Game of Thrones and Ancient History III: Burning a Princess – Shireen and Iphigenia

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GoTAH III: Burning a Princess – Shireen and Iphigenia

**There will be spoilers here for the 5th and 6th seasons of Game of Thrones**

In S05E09 “The Dance of Dragons,” Game of Thrones viewers were confronted with perhaps the most heart-wrenching and harrowing scenes of the show so far as perhaps the most innocent character in the entire series, Shireen Baratheon, met a horrifying demise in the snows of the North not far from Winterfell.

davos_and_shireen_the_dance_of_dragonsSer Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram)

The greyscale-scarred little girl who taught Davos Seaworth his letters and seemed the only one capable of penetrating the cold exterior of her father Stannis Baratheon was burned at the stake in order to encourage the Red God R’hllor to intervene with the weather.

If that was not bad enough, Shireen’s burning only came about through the order of her own father. In his desperation to continue his march on Winterfell and against all reason, Stannis allowed himself to be persuaded by the Red Priestess, Melisandre and even his wife Selyse, Shireen’s mother that only a sacrifice of royal blood would bring about the intervention of the Lord of Light.

Stannis Baratheon (Stephan Dillane), Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) and Selyse Baratheon (Tara Fitzgerald)

The whole scenario demonstrates how desperate Stannis had become to fulfil what he saw as his destiny to sit on the Iron Throne, going so far as to set aside reason and good sense, something which he had shown an increasing penchant towards in listening to the sound advice of Sir Davos Seaworth, Lord Commander Jon Snow and even Shireen herself over the religious ramblings of Melisandre and Selyse.

When the snows relented, Stannis might have briefly thought that it was all worth it: the Lord of Light was on his side and victory over the Boltons was soon at hand. Unfortunately for Stannis, the melting snows not only revealed the army of the Boltons lying in weight, it also exposed the effect that the horrifying spectacle of the murder of a teenage girl had had on his forces.


Hundreds of his men had deserted, leaving the Baratheon army at half-strength and drastically outnumbered for the upcoming battle against the Boltons.

Had he been in his right mind, an experienced commander like Stannis, one of Westeros’ finest commanders, would have declined the offer of battle outside Winterfell and lived to fight another day. However, fuelled with religious zeal or was it now perhaps despair at what he had done and over what it had done to Selyse, who had hanged herself in her grief, Stannis took the field and suffered complete defeat and death.

55a0386214000001079a7ae2The defeated Stannis faces his execution at the hands of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)

In sacrificing Shireen, Stannis sealed the fate that he had hoped to avoid – the extinction of the Baratheon dynasty. Without Shireen, Selyse and Renly (another of his victims), there was no one of legitimate Baratheon blood left to succeed Stannis on the Iron Throne.

It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Melisandre had urged Stannis to burn people to gain the favour of the Lord of Light. In a Song of Ice and Fire, Davos recollects Melisandre having Stannis’ former Hand of the King and Selyse’s uncle, Alester Florent, burned alive to gain favourable winds for the journey from Dragonstone to the Wall (A Dance With Dragons ch.9), while the title of “King-Beyond-The-Wall” made Mance Rayder a target for a fiery death, either largely successfully in the show (S05E01 “The Wars to Come”) or unsuccessfully in the books (A Dance With Dragons ch.10).

Indeed, anyone with even a hint of royal blood was at risk of finding themselves on Melisandre’s pyre to bolster Stannis’ bid for the Iron Throne, whether it be Mance Rayder’s son by Dalla or Maester Aemon Targaryen, both sent away from Castle Black with Gilly and Samwell Tarly by Jon Snow (A Feast For Crows ch.5), Theon Greyjoy, or the bastard offspring of Robert Baratheon, Gendry and Edric Storm.

And it is not just Melisandre who has a penchant for sacrificing people to R’hllor. Another Red Priest, Moqorro, convinced Victarion Greyjoy to sacrifice Maester Kerwin to gain good winds to take them to Meereen by curing him of an infected hand (A Dance With Dragons ch.56). And while Kerwin was not burned, it might be suggested that the only thing that prevented his immolation was the fact that Victarion, Moqorro, Kerwin and the Ironborn were onboard ship en route to Slaver’s Bay. A large pyre on a wooden ship would not have helped their journey any…

the_sacrifice_of_iphigeniaFrançois Perrier’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

It is not just within A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones that instances of sacrificing a royal daughter to gain the support of a deity for a military enterprise appear. In fact, that kind of horrifying sacrifice is a long-established literary trope, which appears in the most famous of all Greek stories – the Trojan War.

maskofagamemnonThe so-called “Mask of Agamemnon” of Mycenae (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)

At the outset of the war, the Greek supreme commander, Agamemnon was told by the seer Calchas that the only way to appease Artemis who was interfering with the winds, preventing his ships setting sail for Troy was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon’s crime against the goddess had been to boast that he was her equal in hunting after killing a deer in a sacred grove belonging to her.

diane_de_versailles_leochares_2The Diana of Versailles (Louvre Museum, Paris)

There are various interpretations of the ultimate fate of Iphigenia. Some have her remain oblivious to her imminent death right up the last minute, having been told that she was being led to the altar to marry Achilles. She is also portrayed as finding out about the planned sacrifice and when Agamemnon’s attempted backing out is met with death threats from the Greeks, Iphigenia accepts her fate and dies an heroic death to save her family and the entire Greek enterprise.

However, it is not a universal development that Iphigenia perishes on the pyre. Some versions have her rescued by Artemis, substituted at the last minute with a deer or goat, taken to the Crimea, where she later meets her brother Orestes, or to Snake Island in the Black Sea, where she married an immortalised Achilles, or even being transformed into the goddess Hecate.

feuerbach_iphigenie1Iphigenie (1862) by Anselm Feuerbach

Regardless of Iphigenia’s fate, the Greek expedition received the fair winds they needed to sail east and unlike Stannis, who quickly lost his wife, his army, his battle and then his head, Agamemnon seems to have faced little immediate backlash for his deed and his military adventure did meet with success (eventually).

However, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon portrays the sacrifice of Iphigenia as a significant cause of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra plotting with her lover Aegisthus plan to murder her husband when he eventually returned from Troy.

painting-agamemnon-smAgamemnon in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Rage of Achilles

Luckily for Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Iphigenia and his own death did not mean the end of his house as the sacrifice of Shireen meant for Stannis. Before their fatal falling out over his filicide, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had been blessed with the survival of more than one child – Iphigenia had been followed by Electra, Orestes and Chrysothemis so the succession of the House of Atreus seemed secure.

That said, the actions of various generations of the House of Atreus, which included, but not limited to, rape, cannibalism, murder, incest, kin-slaying and treachery (a perfect fit for the world of Westeros…), saw to it that the House of Atreus faced a great amount of misfortune. This misfortune extended to Orestes, who avenged his father by killing not just Aegisthus but his own mother. He was subsequently driven mad by the Furies for the crime of matricide, although he was later acquitted through the intercession of Apollo and Athena.


Of course, the various dramatisations of the potential demise of Iphigenia are not the only instances of child sacrifice or immolation recorded in ancient sources. And while we are not going into them in any detail, just looking in the pages of Herodotus alone provides several examples of children being slain as a sacrifice (I.86, II.199, III.11, VII.114) and deaths by burning (I.86, II.107, III.16, III.45, IV.69).

While death has been proven on several occasions to not be a terminal condition in the world of GRR Martin, it is very much doubtful that Shireen Baratheon will turn out to have received such a last minute and hidden reprieve like Iphigenia or that her father will rise from the dead for an opportunity to atone for his crimes of kin-slaying like Orestes after his head was removed from his shoulders by the Oathkeeper-wielding Brienne of Tarth.



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