Oct 31, 2011

Westerosi Religions

I know what you're thinking. "Rappoccio's gone new age on us?!?!!?"

No, I'm talking about George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (I've never devoured five huge books with quite this rapidity before, he gives Tolkein a run for his money!) Now, for those of you that don't follow it, you may be a little lost but I'll try to fill you in. For those that haven't finished the latest tome yet, I won't spoil (much).

What I do want to focus on, however, is the religious aspects of the land of Westeros. I'll fill you in on the history so that you get the idea of where I'm coming from. I have a point, don't worry!

(None of this is in any way sanctioned, so caveat emptor, but for a huge wiki base, see here).

The Old Gods

"Long ago" (thousands of years) the land of Westeros was populated by a diminutive hominid species known to themselves as "those who sing the songs of the earth", later dubbed "children of the forest" by humans. They were a druidic people who had the ability to actually possess animals, plants, and even other humans. There are many with the talent of possessing animals ("wargs" or "skinchangers"), but very very few that have the talent of possessing plants ("greenseers").

There are trees all over the land of Westeros, one in particular called weirwoods. They have white bark and red sap. Typically "those who sing the songs of earth" carved faces in them, in which case they would become a "heart tree". These are apparently favorites of the greenseers, since the trees are very old.

When a greenseer possesses a tree, it sees things in terms of how the tree does. "Future", "past" and "present" are essentially irrelevant for a tree, so the greenseer sees future, past, and present at once.

The short of it is: The "singers" essentially worshiped the greenseers, and in particular revered these weirwood heart trees because their greenseers ("gods") could communicate through them.

When humans came to Westeros (the "First Men"), the same thing happened as always happens when an expansionist civilization expands into a more sedentary civilization that is not very warlike. Death, dismemberment, war, etc. However eventually they settled down and worked out a truce with the "singers".

In the "current day" (per the Song of Ice and Fire saga), the "Old Gods" are still worshiped in the North.

The Seven

The Seven are the figureheads of the faith of another race of men, the Andals that came and conquered the "First Men", moving from the south to the north. The seven are fairly close to what you'd think of as Christian ways of doing things: churches, lore, mythology, canon, priests, priestesses, organization, an attempt at a moral codification, etc. The Seven are the Warrior, the Maiden, the Father, the Mother, the Crone, the Smith, and the Stranger. Each embodies one of seven aspects of a single deity (sound familiar?)

The Andals came and again raped, pillaged, plundered their way through Westeros on their own, and this time it was against the First Men. They were halted at some point (I don't really know, and it isn't really relevant) by one of the Kings of the North, who still worshiped the Old Gods. Eventually the South became predominately worshipful of the Seven, while the North remained faithful to the Old Gods.


Enter R'hllor, whom several prominent characters worship in the current timeline. It is a foreign religion from Essos that worships a fire deity, whose enemy is "The Other". Somehow there are physical manifestations of this religion that are linked to the existence of dragons (which play a central role in the stories).

Pure Speculation

At this point, I now venture to pure speculation because the stories are not yet complete so I cannot know the outcome, obviously. However, to me, it seems that ultimately GRRM seems to be gearing up for some huge theological showdown where the worshipers of the Old Gods, the Seven, and R'hllor all pick their "favorites" to rule Westeros, and the religions and forces battle through blood and bitter strife. In the words of Tom Waits, "This couldn't end any other way!"

This all sounds a lot like good ol' earth, third rock from the sun, pale blue dot, etc. But what is different here?

Evidence. Two of the three religions above, in the stories, have completely observable, specific things that are done that point out the existence of powers beyond human understanding. Priests of R'hllor can raise the dead, the greenseers really can see into the past and the future and other consequences, and more importantly, current human beings in the story can hope to accomplish these things. Which brings me to the second point.

Progression. The religions of Westeros actually do progress in "modern times". The greenseers still exist, they really were people who simply learned how to commune with plants. Priests of R'hllor still are made, and raise the dead with weird rituals. You can see specifically the evidence of your particular religion directly before your eyes in a completely impossible to ignore way (like, someone who was dead for three days and laying in a river is brought back to live, albeit a little... ummm... soggy and decayed. Yum).

And yet, some things are the same in Westeros. The worship of the Seven is a fairly thinly veiled Christianity, the same kind of medieval piousness of the simple friar mingling with bare greed and avarice of the high priests, but yet the worship of the Seven is the least believable of all of the rest. There are no observables in the religion of the Seven, no one brought back to life, no futures foretold, no pasts observed, just the same old Gothic-style religion of hallowed halls of silence and a band of initiates leading flocks.

Which brings me to the upcoming conflicts. It's not clear to me if any of these will win, but it is pretty clear that sides will be chosen, lines will be drawn, axes will be sharpened, knives and pitchforks will be brandished, etc. The remaining parallels to our own society are plain, so I won't address them.

But what I do want to address is the simple fact that in Westeros, I probably wouldn't be an atheist, whereas on Earth, I am. At the very least, I would be firmly aware that there is much about the universe that was well beyond my capacity for understanding. You can claim that the druidic religion of the Old Gods is not in any way evidence of a deity in "our" sense here on earth, but at the very least there is "something else" out there, a spirit, a consciousness post-mortem, etc. You can also claim that the aspects of R'hllor-worship are not evidence of a deity in "our" sense here on earth either, and could say that even if it were, knowing this being's mind would be near impossible. But at the very least, you'd be aware that "something else" is out there.

Westeros still has its fair share of atheists, however (notable ones, even). It seems more accepted there than it was in medieval earth. They place no particular stock in the wishes of the gods of any sort, and play the same games of survival that we all do on a daily basis.

I think that in Westeros I'd still be somewhat skeptical of whose god is the right one, and what the mind of each god was, and whether or not the god existed at all, but I would have a firm belief in "something else" that is beyond the corporeal existence, that our "selves" would not simply be electric pulses running throughout our skulls, that some other sense of "self" pervades our body.

People often blame atheists for their atheism, as if they simply don't want to believe in god X,Y, or Z, or that nothing would convince them. I can easily point out that this is simply not the case. It's not particularly difficult to conceive of a world in which atheism (or perhaps naturalism, if you prefer) would be hard to justify scientifically because of the heaps of evidence against it.

In our world, however, the opposite is the case. There are heaps of evidence against the existence of any "something else", little to no repeatable or observable evidence in favor of this "something else", alternative explanations for basically everything you can come up with that are equally or more plausible than religious ones.

I can simply say that it's not impossible to have evidence for "faith" (or "religion", if you prefer). It just so happens that I don't see any in existence on our planet. So, I remain an atheist. It is simply the most parsimonious explanation for the current state that our world is in.

The real question the rest of you must ask is why we seem as close to the brink of a huge war of religions as a mythical realm where magical things actually do happen in evidence of these religions. Maybe the Westerosi should be used as an example. At the very least, it's a great read! Highly recommended.



Shripathi Kamath said...

Physicists do look for weird things in weird places. What is amazing is that they find 'em!

Democurus said...

Comments and Picked Nits:

I'd also say that R'hllor has elements of Christianity too. It is monotheistic, believes that other deities are actually demons or manifestations of of the "god of ice," and believes in the coming of a savior.

There is also the religion of the Many Faced God, which is essentially a death cult.

Also the Drowned God, the rather interesting and weird religion that I'm not sure has a real-life analogue. It's worshiped by a group of island dwellers and pirateers. Sea Water is their Holy Water. The ideal burial is at sea. Acolytes of the religion are drowned and then ressuscitated.

I'm not sure I'd be a theist in this world, even assuming I had first hand accounts of some of the rather supernatural events.

First, as a reader, we have information we wouldn't have if we were a character. It seems that only the wargs and greenseers really understand their powers. Among common folk such powers have been confused as actual shapeshifting. Only North of the wall, where wargs aren't ostracized do they really understand and accept the ability.

R'hllor is actually foreign to Westeros, and originates in Essos, across the Narrow sea.

But I'm not sure if I would believe that said gods exist in light of witnessing said supernatural events, or I would simply accept that the mechanics of the world allow for such things to happen.

Here's a question, as a reader of the books, do you believe that any of the gods exist as characters (as yet unrevealed) within the story? I don't. I certainly believe there are supernatural powers at work, but whether that's simply a non-personal, unintelligent type of magic at play I can't say, but I'm not yet ready to accept that any one of the gods worshiped exist as characters as described.

rappoccio said...

Hi, Democurus,

Thanks for the comment, I do agree (and I was literally driving to work this morning and said, "Oh, shit! I forgot about the Drowned God and the Damphair, and the Braavosi Many-Faced God!", but you get the picture).

You're absolutely right that there's not necessarily any evidence for a personal deity in the stories either, just a different sort of "physics" that involves a soul. That's what I mean by "something else", it doesn't have to be a cognizant entity, but could possibly be simply the medium which houses the "soul" of these people (which can undeniably move from one physical body to another). The interpretation of that "something else" by the characters can possibly be dead wrong.

I think the separation of the deities is by religion, though. There's clearly evidence for the greenseers (or, rather, we omniscient readers have the evidence) and they clearly exist, but that's basically ancestor worship in any case. The others (the Seven, R'hllor, Drowned, Many-Faces) have no evidence as to whether or not they really exist (even in the story).

There are certainly Westerosi who don't have our "omniscient" point of view, and I would say that your average baker in Flea Bottom has as much evidence for a deity as your average baker in Manhattan. But okay, for the sake of argument let's just set that aside since it's not exactly germane to my point that in Westeros, there IS evidence of something outside of the corporeal, whereas on earth, there isn't. That's more or less the point. ;)

Thanks for the comments! I enjoyed them!

"Winter is coming"! Best get your boots. ;)