This story contains spoilers for Game of Thrones, including the episode that aired on June 5. Proceed at your own risk.
The Drowned God. The Seven. The Lord of Light. The Mother. The Father. The Old Gods and the New. R’hollor.
“The night is dark … and full of theology.”
The world of Game of Thrones is not just dominated by magic and dragons, but a wide variety of religions. In past seasons, it may have been easier to keep straight the deities and pantheons prayed to by the residents of Westeros and its neighboring Free Cities, but Season 6 brings intensifying clashes between faiths, as well as the secular and the divine.
If you aren’t really sure why the High Sparrow’s coup is a Big Deal, or why the Lord of Light suddenly cares about Daenerys or Jon Snow, or even who the Old Gods an the New even are, consider this Religious Studies 101: The Westerosi version.
The Old Gods
The Old Gods have been around Westeros longer than most other myths and legends. There is no real iconography for these nameless gods; they simply exist as faces in the black and gray bark of Weirwood trees. The mystical, animistic religion represents the spirits of the forests and surrounding world, as well as connections the beasts and the wild.
They were worshipped by the impish Children of the Forests, whom Bran has encountered in his journey to the North. After the conquering First Men landed in Westeros (thousands of years before the stories on Game of Thrones), they warred with the children and cut down some of those trees. The First Men finally made peace with the children, only to be followed by the conquering Andals (another old, conquering race), who brought their own religion: the Faith of the Seven.
The only remaining modern worship of the Old Gods is in the North. The Starks and other Northern houses said their prayers at the Godswood, sacred groves where the Weirwood trees grew. It’s also an important part of Wildling religion, as Weirwoods are most plentiful beyond the wall.
The Old Gods also are credited with gifting powers like greensight, the foretelling visions Jojen Reed possessed. (If you don’t remember Jojen, he accompanied Bran north of the wall with his sister Meera, but was killed by skeletons.) Wargs like Bran Stark also fall into their domain.
The Faith of the Seven
Also known “the New Gods” and simply “the Seven.” This is the dominant religion of Westeros, and its holy symbol is a seven-pointed star.
The Seven aren’t actually distinct gods; they are actually seven faces of one god, making the religion a bit similar to Catholicism and other sects of Christianity that believe in the Holy Trinity. Each face represents a different aspect pious life for followers to observe. They are:
The Father: a bearded figure who represents judgement. He is prayed to for justice.
The Mother: a nurturing, compassionate figure, who is the embodiment of love and mercy.
The Warrior: prayed to for strength and victory in battle.
The Maiden: an innocent figure, prayed to protect a maiden’s purity.
The Smith: the patron of laborers and craftsmen, often sought out when work needs to be done.
The Crone: the embodiment of aged wisdom, she carries a lantern and offers guidance.
The Stranger: an avatar of death and the unknown.
The similarities to Christianity don’t stop there. The Faith’s main text, The Seven-Pointed Star,has gospels like the Bible. There have also been long ties between royals of the Seven Kingdoms and the Seven. The High Sept, basically the Vatican of the faith, is a few blocks away from The Red Keep in King’s Landing.
But in the past, the High Septon often served as an instrument of the crown, helping to keep the King’s Peace. Religion was just a set piece for keeping people in line. But the arrival of the High Sparrow to replace the old High Septon in the show’s last season was a changing tide for Westeros.
The High Sparrow takes his piety seriously, and his devotion to the text of The Seven-Pointed Starspells trouble for anyone viewed as a sinner. It’s even more complicated now that that he has aligned himself with the King Tommen, as becoming the main advisor to the Crown could spell trouble for anyone less fervent in their beliefs.
But just like real religion, not all Septons and Septas (the clerics of the Faith) are zealots like the High Sparrow. As we saw on Episode 7 of this season, Brother Ray (played by Ian McShane) preached a far more passionate word, suggesting we move to compassion instead of anger. It was easy to miss the iconography if you weren’t looking for it, but the gold medallion around Ray’s neck was a seven-pointed star.
And across the land, the old and new Westorisi religions have somewhat of a tolerance for each other. If you’ve noticed, most oaths sworn include swearing to both “the Old Gods and the New.” When Catelyn Tully became Catelyn Stark and moved to Winterfell, she still prayed in the Sept, but also began sometimes praying in the Godswood (though the Weirwood still made her uneasy).
That gentle harmony isn’t afforded to our next religion though…
The Lord of Light, the red god, the Lord of Flame and Shadow. These are all names for R’hllor, who holds sway in Essos where Slaver’s Bay, the Dothraki Sea and the Free City of Braavos all are located. (Easier to remember: it’s where Daenerys, Tyrion and Arya all currently are.) His symbol is a fiery heart, and he represents light, heat and life.
Followers of the Lord of Light believe he is always locked in an eternal struggle with The Great Other, which is represented by darkness, evil, all things bad in the world. (This is where their favorite phrase, “The night is dark and full of terrors” comes from.) The white walkers and the Night King represent the incarnate version of those ideals, which is why his priests seem to be the only ones invested in the growing threat to the north.
The Red Priests of R’hllor, garbed in his favored color, are said to be gifted powers from him. We see the biggest examples of this in Melisandre, who has given birth to shadows and seen prophesies (maybe not always true) in the flames. They can also bring people back from the dead sometimes, which Thoros of Myr is most known for doing to Beric Dondarrion over and over and over.
Because of the gathering darkness, these priests have become quite concerned with finding the reincarnation of Azor Ahai, who you’ll hear referred to as “The Prince that was Promised.” In legend, he welded a famous sword and was able to drive back the Great Other. Melisandre believed that Stannis was Azor Ahai reborn, though she now seems to suspect Jon Snow of that role. The new Red Priestess in Volantis we met in Episode 5 believes Dany may be Azor Ahai, because of her dragons a clear tool of the R’hllor.
One thing followers of the Red God don’t seem to tolerate: other faiths. Melisandre burned icons of the Seven Gods, and most believe he is the one true god, and all others are just false idols. So you see why much of Westeros might be hesitant to follow this new, fiery leader.
The Drowned God
Not intent on following in the footsteps of their landlocked neighbors, residents of the Iron Islands led by the Greyjoys worship the Drowned God. He’s a deity as merciless as they come, which fits perfectly with the Ironborn that worship him.
Followers of the Drowned God are baptised in the sea, pretty much until they drown, rising up if they are hearty enough to do so. He supports “reaving” (read: pillaging and destroying) weaker people, and his followers have to fight, kill and steal for everything of value they have (“paying the Iron price”). If an Ironborn drowns, it is said the Drowned God needed him as an oarsman, and he is honored with the phrase, “what is dead may never die.”
The Many-Faced God
The Faceless Men, the assassin’s guild in Braavos, are the primary worshipers of the Many-Faced God. They believe he is actually the deities presiding over death from many religions, including the Seven’s Stranger.
The Many-Faced God has one gift to give, and that is death. His followers the assassins are paid to give this gift to those directed, but may not choose someone to kill. (Thus why Arya had such a hard time fitting in, as she had her own angry list of murder victims.)
Along with the assassins, those who enter the Many-Faced God’s temple in Braavos can end their own suffering by drinking a cup of black liquid, which guarantees a peaceful passing.
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