The Old Gods and the New: Religion in Westeros and Beyond

the-old-gods
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Just as George R. R. Martin draws inspiration from real-world history and politics to add depth to his world in A Song of Ice and Fire (or, as HBO would prefer, Game of Thrones), so too does he look to real-world religions.

Religion, a central aspect of medieval culture, is also an important theme throughout A Song of Ice and Fire: it pushes the story along, develops characters, and fleshes out an immensely complex world. Many different faiths are depicted and are all shown to have their own power, whether it be politically, in the strength of their followers, or magically.

Drawing from the books and the show, here are three of the major religions in the series, the roles they play within the story, and their real-life historical and contemporary counterparts.

1. The Drowned God 

We Do Not Sow

The Drowned God is worshipped on the Iron Islands, one of the only parts of Westeros to resist the conquest of the Faith of the Seven. The Ironborn culture is one of reaving and taking; they are conquerors. Their god reflects their maritime lifestyle, and his priests are called Drowned Men. The Drowned God is in constant conflict with another deity, the Storm God:

“From the sea had come the ironborn, and the fish that sustained them even in the depths of winter, but storms brought only woe and grief.”

The Drowned God’s watery halls

In Norse mythology, one of the gods of the sea was Aegir. His wife, Rán, was a goddess of death who used a net to bring the drowned to feast and drink mead in her and Aegir’s great hall below the waves – an underwater Valhalla. Much of the Ironborn culture reflects that of the Vikings, and similarly the Drowned God welcomes drowned men into his halls. When Balon Greyjoy, former king of the Iron Islands, is pushed from a bridge and dies, it’s said that “he feasts now in the Drowned God’s watery halls.”

Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel

When Theon Greyjoy first returns to the Iron Islands in A Clash of Kings, he meets his uncle Aeron, a priest, who baptises him with the salt water Drowned Men carry as holy water, blessing him and bringing him back into the culture and faith he was taken from as a child.

Being baptized to the Drowned God is violent. “Fill your lungs with water, that you may die and be reborn. It does no good to fight,” says Aeron during a baptism in A Feast For Crows. As children, Ironborn are sometimes baptized gently, with a dab of water similar to Christian baptisms, but Aeron and other devotees look down on these. In both practices, baptism and holy water are key rituals for integrating people into the religion.

2. The Faith of the Seven

The dominant religion in Westeros, the Faith, is common everywhere except in the Iron Islands and the North. In structure and its role in society, it is similar to the Catholic Church of medieval Europe, holding a powerful place politically and socially. At the head of the Faith is the High Septon, who serves like a pope. Female members of the clergy are called Septas and usually serve as governesses to noble families; the Stark girls were taught by Septa Mordane.

Seven Faces

The Seven are seven facets of one god: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Smith, the Maiden, the Crone, and the Stranger. These seven faces are similar to the Christian Holy Trinity, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, though the seven have more distinct roles. A follower of the Faith may pray to the Crone for wisdom or the Warrior for military victory.

The High Sparrow

The rising tension between church and state becomes a major conflict as the series progresses and is at the heart of the King’s Landing story in season six. The High Sparrow and his Faith Militant act as an inquisition, intent on bringing faith-imposed justice for a myriad of political and religious reasons in the same way the medieval inquisitions started by the Catholic church fought against heresy with violence and torture.

3. The Lord of Light

R’hllor, the Lord of Light, is a strange, foreign deity who isn’t well-understood in Westeros, but is widespread in Essos. The basis of the religion is the conflict between R’hllor and The Great Other, who brings darkness and death. The mythology of this faith is also a metaphor for the central conflict of the series: the fight between fire and ice, dragons and White Walkers, life and death. Red Priests and Priestesses work with fire as a divination method, using the flames to see what the Lord has to show them and its cleansing power to sacrifice non-believers.

The Night is Dark, and Full of Terrors

Melisandre, a priestess who is the main voice of R’hllor in the series, uses potions and tricks for show, but is very capable of real magic – surviving deadly poison, casting glamour charms to make one man look like another, and, in the show, bringing back the dead. Similarly, Thoros of Myr continually brings Beric Dondarrion back to life, and, in the books, does the same with Catelyn Stark after her murder at the Red Wedding.

Fire, light, and rebirth are key motifs throughout this religion’s folklore and the central theme of light against dark is universal in the real world as much as it is in Martin’s fiction. Dualities, such as God and Satan, enlightenment and suffering, fire and ice, life and death, are integral to mythology.

Rebirth

In the New Testament, Jesus rises from the dead and will come again to the world. In Essos legends, Azor Ahai is a legendary hero who sacrificed his wife with his sword, Lightbringer, in order to bring light to the world when all was dark. The world starts out dark in the Old Testament too, before God creates light. Azor, as God, as Prometheus, will be born again to fight off the terrible dark of the long winter looming over Westeros.

Melisandre believes Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn. Some claim it is Daenerys Targaryen after she rose unharmed from a pyre with three dragons. But if season six is anything to go by, it may end up being Jon Snow who is Azor Ahai, reborn to lead the fight against the White Walkers before a rapture of night and ice overtakes the world.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

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2 thoughts on “The Old Gods and the New: Religion in Westeros and Beyond

  1. Nice, succinct write-up of the three organized religions, either established on or making in-roads into Westeros.

    If you’re interested, here’s something I wrote about religions on the show, and the relative amount of influence the various faiths have on the show: https://patricksponaugle.com/2014/03/18/by-the-old-gods-and-the-new-religion-in-game-of-thrones-2/

    I’m planning on writing a post, specifically on the religion of the Drowned God, in a couple of months (I’m writing a blog post a week on Game of Thrones, so I have things blocked out in a schedule.) The multiple faiths on the show are just another example of how rich the world he’s created is.

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