Let’s dare the metaphysics of Game of Thrones, now that the dust (and self-righteous internet outrage) has settled on its final season. Specifically, I want to talk about the show’s Gnostic features.
That’s not as surprising as you might think. Epic fantasies tend to be spiritually eclectic in their massive world-building efforts. It happens, and logically, this can include some gradients of Gnosticism. As an example, it happened in Lord of the Rings. Don’t believe me? Check out Lance Owens arguing on my show that J.R.R. Tolkien’s cosmology is heavily indebted to Gnostic ideas.
And Gnosticism happened to Game of Thrones, probably more than will be discussed in this article. I started reading the books in the late 90s. George RR Martin’s gritty odyssey, in both written and visual forms, has been both a companion and sanctuary through drug addiction, insanity, family loss, and several bouts of selling out to the god of this world. As much as the saga has saved me, there are probably gaps in my recollection because of what it saved me from!
With some anamnesis, hopefully, let’s cover the two main Gnostic attributes of Game of Thrones, which are ironically opposed to one another in the storyline.
The Lord of Light
The worship of R’hllor (or the Lord of Light) is prevalent in the continent of Essos – but barely known in Westeros where most of the Game of Thrones action takes place. Yet this ecstatic, prophetic, and visionary faith packs a metaphysical punch in the series, especially in the form of the priestess Melisandre and her hit-or-miss machinations.
The religion of R’hllor is dualistic. Opposing R’hllor is the “Great Other,” a deity of darkness and death. Clearly (and supported by Martin), the religion of R’hllor is based on Zoroastrianism. However, the faith comes across more like Gnosticism.
We’ll let Game of Thrones Wiki make the case:
The central element it borrows is that it is a ditheistic religion: there is one true, “Good” God, locked in eternal combat with an evil deity. As part of this dualism R’hllor, who embodies light, fire, and heat, is opposed on the level of primordial forces by the “Great Other” who embodies cold and darkness. Zoroastrianism may have also influenced several later dualistic belief systems, such as Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Catharism, which the R’hllor religion also resembles in some respects. For example, in Gnostic belief, the material world was made by an evil, devil-like deity known as the Demiurge, who trapped the immaterial souls of humans in the physical world, while the true God is trying to free human souls from the evil physical world. Similarly, in the TV series Melisandre explained to Shireen that in the Lord of Light’s religion, the current world of the living is essentially “hell”, and the Lord of Light is trying to free his faithful followers from it. The Gnostic Demiurge is described in the Pistis Sophia as a being of “flame and shadow”.
This however puts it at odds with the Zoroastrian faith is supposedly based on, which stresses a lack of dualism between the physicality and spirituality to the point of denying asceticism. Additionally, the faith of R’hllor seems to discard free will, claiming that all of humanity are the Lord of Light’s slaves, while free will is one of the most important tenets of Zoroastrian practice.
Here is the scene where Melisandre speaks about the very Gnostic reality of the world:
If you think the lighter side of Gnosticism is dark, wait until you immerse yourself in its darker aspects.
The Night King
As the Game of Thrones Wiki intimates, every Gnostic saga needs a terrible Demiurge. In Game of Thrones, it takes the form of the icy Night King.
The Night King’s powers include summoning winter storms, reanimating anything dead, and being impervious to almost anything in the material cosmos. His origins are human but tragic. In primordial times, the Children of the Forest, a race of magical creatures, fought humanity and its hunger to consume resources. Desperate and losing the war, the Children captured a man and transformed him into a bleak demigod. Hello, Night King, who then spends millennia attempting to exterminate humanity.
All of this doesn’t sound like an angry Gnostic god, does it? First, let’s explore the typology of the Gnostic Demiurge.
In Gnostic writings, the Demiurge lords over our universe, which is nothing more than a mechanistic copy of the heavenly realms. As scholar Stevan Davies writes in The Secret Book of John: the Gnostic Gospel, the Demiurge “imagines such realms for himself: artificial imitations of the real aeons existing in a new space that is removed from the divine.”
Also known as Yaldabaoth and associated with the Old Testament Yahweh, the Demiurge sustains his synthetic domain with the stolen power from the heavenly realms. This power resides within each one of us as the Divine Spark. In actuality, each one of us is the Divine Spark, buried in a meat sack and brainwashed to believe we are only human, forever cast in a cycle of amnesia and rebirth.
Now let’s connect Yaldaboth to the Night King.
The Night King is more than the leader of a zombie horde. You could argue that he doesn’t raise the dead but warps the recently deceased into deficient facsimiles of their former lives. After all, under the Night King’s necromancy, a dragon can still breathe fire and warriors still retain their fighting skills. More than being undead, these beings are anti-life, warped simulacrums of a past and vibrant existence…as if their consciousness was just suppressed deep in a programmed hell that tells them only to serve the Night King.
Moreover, as we discover in the last season, the Night King craves for the destruction of Bran Stark. That is because Bran is the latest incarnation of the Three-Eyed Raven — the living symbol and actual repository of all the knowledge and wisdom of humanity. He is both the material form of the Gnostic Logos and Sophia, the two primary foes of the Demiurge in the Gnostic mythos.
In short, the Night King wants to destroy any human awareness and self-knowledge by destroying Bran, just like Yaldabaoth wants to make sure we never recollect our celestial capacity.
Check out this scene where Bran explains what really drives the Night King:
As Yaldaboth rules over a soul-trapping, deterministic universe, the Night King desires to rule over an automaton replica of Westeros. Both villains want the complete suppression of agency by forcing a numb collective sentience upon all life.
You could argue that the Night King also wants vengeance over all the living. He turns on the Children of the Forest, eventually wiping them out; and he has no problem slaying random animals like bears. Like Yaldabaoth and his rage at being the misshapen bastard child of Sophia, the Night King is driven by resentment as much as he follows his programmed and cursed nature.
The Wrath of Defiant Goddesses
Now that I have more anamnesis, Game of Thrones might be mostly fueled by Gnosticism. I mean, the spiritual and philosophical climax of the series appears in episode three of the final season (with the following three episodes just footnote accounts of humans and their territorial bullshit). In the episode, entitled “The Long Night,” the Night King and his armies storm castle Winterfell to fight an alliance of heroes that know they are the last hope for civilization. Bran is there, too, a sort of bait for the Night King, who personally wishes to slay him.
“The Long Night” is a bloody and grand conflict, a seeming Armageddon between darkness (the Night King) and light (the religion of R’hllor). Martin even calls the entire fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” At one point in the battle, Melisandre explains to Arya Stark, “Here we are, at the end of the world.”
It is indeed the end of the world because the collective human consciousness is at stake. And only Gnosis can save the situation, as the ancient Gnostics declared when confronting the Demiurge. That’s how “The Long Night” plays out – with Melisandre becoming the classic Gnostic revealer (like Morpheus in The Matrix). She’s not at the castle really to support with pyrotechnics, but to awaken Arya who has become fearful and full of doubt because of the carnage, forgetting her training as a sorcerous assassin. As Winterfell collapses against the armies of the dead, the R’hllor priestess rouses Arya with a hermetic reminder of her sacred calling.
“What do you say to the god of death?” Melisandre asks Arya after regaining her purpose.
“Not today,” Arya responds, accepting her divine kismet.
A short while later, Arya destroys the Night King, who must be none other than an avatar of the “Great Other.” Bran and all Divine Sparks are saved. There will be no eternal forgetfulness and winter of consciousness.
Arya is a Sophianic character, her role paralleling the Gnostic Gospels where Sophia and her sublunar incarnations continually thwart Yaldabaoth. This is also the overall divine feminine narrative in Gnosticism, a fiery pushback by awakened heroines against the darkness of mere being. This trope manifests as well with Daenerys Targaryen and her relation to the Gnostic, fire-breathing Norea.
Yes, the subtext is subtle but very Gnostic. And Gnosis tells us that the end of the world is happening at every moment, in fire and ice.
Did I miss any other Gnostic themes in Game of Thrones? Let me know because HBO received the same fate as the Night King as soon as the series was over.
And thanks to Sunshine and Fady at the Inner Sanctum of Gnosis Group for providing further anamnesis for this article!
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