The Nature of Magic in Game of Thrones

Magic in Game of Thrones is real and tangible. From our modern perceptions of what magic is we consider its role in the series to be an element of fantasy. Dragons cannot be real do they must be included for entertainment value. However, one must look past our modern ideas of magic and remember that Westeros and the rest of the Game of Thrones universe is very medieval in nature, and in the medieval world magic and dragons were real. While Christian beliefs fought to squash the old ideas of paganism, they lived on in folklore and the minds of the medieval people.

Through the medieval lens, Martin manages to create a world where he forces us to remember that there was a time when our ancestors too believed in magic. Magic is not necessarily fantasy, as we believe it to be today, it is just another way of conceptualizing the world. We see in Pyat Pree, Melisandre and Mirri Maz Duur, how the many perceptions of magic are represented in the Game of Thrones universe. In each of these characters we see the use of magic and the ways in which they are used.

The Idea of Magic

The inhabitants of the medieval world believed in a universum where there were spheres of reality that were visible and invisible to them.[1] There was a limit to knowledge and the physical world and therefore there was an element of the unknown. “Magic” at this time was a science, a means to understand the world that the Christian religion was unable to explain.[2] This of course competed with the law of religion, whose stance on magic is best illustrated through Hugh of Saint Victor:

“Magic is not included in the philosophy but is a distinct subject, false in its professions, mistress of all iniquity and malice, deceiving concerning the truth and truly doing harm; it seduces souls from divine religion, promotes the worship of demons, engenders corruption of moral, and impels its followers’ minds to ever crime and abomination.”[3]

Magic during this time was not a religion. The disbelief of many in Westeros, mirrors the way in which the Church and its followers saw magical beliefs.

Today our belief is that magic is just something that this fantasy. Our ideas of magic during the Middle Ages are more reminiscent of what we see in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then they are with what they really were at the time. Martin is clearly challenging our idea of the magical world. While it is clear that he plays with modern and medieval perceptions of magic, he also goes beyond and inserts Mediterranean ideas. Martin’s magical world is much like the ancient Mediterranean belief that magic was “morally neutral,” it could be for either good or bad.[4] By using this idea of magic being “morally neutral,” Martin allows magic to be either good or bad, much like his characters.

In the Game of Thrones world magic is neither fantastical nor exotic, as it is in many other fantasy worlds.[5] In Martin’s world magic is something that is believed to be extinct, but as we see within the series, magic is very real. What Game of Thrones manages to do is blur the lines between the known and the unknown. Martin uses the re-emergence of magic to remind us as viewers and persons, that nothing is what it seems and that noting is concrete. Like the world he has created, nothing is certain.

Pyat Pree and the Warlocks of Qarth

For much of the medieval period practitioners of magic were predominantly male, it was not until the 15th century that we see the feminization of witchcraft.[6] Our ideas of magic have everything to do with the Great Witch Craze of the Early Modern Period. The trials that occurred across Europe and most notably the trials in Salem, linger in our mind reminding us that witchcraft is primarily considered a feminine activity. What we see in Game of Thrones is a reversal of our modern belief. While Martin could have stuck with the traditional trope, where the witch is female, instead he makes this ancient group of magical practitioners male.

In the series the Warlocks are a group of men that claim to have once held a great amount of power. When Daenerys comes to Qarth she meets Pyat Pree, a warlock, who quickly shows her some of the magic he has learned in the House of the Undying. In the scene, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, says the warlocks believe that their “parlour tricks” are actual magic, showing that much like us, true magic does now actual exist and those that believe in it are outsiders. We later learn that the warlock’s power had remained dormant since the extinction of the dragons, but since Daenerys dragons had been reborn into the world their magic has become stronger. What we see in this scene is that this group has some sort of nefarious purpose for their magic. While it appears that the Warlocks had all been killed when the dragons turn on them in the House of the Undying, we know that at least one survived when a young girl with the tell-tale blue lips attempts to assassinate Daenerys.

Pyat Pree and his friends harness magic through its existence in the natural world. As describe in the first scene, there magic is learned as they study texts in the House of the undying. Much like the medieval period natural magic was learned through dissemination of information.[7] The Warlocks represent the traditional medieval view of the sorcerer, while it is clear that the warlocks of Game of Thrones are not using their knowledge for good, they are ascribing to the traditional view of the practice.

Melisandre and the Lord of Light

There is no character that better embodies that modern belief of magic than Melisandre. She is the feminization of magic. The only thing that Melisandre is missing in her magical tool box is the broomstick. Everything about her is ripped straight from the descriptions of the Sabbat. Melisandre is a female whose sexuality seduces men into following her so they can become loyal to the devil.[8] These Red Priests and Priestesses mirror what the later medieval and modern perceptions of the witch are.

In many ways believers of the Lord of Light embody every fear that we find in later medieval ideas about witchcraft and magic. Looking at the seminal work the Malleus Maleficarum, we see that Melisandre embodies the types of sorcery they suggest: diverting of men’s minds and offering babies to demons, to illustrate a few.[9] Melisandre’s birthing of the shadow is reminiscent of these explanations of the witches Sabbath. In these stories of the witch, offers herself to the devil so he can produce a demon child and they can seal her pact with the devil. Demonic conception was of great concern for many demonologists of the time who were attempting to define with the nature of the devil and witchcraft during the witch craze.[10] Melisandre appears to be a challenger of the traditional faith. Her burning of the Seven on the beach echoes back to the accusation that witches received regarding the burning of the cross at the Sabbath. At the beginning of the witch craze there was a fear that these practitioner were out to destroy the faith, but as we see here with Melisandre, she is in fact using her beliefs to change the regime.

The Witches Sabbath By Michael Herr (1650) via Wikimedia Commons.

It is not known whether Martin was at all influenced by these works, it is clear that the influences that have come out of it are represented in his work. Melisandre is the stereotypical witch who is a menace to mankind and in bed with the devil. Her character is what everyone thinks when they traditionally think of the witch. The nature of magic that we see here is how power is held in a benevolent entity. The magic that Melisandre is given comes from the Lord of Light, but she is the one that directs is purpose.

Mirri Maz Duur and Blood Magic

Practitioners of magic as we have seen can be learned, “possessed,” or natural. Mirri Maz Duur represents the wise women or midwife figure that was prominent in the medieval period. During the witch craze women were either witches, sorceresses, wise women or midwives.[11] Many of these women had continued to use pagan healing practices and rituals to heal ailments among the locals, and were only later labelled witches.[12] Many of these women were using their knowledge for good only to have their practices turned against them.

Mirri Maz Duur appears to be one of these wise women and this is how she presents herself to Daenerys when she offers to heal Khal Drogo’s wound, though as we see members of his entourage call her a witch. When Drogo falls ill, Duur claims that she can save him by using blood magic, though it is a type of magic forbidden among the Dothraki.[13] As Daenerys will do anything to save her beloved she allows Duur to take her unborn child’s blood in order to save her husband. Unknowingly in allowing this Daenerys has allowed Mirri Maz Duur to perform this ritual so she can receive vengeance for her people.

We again see how magic can be harnesses for bad or good. Mirri uses her knowledge of the natural world in order to receive justice for the horrors she had endured at the hands of the Dothraki. She believes that what she is doing is right despite that fact that she has caused an unsurmountable amount of pain for Daenerys. Blood magic is much more natural but it is neither good nor bad, it is the intentions of the person using it that determines its impact.

Conclusion

As we see with Pyat Pree, Melisandre, and Mirri Maz Durr they all embody the way in which the medieval people saw the magical world. Each individual plays a role within the magical world which is heavily based in medieval ideologies. While many shy away from fantasy because of the fantastical way in which magic and its individuals are presented we see through these three that magic is very real and natural. Magic can be learned, given, or natural but how it is used depends on the person harnessing its powers.

The extent of George R.R. Martin’s medieval magical knowledge is unknown but it is clear that he is influenced by the perceptions of magic that have now become our modern stereotypes. Martin uses magic to mirror human nature, like any other character these practitioners of magic have the ability to use their powers for good or evil, just like the warrior has the ability to use their sword in the same way. Like everything else in Westeros, magic has the power to determine a man or woman’s fate.

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[1] P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 2.

[2] Benedek Láng, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe (University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2008), 22.

[3]Lynn Thorndike, “Some Medieval Conceptions of Magic,” The Monist 25 (1915): 111-112.

[4] Michael D. Bailey, “Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages,” Speculum 76 (2001), 963.

[5] Michael Chandler, “Rescuing Magical Thinking from the Jaws of Social Determinism,” Child Development 68 (1997): 1022.

[6] Karen Jones and Michael Zell, “’The Divels Speciall Instruments’: Women and Witchcraft before the ‘Great Witch-Hunt,’” Social History 30 (2005): 48.

[7] Benedek Láng, Unlocked Books, 62.

[8] Anonymous, “The Sabbat c. 1450,” in Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings, ed. P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 70.

[9] Henricus Institoris and Jacobus Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Christopher S. MacKay (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 123.

[10] Lyndal Roper, “Witchcraft and the Western Imagination,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16 (2006): 123.

[11] Ritta Jo Horsely and Richard A. Horsely, “On the Trail of the ‘Witches:’ Wise Women, Mifwives and the European Witch Hunts,” Women in German Yearbook 3 (1987): 3.

[12] Mary Ann Campbell, “Labeling and Oppression: Witchcraft in Medieval Europe,” Mid-American Review of Sociology 3 (1978): 65.

[13] “Blood Magic,” accessed April 1, 2015, http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Blood_magic

Works Cited

Anonymous, “The Sabbat c. 1450,” in Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings, editor P.G. Maxwell-Stuart. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Bailey, Michael D. “Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages.” Speculum 76 (2001), 960-990.

“Blood Magic,” accessed April 1, 2015, http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Blood_magi.

Campbell, Mary Ann. “Labeling and Oppression: Witchcraft in Medieval Europe.” Mid-American Review of Sociology 3 (1978): 55-82.

Chandler, Michael. “Rescuing Magical Thinking from the Jaws of Social Determinism.” Child Development 68 (1997): 1021-1223.

Horsely, Ritta Jo and Richard A. Horsely. “On the Trail of the ‘Witches:’ Wise Women, Mifwives and the European Witch Hunts.” Women in German Yearbook 3 (1987): 1-28.

Institoris, Henricus and Jacobus Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Christopher S. MacKay, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Jones, Karen and Michael Zell, “’The Divels Speciall Instruments’: Women and Witchcraft before the ‘Great Witch-Hunt.’” Social History 30 (2005): 45-63.

Láng, Benedek. Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe. University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2008.

Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. Witch Beliefs and Witch Trials in the Middle Ages: Documents and Readings. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011

Roper, Lyndal. “Witchcraft and the Western Imagination.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16 (2006): 117-141.

Thorndike, Lynn. “Some Medieval Conceptions of Magic,” The Monist 25 (1915): 107-139

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