TV + Movies

What ‘Game Of Thrones’ Taught Me About Religion

The night is dark and filled with . . . well, we aren’t entirely sure yet. Arguably, Game of Thrones is certainly filled with terrors, including, but not limited to, the entirety of the final season, which will go down in my mind as one of the worst finales in pop culture history. But I won’t open up that debate, although I will say, there is a hefty 1.3 million people and counting who would agree with me. But what I’m more interested in, as the series came to a close, is how to best reflect back on it and what the major takeaways are.

George R. R. Martin, and the two television writers who shall not be named, crafted an enormous world. The world Game of Thrones exists within has some of the most complex social and political systems I have ever read or seen, and the magnitude of the world building would leave any creative writer envious. Besides the politics and relationships, GoT mastered a system of government that probably rules over the characters more than anything else—religion.

The religions and deities of GoT are many and widespread, like our own world with varying cultures. When I first read Martin’s books, reading to understand theology wasn’t my first priority. As crazy as it sounds, I actually didn’t think of religion that much as I read, but I take that as a sign of great and realistic writing. So often do we absentmindedly dismiss or accept someone’s motives because of their religious affiliations. I know many people who pray to their higher power for a decent parking spot. So, really, talk of religion has become just a part of our social spheres as anything else. Think of the people you know on Instagram who include a bible verse in their bios and accompany a beach picture with a general thank you to their God. So, when I didn’t inherently notice how religion was interwoven in Westeros and beyond, I wouldn’t call that lazy reading. I praise the good writing.

There are several religions written into GoT, big and small. Just about every one of them is a mirror of an actual form of worship. Is it easier to write about things that already exist? Yes. But I do think G.R.R. Martin didn’t simply appropriate what he knows, but took this space to reflect on the issues littered throughout theological history. Because when writers have to create cultures within their stories, they have no choice but to critique elements of their own.

I decided to create a guide to the religions of Westeros and detail everything I learned from their presence in the fantasy world.

First, the Big Three. Any GoT novice can easily identify the function of the three most prominent religions: The Lord of Light, the Old Gods, and the Faith of the Seven. The three forms of worship are definitely the most talked about, and are also the most in conflict with each other. Their interconnecting relationships are very similar to Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. The three religions are used as significant identifiers, and oftentimes their doctrines are manipulated as justification to act out in aggression toward the others.

The Faith of the Seven, similar to Catholicism’s Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), has seven representative figures, all of which make up components of a singular judging deity. There is the Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, Smith, and Stranger. Not many of these figures are referenced in the show, but for carefully perceptive viewers, you may have noticed Cersei’s mention of the Mother when she talks to Sansa about her first period or when she deceitfully consoles Catelynn over Bran’s fall. The Mother, who represents motherhood and fertility, is in many ways treated in Westeros as a unique and separate god in times of tragedy and also growth. The women of GoT are complex and incredibly dynamic, so it didn’t surprise me when one of the largest female characters in the show was selective in her faith to pray to one of the only feminine figures. Cersei was habitually referred to as caring only for her children, as her humanity was tied to her love of them and only them. As I look back now, those who followed the Faith of the Seven usually picked one to three figures to devote their lives to, choosing what they needed most personally. Robert Baratheon was intrigued with the Warrior, who symbolized strength. The merchants in King’s Landing were protected by the Smith who upheld the interests in labor and crafts. And, ultimately, everyone answered to the Stranger, their representation of death. I want to come back to the Stranger later when I discuss the Lord of Light, so I’ll hold off from my analysis for a second.

The history of the Faith of Seven is a fairly normal reflection of colonization, as the Andals of Essos had, prior to the events of GoT, conquered Westeros and established their church. Westeros had previously worshipped the Old Gods, a religion based on nature and the natural world, including the spirits of animals. There weren’t places of worship created by man, so temples and septs were nonexistent. That is, until the Faith of the Seven came and established a strict hierarchy for their followers and required structural representations of their beliefs. I think it’s safe to call those who followed the Seven-Pointed Star, their holy text, zealots. Of course there are variations in how people interpreted the text and followed the rules, but as we see in season five, the High Sparrow and militant faith were willing to kill and die for their cause. That’s not to say this is the only religion prepared for that type of sacrifice, but this definitely is more of a prominent example of extremism in state religion. The million or so citizens in King’s Landing were expected to follow the faith, which condemned homosexuality, prostitution, gambling, and the like. So, imagine King’s Landing as a less modern reflection of the Vatican. Kings and Queens may have power, however, the High Sparrow, like the Pope, exercises final control over earthly judgment.

The duality between people like Cersei and Robert Baratheon, royals who chose which branch of the faith best suited their moral beliefs, and the High Sparrow, who enforced all religious law without any empathetic flexibility, shows the true damage of both ends of the theological spectrum. I’m not entirely sure anyone who would find themselves in the gray area of these two practices would be any better off, but as all people involved were met with terrible ends, I’m assuming middle ground is probably the safer route.

But to go back to the Old Gods, you know, the ones that were pushed out during the conquest of Westeros, I think it is important for me to clarify that the religion wasn’t completely lost. In fact, the Andals of Essos were accepting of people who chose to remain faithful to their old religion. As we see in show, the Old Gods are primarily prayed to in the North, with the good ol’ Starks leading the faith. There are several references to the gods, most interconnectedly throughout the realms is the weirwood trees throughout the north and a few rare instances in the south. The weirwood trees have faces carved into them, thought to have been put there by the Children of the Forest (the original inhabitants of the continent who then came into conflict with the First men). The Children had abilities to connect with nature and protected greenseers, who are men and women possessing the gift of sight and the ability to warg (what Bran does when he enters in the bodies of others, seemingly in dreams).

If you are wondering what religious connection the Old Gods have to our own reality, well, your guess is as good as mine. I think George R.R. Martin might have taken quite a lot of inspiration from early colonization history of America, a contrast from the evident European analogies in the south of Westeros. The Children are described as nonhuman creatures of the forest who attempt to help the First Men, but are attacked and find themselves at war with humans, hence the creation of the Night King. Maybe this was meant to reflect the colonization of indigenous land in America, with the Children as symbols for the native peoples who lost their land, but I would hope that entire demographics of people who endured genocide aren’t reduced to nonhuman figures referred to as the “Children.” But again, this is all just my assumption and is up for interpretation.

What is pretty interesting about the role of the Old Gods is how the Starks, our morally and ethically heroic family from the North, are both followers and active participants of the religion. And as they arguably “won” the game, we can question if the Old Gods are meant to be “the” religion to beat. There is something noble and romanticized in having an ethereal connection to nature. So, when the Starks are first seen finding the dire wolves, each one a direct mirror of one of the Stark children, it opens up a sort of whimsical, fate-like set up for the characters then on. Although the show only gives Bran the ability to warg, the books established that all the Starks can enter into the bodies of their wolves. The relationship between human and animal is then blurred in a way that both species are given power and respect, and both are needed at varying times. The usefulness of animals, and the environment as character is not uncommon in fantasy stories, but in GoT, animalistic, nature-based religion does more than personifies the natural world. The Wildlings, people living north of the Wall, mention how the gods communicated with people through natural occurrences like the blowing wind, the growth of trees, and the movement of water.

So, the Old Gods are not so much metaphysical concepts or laws, but rather physical manifestations of the world that houses the spirits and souls of the living and the dead. Although there aren’t set doctrines, this faith does encourage rules of living that don’t upset the balance of nature—enter Walder Frey killing Robb and Catelynn in his home and “offending the gods,” resulting in Arya enacting revenge Rains of Castemere style. To me, the Old Gods are the least traditionally religious in all of Westeros. Honestly, I imagine those who worship them see themselves as visitors and hold the environment with such reverence that they acknowledge how little human life is to the broad scheme of history. Maybe that’s why the North isn’t given a proper name. And the same goes for the Old Gods. There are no names or images for what these figures would look like. Throughout history, many cultures create images of their deities in the likeness of themselves, and perhaps the point of the Old Gods remaining imageless is to show how useless such a practice is. The North exists and manages to out survive, with many causalities to be fair, the rest of Westeros. So, where were the gods of these other areas then?

That brings me to my personal favorite religion, the Red God, R’hllor, also known as the Lord of Light. There are many names for the Lord of Light, and his proper name is R’hllor, but as the red priest and priestesses use the former, I think the name probably is used out of respect for their station in the religion. I’ll interchange the name, because it helps to dilute repetition, and this will also give you some insight on just how many identities he has. The Red God isn’t native Westerosi, just like the Faith of the Seven, and is a fairly new influence in GoT. We first are introduced to him by Melisandre and then the Brotherhood Without Banners. It’s interesting that not many people in Westeros know of the God of Flame and Shadow, especially since his following is so heavily seen in Essos, the motherland of the Faith of the Seven. So, why did this religion not follow when the Andals came to conquer the First Men? Because unlike the Faith of the Seven, the Lord of Light does not acknowledge any other religion. Any god claiming to exist beside R’hllor is considered false by his followers.

“Fake News!”—The Lord of Light to the weirwood trees probably.

So, the Red God is just slowly creeping into Westeros with promises of prophecies and red priestesses who can birth shadow demon babies. But, in seriousness, what draws my interest the most when it comes to this religion is how it really is the only one that actively seems to play the game. The Lord of Light assumedly bestowed magic to his priests and priestesses, giving them the power to resurrect the dead and conjure up images. It’s odd, because Melisandre says in season seven that all of her illusions are just tricks, but how does she explain the resurrections and, I’ll say it again for the people in the back, the SHADOW DEMON BABY! The tragedy that is the Lord of Light, is that he appears like a father, lover, and warrior. Those that follow him wholeheartedly believe in him and swear on his presence. So, when he “forsakes” them, as seen when Stannis’ army was defeated by the Boltons, disproving Melisandre’s prophecy that he was the Prince Who Was Promised, the then sense of abandonment is even more detrimentally intense.

The God of Flame and Shadow appears like a vengeful, petty, and power hungry God. I see him similar to ancient Greek Gods who meddled in the affairs of humans and left when bored. But the horror that comes from R’hllor is so much worse, as the first time we see Melisandre is when she is burning the “blasphemers” who do not believe in the Lord of the Light. That’s a common practice in the series, burning opposers and cleansing humankind. However, the use of magic is more representative of pagan witchcraft than Christian practices, and yet R’hllor is said to be in a constant battle between the light and the dark—the dark believed to be the Night King and his army of the undead. Many relate this battle between Lucifer and God, but the added element of magic suggests that this isn’t strictly a mirroring of Christianity, but maybe a more exaggerated show of how Christian evangelists are, underneath, just as much of performers as Melisandre is.

R’hllor might be real. Jon Snow came back to life in his name. Beric Dondarrion came back to life six times in his name. The Hound saw into the flames in his name. So, really, maybe. He might be real. The Red God surely likes to flex quite a bit in this world. However, if he is real, what sort of promise is he giving to his followers? So many Westerosi people converted to worship the Red God, and nearly all of them are dead. Stannis sacrificed his own daughter to the Lord of Light, and her burning was done in vain. My question is, what happens to people who sacrifice and lay their lives down for their religion? Stannis essentially goes on a pilgrimage to the North as the Prince Who was Promised, but dies a pretty plain death at the hand of a vengeful Brienne of Tarth. Melisandre all but gives up her belief in her god, but is given a small spark of hope when she was allowed the power to bring Jon Snow back from the dead. And what happens immediately after? She asks him what he saw, what the Lord of Light said to him. His response? Nothing. He saw nothing but blackness.

I’ll be real here, that scene messed me up for a while. In that moment, we, like Jon Snow, came face to face with death and the worst possible outcome happened. There is no afterlife, no continuation of the soul, no pearly white gates. There was nothing. Of course, we don’t necessarily need to take this one instance to heart as the one true ending for all humans, but what else do we have to compare it to? And I wonder if G.R.R. Martin is making a stance here. Are all religions just distractions for the void that is to come? Maybe. There is one thing all of these religions have in common: death.

Now, I don’t have time to outline all of the smaller religions in GoT, but I will highlight a few of them in relation to my theory that G.R.R. Martin is attempting to expose how death is the only eventuality and religions are systems of deception.

My second favorite deity in GoT is the Many-Faced God, or like the show refers to him, the God of Death. A Braavosi based God, uniquely followed by the Faceless Men, he is especially intriguing because “he” really isn’t a he at all, despite the constant gendering references throughout the show. The Many-Faced God is in actually a representation of Death in any and all religions. If you look back to when Arya enters the House of Black and White, every religion is represented in some symbol in the house. The servants within believe Death is a gift, and so humans are free to decide when they wish to go, and with the Faceless Men’s assistance, they drink from a fountain for eternal relief. The Faceless Men are also known as trained assassins, and it’s important for people to realize that Arya wasn’t simply training to be a sell-sword like Bronn, she was training to kill those who they believed Death chose to die. They were as much of servants of their faith as the faith militant back in Westeros. But, in their words, “Valar Morghulis,” all men must die.

So, for this religion, we see Death personified once again, but with the fear that comes from Jon Snow’s claim that nothing lies beyond living, what does that ultimately mean?

Well, for the Ironborn, “what is dead my never die,” and their Drowned God, closely based around the Vikings in Norse mythology, emphasizes resurrection. This is seen most evidently when rulers are baptized in the ocean as a sort of rebirth. The Drowned God is also in a war, dualistic in nature like the Red God, between himself and the Storm God. The takeaway, though, is that each of these religions posits their followers in some war that calls for bodily sacrifice and a unique illusion of the afterlife. Another example comes from the show’s adaptation of the Great Stallion with the Dothraki. This God is a nod toward the importance of horses in their culture, and ultimately, the great plains they are said to ride in after death, but only if their bodies are burned. The emphasis placed on specific funeral rites in order to enter into a culture’s afterlife is not foreign in religious practices. But as I look back on all of the various deities and their supposed demands to be a good and loyal follower, I wonder if these restrictions are insurances that if the afterlife is in fact not real, those still living can chalk it up to the person not doing everything they could to enter, and not confront the possibility of its nonexistence.

There are about thirty or so religions/gods and goddesses I haven’t even gotten to yet. For those of you interested, you can do some research into the old gods of Valyria or the many gods of wine and sex in the islands of the Summer Sea. Truly, GoT has some of the most detailed and complex religions I have ever gotten the pleasure of analyzing in pop culture. The books are worth reading through just for the sake of looking into how region and culture shapes humans desire for theological influence.

But what I want to look into is how the religions outlined above play a role in the “Great Game” and what we, as viewers and readers, should get out of them. I do think there is more to G.R.R Martin’s purpose in including so many religious systems than to simply make the world more intricate. The ways in which worship and the afterlife are handled are noteworthy, because these two aspects of religion are by far the two most influential, and really the only two components that make up religious practices as a whole. If you worship well and correctly, you get the best afterlife. But, I am curious how GoT challenges all of our preconceived notions of religion as a necessity. It’s almost as if GoT captures thousands of years of theological debate and war in one world in one time.

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Part-time human, full-time writer, professional picky eater Follow Emily on Instagram or read more articles from Emily on Thought Catalog.