With A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin has ignited more just than our interest and imagination. He has brought our world’s manifold histories, mythologies, and faiths full circle and threaded them into an impossibly enveloping narrative. As its small screen adaptation approaches the halfway point of its sixth season on HBO, the series continues to draw immense speculation.
Game of Thrones has its own rich history and multilayered backstory, a fiction enhanced by an understanding of the events on which they are based. From Norse mythology to Christian and Zoroastrian religion, English infighting, Scottish massacres and more, Game of Thrones borrows the most shocking moments in human history, then retrofits them for an epic retelling in the land of Westeros.
These are the Top 10 Histories & Myths that Inspired Game of Thrones:
10. Lannisters, Starks, and The Wars of the Roses
The events in Game of Thrones directly follow the deposition of Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King. Though his time on the Iron Throne began with strength and virtue, his mind decayed and his passions flared for violent death and destruction. His reign ultimately lost the allegiances of over half the noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms, including the rebelling Starks, Tullys, Arryns, and most influentially, the Lannisters, led by the King’s Hand, Tywin. After his son, Jaime, murdered Aerys and earned his title as Kingslayer, Game of Thrones opens its literary gates.
The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) had similar roots that undoubtedly influenced the architecture of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Following the events of The Hundred Years War, which enhanced the nationalistic divide between England and France, tensions raged for the English crown between the Plantagenet-descendant clans, the Lancasters and the Yorks. Undoubtedly a template for the Lannisters and the Starks, the Wars of the Roses followed the many battles that saw five kings rule in just twenty-five years. Of those, three were murdered by rivals who swiftly replaced them.
The genesis of the Mad King, Aerys, also finds its roots in Henry VI, the mentally unstable Lancasterian king who suffered from schizophrenia and allegedly laughed at the sight of war. In lieu of his psychological infirmity, Queen Margaret of Anjou used her cunning military strategy and political savvy to House Lancaster’s benefit. Much like Cersei Lannister, she enacted ruthless power plays on her enemies, even allowing her young son to select the mode of death for several captured Yorks. As Joffrey would do, he opted for beheadings at his mother’s great pleasure.
9. The Lord of Light and Zoroaster
The strength of Game of Thrones lies not only in its characters but in the religions they follow. In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin carefully adhered to the universal themes of faith across diverse cultures and histories. Through individuals like Melisandre, Stannis Baratheon, and Beric Dondarrion, the complexities of The Lord of Light religion take human form. In their introductory scene, these followers of R’hllor, the god of the red faith, are shown surrounded by seven burning idols. These are the gods of the old religion, which has garnered time-honored fidelity throughout Westeros. For Melisandre, the themes of light and fire are key to her faith and burn away the vestiges of competing religions: “For the night is dark and full of terrors.”
In Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, George R. R. Martin identified his foundation for the Lord of Light. A monotheistic faith, Zoroastrianism centers around Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord and god of all. A source of light, Ahura stands opposite his enemy, Ahriman, “the Lie.” As with the red faith, Zoroastrianism presents a schismatic choice between the followers and those who are condemned to die. It also emphasized the power of resurrection, a gift to which Beric Dondarrion (and one or two other notable characters) can attest. In that particular duel against The Hound, Beric wields a flaming sword, the embodiment of Zoroastrian ideals. While not the Lightbringer Melisandre prophesies (incorrectly so, with Stannis Baratheon), Beric’s sword is a momentary example of the red faith and Zoroastrian fealty to fire.
8. Rodrik Cassel and the Beheading of Thomas Cromwell
A man of great dignity and honor, Rodrik Cassel served House Stark with lifelong pride. The Master-of-Arms at Winterfell, Ser Rodrik ultimately meets his maker at the hand of Theon Greyjoy, the boy he once trained in the art of war. After spitting in Theon’s traitorous face, Rodrik is taken to the block to “pay the iron price” for such public disrespect. When Theon strikes the first blow, however, his misjudged aim (or lacking strength, we’re not quite sure) Rodrik’s head remains on his shoulders. After a second blow remains woefully insufficient, he cuts a third time and violently kicks Rodrik’s cranium to complete the task.
Rodrik is not the first victim of a botched beheading. After betraying King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell was sentenced to die. A long-time advisor and friend to the mogul-of-marriage King, Cromwell suffered a vile conclusion on the chopping block, requiring multiple attempts to separate head from body. According to the reports of Edward Hall, Cromwell “so patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, which very ungoodly perfourmed the office.” Even the old English can hardly mask the violence of this incident.
7. Sansa Stark and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld
In Greek mythology, the rape of Persephone by Hades, lord of the Underworld, holds many keys to the secrets in A Song of Ice and Fire. The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone is whisked away from a field of flowers by a zealous and thirsty Hades. After this clear representation of her literal and figurative deflowering, Persephone travels to the underworld, sending Demeter into a fit of rage. Searching for her missing daughter, the goddess of the harvest casts a spell of infertility across the earth.
As with the arrival of winter in Game of Thrones, this drastic changing of the seasons must be noted. When Persephone is finally freed from the Underworld, Hades offers her a parting food of pomegranate, of which she gladly eats. Unbeknownst to her, dining on the food and drink of the underworld has eternal consequences. This fatal meal binds her to Hades for half of each year, one month for every seed she ingested. The mother of the seasons, Persephone’s time in the underworld surface casts a pall of winter over the earth. When she returns home, spring and summer follow suit.
For Sansa Stark, caught in the maelstrom of her father’s beheading and family’s subsequent dispersion, there are many similarities to Persephone. Lasciviously courted by Hades placeholder Petyr Baelish, Sansa becomes a highly coveted prize across Westeros. In a notable scene from ASoIaF, Petyr surreptitiously offers her a pomegranate. In a classic moment of George R. R. Martin inversion, however, she rejects the fruit and instead opts for a pear. While Petyr has never violated Sansa in the series, she meets a similar fate at the hands of another equally manipulative man. Sansa’s journey mimics the seasonal effect of Persephone, though the Stark girl has greater autonomy and strength of will. Should she find safe harbor and return to her rightful place in Westeros, winter may finally subside in Martin’s planned seventh novel, A Dream of Spring.
6. The Wall and Hadrian
George R. R. Martin modeled Westeros after Great Britain and Ireland. To picture the dimensions and topography of his fictional world, simply flip a map of the United Kingdom upside down. Towards the northernmost part of Westeros spans the immense fortification of The Wall. Three-hundred miles wide and seven-hundred feet tall, The Wall is the Seven Kingdoms’ final bastion from wildlings and white walkers. At the peak of The Wall’s maintenance and protection, a total of nineteen castles were armed and manned. During the events in ASOIAF, however, a mere three castles are filled with men of The Night’s Watch: Shadow Tower, Eastwatch-By-The-Sea, and Castle Black.
The mighty Westeros construct finds its roots in the great Roman Wall built by Hadrian. Known colloquially as Hadrian’s Wall, this embankment had much smaller specifications than that which Jon Snow helped protect. Three-feet wide, around twenty-feet high, and over 70 miles long, Hadrian’s Wall touched both coasts in northern England. As with the white walkers and wildlings, Hadrian built the great Britannia barrier to keep the northern barbarians (mainly, Scottish vandal hordes) from invading Rome and its southern protectorates. Like the Wall of Westeros, Hadrian’s lasting accomplishment had multiple turrets, outposts, and ditches to protect the wall and those living under it. Should you need a refresher course on the historical value of such a wall, refer to Maximus and Gladiator.
5. Jon Snow and Jesus Christ
As Season 6 of Game of Thrones hurtles further into the action, we fast approach the resolution of the Seven Kingdoms. When all’s said and done, who will sit atop the Iron Throne? While many contest the crown, only one will likely win it. As of now, Jon Snow may seem the ideal, predestined candidate. Born the son of a great and virtuous man, Jon grew up simultaneously blessed by his circumstances and also disgraced for his illegitimacy. Neither fully Stark nor Snow, Jon wears his misplacement on his sleeve. Despite his sound actions and pure mind, Jon is mocked far more than he is loved. He spends much of his life in the company of outcasts and criminals. As his role in The Night’s Watch expands, however, he finds his footing as a leader, only to be betrayed by his company and murdered by his fellow men.
The overlap with the story of Jesus Christ is striking, particularly in the last days of Jon Snow’s (first) life. Just as Jesus never scoffed at the quality or rank of his company, Jon is at ease with low-born men and women. He falls in love with a wilding, after all. Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and several fish, just as Jon Snow treated countless wildings to the dwindling supplies of the Night’s Watch. Before their brutal deaths, Jon Snow was betrayed by his allies as Jesus was by Judas Iscariot. Finally, both were resurrected to carry out their ultimate mission. While Jesus’ second life sent him to Hell and back, we have yet to see what Jon Snow’s final tasks will be.
4. Daenerys and Moses
Daenerys Stormborn is a leader and a freer of slaves. She is a just woman with the survivalist instincts and faith that carry her through extended periods of uncertainty and desert wandering. Having escaped the totalitarian wrath of Tywin Lannister’s pogrom on the Targaryens, Daenerys graduated from the nubile bride of Khal Drogo to become his widow and self-appointed Khaleesi, leader of the remaining Dothraki people. In pursuit of reclaiming the throne in Westeros whilst protecting those loyal to her, Daenerys endures many hardships throughout the journey. While steadily surmounting an army worthy of her own resilience, she manages to subdue other cities and peoples while freeing the slaves of Astapor and Meereen.
The desert wanderings and tales of Daenerys greatly resemble the histories of Moses, who accomplished similar feats under comparable circumstances. Just as Daenerys survived attempted infanticide, Moses managed to escape a similar death-decree from the Egyptian Pharaoh. Floating down the Nile in a basket as Daenerys crossed the Narrow Sea, Moses had waterways to thank for his survival. Most relevant, however, was Moses’ ability to free the Israelites from their oppressive existence under the megalomaniac Pharaoh. After their release, Moses led the Israelites through years of wandering in the desert, finally bringing them to the promised land of Milk and Honey.
Though God did not allow Moses to set foot into the Promised Land, he was permitted to view its majesty from atop a mountain before his death. It remains to be seen how close Daenerys will get to fulfilling her dream.
3. Robert Baratheon and the Slaughter of the Innocents
Bloodlines are everything. In Game of Thrones, they are the strength of kings and the pride of families. Upon the death of Robert Baratheon, rumors of his bastard sons swirl through King’s Landing. The tyrant King Joffrey decrees a city-wide scourge on all of Robert’s offspring, a bloodbath of the highest order. Led by Lord Janos Slynt, the massacre sees babies and adolescents alike stabbed, speared, and drowned in order to protect the purity of Joffrey’s claim to the iron throne.
This depiction of unbridled infanticide finds stark likeness in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew. Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, grew furious with the visiting Magi, who heralded the birth of the Christ child. Threatened by this alleged “son of God,” the paranoid and jealous Herod ordered an infanticide for all male babies under the age of two throughout Bethlehem. This event is remembered as the Massacre of the Innocents.
2. The Red Wedding and the Massacre of Glencoe
Oathbreakers seldom get mercy. For Robb Stark, his decision to follow his heart rather than his word meant death for his bannermen, his mother, and his pregnant wife. Though the infamous Red Wedding was masterminded by Tywin Lannister, who bought the allegiance of Lord Walder Frey, the end of House Stark began with Robb’s misstep to not marry Frey’s daughter. Upon the foreboding music cue of “The Rains of Castamere,” the massacre begins, with crossbow-wielding assassins and swordsmen killing off the Stark guests in the great hall. Outside the castle walls, the killing is even more fierce, revealing the extent to which Tywin and Lord Walder conspired to annihilate House Stark.
This grand plan of reprisal and vengeance was built on the history of the Glencoe Massacre, a genocide waged in response to broken oaths. In short, loyalties were demanded across the Scottish highlands to pledge allegiance to the newly minted King William of Orange. Clans had until January 1st, 1692, to formally bow in his service. Due to harsh winter conditions and remnant fealty to the recently deposed King James, the MacDonalds clan (locally known as the McClains) missed their deadline. John Dalrymple, the Master of Stair, despised the MacDonalds and rejected their pledge to King William, issuing a decree that they be “cut off root and branch…to put all to the sword under seventy.” When the commissioned soldiers arrived at Glencoe, the MacDonalds followed Highland code and gave them unbridled hospitality for nearly two weeks. On the night of a whiteout blizzard towards the end of their stay, however, Dalrymple’s men slaughtered 38 MacDonald men in their beds and let the remaining women and children freeze to death as they escaped into the wintry elements.
1. The Lannisters, Incest, and Anne Boleyn
It didn’t take long for rumors of Jaime and Cersei Lannister’s sexual escapades to run throughout Westeros. While adultery and bastard children are well known casualties of Kinghood, incest has been always a taboo bridge too far. In the context of Game of Thrones, Bran Stark literally loses his legs as a result of their affair, which Jaime will protect at any cost. When the fullest extent of Cersei and Jamie’s relationship becomes known, thanks to Stannis Baratheon’s tell-all letters, the Lannister reputation is besmirched and penance demanded.
Incest is hardly a pulpy construct of George R. R. Martin’s heightened imagination. Through all civilizations and ancient histories, incest played a powerful role in protecting bloodlines and maintaining the strength of ruling families. Anne Boleyn, for one, lost her life due to allegations of high treason, adultery, and inbreeding with her brother, George. While her husband, King Henry VIII, wanted to expedite their failed relationship so he could marry Jane Seymour, rumors of the Boleyn’s incest ultimately destroyed her family and resulted in her swift beheading at the Tower of London.
Despite Cersei’s humbling show of contrition, she is lucky to have escaped the past with her life.
What other historical events are adapted in Game of Thrones? Let us know in the comments!