One of the most powerful and often quoted catch phrases from Game of Thrones has to be “valar morghulis” – a mantra that closely resembles a memento mori.
In the Middle Ages, art depicted reminders of our mortality – skulls and other symbols of death. Artists intended these symbols to remind their audience of the fleeting vanities of wealth and other earthly pursuits. A Latin phrase – memento mori, or “remember that you have to die” – came to encapsulate this mortal reflection.
Distinct from carpe diem (“seize the day”), memento mori warns against the diversions of wealth, luxuries, and fleshly pleasure. The Christian belief was that these transient pursuits distract us from our salvation.
Memento mori appear in numerous late medieval art paintings and sculpture. Two of my favorite examples of memento mori – yes, I do have favorites – are Mary, Queen of Scots’ skull watch and Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ skull watch – which according to the British Museum never actually belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots – is similar to the following memento mori watch at the British Museum. The images of this watch are courtesy of the British Museum:
Holbein’s The Ambassadors is as cryptic as the Mona Lisa (or at least as enigmatic as The Da Vinci Code presented it to be).
The Ambassadors contains numerous inscrutable symbols. John North’s book, The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance, presents an exceptionally intricate theory about the meanings of these symbols. One of particularly intriguing symbol is the skull that transects the bottom of third of the painting.
At first, it is hard to tell that grey object is a skull because it is so askew. In fact, some have argued that Holbein designed this massive life-sized painting to hang over a stairwell, so the skull would become less distorted as you ascended the stairs (which is perhaps symbolic in and of itself). This technique is known as anamorphosis.
The meaning of the skull, however, is more oblique – no pun intended. Is it meant to convey that diplomacy can be deadly? To remind us that without diplomacy there is death? To warn other ambassadors of the folly of getting involved in the King’s Great Matter (Henry VIII’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn), which some argue the symbols indicate?
Double-decker, or cadaver, tombs are an example of memento mori tombs. These tombs depicted two effigies of the deceased: one as the person was in life and the other effigy as a rotting corpse. Although, the double-decker tombs are far from the only other type example.
While memento mori may seem morbid, we have memento mori in modern-day culture. The band Jethro Tull’s gloomy 1971 hit song “Aqualung” – with its disturbingly vivid reference to death rales – certainly reminds us of our mortality. (A hallmark sign of death, death rales (or the “death rattle”) occur when, immediately before death, the dying person’s lungs fill with fluid so his or her breathing takes on an I-wish-I-could-forget-it rasping sound.)
Curiously, the Essosi traditionally reply to “valar morghulis” – which means “all men must die” — with “valar dohaeris.” In George RR Martin’s medieval-esque world, the memento mori phrase valar morghulis reminds us of our impending death. The response, however, may reposition that reminder into the land of the living. Valar dohaeris tells us that all men must serve. Serve whom? The gods? Their overlords and superiors? Their fellow men? Is this a reminder like the word “duty” in House Tully’s words? Is the duty to mankind?