History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Iron Islands

The Iron Islands are one of the most isolated human factions in the entire series but they are also incredibly important to the history and development of Westeros and have accomplished far more than their tiny island nation should have any right to accomplish.

Iron_Islands

 

The Iron Islands are a small chain of islands in the Sunset Sea, Westeros’ western ocean and, as far as anyone in Westeros knew, was the end of the world.  They are windswept, desolate islands with very poor soil and very little in the way of resources. Despite the fact that only an idiot would try to live there they were settled by a group of First Men in ancient times and absorbed the Andal invasion with little to no resistance.  Due to their geographic isolation, or possibly a desire to separate themselves from the rest of their people, the people who lived there adopted a new religion: The religion of the Drowned God.

X2VkD

 

The religion is simple when compared to the other systems of faith in Westeros.  The Drowned God is a single deity who brought fire out from the ocean (somehow), was engaged in a constant battle with the rival Storm God, and created the men of the Iron Islands specifically to sack, pillage, and murder whenever and wherever they pleased.  This rather bleak outlook on creation coupled with their location led to the Iron born, the name the people of the Iron Islands give themselves, to become exceptional sailors and raiders.   During the time of the Andal conquest the Iron born struck out to sea in giant longships to pillage the coast of Westeros, taking everything from valuables to food and slaves.

350px-The_iron_fleet_by_reneaigner

 

This strategy proved quite successful and in time the Iron born controlled a massive empire that occupied most of the coast and several thousand miles inland.  Thanks to a strong lack of unified central leadership the Iron born prospered, although the Starks in the North and Gardeners in the South did manage to drive them off from select parts of the continent (I would show you a picture but alas I couldn’t find anything).  For a time the Iron born ruled and the height of their power would be achieved under House Hoare.  By the time of King Harren  the Black the Iron born controlled most of Westeros and in order to solidify his power King Harren ordered the construction of Harrenhall, a location that was incredibly important in season 2 of the show.  It was the biggest castle in all of Westeros and was designed to withstand sieges for years.  However, it would wind up being conquered in a day by forces we will talk about next week.

Before we start talking about the historical equivalent of the Iron born I must confess something.  Most of of my comparisons are made based on speculation, a love of Game of Thrones, and my own historical knowledge (plus what I find on the internet for research purposes). With that being said this is one of the easiest comparisons I’ve ever had to make and something that George himself has alluded to many times.  The Iron born share several similarities to the Vikings, these guys.

download (6)

 

Like the Iron born, the Vikings were a group of raiders and soldiers who struck out from their homes in modern day Scandinavia in long ships and began raiding around 780 A.D.

images

 

Fun fact: the word “Viking” does not describe a certain ethnic group, it’s a general term to describe someone who raids or takes what doesn’t belong to him/her. We don’t know exactly what was the cause of these raids but it is speculated that one of the biggest causes was a population explosion and a lack of farm land, something they share with the Iron born.

The final biggest similarity the Vikings and the Iron born share is the impact they had on Westeros/Britain.  The age of the Viking raids roughly began with the pillaging of the Lindisfarne monastery in 793 A.D.  After a couple of decades of raiding and pillaging the Viking raiders decided that it would be much easier to simply stay in Britain and settle down.  After all, why risk a long perilous boat ride back to Norway when you can have all the farm land and gold you can take?  Eventually enough Vikings settled in Britain form them to take over a huge part of Britain, a territory they called the Danelaw.

danemap

 

You’ll notice that large parts of the North and West remained unconquered due to the Celts and Scots (a reflection of the North and the First Men beating back the Iron born) and the South remained a Saxon stronghold under the strong leadership of Alfred the Great (that would be the Andals and House Gardener in the books).  This would continue for some time until the Vikings were overthrown by a much scarier enemy, which we will talk about next week.

Further Reading:

Most of the links will take you to sources used for the article that contain a lot more information about the Iron born and the Vikings.  Also, there is a very good television show on the History Channel that dramatizes the Viking invasion of England.

Advertisements

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Andals

So after the First Men and the Children of the Forest fought, made peace, and beat back an invasion of evil undead winter themed zombies which we won’t talk about here because they are pure fantasy and have no real historical counterpart, peace reigned in Westeros for a while barring a few small land disputes and the odd local war.  All of that would be changed again with the arrival of another new ethnic group coming from Essos across the sea: the Andals.

download

The Andals came to Westeros roughly 6,000 years before the events of the book and they are the group who has the biggest influence over Westeros politics and culture.  Their two biggest contributions to the land where the use of iron tools and weapons and a new religion: the Faith of the Seven.  The Faith of the Seven or the “New Gods” is interesting in one aspect that it’s not really worshiping seven separate gods but rather one God divided into seven parts or aspects: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the ever popular Stranger.

TheSevenFacedGod

To talk about the Seven in further detail would take more up more time then we have but for now all we need to understand is that the Andal occupation of Westeros was incredibly successful and the end result were the seven kingdoms of Westeros: Dorne, the Reach, the Stormlands, the Rock, the Vale, the Riverlands, and the North.  It is Andal language, ideology, and armed knights that dominate Westeros in the books, although it should be noted that most of the ruling class considers themselves to be mostly Andals, especially the ruling families of the Vale and the Lannisters, the Andals also did quite a bit of intermingling with the First Men and to this day a lot of common folk consider themselves to be a mix of both with the North claiming almost no influence by the Andals at all.

Vale_knights

 

Culturally the Andals are a mix of several important ethnic and cultural groups that played an important role in Britain.  However, if we look at them within the context of history there are two very distinct ethnic groups the Andals share similarities with: the Angles and the Saxons.

7338394_orig

 

After the Celts arrived in Britain the island was relatively peaceful.  Then the Roman Empire came marching in and Britain remained under Roman rule for the better part of 400 years.  The Romans don’t play very much into the Game of Thrones mythology although there was one very important structure they created that has a huge impact in the books (the image presented is a hint for later)

Hadrian's_wall_at_Greenhead_Lough

Around 400 A.D the Romans left Britain and it was thrown wide open to marauding Germanic tribes, two of biggest were the Angles and the Saxons.  Both these tribes fought and conquered the Celtic inhabitants, although they had difficulty conquering what is now known as Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall.

ASmap

 

The map above shows the Celtic territory in green with the Saxon held kingdoms all named.  As you can see there are seven of them.  It is also important to consider that there was quite a bit of intermingling between the Saxons and the Celts, especially in the lower classes since Britain was a big place and it was easier to simply assimilate into the culture than try to replace it.  Finally, there is also the name.  Andal could be seen as a combination of Angle and Vandal (another group of barbarians who sacked Rome further to  the south) so the similarities are almost uncanny.

There is another similarity between the Saxons and the Andals: religion.  The Andals were responsible for bringing the dominant religion of the Seven to Westeros and the Saxons were responsible for bringing Christianity to Britain.  We’re going to run an article on religion in Game of Thrones next week but for now all we need to understand is that the Saxons were eventually converted to Christianity after meeting missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church.

Pictures_of_English_History_Plate_V_-_Saint_Augustine_and_the_Saxons

 

So we have the third and biggest mass migration to Westeros/Britain.  The Andals/Saxons were effective conquerors and were able to assimilate the First Men/Celts into their way of life so effectively that they became the dominant culture of their new home.

Further Reading:

Simon Schama’s History of Britain is a very good book for looking into the Saxons within a wider context while The Anglo Saxons by James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald is a great insight into the history and culture of the Saxons specifically.

 

History and legends of Game of Thrones: The First Men

The Children of the Forest existed in Westeros for thousands of years until everything changed.  Over 12,000 years before the events of the books and show Westeros saw the arrival of its first human inhabitants: The First Men.

800px-First_Men_war_Children

They arrived from the neighboring continent of Essos and they brought two important innovations from their homeland: bronze and agriculture.  It also should be noted that while the First Men had a basic runic language they preferred to spread their traditions orally.  This resulted in the First Men cutting down large portions of forest to grow food, including the weirwood trees (the trees with faces in them) that the Children found sacred.  This, coupled with mounting pressure for living space, resulted in a war between the First Men and the Children.  While the Children had their greenseers and powerful magic the First Men eventually ground them down due to higher numbers, bigger stature, and better weapons.  The war was long and brutal and the effects are still seen in Westeros thousands of years later.

 

Map2-2_Map_of_Westeros_Original

 

If you look at the very bottom left of the map you’ll see that Westeros and Essos are separated by a narrow stretch of water.  That was originally a land bridge between the two continents and was created by the Children of the Forest in an attempt to cut off the First Men from Essos.  Despite this the war dragged on and eventually the First Men and Children made peace.  The First Men settled into Westeros creating a thousand small kingdoms, built their farms, and most importantly adopted the religion of the Children by worshiping the weirwood trees with faces carved into them.

At the start of the book the First Men are still around.  Although they suffered from the invasion of another group of people called the Andals (we’ll talk about them next) they still survive in places like the North, where the natural defenses of the Neck (a series of bogs and swamps created by the Children in another attempt to fend off the First Men) made sure that Northern First Men culture remained isolated.  The Starks of Winterfell still claim to be members of the First Men.

stark-family-game-of-thrones

 

As do many common folk throughout Westeros and the Wildlings north of the Wall.

30-game-of-thrones-season-4-ygritte-tormund.w529.h352.2x

In short, the First Men hold an important part in the history of Westeros and while they had no written records they are still remembered through stories, lineage, and their surviving descendants living in the North.

The clearest historical similarity for the First Men would be the Celtic tribes of ancient and modern day Britain.

armed_celts

The Celts arrived in Britain around 500 B.C from Europe and like the First Men the Celts introduced bronze, a mixture of tin and copper, to the region.  They divided Britain into a large number of petty kingdoms that were constantly warring with each other and had a basic written language, but preferred to pass down their traditions and history orally.   Even though these are two important similarities they share with the First Men there are two more similarities that are much more important: their religion and their eventual fate as a people.

When we start talking about Celtic religion and traditions some really spooky similarities start cropping up.  When the First Men started carving faces into trees they were literally living with their gods among them.  The Celts worshiped nature and animal spirits, that their gods surrounded them and played a part of their everyday life.  One of most important aspects of Celtic religion was the worship of trees like the oak, apple, and yew tree.  Fun fact: the expression “knock on wood” comes from Celtic religion where it was believed that knocking on a tree would invite a spirit to come out and assist you with whatever you needed.

The second similarity between the Celts and the First Men is their eventual fate.  At the beginning of the Bronze Age there is archaeological evidence that the Celts were spread out all over Europe.

1001_8_5-celtic-culture-europe-map

Unfortunately, mounting pressure from the Romans in the South and Germanic people in the West ensured that the Celts would eventually loose most of their cultural dominance until they were pushed back into the northern parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales which remain holdouts of Celtic culture to this day.

Next time we’ll talk about the Andal invasion of Westeros and several key locations that play a major part of in the story.

Further Reading:

 If you’d like to learn more about the Celts themselves there is a whole host of academic work about them.  Some of the more prominent names are Barry Cunliffe, Simon James, and Lloyd Laing.

The history and myths behind Game of Thrones: The Children of the Forest

Due to the non profit educational value of the material presented in this post all images and sources are used under Fair Use of the Copyright Act of 1976.  All images and sources used belong to their respective owners.  This blog post is presented without spoilers to the television show or the books.  Please read at your leisure.

Welcome to our first post about the history and mythology behind Game of Thrones.  In honor of beginning this epic odyssey we are going to start from the group of people who occupy the continent of Westeros at the very beginning: the Children of the Forest.

 400px-Bran_Stark_and_the_Children_of_the_Forest

In the books George Martin describes the Children as the original residents of Westeros before the continent was settled by mankind and roughly 12,000 years before the events of the show (don’t worry we’re only going to discuss things that have no relation to the plot, I said this is spoiler free and I meant it).  Not a lot is known about the Children because they left no ruins and had no written language to leave records behind.   They preferred to live off the land, foraging for berries and roots, and wearing clothing made from bark and leaves.  There are two more details about the Children that will be important for our discussion.  First, they worshiped the Old Gods of Westeros (we’ll get to them later) by carving faces into trees and second, they had very powerful magicians called Greenseers that used magic that drew its power from nature to create spells that could allow its user to talk to animals or control the elements.

Children_of_the_Forest_greenseers

The three known facts about the Children of the Forest: their lack of evidence about their existence, their worship of trees and naturalistic spirits, and the fact they utilized powerful magic rooted in nature would lead us to believe that the Children of the Forest were heavily rooted in Celtic mythology.

celts-new_2_1

Now the Celts are a group of people we will be talking about later but for now all we need to know is that they were one of the first people to inhabit Britain and it is widely believed they were animists and spiritualists.  They believed that the world around them was part of the divine, that their gods and goddesses lived in and influenced the world around them.  One of the most important aspects of Celtic religion was the worship of trees (again, we’ll get to that later) but another important aspect of their culture was the belief in fairy folk.

celtic-fairies-08358

Now, there is more to the Fairy folk then wings and pointy ears, a lot of tropes we associate with elves in modern fantasy comes from fairy lore and there are so many different types and so many different interpretations between different cultures that could fill several books, but almost every interpretation can agree on a couple of things that solidify the similarities between faeries and the Children of the Forest.  First, the Fairy Folk were smaller than humans.  Second, they used powerful magic that was tied to nature and the world around them (woe betide a farmer who angered even the smallest fairy, for his milk would go bad and his crops would fail) and it is widely believed that they once shared the world with mankind but were slowly driven extinct or forced into hiding, a topic that leads nicely into our next article: the arrival of the First Men and their war with the Children of the Forest.

Further reading:

If you would like to learn more about the Children of the Forest and how they relate to the Game of Thrones books and show there is a very good wiki about the novels which you can find here

If you would like to know more about Celtic mythology and the Fairy Folk there are countless books on the subject.  Here are a few to get you started.

If you’re looking for a more academic view on Celtic mythology then Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis is pretty good and so is Celtic Gods and Heroes by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.

If you want more of an entertaining fictionalized look at Celtic mythology then I suggest the works of Stephen Grundy, Juliet Marillier, and Morgan Llywelyn.