Dueling Dualists: Cathar influence on the Lord of Light

Occitan cross and fiery heart

The Occitan Cross of the Cathars and the fiery heart of R’hllor

The religions of Westeros are many, but the one with the most tangible presence is also the most foreboding and dangerous. This is the same kind of power that heresy had in medieval Europe. Historians of the Cathar heresy have only a few select texts written by genuine Cathars, the most substantial material describing them came from Catholic hands, which must be taken with a grain of salt. Catholic writers of this era were not kind in their descriptions of Cathar believers and were extremely unsympathetic to their views. Controversy over the nature of the Holy Trinity was widespread during the twelfth century, the mother church wanted anything but more discussion and dissent due to this issue. This is one reason why they reacted so strongly against its spread, from propaganda to the more infamous siege of Béziers. Historians face challenges when interpreting such biased material, and from the eyes of any contemporary Catholic, joining the Cathars would only appeal to desperate and impious fools, or otherwise only to the ignorant.1 That being said, there is by no means a lack of quality scholarly material in this area. In regards to A Song of Ice and Fire there is little available scholarly material so we must rely on Martin’s own words in the series as well as The World of Ice and Fire, an excellent historical, geographical and social exploration of Westeros and Essos, to decipher the reality of R’hllor, his motives, and his those of his followers. This essay will look at the influence the Cathar heresy had on Martin’s creation of the Lord of Light, particularly their absolute dualism and asceticism, as well as the implications that the prophesied rebirth of Azor Ahai has for Westeros.

Here is a nodemap that may make this easier to follow.

The Cathar Heresy

Cathars crushed underfoot

Cistercian abbots and St-Dominic persecuting Cathars.

Religion was the driving social force in Europe at the time when the Cathars emerged. Other dualistic faiths had spread across Eastern Europe before Catharism was even in its infancy, and had no small influence over it when it matured. Bogomilism, one of five heretical dualist churches at the time of Catharism, arose in Bulgaria in the 10th century and flourished until 1204 throughout the Byzantine Empire.2 Like the Bogomils, Cathars considered themselves to be part of a more established tradition in Dualism and Gnosticism rather than a part of the wasteful, detached elite of the Catholic clergy. The God they worshipped was one incapable of evil and incapable of associating with evil, since evil is Satan’s domain.3 They rejected idolatry and despised the crucifix as a symbol of good because, “it was inconceivable that the piece of wood on which his son was killed would be dear to the king.”4 Malcolm Barber wrote a highly accessible overview of Cathar history, though his book does little to distinguish between the practices of the absolute dualism of the Occitan Cathars and the “mitigated dualism” of the Italian Cathars. He presents the few historical sources of the Cathars in a concise and unbiased way.5 He argues that the presence of other Dualists spurred the development of Catharism as well as gave it a platform on which to build its own theology, and not just borrow. “… close ties with Bulgaria and Bosnia led to the importation of books already influential among the Bogomils.”6 The Book of Two Principles shows how the Cathars were creating their own, unique dualist mythology, and not simply borrowing from the already influential Bogomilism.7 They frowned upon the mainstream church for using water to cleanse the body when they felt water was just as corrupted as flesh to begin with, so their baptismal ritual was a simple prayer, confession and laying on of hands. This was their only ritual, they did not marry or even take oaths, which is considered a serious affront to medieval Europeans, marking them as outsiders, or at worst, as a threat to the very structure of the established society.8 The Catholic Church had no choice but to retaliate, to stop the heresy once and for all.

Physical & Spiritual

The major point of Cathar dualism is that all physical matter is the work of Satan, and therefore inherently corrupted. All non-physical entities, such as spirits and light, is the production of God, the creator and source of all goodness.9  This means that Jesus was not a distinct personage, he was only an aspect of God that is visible to the observer. Since God in the physical realm could not be known or observed by virtue of not physically existing, Jesus was legitimized and given power by the Holy Spirit. His body is just that, and within context that means it is incompatible with God. His human body was given the essence of the Holy Spirit, but this does not change the fact that the flesh he occupied is inherently bad.10 

Cathar Noblewoman drowned in a well

Lady Guiraude of Lavaur, a well-respected Cathar nobelwoman, drowned in a well by the besieging army of Simon de Montfort.

Evil exists not because God put it there deliberately. Evil exists because Satan exists, and God allows him to rule his domain over the Earth. The souls of humans are fallen angels trapped in a human form created by Satan, since flesh is corrupted and God is not capable of creating something made of corruption. In this sense, God seems to be trying to teach Satan a hard lesson about ruler-ship and humility, as well as a lesson to humans not to disobey like the third of all angels that allowed themselves to be corrupted by Satan. God created angels with free will, so that they might please him not in the way a slave does because they have no choice, but in the way that a friend does to make someone happy. This is not to say that God created them with the intention that they would become corrupted. Through his omniscience he knew what would become of a third of his heavenly host, yet it is in God’s nature to be a teacher in this sense, that humans, angels, and Satan alike must learn to use their free will for the glory of God, and learn to be good on the inside so they can re-enter heaven.11 

The Red God

In Westeros religion tends to take a back seat when it comes to inter-family politics, yet their gods seem to have more of a tangible presence, seemingly due to the remnants of magic hibernating in the world. R’hllor’s followers reap the benefits of this by needing far less of everything to survive. “Lord Beric himself did not eat. Arya had never seen him eat, though from time to time he took a cup of wine. He did not seem to sleep, either. His good eye would often close, as if from weariness, but when you spoke to him it would flick open again at once.”12 A fantastical element such as an actual lack of need illustrates the importance of abstaining to the Cathars, as they did not have magic to help them. To some degree followers of the Red God are not followers at all, some of them were slaves sold to the Red Temple to be raised into priesthood. We know Melisandre was sold as a child to the temple where she was trained in flame reading, as well as how to use fear to her advantage. And we know that she follows a harsher, arguably more traditional sect of R’hllor worship than Thoros of Myr.

As depicted in Season 3, Melisandre feels he is beneath her since he is not as strict in the faith, but yet he has powers that she never dreamed she could harness.13 This must be a blow to her confidence, as she is rational enough to know that her reading of the flames depends entirely on her subjectivity and this can lead to human error, of which she is more than capable.14 When meeting Beric Dondarrion she stares at him as if she can’t believe what she sees, concluding in her disbelief that it should not be possible for R’hllor to have granted life six times over to anyone, let alone this having been accomplished each time by Thoros of Myr, the drunken failure to her cause.The difference between Thoros and Melisandre is not black and white either and it is important to note that “Cathar beliefs existed within a general climate of religious skepticism in thirteenth-century Italian towns,” while also making the distinction that the schism between Cathar and Catholic  falls into only two points on a spectrum of belief.15  As the magic of Westeros returns, the gods find themselves competing for resources, and for followers. Beric confirms the necessity of action against the rising threat, “The other side? There is no other side. I have been to the darkness, my lady. He sent you to us for a reason.”16 There is real danger lurking in the realm of the Great Other, and the divide between religions is deepening as magic returns to its full power.

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Melisandre may not know what she’s getting into.

Light & Darkness

Cathars burned

Cathar heretics being burned.

R’hllor is the Lord of Light and life, his antithesis, the Great Other, is the Lord of Darkness and death. There is no middle ground to R’hllor and his stricter followers. Interestingly Martin chose fire to represent life and goodness, while Cathar theology associated fire with evil, and especially with Satan himself, “The face of Satan was like an iron glowing from the fire…”17 There were more than a few burning as well.

Melisandre claims that shadows are the servants of light. A shadow is not outright darkness because it needs a flame to be cast.18 The darkness, however is the realm of evil. The gods of death are many, appearing in almost every known religion, but R’hllor’s champion is prophesied to return and fight off the darkness once and for all. The Faceless Men of Braavos are the only ones that outright worship death, believing that if death was not the ultimate power than immortality would surely exist somewhere in the world.19 However, Bran meets a few of such characters far north of the Wall, even a child of the forest. And Melisandre herself is of an unknowable age. She remembers years beyond counting back to the day she was sold as a slave child to the Red Temple. And there are the six times R’hllor has resuscitated Beric Dondarrion, and ultimately Lady Stoneheart. Death may not be so permanent, if the Lord of Light wishes it. Dondarrion has some sombre wisdom, being the subject of it all. “Fire consumes. It consumes, and when it is done there is nothing left. Nothing.”20 He has been raised from the dead six times, and this worries him. He knows this is unusual, but that his life must be significant if R’hllor has use of him. Still, this borrowed life is ominous.

Theories of Ice and Fire

The Azor Ahai myth recurs alternately among the Rhoynar, the Dothraki, the YiTish, and Asshai’I, which is the version I will focus on. The moral of the story is that great personal sacrifice is necessary for the greater good, namely saving the world from death and darkness. This brings us to the real question: who is Azor Ahai reborn? This question weighs most heavily on Melisandre, who believes Stannis Baratheon is the champion of R’hllor. Martin says that she is not necessarily acting on behalf of the Red Temple, she has her own agenda.21 There isn’t much to support Melisandre’s claim, but what there is comes from an unexpected source: the skeptical Davos Seaworth. During an argument between Davos and his son, and through no intention of his own, Davos gave credibility to Stannis’ being the incarnation of Azor Ahai, and thus further legitimizing R’hllor’s power.

Still, apart from this sign of faith the only other evidence in Stannis’ favour is what appears to be Lightbringer, which came into his possession after a ceremonial burning of false idols by the sea.22 Thus fulfilling the prophetic requirement of salt and smoke. The sword does not wield flame as it was suggested, however, if it truly is the sword forged by Azor Ahai then maybe all it needs is to be in the right hands.

The high priest of the Red Temple, Benerro, has a conflicting vision to Melisandre’s, seeing Daenerys as Azor Ahai reborn. He ends up on a ship heading straight for her, hoping to bring her into the fold.23 Dany’s claim I believe is the strongest. The source of the prophecy comes from a woods witch, though she is allegedly a child of the forest. While in the company of Jenny of Oldstones in the court of Aegon V, the witch told of her prediction that a saviour would be born of the union of Rhaella and Aerys.24 Aegon put so much faith in these words because he felt as if harnessing the power of dragons would be the only way to restore the full extent of his kingdom to peace. Dany first learns of this prophecy from Barristan Selmy, who knew that her parents had only wed because of Aerys’ insistence and faith in the prophecy of the alleged child of the forest.25 If she really was who Jenny believed her to be then there is at least some truth to her claim.
While in Qarth, Daenerys has two significant experiences. In a crowd a woman in a red laquer mask named Quaithe approached her and explained that the wells of magic in the world are growing, and those who could only perform tricks before now have real command of the elements, ending with a cryptic message.26 In the House of the Undying, Dany has a vision of her brother and infant nephew Aegon, who supposedly died at the hands of the Mountain. His wife asks his if he will write the boy a song, as Prince Rhaegar was a known musician, to which he replies “He has a song. He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire… There must be one more… The dragon has three heads.”27 The Targaryen sigil is a three-headed dragon, in accordance with the prophetic prerequisite, indicating that this prophecy is probably older than anyone can know and also that one or more Targaryens will have a role in its fulfillment. Three visits from Quaithe the Shadowbinder to warn her of the troubles ahead also point to this being R’hllor’s work. Quaithe is not directly identified as a follower of R’hllor, but her being from Asshai is proof enough since it is a place of shadow and shadows are the product of light.28
The Undying showed her more, “Glowing like a sunset, a red sword was raised in the hand of a blue-eyed king who cast no shadow… From a smoking tower, a great stone beast took wing, breathing shadow fire…”29 The blue-eyed king who casts no shadow could be an allusion to the champion of the Great Other, but then why would he have Lightbringer? The great stone beast is one Melisandre means to awaken, she mentions bringing to life a stone dragon in Dragonstone, though Stannis dismisses these notions. All he wants is the Iron Throne, so he bids her to go on with her work eliminating the Throne’s pretenders.30 Martin cryptically says there must be Valyrian magic at work in Dragonstone, perhaps Westeros will see a dragon under Melisandre’s command.31

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We all know how much Stannis loves friendly competition.

There is a North-centric fan theory that highlights the importance of the Stark family, showing how comparable they are to the Targaryen line. Both families have slightly non-human traits: prophetic dreams, control over animals, and their polar opposite elemental affinities. Monika Ponjavić believes that the Others are truly servants of the North, the ancient Kings of Winter, existing to protect their way of life from southern invaders, namely the Targaryens, who seek to colonize and conquer.32 This brings us to the Starks.

Jon Snow’s lineage has been in question since the beginning of the novels, though the most significant possibility is that he was the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, therefore binding the two oldest and most magical bloodlines in the world. Not to mention the prophetic dream he had of himself “armoured in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist.”33 Bran has a place in the heroes’ vanguard as well, but I believe that he is the champion of the old gods, not R’hllor.
Melisandre asks for a vision of R’hllor’s champion but disregards Jon’s face in the flames and his whispered name.34 How blunt does a god have to be to get his point across? She also see Bran and the wooden face of his ancient mentor, assuming them to be minions of the Great Other. But Bran knows the danger in the North, he has seen it for himself while comatose, “He looked deep into the heart of winter, and then he cried out, afraid, and the heat of his tears burned on his cheeks.”35 The three-eyed raven appearing in his dream tells him he must live to save the world from eternal winter, though possibly not for the same reasons. Mentions of the legendary Bran the Builder, who built the Wall to protect the world from the advance of the Others, could not possibly be tied to the Great Other if he fought against his minions, and by this logic, neither is Bran. Bran seems to be acting on the will of the old gods, who gave him visions that led him far north of the Wall so that he could learn the art of skin-changing for the express purpose of preventing the onset of eternal winter. Without a true flaming sword existing anywhere in Westeros, I am led to believe that Bran is essentially Lightbringer. He will eventually learn the skills of a warg and use them against the advancing Others, probably fighting side by side with Jon, if he is still alive.
Therefore, I propose that the three heads of the prophetic dragon are Daenerys, Jon, and Aegon, whom we know is alive and well. Azor Ahai is Jon Snow, R’hllor made that very clear. Jon gave up the love of his life, Ygritte, to protect the realm as a man of the Night’s Watch. He may well have killed her himself.36 And as Lord Commander, the Night’s Watch can be considered his flaming sword. Bran can be considered Lightbringer as well, but I think it is more accurate to say that he is the champion of the old gods since R’hllor has had absolutely no influence on Bran’s mission to save the world. In any case, one speculation is as good as the next, and these questions will not be answered for a while yet. I believe I speak for all of us when I say that The Winds of Winter can’t come fast enough.

Contributor: Emma Gondor

1. Malcolm Barber, The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages. Essex: Pearson Education, 2000. p.104
2. Michael Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, p 58-59
3. Wakefield, Walter L., and Austin P. Evans, “Cathar Texts: The Book of the Two Principles.” Ed. Lance S. Owen. Accessed April 2nd, 2015.
4. Malcolm Lambert, The Cathars. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. p.29-30
5. James McDonald. “Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in the Languedoc”,  Date last modified: 15 September 2014
6. Barber, p.82
7. Barber, p.86
8. Costen, p.65
9. Costen, p.64
10. Wakefield, Walter L., and Austin P. Evans, “Cathar Texts: The Book of the Two Principles.” Ed. Lance S. Owen. Accessed April 2nd, 2015
11. Ibid.
12. George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.443
13. “The Climb,” Game of Thrones, HBO, USA (S03E06, May 5th, 2013)
14. George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. p.408
15. Carol Lansing, Power & Purity, Cathar heresy in Medieval Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, p.83
16. “The Climb,” Game of Thrones, HBO, USA (S03E06, May 5th, 2013)
17. Wakefield, Walter L., and Austin P. Evans, “The Secret Supper – The Book of John the Evangelist.” Ed. Lance S. Owen. Accessed April 2nd, 2015.
18. George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.465
19. George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam Books, 2005. p.507
20. George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.490
21. George R. R. Martin, Interview by Jon Nieve, July 28, 2012, transcript.
22. George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.112
23. George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. p.286
24. George R. R. Martin, Elio M. García, Linda Antonsson, A World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014. p.109-110
25.  George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. p.300
26.  George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. p.435
27.  Ibid. p.525
28.   George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.465
29.  George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. p.528
30.  George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. p.415
31. George R. R. Martin, Interview by Jon Nieve, July 28, 2012, transcript.
32. Monica Ponjavic, “Kings of Winter – Origins of the Others?” Accessed April 1st, 2015
33.   George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. p.769
34.  George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. p.408
35.  George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. p.145
36.   George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. p.622