With a priest that shames a queen, a man being resurrected six times, and one of the most frightening characters being a red-haired priestess, following the HBO series Game of Thrones (and the novels it is based on) means following religion. The Seven, the Many-Faced God, the God of Light and the Old Gods of the North are only some of the most prominent divinities, and each tells us something about the people who follow them.
In this series of posts, I will look at the religions of George R.R. Martin's world, and the role they play in the political battles of Westeros and Essos. To start, it might be helpful to survey the overall religious landscape; there are too many to be covered at once, so first I'll talk about the religions of Westeros -- the lands from the Wall in the North to Dorne in the South -- then move to Essos, where lies Bravos, Qarth, and of course Mereen, seat of Danerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
"Beyond the Wall, they're the only gods." -- Osha, "The Pointy End"*
Since Ned and the Starks begin the story, their Old God's should begin our survey. These divinities, who are also known as the "faceless Gods of the Children of the Forest and the First Men," seem to be a kind of nature spirits, a kind of animism which sees souls in trees, rocks and rivers. Their main religious practice appears to have been the planting and maintenance of their "heart trees," a.k.a. weirwoods, which serve as totems and places for introspective sword sharpening. There doesn't appear to be much dogma -- essential and necessary doctrines -- attached to the faith, as Ned reminds Catelyn "it's your gods who have all the rules."† We will learn a lot more about these trees when we return to where we left Bran, Meera Reed and Hodor (Hodor!) at the end of season four (the readers have some insight from A Dance of Dragons).
There seems to be a sense of pride in keeping the Old Gods; tradition can be a powerful thing, connecting people to those who came before and those who will come after, giving them a place in the long trajectory of their people's history. The Children of the Forest, the original beings on the continent, worshipped them, as did the First Men until they were succeeded by the Andals. Keeping the Old Gods, then, serves as a marker of indigenous tradition, religious practices of the land's native people. In most of Westeros the Old Gods have been replaced by the Faith of the Seven, which is the religion of the Andals, but north of the Wall they are said to be the only gods (excluding those of Craster who are better known as White Walkers; more on them another time).
Farmer: "We ask the Smith to strengthen our hands and our backs so we may finish the work required of us. We ask the Crone to guide us on our journey from darkness to darkness..."
The Hound: "And we ask the Stranger not to kill us in our beds tonight for no damn reason at all."
-- "Breaker of Chains"
Most of Westeros seems to keep the Faith of the Seven, a pantheon of seven divinities symbolized by the Seven-Pointed Star. These divinities -- Mother, Father, Warrior, Maiden, Smith, Crone and Stranger (a list which makes for some really long toasts) -- appear to be more aspects of the divine rather than separate gods like those of Greek or Roman mythology. They resonate with the Christian Trinity (a Septinity?), a single God composed of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also with the Hindu Trimurti -- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva -- who are responsible for perpetuating existence but are understood by many as emanations of a single overarching godhead known as Brahman.
The Faith7 is rampant throughout Westerosi Kingdoms. The Septons and Septa are present in nearly all holdfasts, teaching morality from The Seven-Pointed Star, the holy book that is divided into seven sections, one for each god. Most nobles at least pay lip service to the Faith7, and the septs are the place for weddings and burials. Apart from the High Sparrow's newfound political power in King's Landing (Shame! Shame!), it's a bit boring, making for some pretty buildings but not much action. Not when there are shadowbabies and resurrections happening left and right...
"And the waters of wrath will rise high, and the Drowned God will spread his dominion across the green lands!" -- Aeron Greyjoy
On the Iron Islands reigns the Drowned God, He Who Dwells Beneath the Waves, whose clergy are literally drowned and then revived, giving them their title of Drowned Men. Just to recap: the Drowned God demands his Drowned Men actually be drowned. Classic. The Iron Islanders' faith gets a lot of discussion in the books, but apart from Theon Greyjoy's -- sorry, Reek's -- baptism into the religion when he returns to his father in season two, it hasn't played much of a role in the show as of yet. My money is on that changing in season six. Incidentally, Aeron Greyjoy is the high priest of the Drowned God and goes by the oh-so-appropriate name Damphair.
The Drowned God is brutal and capricious, much like the Ironborn who follow him, and a lot like other sea deities in history. Throughout history the sea has been central to life, but sea travel is dangerous, leading people to personify it as a cruel god that plays with the destinies of men.
Moreover, in part thanks to the chill-inducing motto of the religion, "what is dead may never die" combined with the Drowned God's origin in the Deep Ones who are a "queer, misshapen race of half men"‡ some see in the religion a nod to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Images of Cthulhu look an awful lot like the Kraken that symbolizes House Greyjoy, and Lovecraft's well-known story "Shadow Over Innsmouth" includes blasphemous hybrid fish-men as well as Deep Ones living below the sea and outside of time. Then there is Lovecraft's infamous couplet: "That is not dead which can eternal lie / and with strange aeons even death may die." Oh, then there is the Ironborn king Dagon Greyjoy. Martin has never directly admitted to referencing Cthulhu, but...
"I swear it, by the Old Gods and the New." -- A Bunch of People
While there are a few other minor deities mentioned in the books, these three pretty much dominate Westeros. (The God of Light, R'hllor is actually an import from Essos, so I'll talk about him next time.) Martin admits to using real religions as the basis for these fictional ones, and to relating each faith to the temperament of its followers. The result is a diversity of faiths that compete for influence and play a big role in Westerosi identity and politics. And then get burned as idols by the Red Woman.
* The quotes drawn from episodes of the HBO show will be referenced by the title of the episode.
† "Winter is Coming"
‡ Quoted from Maester Yandel's The World of Ice and Fire.