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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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)|
|TyrellGolden Roses||? National flower of England, badge of many kings, early origin may be
in its use as symbol
of Christ’s wounds
|BaratheonStag||The hunt or chase?||Richard II|
|StarkDire Wolf||Ancient, ferocity, loyalty||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.
|LannisterLion||Pride, show, ferocity||This isn’t clear to me accept that lions were used *a lot* in heraldry
- often by kings.
|TargaryenThree-headed red dragon||From a historical perspective, evokes King Arthur and Merlin the dragonlord||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
as Henry VII
a giant squid)
|Unplumbed depths?? Hidden or surprise menace on the seas?||Arrow’s
Point Icelandic saga
|BoltonFlayed man||Evokes fear||Assyrians – see Skinning
the Reputation of House Bolton
|House Tully||??||The French dauphin/Armagnac party during the Burgundian-Armagnac war|
All HBO-derived images are copyright © HBO, George RR Martin or both. Wallpaper in featured image is courtesy of Smashable. Sigils © HBO.
Unless otherwise noted all other images are from WikiCommons.
- 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. [↩]
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraldic_badge [↩]
- See also http://www.anne-boleyn.com/eng/anne-boleyns-badges-and-mottoes/ . [↩]