“What is dead may never die.” Of all the tribal slogans and mantras heard throughout the world of Game of Thrones, the chant of the Ironborn is definitely the most striking. It encapsulates the sense of macabre and violence in the spiritual practices of the Theon Greyjoy's people. Still, even six seasons in, the Iron Islands remain a mysterious place in Westeros. While we're very familiar with House Greyjoy and the mythos of the Drowned God, there's still plenty to discover about the Iron Islands and its history.
The Iron Islands may not have been one of the most crucial regions in Game of Thrones thus far, but as the threat of Winter gets closer and the coming dance of dragons continues to turn the heat up on every region of Westeros, House Greyjoy and the Ironborn find themselves in a unique position, setting themselves up as primary players in the conflict. Meanwhile, the Iron Islands remain a fascinating mystery. Here are 15 Things You Didn't Know About The Iron Islands to get you ready for what's to come in Season 7.
15 The islands were first settled by the First Men
Though the Iron Islands have a singular cultural identity, they share the same early settlers as the rest of Northern Westeros. According to the maesters, the Islands were originally settled by the First Men. Ironborn legend claims that the region’s first inhabitants were created from the Drowned God, but most of the Ironborn claim that their ancestors were sea-bound offshoots of the First Men.
It stands to reason that the Ironborn would develop a different culture than the mainland First Men descendents. Completely separated from their fellow First Men, the early settlers of the Iron Islands would naturally develop in a different way. The Ironborn also practice “thralldom”—the keeping of indentured servants—once a common practice among the First Men, providing further evidence that the Iron Islands share an origin with the Northern mainland.
14 Each island once had its own king
As of Season 6, the Iron Islands remain under the rule of House Greyjoy, albeit an unsteady one following the death of Balon Greyjoy and loyalties split between Euron Greyjoy and Balon’s surviving children, Theon and Yara. But the region wasn't always under the rule of one house, and certainly not under one king. In fact, the Iron Islands have their very own sordid history of power struggles and battling kingdoms.
There are seven Iron Islands total, and each had its own king at one point or another. After the thousand-year reign of the Grey King during the Age of Heroes, rule was split between the islands, and the island kings fell into a downward spiral of constant infighting and vying for feeble territory. It wasn’t until the intervention of a powerful drowned priest that the Iron Islands were re-unified.
13 The first king of all the iron islands was chosen by election
Under the direction of a powerful high priest of the Drowned Men (who proclaimed it a sin for one Ironborn to take up arms against another), the Iron Islands were re-unified in a “Kingsmoot”, where one High King of the Iron Islands was elected democratically. The election was held on the holy island of Old Wyk, and each succeeding king was elected in similar fashion.
Though the Kingsmoot ended the petty wars between the islands and unified them into a modestly thriving kingdom, the system eventually gave way to a series of family dynasties, beginning with the Greyirons and carrying on up to the current Greyjoy dynasty. Though technically under the rule of the Iron Throne, the region has remained independent under Greyjoy rule. Only time will tell how much longer the Greyjoy dynasty will last, especially now that the family has split into two competing factions.
12 The only region in Westeros to practice “thralldom”
Thralldom is a practice that’s pretty much abandoned by every region of Westeros except the Iron Islands. The Ironborn procure a thrall through raiding and plundering (a tactic known as the “iron price”), making them different than slaves because they are neither bought, nor sold -- they're taken. A number of characters in Game of Thrones have kept slaves and indentured servants (Theon Greyjoy himself was the tortured slave of Ramsay Bolton for what felt like an eternity), but the Iron Islands is the only region in Westeros where thralldom is a broad social norm.
Thralls are usually servants for life, and their children are born into it as well. Thrall children can only become free if they join the Drowned Men, but since doing so involves going through the insane priestly drowning ritual and probably dying, chances of escaping captivity aren’t very good.
11 Bear Island Used to Belong to the Ironborn, but was lost in a wrestling match
The Ironborn once reigned over far more than seven islands. Tucked within the Bay of Ice, south of the Frozen Shore, is Bear Island. A thousand years prior to its current ownership under House Mormont, Bear Island was conquered by the Ironborn and used as a route through which to gain control of the Frozen Shore. Over the course of several decades, the island was taken back and forth between the Ironborn and the Starks, until King Rodick Stark retrieved it for good by somewhat unusual means.
Not long after King Loron Greyjoy’s Bear Island takeover, Rodick Stark won the island back in an epic wrestling match, and he then bestowed it onto House Mormont as a reward for their loyalty. Bear Island may be under Mormont control, but it remains a shining example of House Stark’s courage and perseverance.
10 Old Wyk is the holiest of the Iron Islands
Located east of Great Wyk and west of Orkmont, Old Wyk is home to some of the most prominent noble houses of the Iron Islands. It’s also the spiritual home of the Ironborn and the faith of the Drowned God. One could even argue that it’s the only Iron Island that really matters.
Old Wyk was the location of several key Iron Island events that all contributed to the Ironborn mythos. Not only is it the island where the Grey King had is legendary showdown with Nagga the Sea Dragon (more on that in our next entry), but it's also where the First Men found the Seastone Chair, the Iron Island’s royal throne. Old Wyk was also the home of the Kingsmoot, and most recently, Euron Greyjoy’s diabolical ascent to becoming the Iron King.
9 The islands were once home to a Sea Dragon
With every passing season of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen's triplet dragons are the source of increasing shock and awe—so much so that it’s easy to forget that the history of Westeros is full of gigantic fire breathing reptiles. One of Westeros’s most notorious dragons was Nagga, the sea dragon of the Iron Islands. Nagga was big and fierce enough to devour krakens and destroy whole islands when provoked.
Nagga had a good run, but like all evil dragons, she was eventually slain by a legendary warrior. Aided by the Drowned God, the Grey King fought and slew Nagga and built a hall out of her bones on Old Wyk. If that weren’t enough royal muscle flexing, he also had her teeth made into a crown, and her jaws became his throne. Talk about hanging on to your glory days.
8 The ironborn have the strongest seafaring military in westeros
The raiding tradition has given the Ironborn a prominent naval military presence in Westeros. Centuries of raiding led the Ironborn to developing narrow longships that still strike fear into the hearts of surrounding houses and regions. Ironborn longships are fast and elusive, making them not only ideal for raiding, but extra efficient in any kind of oceanic battle. The Ironborn also stand out from other sailors because they aren't afraid to wear armor at sea, giving them an automatic advantage over any enemy out on the water.
Ironborn control over the regions surrounding the Iron Islands has varied over the centuries, but even in times when power is limited, the Iron Fleet are an adversary to be reckoned with. As long as battles are fought at sea, the Ironborn will always be feared, whether their kingdom extends beyond the Iron Islands or not.
7 The drowned men have a lot of power on the islands
The drowned men are the priests and central religious figures of the Iron Islands, and as such, they hold a great deal of influence over the Ironborn. It was a prominent priest of the drowned men, after all, that first instituted the Kingsmoot, changing the entire course of history on the Iron Islands. The Drowned Men are also the guardians of the freed thralls, and some of them are former thralls themselves, giving them a unique position of understanding all sides of Ironborn life.
The most recent display of the Drowned Men’s profound influence over the Ironborn occurred when Euron Greyjoy was crowned the Iron King. Drowned Man Aeron Greyjoy—Euron’s older brother—was the one who demanded that the new King of the Iron Islands be elected in a Kingsmoot, setting the stage for Euron’s election, as well as the direction of Theon, Yara, and their followers. The religion of the Drowned God provides the central framework of Ironborn culture, and as ecclesiastical authorities of the Drowned God, the Drowned Men clearly hold the keys to changing the course of history in the region.
6 They Raid Because They Have To
The ancient Ironborn didn’t start raiding merely out of boredom or blood lust (though both were surely factors in the development of Ironborn culture). As civilization grew on the Iron Islands, raiding became a necessity for survival due to the area’s limited natural resources. In fact, the Ironborn became so good at raiding that the lack of natural resources on the islands was hardly given second thought.
Farmable soil is sparse on the small, rocky, and frequently windswept Iron Islands. As a result, very few crops exist on a regular basis, and the ones that do are feebly kept by thralls. The Ironborn are a proud people, which makes anything outside the boundaries of their raiding and plundering heritage seem beneath them. Working what little rocky soil they have is not only a virtually impossible uphill battle, but a cultural taboo.
5 Most of the iron on the islands remains unmined
What little natural resources the Iron Islands have are largely left unexploited. The iron deep within the rocks of the Islands could be a great asset, but the work of mining is yet another task that most Ironborn consider thrall’s work. There may be iron in them there hills, but as long as the Ironborn think they're too cool to mine, it ain't goin' anywhere.
The Ironborn are frequently their own worst enemy, shirking innovation for cultural tradition and identity. On the other hand, their strict adherence to tradition is what sets them apart from other cultures of Westeros. While the Ironborn could potentially achieve great wealth and economic prosperity in iron mining, they would also have to surrender cultural traditions that have sustained the Iron Islands for centuries.
4 The Ironborn were primarily raiders and pillagers before the Targaryen Conquest
As we’ve already covered extensively in this list, the Ironborn are pretty into raiding. Known as the “Old Way”, the practice of raiding other lands for wealth and supplies is almost sacred to them. In the centuries before the Targaryen Conquest, raiding was the primary source of wealth and prosperity on the Iron Islands, while farming and mining were considered to be beneath truly free men. In contrast, fishing was never considered to be too menial for the Ironborn. Their connection to the sea imbues fishing activities with a sense of wonder and sacred cultural significance.
After the Targaryen conquest, most of the regions of Westeros were unified under one kingdom, making it harder for the Ironborn to raid other regions without overhwelming retaliation. As a result, the Ironborn have raided a lot less. But as Euron Greyjoy prepares for a military rebellion against the Iron Throne, the promising of a return to the Old Way looms large.
3 Some of the iron born believe in returning to the Old Way
Many Ironborn feel that returning to the Old Way is not only inevitable, but the only possible course for the future of their people. Raiding may have been a necessity for life on the Iron Islands, but it's cultural significance has had a much longer lifespan. It's a brutal practice, but it signifies strength, honor, and spiritual awakening to the Ironborn.
Cultural identity can be a powerful tool in uniting any group of people. The present situation of the Ironborn is a tricky one. The ruling house has split in two, and both sides are taking up arms in a coming battle for the Salt Throne. If the Ironborn have any chance at victory in the war to come, it may just be their devotion to the Old Way that carries them.
2 The ironborn once ruled over the Riverlands
The Riverlands are just a bay away from the Iron Islands, making it the primary target of some of the Ironborn's most intense raiding and plundering streaks. The Ironborn were also one of many invaders to conquer the Riverlands over the millenia.
After a lengthy rule by the Storm Kings, Iron King Harwyn Hardhand took control of the Riverlands and claimed them for the Iron Islands. His son, Halleck Hoare, succeeded his father as the Iron King and chose to settle down in the Riverland Fair Market. House Hoare then reigned closely over the Riverlands for many years and even built an elaborate castle there. Eventually, the Iron Islands lost the Riverlands to House Targaryen, but the remnants of their reign still exist.
1 The Ironborn didn't always worship the drowned god
The religion of the Drowned God is one of the defining characteristics of the Ironborn, so it's strange to think that there was ever a time when they didn't worship the Drowned God. In fact, there was even a stretch where the Ironborn practiced the Faith of the Seven.
Worship of the Drowned God continues today because the Faith of the Seven never fully took hold among the Ironborn. When the Andals took control of Westeros away from the First Men, the Faith of the Seven spread, and the Ironborn began to mingle with non-Iron Island natives in unprecedented numbers. Many converted to the Faith of the Seven in the process, but the Ironborn connection to the sea kept the legend of the Drowned God alive. Over time, the Ironborn re-dedicated themselves to their homeland, and the faith of the Drowned God won out for good.
How big a role do you think the Iron Islands will play in the wars to come? Will Theon ever catch a damn break? Let us know in the comments.