The Old Gods and their Historical Influences
By: Rebekah Adams
ormal scholarship for The Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is still being developed as a discipline, however if there is one fixed fact about these works it is that there are no perfect parallels between the real worlds historical narrative and the events of Westeros. J. R. R. Martin pulls from all of history at once, picking parts he likes and transcending both time and cultural barriers to tell his story his way. This is why in order to explore Game of Thrones in a scholarly manner one must not look for one-to-one parallels, but instead take a wider view and look for patterns in the narratives. This is true for the events that transpire, the places and customs practiced, the characters and their motivations as well as the faith or religious practices of those people. In regards to the religious focus, a broad range of historical events and practices originating primarily from the pre-Christianized European context influence The Old Gods ritual practices of Westeros as well as the events that surround their development and eventual destruction.
In order to properly examine the parallels between Westeros and Europe an understanding of the Old Gods faith must be had. HBO has released a series of educational videos in tandem with their Game of Thrones show and the pseudo-history of Westeros novel A World of Ice and Fire. One such video looks at the Weirwoods and their history as understood by one of those in the show who follow the Old Gods faith.
The practices of the Old Gods faith are closer to those observed in a folk faith then those had in a traditionally held organized religion. With the Old God practices there are no texts or priests and in opposition to the Religion of the Seven, one of the other main faiths in the world, there is nothing in the way of elaborate ceremony. The only real ritual practice is one of quiet contemplation in the Godswoods centered on the Heart trees, also known as Weirwoods, which have faces carved into them that look to be crying red sap. The Weirwood is the closest thing to a shrine the Old Gods religion has and any oaths or promises made before the tree binding.1 In the chapter ‘Jon’ in A Game of Thrones the Night watch prospects are expected to ‘Take the Black’ or bind themselves to the order of the Nights watch with an oath before the gods, normally this would be done before a shrine to the Seven, but because they are from the North both Same and Jon are told that they may take their oath before a Hearts Tree.
“ You will find a grove of weirwoods half a league from this spot, and mayhap your gods as well. ”
– Jeor Mormont, to Jon Snow 2
Jon and Sam take the oath of the Nights watch before the Heart tree in one of the Godwoods beyond The Wall. They are swearing this oath before the Old Gods and it is the location of this pact that make it binding, not only to Sam and Jon but also to the Night Commanders who view this rite just as binding as those who swear to the shrines of the Seven.
As for the real world influences Many Pre-Christian European peoples practiced different forms of these rituals and have been used by J.R.R Martin to create the Old God’s Faith. Elemental Animism plays a role in the Faith of the Old Gods. Also known as the worship and veneration of the natural world, including but not limited to water, earth, animals and fire by way of giving them characteristics of a person. The personification of nature can come in the manner of a general ‘feeling’ of presence or, as is the case with the Faith of the Old Gods, the physical incarnation of the force as a being of some sort. In this case it is the Children of the Forest and the Faceless Gods themselves that are being used in this manner.
The Children of the Forest
“ The children of the forest are all dead. The First Men killed half of them with bronze blades, and the Andals finished the job with iron. ”
– Jeor Mormont, to Samwell Tarly3
The comparison to Tolkien’s elves is an automatic one; however, Martin has venomously denied the connection and his denial holds more truth then the association. They are a wholly different kind of Fae. The Children of the forest and their Faceless Gods have no direct parallel within the Fae mythologies in pre-Christion Europe, but do draw upon a few different types. The earliest recorded Fae is more of a minor divinity classification in the Greek religious context that includes nymphs, satyrs and sileni.4All of whom represent a force of nature or the element of the world and are viewed as a personification of that thing. Nymphs and Satyrs are the two sides of spring, Nymphs the soft joy of re-birth and life and Satyrs as the primal animal nature of reproductive urges. The Nymph is also associated with elemental powers such as that of water and tree.5 In the same way the Children of the Forest are connected to the growth and management of deep primordial woods, and in the Old Gods tradition the Children are viewed as a part of those woods as much as the trees are. The almost human being with a stronger connection in the natural world is a common trope within folk faiths of the pre-Christion period. While there are many contributing forces that feed into the mythos of the Children of the Forest the Celtic tradition for the Fae serve as the closest analogue and are most likely what Martin is drawing on the most heavily. The Dananns are a form of Celtic Fae who appear human in shape but were eternally children and had no wings. They can die from mortal wounds, but their lives could last hundreds or even thousands of years.6 All of these attributes have been attributed to the Children of the Forest, however the fact remains that the Dananns have little association with a ‘higher power’ as the Children do with the Faceless Gods, and they have a fully human shape while the Children of the forest have only four fingers. Once again, the influences can be found but no faultless equivalent exists.
The Oak Tree
The practice of Dendrolatry, also known as tree worship, attributes mythical significance to a specific individual or type of tree7. By giving it spiritual powers or personifying one or more Gods, as an attribute or force within that tree, the tree itself, or indeed its entire species is made a part of the ritual actions. The veneration of the trees in general in Pre-Christian faith systems are of paramount importance, so much so that it had worked its way into the very law code of the people. According to Sir James Frazer in his work The Golden Bough the penalty for peeling the bark of a standing tree in Druidic custom would have been:
“[The perpetrators] navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit: it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.”8
The Oak tree in many of these faiths can be paralleled to the fixation of the Wierwood tree as a central force in the Old God’s faith. The oak, like the Weirwood, was a species of special significance and according to the Germanic traditions it is the chief of their holy trees9. The same can be said for many other European practices that also held the oak as particularly important. In Poland the oak was worshiped as late as the fourteenth century and in Russia the practice of sacrificing livestock to the tree was common. Even now shards of this practice remain, in Finland the oak is referred to as the ‘God’s tree’.10 A literary parallel that is far too perfect to be just a coincidence. Martin is clearly drawing on the whole of central to eastern early rituals practice and combining them into an amalgamation of the whole.
The distraction of the Weirwoods, and the defacement of the Gods or Hearts tree in particular, by the Andels in the time of the first men11 can be paralleled in any number of Medieval Christian purge of pagan faith idols in history. As it was an attack on pagan forms by converting pseudo ‘Christian’ forces. An event that immediately comes to mind in this instance is the destruction of Thor’s Oak by Saint Boniface in 723 CE.12 Boniface was the apostle of the Germans and his methodology for forceful conversion was the destruction of traditionally scared spaces. This practice was a core part of the Christion Frankish campaign against the pagan Germanic tribes so the comparison between their fictional counterparts holds true. In 723 CE Boniface felled a sacred oak that was a worship site for Donar or Thunar, the equivalent of the Norse Thor, and used the timber to build a Christian chapel in its place.13 This became a common practice by the Church, the appropriation and destruction of pagan sacred space in order to further Christian conversion is an extremely effective method for conversion. The oaks destruction was not just a useful tool for religious conversion, as Frances Carey puts it in his book The Tree – Meaning and Myth “Notwithstanding the oak’s cherished status, like other trees it has been a victim of its manifold usefulness… The Navy was literally the oaks downfall.”14 The oak was used in ship building by the Romans who depleted the southern England stock of the tree during the Bronze age.15 This is equivalent to the Andals arrived from the south and burned down Weirwood, making a point of taking axe to the faces of the heart trees as to force the population into converting to the Faith of the Seven. This worked to a point, the South-lands all fell to the invaders with the North being the last vestige of the Old Gods faith, and still to the present age maintains the practice. The influence of the converting of pagan European tribes by Catholic forces on the story of the Weirwoods, First men and the Andals is apparent and one of the more straightforward inspirations to be found within the narrative.
In true J. R. R. Martin fashion the religious practices and the histories of their development are all influenced by real world events or practice, but there are no direct connections to be found. He tends to take parts of various cultures and weave them together to construct a complex whole in order to enrich his narrative. The Children of the Forest are a patchwork of the many animistic faith structures that develop among similar cultures to those of the tree worship, and so does the connection with the Fae category of mythical beings. None match the Children perfectly, but many elements from the Celtic Dananns legends are drawn upon. Weirwoods take their substance from the Dendrolatry rituals across all of Europe, but specifically the Heart Trees within the practice are connected to the Oak worship that is almost universally true in the area. Furthermore the destruction of the Weirwoods by the followers of the Faith of the Seven as well as the rationales for that destruction are pulled directly from various historical converting initiatives by the Catholic church upon the pagan faiths of the European continent.
1 Martin, A Game of Thrones Chapter 38.
3 Martin,A Storm of Swords 373.
4 Joe, Fairies.
7Philpot, The Sacred Tree 16.
8Frazer, The Golden Bough 110.
10Philpot, The Sacred Tree 19.
11 Martin, A Game of Thrones Chapter 2.
12Kylie, The German Provinces 34
14Carey, The Tree 158.
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