In Season 3 of Game of Thrones we encounter a second prominent and high-status funeral involving cremation, but in almost every sense contrasting with the cremation of Khal Drogo. Hoster Tully, head of House Tully of Riverrun is cremated on a small boat on the Red Fork of the Trident River with his brother Bryndon, son Edmure, daughter Catelyn Stark as well as his grandson Robb Stark in attendance. The scene takes place on a jetty adorned with piscine symbols of his house.
The body is set adrift downstream of Riverrun which is in the background and upriver. Although the perspective does not afford us a vision of how many attended upon the banks, we might anticipate a large crowd in attendance by virtue of the individual’s paramount status and the long-distance travelled by those attending the funeral.
Hence the modest size of the vessel is deliberate and reflects the scale of the water course, and the aspirations for the funeral as more than elaborate display. It is a small rowing boat containing the clothed body and covered by his house’s banner depicting the white fish on a red background, a sword lain over his body, a shield at his feet, and a six ceramic vases (3 on either side of the body) with side handles and lids containing unknown substances. I think there is a drinking horn above his head too.
After the boat is set adrift, Edmure, Hoster’s son and heir, has to fire a flaming arrow into the boat to light it. Edmure fails multiple times to light the boat, his arrows missing their target, and his uncle Bryndon – the ‘Blackfish’ – (Hoster’s brother) has to step in and hit the boat with a single flaming arrow from a longbow at an olympic distance. This takes place just before the boat disappeared out of sight around a bend in the river.
Significance in the Story
The broader context of the scene is one of the need for bolstering the alliances between the Tullys and Starks and their awkward neighbour Walder Frey and to illustrate the ineffectual character of Hoster’s son Edmure. Simultaneoulsy, Bryndon’s actual physically mandate’s what he claims regarding his long-fraught relationship with his brother: they made peace before the end.
We are meant to presume that this isn’t a unique occurrence, but the Tully’s traditional elite mode of disposal must be concluded in this fashion. Certainly, the riverine affinity of the house is mirrored in the desire for conflagration and immersion. Here cremation and immersion is less a religious statement as much as a careful conjoined articulation of kinship, status and power.
It is also yet another powerful combination of elemental dimensions: fire and water
Also, the scene helps us to consider the odd mixture of high medieval setting and yet non-Christian (‘pagan’) funerary practices operating in Westeros and therefore is beautifully anachronistic were one to try and understand this (unfairly) in historical and archaeological context.
Combining Scyld Scefing of Beowulf and Boromir of The Fellowship of the Ring, with the death of Balder and Einar’s funeral, the final scene of the 1958 film Vikings, this is a relatively low-key and modest funeral in its riverine final stages. It is a clear evolution of an established literary and filmic funeral tradition of cremation on water. Given the modest size of the vessel, the Beowulf/Tolkein influences seem paramount here over Viking mythical and Hollywood exemplar. In both Beowulf and in Boromir’s funeral in the Fellowship of the Ring, the river takes the boat away, out of view and its final fate is ‘unknown’ to those apprehending the funeral.
Archaeological and Historical Background
Now there is obviously a rich and varied archaeological background to burning the dead in boats; and we have extensive evidence from late Iron Age Scandinavia of cremation on land within boats upon pyres and/or using boats as pyre material. The famous account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan of witnessing a Rus chief’s funeral on the bank of the River Volga is widely discussed by historians and archaeologists for its insights into the animal sacrifices, and the raping and sacrificing of a slave girl as well as the tempo, spatialities and materialities of Viking funerals.
Yet archaeological evidence suggests that modest-sized vessels might have been more commonly cremated and inhumed that is often supposed. While large seagoing warships could be afforded for the elite, smaller vessels might have been a common dimension of funerary practices – buried, burnt, displayed and incorporated as fragments in many different stages of early medieval funerals.
Of course, Hoster Tully is no Viking and this kind of funeral has no conclusive historical precedent. Morever, unlike the account of ibn Fadlan, we have no animals on the ship, and no human sacrifices unlike the Dothraki cremation in Season 1.
However, many are sceptical regarding whether burning boats on water as descripted in the Prose Edda for the god Balder could really have been a regular and repeated funerary practice. The Vikings History Channel season thinks it was possible, and there are instances shown of burning over water on rafts and in ships.
Key issues for reflection
I must say the Game of Thrones example does much to support sceptics regarding the impracticality of burning on water as a feasible disposal method: the small bundles of kindling make it difficult to conceptualise this as a fitting and coherent funeral practice and how the remains would effective disperse into the water. I fear that Hoster Tully will end up mildly cooked and floating in the water amidst flotsam around the next river bend without (a) lots more pyre material on the boat and (b) without the cadaver being demonstrably tied to the boat.
And of course, one might struggle to anticipate an archaeological signature for such funerals. If such funerals did take place in the past, how would we expect to see them?
Still, I think we shouldn’t be hasty in dismissing cremation on water as a disposal method in past societies, especially given the powerful symbolic and elemental dimensions, as well as the metaphors of movement, that such a funeral might evoke.
Perhaps what is more interesting is not how ‘accurate’ the scene is, or how feasible it is, but what it does in two senses.
- It helps us reflect on how funerals stage visibility and invisibility, and stage access to the fate of the body. In this sense, the body disappears before it is fully cremated and before it is immersed. If boats were indeed set alight with bodies on them, I think it would have worked most effectively on fast-flowing water courses or tidal estuaries to convey the boat rapidly far from the funeral party. A bend in the river adds pressure but also takes the more messy disintegration and sinking of the vessel, perhaps with only a partially singed cadaver still on board, something for the imagination and not for viewers’ attention!
- The scene helps us reflect on ‘funerary failure’. It plays off this unpredictability and the potential of failure in high-status funerary rites. This is important in itself and it is not ridiculous to imagine past societies setting up ludicrously complex procedures to make mourning kin endure not only heightened emotions but actions requiring highly skilled martial performances. Much is demanded of the heir in this instance, but also of the weather, the water course itself and many other unpredictable factors. The pressure put on the heir to successfully light the boat from a single arrow from a distance reveals the highly unpredictable nature of such a disposal method, or how societies can make even straightforward processes like death far more complicated that required! That is the basis of much of the archaeology of death!
As with historical dramas, the Game of Thrones funeral of Hoster Tully gives us plenty of food for funerary thought, both in terms of cremation past and cremations imagined. It makes us consider the tensions and potential failures inherent within the orchestration and performance of any high-status funeral, as well as the staging of movement and transformation in mortuary practices involving cremation.