Authors: Valerie Estelle Frankel
Any of these could be plot points, but a warning is likely concerning the dragon skulls (or new dragons from stone) or an invading army—Golden Company, krakens, or wildlings.
The towers by the sea likewise have many possibilities: Melisandre thinks they’re Eastwatch, but she notes that they didn’t actually look like the same towers (V:416). There are too many towers by the sea to count: The Ironmen raid many towers, including in the Shield Islands (who have a signaling system of watchtowers and wildfire). Old Valyria, Oldtown, and King’s Landing have also been suggested. (Melisandre has been to Dragonstone, so it is less likely). A cataclysm like the one that took Old Valyria is also possible.
If the gold and scarlet goes with the bodies writhing in lust, Cersei and Jaime suggest themselves—they and the remaining wildfire in King’s Landing may have a part to play in the battle of fire and ice. Death turning into some sort of mist is less clear, though mist occurs when fire and ice or fire and seawater mix. Spirits are also a possibility. The winged shadows appear to be dragons returning to Westeros, though Daenerys must travel to the Shadow before this can come.
he singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language…When they died, they went into the wood, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered” (V:452). Just as little is known about the ancient druids, who left no written records. Their sacred places remain as stone circles, ancient caves, and patterns of oak leaves, much like the heart trees whose true origins have been lost to time.
Theon smirks that Ned Stark “prayed to a tree” (II:75). Likewise, Celts saw the world around them as sacred and were particularly close to their holy trees: “Rocks, mountains, groves, and even individual trees were not only sites of worship but sacred in themselves.”
Druidic ceremonies took place under the open sky or in sacred groves. Pliny said of the Celts: “They choose oak-woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches.”
They also revered yew, rowan, and mistletoe, whose red cones and berries echo the red leaves of the weirwood groves. Clearly the Old Religion is meant to be the druids, threatened by the coming of newer religions.
They believed that spirits could inhabit the bodies of people and animals, and even manifest themselves as the spirits of places like wells and caves. In fact, the mysterious Children of the Wood, Martin’s elves of a sort along with the mysterious greenseers, tie their souls to the trees and used them to watch the world. Their echo still lingers in trees and crows as these place spirits, protecting the world. Meera Reed describes her father as man of the old ways, strong with nature magic, explaining, “He could talk to trees and weave words and make castles appear and disappear” (III:337). As such, he sounds like a folkloric trickster out of Celtic myth. He even visits the green men, who might or might not be the children of the wood.
Bran has a vision of times long past, with the Starks offering human sacrifice in the Godswood like the druids, dangling entrails from the heart trees. It is written:
The Celts made their sacred places in dark groves, the trees being hung with offerings or with the heads of victims. Human sacrifices were hung or impaled on trees,
by the warriors of Boudicca. These, like the offerings still placed by the folk on sacred trees, were attached to them because the trees were the abode of spirits or divinities who in many cases had power over vegetation.
The old religions have their darker side, as they honor their gods with blood as well as peace and stillness.
Shapeshifting was also common in Celtic legend. Werewolves of the region, known as
, were considered kindly protectors and guardians of mankind.
During the whole time that an Ossorian lived as a wolf, his own proper body remained at home as if he were dead: and when about to make a wolf of himself he gave strict orders to his friends not to disturb the body; for if it were removed he was never able to regain his own shape, but was doomed to remain a wolf for the rest of his natural life. While he was in his wolf-shape he ravaged sheep-folds and devoured cattle, and was in every respect as fierce and bloodthirsty as any natural-born wolf. And if you came on him suddenly and attacked him in the act of eating a sheep, he commonly ran straight home and resumed his own shape.
This is the type of wolf Bran can become: preying on animals but helpful to mankind. His human form remains in bed, “as if he were dead,” while his mind travels in the wolf. Druidic tradition also has the dead appearing in dreams with prophecies and warnings. Bran and Rickon, like Jon, dream of their father’s death through their wolf magic.
When a fan asked Martin if all the Stark children are skin changers with their wolves, he replied, “To a greater or lesser degree, yes, but the amount of control varies widely,” adding also that “Bran and Summer are somewhat of a special case.”
In fact, Jon too begins to see through his wolf’s eyes. He is the one at the series’ beginning to notice the direwolves match the number and sex of the Stark children, and he finds the near-invisible white runt hidden in the snow.
Celtic and Welsh myths often begin with mystical white animals appearing to the hero from the Otherworld, from King Arthur’s white deer to Pryderi and Manawydan’s gleaming white boar and the mysterious White Hound of the Mountain. Jon notices that Ghost with his white fur and red eyes has similar coloring to the wierwood trees, white with red leaves (V:466). He’s clearly one of those Otherworld guides. With Ghost beside him, Jon has prophetic shapechanger dreams—he sees Bran with a third eye, and in his dream, the heart tree gives him one as well, even as he enters Ghost and hears his thoughts (II:559-561). On the Wall, savaged by wights and supernatural creatures, Jon particularly depends on his wolf’s senses (in contrast to Robb, who often ignores his wolf’s warnings).
Viking and Saxon raiders attacked both Celts and Christians through the centuries. The raiders worshipped Odin and the Norse gods, and believed they would feast in Valhalla after they died. The Ironborn, too, speak of feasting forever in the Drowned God’s halls. The concepts of “drowning” newborns momentarily in the sea and the “god who died for us” seem Christian on the surface. However, they have strong correspondences with Celtic belief.
The Celts had a feast hall like Valhalla, named
. The pre-Christian Druids likewise dipped their children in rivers to protect them from fairies and the Otherworld. Celtic heroes such as Ailill in the Irish epic
was “baptized in Druidic streams,” as the hero Gwri was “baptized with the baptism which was usual at that time.”
“What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger,” the priests chant. The Celts too believed in resurrection, with their spirits retuning through the natural world. The Celts even drowned people in sacrifice to their harsh sea gods Manannan, Morgen, and Dylan. Some Celtic warriors would draw weapons and battle the onrushing waves “with sword and spear, often perishing in the rushing waters rather than retreat.”
The Iron Islanders were First Men and their religion, like that of the Old Gods, dates to before the Andal Invasion with its newer religion. The Drowned Men, in their sea-colored robes of mottled green, grey, and blue with driftwood cudgels echo the wise yet cryptic druids, guardians of the old ways. The blessing of “Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel” echoes the oaths Celts would make to the elements like “sea, stone, and sky.” Their harmony with nature has particularly Celtic echoes.
The Great Sept of Baelor was founded by King Baelor the Blessed, an overly pious king like Edward the Confessor of England. Both were known for excessive fasting, chastity even within marriage, charity, humility, and religious devotion at the cost of worldly rule (IV:457). In fact, both were considered saints in their time. Baelor the Blessed, as he was known, had the Great Sept of King’s Landing renamed as the Great Sept of Baelor in his honor.
One legend described Baelor walking barefoot into a viper’s nest to rescue his cousin Aemon, and the vipers refused to bite him. Baelor thus secured an alliance with Dorne, though some said the venom had driven him mad. Frightened of his own lust, Baelor locked his sister-wife Daena and his younger sisters in the area of the palace that became known as the Maidenvault. He spent the rest of his days in pious prayer, leaving his uncle to run the kingdom as Hand. When he fasted and purged too severely, he perished. (III:79)
Ned is executed on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor (a deed later revealed as insulting to the Septons) and Arya watches from her perch on a statue of Baelor. The Sept shares many features with European cathedrals, from church bells to stained glass windows. Inside, altars to the seven gods glimmer in candlelight like saints’ shrines. In the catacombs below lie royal tombs. Martin notes, “Some local septons are not very well educated (like priests in medieval Europe), but there are great centers of religious training, and the Great Sept of Baelor would certainly be preeminent among them.”
The new seven-part gods who are different aspects of a single one deliberately reflect the Catholic trinity, as Martin has discussed in interviews. Maid, Mother, and Crone are a common goddess split among female life stages, while Father, Warrior, and Smith likewise divide the men by role in the world. Left behind is the ominous dark god, the androgynous Stranger, “less and more than human, unknown and unknowable” (II:372). His/her face is a shadowy black oval with stars for eyes. Though this form is ominous, its mysteriousness echoes the Holy Spirit, along with providing a focus for outcasts: Tyrion considers himself the stranger and lights a candle to it (II:477).
Much like Christianity in our world, the faith is fully integrated into life in Westeros, from trial by combat to casual expletives and sacred oaths. Knights are expected to take oaths of the Seven (thus followers of the Old Gods do not precisely become knights). The High Septon anoints the king, and his support is essential for the monarchy. He himself echoes the pope or archbishop, with crowns, rings, and vestments of his office. Below him are Septons, brothers, and sisters, sparrows, and so forth, much like the ranks of the Catholic Church. The Seven-Pointed Star is the chief holy text, echoing the Bible. In the fourth book, the Faith’s emerging power likely alludes to an era of religious warfare and violence ranging from the Crusades to the Inquisition.
Of course, the arrival of the Andals with their seven-part god signaled the fading of the Old Gods through both war and neglect:
When men arrived, they burned the woods and protective faces. The children fought, and the greenseers made the waters rise, smashing the Broken Arm of Dorne that had enabled men to cross. But the men, armed with bronze, were winning. At last, men and children signed the Pact: men would live in the coastlands and meadows, the children now they live only in dreams would take the deep woods…The Andals brought the new gods and conquered all but the north. (I:736-37)
The druids too lost their groves as the Christians gained influence.
Tree-worship was rooted in the oldest nature worship, and the Church had the utmost difficulty in suppressing it. Councils fulminated against the cult of trees, against offerings to them or the placing of lights before them and before wells or stones, and against the belief that certain trees were too sacred to be cut down or burned. Heavy fines were levied against those who practised these rites, yet still they continued. … S. Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it—an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil, from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated.
Tacitus tells us that the druids’ sacred groves were destroyed at the time of the conquest. In just this way, the advent of the new gods sees the abandonment of the heart trees, while Melisandre and her red god set fire to sacred groves, tearing them from the earth.
The Old Gods are losing power as the Godswoods vanish one by one. However, they hold the power to save Westeros, if the heroes can see it in time.
For the origins of R’hllor and the red priests, we must look to the Zoroastrians of Persia. There, Ahura Mazda is the lord of light and wisdom, creator of the universe. His opposite is Angra Mainyu, creator of evil in mankind, lord of darkness. Here is the source of R’hllor of light and the “Other” of darkness. Followers of Ahura Mazda directly worshipped fire, proclaiming it the son of the god. Ahura Mazda’s cult of the sacred fire was famed for “bringing clear guidance and joy to the true believer but destruction to lovers of evil.”
Likewise, R’hllor’s priests call him“the Heart of Fire, the God of Flame and Shadow,” a source of prophecy and true vision (II.20).
Zoroastrianism encouraged proselytizing and conversion, insisting like the red priests that other religions should be wiped out. The Zoroastrians also believed in a type of resurrection in which “the bones of the physical body would be raised up, and, clothed in immortal flesh, be united with the soul in heaven.”
The priests of R’hllor can do resurrection of a type, breathing flame into the dead and reanimating them. The Persians also used their fires to bring healing and purification, as Melisandre does. “The night is dark and full of terrors, old man, but the fire burns them all away,” she notes (2.1).
A further, even more blatant connection between these faiths is the word “Maegi,” source of the modern words “magic” and “magician” but also of the Magi at the birth of Jesus.
The Maegi “performed certain rituals and ceremonies connected with fire, sacrifices and burials” and “may have claimed supernatural knowledge and acted as fortune-tellers, astrologers, magicians, sorcerers, tricksters, and charlatans.”
Maegi seen in Martin’s series include prophets who appear to Daenerys, Arya, and Cersei, royal advisors like Melisandre, and known charlatans like Thoros, who lights a sword with wildfire and performs in tournaments. He admits later that he had no powers before the comet arrived and magic returned to the world.
The prophet Zoroaster himself wrote of a future battle when a great crisis shall threaten the world and finally bring about its rebirth. After a miraculous virgin birth, the hero called the Saoshyant would arise to lead the final battle and drive evil from the world. It is written:
He will be the “son of a virgin” and the “All-conquering.” His name shall be the Victorious (verethrajan), Righteousness-incarnate (astvat-ereta), and the Saviour (saoshyant). Then the living shall become immortal, yet their bodies will be transfigured so that they will cast no shadows, and the dead shall rise, “within their lifeless bodies incorporate life shall be restored.”