[Author’s note: A few episodes ago Daenerys was back in Vaes Dothrak, where Khal Moro and his cronies threatened her with effective imprisonment, rape, or slavery. They should have known better than to bully Daenerys where she once had one of her most glorious moments (after she ate the wild stallion’s heart). This two-part article takes a look back at the gruesome history behind Season 1’s heart-eating ritual. Warning: No shocker, but this article gets a little gross. And, the second half is much worse. ]
It’s a gruesome scene to be sure. It’s nightfall in Vaes Dothrak and a tiny blonde princess kneels before a crowd of Dothraki warriors and chanting dosh khaleen priestesses. That princess, a noticeably pregnant Daenerys, devours a raw stringy stallion’s heart as her world hangs in the balance.
This is no ordinary heart. It’s the heart of a wild stallion. To get it, Khal Drogo and his bloodriders captured that stallion hours before and slaughtered it with a stone knife. The heart is still steaming when Drogo sets it down in front of Daenerys. That’s how fresh it is.
Every bite Daenerys chews, blood gushes out of the heart and dribbles down her chin and neck.
Eating the heart helps make her baby stronger – or so the Dothraki believe. If she consumes the entire heart, she will bear a strong, swift, and fearless son. But if she starts to puke, her child may be stillborn, weak, crippled — or worst of all: female!
Eating a whole heart is revolting and arduous. Its muscular toughness prolongs the task. It’s not just the size of the heart, or the fact it is still warm when Khal Drogo sets it in front of Daenerys. She has to grind each gristly bite over and over with her teeth to soften it enough to swallow it.
To ensure she doesn’t puke, Daenerys trained for the ceremony by dining on bowls of half-clotted blood for weeks before the big night. Her brother Viserys doubts she will be able to keep the heart down. Daenerys wretches a few times. Can she actually stop her delicate pregnant stomach from heaving?
As we watch this nauseating scene and fret Daenerys might fail, we know this much: eating the stallion’s heart is important.
Amazingly, the Dothraki horse-heart ritual comes to us from the pages of history. George RR Martin based the Dothraki on the Huns, the Mongols, and other steppe and plain peoples — and the Dothraki ritual feels like a pre-birth kingship consecration ritual based on real-world horse sacrifice rituals. Horse sacrifice rituals sanctified kingship in ancient Vedic Indian, Roman, Irish, and Indo European traditions.
It seems as though George RR Martin reimagined these rituals for a pregnant queen. His version of the ritual consecrates Khal Drogo’s heir in utero, before the child is even born. But, the truth about the rituals is, by our standards, even more disgusting than the scene in which Daenerys eats the heart.
Plunging into this ancient history behind Martin’s Dothraki ritual reveals how our ancestors lived and the significance they placed on that engine of prosperity and war: the horse.
Early Indo-Europeans domesticated cattle and battled with their neighbors
Before getting in to the gory rituals of horse sacrifice, which are really quite shocking, it’s worth saying a few words about the Early Indo-Europeans and why the horse mattered so much.
Scholars hypothesize that the Irish, Vedic Indians, and Romans all descended from the reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto (or Early) Indo-European people. As described in this article, the Early Indo-Europeans were probably the first “horse lords” on the Russian steppe.
The Indo-Europeans roamed the Steppe thousands of years before the Huns, the Turks, the Magyars, and the Mongols – who may be their descendants. Although it’s not clear that Martin based the Dothraki on the Indo-Europeans, they certainly have a lot in common.
Like the Dothraki, the early Steppe peoples lived in a harsh environment, a sea of grass. But, unlike the prosperous and secure Dothraki, the Steppe people struggled to survive with harsh winters, limited natural shelter, and nothing but inedible grass surrounding them.
Life was tough trying to survive in the grass sea, so when the Indo-Europeans domesticated sheep and cattle, it transformed their lives in an almost magical way.
Herd animals were “grass processors,” as linguist David Anthony puts it. These ruminants turned the barren inedible oceans of grass into useful items like wool, felt, clothing, milk, cheese, and bone.
Until Steppe people domesticated grass eaters, most people lived by foraging for nuts and wild plants and fishing. People converted to pastoralism slowly. Not everyone in the Steppe was eager to raise cattle. Keeping livestock for meat over the winter required saving grain for the future.
“Domesticated animals,” writes David Anthony, “can only be raised by people who are committed morally and ethically to watching their families go hungry rather than letting them eat the breeding stock.1 ”
Food anchored tribal life. Not only did food provide sustenance, sharing food forged bonds among the community. Some tribal members may have felt conflicted because rearing livestock meant they couldn’t generously share their food with their fellow tribe members as soon as they found it.
Rearing livestock was all about sacrifices for great gains later on. But, it was also risky. What if disease wiped out the entire herd?
As tribes finally adopted herding, new feasting rituals emerged. Tribal leaders changed their leadership style, possibly starting with how their tribes rejoiced over success.
When herds did well, these new-style leaders held great feasts where they shared food to celebrate their disciplined (and sacrificial) investment. These rituals became the basis for Indo-European religion and society.2 .
Introducing new feasting celebrations were necessary: in forager societies people generously shared the food they found immediately. When they began to hoard seed grain for future fodder, this disrupted their traditional social rituals.
With the new herding prosperity, came social hierarchies and flashy flamboyant rulers. Leaders began to throw lavish feasts to share their success with their tribe.
Something else happened as well– and this may not surprise anyone who has ever raised a farm animal or even pet. People weren’t just invested in their livestock for their livelihood, they became emotionally attached to these creatures they raised. People worried about their cattle and sheep – and even began to identify with them, writing poetry about them3 .
Because herds of cows and sheep were vulnerable to threats like disease and theft, herding also shaped the culture of tribes who adopted it. Tribes needed to be flexible enough to roll with the more dramatic successes and failures that came when the herd flourished and floundered.
Shepherd tribes also had to learn to protect what was theirs. Frequent boundary disputes with neighboring tribes lead to bloody conflicts and even war. Consequently, brothers banded together and became very important to each other. (Perhaps, in some ways, these are like an early progenitor of the Dothraki bloodriders.)
Winter is coming: Colder climate leads to farming horses
Given the world-changing significance of the horse’s domestication, perhaps it isn’t surprising that nobody can agree when it happened.
While many scholars believe that Indo-Europeans domesticated horses on the Eurasian steppe at least 6000 years ago, some think it might have happened far back as 10,000 years ago in many different regions.
What is clear is that, even if our ancestors domesticated horses in multiple regions around the same time, Early Indo-European people likely domesticated one line of them in the Steppe somewhere between 4000-6000 BC.
Steppe people first domesticated horses for meat. Why they chose horses, however, may be due to climate change.
Every 1470 years (give or take 500 years), the climate becomes either colder or dryer – or so ice researchers believe. (Before I get hate mail, this isn’t man-made climate-change denial. The two types of climate change aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Historically, colder or dryer climates are bad news. Harsher winters can shorten the growing season, cause too much rain, and create stormier conditions. Dryer conditions, or aridification as climatologists like to call it, results in too little rain. Either way, crops fail, the food supply shrinks, wars break out, and everything becomes harsher.
Some linguists like David Anthony believe that when the Steppe cooled and winters became harsher and longer around 4400-3900 BC, Steppe people may have begun to hatch plans to raise horses for meat instead of cows, goats and sheep.
Caring for these cloven-hoofed creatures over the winter was tough work.
Sheep and cows couldn’t (or wouldn’t) dig for grass under snow or break ice to get water. Sheep, for instance, bloodied their noses on the rough snow as they tried to nuzzle through it to find grass.
Wild horses, on the other hand, instinctively pawed away the snow to uncover grass and broke ice with their hooves to get water. And, horses were plentiful throughout the Steppe.
Eating horse was nothing new. People ate it at least as far back as 30,000 BC. (Archeologists know this because they have found evidence of horse remains from meals.)
Early Indo-Europeans almost certainly hunted the cobby wild horses drinking from the Steppe’s valley rivers. Hunters must have spent a lot of time watching horses, so they knew horse behavior, and likely noticed how horses thrived in the winter.
Knowledge of horse behavior also must have come in handy when Steppe tribes tried to domesticate horses. Like cows, horses tended to follow the dominant male animal (stallion or bull). Steppe people likely mapped what they had learned about herding cows onto horses.
Indo-Europeans likely tamed horses and kept them in pens for food. Eventually, not unlike the Dothraki, horses probably supplied most of the meat in the early Indo-European diet.4
Who would dare to mount a horse?
It’s one thing to keep previously wild animals for meat. It’s something else altogether to decide that you want to climb on top of the backs of those previously wild animals and ride them — especially when nobody had ever done this before.
It’s an audacious idea. Did an Indo-European try mounting a friendly horse on a whim one day? Could people envision the power that riding horses would give them?
One thing is for certain: you would need to be brave – and maybe a little crazy – to consider riding on top of a six-hundred pound animal if nobody in history had ever once done so.
Steppe people may have started riding horses about a thousand years after they began keeping them for meat – sometime between 3700 to 3000 BCE. Somewhat ironically, researchers believe that northern Kazakhstan Steppe peoples began riding horses to hunt horses ((D. Anthony Loc 3781)) .
Horse meat tastes like slightly sweeter beef.
These Steppe people likely either found horses tastier — apparently their meat is like a slightly sweeter beef – or easier to hunt than the other wildlife in the area (such as bison, aurochs, elk, deer, boar, bears, beavers, and gazelles).
Taming the horse – and then taming your neighbors
In Dothraki culture, the horse is so important that the deity is the horse god (or Great Stallion on the show). It seems like Indo-Europeans people likely attributed a similar value to the horse. In the real world, the horse made tribes into empires.
Taming the horse changed everything for Steppe peoples. The ability to ride horses gave tribes the ability to dominate their landscape, conquer their neighbors, and become rich — or at least survive. Steppe people got wealthier and more warlike.
Once mounted, real-world tribes could travel great distances – a fit horse can cover 100 miles a day and gallop 35 miles/hour for short distances. Horses gave their riders status, height, and majesty. (A parallel with the Dothraki is the social status riding a horse confers on the rider, as Viserys found out to his shame when he lost the right to ride for a day and became Khal Rhae Mhar (the sorefoot king).)
Riders on horseback could control over twice as many sheep as a shepherd on foot. (One shepherd with a good dog can herd 200 sheep a day whereas a mounted shepherd can herd about 500.5 .)
Larger herds meant people became wealthier. This wealth drove them to want big herds. Big herds, however, meant they needed more pasture land. But, this meant negotiating new tribal frontiers — or going to war with their neighbors.
Winning these tribal wars depended on the ability to gather a bigger force than your opponent. To do this, tribal rulers needed to have splashy feasts proactively where they displayed their generosity (wealth redistribution). (There really was no free lunch.)
In turn, the desire to build alliances through lavish feasts, wealth displays, and gift giving might have spurred trade – or so argues David Anthony6 .
Although Steppe people might not have ridden horses as cavalry until after about 1500 BCE to 1000 BCE, they almost certainly rode horses for mounted raiding.
Around the same time as Steppe people tamed the horse, they migrated across Eurasia. Scholars aren’t sure how they did this. Linguists can tell that the Indo-Europeans moved to new regions by the spread of their language. Some scholars believe the Steppe people violently subjugated peaceful European farmers. Others believe Proto-Indo-European language or culture swept across Europe with the spread of agricultural technology.
But nothing you have read in this article really explains what you will read in this article’s second half (part 2).
I can only infer that the horse sacrifice rituals hearkens to the exceptionally important role horses must have played in Indo-European culture. Maybe they came to love and revere horses as we love dogs today.
The dog’s place in society may be rooted in our evolutionary bond with them. Some scholars, like Prof. Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University, believe that humans thrived and beat out our Neanderthal competitors by cooperating with dogs to hunt big game.
The feelings we have towards dogs – perhaps only a faint echo of the profound relationship that early humans had with them – might hint at the depth of feelings Proto-Indo-Europeans, and their daughter cultures, had towards horses. Otherwise, what you will read in the second half of this article will all seem quite baffling.
To be continued…