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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Navigating A Sea of Literature With Sjon’s “From The Mouth Of The Whale”

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image source: amazon.com

“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”

~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón

Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.

That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.

Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.

The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.

The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.

It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.

Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Gods & Men: Religion in the Speculative Genre

It’s the issue that started wars in the past, that sends a wave of groans through the classroom today. It’s the single topic academics don’t like to talk about. It’s religion. After all, how can we debate something we’re too biased for or against to consider objectively? The answer is, through speculative fiction. Fictional religions can be apt allegories for religions today, stripped of our biases and prejudgements. Furthermore, they force us to consider the ugliest parts of human nature. It’s easy to have an evil “god” as an antagonist, but recent speculative fiction reworks this trope, showing us how humans twist the once-pure idea of god to control others. In this way, speculative fiction asks us: do we believe in god to better ourselves, or to have an ultimate scapegoat for our evils? Does god really hold power over us, or do we use the idea of god to take power for ourselves?

In Ian McDonald’s short story The Little Goddess, divinity is transient and akin to imprisonment. During the time the narrator is a goddess, she’s not allowed to touch any ground but that of her palace. She must be carried everywhere and cannot go anywhere alone. Godliness is not her birthright, but chosen for her after the completion of a test. In fact, she stops being a goddess when she injures herself and bleeds. After she’s exiled, people use her as a commodity, either as a trophy bride or an AI smuggler. Whether a god or not, she is always in someone else’s power.

In this story, we see gods portrayed as nothing more than naive, controlled humans – more like servants than deities. The god is a symbol of fear and power, but holds none of this power herself. Rather, she is a tool humans use to control others. Her ascension into godliness is dictated by mortals, her fall again decided by those who supposedly serve her. The only true power she grasps is at the end of the story, when the AI she is smuggling becomes imprinted in her brain, imbuing her with the knowledge she’d been denied and more. This suggests that true power is taken, not given – and that being a god does not mean having others believe in you, but believing in your own power.

Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker shows us a world different from McDonald’s, but where divinity is twisted in the same way. Again, gods are imprisoned and short-lived. The Returned gods are humans granted new life so they might give it away to someone in need when the time is right. They exist to serve, and spend hours hearing others’ pleas and doing chores the priests impose upon them. They’re not allowed to read any books but what the priests give them, and the God King – supposedly the most powerful god of all – isn’t even allowed to speak. Lightsong, the god whose point-of-view we get throughout the narrative, does not believe in himself as a god despite the priests’ assurances of his divinity. He only embraces it when he breaks out of the priests’ power and makes his first decision alone – ironically, the very decision that fulfils the prophecy of his godliness. Again, others’ belief in him is not what makes Lightsong a god, but his belief in himself.

Unlike in Sanderson’s and McDonald’s works, Aslan in C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia holds a divinity that is not transient, but that has existed since the beginning of time and will last forever. He is the sole ruler of Narnia, and has authority over the actions of other characters. However, similarly to the Returned in Sanderson’s Warbreaker, he is ultimately there to serve. All of Narnia’s inhabitants are his children, and he is responsible for them. Not only does he forgive their transgressions against him, but he gives his life for them. In fact, some animals even attempt to use his image to control others, as when they wear a lion skin to pretend to be him. Even when a god does have power, others attempt to make use of this power to achieve their own ends.

Long has speculative fiction told truths about human nature without the veil of propriety other genres hide behind. The topic of religion is no exception. If the religion in question isn’t real, it’s okay to be blunt about it, right? Works like the ones I mention above explore how people twist religion for their own ends, how in many ways, we as humans have more control over god than he has over us. The only difference is, speculative fiction can discuss such issues freely, without fear of hate-mail from readers.

-Contributed by Raluca Balasa