When it comes to the history of HBO's Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, some fans are wise old maesters and others are know-nothing Jon Snow types. To prepare for season six, we’re looking at some of the most important moments in the long, complex, and often controversial history of Westeros, and what they might tell us about events yet to come. So whether you’re as versed in the past as Maester Luwin or as clueless as Gilly in a castle for the first time, we’re calling your banner to join us on this march to the new season. Either way, be warned: there are major, major spoilers for the series in this post.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.
Gods of Westeros and Beyond
"If I was a religious guy, I'd say it's a gift from God, but I'm not so I can't say that.
"I suppose I’m a lapsed Catholic. You would consider me an atheist or agnostic. I find religion and spirituality fascinating. I would like to believe this isn’t the end and there’s something more, but I can’t convince the rational part of me that that makes any sense whatsoever. That’s what Tolkien left out – there’s no priesthood, there’s no temples; nobody is worshiping anything in Rings."
For a man with apparently very little faith of his own, George RR Martin's world of ice and fire certainly has enough gods and religions to cover Westeros, the rest of the known world, and even the unknown parts. From the first time a character swore to the old gods and the new, it was apparent this would be a fantasy story that would not shy away from questions of faith. And with faith, there always comes even more questions.
So as season six draws near, and a bunch of Krakens ready to bathe themselves in the Drowned God's waters, the Faith Militant clashes with the Iron Throne, the followers of the Lord of Light ready for battle with the Great Other, the Faceless Men of Braavos prepare to spread their gift in the name of the Many-Faced God, and a handicapped boy learns from a tree, we'll take a look back at where each religion comes from to try to figure out if we can learn where they might take us if we put our faith in them.
Before we get to the biggies, a quick note on the religions and gods we are going to skip over:
Gods of the Rhoyne: Few people still live along the Rhoyne River in Essos, with most of its inhabitants and descendants long dead or long ago moved away (like Queen Nymeria to Dorne). So for those that still worship Mother Rhoyne, the Old Man of the River, and the Crab King, we shouldn't expect any influence on events going forward.
Faith of the Three Sisters: Three little islands not far from the Vale, with the kind of reputation you'd really want in a bachelor party weekend but not for your hometown, worship the Lady of the Waves and the Lord of the Skies. Nothing ever happens there, except beloved characters have a tendency to be spared by very cunning lords who see the big picture of war, so this is the only Westerosi religion we're ignoring.
The Many (Many) Faiths of Essos: We are going to cover the two biggest, but they aren't even the tip of the iceberg. The House of Black and White in Braavos has 30 different statues of gods, and just named in the book from Essos are the Weeping Woman, Lion of Night, Merling King, Hooded Wayfarer, Bakkalon, and the Moon-Pale Maiden. It just goes on and on from there.
Sorry, and I hope none of you them out to be the real god (on the show or in real life), but we've got bigger gods to fry right now.
THE DROWNED GOD OF THE IRON ISLANDS
"What is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger."
Also known as He Who Dwells Beneath the Waves, the Drowned God is a very old sea god only worshiped by the ironborn of the Iron Islands. Believed to live beneath the sea in his watery halls, the Drowned God is a harsh deity who is in a constant struggle with the Storm God who lives in the clouds (no one believes in him besides the ironborn either).
When the Andals invaded Westeros, everyone except the North adopted the Faith of the Seven, but the opposite happened on the Iron Islands; the Andals accepted the Drowned God. Newborns are "drowned" in his waters in a ceremony resembling a baptism, but his clergy, the Drowned Men, are actually drowned and brought back to life (some of them don't make it back).
If the idea of the Drowned God's holy men being people that have died and come back (funny how often that happens) is peculiar, it's also worth noting that the god "is believed to have brought flame from the sea and sailed the world with fire and sword," and to have made the ironborn "reave and rape, to carve out kingdoms and to make their names known in fire and blood and song."
There has been little time dedicated to the Drowned God on Game of Thrones so far, but with season six finally including the Greyjoy family story from the novels, it's probably time to be familiar with this harsh deity.
FAITH OF THE SEVEN
The seven "new gods" of Westeros (though, really, they're seven aspects of one god) came across the Narrow Sea with the Andals when they invaded. It is said the Seven walked the hills of Andalos in human form once, and eventually coninuted on to all of Westeros, save for the North and the Iron Islands. Aegon the Conqueror also became a follower of the Seven. He was crowned and legitimized as the king of Westeros by the High Septon, the leader of the church.
The Seven are made up of:
- Father (judgment)
- Mother (love and mercy)
- Warrior (strength in battle)
- Maiden (innocence and virtue)
- Smith (craftsmanship and labor)
- Crone (wisdom)
- Stranger (death and the unknown)
Followers often depict and are adorned with the seven-pointed star, and use light and crystals to symbolize the Seven too. Servants in the faith involve the leaders (septons and septas), and a number of different orders: the silent sisters, begging brothers, brown brothers, and the resurgent Faith Militant.
While currently causing major problems for the Lannisters and Tyrells, the Faith Militant is a direct response to the unsafe and horrible realities the common folk of Westeros find themselves in during this fight for the Iron Throne.
There's also the matter of the last aspect of the Seven, the one few ever pray to: the Stranger. The god whose face is covered is neither male or female, and comes for all to lead them to the world of the dead. The Stranger is not loved like the other gods of the Seven, but rather feared. Yet all believers of the Seven know it will be the Stranger they will one day meet.
R'HLLOR, THE LORD OF LIGHT
"The night is dark and full of terrors."
Originating from Essos, followers of the R'hllor believe in two gods: the Lord of Light and the Great Other, the god of ice and death. The two are forever in a struggle for the world, with R'hllor protecting the living from the darkness.
The belief that R'hllor's great hero, Azor Ahai, will rise again wielding a sword of flame called Lightbringer and defeat the Great Other, comes from prophecies of the strange and dark Asshai in the Shadowlands. (This is where Melisandre is from.)
Both men and women can be priests of the Lord of Light, with many temples to the god found throughout Essos. Attempts to spread the faith to Westeros haven't been as successful, with Thoros of Myr basically abandoning his attempts to convert the Iron Throne to R'hllor. Not until Stannis Baratheon did the religion make any kind of real progress in the Seven Kingdoms, which drew condemnation from the Faith of the Seven.
It is said that R'hllor allows some followers to see visions in his flames, that some priests and priestesses can conjure fire from their bare hands, and some can even bring people back from the dead (though they are also known to burn people to death in a ceremonial sacrifice).
It is believed that like all magic, R'hllor's followers' abilities have weakened since the last of the Targaryen dragons died. Dragons, with their fire breathing sort of making them the living embodiment of fire, seem like a big deal to those that follow the Lord of Light.
THE MANY-FACED GOD
"Valar morghulis--all men must die.
Valar dohaeris--all men must serve."
The Faceless Men of Braavos, those that serve in the House of Black and White, are their own religion. Their god is the Many-Faced God, who they believe is merely all of the other gods of the world, worshiped under different names yet existent as one deity... hence all those faces. The Stranger, the Black Goat, the Lion of the Night, etc—they are all the same god to the Faceless Men.
The history of the Many-Faced God dates back to old Valyria, when the first Faceless Man came to realize that the vastly different slaves working in the volcanic mines were praying to their own gods, but for the same thing. Believing he was the "instrument" for this singular god with many faces, he gave the slaves "the gift" of the god--a painless death (then later the slave masters too). A strange gift perhaps, but it answered their prayers.
Careful what you wish for.
While the Faceless Men can be hired to give their "gift" to someone (at a huge cost), people can also come to the House of Black and White to drink from its fountain, which also gives the gift.
It can be said that almost every other god in the world can be considered to be one of the many faces of this god, but what if your gods are the earth itself?
THE OLD GODS OF THE CHILDREN OF THE FOREST
When the First Men came to Westeros they fought with the Children of the Forest for centuries, before eventually signing a pact with them and adopting their gods, now referred to as "the old gods." The the old gods are mostly only worshiped in the North and Beyond the Wall now, though there are castles that have holy groves with weirwood trees in them throughout the Westeros.
Nameless, the old gods are said to be found in the earth itself, in stones and trees. The only real tangible proof of the faith are the sacred carved weirwood trees, known as heart trees, which are thought to have some special power not totally understood by humans.
While there is no sacred text or writings attributed to the faith, acts such as kinslaying, incest, and slavery are in violation of the gods. They also take the laws of hospitality very seriously.
With so many religions to choose from, are any worthy of trust? Can we put our faith in any of them?
Consider the real story going on here. Slaver's Bay, the Iron Throne, Starks and Lannisters. None of it matters because an army of the dead is marching on them all. That's the only war that matters, so let's take them one at a time to see which god would best help fight that.
The Drowned God literally requires his holy men to die and be brought back to life, and their words talk about how things that die don't ever really die, but instead they return even stronger. That actually sounds like the White Walkers and their army of the raised dead. Not to mention, the ironborn live horrible, harsh lives. Seeing the followers of the Drowned God pull up onto your shore is like having death itself show up.
Considering that Euron Greyjoy will be baptized anew in the faith of the Drowned God, all while promising to tame dragons, this faith has the potential to be very dangerous for all.
When it comes to the Faith of the Seven, it feels as though life is not for actually living, but about atoning for the very fact you are alive. In the trailer for season six we hear the High Sparrow, the one that was so eager to again have the Faith Militant fight in the name of the Seven, no matter how brutal and heartless they may act, say that we are all sinners that deserve to die. The Stranger might be the least loved god, but it is in his service the major religion of Westeros now serves.
Then, of course, there is R'hllor, and his eager to burn others alive servants. If you've been reading this series you know the many signs point towards the Lord of Light being the other side of the same coin as the White Walkers' Great Other. Yes, the Others brings icy death, but dragons bring a death by fire. R'hllor's servants burn the living, and Melisandre also birthed a demon shadow baby. Thoros of Myr, a red priest that lost his faith, is even able to bring his friend back to life saying the Lord of Light's prayers. On a show about fighting the undead to save the living, the religion most dedicated to fighting that battle are also raising the dead and bringing death to the living.
Their obsession with dragons, and in turn Daenerys Targaryen, is as troubling as Melisandre's misreadings of the visions in her flames. We saw the movement of R'hllor's followers towards Daenerys when Tyrion was in Volantis and the red slave priestess was talking about the Mother of Dragons being the true savior of mankind. If dragons restore their ability to use magic there won't be room in this world for the nonbelievers, but a death by fire is no better than a death by ice.
While we book readers may never see Victarion Greyjoy and Moqorro combine their two religions on HBO, the damage they are capable of will probably still be an important part of the show going forward. The world has dragons again, and a large religion dedicated to the Lord of Light, is obsessed with them. That's a dangerous mix, considering their own mother can't contain them.
Then, of course, in this story about fighting death, we have a religion that is really a cult of death, in the Faceless Men and the Many-Faced God. Death is not the enemy of the living, it is a gift bestowed on them—even those that don't want or ask for it.
While the show has given us no hints at what to expect from the storyline in the Citadel (I'd bet against ever seeing a glass candle), in the books the Faceless Men appear to have infiltrated the home of the maesters, with them working with at least one maester that also has an interest in the Khaleesi with dragons. Why would the Faceless Men have any interest in Oldtown? Why would they be involved in dragons or anything else, when they serve the Many-Faced God.
The Faceless Men might be the most dangerous unknown in the entire story. "Valar morghulis," and dragons are very efficient at doing that, but so is an army of the dead. We know who the Faceless Men serve, but we no longer know how they plan on doing that. It's hard to have faith in those that view death as the sweetest gift.
So if we can't trust any of the faces of god, who can we trust?
Only one faith is about the living, dedicated to the living, because it actually is the living. The living trees, and stones, and rivers, and flowers, are the old gods. We know they have some power, because the Three-Eyed Raven would not still be alive (or nearly as tree-y) as he is without some magical force. Also, there is no "other" the way R'hllor's followers believe, which means the old gods are not tied to anything other than the earth itself.
While every other faith seems to embrace death, the old gods are all about life.
It's why, while everyone in the world flocks to Slaver's Bay to find and control (or destroy) dragons (dragons who we know can kill White Walkers and humans all the same), a young boy and an old man under the ground far north of The Wall may hold the key to winning the war with the dead.
Besides, we have to put our faith in someone, right?
Which religion, if any, do you think will save Westeros and the world? Tell us in the comments below.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.
Featured Image: "Brace Yourself" by Winerla