Many television shows eschew the central role religion plays in people’s lives—in part for narrative convenience, but also because popular cultural media tends to be removed from America’s religious experiences. For example, Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” almost completely excises the role of religion, with the exception of a few secretive Jewish prayers. The complete tunnel vision required to believe that religion has almost no influence on resistance to oppression undermines the underlying conceit of the story and makes the ongoing action of the show far less believable.
In contrast, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy world, on which “Game of Thrones” is based, incorporates religious belief as a central role in most characters’ lives. Religion defines some of the characters, and is an important motivating factor in many characters’ decisions. Even those who are openly atheistic in GoT often define themselves as such and explain their unbelief.
Religion is not ignored, it is omnipresent. Even its rejection must be declared and explained. This is a refreshing and rare take on religion in a popular culture that tends to either ignore religious belief entirely, or to treat it almost exclusively as a negative influence on society. Of course people do horrible things in the name of religion on “Game of Thrones,” just as they do in real life. But people also act virtuously and courageously because of their religious beliefs.
The Religions of ‘Game of Thrones’
The sheer number and variety of religions in the world of “Game of Thrones” make it one of the most realistic religious shows in television history. Just as in the real world, there are a few prominent and well-known religions. But there are several lesser known religions, with their own unique ritual traditions practiced only by certain regions or groups of people.
The oldest religion in Westeros is the worship of the Old Gods, which is almost exclusively practiced in the North and appears to be inspired by Druidic beliefs, involving the worship of trees and nature. It is unclear if the First Men adopted their beliefs wholesale from the Children of the Forest, or if the Children of the Forest had a different conception of the belief, potentially involving blood sacrifices and more magical interactions involving greenseers. Bran’s experiences seeing through the network of weirwood trees appear to undermine the supernatural aspect of the Old Gods, but we know very little about the details of this religion, and it is one of the most mysterious in Martin’s fictional world.
The Faith of the Seven is Martin’s clearest analogy to Christianity and comes from the Andals, the second wave of men to invade Westeros. In an evocation of the Christian Trinity, the “Faithful” worship the Seven Who Are One, a single deity with seven different aspects: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the Stranger. In practice, the religion sometimes approaches polytheism, with adherents praying separately to the personalities with whom they identify or whose help they seek, rather than treating them as aspects of the same god.
The Faith, as it is often simply referred to, has churches, known as septs, where the Faithful worship. It has priest-figures and nun-figures, septons and septas, respectively. It even has holy texts, such as “The Seven-Pointed Star,” which provide the moral code and principles to which believers adhere. In a twisted echo of Crusader history, Cersei Lannister re-arms an ancient group within the Faith known as the Faith Militant, which functions as a combination of the Knights Templar or Hospitaller with the Spanish Inquisition. The Faith of the Seven is the most widely practiced religion in Westeros, or it was before Cersei destroyed the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing, the main hub of the religion.
The Drowned God is worshiped almost exclusively by the residents of the Iron Islands, where the Greyjoys are from. The religion is mostly unknown outside of the Ironborn, and the little we know about it consists mostly of its baptismal-like sacrificial drowning in which men are immersed into the ocean for extended periods as a way of giving their lives to the Drowned God. This ritual, used on Euron Greyjoy after he becomes King of the Iron Islands, is what allows Theon and Yara time to escape in Season Six.
The Show Portrays Secularism, Too
Arya learns about the Many-Faced God in Braavos as she trains to be an assassin with the Faceless Men. The Braavosi believe that all the gods worshipped by other people in the world are just the various faces and aspects of the Many-Faced God. At its heart, worship of the Many-Faced God is a death cult, originating from a slave culture in Valyria that believed death to be inevitable, and which therefore should be welcomed. Hence, the mantra popular among its adherents: valar morghulis, which means “all men must die.” The old or sickly come to be euthanized in its temple. Its priests are trained assassins who believe death is a gift, “mercifully” administering it to those who seek death, but also surprising others with it when given a contract to kill.
The worship of R’hllor is the newest religion in Westeros, though it is not new in Essos. R’hllor is often called the Red God by non-worshippers and the Lord of Light by believers. It is a popular religion in Essos, where Daenerys spends most of her time early in the show. Belief in R’hllor appears to be a combination of Manichaeism, blood magic, and fire worship. It is the source of some of the most magical aspects of Game of Thrones.
Thoros of Myr resurrects Beric Dondarrion multiple times by invoking R’hllor, and Melisandre similarly resurrects Jon Snow. Melisandre burns “king’s blood” in an attempt to gain favor, by burning the leeches with Gendry’s blood to kill three claimants to the Iron Throne and burning Shireen Baratheon at the stake to gain a victory over Ramsay Bolton at Winterfell. The failure of the burning of Shireen should cast serious doubt on the leeches’ role in killing Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, and Balon Greyjoy.
Although followers of R’hllor only worship the Lord of Light, they also believe in another god, which Melisandre refers to as the Great Other. In contrast to the Lord of Light, whose followers focus on light, fire, and life, the Great Other is the god of darkness, ice, and death, hence believers’ saying, “the night is dark and full of terrors.” From the letter Ser Davos Seaworth brings to Melisandre’s attention, she becomes convinced that the White Walkers (known in the books as the Others) are the tools of the Great Other, sent to bring destruction and death to the world.
The extreme secularism of the maesters at the Citadel in Oldtown are a clear contrast to all these strongly held religious beliefs. The maesters want to investigate everything, to experiment and verify and re-verify before reaching any type of definite conclusion. The maesters are emblematic of the benefits and limits of science in our world—they provide an organized and rigorous method of gaining knowledge and understanding phenomena, but are often unable to quickly understand and clarify events so as to guide the characters’ actions. Sam’s experience shows that the maesters have as much knowledge and information available to them as anyone in Westeros, but that does not help them make better decisions than those who have seen the real threat and believe in it.
Religious Experiences In ‘Game of Thrones’
The most interesting aspect of “Game of Thrones” is how the characters appear to struggle with religious belief just as ordinary people do. “Game of Thrones” shows how religious belief can be fluid: Thoros was a drunken unbelieving priest, but his belief was strengthened when he prayed over Beric Dondarrion and resurrected him. Melisandre was as sure of her visions as any priestess of the Oracle at Delphi, but has come to doubt her faith as she realizes she misunderstood what she was seeing.
Conversion plays an important role in the show’s depiction of religion. Although the Faith of the Seven is used as a tool to manipulate Tommen Baratheon in Season Six, it is evident that Tommen comes to truly believe in the Faith and the High Sparrow’s teachings.
Sandor Clegane is perhaps the most reluctant of believers. An avowed atheist for most of his life, he looks into a fire at Thoros’s urging, and then later witnesses in person beyond the Wall what he saw predicted in the flames. This has obviously made an impression on him, even if he is not yet fully a believer in the Lord of Light. Call him the Doubting Thomas of Westeros.
The opposite progression is evident in Sansa. When she was young, she used to pray to the gods in the simple manner of a child. But instead of her faith maturing, a series of calamities befall her, pushing her into unbelief, and she recently admitted she doesn’t believe any of it anymore.
Stannis Baratheon was an example of the pragmatic believer—call him the Pascal of Westeros. He may not have quite believed in the Lord of Light, but he thought he could use Melisandre’s powers to advance his cause and he wagered that it would be more advantageous for him to advance R’hllor’s cause than the traditional Faith of the Seven. He chose wrong, but he still believed a little in his own way.
Arya’s strange behavior toward Sansa throughout Season 7 was made more believable because she has spent the last few years of her life in a death cult training to kill. That undoubtedly warps one’s perspective on life for a while, even if one does ultimately reject the religion.
The role of prophecy is another way characters’ religious beliefs affect them. Some, like Cersei, may refuse to believe at first, but when faced with evidence that a prophecy may come true, they begin to believe. Cersei’s reaction to the prophecy shown at the beginning of Season Five—that her children would die and another queen would take her place—drives much of her misplaced scheming against Margaery Tyrell in Seasons Five and Six. Daenerys’s conversations with Jon Snow at the end of Season Seven indicate that she still believes the Season One prophecy from the witch Mirri Maz Duur, who prophesied that Daenerys will never bear children again. This is partially what drives her argument with Tyrion over a succession plan.
The central prophecy of the story is the prophecy of The Prince Who Was Promised, a second coming of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. Melisandre mentions the prophecy to Daenerys early in Season Seven, and Missandei clarifies that the Valyrian for “prince” could also mean “princess.” How Daenerys, Melisandre, Jon, and others interpret this prophecy and the extent to which they believe and react to it will undoubtedly affect their paths in the show’s last season.
The Show Explores Faith And Doubt
Finally, Beric and Jon’s conversation north of the Wall is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking discussions of religious belief in modern popular television.
Jon has classic doubts about religious belief, wondering what the Lord of Light wants and why he was brought back to life: “What’s the point in serving a god when none us knows what he wants?”
Beric responds with the classic response of the believer: “I don’t think it’s our purpose to understand.” It is enough for Beric the believer that he knows what the goal is. And as fruitless as the fight for goodness may seem, it still needs to be fought.
Regardless of how you feel about other aspects of “Game of Thrones,” the series stands out for its realistic portrayal of how religion affects the lives of its characters. Some believe because they are predisposed to accept the supernatural. Others believe only after seeing miracles. Some experience tragedy and are driven to belief, while others believe that religion is meaningless after undergoing severe trauma.
In real life, religion plays an immensely important role in shaping our lives and our world. It affects how we treat others, how we view ourselves, and how we make decisions. In a world in which cultural portrayals of religion are either nonexistent or parodic, “Game of Thrones” is a refreshing outlier that demonstrates the importance of religious belief in shaping human choices and destinies.