In an interview with Bullseye in November of 2011 George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series stated that,
“The faith of the Seven is of course based on the medieval Catholic church and their central doctrine that there is one god who has seven aspects is partly based on the Catholic belief that there is one God but he has three aspects: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. With the Seven, instead, you have The Father, The Mother, The Maiden, The Crone, The Smith, The Warrior, and The Stranger, who is the death figure.”1
While the obvious parallel between the Catholic trinity and the Seven with their seven-pointed star will be examined here, there are many more parallels to Medieval Catholicism within the Faith of the Seven. This essay attempts to pinpoint these parallels or perhaps evocations since they are by no means one-to-one parallels, between these two religions. The conversion strategies as well as the political and cohesive nature of religion in both the Middle Ages and in the World of Ice and Fire will be discussed. In viewing these similarities it becomes clear that The Faith of the Seven is very strongly based on the Medieval Catholic Church, but it is certainly not a direct parallel. While this is not a complete list of parallels that can be drawn from the Faith of the Seven to Medieval Christianity, it is a start. As such, it gives greater insight into both religions, fictitious and historical. For further parallels between the Faith of the Seven and Christianity pertaining to system of monasticism of the Catholic Church, as well as imagery, hierarchy and organization, relations between Kings and Priests (or Septons), and religious military orders refer to this post.
The Spread and Supremacy of a Religion
The arrival of the Andals in Westeros marked the end of the pact between the First Men and the children, and the introduction of the seven–for specifics refer to the video above. As Maester Luwin describes to Bran, “The wars lasted hundreds of years, but in the end the six southron kingdoms all fell before [the Andals]. Only here, where the King in the North threw back every army that tried to cross the Neck, did the rule of the First Men endure. The Andals burnt out the weirwood groves, hacked down the faces, slaughtered the children where they found them, and everywhere proclaimed the triumph of the Seven over the old gods.” 2 Religion becomes not only a distinguishing factor between peoples, but tied to concepts of superiority.
Within the late fifth century, the Frankish ruler Clovis converted to Christianity under the belief that this would gain him military success. Clovis, after converting three thousand warriors between the years of 496 and 506, spread Christianity with each new conquest and military success. The episcopal support granted Clovis, as a result of this conversion, gave him an advantage in later conflicts between the Visigothic and Burgundian Kingdoms and can be traced to some of his later victories. Consequentially, Clovis was able to spread Christianity by weakening, dominating or driving out existing pagan groups.3
The Andals are said to have migrated to Westeros to escape the religious persecution of the Valyrians in Essos. Upon their the new-found freedom, the Andals, “Made zealous by conflict and flight, the warriors of the Andals carved the seven-pointed star upon their bodies and swore by their blood and the Seven not to rest until they had hewn their kingdoms from the Sunset Lands.”4 The military success of the Andals is mythically attributed to the guidance of the seven—specifically their relationship with and knowledge gained from the Smith.5 The Faith of the Seven becomes associated with the military process and zealous warriors represented by the Andals.
Military success and superiority becomes tied to faith and religion, and the concept of the right path. Religious ideas of superiority and the resulting conflict is thus correlated to the process of invasion and conquest. Both the Franks and the Andals believe it is through the guidance and supremacy of their beliefs that they are able to succeed against the lesser faiths, deities, and beliefs of their enemies. This correlated triumph of religion becomes justification for the persecution and conversion that accompanies the process of conquering. Martin is clearly alluding to the roots and early spread of Christianity by the Franks through his description of the Andals and their relations with the First Men.
The Conversion Process
Within the history of Westeros the challenge of creating and maintaining a cohesive empire is described through the early Targaryen Kings. As is historically described within The World of Ice and Fire, “Where his grandsire, King Aegon, had left the laws of the Seven Kingdoms to the vagaries of local tradition and custom, Jaehaerys created the first unified code, so that from the North to the Dornish Marches, the realm shared a single rule of law.”6 The diversity of large empires poses a problem within large empires through the lack of cohesion, unity, and inability to understand regional variations and traditions.
Within the Middle Ages, the Carolingian dynasty faced a similar problem when attempting to unite their newly conquered empire. Christianity became a mechanism utilized by the Carolingians for the purpose of establishing unity within the various conquered people and thereby, maintaining their political authority and autonomy. As a result, the withdrawal of the Carolingian armies, after the successful conquest, was replaced by missionaries, charged with converting and establishing loyalty within the populace.7
Although Martin is clearly paralleling the use of and relationship with religion within the Carolingian Dynasty, his tale still deviates from history. For the Targaryens, the Faith of the Seven was an already prominent and established religion within Westeros that differs from their own beliefs and practices. Aegon the Conqueror clearly realized his limitations to oppose and the dominance of the Sept, through his acceptance and reinforcement of the Faith of the Seven. Martin shifts his historical tale by making the Targaryen dynasty accept and re-purpose the beliefs of the conquered, as well as respect the local cultural practices rather than forcible converting them as the Carolingians do. Nonetheless, Aegon, like the Carolingians faced the difficulty of uniting his newly conquered, vast and diverse kingdom. By respecting the traditions of the different localities and establishing the Sept as a prominent feature of his new realm he was able to establish a relatively cohesive beginning to the Targaryen dynasty.8
Church and State
The power of the Church in regards to the State becomes an interesting power struggle within both the Middle Ages and Westeros. When the High Septon neglects to bless Tommen, Cersei describes the blessing as “an empty ritual, she knew, but rituals and ceremonies had power in the eyes of the ignorant. Aegon the Conqueror himself had dated the start of the realm from the day the High Septon anointed him in Oldtown. ‘The wretched priest will obey, or learn how weak and human he still is.’”9 The power of religious authority within the popular mindset, means that political and secular influence of this institution cannot be ignored.
Likewise, authentic belief in a religion did not necessarily matter within the Middle Ages. Charlemagne utilized Christianity as both a political tool and a means to consolidate his power. Crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 by Pope Leo III, Charlemagne was able to assert himself as a religious and divinely appointed leader, thereby solidifying his legitimate control over the Christian Empire. However, this use of the Church set up the conflict of supremacy over who has the ultimate power, the Church with the ability to crown kings or the divinely attributed emperors.10
This association of and conflict between Church and State is carried on within the relationship of the King and the High Septon within the World of Ice and Fire. The authority of religion and ritual, and consequentially the religious leaders, to legitimize a reign is emphasized. The widespread nature and belief in the Seven among the people of the realm, facilitates the power of the religion, making it a factor within the attainment of political hegemony. As with the example of Maegor, the High Septon has such abilities as the capacity to oppose marriages and send people into exile.11 As Cersei describes above, rituals and the religious institutions that perform them wield great power in the ability to effect the popular and common perceptions of the world and its leaders. As a result, the negotiation of power between political and religious leaders both creates conflicts and dictates authority within the examples of Charlemagne and Westeros. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Charlemagne, as Holy Roman Emperor, accentuated his religious and divine attributes, whereas the King of Westeros remained a secular figure with the support of the faith. The use of religion as much a political tool as religious, is emphasized and alluded to by Martin through his depiction of the Septons and their relationship with the secular authority.
Animism and Sacred Trees
The concept of the Old Gods and the worship of the weirwood trees is, as Martin describes, a reflection of animism and paganism.12 As the history relates, “The fact that many southron castles still have godswoods with carved weirwoods at their hearts is said to be thanks to the early Andal kings, who shifted from conquest to consolidation, thus avoiding any conflict based on differing faiths.”13 The reuse and repurposing of sacred space becomes a means to ease the transition to and cohesion of a newly conquered empire.
Within the Middle Ages, missionary movements were tasked with the re-appropriation of pagan sacred spaces into Christian ones. St. Boniface in the early ninth century would often take sacred wooded areas and turn them into monasteries and churches, in some cases desecrating sacred sites to showcase the superiority of Christianity.14 This reprocessing of sacred spaces became a means to assert Frankish control over outlying regions, facilitate a sense of cohesion within the empire under Christianity, and ease the transition of power.
Despite the distinction between the Old and New Gods, Westeros adopts a relatively accepting attitude towards the continuation of Old God religious beliefs. Although the weirwood trees have all been cut down in the South, there still exists godswoods or like old religion spaces that allow for Northeners and others to maintain their beliefs and practices. Addressing the dichotomy of the two religions, Catelyn says “Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.”15 As a result, these traditions remained distinct in their concepts of worship and what constitutes sacred. Although the remnants of the Old faith exist they have lost all meaning with the popularization of the Faith of the Seven. The ability to reuse and contain an inferior religious tradition can be found in both the examples of the St. Boniface and the Franks, and the Andals. However, Martin differs from Medieval history through the general and relative acceptance and allowance of the weirwood traditions within Westeros, rather than eventual annihilation of a deviant tradition as with paganism.
Through this examination of parallels between the Faith of the Seven in A Song of Ice and Fire and Medieval Christianity it is clear that George R. R. Martin draws heavily on this source for inspiration in this one fictitious religion. As stated above, these cannot and should not be seen as one-to-one parallels as they are not. Martin is not basing the Faith of the Seven on Medieval Christianity but instead he is using the nuances, allusions, and ideas to give the religion and his story depth and intrigue. According to Martin, direct parallels was never his intent, rather he draws from and melds multiple sources to create a new narrative.16 While there are other parallels that could have been examined here, they have been left out for the sake of brevity. However, perhaps this essay will spark the interest of other scholars who may take a look farther into the parallels between the religions of Westeros and our own history. This would be fruitful not just to study Martin’s genre-breaking series but also to study our own history and gain a deeper understanding of the past.
1Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, “George R. R. Martin, Author of “A Song of Ice and Fire” Series: Interview on The Sound of Young America,” accessed March 22, 2015. Bullseye
12Youtube. “George R. R. Martin Talks at Google.” Accessed March 25, 2015. Youtube
16Youtube. “George R. R. Martin Talks at Google.” Accessed March 25, 2015. Youtube
Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. “George R. R. Martin, Author of “A Song of Ice and Fire” Series: Interview on The Sound of Young America.” Accessed March 22, 2015. Bullseye
Costambeys, Marios., Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean. “Belief and Culture.” The Carolingian World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Madigan, Kevin. Medieval Christianity: A New History. United States: Yale University Press, 2015.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. United States: Bantam Books, 1996.
—. A Feast for Crows. United States: Bantam Books, 2005.
Martin, George R. R., Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson. “Aegon I.” The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
—. “Aenys I.” The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
—. “Jaehaerys I.” The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
—. “The Arrival of the Andals.” The World of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2014.
McManners, John. The Oxford History of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Thayer Addison, James. The Medieval Missionary: A Study of Conversion of Northern Europe A. D. 500-1300. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, Inc., 1976.
Youtube. “George R. R. Martin Talks at Google.” Accessed March 25, 2015. Youtube
Youtube. “Game of Thrones Blu-Ray Special Feature-The Old Gods and the New.” Accessed March 25, 2015. Youtube