Death and the End of Time: An Analysis of Eschatology in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire

Valar Morghulis. Memento Mori. One, a Christian reminder of your own mortality, the other the mysterious words of the Many-Faced God, patron of the most deadly assassins in Westeros. In George R.R. Martin’s world the end is never far away. Religion, comforting in times of death, is a central guiding force for the inhabitants of Westeros. The old gods of the First Men are still adhered to by the North. The Seven, the Andal gods, hold reign over the rest of the southern provinces of Westeros, including the ruling house of Baratheon. A third religion has also taken hold, though its followers number less than that of the previous two. This is the religion preached by Melisandre. In her world there are only two Gods. The Lord of Light, R’hllor, and his nemesis, the Great Other.[1] Much like R’hllor, the Drowned God of the Iron Islands is locked in battle with a single foe, the Storm God, for control of the souls of men. This climactic battle, foretold with different names in each religion, is central to the mythology of Westeros. The land is coming to a point of judgement, sides will be chosen and the end of life as it was known has come to a conclusion. Martin, in his own words, is not a very religious man, but finds the topic fascinating.

“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 makes any sense whatsoever.” – George R.R. Martin

Eschatology is the branch of theology concerned with the end of things and is often connected with the apocalypse. It is also the study of end time, when time ceases to matter. If time is not experienced does it even exist? What is the absence of time? What happens after time?[2] These are fundamental questions in the field of eschatology and metaphysics .  The theme of the apocalypse is especially prevalent in Christian eschatology. However, the apocalypse is just one type of end time. It can also be associated with the individual death of a person or the end of a way of thinking/practice within the religion. Each of the religious factions of Westeros fit in between points along this line of eschatology. Beginning with the apocalyptic eschatology are the Old Gods and their eternal conflicts potentially involving the White Walkers. Grouped in this eternal struggle of good and evil are the followers of R’hllor and the Drowned God. These two faiths believe that a time of conflict between their God and his opposing force is approaching. In personal eschatological terms are the Faceless Men of Braavos. These highly trained assassins accept the suicides of numerous individuals in their temple and orchestrate high-profile assassinations. These Faceless Men individually end time for thousands. Finally there is the eschatological end of ideas. The faith of the Seven appears to be descending down this path. As Samwell Tarly claims, “The Seven have never answered my prayers, perhaps the Old gods will.”[3] Magic is returning to the world and each religion, sans the faith of the Seven, has produced examples of supernatural and preternatural events.

Martin and the HBO crew outline their thoughts on religion in Westeros.

In George R.R. Martin’s  A Song of Ice and Fire there are a number of parallels to real historical events and concepts. To list just a few, includes The War of the Roses, John Mandeville’s travels, and William the Conqueror’s subjugation of the England. However, these parallels appear to be more of a romanticized version of history, such as being recalled from memory. This same process occurs in the case of eschatology. Religion, at first, does not seem to be very central to the overall story of both the television show and the book series. It is character interaction, manipulation, and war that appear to be the central focus of Martin’s world. However, religion is the underlying motive that brings everything into action. Much like the historical parallels in Westeros, Martin’s religious factions have real world connections. The eschatology of these religions factor heavily in the beliefs of the characters of Martin’s world. A number of parallels exist within Norse, Hindu and especially medieval Christian eschatology.

“In fact, the religions portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire are reflections of the religions in our own world. They require a leap of faith, because the effects of belief are so intangible. The religions of Westeros claim to dictate absolute, perfect truths through imprecise, flawed institutions and beings–just like the religions we encounter every day.” – George R.R. Martin

Medieval Christian eschatology is the most common in connection to Martin’s world. A number of his fictitious religions encompass traits of the Catholic Church and its eschatological principles. Dualism, the omnipotent, and the day of Judgement (a final confrontation) are all a part of Christianity and Westerosi religion. The most similar to Christianity is R’hllor, The Lord of Light. R’hllor represents light and in this world, as in ours, light is paramount. It was so important it took God one full day of creation to put light into being. Without light only darkness would exist. Light holds a number of metaphysical positions as well. However, there is also the idea of light and dark as representations of order. God stands with light, while Lucifer stands with darkness. R’hllor is God and the Great Other, the Devil. It is this great opposition, on the precipice of battle that outlines the apocalyptic eschatology.

For the followers of R’hllor there is only one true God. Non-believers are heathens to convert or destroy. Religious clashes can bring about both apocalyptic and personal end time. In Christian eschatology the soul of the deceased only lives on if they have been blessed by the God, i.e. baptism. As well, in Christianity, heathens and heretics were burnt at the stake if they refused to accept “true” beliefs. Melisandre burns Alester Florent and Guncer Sunglass as sacrifices to R’hllor, they would not turn from the Seven, the gods they had grown up with.[4] This idea is similar to Catholics and burning witches for consorting with the devil. In Christian eschatology the coming of heretics signals the imminence of the end time.[5] It is the time when the cosmic struggle begins between Christ and the Antichrist. However, the Antichrist is not necessarily a person. It could also be an event or a philosophical theme in opposition to what Christ stands for.[6] Throughout time there has been powerful individuals declared as champions against the Antichrist. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious are just two of these people.[7] In Westeros they align with Azor Ahai.

Non-believers are burnt at the stake as a sacrifice to R’hllor.

Azor Ahai, while potentially a mortal who shall free Westeros, has a connection with Jesus Christ. Azor Ahai is prophesized to return thousands of years after his first appearance. This will coincide with the time of Judgement. The ending of the world is synonymous with this time. Although, revelation does not mean universal saviour. This battle will have casualties, but it is in this sacrifice that the world shall be reborn.[8] The cyclical nature, the coming of Jesus/Azor Ahai, fits into the Christian nature of the apocalyptic cycle. God had existed alone for undetermined time. Eventually, his son Jesus Christ is sent to save the souls of humanity. Azor Ahai is sent to do the same. He may have been involved in the Long Night and the banishment of the White Walkers.[9] The two are then prophesized to return and defend against evil, to banish darkness, the Great Other from the world.

In medieval Christian eschatology, the metanarrative almost always begins with the champion and his quest.[10] In the Divine Comedy it is Dante’s descent into the underworld, followed by purgatory, and at last heaven, that solidifies his search for Beatrice. This is a personal eschatological quest. It is the end of their time. The Pearl and Piers Plowman also contain individual quests traversing the known world into the unknown.[11] These quests step out of time, into the unknown. There is also the connection of pilgrimage and eschatology. The world is a temporary home that we travel through on the way to somewhere else.[12] The journey to reach the destination, (death), encompasses ones entire lifetime. To reach the shrine is to reach the end of time. Melisandre, while looking into the fire, sees visions that she understands as declaring a need in the north.  Stannis’ quest is to defend the North and protect the Wall. The Wall itself also fits distinctly in Christian apocalypticism. Within the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Revelation, there exists a wall, far in the north, that shall protect the Israelites from Gog and Magog.[13]

Melisandre stares into the flames searching for guidance.

The invasion of Gog and Magog parallels perfectly with the White Walkers in the North. However, the free folk under Mance Rayder could also fit this connection. Gog and Magog, in biblical tradition, are the harbingers of the coming Judgement.[14] Stannis, Melisandre, and Jon all see the Wall as the paramount importance in Westeros. The throne is a secondary importance at best. Gog and Magog lead the battle charge for Satan, (the Great Other). However, how much of a threat is Mance truly? The White Walkers have a much more significant eschatological impact. Previously, in connection with the myth of Azor Ahai, was the Long Night. The White Walkers came from the Lands of Always Winter and broke through the “gates” of the North wreaked havoc. This time of darkness lasted an entire generation and almost resulted in extinction in Westeros. Eventually, the darkness was pushed back. The Wall was built in order for the Westerosi to never be caught off guard again.[15] The shift from summer to true winter in Martin’s worlds is the same as the cyclical idea of Judgement and post-Judgement times in Christian eschatology.[16] While Christian eschatology is the most common in Martin’s world, there also exists a number of parallels to Norse mythology and eschatology.

In the Norse religion Ragnarok is the apocalyptic event that brings about the end of humanity. Not only is it an apocalypse, but it is literally a song of ice and fire. After society has degraded into a time of anarchy, a winter that lasts three years blankets the world.[17] After the war between the gods and giants reaches the end it is Surt’s turn to unleash fire upon the world. Flames, unleashed by his burning sword, envelop the world and begin its renewal.[18] The connection here to Azor Ahai is unmistakable. However, a number of characters in the series match up favourably with key players in Ragnarok.  On the sides of the gods, Jaime and Tyr, Aerys Targaryen and Odin, and Robert Baratheon with Thor all match up extremely well. Jaime and Tyr are both missing hands and are known for saving human lives. Aerys, like Odin, goes mad during his long reign. Finally, Robert is known as the lord of the Stormlands, a place filled with lightning storms, and carries a very large hammer. Both direct symbols of Thor. On the sides of the Giants are Bloodraven and Loki, Bran and Fenrir, and Melisandre and Hel. Like Loki, Bloodraven was banished for an unknown crime.[19] Loki is known for his ability to shapeshift, or in Martin’s world, warg. Bran is a warg, a boy who can shift into his wolf, aptly named Summer. Bran, and Summer, represent the great wolf Fenrir. It is Fenrir who takes the hand of Tyr, and in a roundabout way it is Bran, by discovering Jaime and Cersei in sexual relations, that puts into motion the events that lead to Jaime’s loss of his hand. Finally, there is Melisandre and Hel. Hel is the literal daughter of Loki, while in Martin’s world there is no familial relation between Bloodraven and Melisandre. However, she does appear to be under his influence as he leads her north. Melisandre displays with Mance and Rattleshirt,[20] that she is both skilled at glamours, and potentially is glamouring herself via her glowing necklace.[21] Hel, in Norse mythology, is both living and dead. Melisandre too seems to be much more than she appears to be. Dorian the Historian’s vivid and extremely detailed look into these Norse connections can be found here.

A battle between the gods, eerily similar to the factions within Westeros

This battle in Norse eschatology also coincides with the Christian idea of Gog and Magog. Loki and Surt, the harbingers of destruction, are locked away in ice for much of their existence. It is when the world of man breaks this ice that Ragnarok begins. The Bifrost, which allows travel between worlds, is smashed and destroyed by Surt in his efforts to be free.[22] This is very similar to the Wall in separating the known world with the unknown. Medieval Christianity and Norse mythology are central to the apocalyptic ideas of Westeros, most firmly represented by the followers of R’hllor. However, the Drowned God of the Iron Islands also borrows heavily from these two eschatological bases.

An Introduction to House Greyjoy.

The distinct “prayer” of the Iron Islands, “what is dead may never die, but rises again” appears eerily cryptic. The followers of the Drowned God are drowned, then brought back from the brink, as a baptismal ritual. In their beliefs the Drowned God is locked into an eternal struggle with the Storm God, much like R’hllor and the Great Other. The Iron Islanders share much similarity in the culture of the Norse rather than their religious beliefs. It is declared by the Drowned God that the Ironborn pillage and reave the coastlines, and that a boy can only be a man once he has taken a life.[23] This is the personal eschatological quest of the Ironborn. The idea of killing another to be accepted as a man is common in a number of cultures. The ones most associated with this idea are the Spartans. Also similar to the Norse, is their lack of fear of death. The Ironborn are perfectly content to reach their end over water, just as the Norse dream of dying in battle.[24] The Iron Islanders focus much more on personal eschatology than on the apocalyptic. This personal eschatology is also extremely important to the Faceless Men of Braavos.

The unique baptismal rites of the Ironborn.

Personal eschatology is when the end time is reached by an individual person. The Faceless Men, as world-renowned assassins, end many lives. Their Many-Faced God, is in their eyes, an amalgamation of all the gods of other religions. This includes the Great Other and the Stranger of the Seven.[25] Once slain, the person is “freed” and the contract complete. Personal death is an often overlooked idea of eschatology. The apocalypse is always front and centre because of its epic nature. However, individual death is just as, if not more important, to eschatological scholars.[26] Every religion attempts to explain what happens after death. It is the great unknown, the simple end of time for you as you know it, or is it? To most religions there is an afterlife, Heaven and Valhalla are just a few of the names given to this place. Others believe in reincarnation. In Westeros, the halls of the dead are not named. This does not stop those about to meet their end, such as Rickard Karstark, to acknowledge the judgement of the gods.[27]

Rituals of the dead are shrouded in secrecy in Westeros. It is only the Silent Sisters who see to dead bodies. When Tywin Lannister’s body is to be sent back to Casterly Rock it is prepared by the sisters. Their techniques appear to involve a type of embalming as removal of organs and replacement with herbs is described in reference to Tywin’s body.[28] It also seems common in Westeros for the flesh to be removed from the deceased, either via boiling or beetles.[29] This practice does not fit any of the most common religious influences of Christianity and Norse. There is very little discussion on death and the afterlife in Westeros. While characters reference it, such as Robert and seeing Lyanna,[30] but there is little concrete evidence on belief in its existence. Perhaps, it is simply a wish for something more after time comes to an end? Most religions in Westeros seem to agree that upon your death enter some sort of afterlife, but it is unclear on the stipulations. Does everyone go there? What is it like? Where is it? These questions are left unanswered by the priests of the world. What happens when we die is as much a mystery to the people of Westeros as it is to us.

As a branch of theology, eschatology is readily concerned with a number of religious matters invoking the end of things. However, what about the end of the religion itself? The faith of the Seven is the most common religion in Westeros. Yet, it appears as if the gods no longer answer prayers nor perform miracles. Samwell Tarly, rather than say his vows in a sept, instead takes his Night’s Watch vows in front of a weirwood tree because of his loss of faith. The same is true of Catelyn. She weaves a dreamcatcher-like talisman to ward off evil and spare her children and prays heavily to the gods. Unfortunately, Bran, Rickon, and Arya are lost to her, Sansa is imprisoned and Robb is slain in her presence. Her prayers went unanswered and her greatest fears come true. Medieval Christians readily prayed to God throughout their daily lives and many of these went “unanswered.” This emptiness creates a crisis of faith. Those who follow the Seven begin to develop this same feeling. Conversely, in religions vying in “competition” with the Seven, these gods appear very real in this world.

Sam, losing faith in the Seven, instead declares his vows in front of a heart tree of the Old Gods

R’hllor has answered the prayers of his two main followers. Melisandre’s prayers for the deaths of the usurpers comes true, as Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy all perish soon afterward. Thoros of Myr says the words he no longer believes in, yet sees his friend, Beric Dondarrion, rise from the dead. Not only has Beric returned once, but multiple times from various causes of death.[31] The old Gods live on in Bran and Arya as wargs and Jojen as a Greenseer. Each of these a gift from the old gods. The faith of the Seven has not, up to this point, given anything. The end of the Seven may very well be at hand. Nor does Martin see the need to allow for the appearance of a god.

“I don’t think any gods are likely to be showing up in Westeros, any more than they already do. We’re not going to have one appearing, deus ex machina, to affect the outcomes of things, no matter how hard anyone prays. So the relation between the religions and the various magics that some people have here is something that the reader can try to puzzle out.”– George R.R. Martin

In Westeros the end is always near. There is the very real fact your time could be up. In the numerous ongoing wars hundreds die every day. What occurs after is entirely open to debate and interpretation. Do you continue onwards or simply cease to exist? Do rituals towards your corporal form matter? None of these are answered by any of the religions in Westeros. Faith in the Seven appears to be declining, because of followers seeing their prayers consistently go unanswered. R’hllor and the Old Gods heed their followers and bestow miracles and gifts to them. The faith of the Seven may have reached the end of its time. Finally, there is the approaching apocalypse. This is the most common association with eschatological studies. White Walkers, dragons, and even human armies all threaten to plunge the world into chaos. Numerous signifiers of the coming Judgement have been invoked, but which one is true? Religion cannot answer this question, it can only speculate. In the words of Syrio Forel “There is only one god and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: “Not today”. For it is only by surviving another day that we stave off the end of time.

 

Footnotes

[1]              George R.R. Martin, a Storm of Swords, (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), 348-9

[2]              Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, (Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 3-4

[3]              George R.R. Martin, a Game of Thrones, (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 517

[4]              Martin, a Storm of Swords, 347

[5]              C.A Patrides, and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 41

[6]              Ibid., 42

[7]              Ibid., 43

[8]              Caroline Walker Bynum, and Paul Freedman, Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 7

[9]              Elio M. Garcia JR., and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire, (New York: Bantam Books, 2014), 11-12

[10]            Werner Verbeke, The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1988), 405

[11]            Verbeke, The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, 405-6

[12]            Verbeke, The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, 411

[13]            Patrides and Wittreich, The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, 44

[14]            Donald Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament, (London: A&C Black, 2000).

[15]            Martin, a Game of Thrones, 240-41

[16]            Patrides and Wittreich, The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature,40

[17]            Dorian the Historian, “Ragnarok – The Song of Ice & Fire,” Game of Thrones and Norse Mythology(blog), May 05, 2013, http://gameofthronesandnorsemythology.blogspot.ca/2013/05/ragnarok-song-of-ice-fire.html

[18]             Dorian the Historian, , “Ragnarok – The Song of Ice & Fire.”

[19]            Garcia and Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire, 104-107

[20]            Martin, a Dance with Dragons, 418

[21]            George R.R Martin, a Clash of Kings, (New York: Bantam Books, 1998), 27-9

[22]            Dorian the Historian,”Ragnarok – The Song of Ice & Fire.”

[23]            Garcia and Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire, 175-178

[24]            Garcia and Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire, 179

[25]            George R.R Martin, Feast For Crows, (New York: Bantam Books, 2005), 722

[26]            Pope Benedict, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, xix

[27]            Martin, a Storm of Swords, 281

[28]            Martin, a Feast for Crows, 342

[29]            George R.R Martin, a Dance With Dragons, (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 915

[30]            Martin, a Game of Thrones, 506

[31]            Martin, a Storm of Swords, 472

 

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Rasmus Bjo. Norse Mythology; Or, The Religion of Our Forefathers, Containing All the Myths of the Eddas, Systematized and Interpreted. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1901.

Friday, TG. “Gods of Westeros: A Metaphysical Analysis of Game of Thrones.” Mind Unclouded (blog), June 20, 2014. http://mindunclouded.blogspot.ca/2014/06/gods-of-westeros-metaphysical-analysis.html (accessed April 6, 2015).

Garcia JR., Elio M., and Linda Antonsson. The World of Ice & Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.

Historian, Dorian The. “Ragnarok – The Song of Ice & Fire.” Game of Thrones and Norse Mythology (blog), May 05, 2013. http://gameofthronesandnorsemythology.blogspot.ca/2013/05/ragnarok-song-of-ice-fire.html (accessed April 6, 2015).

Martin, George R.R. a Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.

Martin, George R.R. A Dance with Dragons. New York: Bantam Books, 2011.

Martin, George R.R. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam Books, 2005.

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

Martin, George R.R. a Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.

Patrides, C.A, and Joseph Anthony Wittreich. The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph. Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2007.

Verbeke, Werner. The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1988.

Walker Bynum, Caroline, and Paul Freedman. Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

 

Video and Image Credits:

George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. “Game of Thrones Season 2: Religions of Westeros,” Youtube video. 7:33, posted by “GameofThrones,” April 16, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIe0Q3PgcOw

“Game of Thrones: Pledge Your Allegiance – House Greyjoy,” Youtube video. 0:39, posted by “GameofThrones,” March 19, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5Nwnqz_iEY

“Theon’s Baptism: What is Dead May Never Die,” Youtube video. 2:07, posted by “Nineteen1900hundred,” April, 21 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOAZYjTJ1Ms

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Written By: Zack Langford

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