I am probably not alone in having read the demise of Khal Drogo in A Game of Thrones with disbelief and a bit of outrage. For such a super-masculine warrior, who had a headful of bells tied into braids because he had never lost a battle, this was no fitting way to go.
Yet, if we think about it, it all makes better sense than having him cut down heroically in combat. He had of course killed many in his life, leaving plenty of people thirsting for revenge. Since he had no Achilles’ heel, poison had to be the most viable means. And the surest way of delivering this poison, obviously, was by the hands of his loving wife, Daenerys.
The scenario sounds like a post-modern deconstruction of the hero myth, but it is in fact based on original Greek mythology. The death of Khal Drogo so closely mirrors the death of Hercules (Herakles in Greek) — arguably the most invincible hero in Greek mythology — that I have little doubt this was a large part of George RR Martin’s inspiration when he set out to write Daenerys’ story.
In the mythology that parallels this part of A Game of Thrones, the triangle of Nessus, Hercules, and his wife Deianira almost perfectly matches Mirri Maz Duur, Khal Drogo, and Daenerys.
After a young and beautiful Deianira was married to Hercules by her father, they came to the Evenus (or Euenos) river. Hercules crossed first, and Deianira was ferried by a centaur named Nessus.
Once in the river, Nessus attempted to molest or rape her, but her cries of help drew Hercules back. He shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow to rescue his bride. While he lay dying, Nessus whispered in Deianira’s ear that his blood was a powerful love potion and, if her husband ever lost interest in her, it would restore his love. The girl believed him and picked up his clotted blood.
Years later, Hercules inevitably became unfaithful to Deianira and gave her cause to use the potion. Deianira dipped a tunic in the blood of Nessus and gave it to her husband. The poison burned him, causing so much pain that he asked to be burned alive on a pyre. Thus, the most powerful hero in Greece was killed by a man who had already been dead.
The story has a number of similarities with Khal Drogo’s death.
First, the motive of both Nessus and Mirri Maz Duur was revenge, which suggests that even heroes have to face the consequence of their lifelong killings and conquests.
Second, the weapon was poison. Martin went so far as putting the poison on Drogo as a wound “dressing” to echo the tunic of Nessus.
Third, the wife was the unwitting accomplice in this murder, and she lives to see the horrible result of their misjudgment.
Fourth, both Hercules and Drogo were put out of their suffering by others. In Sophocles’ play, Women of Trachis, Hercules asked his son Hyllus to put him on a pyre and burn him. In A Game of Thrones, Daenerys suffocated Drogo with a pillow.
Finally, of course, is the significance of fire. Both men were burned on a pyre. Deianira committed suicide in guilt, while Daenerys only appeared to do so in order to bring about the birth of the dragons.
As much as Khal Drogo’s death echoes that of Hercules, Martin has made his story unrecognizable by fundamentally changing the motive and nature of the viewpoint character. (Notably, Deianira is also the viewpoint character in Sophocles’ play.)
Deianira was driven primarily by the fear of losing her husband’s favor as her beauty faded with age. The same motive fueled the other, more famous husband-killer in Greek mythology — Medea.
Sexual jealousy may still be a part of human nature, but modern readers would find it difficult to identify with such deadly conflicts between wife and husband. So Daenerys is deceived by her own mercy (for the maegi) and a naïve outlook on humanity. In addition, the trajectory of Daenerys the character in earlier parts of A Game of Thrones and the subsequent novels has no resemblance to the jealous and desperate wife of Hercules. Daenerys is destined to embrace her position as a self-effacing widow, a self-assured mother, and a leader of men.
This is a great example of how Martin “borrows” from history and mythology. His characters and plots tickle our collective consciousness, so that we recognize and identify with them, but he injects enough twists and mixes multiple sources to keep the story from being predictable and characters becoming stale.