As we approach the season finale of "Game of Thrones" Sunday, there has been a lot to keep track of. Where's Daenerys now? Who died? Who's that guy with the beard? (No, the other one.)
But one question few people seem to have asked lately is how, exactly, the religions of Westeros are playing into the "Game of Thrones" saga at this point. Should we be paying attention to these competing belief systems? Or should we focus on more important things, like who Jon Snow's mother might be?
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It's easy to brush off the religions of "Game of Thrones" as nonessential, as something you needn't give any thought to. But you may want to reconsider. The books, not surprisingly, depict the religions in greater detail than the show goes into, but even those of us who are only watching the HBO version of the saga can comprehend the characters and storylines better by understanding this key aspect of life in its world.
George R.R. Martin has spoken of the religions quite a bit, often noting that while the religions themselves are fictional, they are based on real-world faiths that have been "tweaked or extended." (Most obviously, the Faith of the Seven has a real-life corollary in the medieval Christian Church.)
In Westeros, there are four major religions that correspond to four of the major houses that have vied for power: the Lannisters, the Starks, the Baratheons and the Greyjoys. (Daenerys Targaryen, who has, of course, not yet entered Westeros, does not seem to have any firm religious beliefs, though she dabbled in the Dothraki faith while married to Khal Drogo.) These religions thus help to explain the worldviews of many of the show's major characters.
The Old Gods. Westeros was originally inhabited by a nonhuman race called the Children of the Forest. They worshipped the Old Gods, which had no names and were manifest in trees, rocks and streams. There were no temples or priests. In the show, this religion is often symbolized by the white weirwood trees. (When you cut such trees, they appear to bleed.) When men first came to Westeros from Essos, they accepted these gods, which is why the Starks worship them. The Old Gods are roughly equivalent to the sort of pantheistic nature worship that has existed in Europe in one form or another for millennia.
The Faith of the Seven, or the New Gods. When the Andals came to Westeros, they not only ended the kingdoms of the First Men, they also brought their own religion, the Faith of the Seven, also referred to as the New Gods or simply the Faith. Catelyn Stark -- who was born Catelyn Tully and is from the Riverlands in central Westeros -- and the Lannisters believe in this religion, in which everything is built around seven facets of one god: three male aspects, three female aspects, and a seventh aspect, the stranger, which represents the unknown and/or death. This religion has an obvious Christian parallel in its one multifaceted God, and its ceremonies, conducted often in King's Landing, are reminiscent of medieval Christianity.
The Lord of Light (R'hllor). This religion is the one that's been most closely tied to the plot of the show, thanks to the priestess Melisandre, who converted Stannis Baratheon and all his men. The Lord of Light comes from Essos, and his worshippers hold that the other gods are demons and must be destroyed. Sometimes the Lord of Light faithful decide that nonbelievers must be killed -- hence that terrifying crucifixion scene in Episode 2 of this season. Unlike the Old Gods and the New Gods, the Lord of Light has no interest in coexistence and poses a real threat to any kind of religious harmony. The Lord of Light is connected with fire, which Melisandre uses in many of her rites, such as throwing leeches into flames while saying the names of the "three false kings." (Two of those men subsequently died, for what it's worth.) Perhaps the most confusing religion -- it seems to be constantly growing and changing -- it's also the most absolutist, as it espouses hard distinctions between light and dark and good and evil. As others have noted, there are clear similarities to Manichaeism, which also emphasized the good of light and the evil of darkness and envisioned the world as a battlefield between this duality.
The Drowned God. The Iron Islanders are seafarers who believe their god lives under the sea. That's where their heaven is, so they don't fear the sea or drowning. Their holy water is seawater, and if you're an Iron Islander, when you're young, "they drown you and you're brought back to life," to quote Martin's explanation of their baptism ceremony, which evokes the baptismal practices of some Christian sects (though the faith of the Drowned God is generally thought by fans to echo Viking practices -- and water was also used in Viking naming rituals). This is why, when Theon Greyjoy returns to the Iron Islands, his father, worried that the Starks have converted him, makes him get baptized again. During the ceremony, Theon speaks the common prayer of the Iron Islands: "What is dead may never die."
This is not a comprehensive list -- there are hints of other religions on the series, such as the Dothraki's faith in the Great Stallion and the creed of the Faceless Men, who worship Him of Many Faces. And spotting such religious differences can help a viewer understand where characters fit in relation to the principal protagonists on the series. Just don't expect Martin to come down on the side of one of these religions over the others -- and don't expect anyone to be saved by their gods. As he told i09, "I don't think any gods are likely to be showing up in Westeros, any more than they already do. We're not going to have one appearing, deus ex machina, to affect the outcomes of things, no matter how hard anyone prays. So the relation between the religions and the various magics that some people have here is something that the reader can try to puzzle out."