Part of the realism of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is that the world is not simply a “planet of hats”. That is to say that the world is not defined by one primary characteristic, as what happened quite often in the classic Star Trek. The Lands of Westeros and Essos feature multitudes of diverse cultures with different customs, and importantly, religions. Warning: there are spoilers in this article.
Religion in fantasy and science fiction literature is a tricky subject. It can either be extremely important to the plot, as in Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land, or it could be ignored all together. Rarely is religion used to flesh out a people, without being a central defining characteristic of a story. By this I mean, religion in ASoIaF acts and is treated like religion in the real world. There are believers and nonbelievers, and different religions. It is politically and character motivating, but it’s not all dominating. So let’s look into the religions of “Game of Thrones”, and see a bit of what they are about, who worships them, and if there might be something to them.
The Faith of the Seven
The Faith worships the Seven, a single deity with seven aspects. Similar to the Holy Trinity of Christianity, those who worship the Seven pray to a specific aspect depending on what their need is.
The Seven aspects are:
- The Father represents judgment. He is depicted as a bearded man who carries scales and is prayed to for justice.
- The Mother represents motherhood, she is prayed to for fertility or compassion, she is depicted as a smiling woman.
- The Warrior represents strength in battle, he is prayed to for courage and victory. He is depicted as a man carrying a sword.
- The Maiden represents innocence and chastity, she is prayed to for protection a maiden’s virtue.
- The Smith represents the tradesman, he is prayed to when work needs to be done. He is shown carrying a hammer.
- The Crone represents wisdom, she carries a lantern and is prayed to for guidance.
- The Stranger represents death and the unknown.
The Faith, as it is called in Westeros, was brought to Westeros by the Andals from Essos during their invasion. It then gradually replaced the local worship of the Old Gods once the Andals conquered most of the southern kingdoms. After Aegon the Conquerors’ invasion of Westeros, he adopted the Seven and gained support of the High Septon, and added legitimacy to his claim. (This is very much in parallel to Constantine in our universe.)
The Faith of the Seven is the official religion of Westeros. Many of the laws of the kingdom can be traced to taboos of the faith like incest, kinslaying, and oathbreaking. One of the methods of judgement is trial by combat. During trials by combat, the Seven are expected to intervene on the side of the just combatant. In order to become a knight, a squire must spend a nightlong vigil in a sept and become anointed in the name of the Seven.
The number seven is considered holy to the Faith (hence the name sept/septon). It holds that there are seven hells as well as seven faces. Seven constellations in the sky are considered as sacred, and even grace is taught to have seven aspects. The number seven is used to invest rituals or objects with a holy significance. Adherents of the Faith use seven-pointed stars, crystal prisms, and rainbows as icons of the religion. Rites of worship heavily involve the use of light and crystals to represent the seven-in-one god.
The places of worship of the Seven are called “septs”, and every sept houses representational art portraying each of the seven aspects. In rural septs, they may merely be carved masks or simple charcoal drawings on a wall, while in wealthy septs, they may be statutes inlaid with precious metals and stones. Worshipers light candles before the altars symbolizing each of the seven aspects. Ceremonies are led by the highest ranking male member of the clergy, and hymns are often sung. In the naming of a child, seven oils are used to anoint the infant. Weddings are conducted standing between the altars of the Father and the Mother. Rites of worship held in rich areas and during special occasions can feature embellishments such as choirs of seventy-seven septas.
Later in the series, with the struggles in Westeros due to the War of the Five Kings, several militant orders arise to give the faith more power, much like the Templars in our universe. These include the “Warrior’s Sons”, knights who have renounced their worldly possessions to fight for the faith. There are also the Poor Fellows, who are lightly-armed footmen, who carry whatever weapons they can make or find. Also the faith gains more power forcing “sinners” to repent in public.
The Old Gods
The Old Gods were originally worshiped by the Children of the Forest in all of Westeros before the arrival of men in Westeros. The First Men initially warred against the children, and cut down the weirwoods where they found them. In time, the First Men made peace with children of the forest and adopted the Children of the Forest’s gods.
The Children had their spiritual leaders, greenseers who were said to be able to talk with the animals, and to see through the eyes of their carved weirwoods. The children of the forest believe that the weirwood trees were the god and when they died they become part of the godhood. Weirwood trees would sometimes have faces carved into them. These were called heart trees, and are considered sacred. Prayer, oaths, and marriages are often performed in the presence of a heart tree.
Worship of the Old Gods remained strong across Westeros until the Andal Invasion. The Andals gradually conquered the south of Westeros, cutting down the weirwoods and supplanting the worship of the Old Gods with their own. However, the First Men prevented the Andals from crossing the Neck, and worship of the Old Gods remained strong only in the North.
There are no priests, no holy texts, no songs of worship, and few, if any, rites that go with the worship of the old gods. The only ritual is prayer before the heart tree in a godswood, holy groves contained within castles throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and often the only places where living weirwoods still remain until one goes north of the Wall. It’s said that the sigh of the wind and the rustle of leaves are the old gods speaking back to worshippers. Before the Andal invasion and supplantation of the Old Gods by the seven, every ruling family had a godswood with a heart tree, but since then most have been destroyed.
The worship of R’hllor is a religious tradition on the continent of Essos, but is not widely worshipped in Westeros. The religion is based on a dualistic, manichean view of the world, R’hllor, the god of light, heat, and life; and its antithesis the God whose name should not be spoken, the god of ice and death.
They are locked in an eternal struggle over the fate of the world, a struggle that according the ancient prophecy from the books of Asshai, will only end when Azor Ahai, the messianic figure, will return wielding a flaming sword called Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and raise dragons of stone. Unlike the other Religions in Westeros, the worshippers of R’hllor show use of magic including divination, pyromancy, and necromancy.
R’hllor is becoming increasingly more important in Westeros. Stannis Baratheon has increasingly relied on R’hllor and his servant Mellisandre in his bid to win the Iron Throne. With several important conversions made amongst the Lords and Knights pledged to Stannis, His power is growing stronger as his profits warn about the coming long night.
The Drowned God
The Drowned God is a sea deity worshiped solely by the Ironborn in Westeros. The religion of the Drowned God is old, dating back to before the Andal Invasion. What is interesting is that the Andal invaders of the Iron Islands converted to the local religion rather than supplant it with the Seven as they did in the south of Westeros. Like the faith in the Seven, and the worship of R’hllor, The faith of the Drowned God is finding a resurgence.
The Drowned God himself is believed to have brought flame from the sea and sailed the world with fire and sword, its eternal enemy called the Storm God, who resides in a hall within the clouds and ravens are his creatures. It is said the two deities have been in conflict for millennia and the sea roils in anger when they engage in battle. When an Ironman drowns, it’s said that the Drowned God needed a strong oarsman, and the refrain “What is dead may never die” is used. It is believed he will be feasted in the Drowned God’s watery halls, his every want satisfied by mermaids.
The priests practice a form of baptism anointing the heads of the faithful with saltwater. The priests themselves drown themselves in the sea, only to be resuscitated with a form of CPR. Thus they are reborn from death fulfilling their credo.
The Many-Faced God
The Many-Faced God is a deity worshipped by the Faceless Men, a guild of assassins established in the Free City of Braavos. Their central belief is that all the diverse slave population of Valyria prayed for deliverance to the same god of death, just in different incarnations.
The worshippers of the Many-Faced God believe that death is merciful and it is an end to suffering. The Guild will grant ‘the gift’ of death to anyone in the world, considering the assassination a sacrament to their god. In the Guild’s temple, those who seek an end to suffering may drink from a black cup which grants a painless death. As the Faceless Men forsake their identities for the service of the Many-Faced God, they only assassinate targets they have been hired to kill and may not choose who is worthy of ‘the gift’ by themselves.
There are many other religions in Westeros as well including The great Stallion of the Dothraki, and the fertility gods of the Summer Islanders. However the true gods of Westeros and Essos seem to be coming back, and bringing magic with them.
Previously on Game of Thrones
Read Joe’s other articles:
Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II, Game of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3