In Game of Thrones, people often swear by the “old gods and the new.” So far at least, the southern worshipers of the new gods (that is, the Faith of the Seven) seem to be relatively tolerant of the old gods in the North. (The southerners simply sneer at the primitive beliefs of the northerners; they don’t try to kill the northerners for them.) There are interfaith marriages (Ned and Catelyn). And, in the books, Sam even converted from his childhood faith of the new gods to become a believer in the old gods. In short, Westeros is a place that tolerates multiple religious systems, not unlike the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages.
We tend to think of the High and Late Middle Ages as periods of religious intolerance – the Inquisitions and burning heretics at the stake are just two examples. Some periods during the late Roman Empire and early Middle Ages, however, were surprisingly tolerant as regions began to drift from pagan worship over to Christianity.
During the early Christian period (before 325 CE), the Romans practiced many religions, including Judaism, the worship of the classical Greco-Roman Olympic deities (like Zeus, Athena, Apollo), the worship of imperial rulers, and other newer emerging religions. As Christianity spread, Norse and Germanic, Slavic, Folk, and Celtic religions all influenced Christianity.
Ancient artwork reveals that early Christianity incorporated “pagan” elements as the faith was born. The mosaic below is from a vault in the Tomb of the Julii, which is in the papal necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the mosaic, Christ is depicted as a triumphant sun-god Sol Invictus (or the Greek Helios) with sunbeams shooting from his head. Two rearing horses pull Christ in his chariot. (( See the details associated with this image. )) There are Dionysian vines in the foreground.
As the centuries passed, this process of fusion and coexistence replayed itself as states, including parts of England, converted to Christianity.
At the dawn of the last millennium, the old gods still roamed the English countryside, where they sometimes held hands with the (Christian) God. Although Christianity began to carve its path through Anglo-Saxon England, even as late as the eleventh century the old gods held sway in some country villages. After all, the word pagan1 comes from the Latin word for countryside, pagus.
In Game of Thrones, the “old gods” are the nameless deities of stone and earth and tree – and the northmen, wildlings, and crannogmen still worship them. In southern Westeros, people follow the new gods. But, a red god from the east, the Lord of Light (R’hllor) threatens the Faith of the Seven’s supremacy.
The Westerosi old gods are reminiscent of the Greek mythology and even the Naiads and Dryads of Narnia fame. The Westerosi old gods also evoke shamanism and animistic faiths (the latter of which is the belief that non-human entities like animals or plants possess a spiritual essence). Still it is possible to see traces of the coexistence between the old gods and the new gods in England during the Anglo-Saxon and even early Norman period.
In Alfred the Great’s family history, the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king claimed ancestry back to the biblical Noah and Adam and Eve. On those same pages, however, Alfred also proudly proclaimed that he hailed from the mighty Germanic god Odin2 and even Beowa (or Barley).
This last pagan figure, Beowa, is associated with grain and agriculture. He may have inspired the folk legend of John Barleycorn, whom like the grain harvest, suffers, dies, and is reborn. One poem notes the “reviving effects of drinking his blood.”3 In modern-day popular culture, however, John Barleycorn’s blood is often a metaphor for alcohol (due to the title of Jack London’s autobiography).
Anglo-Saxon kings like Ethelbert, the last pagan king of Kent (560 to 616 CE/AD), were surprisingly tolerant of invading religions like Christianity. As authors Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger note, some kings had a bit of a “live-and-let-live-attitude.”
When Augustine and other monks came to Kent to proselytize in 597, King Ethelbert told them:
“I cannot abandon the age old beliefs that I have held… But since you have travelled far, and I can see that you are sincere in your desire to impart to us what I believe to be true and excellent, we will not harm you… Nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion4 .”
When Ethelbert eventually became a Christian, he did so because he recognized Christianity offered better prospects for himself and his kingdom.
King Redwald of East Anglia (560 to 620 CE) hedged his bets by having two altars built side-by-side. The king consumed the Christian sacraments of “bread and wine” at one altar and sacrificed to the old gods on the one beside it.5.
The process of overlaying Christianity on Paganism is famous. Numerous articles cite the pagan origins of the fertility-celebrating Easter egg and the Christmas tree born of Winter solstice and Yule. But the strategy goes much deeper than substituting Pagan feast days with Christian celebrations.
In the ninth century, Pope Gregory suggested that England’s pagan temples be converted into Christian churches “in order that the people may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed”6. In Germany, Christians chopped down sacred oak trees and built a new Christian church with the wood. In France, Christian missionaries built churches on pagan burial mounds.
This tactic of conversion by swapping out and overlaying paganism with Christian symbols occurred at an everyday level as well. Instead of sacrificing to Mother Earth, the Christian church encouraged people to pray to the Virgin Mary. The Church accepted that the names of the Anglo-Saxon days honored the gods.7 They allowed Sun-day and Moon-day and tolerated the days that honored Norse gods — Tiw’s-day, Woden’s-day, Thor’s-day, and Frig’s-day – as well as Roman (Saturn’s-day).
The old gods “died hard” as people transitioned to Christianity. Sometime between 900 and 950 CE, the Scandinavian descendants dwelling in Gosforth, England carved a fourteen foot red sandstone cross. Norse gods like Loki, Heimdallr, Víðarr, and Thor prance across the Gosforth Cross8. But, Christian symbols – like Christ’s crucifixion — mingle peacefully with them. And, some historians speculate these symbols may be evidence that people illustrated their Christian teachings through pagan stories.
Westeros’ religious struggle between the old gods and the new is, so far, fairly low key. This may well change, however, as the religious temperature in Westeros gets turned up with the emergence of the fanatical sparrows. Meanwhile, a competitor – the worship of the Red God or the Lord of Light (R’hllor) – creeps in from the East. As we watch Melisandre and Stannis “purify” heretics through fire, it isn’t hard to imagine that this faith will come into conflict with the Faith of the Seven. Still, it seems like the worship of the old gods – with its ties to the North and nature – are a possible antidote to the threat north of the Wall. Is there one true faith in Westeros? What belief system will ultimately triumph, or are all beliefs equally valid? What do you think?
- R. Lacey and D. Danzinger, The Year 1000. P. 141 [↩]
- Wóden in Old English [↩]
- See Kathleen Herbert, Looking for the Lost Gods of England, 1994:15, as discussed in Wikipedia’s “Beowa”. [↩]
- Bede as quoted in The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, p. 142. [↩]
- The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, p. 143 [↩]
- p 142 [↩]
- All of these ideas come from The Year 1000, p. 143. [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gosforth_Cross#cite_note-Bailey96-1 [↩]
- Reproduction by Julius Magnus Petersen (1827 – 1917). – Photographed from Finnur Jónsson (1913). Goðafræði Norðmanna og Íslendinga eftir heimildum. Híð íslenska bókmentafjelag, Reykjavík. Page 83. [↩]