Sigils in Game of Thrones, Medieval Marketing

game_of_thrones_houses_sigil

This wallpaper is courtesy of Smashable. Sigils © HBO.

Game of Thrones famously employs “words” and sigils to represent houses. As we all know, House Stark’s words are “Winter is Coming” and their sigil is the dire wolf. George RR Martin lifted sigils, banners, and words directly from the pages of real-life history – although he did rename them and made them more transparent to readers.

sigil-game-of-thrones

Badges, coats of arm, banners, mottoes all fall under the broad and extremely complex category of heraldry. George RR Martin was right to include heraldry in Game of Thrones — a medievalesque world wouldn’t have felt as three-dimensional without it — and he was also right to simplify it.

The sigils in Game of  Thrones are similar to the badges or “devices” (emblems) medieval nobles (and royals) used to represent themselves and those in their “employ” (to use the term very loosely). Just like we know we are in a McDonald’s restaurant by the Golden Arches (logo or “device”) on the architecture, we know somebody is associated with McDonald’s by the Golden Arches logo on his or her uniform.

logo McDonald's_Ceintuurbaan,_Zwolle queen-elizabeth-in-a-mcdonalds-uniform1

Likewise, medieval nobles typically applied their own logos (“devices”) to everything from architecture to retainer uniforms. The example below shows Edward IV’s rose-en-soleil badge on the left, the vaulted ceiling he created at Tewkesbury to celebrate his victory with sun iconography, and Edward’s livery collar on the right as it is worn on one of his supporters,  Sir John Donne1 .

edward-iv-Rose_en_Soleil_Badge_of_York.svg tewkesbury-edward-iv-badge edward iv livery

A visual example like this one (above) might be more powerful using a Tudor badge because their Tudor Rose is absolutely everywhere. The Tudors created the Tudor rose by merging the traditional Lancastrian red rose and the Yorkist white rose. The Tudors liked to promote themselves as the merger of the House of York and House of Lancaster. From left to right: the Tudor rose; a  ceiling at Hampton Court palace; at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge; Sir Thomas More wearing the Lancastrian “S” gold livery collar with a Tudor rose dangling from it; a close up of More’s Tudor rose; the embroidered cover of a sixteenth century book.

Tudor-Rose tudor-rose-hampton-court kings-college-chapel thomas-more-holbein Tudor_Rose_from_Holbein's_Portrait_of_More tudor-rose-book

From an anthropological perspective, there must be some type of innate drive to identify ourselves as collectively belonging together  that has remained consistent over at least the last eight hundred years. (Or, perhaps, this is a drive for the powerful to label their belongings?)

The word sigil is a wonderful subsitute for “badge” or “device.” Sigil means symbol, emblem, or seal, but it also connotes magic. Sigils are magical symbols  used in medieval grimoires  — sometimes to represent demons. At the far left is an excerpt from Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, which includes various magical sigils; in the center is a modern-day impression of a Late Bronze Age seal (from Wikimedia); and at the far right is one of Elizabeth I’s great seals, which depicts Elizabeth and not her badge.

magical-sigil-game-of-thrones seal-bronze-age elizabethi-seal

Noble and royals used badges  to identify themselves in England until 1714, although monarchs still use them for historic reasons2 . Some examples of famous badges: one of Louis XIV’s badges was a sun, one of Henry VI’s was a chained antelope, and one of Jane Seymour’s was a phoenix rising from a castle between two Tudor roses.

The Boleyn Cup

Anne’s falcon is on top of this silver gilt cup.

Anne Boleyn’s badge was the falcon on roses as her badge, but she previously used an armillary sphere – a symbol of constancy according to Historian Eric Ives.3  And, at various points in her reign Anne also used a leopard as her badge amongst others.

Since emblems were in some respects a medieval form of branding, nobles and royals would put their emblems on all kinds of stuff – ranging from architecture to precious objects. In this example, to the left, Anne Boleyn’s falcon appears on top of this relatively simple silver gilt cup.

The animals and objects in badges were, of course, symbols and nobles used them to evoke a quality with which he (or she) wanted to associate himself – almost the way companies today use logos, color, and typography to strike a mood or create a certain association with their brand.

The medieval repertoire of symbols was significantly more sophisticated than ours is today. The meaning of many medieval and early renaissance symbols has been lost to time. Undoubtedly certain combinations of symbols had meanings as well. Likewise, some symbols could be read in different ways. For example, it is unclear why Richard III chose a white boar as his symbol – if he chose it to represent ferocity (his martial prowess) or loyalty.

Sigils in Game of Thrones have symbolic meanings and sometimes indicate Martin’s source of inspiration. Here are a few thoughts:

House & Sigil Symbol or Evocation Possible Historical Basis (Badge) Possible Historical Basis (Person or House)
house-tyrell TyrellGolden Roses ? National flower of England, badge of many kings, early origin may be
in its use as symbol
of Christ’s wounds
Tudor_Rose_from_Holbein's_Portrait_of_More The Tudors
BaratheonStag The hunt or chase? white-stag-richard-ii-badge Richard II

House-Stark-heraldry

StarkDire Wolf Ancient, ferocity, loyalty dog-of-lovell-dog Possibly the dire wolf was inspired by the unofficial symbol of Richard III’s best friend, Francis Lovell (aka “Lovell the Dog”). Lovell’s symbol was
the dog due to Lovell’s unwavering loyalty to Richard. Ned was loyal to
Robert Baratheon to the end.
lannister-sigil LannisterLion Pride, show, ferocity arthurs-heraldry-book This isn’t clear to me accept that lions were used *a lot* in heraldry
- often by kings.
House-Targaryen-heraldry TargaryenThree-headed red dragon From a historical perspective, evokes King Arthur and Merlin the dragonlord  henry-7-dragon The early Tudors, especially Henry VII, who used a dragon symbol to associate
himself with King Arthur so he (Henry) could shore up his weak claim. See
Daenerys
as Henry VII
 House-Greyjoy-heraldry
GreyjoyKraken (basically
a giant squid)
Unplumbed depths?? Hidden or surprise menace on the seas? Arrow’s
Point
Icelandic saga
480px-House-Bolton-heraldry BoltonFlayed man Evokes fear Assyrians – see Skinning
the Reputation of House Bolton
House-Tully-heraldry  House Tully  ??  tully-fish-badge-history The French dauphin/Armagnac party during the Burgundian-Armagnac war

All HBO-derived images are copyright © HBO, George RR Martin or both.

Unless otherwise noted all other images are from WikiCommons.

  1. Portrait detail of Sir John Donne, Hasting’s brother-in-law is from the  Donne Triptych (~1478) by Hans Memling at the National Gallery. Other image are from Wikimedia commons and licensed under Creative Commons. []
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraldic_badge []
  3. See also http://www.anne-boleyn.com/eng/anne-boleyns-badges-and-mottoes/ . []

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

6 Comments

  • Reply November 21, 2013

    Kerry

    I think the red lion was the sign of the house of Lancaster, which became associated with the English crown when Henry Bolingbroke became king after deposing Richard II. But you’re right that they were used a lot too, so I’m not sure if that’s what GRRM was thinking of!

    • Reply November 21, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Yes, great comment Kerry! Thanks for sharing it!

  • Reply November 21, 2013

    Jaime Adair

    Kerry, I’d need to look it up, but it seems to me your right. A lot of the houses and individual nobles/royals had multiple badges. For example, I think Edward IV had four badges. I think you’re right; I might have seen a lion listed for Lannister and that would make perfect sense. There definitely seems to be a connection, in some cases, between sigil/badge and source of inspiration.

  • Reply November 24, 2013

    Sam

    I think Richard III used the white boar as it is a pun on Eboracum, the Roman name for the city of York.

    • Reply November 24, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      I’d heard that before – that’s very neat – but I forgot about it. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • Reply April 23, 2014

    David Wright

    Also, the Old English name for a wild boar was Eofor and the Anglian (Yorkshire was colonised by Angles, not Saxons) name for York was Eoforwic. The original pre-Roman name for York was probably Eborakon, which means “Place of the Yew Trees”.e

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