Game of Thrones and Ancient History
While in the East, a great blaze of light in the sky could be a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader, the Greco-Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom, war or the overthrow of a ruler.
When recording much of the previous ‘knowledge’ of comets in his Natural Questions, including the likes of Aristotle who believed they came from the Earth, Seneca highlights a lot of their historic negative receptions, even when he is attempting to be scientific, while Pliny the Elder records certain comets as “a very terrible portent” (Pliny, NH II.22; Seneca, Natural Questions VII). This was so prevalent that the English word ‘disaster’ comes from the Latin for ‘dire star’, referring to a comet.
During the late second/early first century BC, the Romans will have been forgiven for thinking that their predilection for fear of comets was completely justified. The comets of 135BC, 119BC and 87BC came at a time when the eastern Mediterranean was awash with prophecies of trouble for the Roman state (Sanford (1937), 437-439, 446; Holland (2003), 31-58; Buitenwerf (2003) on Sibylline Oracles), prophecies which seemed to be coming true – external problems abound with Spaniards, Numidians, Germans, pirates and the comet-swathed Mithridates, while internally political instability had brought about increasing bloodshed with the Gracchi, Saturninus, the Social War and the burgeoning war between Marians and Sullans. The Messianic figure to bring down the great tyrant of the age promised by such comets may have seemed just around the corner to many a Roman and Asian…
There were so many prophecies proclaiming seemingly anti-Roman aims and included comets in some way that it could almost be queried whether the Romans were scared of what they thought the comet meant in terms of portents or what it might mean to many of its provincials and hostile neighbours, particularly given the Messianic, tyrant-slaying empire-overthrowing claims amongst the peoples of Asia Minor and the Middle East. Greeks and possibly even some Italians choosing to see these comets in a more positive, revolutionary way could have dire consequences for Rome and her empire.
Into this mire came another celestial intervention during a confrontation at Ortyrae between the forces of Mithridates (under the command of a one-eyed Roman rebel Marcus Varius) and the army of Lucullus in 73BC. As the two armies were about to collide, a meteor struck the ground between them, causing both armies to retreat from the battlefield. While Mithridates already had over sixty years of positive comet propaganda behind him in appealing to divine protection, Lucullus will have been struggling largely against the flow of Roman reception of comets and meteorites to have the positive spin of being saved from a battle he did not want due to being thoroughly out-numbered through divine meteor intervention accepted at home; however, the circumstances of the Ortyrae meteorite may have helped him greatly (Mayor (2009), 267-270; Plutarch, Lucullus VIII.5-7; Stothers (2007); D’Orazio (2007); Keaveney (1992), 77 “Both sides, recognising an evil omen, withdrew”; Strabo XII.5.3 on Cybele’s meteorite; Mitchell (1995), II.20).
Meteors were associated with the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, a goddess who had gained a significant following in Rome over the previous decades due to her intercession on Rome’s behalf during the Second Punic War. With the battle with Hannibal reaching its crescendo, the Sibylline Books warned that the great Carthaginian general would only be defeated if Cybele’s sacred black stone meteorite kept at Pessinus in central Anatolia was brought to Italy (similar meteorite veneration continues to this day in the guise of the Kaaba in Islam).
The Romans followed this advice and with great pomp and ceremony the black stone was brought to Rome in 204BC. Scipio Africanus’ subsequent decisive victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202BC saw Cybele worship became popular amongst the Romans, leading to a gradual overturning of the traditional Roman fear of meteors and comets. The Romans did not forget this intervention with the great general Marius making a pilgrimage to its site in 98BC, while Sulla had received encouragement from a visitation by Cybele in a dream.
While the likes of Seneca and Pliny would continue to list the poor portents of many comets, before the first century BC was out, Rome would embrace the potential positives of such wandering starts, although it may have taken a dictatorial/imperial hand to guide them.
According to Suetonius, as celebrations for the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris of 44BC were getting underway, “a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88). This bright, day-light comet was initially thought to have appeared in September, this has recently been reused to July, which just so happens to be the month of Julius Caesar, who had just been assassinated on the Ides of March.
Due to the fortuitous timing and no doubt some ‘encouragement’ from the Caesarian party, this astronomical visitor became known as the Sidus Iulium (‘Julian Star’) or Caesaris astrum (‘Star of Caesar’) and became increasingly identified as “the soul of Caesar” (Suetonius, Divus Julius 88), ready to ascend to the heavens once his deification was acclaimed on 1 January 42BC.
Such seeming manipulation of names, dates and meaning of ‘Caesar’s Comet’ raises the suspicion as to whether the star/comet appeared at all or was the total invention of Augustan propaganda (Gurval (1997); Marsden in Ramsey and Licht (1997); Pandey (2013)). However, much like with scepticism over the comets of Mithridates, the records from Han China do suggest that there was a comet in the skies of the summer of 44BC, although perhaps in mid-May to mid-June rather than late July. Whether it existed or not, the Sidus Iulium became a potent propaganda tool over the two decades as Augustus established his power and then established his own links to Aeneas and Venus through Caesar.
It must also be noted that what became known as ‘Caesar’s Comet’ was not always considered to be such. It appeared on coins before 44BC was out but as a tailless ‘Star of Caesar’ rather than a comet. Perhaps as further evidence of the infiltration of eastern positivity towards comets, this Sidus Iulium gradually grew a tail to become a comet and also a depiction of Caesar’s divinity (Gurval (1997)).
While Virgil’s “never did fearsome comets so often blaze” seems to link comets to death rather than Caesar’s divinity (Virgil, Georgic I.487-488), this transformation appears to have been complete by the dedication of the Temple of Divus Iulius in 29BC for at the back of the temple a huge image of Caesar was erected with a flaming comet fixed to its forehead, leading the temple also being called the ‘Temple of the Comet Star’ (Pliny, NH II.93-94; Ovid, Meta. XV.840, cf. 745-842).
Again much like with Mithridates, Augustus must have been happy with the timing of the return of Halley’s Comet in 10BC, as it just happened to coincide with the massive funeral games the emperor staged that year in honour of his great friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who had died in 12BC.
The seeming transformation of the ‘Julian Star/Star of Caesar’ into ‘Caesar’s Comet’ is similar to the development of the reception of perhaps the most famous comet in the ancient world… after the comets that signalled the coming of Mithridates and the heavenly ascent of Julius Caesar, there was the wandering star juxtaposed into the birth story of Jesus of Nazareth. Much like what is supposed for the Red Comet, this ‘Star of Bethlehem’ acted as the herald for a new King, a guide and a symbol of a Messianic arrival. This association of the celestial guide of the Wise Men with a comet has a long history, with C.R. Nicholl’s 2015 work The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem being just the latest (Rosenberg (1972) Brown (1975); (1993); Cullen (1979); Hughes (1979); Humphreys (1992); Paffenroth (1993); Jenkins (2004)).
Even more maligned emperors like Nero had numerous celestial visitors to use for their propaganda and political ends. The death of Claudius and Nero’s accession to the throne in 54 was greeted with bright tailed comet, while in 64, the emperor used the appearance of a comet to have numerous senators he disliked executed. However, in 66, when Nero’s regime was beginning to crumble, his popularity replaced with growing opposition, Halley’s Comet returned to the skies.
Perhaps the Jews took this appearance as a sign to overthrow the tyranny of the Romans, breaking out in revolt in the summer of 66, while many Romans may have welcomed the old prophecies of comets bringing about the downfall of tyrants…
Within a decade, during his fifth consulship of 76, the future emperor Titus, the man who had put down said Jewish revolt, wrote a poem about a javelin-type comet, which Pliny the Elder considered to be famous (Pliny, NH II.22).
Down to Modern Times
Even with the seeming embrace of comets by much of the world, these wandering stars continued to provoke a range of response throughout the medieval period. Halley’s Comet appears above Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry, seemingly as a hint of subsequent events during the Norman Conquest (with the benefit of hindsight).
The record of the First Crusade is also littered with instances of cometary sightings in connection with significant events, for good and ill. Comets and meteors had been taken as God’s blessing for Pope Urban’s call of what became the Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A meteor shower visible at Constantinople was seen as a predictor of the arrival of the Frankish ‘locusts’. The Turkish camp of Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders in Antioch was seen to be hit by a meteor on 14 June 1098.
In various parts of Europe, it was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, birth defects and even the Black Death, with Pope Callixtus III excommunicating the comet in 1456 as an “instrument of the devil.” Its 1835-1836 return was claimed to have caused a large fire in New York, a massacre of Boers by the Zulu in South Africa and the siege of the Alamo.
On comets in general, a 15th century poem claimed that they brought “fever, illness, pestilence and death, difficult times, shortages and times of great famine,” which would be an apt description of the consequences for the locals upon the appearance of the Conquistadores in Central and South America. Indeed, Inca and Aztec astrologers saw comets as signs of divine wrath, with one reputedly appearing in the days before the conquest of the former by Francisco Pizarro.
The 16th century French physician, Ambroise Pare, thought a comet of 1528 “was so horrible, so frightful, and it produced such great terror that some died of fear and others fell sick. It appeared to be of extreme length, and was the color of blood.”
It was not all negative. By the 17th century, European winemakers claimed that comets caused higher temperatures and therefore aided their grape production and taste, while Napoleon connected some of his early military victories to the appearance of comets.
As science progressed into the 20th century, the old adage of ‘a little knowledge being a dangerous thing’ came into play. In 1910, “comet pills” and “comet insurance” appeared on the market and some Americans felt the need to board up their houses due to the supposed threat of poisonous cyanide gas as Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet.
One might think that as the 20th century progressed that fear of comets was to be confined to Hollywood story lines, but forms of ‘comet fever’ still survive into more modern times. When Comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the skies in 1997, it was taken to be a cover for the apocalyptic appearance of ‘Nibiru/Planet X’ or the pre-emptor of an alien space ship, which a group called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in order to be beamed aboard.
Comets inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different ancient societies and even to this day, they continue to fascinate, astound and even frighten for the same core reason – they are something out of the ordinary in a sky which is almost always predictable.
Even the polar opposite receptions of comets have their own modern versions. While Greeks and Romans may have seen divine warning of an impending disaster, modern viewers of Halley or Hale-Bopp could be all too aware of that apocalyptic threat posed by such (not-so) Near Earth Objects.
And on the other hand, the eastern views of great positive, even Messianic change to come in the wake of a comet also have their modern theoretical backing in their bringing of the essential Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to Earth in order for life to emerge.
Whether by luck or design, G.R.R. Martin and the creators of Game of Thrones captured this ambiguity perfectly in their words and scenes on paper and screen. The Red Comet is a “harbinger of change,” but what that change is depends on your perspective – victory for your enemies or yourself; the arrival of ice zombies or the dragons/Messiah seemingly sent to defeat them; new life or death.
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The mixed reactions to the Red Comet recorded in A Clash of Kings and the concordant early episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones (see HERE) reflect similar ambiguous responses in history to such astronomical phenomena.
“All ancient cultures with historical records, western and eastern, looked at any new apparition in the sky, such as a comet, with apprehension. The average person in ancient times knew the heavens much better than we do today, and something changing day to day in the sky was alarming to them.”
(Schwarz (1997), https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/news59.html)
In ancient cultures, their sudden appearance was considered to a sign from the gods. And because they disturbed the harmony of the starry sky, they were soon deemed to be a bad omen (http://deepimpact.umd.edu/science/comets-cultures.html).
The great work of ancient Babylonian mythological literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, described the arrival of a comet in almost apocalyptic terms of fire, brimstone and flood, although there has been some other views on Gilgamesh and his relations with comets and astronomical (http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/gilgamesh-and-enkidu-as-orion-and-a-meteor). The ancient Yakut legends from Mongolia spoke in similar terms, calling comets “the daughter of the devil,” who was to be accompanied by storms, freezing temperatures and general destruction.
Some Jewish sources, such as Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, a Jew living in Spain, suggested that the Great Flood had been caused by two stars being thrown at the Earth by God (http://discovermagazine.com/2007/nov/did-a-comet-cause-the-great-flood).
The Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’, c.300BC
For all their record keeping, seen in the Mawangdui silk cometary ‘textbook’ from c.300BC above, many Chinese also regarded comets as “vile stars.”
As well might be imagined, looking at how ancient peoples received comets would require an extensive academic work. However, focusing on one specific period – that covered by the reign of Mithridates VI of Pontus (135-66BC) and the last century of the Roman Republic can cover much of the different beliefs surrounding comets in eastern and western culture (Mayor (2009), 27-33 provides much of the basis of this piece)
The career and propaganda of Mithridates Vl can demonstrate much of the Middle Eastern view of comets. Even his very name paid tribute to Mithras, the Iranian sun god, whose birth was accompanied by “a great fire or light from the heavens.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
While already a dynastic name, the reputed circumstances of his birth could point to why Mithridates’ parents chose that name for him. According to the Roman historian Justin, “in the year that Mithradates was begotten, and again when he first began to rule, comets blazed forth with such splendor that the whole sky seemed to be on fire” (Justin 37.2). A second such comet appeared in 119BC, which just so happened to be the year Mithridates ascended to the Pontic throne.
The type of comet to appear in 135BC and 119BC also played in the hands of the Pontic king. Their curved tail allowed for identification as a bladed weapon, much like how Gendry considered the Red Comet to be a ‘Red Sword.’ Furthermore, to the peoples of the east, the curved comets reminded them of a very specific blade: “the sickle-shaped harpe, the Persian scimitar, the signature weapon of Mithra himself” (Mayor (2009), 32).
Various Roman, Jewish and Biblical sources also record instances of such sword-like comets – Pliny, NH II.22.89 called them ‘daggers’; Josephus, BJ VI.5.3 recorded “a star, resembling a sword;” while 1 Chronicles 21.16 and Revelation 1.16 seemingly refer to comets.
There were further mythological connections to be made through the association of the harpe with Perseus. While best known as a hero of Greek mythology, the character of Perseus was much influenced by Iranian culture, including his use of the harpe, most famously used to behead the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa. Mithridates made use of this by depicting Perseus and his harpe on Pontic coins (Højte (2009); McGing (1986), 35, 94).
The Perseus/Medusa myth had the added layer of the involvement of the winged horse Pegasus, who was foaled by the blood of the beheaded Gorgon. Much like Perseus, while most famous for being part of Greek mythology, the winged steed had its origins in the Middle East, where Mithras’ sacred animal was the horse, providing Mithridates with yet more divine providence for his comet-blessed birth and coronation as it has been suggested that the comets of 135BC and 119BC appeared in the constellation of Pegasus (Ramsey (1999), 218-228; Widengren (1959), 244; McGing (1986), 85, 94-95 on Pegasus also appearing on Pontic coins).
Mithridates could really not have asked for a better propaganda boon for his life and reign for “according to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies.” (Mayor (2009), 27)
It may be the immediate supposition of the sceptic to think of these two comets as inventions of the court of Mithridates to increase his own prestige, particularly when they represented such positive Messianic heralds in eastern tradition. However, not only is the account of Justin ultimately derived from a potential eye-witness, through Pompeius Trogus, other sources also recount the presence of comets in the skies of 135BC and 119BC. For example, Seneca, Natural Questions 7.15 records that “there appeared a comet which was small at first [then] spread . . . its vast extent equalled the size of the Milky Way,”
Astronomers of Han China kept detailed records of astronomical events and for 135BC and 119BC, they list comets of what they call the ‘war banner’ type, giving descriptions very similar to that of Justin. That the Han soothsayers proclaimed that such ‘war banner’ comets predicted massacres, terrible wars, and the rise of a great conqueror also fit in with the propaganda and indeed the reality of the reign of Mithridates VI (Loewe (1980); Ramsey (1999), 198-199, 200 n.9, 206 n.30). European astronomers also seem to have recognized the reality of the two comets of 135BC and 119BC as early as 1783 (Fotheringham (1919), 166).
Mithridates was so proud of his connection to these comets that he had them depicted on his small denomination coins, so the common people of his empire could see how his birth had been so well-omened (Arslan (2007), 73-76). The Armenian king Tigranes II was also minting coins depicting a comet around the same time perhaps as a public declaration of his alliance with his father-in-law Mithridates.
It has been speculated that the comet on Tigranes’ coin was meant to be Halley’s Comet (Gurzadyan and Vardanyan (2004)); however, this appears unlikely. The comet on the Armenian coins has a curved tail, linking it to the ‘war banner’ comets of 135 and 119BC, rather than the always straight-tailed Halley’s Comet.
That said, if Mithridates needed any more politico-religious capital out of comets, the most famous comet of them did make an appearance in the skies of 87BC, mere months after Mithridates’ orchestration of a massacre of Romans in Asia Minor in 88BC. This serendipitous timing allowed the Pontic and Armenian kings to present this latest wandering star as proof of divine favour for their anti-Roman actions.
Such was the political climate and their desperation to escape the ever-tightening grip of Rome, the Athenians seem to have been willing to accept, perhaps against their own negative predilections, the positive signs attributed to the appearance of Halley’s Comet given the successes of Mithridates in Asia Minor and Greece. With that, they elected the philosopher Aristion as their leader on a pro-Mithridates platform.
Such willingness to accept the positive spin on comets by the Athenians may represent another aspect to Mithridates’ propaganda. While his kingdom may have had significant eastern influences, Mithridates will have understood that many of his Hellenised people may have viewed comets in a negative way. The distribution of his coins may therefore have been part of winning hearts and minds by promoting the positive aspects of Middle Eastern views on comets.
The indigenous populations of Anatolia, Armenia, Media, Syria, Scythia, and other lands of the old Persian Empire interpreted comets as signs of hope, not grounds for despair. Even the more apocalyptic Zoroastrian scriptures of the third century BC such as the Bahman Yasht, envisioned an avenging saviour-prince who would be born under a shooting star: this prince would drive foreign tyrants out of Asia (Bahman Yasht III.13-15). Such prophecies were increasingly prominent around the time of Mithridates’ birth in Egyptian and Jewish literature.
For the Greeks who were increasingly rankling under their ‘liberation’ by the Romans, such promises must have seemed welcome and mind-altering when it came to comets. None of this seemed to bode well for Rome, although as will be seen in the final part of this blog, the Romans themselves were seemingly in the process of changing their view of comets.
As they streak across the sky, striking awe into onlookers, it is easy to forget that such comets could, with just a few degrees difference in angle, be harbingers of the ultimate doom to life on this planet. Such apocalyptic notions are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies like Deep Impact and Armageddon or Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Hammer of the Gods.
We need only look up at the moon to see the damage which can be done by such celestial cannonballs. The surface of the Earth itself is spotted with craterous bullet-holes, some which are considered to have caused extinction level events.
But as much as such comets could be the bringers of apocalyptic doom and have been in the past, they could also be the harbingers of a new dawn. The PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) world hypothesis suggests that such comets may have brought some of the vital ingredients of the primordial soup to Earth – Arthur C. Clarke’s essay ‘Toilets of the Gods’ is perhaps the most famous iteration of this theory.
This dual nature of bringers of extinction and of the building blocks of life is played out in the reception of the Red Comet in both the literary and televisual versions of Game of Thrones.
Red Comet, by Franz Miklis. © Fantasy Flight Games©
The sheer number of different names that this celestial interloper is recorded by – Red Comet, Red Messenger, Bleeding Star, Mormont’s Torch, King Joffrey’s comet, Red Sword, Sword that Slays the Season, Dragon’s Tail, burning brand, Father’s scourge and Harbinger – demonstrates the varied nature of its reception amongst the various characters and groups across Westeros and Essos. And even this list of names does not cover all of the ideas about the Red Comet.
Bright enough to be seen during the day, many considered the Red Comet to be some kind of sign or messenger, with those in the streets of King’s Landing and in the Riverlands specifically calling the comet the ‘Red Messenger,’ (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I; ch.7, Catelyn I; cf. ch.11, Theon I), although there was little agreement on not only what the comet was to be called but also what that message was.
To Old Nan (who was blind but claimed to be able to smell the comet), it signals the coming of dragons (ACOK, prol.), rather accurately as it turns out, given the events surrounding the funeral pyre of Khal Drogo in the grasslands of the Lhazareen. This thought is echoed in S02E01 “The North Remembers” of the TV show, where the words of Old Nan are put in the mouth of the wildling woman Osha.
Unsurprisingly, given her own experiences, Daenerys Targaryen muses that the comet was “Bloodred; fire red; the dragon’s tail,” (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X), clearly associating it not only with her dragons but the cause and even red-dragoned sigil of House Targaryen. In the streets of King’s Landing, perhaps reflecting that city’s memory of actual dragons, the people refer to it as the ‘Dragon’s Tail’, as do some of the servants encountered by Sansa Stark (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Ser Arys Oakheart counters this by pointing out that it is Joffrey Baratheon who sits on the dragon’s throne (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, the red priestess Melisandre tells Selyse Florent that the comet is dragonsbreath (ACOK, prol.)
Drogo’s Funeral Pyre Kim Pope©
Despite this connection to Daenerys, her dragons and her quest to claim the Iron Throne, it is another Dothraki, Jhogo, who is first recorded chronologically seeing the shierak qiya: ‘Bleeding Star’ in the Dothraki language (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). Interestingly, he sees it before Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. It is used as a symbol to light the pyre on fire, as it is believed the brighter the star, the fiercer a man burned in life, a reflection of the great Khal that the Dothraki and indeed Daenerys has lost in the demise of Drogo (and perhaps even of Rhaego, Drogo and Daenerys’ unborn son).
This link to the demise of a great man may also be seen in mentions of the comet in relation to the death of Eddard Stark. Maester Luwin of Winterfell studied the comet through his Myrish lens tube on the morning when a raven brings the news of Eddard’s execution (AGOT, ch.66, Bran VII), which is the first mention of the comet in A Game of Thrones, although the sighting by Jhogo takes place earlier in the timeline of events. The comet makes Arya Stark remember the blood on Ice, her father’s greatsword, which she had seen used to execute him (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Some, like Greatjon Umber look upon the comet as a red flag of vengeance for Ned (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre also sees the comet cast in the role of a sign or guide. Daenerys uses its presence to light said pyre (AGOT, ch.72, Daenerys X) and given how positively that guidance went, she again takes it as a sign to venture into the waterless Red Waste, claiming that “the gods have sent it to show me the way” (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I). That she could command her small khalasar to follow her in such a dangerous journey, even against the mutterings of the old men who saw the comet as ill-omened, demonstrates the respect and awe now felt for Daenerys given her survival of the funeral pyre and status as ‘Mother of Dragons.’ It may also have been a recognition that there was little else they could do due to the presence of other marauding khalasars in the vicinity, highlighted in the TV show by the murder of Rakharo when on a scouting mission, or evidence of a genuine belief in the shierak qiya as a guide to better things, which it could be argued it did given the improving of Daenerys’ position through crossing the Red Waste to Qarth. This idea of the comet being a guide for Daenerys is reiterated by the Undying Ones of Qarth, who claimed to have sent the comet to bring Dani to them (ACOK, ch.48, Daenerys IV).
This guiding hand symbolism may also be present for the men of the Night’s Watch currently employed in the Great Ranging beyond the Wall calling the comet ‘Mormont’s Torch’ after their Lord Commander (ACOK, ch.6, Jon I; ch.23, Jon III), possibly an allusion to the need for light against the coming dark.
Melisandre and Marco_Caradonna’s Prince Who Was Promised
Through its fiery colour, heavenly position and sword-like look, the Red Comet was also closely associated with the prophecies surrounding the worship of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Maester Aemon recalls how Prince Aegon was conceived under the light of a comet at King’s Landing, leading Rhaegar to believe that his son was the ‘prince that was promised.’ Aemon later began to think that Daenerys was the promised hero (AFFC, ch.35, Samwell IV), and she too claimed that the comet was the herald of her coming. (ACOK, ch.12, Daenerys I)
In Westeros, it is Melisandre who suggests that the comet was acting as a herald, specifically for Stannis Baratheon, who she saw as the ‘prince that was promised’ to stand in the name of R’hllor against the Great Other, something echoed by his wife Selyse (ASOS, ch.63, Davos VI; Chapter 78, Samwell V; ADWD, ch.54, Cersei I).
Beyond the prophecies of the Lord of Light, Theon records the men of Riverrun seeing “the Red Comet is a herald of a new age. A messenger from the gods” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Varys reports how the people in the streets of King’s Landing “say it comes as a herald before a king” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), with the royal court sycophantically proclaiming it as “King Joffrey’s comet,” something echoed by Ser Arys Oakheart, who sees it as the herald of Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, which Sansa doubts as the comet is red, a Lannister colour while Joffrey is supposed to be a Baratheon… the audience, reader and a select few know why the comet is not gold…(ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I)
Ser Oakheart, perhaps demonstrating his own sycophancy or willingness to believe propaganda, also tells Sansa that the comet means that King Joffrey “will triumph over his enemies” (ACOK, ch.2, Sansa I). The comet being a harbinger of victory is a common enough idea in Westeros, although there is plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that victory will be for your or your enemies.
Even some non-regal but self-centred persons, like Theon Greyjoy, could think that the comet was a sign for them personally (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), but this question of ‘whose victory?’ is seen most clearly in the musings of Catelyn Stark, who mentions how the men of Winterfell see the comet as an omen of the victory of Robb Stark, and that her brother Edmure Tully, viewing the comet as a fish with a long tail and the red being the mud red colour of the river, sees future triumph for his family and himself. Being more pessimistic in the wake of her husband’s execution and the seeming loss of her daughters, Catelyn sees the comet’s colour as reminiscent of Lannister red crimson.
Brynden Tully dismisses these musings, claiming that the Red Comet is neither Lannister crimson not Tully red, but that of blood: a sign of the horrors about to unfold. Not deterred from her pessimism, Catelyn wonders whose blood that might be (ACOK, ch.7, Catelyn I).
The Blackfish is not the only one to identify the Red Comet as a sign of war and bloodshed, with several speaking in almost Targaryen terms of ‘fire and blood.’ Aeron Greyjoy tells Theon that it is an invitation from the Drowned God for the Ironborn to go on the warpath once more (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I). Maester Cressen thought the comet was “the colour of blood and flame and sunsets” (ACOK, prol.), while Osha warns Bran that it means “blood and fire, boy, and nothing sweet” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I). In King’s Landing, Varys refers to how the people in the streets say the comet warns of “fire and blood to follow” (ACOK, ch.3, Tyrion I), which could be laced with foreboding of his own Targaryen leanings as well as some of the lower classes in the capital.
There are also some references to the panoply of war in the shape of the comet. Gendry calls the comet the ‘Red Sword,’ through his own background as a blacksmith and how he sees it as a “blade still red-hot from the forge,” while this conversation reminds Arya remember the blood on Ice, Eddard Stark’s greatsword, after the execution of her father (ACOK, ch.1, Arya I). Aeron Greyjoy also sees the comet as the burning brand the Ironborn used to carry and as a call to go to war with “fire and sword” (ACOK, ch.11, Theon I), while amongst the Faith of the Seven, it is known as the “sword that slays the season” (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), highlighting not only the weapon shape of the comet but also the recent arrival of a white raven signalling the end of summer.
Similar supernatural links to the comet may be seen Maester Luwin’s recording of how the direwolves, Shaggydog and Summer, were howling at the comet. He thought that they were mistaking it for the moon (ACOK, ch.4, Bran I), although the ability of the direwolves to seemingly sense danger (see the Red Wedding) and their seeming connection to the more mysterious goings on in Westeros may connect their howling to the reawakening of magic, dragons and the Others which coincided with the passing of the Red Comet.
Varys recounts to Tyrion how “the comet has brought forth all manner of queer priests, preachers, and prophets… [to] foretell doom and destruction to anyone who stops to listen” (ACOK, ch.8, Tyrion II), something which Tyrion himself then experiences while returning to the Red Keep, pointedly after having met with the Guildhall of Alchemists regarding his proposed use of wildfire in the upcoming Battle of the Blackwater.
This particular prophet describes the Red Comet as a sign of an approaching cleansing sent by the Father:
“Corruption! There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge! We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all … but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low! When the boar did open him, a great stench rose to heaven and a thousand snakes slid forth from his belly, hissing and biting! There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, ch.20, Tyrion V)
While his shouts of “Fire!” are shouted down with derision, as with many other opinions on the significance of the Red Comet, this prophet is hardly to be considered incorrect. The War of the Five Kings was about to arrive on the doorstep of King’s Landing in the form of Stannis Baratheon, famine and pestilence cannot be far behind and there are also the looming threats of the Ironborn raids, Daenerys’ dragons and Dothraki, the arrival of the Faith Militant, Cersei’s destructions of the Sept of Baelor in the TV show and whatever there is to come with the fulfilling of the Stark’s words – Winter is Coming.
It is also worth noting that in the midst of what might be considered a significant amount of superstition regarding the meaning behind the Red Comet, there is also something approaching the actual truth in the conversation between Maester Cressen and Shireen Baratheon. He informs her that “the thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes” (ACOK, prol.).
In the next two blog entries, we will look at how these numerous reactions to the appearance of a comet in the fictional world of Game of Thrones reflects the similarly wide variety of receptions of such celestial interlopers in ancient history.
So far we have seen ancient influences on the use of molten metal, battlefield tactics, the burning of a daughter in search of divine favour and the role of a woman, her actions and fate in sparking a decades-long struggle across two continents. In this the fifth entry in GoTAH, we will look at an ancient structure and its counterpart in G.R.R. Martin’s world of Ice and Fire, both on screen and in the book series.
There is a more prominent anciently-inspired structure – the 800-foot tall Wall and that of the emperor Hadrian in the north of England (and we will almost certainly return to that connection in a later instalment), but instead we will cross the Narrow Sea from Westeros to the northernmost of Essos’ Nine Free Cities, Braavos.
There are numerous interesting aspects to this city such as it having been founded by runaway slaves from Valyria, keeping its existence secret for 111 years, home to the most dangerous sect of assassins, the Faceless Men, and equally dangerous Iron Bank many of which have inspirations from ancient, medieval and modern history.
However, as the video and map above suggests, the most recognisable structure in Braavos looms over the entrance to the lagoon – the Titan of Braavos.
The magnificent structure was so revered in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that it appeared in the pages of Lomas Longstrider’s Wonders Made By Man, a status which also echoes the position of its inspiration as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ – the Colossus of Rhodes.
(Although it could not have been one of the ‘original’ wonders if the fifth century BC historian Herodotus compiled the earliest known version of what would become the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, given that the Colossus was not built until the third century BC. A similar problem is faced by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, while the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed during Herodotus’ lifetime.).
A statue of the god of sun, Helios, (something reflected in the name ‘Titan’, which was the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology, overthrown by the Olympian deities under the leadership of Zeus) the Colossus is usually depicted as having stood astride the entrance to the harbour, although this appears to be a medieval misconception, perhaps deriving from a misinterpretation of the dedication of the statue, which mentions “Not only over the seas but also on land” and “over sea and land” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H). It has been suggested that the Rhodians, or anyone else for that matter, would not have been able to build a bronze statue with its legs apart as it would have collapsed under its own weight of bronze and stone ballast.
Another reason given for the Colossus not straddling the entrance of the Rhodian harbour, even if his legs could have held his weight, was due to sheer impracticality. To position it there would have required the closing of the harbour entrance throughout its erecting. Furthermore, given that the Colossus is recorded as having fallen over during the 226BC earthquake only 54 years after its dedication, had it been at the entrance of the harbour, it would have blocked it and the Rhodians lacked the ability to remove such an impediment for it to then lie visible on land for the next 800 years (Strabo XIV.2.5; Theophanes, Chron. AM6145 on it taking 900 camels to remove the ruins when it was sold to a Jewish Edessene merchant following the Arab conquest of Rhodes by Muawiyah I in the early 650s).
It is the misconception of the Colossus which has proven the inspiration for the Titan, although it could be argued that in devising the base of the Titan, G.R.R. Martin found a natural solution to the problem of a spread-legged statue being unable to support its own weight. Rather than a completely man-made structure, the lower half of the Titan was carved out of the black granite of a naturally occurring archway. The feet and legs of the Titan were shaped out of the pillars of the archway, while the top of the arch comprises his waist and lower torso. Above the waist, the Titan is bronze and to stabilise ‘him’, his empty left hand rests on top of the outcrop beside the archway.
It could be then that the inspiration for the Titan was not just the factual Colossus of Rhodes but perhaps also the fictional Argonath (Pillars of Kings) of Lord of the Rings, two enormous statues of Isildur and Anarion carved into the rock either side of the Anduin river on the northern border of Gondor (which also wield weaponry and show defiance for their enemies). This would be unsurprising given the overall inspiration of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth on G.R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Another misinterpretation possibly from the Colossal dedication – “did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H) – carried over into the popular view of the Colossus and subsequently to the Titan of Braavos – that Helios held aloft a torch like the Statue of Liberty in New York or at least held out his hand in some kind of gesture. This was almost certainly beyond the technological abilities of the ancients. A relief in a nearby temple shows Helios standing with one hand shielding his eyes and it is possible that the Colossus was constructed in the same pose. Taking its cue from this misconception, the Titan, rather than holding a torch, wields the hilt of a broken sword (whether broken by time or a symbolic gesture of defiance.
Unsurprisingly, in a world of fantasy, G.R.R. Martin had the Braavosi make something much more out of the Titan than the Rhodians were able to make out of the Colossus. At 400 feet, the Titan is about four times bigger than the original Rhodian Colossus (although as we will see below, there are plans for a near 500 foot version of the Colossus…). This difference in size is reflected in build time – the shaping of the Titan from the granite archway took three generations, while “it is said that it was twelve years before this statue [the Colossus] was completed.” (Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41) But even at this comparatively small stature, Pliny the Elder described the Colossus in suitably colossal proportions…
“Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it.” Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41
Unsurprisingly, given their sizes, both the Colossus and the Titan became symbolic of their cities. The image of the Titan appears on Braavosi coinage, much like the god Helios, subject of the Colossus, appears on Rhodian coins. This depiction perhaps provides the only clear evidence we have about what part of the Colossus might have looked like as the depiction of Helios will have been something of a standard. If this was the case, then surviving coins suggest that the head of the Colossus will have had curly hair and worn a crown of sunbeams. Within the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, due to the recent Braavosi origins of the family, the sigil of House Baelish, formerly headed by Littlefinger, contains the fiery-eyed head of the Titan, displaying his bronze half-helm, and green-dyed rope hair.
The origin stories of both statues stem from acts of defiance in the face of a much larger foe. The Colossus was built to celebrate the resistance of Rhodes to the siege by Demetrius ‘Poliorcetes’ (‘the Besieger’), son and eventually successor of Antigonus I Monophthalmus in 304BC, and paid for by selling off the equipment left behind by the besiegers (300 talents worth as well as leftover metal from Demetrius’ force). The Titan was a symbol of the slaves who had escaped the Valyrian Freehold to found Braavos on the islands and lagoon of the north-westernmost point of Essos sometime between 700 and 1700 years before the events of A Game of Thrones.
While such towering structures will have had a psychological effect, it was only the Titan which had actual military applications. Any friend or foe looking to enter the Braavosi lagoon by sea had to pass under the Titan, who hides a few surprises under his green bronze skirt and in his chest… namely a collection of murder-holes and arrow slits from which various heavy or volatile missiles can be dropped onto or fired at anyone foolhardy enough to try to force entry into Braavos. The Titan’s body also contains numerous halls and chambers, making it not only a potential battle tower but also a garrison and storehouse. It is unsurprising then that bristling with so many projectiles, by the time of A Game of Thrones, it has been perhaps four centuries since anyone tried to defy the Titan’s wrath and force their way into the Braavosi lagoon.
The Titan is not just a defensive fortress. Its sheer height made it a useful lookout tower, letting out a loud ‘roar’ to warn the Arsenal of Braavos of approaching ships. This ‘roar’ is also used to herald the rising and setting of the sun and the hours of the day, effectively making it a clock. The eyes of the Titan are made from burning fires, allowing it to act as a beacon and effectively a lighthouse, lighting the way back inside the lagoon for returning ships or steering enemy ships on the rocks.
Perhaps inspired by the Titan of Braavos coming to prominence through the popularity of A Game of Thrones, in December 2015, a group of architects announced plans to build a new Colossus of Rhodes. Taking up the popular misconception that the original bestrode the harbour entrance, this new Colossus, at 500 feet tall, would be taller than the Braavosi Titan.
Also like the Titan, the new Colossus is to be multi-purpose, housing a cultural centre, a library, an exhibition hall, and a lighthouse, all to be powered by solar panels. And the modern equivalent of 300 talents and metal scrounged from Demetrius’ weapons? An estimated $283 million, to be raised through private donations and crowdsourcing.
Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the project, the Wondrous stature of its predecessor and the state of the Greek economy, the rebirth of Helios has yet to get off the ground.
Alston, R.H.J. ‘Rhodian coinage and the Colossus,’ Revue Numismatique 6 (1988), 75-90
Conrad, L.I. ‘The Arabs and the Colossus,’ JRAS 6 (1996), 165–187
Haynes, D.E.L. ‘Philo of Byzantium and the Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 77 (1957), 311-312
Martin, G.R.R., Garcia, E, and Antonsson, L. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. London (2014)
Maryon, H. ‘The Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 76 (1956), 68-86
**There will be spoilers here for all seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have not seen up to the end of season 7, some major plot points will be spoiled for you!**
“How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar Targaryen chose your aunt?” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish asks Sansa in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark in S5E4 of Game of Thrones.
Viewers of the television series knew by the end of Season 6 that the rumours were true… R+L does indeed = J. The newly enthroned King in the North, Jon Snow was not the bastard son of Eddard Stark but of Rhaegar Targaryen, eldest child of Aerys II, the Mad King, killed in battle before Games of Thrones begins. And rather than a wet nurse, fisherman’s daughter or Dornish beauty, it was Lyanna Stark, Lord Eddard’s own sister, who was Jon’s mother.
As you can see in the video above, in the Winterfell crypt Sansa replies bitterly to Littlefinger that Rhaegar “… chose her, abducted her and raped her”; the version of the story she had heard throughout childhood. The silence and wry smile from Littlefinger says everything; he does not seem quite so sure.
Before being abducted, or eloping, Lyanna was promised to Robert Baratheon. The match was to secure the alliance between his house in the Stormlands and House Stark in the North. However, this was not just a shrewd political move; Robert admitted that Lyanna was the only woman he ever loved. Losing her was the catalyst for Robert’s Rebellion, his killing of Rhaegar Targaryen at the Battle of the Trident, his taking of the Iron Throne and exiling of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The instability this caused and the establishing of the Baratheon-Lannister alliance at King’s Landing in turn led to the War of the Five Kings and everything that is ‘the game of thrones’.
In classical literature there is a similar well told story in which a beautiful woman is discussed as the cause of a war that killed thousands, tested loyalties and spread turmoil among the great families of the age. Like Lyanna, Helen of Troy’s part in starting a war is taken for granted by some and questioned by others.
Helen, then of Sparta, was promised to Paris, son of Priam of Troy, by Aphrodite as a reward for judging her the most beautiful goddess by presenting her with the golden apple. However, at the time Helen was married to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon from the prestigious, but unfortunate, House of Atreus. Helen was so sought-after that Menelaus had had to compete against all the eligible heroes of the age in order to secure her as his bride. The competition had been so fierce that the other suitors swore an oath to defend the union in an effort to keep the peace. When Paris turned up later on a supposed diplomatic visit and decided to undiplomatically leave with Helen, it was not only the Acheans who recognised that there was not going to be a happy ending; Paris’ own family were dismayed, fearful of the outcome. And who exactly was to blame? The irresponsible young man who preferred playing the lyre to fighting, or the foreign woman who had tempted him?
Prince Rhaegar first met Lyanna Stark at the famous tourney at Harrenhal, presenting her with the bouquet of blue roses which crowned her his queen of love and beauty, preferring her over his own wife, Elia Martell. In the first book A Game of Thrones (Ch. 58), Ned Stark remembers the events whilst chained up in his cell waiting for execution, while viewers hear all about it from Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt in the video above.
Like Paris, Rhaegar was an accomplished musician. Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories about the prince busking in the streets of Kings’ Landing in S5 E4. Indeed, Rhaegar played so beautifully at the tourney that Lyanna cried, suggesting it is believable that this young woman fell in love with the handsome, silver-haired warrior-musician. By the end of S7 it is confirmed that not only did Rhaegar not kidnap Lyanna, the two had been legally married, leaving Jon Snow not only not a bastard but the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne ahead of his aunt Danaerys.
In the world of Game of Thrones, as in the classical one, a marriage does not necessarily mean a love match of course. But Prince Rhaegar left his best swordsmen to guard the Tower of Joy as he went off to fight and die at the hands of Robert and his warhammer; was he protecting the family he loved or an heir he thought was ‘The Prince that was Promised’? Or both?
However, all the current claimants for the throne are still (for now) woefully unaware of the marriage and its implications, having never questioned what they had been told. The Three Eyed Raven, in S06E10, shows Bran Stark how events really unfolded under the Tower of Joy in a flashback, as his father comes to rescue Lyanna. It is at this point that Bran learns hard lessons about how the history you hear can be very different from the history that happened, as he watches the man he thought his father bravely defeated in battle get ignobly stabbed in the back and later discovers the true heritage (and name) of Jon Snow.
It seems that everyone around at the time remembers Lyanna and Rhaegar differently to those who have had their stories handed down to them. Rather than an abductor and rapist, Barristan Selmy describes Rheagar (S3E3) as the most noble man he knew and even Ned is never heard saying a bad word about him, although so blinded by rage and sorrow was he, Robert Baratheon had little good to say about the dead prince.
There is no consensus in classical literature on Helen’s character and motives. She can be portrayed as a victim of the gods and of mortal politics or as a vain, selfish schemer depending on the moral theme of the literature. In the Iliad, Homer’s Helen is full of misery and regret (III.173-175; Groten (1968)); Sappho (fr.16) decided Helen was assertive and pursued love; in the Troades (914-966), Euripides’ Helen blames love – either Aphrodite directly or the fact she is so desirable Paris is literally disarmed, and politics – the Achaeans are using her as an excuse for their military manoeuvring. In the history of art, Helen also has an ambiguous character, seen leaving Greece determinedly with her head held high, or crying as she is dragged away.
Lyanna’s story echoes Helen’s in the questions it raises about how the agency of women is perceived, of whether love is more noble than patriotism, what we are willing to believe to support our views, but maybe most importantly, to what extent history tells us more about the beliefs and values of the narrator and their society than what actually happened.
Dawn ‘Pickle’ Love
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.
Ser 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.
The 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…
François 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Iphigenie (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.
Agamemnon 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.
Game of Thrones and Ancient History II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards
GoTAH II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards
In 216BC, the Italian countryside played host to the Battle of Cannae between the forces of Carthage and the legions of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. Fresh from two major victories, the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, squared up to an enormous congregation of Roman legions. Despite being heavily outnumbered, what Hannibal achieved on that battlefield still echoes over twenty-two centuries later as one of the greatest military defeats ever inflicted and the archetypal battle of annihilation for prominent military commanders throughout history.
In 303AL, by the reckoning of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the forces of House Stark, led by Jon Snow, marched to take back their former capital from their betrayers, House Bolton. The confrontation on the plain outside Winterfell would be known as the Battle of the Bastards due to the illegitimate births of the commanders of both sides.
On the surface, there does not seem to be too many connections between these two battles. But looks can be deceiving…
The writers of the Game of Thrones S06E09 “Battle of the Bastards”, David Benioff and D.B.Weiss, have since confirmed Cannae’s inspiration for their epic depiction of the battle for the North, but the eagle-eyed viewer who knows their Second Punic War will have recognised elements of the Cannae Stratagem.
Lady Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane and Ser Davos Seaworth © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
In a meeting with his fellow commanders, Ser Davos Seaworth expresses his worry over the extent to which they will be outnumbered by the forces of Lord Ramsay Bolton. To combat this, he proposes a defensive strategy to lure Lord Bolton’s superior numbers forward by having the Stark centre stage a feigned retreat, which would draw the Boltons forward into the pocket between the two Stark wings, surrounding them on three sides.
This kind of refused centre was the tactical centrepiece of Hannibal’s plan at Cannae. The major difference was in scale. The Battle of the Bastards saw about 2,400 Stark men and Wildings square up to 6,000 Boltons and HBO did a fantastic job in portraying how much of a bloody, crushing mess that could be. Now, just think what it must have been like at Cannae in 216BC where it was 80,000 Romans crushed together by 50,000 Carthaginians…
Hannibal’s refused centre at Cannae
However, as the Battle of the Bastards plays out, the tables are turned and in a direct reversal of Cannae, it is the smaller force that gets hemmed in and crushed together. This reversal can be traced to another example of Cannae’s influence over the Game of Thrones writers – the use of psychology.
Lord Ramsay Bolton: Hannibal’s psychological avatar? © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Hannibal Barca was a master of it, reading the Romans like a book, predicting what they would do well in advance and planning for it accordingly. It had served him well at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene and at Cannae he used it to literally and figuratively crush the Romans. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the spiteful Ramsay Bolton who was cast as the avatar of Hannibal’s psychological abilities. He had shown himself an able psychological (and physical) torturer but had yet to display any ability on the battlefield. However, in using Rickon Stark for target practice, Ramsay was able to cunningly, if unsubtly, goad Jon Snow into abandoning the Cannae Stratagem.
Undermining the Cannae Stratagem © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
The seeming failure of Ramsay to shoot Jon Snow when he was in range could also be linked to Hannibal’s reading of the Roman leadership. At Cannae, the joint command between Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus provided an opening for Hannibal as they seem to have had a difference of opinion over how to proceed, the former keen to attack and the latter more reticent. Eager to spring his trap, Hannibal offered battle on a day the reportedly more reckless Varro had overall command, who obliged by charging into that trap. Outside Winterfell, Ramsay Bolton wanted Jon Snow to react rashly and lead his forces into an attack, abandoning their defensive position. Had Jon been killed, command would have passed to Davos who would have followed the original Cannae battle plan.
An Impenetrable Hedge of Swords, Shields and Pikes © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Despite the decidedly un-Cannae-like cavalry clash (which would have horrified Hannibal) that followed his good use of psychology, Ramsay then also takes up the Hannibalic tactical mantle. With Stark forces fully committed in order to survive the initial clash, Ramsay sent in his own infantry. Surrounding the mass of Stark men on three sides, these Bolton shielded pikemen initiated a Cannae-style crush, the suffocating horror of which is magnificently realised by the combination of superb editing, camera work and sound.
Closing the Bolton Noose © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Closing the Carthaginian Noose
At Cannae, when the jaws of Hannibal’s trap closed, this initiated a day-long butchering of the mass of Roman soldiers caught within by the ever-tightening Carthaginian noose; a day that saw perhaps up to 73,000 Roman soldiers killed or captured. And while the numbers were nowhere near as ridiculous, caught in Bolton noose, it appeared that the remaining Stark forces were about to face a similar grizzly fate as the Romans at Cannae.
Jon Snow fights for air in the crush © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Only the timely arrival of the Knights of the Vale prevented such a repeat. And while there were no such reinforcements at Cannae, the charge of the Arryn cavalry into the rear of the Bolton lines does mimic part of its ancient blueprint. After routing the Roman cavalry, Hannibal’s horse charged the rear of the legions, although there is academic argument over whether or not the Carthaginian cavalry could have caused the level of casualties reported by the ancient sources.
The Knights of the Vale charge the Bolton Pikemen © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
One slight issue with the depiction of the battle came with the closing of the Bolton noose. With the Bolton cavalry decimated, the writers needed some way to hem in the Starks, and they chose a pile of dead and/or dying men and horses. This has raised a few eyebrows. Hundreds of bodies could pile up but would they really do so in such a way, forming a wall? It seems unlikely, although it might be added that in the chaos of such a brutal contest, almost anything could happen.
And it is this visceral, claustrophobic chaos that the Battle of the Bastards does such a terrific job in capturing, complete with the horrifying crush at Cannae, as well as the inspirations of Hannibalic tactics and psychology.