HBO’s THE GAME OF THRONES is rife with murder, manipulation, and the justification of unseemly behavior in the characters’ quest for power, and yet it is the complex tie-ins to religion that stand out the most. Religion reveals much about those who practice it, and the leadership of those that use it as a tool for power–just the same as our real life society. In this sense, GAME OF THRONES is another instance of fiction imitating life. When we see the religions of Westeros associating with leadership or the given society at large, there is always an analogy created with real life Faith.

Season six’s episode “THE DOOR” featured the many facets of religion in Westeros; whether as a foil to the monarchies themselves, a grand uniter among separate, powerful groups, or as honest divine foreshadowing.  Also, as an episode that is drenched in religion, it is practically bleeding in real life allusions.

The Brutal Pragmatism of the Drowned God

Off the western coast of Westeros, the Iron Islands worship the Drowned God, a sea god of conquest and strength in the very familiar visage of a Lovecraftian octopus. Based on the religion’s grey and pragmatic nature, viewers can expect the practitioners to be as brutal as the whirling seas. Honestly, they wouldn’t be too far off track.

The previous King of the Iron Islands isn’t proud, nor is he frightened. Rather, he is as pragmatic as the people who follow him. No one owns more than what they fight for and no one has an easy life. Yes, they pillage. They build their wealth on the conquest of others and the claiming of beautiful things others didn’t deserve to have.

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With such heavy handed symbolism, its easy to see an allusion to the Viking pagan practices of Norway. Not only do the men participate in conquests and battle as an almost religious necessity, but their religion is contained to their small locations by the dominant religion: the Faith of the Seven (who have many similarities to Christian deities). The similarities also extend to the divine rites of the Ironborn who give their dead a funeral at sea, much like the Nordic practices of the Vikings (a burial now known as a “viking funeral”).

The Viking’s leadership was granted either by inheritance or popular sovereignty in case inheritance rights are troubled by a lack of viable heirs, much like that of the Iron Islands. The key difference however is that the Iron Islands can seemingly only confer the throne to those with a birthright and inheritance only happens by vote of the best candidate of the heirs.

Also, Nordic leadership like earls or kings practiced the act of bestowing food, drink, or wealth between their loyal followers known as “generosity.” A king was expected to be generous with those who follow him. To those savvy in the text Beowulf, this is one of the many situations where King Hrothgar shares his rings or wealth with those in his hall. In GAME OF THRONES, this generosity is not evident because of the culture of stealing. Therefore, you do not keep things you haven’t fought for and so giving anything isn’t a staple of Ironborn culture. Theon Greyjoy’s father goes as far as to insult and belittle his son for wearing trinkets that he hadn’t earned in warfare or pillaging. Generosity isn’t a part of the Drowned God’s intentions.

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The differences also extend to one of the more important subjects of Ironborn ceremonial rites. Unlike the Viking pagan practices, we see baptism as an instrument for coronation—except this isn’t your traditional sprinkle or dip. The Drowned Men, priests for the Drowned God, will actively drown their king candidate. Nothing is clearly stated, but the implications of death are real as Euron Greyjoy was forced beneath a current and, afterwards, laid motionless for what seems like a minute.

In our world, culturally, baptisms are practiced as a method of cleansing. They wash away sins and anoint one with religious purity. The Iron Islands use the sea as a test of power. Those who die are, apparently, not worthy of leadership, and those who survive are vindicated by the Drowned God who embodies the sea.

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Usurpers turn this pragmatism into a tool. A usual monarchy is made up of rules and regulations that is built on the idea of male bloodlines and born nobility. Contrarily, the Ironborn seem to favor the nobility of those who prove themselves despite the laws of birthright in the monarchy. At this point, the princess, Yara Greyjoy, is given the opportunity for leadership—something that is personally welcomed, but is frowned upon in the patriarchal and misogynistic culture of Westeros.

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Yara was backed only by her credibility as a valiant leader and her bloodline, though a woman would never be considered a rightful heir in her kingdom. There were arguments against undermining the constitutions and traditions which governed the culture of the Iron Islands by electing a woman. Mostly because the rightful heir to the Iron Islands, Theon Greyjoy, was still alive. However, the pragmatism of the Iron Islands refused to allow someone deemed weak to take their throne even though Theon and Yara were the proper heirs by birth. By manipulating the pragmatic solution over the traditional one, Euron Greyjoy threw the precedence of birthright, which is based on the idea that the king’s surviving bloodlines have a divine right to lead, out of the window.

Likewise, in reality, the “survival of the fittest” mentality has been propagated in Nordic Viking practice and Christianity. White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny has been used by Christian practices to find inherent leadership based on race. These beliefs are also what is used to qualify leadership in America, as if to say practitioners of only Christian faiths should lead the United States because Christian morals breed better leaders. Otherwise, the early accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim wouldn’t have been a problem; nor would politicians be generally more likable if they have strong Christian foundations.

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Though, to say that religious belief is necessary for a leader is wrong. Leaders may make the illusion of religious practice without the actual belief because a leader’s illusion of assimilation is more important than practice or belief. This is because a western leader serves as a sacred king, or the idea of the king has a theological role. This idea is best seen in the motions that Euron Greyjoy goes through to claim the throne. He leans both on the tradition of birthright and the sacred power in bloodline and the promise of a “new age” away from the Iron Islands. Though he admits to treason, the sacraments protecting the throne doesn’t ensure his execution. If religious practice were all that was necessary, he wouldn’t be fit to rule due to his violation of fealty to the king; Euron’s punishment would be assured when he admitted to killing his brother, the king, in both the real world and the fictional setting of Westeros.

The Faith of the Seven and the Flaws of the Iron Throne

Generally, Church and State should never associate due to the rational and flexible nature the state must maintain which the Church is incapable of maintaining as a result of Faith. However, a cold war between the two isn’t positive either and can lead to schisms throughout a nation. Westeros is mostly a polytheistic country which has generally been lax on the prosecution of sin for the past six seasons, until Cersei Lannister, in an insecure measure to end the threat of the Tyrell’s, places a zealot as the leader of the religion. It doesn’t end well for her.

This move, however, reveals several truths about the royal family: A.) No one necessarily likes them or agrees with their rule; B.) The people will always side with the church over the state; and C.) the Iron Throne isn’t as powerful as many of the players assume. Many of the problems one would expect a king to be able to prevent are halted by the overwhelming strength of the church. Especially a church which prides itself on the care of the sick and poor.

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Historically, the Church has always posed a threat to the nigh-unlimited powers of the state. King Henry VIII’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church caused a time of dis-ease for the British throne. Henry VIII attempted to challenge the authority of the Church and found his nation divided by schisms. In truth, Henry VIII was able to face the Church due to how it had abused the common people: forcing them to pay for every transaction that was “required” to gain access to heaven. The primary downfall to the decision came from the loss of wealth due to the church sustaining much of the nation’s wealth. Though, Henry VIII reclaimed this wealth by dissolving and smearing the credibility of the monasteries.

In a modern sense, religion constantly stands in the way of senatorial and executive movements. Subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage have been rejected thanks to religious arguments: a problematic stance in a society that is as theist as it is atheist. When religion counteracts the American right to equality, a turbulence develops which leads to in-fighting and unstable policies and leadership. Many of the arguments delivered against the religiously taboo subjects like abortion have only been substantiated by the Enlightenment ideals that birthed America.

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The threat of disagreement based on religious point-of-view is very real to those in office. The only times these powers can be correctly challenged is after progressive undermining of religious practice, much like the Enlightenment period that challenged theist belief with reason and science. In the Enlightenment, we saw the deconstruction of religious arguments by rationality. Rationality challenged the sacraments by applying Faith to the scientific method and discrediting it to the masses. Therefore, the threat of religious interference within the State weakened in favor of rational thought that could be backed with evidence.

Unfortunately, Cersei Lannister couldn’t do that because one of the many things protecting both her claim to rule and her actions is the right of divine sovereignty (the belief the right to rule is reinforced by a divine power). The High Sparrow constantly states that all actions done are a product of the Seven Gods and therefore religion is necessary to prevent rebellion.  By this belief, no action taken by the king should be doubted and no revenge is possible without sinning and violating the church.

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Cersei Lannister’s folly was that she believed herself more powerful than the church, an enterprise not reinforced by a military, but the people. By association, this underestimation is the characteristic foil of many corrupted people of power. These corrupted leaders believe in the idea that the people should be afraid of its leadership, rather than the other way around. Nothing good comes from that belief: ask Marie Antoinette, or V from V FROM VENDETTA.

The White Walkers: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The White Walkers are a Christian allusion if I’ve ever witnessed one. As they rode on horseback in “THE DOOR,” I was able to appreciate two things: the irony that White Walkers are riding horses and that the White Walkers are a brilliant allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Like most religions, there is a stated apocalypse that calls for the ends of days. Though the White Walkers are reminiscent of Nordic Frost Giants, they also hold true to Christian belief.

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In Christianity, the Four Horsemen herald the Apocalypse by representing four different waves that will consume the world: Conquest (or Pestilence), War, Famine, and Death. The White Walkers’ goal is to conquer all of Westeros in a winter’s storm, mutually killing anyone in their way and raising them as undead soldiers. Generally, these Walkers meet each of the criteria for their Christian archetypes: Conquest by right of incursion, War by right of their undead army, Famine by eternal winter, and Death by need of gestation for soldiers. It’s also not hard to compare their presence to a Pestilence of sorts.

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However, the most interesting theme among the Four Horsemen analogy is that much like the Christian apocalypse, they are a product of the world. As revealed in “THE DOOR,” the White Walkers were made thousands of years ago to destroy all humanity. They were also created as an ends to justify the means, the protectors of the land deciding to sacrifice ethics for security. Many Christian scholars believe that the Apocalypse will arrive as a product of man: excessive taxes on food causing famine, tyrants leading conquests to claim land that isn’t theirs, the wars fought to defend that land, or lives sacrificed in the name of the “greater good.” Each of these beliefs have already developed throughout GAME OF THRONES as heralds to the arrival of “Winter,” a metonymic device to describe the White Walkers.

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Likewise, careful analysis of the GAME OF THRONES lore reveals that the leadership is in fact responsible for the upcoming apocalypse as well. The birth of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons woke magic from its slumber across the world and thereby awakened the White Walkers. Further, the constant wars across the country has led to multiple deaths and famines that will likely feed the White Walker army with soldiers. The interregnum– or period where leadership is unclear or unstable– of Westeros has caused food shortages due to the constant wars in every region; food shortages which indicate famine in the wake of Winter.  And worse, the kingdom as a whole is more distracted by politics than the impending crisis of White Walkers and the everlasting winter foreshadowed by the Starks: “Winter is Coming.”

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Religion throughout the GAME OF THRONES stands as one of many instances of religion reflecting reality. Through its scope, we criticize the values and beliefs held by their society and in relation judge our own. Fiction is simply hypothetical people in hypothetical situations, after all. It’s thanks to the lens, however, that a viewer can later judge if fiction is now integrating into real life.

 

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