The Father’s face is stern and strong, he sits and judges right from wrong.
He weighs our lives, the short and long, and loves the little children.
The Mother gives the gift of life, and watches over every wife.
Her gentle smile ends all strife, and she loves her little children.
The Warrior stands before the foe, protecting us where e’er we go.
With sword and shield and spear and bow, he guards the little children.
The Crone is very wise and old, and sees our fates as they unfold.
She lifts her lamp of shining gold, to lead the little children.
The Smith, he labors day and night, to put the world of men to right.
With hammer, plow, and fire bright, he builds for little children.
The Maiden dances through the sky, she lives in every lover’s sigh,
Her smiles teach the birds to fly, and give dreams to little children.
The Seven Gods who made us all, are listening if we should call.
So close your eyes, you shall not fall, they see you, little children,
fust close your eyes, you shall not fall, they see you, little children.
The image and text above is not my own. See the link. Actually, none of the graphics are mine. Because I like pretty pictures, I am using this magnificent post by Rekkka to provide a visual for the major faiths I’m discussing.
Disclaimer: Throughout most of this post I relate bits of religion in ASOIAF to various aspects of Christianity. This is entirely because I was raised in that faith and then studied its history, and thus feel most qualified to comment on it and how it relates to Martin’s created religions. From what I do understand of other major religious systems, such as Islam, Judaism, and South Asian faiths (of which I know very little indeed) to name just a few, there are certainly parallels to be drawn there as well, and I would be delighted if those more knowledgable in those cultures of belief would expand upon this post.
I’m also focusing on the religions of Westeros as opposed to Essos, since we know considerably more about the former, with the exception of the Dothraki religion as understood by Daenerys Targaryen.
Warning: Some spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire, although it’s more about the background that we learn of gradually then any actual events.
As a medievalist in training, with a special interest in Christian theology and practice surrounding more local faith traditions (mostly the early Medieval ‘Cult of Saints’ - hence the reference to Martin of Tours in my url), and a fan of sci-fiction & fantasy (albeit with a somewhat narrow exposure), I have always looked closely at the religious structures created by fantasy authors. And I have been often rather disappointed by what I found.
Martin is so absurdly good at everything involving world-building (occasionally to a fault) that I sometimes forget how impressive his created religious systems are. Not just the mythologies and theologies themselves, but the range of practice, the degrees of devotion, from the fanatical to the nearly agnostic, but still with the instincts learned in childhood (as a former Roman Catholic, I can very much relate to that). Too often fantasy authors use religion as either a sounding board for their own views on spirituality - which often ends up as some kind of mix of classical paganism, druidism, and eastern philosophies appropriate to a western context - it ends up being just there, almost more by expectation than organic creation. The religion of epic fantasy worlds tends to be a poorly defined, multi-theist quasi-magical phenomena often overflowing with (a)historical nostalgia for pre-Christian religion in Europe, often informed by ‘New Age’ re-interpretations of those religions, which are themselves based more upon folk lore and millennia of distorted and re-created tradition than any kind of hard historical evidence for past practices or beliefs. (Note: I’m talking entirely as a religious historian here). To be blunt, the sort of religion so widely seen in science-fiction and fantasy is safer to play with, because it doesn’t really relate to the religious issues of our own day. Religion, when it appears, is usually the source of plot developments and motivation for some characters, and nearly any religion of note is clearly and textually validated by magic or supernatural activity, if not the outright appearance of deities before the characters.
Some series definitely do this better than others (I would look at Jacqueline Carey’s work as a good example). But even then there is a tendency to vindicate certain faiths, usually those of the protagonists. And we see little of the middle ground between agnostic or atheistic and what we would call by today’s standards a fanatic, be they a protagonist or not.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has created and developed a myriad of different religions, nearly all of which have a coherent theology and practices which are relatively logical and reasonable given cultural and historical context. And perhaps more important, for the practitioners of certain religious beliefs, degrees of expectation and observation of divine power and agency in the real world shape the prevailing world-view of the characters.
These are organic, original systems of religious practice that draw piecemeal upon concepts that exist in the contemporary and historical religions of our world, in a way that in some ways they seem quite familiar, yet different enough (and again in ways that reflect the differing circumstances) that they are not necessary obvious allusions to real religious systems and groups.
To start with, the Faith of the Seven blends the obvious polytheistic features of the Seven by fusing it with a simplified Trinitarian-esque doctrine of the Seven as aspects of One; a similar conception is found across the sea with the Braavosi worshipers of the Faceless One, who believe every god and deity is merely one face of the same divine being, and Valar Morghulis (all men must die). Indeed, the notion of different aspects, or forms, or even beings united by one will has been at the heart of many Christological controversies in Church history.
Septs of the Faith have definite elements of both pagan temples and churches - organized sites, artificial constructs of religion devotion, and the Faith even has monastic organizations (the monks of The Quiet Isle and the convent in Oldtown) and a hierarchical structure. There is a High Septon, first located in Oldtown, then King’s Landing, and the council of Most Devout who select him; the de facto if not de jura heads of that religion (akin, it would seem, to a Pope and the electing Cardinals, though when the story opens, the Septon makes seemingly no claim to any form of secular dominion). The great Sept of Baelor the Blessed forms the spiritual center of the Faith in the political capital of the Realm. Like the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the tenets and teachings of the Gods are found within the Seven-Pointed Star, a work of holy scripture.
Established in Westeros thousands of years ago by the Andals, nearly everyone south of the Neck knows the Faith, and has some kind of upbringing in it. Though our view is distorted by the war which engulfs most of the smallfolk we see, septons and septas of the Southron kingdoms seem a part of daily life, and their degrees of devotion as variable as the laymen and women. Even Tyrion, who has never had time for gods, bitter about his fate as a twisted dwarf, can recite bits of doctrine learned in childhood.
The Faith of the Seven is probably the religion most consciously modeled off a real-world system, in this case Medieval Christianity. What distinguishes this effort is that it’s done well, and continues to be a factor in the culture of the realm as the series progresses.
Beginning in A Feast for Crows, we see compelling example of the creation and irresistible spread of mendicant movements in troubled times, quite reminiscent of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders in the 12th century in western Europe. This ultimately culminates in the imposition of morally-guided theocracy in some cities, as the death, devastation, and deprivation of the War of the Five Kings leads as it so often has in history to a re-assessment of the moral condition of men, and the determination that men have become corrupt and immoral, and have lost sight of the powers above. Enter the moral reformers, and the talk of hellfire at the pulpits. These sorts of movements met a variety of fates in the medieval period, but some became enormously consequential.
This can happen. What happened to Savanorola can also happen.
Martin’s world also includes the rapidly expanding dualist faith of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, a figure set in opposition to a nameless Other, the two trapped in an eternal war for dominance of the created world. There is also the legend of Azor Ahai, Nissa Nissa, and Lightbringer which foretells the rebirth of a divine champion who will lead the forces of R’hllor to final victory other the Other. It’s a curious mix resembling a few early Christian gnostic movements (and Manichaeism), albeit without the conceit that the Other created the material world, which is imperfect and inherently inferior to the higher realm. It has a strong messianic component as well as a dynamic fervor for prostyletizing and conversion, mirroring both early Christianity and Islam. Especially like the former it is also fundamentally intolerant of other systems of belief, indeed actively destructive (as in the graphic above).*
The faith of R’hllor, based on what we have seen from the evangelizing priestess Melisandre of Asshai, also includes characteristic aspects of mysticism, including prophecy, visions in fire, and miracle-working (including raising of the dead) by both unseen divine forces and by wielders of their power. Such events of course, are given more or less credence depending on the observer, as it was in the past and even today when some are more inclined to see God and His saints at work than others.
Why yes, the executioner’s eyeballs are falling out of his head. Whether you believed this was due to the fact he had just executed St. Alban, a righteous man and marytr, or if you believed it had happened at all, is very much up to you.
Above the Neck, we find the quasi-druidic Old Gods of the North, the faith of the Children of the Forest. This is more familiar territory for fantasy religion - naturalistic worship of the trees and the environment, with the weirwoods actually serving as the ‘eyes’ of the Old Gods, and their destruction removing their presence from deforrested areas. In the past, ‘greenseers’ could communicate with animals, and even wield the power to possess living things.
Over the centuries, the knowledge of the real-world power of these Old Gods has passed into legend, though we as readers soon learn that there is something magical about it after all. This is definitively a folk religion - there are no priests, texts, songs of worship, and the only holy sites are the naturally-occurring weirwoods themselves. The Old Gods survive in the hearts and minds of the descendants of the First Men, holding out for thousands of years against the imported Faith of the Seven.**
The fourth of Martin’s major faiths is the worship of the Drowned God of the Iron Islands. It is a fascinating and occasionally horrifying combination of nature worship, dualism (with the Storm God), death and rebirth (a sacrament), and religious hierarchy and holy orders - i.e. priests of the Drowned God being qualified to drip salt water on the heads of believers in a repeatable form of baptism or blessing, as well as the more extreme near-drowning/resuscitation ’rebirth’ that the Damphair, Aeron Greyjoy, performs. While the religion of the Drowned God has an order of priests and rituals, it lacks the organization of the Faith of the Seven.
Above all, though this religion is based upon fundamental aspects of the Ironborn way of life and experience: seawater, sailing, and drowning. The hall of the Drowned God, to whom Ironborn go upon death, is a nautical adaptation of the Norse Valhalla, as the Ironborn themselves are a realistically rendered ‘Viking’ reaving society.
So Martin gets full points in investing time and energy into the aspect of life so frequently overlooked or dismissed by fantasy authors often unhappy with the religions of today, forgetting or not caring that, in a time when modern science was in its infancy and unknown to all but the most learned, faith played a vital role in making sense of the world. But what really sets GRRM apart is that his religions are not merely complex, but also more ambiguous in their execution and presentation then any other fantasy I’ve read, including the Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy by Carey. Martin completely eschews the convention of having literal Gods and Goddesses interacting with mortals in his work (with the possible exception of the North’s Old Gods, though this is more of a kind of natural magic than a focused divine entity). As mentioned before, we as the audience see apparent miracles worked, but their genuine nature is doubted by POV characters. A series of events occurs that might be seen to fulfill prophecy, or be the answer to a prayer, but they could just as easily be coincidence, people seeing what they want to and ignoring other evidence (i.e. Melisandre’s curse upon the rivals of Stannis Baratheon).
As Martin’s ostensibly fantasy world becomes more and more fantastical (and I love the gradual creeping return of magic in the midst of the more mundane political intrigue and conflict), we see magic and religion increasingly mixed together, especially with the North and the Lord of the Light, and, to some degree, their common ground, the ‘Others’ or ‘White Walkers’ of the land beyond the Wall (the Drowned God may also have more than spiritual power). The prophecies that are revealed throughout the series and inform the motivations of some of the characters have their roots in a time where the magic was strong, but now they are in no small part a matter of faith. In past as well as present, magic forms around faith, and faith forms around magic. One reinforces the other, while at the same time undermining the audience’s own belief - is this a god, or men wielding unnatural powers? Are those powers divinely given, or there for the taking? Are some gods more powerful than others? Can one switch allegiances and be rewarded or punished? Is it all an illusion, created by fanatics and schemers? Five books in, we are little closer to knowing what faiths are more based in ‘reality’ than others.*** Perhaps Ice and Fire is all about a struggle between R’hllor and the Great Other. But it remains very much unclear to the reader, and more importantly for this discussion, entirely uncertain for the POV characters.
Do you know why I love all the fact that all these issues and questions are asked and addressed in Martin’s work? Because I ask the same questions when I read medieval hagiographies, or chronicles, or theological treatises, and even in my own faith and religious experience. And to see that realized in a rich fantasy world, made an essential part of the story, not just window dressing or a literal deus ex machina, that’s just friggin’ awesome.
*In both cases this intolerance was mostly focused upon pre-existing pagan cultures, with both of these faiths tolerating the other Abrahamic faiths to an extent at some times and actively persecuting them at others, although the Islamic faith is, in terms of theology at least, less exclusionary.
**In a more historical sense, there are also definite parallels between the invasion of the Angles and Saxons (who would eventually convert to Christianity) into the land of the Britons and the settling and conquest of the Children of the Forest by the Andals and the First Men, and then, of course, the ‘Norman Conquest’ of Aegon the Conqueror which established the Targaryen dynasty (in history, William’s line was continued into the Plantagenet dynasty, the weakening of which led to the conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster called The Wars of the Roses.
***I’ll admit, of those religions we have seen, the Faith of the Seven has little in the way of supernatural occurrence to validate it, although as the movements in AFFC and ADWD proved,