George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series has really taken the world by storm the past several years, pushed into the pop-culture spotlight by the hit HBO television series adaptation Game of Thrones. The books offer a refreshingly high level of depth to character development, a unique style of perspective, and a highly engaging plot that spans literally thousands of pages, and there’s still two whole books left. What really makes the series shine is Martin’s extraordinary world-building. There is an incredible amount of depth to the Westeros’s history and to the cultures of all the “kingdoms” there and lands across the Narrow Sea. One area of the series that oft goes unnoticed but is actually really deep is how religion works throughout the novels. Each religion is very distinct yet offer a different take on the philosophical ideas behind religion, which work together to accomplish something very interesting.
In the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones, it’s shown that two major religions are predominately practiced across the seven kingdoms of Westeros. The first is by far the larger of the two, worshipping The Seven, or the “new gods,” which contain the Father, who represents divine justice and judges the souls of the dead; the Mother, who represents mercy, peace, fertility, and childbirth; the Maiden, who represents purity, love, and beauty; the Crone, who represents wisdom and foresight; the Warrior, who represents strength and courage in battle; the Smith, who represents creation and craftsmanship; and finally the Stranger, who represents death and the unknown. (The other Westerosi religion is simply to the “old gods”). Each one represents a different aspect of their society’s everyday life that believers pray to when they wish for something related to that god. The Seven, although polytheistic, is the most like Christianity in our world since it’s by far the biggest and also is pretty dependent on their culture. It’s also the only religion in the series with a pope figure, known as the Holy Septon, which “communicates” with the Seven. The Seven really seem to be more cultural symbols to people than actual deities, with very few heavy believers, again like Christianity. This makes the Seven effectively the control religion of the series.
Another major religion (in terms of importance to the story) is the worshipping of R’hllor the Lord of Light and isn’t given a spotlight until the second novel, A Clash of Kings. The major spearhead of this religion in Westeros is Melisandre, the Red Priestess, who lends her talents to Stannis Baratheon throughout the War of the Five Kings and beyond. This is a monotheistic religion that places a paramount importance on fire and light and what’s visible and what’s not. Shadows are also held dear since there wouldn’t be shadows without light. They pray that R’hllor comes back to drive away the perils of the night everyday. The special thing about this religion is that extremely devout supporters such as Melisandre have all the gifts of seeing the future in the flames, surviving poison, giving life back to the recently deceased, and once she even gives birth to a shadow monster that can kill people at her will. This creates the interesting situation that counters traditional religions in the real world; Whereas normally religions are something that doesn’t exist but people want to believe in, this is a religion that clearly exists but the reader doesn’t want to believe in. It’s really unnatural and supporters are much more devout and imposing than the average believers of the other religions. Even though signs of R’hllor’s existence are clearly shown, the reader is inclined to side with those whose existence isn’t yet evident.
The other religion still somewhat popular in Westeros is the worshipping of the “old gods,” spirits of the forest whose physical avatars take the form of stark white trees known as Weirwood trees that have blood red leaves. What makes these trees unique is that their trunks naturally grow the shape of a crying face into their sides, and sometimes the blood red sap within seeps out to give the impression the faces are crying. The old gods lost a lot of popularity when the Andals invaded Westeros 6,000 years prior to the events of the series and brought the Seven with them, but it still remains somewhat popular in the northern part of the Seven Kingdoms and north of the Wall it’s practiced almost exclusively. The religion is more personal than the other religions, and is practiced primarily through quiet introspective reflections next to one of the Weirwood trees. The old gods like the new don’t have any physical evidence to support their existence, that is until the fifth book of the series, A Dance of Dragons, when Bran begins to learn greenseeing and tries communicating with the spirit of his father. This presents the interesting quandary of two simultaneously existing religious powers. Just the idea of two existing deity figures is pretty conflicting with traditional ideologies, where people are always taught that there can only be one true god. The whole setup is really effective at challenging religious ideas.
On top of that, there is yet another important religious figure in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and that’s the God of Death, or the Many Faced God. The God of Death is represented as a god made up of every god of death in other religions, such as The Stranger and the Great Other, the opponent of R’hllor. He brings death to everybody at some point and supporters believe his gift of death to be an end to suffering. The following of the God of Death is primarily located in the Free City of Braavos, and prominent proponents include Arya Stark and the Faceless Men. Since there would be no taxes in a free city such as Braavos, the only sure thing in life would be death. Death (and life) is therefore the only concrete thing in Braavosi lives, and this manifests itself in the central words, “Valar Morghulis,” or “All Men Must Die,” and its response, “Valar Dohaeris,” or “All Men Must Serve,” as in serve the God of Death. Also this idea is manifested in the main church in the city which is known as the House of Black and White. Life and death are contrasting absolutes, as are black and white. What the Many Faced God of Death offers in terms of philosophical inquiry is that if only some of the faces exist, but the vast majority of his forms don’t, does the God of Death as a whole still exist? Additionally, if some of the faces of the God of Death exist, does that lend credibility of existence to all his other forms?
The Drowned God serves to contradict the God of Death’s ideologies. Whereas supporters of the Many-Faced God view the concrete act of death as proof of existence for their god, supporters of the Drowned God view the equally concrete act of life as proof for theirs. The Drowned God’s proponents, who primarily live in the Iron Islands, have to be forcefully drowned to death as a sign of passing into adulthood and being admitted into the faith. Only when a priest of the Drowned God revives them with CPR techniques do they come back, a “miracle” that is viewed as proof of the Drowned God existence. It’s interesting because normally the reader would simply discount this as the untrue ideologies of religion, but if the Drowned God’s antithesis, the God of Death, has a face of many with concrete proof as to his existence, does that also lend credibility to the existence of the Drowned God? If supporters of R’hllor can bring people back from the dead, what makes this act any less invalid as proof of the Drowned God’s existence? Basically, at what point can evidence not be taken as proof for a given conclusion?
There are also other minor gods sprinkled throughout the series, such as the Great Stallion worshipped by the Dothraki, and probably much more that have gone as yet unmentioned in the series that contribute to A Song of Ice and Fire universe. Combined with the major ones like the Seven, R’hllor, the old gods, the God of Death, and the Drowned God, they all contribute to a very immersive set of cultures amongst the various realms of Westeros and the lands across the Narrow Sea. The major religions of the story have very thought-provoking implications based on their surprising interconnectedness and what happens throughout the novels. A Song of Ice and Fire is an amazing series for a number of reasons, one oft unappreciated example being its really interesting take on religion.