Ask the Maester: Braavos, the Faceless Men, Westerosi Religion, the Sansa Gambit, and MoreHBO
What’s up with Braavos and Volantis?
As the two most powerful and influential cities — economically and militarily — on the continent, Braavos and Volantis are the twin jewels of Essos. Both cities trace their respective histories back to the ancient Valyrian Empire, but in mirror-opposite ways. Volantis, the oldest of the Free Cities, is on the southern coast of Essos, straddling one of the four mouths of the colossal river Rhoyne, its two halves joined by famed Long Bridge, one of the Nine Wonders Made by Man. It began anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 years ago, give or take, as a Valyrian border outpost, and many of its residents are of Valyrian ancestry. Many, many more of the city’s residents, however, are slaves. It is said that in Volantis there are five slaves to each free citizen. Those slaves carry out every kind of labor that their masters and the city require, from soldiering to street sweeping. The slaves of Volantis are known by their distinctive facial tattoos, which denote their status as property and the castes they inhabit: Prostitutes are marked by a single tear of mourning, jesters by a patchwork motley pattern, soldiers by tiger stripes, and so on and so on. As you would expect, Volantis’s slave economy is naturally linked to the chattel markets of Slaver’s Bay. Dany’s destruction of those markets and subsequent emancipation of the slaves she found there have damaged Volantis’s economy and shaken its ruling class to the core.
Braavos, meanwhile, is the youngest of the Free Cities. And, where ancient Volantis’s land-based might is powered by the brutal exploitation of human labor, Braavos’s unmatched seapower, financial reach, and polycultural, polyreligious society is an outgrowth of the city’s desperate origin as the secret, last-ditch hideaway of runaway slaves fleeing the fiery lash of Old Valyria. Located at the opposite end of the continent from Volantis and the ruins of their former masters’ Valyrian homeland, Braavos is spread across the numerous islands of a vast sheltered lagoon, shrouded by fog. Perhaps 500 years before Aegon’s Conquest of Westeros, about 800 years before the events of the show, a slave rebellion erupted on a flotilla of Valyrian slave ships bound for Sothoryos. The slaves cast off their chains, seized control of the ships, and, driven by the desire to put as much landmass and water between themselves and their masters as possible and guided by a prophecy that they’d find sanctuary in a distant lagoon, sailed far to the north.
The lagoon they found, on the northwestern tip of Essos, is bordered on its landward side by uninhabited marshland and protected on its seaward side by a shielding ring of forested, mountainous islands. The waters of the lagoon are brackish and teeming with all manner of seafood; the islands rich in timber and metals. The constant fog kept everything below hidden from the prying eyes of any dragon lords that might happen to fly overhead. In other words: location, location, location.
For more than a century, Braavos gathered its strength in secret, wary of the vengeance of the Valyrians. The Braavosi built fleets and traded in metals and rare color dyes, all while taking care to never reveal the location of their home. Trading ships avoided areas under Valyrian control and carried false maps. Eventually they built up contacts in faraway Ibben and closer to our story in Westeros. When the time was right — 111 years after the city’s founding, after all of the original fugitives had passed on — emissaries from Braavos set sail for every city and port to announce their existence to the world. This event is known as the Uncloaking of Uthero (named for the Braavosi sealord Uthero Zalyne).
During this time, a simple abandoned iron mine used by a few Braavosi to secure valuables from reavers grew into Westeros’s Goldman Sachs: the Iron Bank of Braavos.
The founders of Braavos were a wildly heterogeneous group, made up of people from every corner of the known world, bringing with them a cacophony of diverging customs. Because of their status as ex-slaves, the Braavosi value freedom, both of the person — they are fervently anti-slavery — and of religion. Temples to every god from every religion, great and small, can be found in Braavos, and this is echoed in the show’s depiction of the mysterious House of Black and White, the home of the death cult of the Faceless Men assassins. The Faceless Men worship the Many-Faced God, and they consider all the deities of all the world’s religions to be aspects, or faces, of their god. At the opening of Episode 3, “High Sparrow,” you can see effigies to numerous religions inside the House of Black and White, including the flaming heart of Based R’hllor, the Drowned God, and the inscrutable weirwood face of the old gods. This is a slight change from the books, in which the Many-Faced God is a conglomeration of only the world’s various death gods.
Kellan asks: “Just trying to wrap my head around the scope of whatever globe the story takes place on. It seems that Westeros and Essos are the only land masses that are relevant to the GOT storylines, but is there anything else out there? What happens if a man sails east from Essos?”
If you were to keep going east from Slaver’s Bay, you would encounter the fabled lands of Yi Ti, Leng, the plains of the Jogos Nhai, and the mystical Asshai-by-the-Shadow. Certain legends of eastern Yi Ti are thought to correspond with the beginning of the legendary Long Night, the winter that lasted a generation, when the White Walkers roamed Westeros unchecked. The possibly apocryphal story of the hero Azor Ahai, who, according to certain tales, ended the Long Night, has its roots in this part of the world. On the breakaway slave ships that would go on to found Braavos, it was a group of female slaves from the plains of the Jogos Nhai who foresaw the location of their future city. Yi Ti, Leng, and the plains of the Jogos Nhai are basically Martin’s version of China and the Mongolian plain. Asshai — the hometown of Melisandre — is where all knowledge of the world ends. It’s by all accounts a small city, rich in gems and populated by mages, wizards, blood magicians, necromancers, poisoners, and other unsavory types.
Marco asks: “Can Arya truly become a Faceless Man when she only buried the sword? Wouldn’t that prevent her from becoming no one when she has the knowledge that a part of Arya is so easily accessible to her?”
Great observation. What we know from the books about Faceless Man training is that part of it entails developing complete control over one’s face so that lies can be told as if they were the purest truth. It involves subsuming individual wants and desires in service to the Many-Faced God. A Faceless Man can’t just go off and kill whoever he wants. There are religious protocols to be observed, and the gift of death cannot be given to just anyone. I think it’s fair to question whether Arya, who has spent the last four seasons ticking off the names on her hit list, is willing to give up her mission of revenge. To me, the burying of the sword was symbolic. She may learn their ways, give up her personality, and change her face, but somewhere, deep down, she will always be Arya.
Evan asks: “Could you explain the supernatural realm of GOT? Between the Red God, ‘The Seven,’ and the old Gods it’s hard to discern the differences.”
The Faith of the Seven is the dominant religion in Westeros, roughly analogous to medieval Catholicism. It was brought to the continent by the invading Andals roughly 6,000 years ago. The seven deities of the faith are individual aspects of one god. Those aspects are:
- The Father, representing justice
- The Mother, representing fertility and mercy
- The Warrior, representing martial ability; also a favorite of young boys throughout Westeros
- The Maiden, representing innocence and virtue
- The Smith, representing the dignity of labor and craftsmanship
- The Crone, representing wisdom
- The Stranger, representing the death that waits for us all
The Sparrows are an ascetic offshoot of the Faith of the Seven. They arose as a response to the widespread violence visited upon the realm’s lowliest servants of the Faith during the War of the Five Kings, when holy septs (churches) were pillaged and burned and septas (basically nuns) were raped and murdered by soldiers on every side of the conflict. Originating in the countryside, the Sparrows marched on King’s Landing, under the leadership of the High Sparrow, in order to make their suffering known to those who should have protected them.
The old gods are the ancient gods of the First Men and the Children of the Forest. The religion is prevalent in the North, and is represented by the faces carved in the weirwood trees.
R’hllor, or the Lord of Light, is the god of the red priests and priestesses, who are found predominantly on Essos. The religion preaches that light is in a constant battle with darkness. Many of its clergy seem to have — or at least represent to others that they have — the ability to pick visions of the future out of their flames. Others, like Melisandre and Thoros of Myr, have even greater powers.
The Drowned God is the undersea god of the Ironborn. It’s an ancient religion, possibly predating the First Men, with a quasi-baptismal ritual in which adherents are held beneath the surf until drowned, then brought back to life by Westeros’s version of mouth-to-mouth.
Brittany asks: “How is it that Littlefinger doesn’t know much about Ramsay Bolton? Shouldn’t he have gotten a little scroll via raven explaining something, anything about his torturous ways?”
It’s hard to see Littlefinger’s angle here, but that’s probably the point. After all, we don’t know what Cersei’s raven to Littlefinger says, or what his response is. Surely, Petyr knows about Ramsay’s psychopathic proclivities; those are an open secret throughout the North. This arc is one of the biggest changes from the books, which features a convoluted story line in which Ramsay weds someone who claims to be Arya Stark but is actually the daughter of the late steward of Winterfell. On the surface, marrying Sansa to Ramsay is a huge Bolton win. Roose’s position as Warden of the North is shaky, to say the least. The Boltons were already feared and reviled before the Red Wedding, owing to the house’s dark flay-’em-and-slay-’em history, their practice of a lord’s right to bed his subjects’ wives, and Ramsay’s numerous crimes. Ramsay seized the lands of Lady Donella Hornwood by kidnapping her, forcibly marrying her, then locking her in a tower, where she starved to death after chewing off her own fingers. Roose Bolton not only betrayed the Starks, who were and still are widely beloved in the North (as evidenced by the Winterfell serving maid telling Sansa, “The North remembers”), but in carrying out the Red Wedding, he took part in the massacre that touched every noble house of the North. You simply cannot overstate how hated the Boltons are. Having Theon around Winterfell, albeit in Ramsay’s thrall, would be seen as a particular insult after his role in Winterfell’s sacking and the (supposed) murders of Bran and Rickon. Roose needs allies, and joining strength with Littlefinger and the Vale goes a long way toward securing his family’s position. The Vale and the North would be, in theory, a power bloc to rival the quickly fraying Lannister-Tyrell alliance.
Still, it’s hard to believe that Littlefinger, who seems to be creepily obsessed with Sansa, would be so careless about her safety. Maybe he really just views her as a chess piece. Or maybe he has something else cooking. After all, as Sansa’s uncle by marriage, he’d be in decent shape should the Boltons get knocked off by, oh, any of the thousands of their subjects who want to slit their throats. The North remembers. And the North surely views the wedding of Ned Stark’s innocent daughter to Ramsay Bolton with a mix of alarm and smoldering fury.
Steffen asks, “Who were the girls that were basically mean-mugging Sansa Stark as she was presented to Ramsay ‘I’m not going to hurt her’ Bolton?”
One of them is Ramsay’s bed-warmer/partner-in-grime Myranda. You may remember that Myranda — along with Violet, another of Ramsay’s twisted companions — took part in the psychological portion of Theon’s torture back in Season 3, seducing him into a state of arousal before Ramsay appeared to sheer off his kraken. Later, Myranda helped hunt down one of Ramsay’s Most Dangerous Game–style victims, shooting the girl in the legs with arrows so Ramsay’s dogs could eat her alive. Myranda is probably not super-psyched to see her place usurped by Sansa.
Not a question, but: R.I.P. Janos Slynt.
Ah, one of my favorite scenes from the books! Janos Slynt, a sycophant and a coward, was, as he was fond of telling people, the former commander of the City Watch of King’s Landing. He was one of Cersei Lannister’s creatures and personally carried out the massacre of Robert Baratheon’s bastards. His faithful service landed him a seat on the small council. When Tyrion became King’s Hand under Joffrey, he consolidated his authority, in part, by having Lord Janos sent to the Wall. He was a jerk.
Ricky asks: “For a royal wedding whose union could carry much weight, there seemed to be very little build up for Tommen and Margaery and none of the pomp and circumstance that I would’ve expected. Why is this? Why no heavy hitter guests?”
We’re talking about the third royal wedding involving Margaery Tyrell now — Renly, Joffrey, Tommen — and the marriage to Tommen is happening mere months after she wed his late brother, Joffrey. A big event would be pretty unseemly. Besides, the whole realm is weary and the Tyrells had just spent a huge sum on the spectacularly ill-fated Joff-Marg wedding.
David asks, “Do you think Jorah was planning to spend the rest of his life hanging out at that brothel, having daily ‘counselling’ with the Dany lookalike, only to be dragged out of the world’s saddest thirst pit by a chance encounter with Tyrion?”
Most definitely 100-percent-flame-emoji yes. Let’s be real: Dude did not have a lot else going on once he got cast into the friend-zone wasteland. His two options were basically to become a sellsword and probably die a grisly and anonymous death, or to hang out in a Volantene thirst trap while “The Mother of Dragons” was on her shift.
Nick asks, “Was that the Mountain in the creepy dude’s lab?”
Ever since the Mountain succumbed to manticore poison after his duel with Prince Oberyn, his body has been in the possession of ex–Maester Qyburn. So, basically, yeah, that is sort of him. Or it’s whatever he is now.
Chris asks, “How much time has passed in Westeros since the beginning of the show?”
Something like three years, give or take. Maybe a shade less.
Scene of the Week
“Day and night, night and day, I tell you. He gets shy only when Ser Pounce is around!”
“Oh! Such a surprise to see you up so early, Queen Mother! Although I guess women of your advanced age need less sleep than the rest of us.”
“Yes, hahaha. How nice. Oh, an embrace! Don’t you smell nice?”
“Oh, thank you. It’s the mingled sweat of Lion and Stag, if you get my drift, Granny. May I call you Grandmother?”
“Aren’t you wonderful? Listen, you may need a Maester now to look after your, ahem, queenly bits. Go see my man Qyburn. I can’t recommend him highly enough.”