Melisandre, Religion, and the Maesters
Thanks to Because Geek for giving me the idea for this article.
Religion plays a massive role in ASOIAF just as it did in the real medieval world.
But Martin has explicitly stated that he does not and will not examine or explain the truth of any of his religions. Just as with real religion we don't know the truth, or lack thereof, of any of the gods who are mentioned in his narrative. What matters is what effect these faiths have on the behavior of the characters. It is not possible to get a true grasp of their actions without understanding what role religion plays in their lives.
It would be easy to assume that Melisandre, the most obviously religious figure in the story, represents the religious fanatic.
But in fact there are many, not all of them so obvious. The High Sparrow and the Faith Militant are fanatics too, though for a different faith.
There are signs that Randyll Tarly is highly religious even though he is not presented as such in the TV show.
We see that the characters' faith means much to them, though their beliefs mean nothing to us. These gods are not our gods. There are also clear examples of characters who cynically use faith for advantage, but have none. Cersei's arming of the Faith Militant has nothing to do with belief in The Seven and everything to do with trying to keep power.
The first question we have to tackle is does the specific faith a character has matter, or just having a belief in general. I think the answer is a clear yes. As with real religion, characters mold their decisions based on what they believe their gods would desire.
We'll go into the specific faiths below.
R'hllor was inspired by Zoroastrianism.
The primary feature of Zoroastrianism is a grand conflict between good and evil.
The religion of the Red God is the only one we know that is directly connected to the Others. The faith came into being specifically because of the Prophecy of the Prince that was Promised. We are told by Mel that the Prophecy is 5000 years old. How true is this claim? It must be old, probably since before the rise of Valyria. But Mel is very unreliable as a source of information. Nor do we know how long the Prophecy existed before the faith came into being.
Melisandre claims the faith originated in Asshai, but is that true? There are indications that the Prophecy did not originate in the Asshai'i language. Melisandre also claims to be the head priest of R'hllor. There is strong reasons to doubt this. The powers described for Benerro are greater than those demonstrated by Mel. He also heads the largest temple to R'hllor.
The Red God is primarily concerned with the Prophecy of the Prince that was Promised. All Melisandre's actions are dedicated to bringing this about. Often to the point of blinding her to the people around her. Now, it could be reasonably argued that Mel is really motivated by a desire to put Stannis on the throne and that she is just using her religion to justify this. But based on her chapter, she truly was convinced that Stannis was the Prince.
What exactly motivates Mel is not as clear as it may first appear. Her conviction that Stannis is Azor Ahai makes no sense. Nothing about Stannis matches the Prophecy. She claims she is the best at interpreting the visions, but we have no proof of this either. It seems highly likely that Mel is exaggerating her skills.
One cannot dismiss the fact that Mel has ulterior motives. Her interest in Stannis is the most incomprehensible part of her character. What led Mel to Stannis? We don't know. We can extrapolate that it was a vision, but a vision of what? As seems likely, Mel has been asking who Azor Ahai is for a very long time. But it also seems likely that the image she has been getting has changed over time. If she has been seeing Jon Snow very time she asked the question than how could she conclude that Stannis was Azor Ahai?
The probable chain of events goes something like this: Mel, once she has mastered the art of casting visions, asks the question. She first sees a vision of Dragonstone, which she almost certainly doesn't know. It takes her time to identify the island. Once she does she has to find an opportunity to travel there. This is what leads directly to her going rogue. There are strong hints that Mel isn't as well regarding within her faith as she lets on. Chances are it is her conviction that it is on Dragonstone where they will find the Prince which results in this break. Her superiors within the faith disagree with her interpretation and she decides to go it alone.
On reaching Dragonstone she makes the natural, and erroneous, conclusion that Azor Ahai is on the island. It is also a natural conclusion for her to assume, given the class consciousness of medieval people, that the ruler of the island, who happened to be Stannis at this time, must be the promised Prince. The likelihood is that she developed feelings for Stannis. Because of her obsession with Stannis she twisted the Prophecy so that it would fit him.
We cannot help but reach the conclusion that Mel has been led down a path. But who's path? Where does it lead? And why? These questions have yet to be answered, but I would suggest reading my articles on the weirwoods, the Long Night, and Jon Snow.
However, Melisandre is not the only worshipper of Red R'hllor. There is Thoros, Moqorro, and Benerro, among others. How is it none of them were led to Stannis? Was it simply a question of them never asking the question? That seems unlikely. Some mayhaps don't, such as Thoros. The fact that only Mel appears to have been led down this path suggests manipulation. Benerro sending Moqorro to Daenerys also hints that he is likewise following a path given to him by visions.
But the Red God offers more than just a Prophecy. Otherwise it would not appeal to a wider population. The fact he/it is popular in Volantis demonstrates that some form of salvation goes with it. In some respects this makes R'hllor similar to the Faith of the Seven just as Zoroastrianism bears some resemblance to other monotheistic faiths in the real world. This likely has to do with the duality of their beliefs, the good vs. bad dichotomy.
This is why the Red Priests can understand and accept the danger from the Others. It fits in entirely with their worldview. In fact, it is entirely possible that it was the Long Night which is what created the worldview to begin with.
What Melisandre will do once she realizes she was wrong about Stannis is still open to question. It is reasonable that she will attach herself to Jon Snow, as she does in the show. Yet she must serve some other purpose. Her presence within the story is not meant as flavoring. She is intended to do something significant. 'What' is very much the question. I give one possibility in my hypothetical summaries, but it is only a guess.
The Faith of the Seven
The Faith is an obvious takeoff of the Catholic Church.
This is, of course, the faith that most mirrors the medieval Christian Europe upon which Westeros is based. As far as practices and beliefs are concerned it is very much a copy with very little beyond how the deity is identified. One could easily take any sermon from a real-life medieval cleric and, with the alteration of a few words, put it into the mouth of any septon or septa.
One big difference is the fact that in The Faith women are clergy too. We also don't have a clear understanding yet of the makeup of The Faith hierarchy beyond septons, the Most Devout, and the High Septon. The Faith also does have clergy specially dedicated to caring for the dead for which there is no real-world counterpart.
Is there more to The Faith than just being a medieval counterpart? Yes and no. Obviously The Faith represents a kind of baseline. A way to give the people of this fictional world a reason for acting and speaking in a manner we, the audience would find familiar. It also sets the groundwork for religious conflict which plays a major role in the story.
Religious conflict was a foundation of politics in the medieval world. The church and its policies directly affected daily life and this is reflected in the story.
The church also helped reinforce social stratification, which is also reflected in the story. The church supported aristocratic hierarchy in Europe and The Faith does so in Westeros.
The Sparrow movement has its reflections in actual history. The Peasants' Revolt in England is the obvious inspiration for it, but there are some major differences. For one the Peasants' Revolt was not driven by religious puritanism, but social instability. Also, the peasants were quick to declare their loyalty to the king, whereas the Sparrows show no such diffidence. It does seem likely that the Sparrows will be suppressed just as the peasants were.
The counterpart to the Faith Militant is the Templars.
They serve the same purpose for which the Templars were originally created, ie: to protect pilgrims of the faith. And like their real world counterpart, they became corrupted by power and money. They also possess the Templars reputation as warriors.
But what about magic?
In the faith of R'hllor magic plays a central role, but The Faith condemns use of magic. Just as with the medieval church, The Faith condemns what it calls witchcraft. It is still open to question whether all magic is forbidden or just what The Faith refers to a 'blood magic'. What is indisputable is that The Faith frowns on spell casters, sorcerers, and warlocks.
Miracles, which is magic by another name, are celebrated. What differentiates magic from 'miracle', in the eyes of Westerosi at least, is that miracles can be claimed as deriving from the gods. Not from a human agency.
What separates a miracle from magic might seem a distinction without of difference. But there is a very big one. As mentioned in the article on magic, if enough people believe in something for long enough it can make it come true in Westeros. For example: Baelor the Blessed is said to have made a child the High Septon because he believed the boy could talk to doves. Chances are Baelor was just delusional, but it is possible that if enough people in Westeros had shared Baelor's belief than the boy might very well have been able to talk to doves. We won't know for sure until further books are published.
Technically, being a member of the Faith does not preclude a person practicing magic. But it does discourage it. This is why all the people identified as using or being familiar with magic all come from Essos. Given that it is belief which powers magic it is entirely possible that someone could harness The Faith in its use. Apparently nobody has ever tried.
How does The Faith view the conflict with the Others? As myth.
Despite the fact that The Faith does accept the concept of evil we have yet to see any indication that they believe in a devil or Satan character. This also distinguishes it from the true medieval church. The Stranger is NOT a counterpart with Satan. Despite having no love for this aspect of the Seven, no hostility or animosity is ever ascribed to it.
We have not seen anything yet that tells us what The Faith believes about the Others. Up to this point all those who profess to follow The Seven have done nothing except express ridicule for the very notion of there being a threat.
I do have to address conspiracy theories that have been raised regarding The Faith, particularly by Order of the Green Hand. There is no question that members of The Faith are involved in various conspiracies. This is proven by the histories. But just because a member of The Faith is involved in a conspiracy does not mean the The Faith as a whole is so involved.
In particular, Order of the Green Hand has alleged a grand conspiracy between The Faith, the Hightowers, and the maesters which lasts over 100 years! Even for a fantasy story this stretches credibility. The histories make it plain that the maesters and The Faith have no respect for one another. Though individual members worship The Seven, the maesters as a group respect human reasoning over religious faith. The conflict between them can thus be described as Westeros' conflict between science and religion.
There is absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the maesters in such a conspiracy. Nor for the Hightowers either. The Hightowers managed without any help from The Faith of any kind to put their own on the Iron Throne, even if only for a couple of years. Namely Aegon II. This was exactly what the Hightowers wanted. Aiding The Faith to regain their dominion over Westeros is not in their interest.
The Old Gods
This faith presents something of a problem. The obvious corollary to the real world is the ancient Celtic beliefs of Western Europe.
These beliefs were not a factor in the actual medieval world. Nor do those who worship the Old Gods have anything corresponding to the druids, depending on what you classify greenseers to be. Their presence has more to do with their popularity in pop culture than real life.
The problem with the Old Gods is that they are very much part of the story. See my article on them and the Long Night. How the worship of them affects the story is still unknown. The ultimate objective of the Old Gods, at least as far as the people of Westeros is concerned, is to force their worship upon all that's left of Westeros after the Long Night's over.
But there is no loyalty between the weirwoods and their worshippers. The followers of the Old Gods, the Children included, have no idea that the force trying to kill them is the very gods they're worshipping. This is very Lovecraftian. As with the Cthulhu mythos, the most the Old Gods grant their followers is indifference.
The worshipers of the Old Gods are more ambivalent with regards to the Others.
Many of the beliefs of The Faith have percolated into the beliefs of the Old Gods. Some believe the old tales, but most share the same beliefs as The Seven. There are no obvious differences regarding behavior or morals between the two. Not that have been revealed at any rate. About the only thing that can be identified is a greater acceptance of magic among the worshipers of the Old Gods. Both are condemning of adultery, incest, and rape. Though it is perhaps arguable that the followers of the Old Gods accept greater prerogatives for the High Born than The Faith does.
Magic is embraced by the Wildlings, who are without exception worshipers of the Old Gods. Only south of the Wall, where the Old Gods are mixed with the New, is there a rejection of magic. But the only magic they are familiar with is skinchanging. There are hints that there have been magic users among the Free Folk, but they are mostly folk tales.
What is ironic is that the belief in the Old Gods is not affected in any way by the existence of the Others. In fact, it is highly likely that the Others are the reason the First Men converted to worshiping the Old Gods in the first place. Doing so did not grant them safety however.
The Drowned God
This is the first genuinely made-up religion to appear in Martin's story. Its allegory to Cthulhu is obvious. Even the saying 'that which is dead can never die' comes straight from Lovecraft - "That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die." His most famous line.
This would appear to be a clear setup for us, the audience, to assume the Ironborn, for which this religion is unique, are going to be the bad guys. And indeed, the Ironborn celebrate robbing, pillaging, raping, and enslaving. Their entire faith revolves around using force to take from others that which is not theirs. Forcing women into marriage is also venerated.
How does this affect their behavior in the story? At first they are to type. Theon betrays the Starks and Balon launches an assault on the North. But there are signs that perhaps not all the Ironborn are in love with the 'traditional' way of life of the Ironborn. Asha plays up the 'tough guy' act on meeting Theon again. But when we see her alone she expresses her doubts about her father's war. After his death she advocates for peace.
The religion of the Drowned God is also a duality. The opponent of the Drowned God is the Storm God, an allusion to Nodens who himself is an allusion to Oden.
What's important to remember is that the Ironborn don't believe in the concept of evil as the Faith understand it. To the Ironborn what is good is anything that benefits them. This is why they have no compunction in raping or killing. Only the retribution of their victims prevents them from acting. The only thing they respect is strength.
All that being said, the Ironborn don't lack all human feelings. We do have other examples of Ironborn, mostly members of the Night's Watch, who don't go around raping and killing. The histories specifically state that Harren the Black's brother was Lord Commander of the Night's Watch during Aegon's conquest, yet he chose to do nothing.
So what is going to happen to them now? Asha is turning away from the Drowned God. As is hardly surprising, she finds little endearing in his worship. The faith of the Drowned God is unquestionably one geared toward men. To date we haven't heard the opinions of the Ironborn women, but it is safe to say they probably don't see anything wonderful about rape and having captive harems.
Although they are unlikely to have any sympathy for the Green Landers, as they call mainlanders, they are not going to be able to make peace with the Others either. The Ironborn are faced with a choice no less life changing than Daenerys'. They will either go the 'old way' with Euron. Or embrace a new way with Asha. It is not a coincidence that Euron is also connected with Cthulhu. See my article on Euron.
As a side note, it is probably that when Martin first starting creating the story he meant for the Ironborn to be totally bad. But Martin doesn't believe in irredeemable bad guys.
Ultimately I believe that it is the Ironborn as a whole, not just Theon, who will have a redemption. The Ironborn will, finally and at last, give up on their dream of returning to the old way. How this affects their faith I have no idea.
The Many Faced God
What the inspiration is for the Many Faced God is something of a mystery. Many real world religions have a god or guardian for the dead. He doesn't fit with the Lovecraftian mythos like the Drowned God. Nor does he match up with any medieval beliefs. The most likely comparison is with Osiris.
The Egyptian god of the death was also the god of resurrection, embalming and the afterlife. What is noteworthy is that though the Egyptians went through extraordinary lengths to prepare for death, they really were believers in life. Osiris being the God of Embalming is directly related to the Faceless Men's ability to wear other faces. The Egyptians believed that protecting the features of the dead was vital to life in the afterlife. Literally, the person's 'soul', which was actually composed of two different things, the ka and the ba, needed the mortal body to remain intact. The whole point behind embalming was to allow the person to live on after death. In a way it could be argued that when a Faceless Man wears another face that person is living on after their death.
The idea behind this is not as alien as you might imagine. The belief that a person's soul resides in their face or skin is actually quite old. It is where the creation of death masks comes from.
We see this in the story itself when Arya actually feels the pain and fear of the girl whose face she wears. We have no idea how this process works, but given that on Planatos belief is power, the belief that a person's soul is in their skin is commonplace. Thus the Faceless Man really does become the person whose face they wear.
The saying goes 'without death there can be no life'. But the opposite is also true - without life there can be no death. That which was never alive to begin with cannot die. Despite the automatic assumption that this faith is evil because it supports assassination, it is actually quite a gentle religion.
Far from being a 'death cult' as so many people have called it, the faith also recognizes the need for life. They undertake assassinations, but only at very high cost. The clear reason for this is to discourage 'hits'. Only the most determined are willing to make the sacrifice to hire them. The fact they also believe that those who give life cannot take life is to discourage the desire to be an assassin.
There is an irony in the warriors of the Patrimony of Hyrkoon believing the exact opposite.
It would be easy to assume that the Faceless Men are Martin's version of ninjas. In truth they bear no resemblance to ninjas at all apart from killing people. In the book version anyway they exhibit no warrior skills at all. They kill entirely through stealth. This is directly contrary to Arya's storyline in which she will most definitely become a master warrior. That is entirely on her. The average Faceless Man doesn't run around stabbing people.
As for why they are in the story is more difficult to parse out. It is highly probable that Martin originally just wanted an explanation for why Arya becomes such a deadly killer. But they grew on him as so many other facets of his story have. It also provided another excuse to bring magic into a story which is notable for lacking it.
The Stallion Who Mounts the World
The Dothraki faith is another that is difficult to identify. It doesn't bear any resemblance to traditional Mongol animism. It is more akin to Native American beliefs, although the Amerindians were mostly focused on the sky and not the ground. Also, traditional Native American beliefs did not include a hell such as Europeans understood it.
Once again we are forced to accept that Lovecraft and not religion is the primary source for this belief. The Dothraki bear more than a passing resemblance to the Ironborn. Frankly, to the Free Folk as well.
It is not a coincidence that all three celebrate raiding, pillaging, and raping. All three have traditions of kidnapping and forced marriage. Now, there are precedents to this in real life. But one can't help but feel that Martin is trying to tell us something. The distinct impression I get is that Martin is trying to ensure that we, the audience, don't get any ideas of these being the 'good guys'.
In fact it is very much the opposite. Which makes it curious that Dany and Jon, who we definitely are supposed to think of as 'good guys', utilize them to achieve their goals. The 'heroes' use bad people to overcome the evil attacking them. Daenerys - Dothraki, Jon - Wildlings, Arya - Ironborn. Nor is it an accident that the inspiration for the three, Vikings, Mongols, American Indians, and Huns, have traditionally been portrayed as 'bad guys' in American media.
The Dothraki's faith doesn't appear to have been as well thought out as the others on this list. It appears to have been designed primarily to explain how Daenerys is able to gain control over them. Because they respect strength, just like the Ironborn, Dany's ability to control dragons will make her an object of veneration to them. How well she controls them is still an open question.
There are other gods that get mentioned in the histories. These have no effect on the story. It is interesting to speculate about them, especially why they exist in the first place. We are introduced to the gods of the Free Cities, but how they came into being is a mystery. We know the names of some Valyrian gods because dragons are named after them, but we know nothing else about them.
One question that is not asked in the story is 'what gods did the First Men worship before they converted to the Old Gods?' It seems likely that their original gods were the same ones as are still being worshiped in the Free Cities now, but that is speculation.
Order of Maesters
One cannot talk about religion in Westeros without bringing up the maesters. Not that the maesters are particularly religious mind you, but the exact opposite. Individual maesters aren't necessarily hostile to religion. It is the maester order as a whole which ridicules religious faith and has contempt for intellectual pursuits that aren't connected to logic or human reasoning. This is made clear in the wider histories.
This fact matters because many youtubers believe that there is a grand conspiracy between The Faith and the maesters. Nothing could be further from the truth. ASOIAF, not to mention the wider histories, demonstrate that individual maesters are loyal to whatever High Born family shelters them, understandably. Individual maesters can also exhibit faith, most commonly The Seven. But they take pride in their differences to septons, often showing contempt for them.
The goals of maesters and The Faith is are not in alignment. Regardless of their individual feelings for the Targaryens, it is not in the maesters interest to assist The Faith in their rebellion against them. The Targaryens weakened the power of The Faith over Westeros. Whereas the loss of influence of The Faith increased the influence of the maesters. The Targaryens are actually the best thing for the maesters that ever happened.
The assumed hostility of the maesters toward the Targaryens is based entirely on the words of one man: Marwyn.
Why would Marwyn want to create suspicion of the maesters toward the Targaryens? It’s true that Barbrey Dustin accuses the maesters of conspiracy, but this is natural paranoia. She doesn't actually accuse them of being involved in killing off the Targaryens, nor of being in cahoots with The Faith. Hers is a justifiable suspicion given how dependant the lords are on maesters.
We are left with why Marwyn says this to Sam. First off, we have to ask where Marwyn's own loyalty lay. He gives every sign of being in Dany's corner, but can we believe that? We don't have enough information yet to decide.
Here we will act on the presumption that his hints are genuine. His hostility to his fellows is therefore driven by their opposition to Dany. So why are the maesters against Dany or the Targaryens in general? This is an important question because, despite what Order of the Green Hand claims, the maesters have not been hostile to the Targaryens. In fact, according to the histories, the maesters have demonstrated remarkable loyalty to the Targaryens. But this loyalty has always been predicated on the Targaryens holding power. It is very much a case of being loyal to those in charge. Once the Targaryens are out of power the maesters have no hesitation in switching their allegiance to the Baratheons, and by extension the Lannisters.
There is one group for whom the maesters do have total loyalty: the Hightowers. The Hightowers are the most powerful family in the Reach, including the Tyrells. The Hightowers have been the sponsors of the maesters from the beginning and still are. Of all the Noble families of Westeros, the Hightowers were the only ones to welcome the Targaryen conquest. The credit for the peaceful welcome of Aegon at Old Town is given to the High Septon, but it seems more likely that Lord Hightower made plain he had no intention of fighting the dragons.
How does this help us understand Marwyn's motives? Not much. We don't yet know why Marwyn wants to help Dany, but we can be justifiably suspicious of his motives. What he shows interest in is magic. Marwyn claims the maesters oppose magic. In this they agree with The Faith, but not for the same reasons. The Faith opposes magic because it causes people to question the gods. The maesters are against magic because it upsets reason. Marwyn's support for Dany is thus more about his own dispute with his order than with any desire to re-establish the Targaryen dynasty.