’s favorite former slave master objected. Dany had already crucified a large number of masters when she took the city. He believed that these kind of insurgent actions would be too risky for the former masters to get behind, since they’d be conspicuous targets for official reprisal.
No one really thought much about the support that the common, man-on-the-street Meereenese might have have in resisting Dany’s rule.
What reasons would there be for the regular Meereenese to support an insurgent activity? Well, some seem obvious.
- Not everyone likes foreign invaders.
- Changes in the status quo would certainly negatively affect those that had had a stable life. Massive changes in the status quo would cause massive negatives.
But I’ll go ahead and suggest that there might have been a religiously-motivated pushback against Daenerys. The show doesn’t really talk about religion in Meereen at all, it seems like mostly tradition is referenced, and as far as I recall there doesn’t seem to be a specific religious angle to the Sons of the Harpy in the books. But in my mind, the Harpy is regarded as some kind of goddess figure, worshiped by the Meereenese.
We see Harpy iconography throughout the cities in Slaver’s Bay. Topping the great pyramids. At the gates of the cities.
Prominent at the stadiums.
The flags of the Ghiscari cities (Meereen, Astapor, and Yunkai were all that remained of the Old Ghis empire, which had to bow before the Valyrians) presented an image of the Harpy carrying chains, somewhat suggestive of a divine basis for their practice of slavery.
Daenerys probably regarded the harpy images the same way she would have regarded a sigil from Westeros. It had to be taken down and hers put up in its place to unambiguously show who was in charge. But if we assume that the Harpy was an icon of the people of Meereen’s religion, then Dany was effectively attacking their beliefs by toppling the statues or defacing them – which clearly had happened to the Harpy at the entrance of the great fighting pits.
In response to this religious affront, supporting the Sons of the Harpy might have been seen as a devout calling. It can be argued that Dany missed an initial opportunity to take advantage of reverence for the Harpy and transfer it to herself. After all, the Harpy is a woman with wings. Dany is the Mother of Dragons. It’s clearly not the same thing, but it’s kind of in the same ballpark.
Instead, by smashing the Harpy imagery right away, Dany set herself up as the enemy of a goddess without laying the groundwork for some kind of mythological legitimacy to do so.
For that, it took a Lannister.
- Daenerys: the Princess that Was Promised
Tyrion Lannister, while being smuggled along by Varys in the hopes of getting an audience with Daenerys Targaryen, noted a priestess of R’hllor on the Volantene bridge preaching to a crowd of slaves. Her sermon asserted that Daenerys was a prophesied savior.
Up until then, Tyrion really only knew of Dany as an exiled Targaryen girl with a handful of dragons. He seemed surprised that a mythology was growing up around the young queen, although in that matter Varys had probably been sitting on the information. Varys isn’t into magical religions, for personal reasons.
Tyrion used this information, that elements of the worship of R’hllor had identified Daenerys as a savior, as a means to regain control of Meereen. He invited the worshipers of R’hllor to come to Meereen to proselytize on the missing queen’s behalf.
Religion has a way to assuage doubts, especially when facts are in short supply. And when you’ve seen a girl fly off on the back of a dragon, it’s not too much of a stretch when a skilled religious orator tells you that she’s coming back, as a fiery savior backed by the Fire God itself.
Then she went and did exactly that, roasting ships that had sailed with a chain-carrying harpy on their sailcloth. This wasn’t only a military victory for Daenerys, but a religious one as the mythology of the Lord of Light conquered the Harpy, symbolically.
The benefit of Dany’s new-found mythic status in the Bay of Dragons: she felt secure enough that she could leave the region without it necessarily falling into chaos. The cities she’d previously dealt with by force had quickly reverted back out of her control, but now she had a priesthood at work to remind a potentially unruly populace that the night was dark and full of terrors, and that Daenerys rode a night-dark terror.
Yeah, Daario was put in charge too, and he had some sell-swords, yeah yeah. But we know he won’t really be that innovative or influential a ruler.
Hold on! This sounds like a takeaway that’s inconsistent with the Cersei story. At King’s Landing, Cersei’s employment of religion almost ruined her (and took away her last child) while Dany is benefiting from her association with the Lord of Light. What’s the point of all this?
Excellent question, me.
Cersei, Dany, and Playing With Holy Fire
I don’t think that Cersei and Dany’s situations are all that much different. Dany might just be at the upper part of the arc. There had been a point when Cersei was on top of her game, with the Faith Militant basically doing her bidding. Dany might be at that point as well, able to pursue her agenda because her religious associations are keeping peace in her conquered cities.
(We assume Dany truly does not want those cities to slide back into slavery and chaos, therefore there are some stakes involved in her leaving the cities behind.)
But at what point will the ambitions and agendas of the followers of the Lord of Light start to differ from Dany’s expectations and interests?
After all, the priests that Tyrion called in to help out came from Volantis, the same super-state that was providing aid and materiel to the Sons of the Harpy and to the unfriendly-to-Dany cities of Yunkai and Astapor. It seems like Volantis now has some sway in Dany’s little empire.
There’s nothing about the religion of R’hllor that’s particularly anti-slavery. (The books will back me up on that.)
If the Bay of Dragons falls under the influence of the Lord of Light, who are using the concept of Dany for control over the population, instead of the wishes and desires of the literal Dany, this would be a similar ironic situation that Cersei had gone through with the Faith Militant. Both queens ended up relying on religion (Cersei directly and Dany indirectly through Tyrion acting as a proxy and then being accepting of it) and ran the risk of the religious rising up to supplant them.
Realistically, I don’t think the show will present any downsides in Daenerys’ role as the Essosi candidate for Azor Ahai. With only thirteen rumored episodes left for HBO to finish their version of George RR Martin’s epic tale, it seems unlikely that the Bay of Dragons and the influence that the Lord of Light now has there will play much of a role, if any, as the story ties itself up.
But I don’t think the show is letting Cersei off the hook too fast, in regards to religion. With Daenerys and her armada heading to take the Iron Throne from Cersei, the Lannister queen might be forced to ally with a zealot who seems to be embracing his own twisted divinity.
I don’t mock the Drowned God. I am the Drowned God. From Oldtown to Qarth, when men see my sails, they pray. — Euron Greyjoy
Daenerys already has her own Greyjoy contingent, but Cersei is in need of allies at the moment. Hopefully, if she does strike a bargain with Euron, she’ll have learned her lessons in the dungeons of the Sept, and won’t trust the risen drowned god all that far.
I’m curious what the state of religion will be in Westeros by the time the show ends.
Will Daenerys reject the ways of R’hllor? Embrace the Faith of the Seven to smooth her transition into monarch of the Seven Kingdoms (assuming she ends up on the Iron Throne?)
Cersei will not be likely to warmly embrace more representatives of the Faith (unless we’re talking more wildfire) that she doesn’t have absolute control over.
Really, everyone should just consider the Old Gods as a viable alternative. Although the White Walkers might not give anyone much choice in the matter.
We probably have 6 more months until Season Seven starts up, so still plenty of time to speculate.
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) The excellent image of Cersei and Dany standing back to back was a fan image I found on Twitter of all places. Full disclosure: I cropped and flipped the original for my purposes. I found the original here: https://twitter.com/Thrones_Memes/status/804087116229726208
I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.
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