Pagan Sacrifice: A Glimpse of an Ancient Religion in Game of Thrones

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Three-sides of an altar used as part of the Roman bull sacrifice ritual, known as taurobolium, from Lyon, France circa 160 CE (AD). Image:  Morburre Wikimedia Commons.

The beating of drums, gushing blood, and acts of courage – is this another Red Wedding or a pagan ritual buried deep in the pages of Game of Thrones? George RR Martin may have based the Faith of the Seven – the new gods that the southern Westerosi worship – on the pagan religion of Ancient Rome. One clue is a throwaway line about Samwell Tarly in the first A Song of Ice and Fire novel that alludes to an ancient and obscure Roman ritual known as taurobolium (bull sacrifice).

The Faith of the Seven appears to be a cross between the medieval conception of (Roman) Catholicism and the gods of Ancient Rome.

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The seven-pointed star in the Faith of the Seven. © HBO

George RR Martin has described how he transformed the idea of the Holy Trinity (Father-Son-Holy Ghost) into a “Holy Septinity” when he made the seven-in-one god of the Faith of the Seven.1 Likewise, the Faith of the Seven’s septons and septas play a similar role to medieval priests or monks and nuns. A council known as the Most Devout even governs the Faith and elects the High Septon, somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals.

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Sansa and Arya’s governess Septa Mordane (Susan Brown) is an example of a septa in the Faith of the Seven. © HBO.

The seven gods, however, have a distinctly Roman feel. In fact, in her blog post “Game of Thrones and Ancient Rome: The Similarities You Never Saw Coming,” Brittany Garcia recently equated the Faith of the Seven with Roman gods. Very clever observation.

I have a slightly different take, possibly misguided. I couldn’t quite get the Roman gods to line up perfectly with the Faith of the Seven. My theory is that Martin may have done his traditional mix-and-match, so the Faith of the Seven gods have qualities from multiple Roman gods and goddesses. (Brittany knows far more about the classics than I do, so definitely check out her take on it in her blog post. )

Faith of the Seven God Faith of the Seven Description Roman (Greek)
The Father Justice – he judges the souls of the dead Jupiter (Zeus) or maybe Minos
The Mother Fertility, childbirth, mercy, and peace Cybele (The Great Mother) or maybe Ceres (Demeter)
The Maiden Love, purity, and beauty Diana (Artemis) or maybe Venus (Aphrodite)
The Crone Wisdom and foresight Minerva (Athena)
The Warrior Courage in battle Mars (Aries)
The Smith Creation and craftsmanship Vulcan (Hephaestus)
The Stranger Death and the unknown Pluto
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John Bradley-West as Samwell Tarly © HBO.

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Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore) is an example of a Warlock from Qarth. © HBO

What really cements the parallels with Roman religion, however, is George RR Martin’s reference to bull sacrifice. Before Sam arrives at the Wall, his father attempted to make him brave through a baptism in blood. Sam tells Jon Snow:

“two men came to the castle, warlocks from Qarth with white skin and blue lips. They slaughtered a bull aurochs and made me bathe in the hot blood, but it didn’t make me brave as they’d promised. I got sick and retched. Father had them scourged2 .”

An aurochs, incidentally, is a 6’5″ (198 cm) now-extinct gigantic ancestor of the modern cow, last seen roaming the forests of Europe in 1627. Archeologists have found aurochs skeletons. They have discovered cave paintings of the aurochs in Lascaux France.  And, similar to the dire wolf, the aurochs has wandered into the pages of Game of Thrones like something primeval creeping forward.

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A Lascaux cave painting of an aurochs with deer and horses. Image:  Prof Saxx Wikimedia Commons

The aurochs is an intriguing choice for more than just symbolic reasons. Aurochs were significantly more dangerous than modern cattle. In fact, there is some concern over managing them if attempts to bring the giant breed back to life succeed.  In ancient times, killing an aurochs was a mark of great bravery, so it seems doubly fitting that George RR Martin selected a bull aurochs for the warlocks to slaughter in a ritual for increasing courage.

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An aurochs reconstruction in found  Braunschweig, Germany. Image: Jaap Rowenhorst via Wikimedia Commons.

 

To be continued…

  1. See “Faith of the Seven,” at Wikia accessed on May 22, 2014. []
  2. Game of Thrones p. 260 Kindle ed. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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