Posted by: aediculaantinoi | April 19, 2014

“Do any of you keep the Old Gods?”

Toward the beginning of this month, when there was a free On Demand week, I took advantage of what little of it was left to mainline all three seasons of Game of Thrones (time which could probably have been better spent on something else, granted!), and have also managed to see the two newest episodes. I have to say, even though I find a lot of problems with the series on a variety of levels, it’s also enjoyable entertainment. (No, I have not read the books, and probably won’t have time to do so either.) I have a few thoughts on the matter meanwhile, though.


It was Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (shown on the left here), if I’m not mistaken, who said the line which is my subject line in this entry, when the various recruits of the Night’s Watch are being briefed on their final assignments within the Watch when their training was complete and before they take their final vows. “Do any of you keep the Old Gods?” is a really beautiful phrase, and I have found that this aspect of Game of Thrones is the part of it religion-wise that is the most pleasing and often intriguing. The theologies of that fantasy world I find less and less interesting and appealing the more I find out about them, alas. The phrases which abound on “the Old Gods and the New Gods” are also rather nice, but when I’ve looked further into what the Old Gods are (a kind of nameless and numberless “spirit” represented by trees and tied to the land, particularly in “The North,” and thus similar to a kind of primitive conception of animism), as well as the New Gods (seven of them to be exact, which are the Maiden, the Mother, the Crone–Wicca, anyone?–as well as their male counterparts the Warrior, the Father, and the Smith, plus the Stranger, who seems to be “death,” but may also be rather gender-undefined…and yet, they’re also presented as seven aspects of a singular godhead, meaning it’s ultimately monistic, just like Wicca!), and then various other gods that are often worshipped by people in other lands or on the various islands, none of it really speaks of polytheism as I’ve understood it and as it is practiced by my co-religionists. The other gods that are mentioned are often mentioned as if they are the “only real gods,” so it seems, and I don’t know whether this is due to the writers, directors, and actors choices as far as the films go, or if this is true to the books as well. I suspect, though, that the theological implications of these things have not been fully explored by anyone involved in the books or the shows, to be honest, which would make it not that different from the presuppositions about religion (and the “logic” of religion being a logic that follows and privileges monotheistic interpretations and its symptoms in other regards, e.g. the relation of one religion to another, etc.) that our wider culture has at present.

Of course, due to various things, I rather like the Old Gods better, from what I’ve seen, than the New Gods, including in the line where someone swore “By the Seven New Gods, and the Old Gods beyond counting!”

And, do I need to point out that in the overall similarities of Westeros to Britain (with King’s Landing being in a similar position and importance to London), that The Wall is about where Hadrian’s Wall would have been correspondingly…of course, if Hadrian’s Wall had been built during the Ice Age. 😉

drowned god

Then, there’s the thing which some people have asked me about before: what about the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, and any possible relation to Antinous? On the one hand, there are some superficial similarities: “What is dead may never die” is a rather nice slogan for the religion of the Drowned God, and could actually fit somewhat well with an Antinoan situation. (I’m also reminded of the song from T. Thorn Coyle and Sharon Knight, “Osiris Lives,” yet another drowned deity: “Osiris lives, Osiris returns–what is true will never die!”) There are other aspects of the Drowned God and his religion, and the culture in which that religion is entrenched, which sound very close to certain concepts and structures within Irish culture, including a fénnidi-like system of piracy, and the importance of the colors grey, green, and blue, which are all equally translations of the Old Irish color-term glas that is most commonly associated with the sea. But, I think the similarities end there: the Drowned God is a bit of a bastard (though that term gets used in a more literal sense throughout the show, so pardon me for using it here more metaphorically!), and doesn’t thus seem to have any similarities at all with the personality or the associations which Antinous has. I’m also a little bit disappointed in the kind of “baptism” ritual that this religion has, which I expected to be somewhat like the Inundation Ritual that we observe, but it isn’t, it just involves a bit of spritzing with salt water from a waterskin, rather than full immersion. (Apparently, for priests, it involves an actual drowning and resuscitation.) The lines from it are interesting, though:

Priest: “Let your servant be born again from the sea, as you were. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel.”

Response: “What is dead may never die.”

Priest: “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”

So, that’s interesting.

Renly and Loras

And, what about queer matters? Well, there are a number of queer characters, and their reception on the part of other characters is variable, so it seems. There is the secret love between Renly Baratheon, one of the aspiring kings, and Ser Loras Tyrrell, which of course ends when Renly is killed, unfortunately. But, we don’t really see much mourning or sadness on Loras’ part as a result of this–though that may be, for amongst other reasons, because there’s so damn much else going on!–so it isn’t quite like the situation we find in other popular treatments that end up having a queer slain lover situation (e.g. True Blood). Oh well…another opportunity lost, I suppose.

It’s an enjoyable show, most certainly. It’s interesting to contemplate through it what a medieval world in our own universe would have been like if there had been a preservation of polytheism on a much wider scale.

What do you all think? (And by that, I mean for this not to become a place to just tell me how much you like or dislike the show, or any particular characters in it–as, indeed, that would get out of hand very quickly!–but instead what aspects of it seem relevant or interesting to you religiously or culturally for polytheism, etc.)


  1. I definitely keep the old gods. I’m a German-focused polytheist and the descriptions of the old gods is rather similar to my conception of the gods and it reminds of the Tacitus quote from Germania:

    “They don’t consider it mighty enough for the Heavens to depict Gods on walls or to display them in some human shape.”

    Re: the Drowned God baptismal. In the books there are two versions of the ritual. The one you’re referring to is the newer style, but the older style is a full submersion where the priest holds them under water until they pass out, then tries to resuscitate them. If they are revived, they have a higher religious standing. If they die they go to the Drowned God’s hall. This version can also occur randomly, for instance Damphair, Theon’s uncle, became the priest he is be surviving drowning after a sea battle.

  2. There’s a little more information on the various religions in the books, but not a whole lot. G.R.R. Martin is a fine writer, but he’s not a religious scholar. He gives just enough detail to keep the story interesting, and doesn’t go any further. The Old Gods/Seven Gods is definitely meant to be a northern European paganism/Christianity analog.

    The Drowned God is not a human-looking being, it’s mostly represented by the image of a Kraken. Like the last commenter said, there are two styles of the drowning ritual, which represent mainstream (the new style) and an older, fundamentalist sect.

    I like the religious aspects of the show, not because they’re the best examples of fantasy religion, but because they’re better than what you see in most fantasy.

    There are deeper fictional treatments out there. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels have a good implicit religion. There’s a role-playing game, Runequest, and it’s world, Glorantha, created by Greg Stafford. Stafford used to be one of the editors at Shaman’s Drum magazine. He created the world as a model for exploring his ideas about ancient religion.

    Not that you probably need more things to take up your time.

  3. I see others commenting on the ritual of the Drowned God, so I’ll skip that. About Loras mourning for his lost lover – in the books he is mourning for Renly and never has another lover again. As for the tv-series, well…

  4. […] and finally for today, I’ve posted before about Game of Thrones, and while there are a million blog posts, news stories, and webpages out there about the books, […]

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