From Azor Ahai to the Weeping Woman, it’s hard to keep track of all of the religions and deities in Game of Thrones. In Westeros, it’s “the old gods and the new” that hold sway, while in Essos there are about a dozen religions that have members in one great city or another.
Religion plays a heavy role in season six, with many high-ranking clergy members making their debuts or recurring appearances. Season six is one for the gods, so here’s a quick guide to the various religions of Westeros and Essos, along with some insight on how these faiths influence the show.
Warning: Spoilers are coming.
The Old Gods of the Forest
The Old Gods of the Forest were originally worshiped by the Children of the Forest for thousands of years before the First Men came across the Narrow Sea from Essos and began to settle the western continent. The Children carved faces into weirwood trees, which serve as the totems of the religion. After the war between the Children and the First Men, the two groups signed a pact: the children could keep the deep forests while the men took the rest of Westeros, but the First Men must never cut down the sacred weirwood trees. The sacred trees feature not only carved faces, but white bark and deep red leaves. Some followers of the Old Gods refer to these trees as “heart trees“.
When the Andals came from the east two thousand years later, they brought with them the Faith of the Seven. They cut down all of the sacred trees in the south and nearly eradicated the Children of the Forest. The Faith of the Seven took hold in the south, while worship of the Old Gods remained strong in the North. The wildlings also worship the Old Gods, though they know no other gods.
The religion of the Old Gods is animistic, with the belief that there are multitudes of unnamed nature gods that inhabit each part of the wild. “God” is in every tree, rock, stream, and blade of grass. Practitioners of the religion do not pray to any specific god, but rather to the order of nature as a whole. They do not have much in the way of ceremonies, holy texts, or religious structure. The only formality is that oaths sworn in front of a heart tree are considered binding, which is why Jon Snow makes his oath to the Night’s Watch before a heart tree north of the Wall. Marriage ceremonies in the North also take place before weirwood trees.
There are only a handful of prohibitions in the religion of the Old Gods, mostly against socially immoral concepts like incest and killing family members. The laws of hospitality are also strongly believed in, which makes Walder Frey and Roose Bolton’s betrayal at the Red Wedding all the more dire.
Those who worship the Old Gods seem mostly tolerant of those who worship the Seven, as evidenced by Ned and Catelyn Stark. Catelyn, born a Tully, was raised in the teachings of the Seven and continues in that faith despite her marriage to the very pious, Old Gods-worshiping Eddard.
Known followers: The Stark family, most Northerners, wildlings, Children of the Forest
The Faith of the Seven
The Faith of the Seven is the primary religion in Westeros south of the Neck, with some practitioners in the North as well. The Faith originated in Essos in the region of Andalos six thousand years before the show’s beginning. The Andals conquered the First Men and the Children of the Forest and supplanted their religion in place of the Old Gods. Prior to Targaryen rule, the Faith (and its army, the Faith Militant) was the ruling force in Westeros, dispensing justice, conducting trials, and passing judgement on everyone, including royalty. The Targaryens refused the Faith these rights and the power of the Faith was weakened.
The Faith is based on the idea that there is one god with seven faces. God is in the Father, the Mother, the Maiden, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith, and the Stranger. Each aspect is as important as the others, and each is worshiped in its own way. The primary symbol of the Seven is the seven-pointed star, and the primary text of the faith is The Seven-Pointed Star. Unsurprisingly, they also believe there are seven hells.
The religion of the Seven is much more complex than that of the Old Gods, with a hierarchical clergy made up of septons and septas, lavish temple buildings called septs, and a monastic tradition. There is significantly more structure to the worship of the Seven than to the Old Gods, with rules and traditions for weddings, knighthood, and trials.
In the show, the Faith Militant have returned under the leadership of the High Sparrow, given power by Cersei Lannister in a foolish bid to increase her own control of King’s Landing. Cersei ends up being put on trial by the Faith Militant for her incestuous relationship with her cousin, Lancel, though she never confesses to the more serious crime of twincest with her brother, Jaime. The High Sparrow currently holds Queen Margaery and her brother Loras prisoner until they beg for atonement. Loras’ crime is his homosexuality, Margaery’s was lying to defend her brother. As such, the Tyrells and the Lannisters have joined forces to take down the Faith Militant.
Many of the members of the High Sparrow’s Faith Militant have carved the Seven-Pointed Star into their foreheads as a symbol of their devotion.
Known followers: The High Septon and the Faith Militant, the Silent Sisters, Catelyn Stark (prior to her death), most southerners in Westeros
The Drowned God
The Drowned God is the deity worshiped on the Iron Islands, by the men and women who call themselves the ironborn. The ironborn believe that they were created by the Drowned God to raid and pillage. Goods, services, and slaves are meant to be taken by force, the “iron price”, instead of paying coin or trading for anything. Killing another man is a pious act, and adolescents in the Iron Islands are not considered men until they have killed another.
The Drowned God has one enemy: the Storm God. While the Drowned God lives beneath the ocean, the Storm God lives in the clouds and tries to kill ironborn by dashing their ships against rocks.
Like the Drowned God, practitioners of the faith do not fear drowning in the sea, as they will be taken to the watery halls of their God to feast on fish and be tended by mermaids. (Think underwater Valhalla, and you’ve got the right idea.) Many of the ceremonies used in the faith are based around drowning, and even infants are “drowned” by being dunked in the sea during their baptism. In order to crown a new king of the Iron Islands, the king must first be drowned, sea-water filling his lungs, before he is dragged to shore and (hopefully) begins breathing once more. The sacred words of the Drowned God come from these ceremonial drownings: “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”
The priesthood of the Drowned God is entirely male, and no woman has ever ruled the Iron Islands.
Known followers: Anyone from the Iron Islands – the religion and culture are completely intertwined. Aeron Greyjoy is a priest of the Drowned God.
The Lord of Light
The Lord of Light, also known as R’hllor, the Red God, the Heart of Fire, and the God of Flame and Shadow, is a deity worshiped throughout Essos. The faith focuses heavily on fire and light imagery, and some members of the clergy believe they can see prophecies within flames. Clergy are usually called Red Priests or Priestesses.
In the religion of the Lord of Light, there are two deities, R’hllor, made of light and love and joy, and a god of darkness, evil, and fear. The two are eternally at war, the Lord of Light against the Great Other. Fanatical followers of the Lord of Light believe that all other deities or religions are false, dangerous to the true god R’llhor. The Red Priestess Melisandre even goes as far as to burn statues of the Seven while in Westeros, to remove their influence from the land.
Just as light and flames are central to the faith, so is prophecy. Followers of R’llhor believe in the coming of a chosen warrior to combat the darkness, The Prince That Was Promised. The prince is also know as Azor Ahai reborn, and he will be reborn “amidst smoke and salt” and wield the flaming sword Lightbringer. The faithful also believe that there is no afterlife as in the other religions in the world, but that the current world everyone exists in is actually hell, and only the Lord of Light can deliver them from it.
Sacrifices are occasionally required in the faith, with nonbelievers burned at the stake. Some priests and priestesses are capable of using blood magic in the service of their Lord. Melisandre gave birth to a shadow assassin to kill Renly, can alter her appearance, and resurrected Jon Snow from the dead. Thoros of Myr has resurrected Beric Dondarrion from the dead six times. The power of the Red Priests is mystical in nature, and the depths of that power has yet to be seen.
The common prayer among followers of the faith is, “the night is dark and full of terrors”, followed by the response of “Lord, cast your light upon us.”
Melisandre originally believed that Stannis Baratheon was Azor Ahai reborn, but after his death at the hands of Ramsay Bolton and the resurrection of Jon Snow, she believes that Snow is instead the promised prince.
Known followers: Thoros of Myr, Melisandre, Kinvara
The Many-Faced God
The Many-Faced God, a god of death, is worshiped primarily by a cult of assassins called the Faceless Men. They believe that Death is the only god, worshiped under many names by followers of all faiths. The Faceless Men believe that these gods are all aspects, or faces, of the one god.
The Great Stallion
The religion of the Great Stallion is deeply ingrained in Dothraki culture and influences a large portion of their society. They believe in a number of signs and omens, and a Dothraki khalasar will not go to war unless various omens favor it. The closest thing the Dothraki have to a priesthood is the dosh khaleen, comprised of the widows of deceased khals. They live in the only city of the Dothraki, Vaes Dothrak. The dosh khaleen interpret omens, conduct religious rites, and are believed to hold great powers of prophecy.
The Dothraki believe and worship in only the Great Stallion, though they accept that there are other deities in the world. They do not generally worship or revere these other deities, however, viewing them as false idols. By defeating the symbols of other gods, they believe they are physically destroying the power of the gods in turn. They also recognize the moon as a goddess and the sun as a god, and believe that they are members of the Great Stallion’s khalasar.
Like the followers of R’hllor, the Dothraki believe that there is a prophesied leader who will come to conquer the world. The “Stallion Who Mounts the World” will unite all khalasars and ride across the world to take all of it for the Dothraki. The dosh khaleen claimed that Daenerys Targaryen’s unborn son with Khal Drogo would be the Stallion, but the child was killed in the womb.
The Dothraki traditionally burn their dead in funeral pyres. It is believed that their spirit will go on into the Night Lands and join the great khalasar. Desecrating a corpse is one of the most egregious crimes in the Dothraki faith, alongside the use of blood magic.
Known followers: The Dothraki. Like the Iron Islands, those who live on the Great Grass Sea have a culture whose religion is completely embedded within it.
The Great Shepherd
Followers of The Great Shepherd come from the culture of Lhazar, one of the free cities in the south of Essos. The Lhazareen are a culture of shepherds, and are known by the Dothraki as Lamb Men. The Great Shepherd is a healer god, and all men are considered part of his flock. Healers devoted to this god will cure the injuries of any man, even enemies. (It is possible that Robb Stark’s wife, Talisa, was a follower of this faith.)
Maegi, or female practitioners of blood magic, are a part of this faith. Mirri Maz Duur was one such maegi, mistrusted by the Dothraki but accepted by Daenerys under the false hopes that the maegi might save her dying husband. She was burned alive in Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre after her blood magic rendered Dany sterile, killed her child, and left Drogo a human vegetable.
Maggy, a maegi who moved to Westeros at some point, gave prophecies from her place in the woods near Casterly Rock. When Cersei Lannister was a teenager, she went to Maggy to hear of her own future. Maggy warned her that she would become queen, but that she would be replaced by a younger, more beautiful queen (Margaery Tyrell). She also informed Cersei that the king would have 20 children, but that Cersei would only have three. These three would have golden crowns, but also golden burial shrouds, implying that they would all predecease their mother.
In the novels, Maggy is the grandmother of Jeyne Westerling, who was turned into Talisa for the series.
Known followers: Mirri Maz Duur, Maggy?, Talisa?