Previously I have posted commentaries on cremation practices in historical drama ‘Vikings’ season 1 and 2 here and in my academic work I’m fascinated by how pre-modern, open-air cremation practices are portrayed in contemporary literature, art and the moving picture.
I’ve finally started watching Game of Thrones – everyone else seems to be doing it. I expected sex, battles, duals, murders, genital mutilation and… the occasional funeral. In this drawn-out fantasy narrative of family feud, power games, intrigue, deception, riding about in the sun being southern, sailing about in the mist being northern, and striding about in the snow being very northern, I wondered how funerals would play a role in the narrative and in the visual theatre.
Game of Thrones is based on George R. R. Martin’s books set in the land of Westeros and its seven kingdoms, and I confess I haven’t read the books. We encounter a world in which magic and dragons inhabit a pseudo-medieval power-hungry land of seemingly infinite peasants and warriors and very little worked agricultural land. It is an elemental world, in which fire and ice are the poles around which the stories geographical and magical dimensions flit.
Death by fire figures predominantly: by dragon fire, magical fire and sacrificial and other gruesome deaths and torture involving fire. Hence, I was unsurprised that cremation made an appearance as a classic motif of the exotic, the barbaric and pre-Christian, but I was surprised by its different guises.
According to the GoT wiki, ancient Valryians cremated, and so do the Dothraki and the followers of the Lord of Light. However, that doesn’t quite suffice in addressing the uses of cremation in the HBO show. So, here’s my first post about cremation in Game of Thrones.
At the very end of Season 1, episode 10 – Fire and Blood – we encounter one of the ‘heroines’, sister of a mad blonde, showing signs of unhinged blondeness herself: Daenerys Targaryen. She and her brother live in exile in Essos but her brother Viserys has burning ambitions to one day sit on the iron throne in Kings Landing like his mad father – King Aerys – before him.
Her brother makes a deal with the Dothraki horde (equine nomads: basically Mongols without ambition and armour) for her to become the wife of their clan-leader – Khal Drogo – in exchange for an army to invade Westeros. Things don’t go precisely to plan, and her bro gets a golden crown he didn’t expect. Along the way Daenerys acquires three dragon eggs and gains the inkling that she is immune to the effects of fire. When Khal Drogo’s mind is lost, she smothers him with a pillow (a kindly act it seems) and things seem about to fall apart for our own ambitions for power.
A ‘Dothraki’ Cremation
Cremation comes in to save the day for Daenerys!
She burns Drogo’s cadaver on a sensibly sized funeral pyre, having freed the Dothraki and given them a choice to stay or leave. This scale is appropriate: her band is now small following Drogo’s death.
The pyre is still impressive but not grandiose. It has big posts at each end, a platform at head-height and the body exposed on the top for all to see, wrapped in a loose thin textile ‘shroud’. Seemingly he has no pyre-goods with him and disappointly not even a horse.
Still, a bit of impromptu human sacrifice spices up this dramatic funeral scene: a priestess Daenerys blames for Drogo’s loss of mind (with good reason it seems) is tied to the foot-end of the pyre for her part in recent affairs.
Daernerys operates as the chief mourner, supported by her Dothraki aid and Ser Jorah Mormont. Rather than light the pyre directly, she lights spirals of kindling that feed the fire direct to the pyre. We get an overhead view of this and it is a very groovy touch: it ensures that it keeps her away from the flames ahead of her dramatic immersion into the raging inferno. Jorah pleads with her not to self-immolate, but she walks into the pyre, her bravery and endurance contrasted starkly with the screams of the dying priestess.
She takes with her the three dragon eggs, and the fire hatches them. We move to the next morning when Jorah and the remaining Dothraki explore the fire. She emerges from the smouldering wreck of the pyre: her clothes have burnt away and she is covered in ash. Her three baby dragons are strategically placed to hide some (but not all) of her naked form. She has become the Queen of Dragons via her immersion on Drogo’s funeral fire.
A Focus on Fire
They don’t seem to bother with post-cremation practices, and they don’t build a mound for Khal Drogo. This is a classic trope of sci-fi and fantasy cremation from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Later, we learn that cremation is essential for the Dothraki to enter the next world. Still, in this scene, the focus is on the fiery transformation as both dissolution of the cadaver and a moment of phoenix-like birth of the dragons from the ashes. This is a key moment for the character and cremation is a key part of her journey from khalessi as wife to become a leader in her own right.
Self Immolation by Fire
Somewhat insidious is how this scene serves to valorise self-immolation, the stark opposite to Tolkein’s Denethor who tries to burn his second son Faramir whilst still alive on a pyre within the catacombs of Minas Tirith. Here, Daenerys seemingly knows she is destined to survive the flames and simultaneously hatch the dragons in the process; she willfully goes to her fate, against the pleas of Jorah. Whether they thought it through, here we have a play on a global practice to which widows have been subject to burning in cremating societies from the North-West Coast of North America into the 19th century and in parts of South and East Asia into recent decades. We also encounter versions of it in the ancient and medieval world and legend, including Nanna, wife of the god Balder, throwing herself onto the god’s funeral pyre.
In this fantasy genre, we encounter through Game of Thrones a disturbing portrayal of a real-world practice of widow self-immolation, as well as a realisation of the widespread concept of fire as regenerative and serpentine rather than destructive.