Daenerys & Deianira: Greek Myths and Khal Drogo’s death

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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.

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Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo. (c) HBO.

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.

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The Death of Nessus by Jules-Elie Delaunay.

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.

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Hercules and Deianira in happier times. Panting by Jan Gossaert (1517).

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.

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Khal Drogo’s infected wound. (c) HBO.

Third, the wife was the unwitting accomplice in this murder, and she lives to see the horrible result of their misjudgment.

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Mirri Maz Duur with the horse she sacrifices.

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.

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Dany walks into Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. (c) HBO.

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.)

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Medea by George Romney.

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.

Jun Yan is a spontaneous, home-grown Shakespeare fan. Her day job is pharmaceutical writing.

10 Comments

  • Reply July 13, 2015

    QoB

    Great piece – I’d never seen the parallels before!

    One minor thing: Media didn’t kill her husband. She killed his new wife, the new wife’s father, and her children with Jason, but not Jason himself. Presumably so he would suffer more… !

    • Reply July 13, 2015

      Jun

      Ack! I knew that! Thanks for the correction. She killed the children! The worst nightmare of husbands in the world and a patriarchal society.

  • Reply July 15, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    You know June – I had never seen a similarity between Deianira and Daenerys before. I put on one of the where the names come from thread last year that I thought the end part of the name -rys bore a similarity to certain Welsh names (Nerys, Carys, Glenys etc) but had not picked up on the Greek mythology likeness. It’s to the writer’s credit that he manages to mix and match from history and myth subtly (and I’ve sometimes wondered if he took inspiration from ancient ballads – but I guess they are infused with mythical elements often in any case). Thanks for a thoughtful piece of writing.

  • Reply July 15, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    Edit: Sorry for calling you June, Jun. Also should have said “threads last year”.

    • Reply July 15, 2015

      Jun

      No worries Watcher. It sounds the same as June. 🙂 There is not much traces of Greek mythology in ASOIAF so I was surprised too when I made the connection.

      • Reply July 16, 2015

        Jamie Adair

        I thought the same as you Jun, so I was surprised with the Stannis thing (which I won’t name because it will be in the books and I don’t want to spoil it). It is based on mythology. I also think Rhaegar has some mythological influences.

        • Reply July 16, 2015

          Jun

          But will it be in the books? I highly doubt it. The way the TV series handled that story line is very transparently close to the original idea, but I am not sure whether it will happen in the same way in the next book. So I think it’s fine to spoil it here.

          • July 20, 2015

            Jamie Adair

            I’m assuming that the books will contain the scene because Dan & Dave said they were shocked when GRRM first told them about it. How the scene manifests itself in the books, however, could be very different. Presumably, however, HBO has seen the draft of The Winds of Winter?? I don’t know.

  • Reply July 21, 2015

    Jun

    Not having followed Season 5, I did not know that GRRM told the showrunners something about that plot development. Unclear what exactly he told them, but hints have been dropped throughout the books about the girl, but exactly how it will happen in TWoW remains to be seen, hopefully soon…

    There was much speculation about whether HBO has seen a draft of TWoW, when the director of Season 6 let slip “Yes,” when he was asked whether he saw a draft of Book 6. He then clarified that what he saw was an outline of Season 6. (The question was very convoluted.) I find it hard to believe that GRRM would turn over an unfinished draft to HBO, and the book was clearly unfinished at that time, or GRRM would not have missed the SDCC.

    Plus all the rumors about Season 6 casting and story lines suggest that Season 6 will contain a lot of flashback taken from Book 1 AGoT. If they had had TWoW, I doubt they would go back to mine the first book for material. Practically, it is a lot easier to leak the content of a TV series because so many people are involved in production. Keeping a book under wraps requires only the author, his or her spouse, and the editor to keep their mouths shut.

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