The “Game of Thrones” television series, an adaption of the book series by George R.R. Martin, revolves around a fantastic world where several wealthy and prominent families compete for a kingdom known as Westeros. The vicious battles between them are paralleled by wars fought between several religious groups, including the followers of the Lord of Light, the Drowned God, the Faith of the Seven, the Old Gods of the Forest, and the Many-Faced God. Of these groups, the religion of the Many-Faced God is the one that shares many similarities with the Calvinism practiced by Puritans in the 17th century.
Calvinism is a branch of Protestantism that is named after John Calvin, a prominent French theologian and pastor, and it is a belief system that asserts the will of God over every aspect of life. Similarly, the cult of the Many-Faced God in “Game of Thrones” is founded on the basis that life revolves around a single entity: the Many-Faced God, who is a god of death. The similarities shared by these two religious groups include a nonchalant attitude towards death, the belief that death is predetermined, and an intense conversion processes that involve a deep sense of self-abnegation.
Nonchalant attitude towards death
The nonchalant attitude towards death that is apparent in the religion of the Many-Faced God stems from the belief that death is a gift from their deity that provides a much needed end to the suffering of human life. The disciples of this god are assassins known as the “Faceless Men” and are trained to dispatch others on command with unwavering submission. These disciples do not view assassination as morally incorrect actions because they believe that death is the ultimate gift that can be bestowed upon anyone and that assassination contracts are a mode by which that gift can be distributed. Disciples of the Many-Faced God live by two sayings: “Valar Morghulis”, all men must die, and “Valar Doharis”, all men must serve. To them, death is simply an inevitability that no one can escape, regardless of their health, wealth, or status. In this way, the disciples have an idea similar to that of Edward Taylor in “Meditation 26”, in which he pleads to God “Unclean, Unclean: My Lord, Undone, all vile, Yea, all Defiled: What Shall Thy Servant do?” This strong idea of humanity being in servitude to a God without whom they have no hope or happiness is one that is in the core of both Calvinism and the religion of the Many-Faced God.
The Faceless Men’s view of death is similar to the Calvinist view of death as being the end of the material world, but the beginning of a spiritual afterlife. In her poem, “The Flesh and the Spirit”, Anne Bradstreet – a prominent Puritan poet – demonstrates the emphasis placed on the afterlife, and the resulting insignificance of life on Earth, by having her personification of the spirit state to the personification of the flesh, “For my ambition lies above. / My greatest honor it shall be / When I am victor over thee” (59-61). Similarly, Mary Rowlandson – a devout Puritan who was taken captive by Native Americans – exhibits an indifferent attitude towards the death of a Native American child in The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, “My mistress’s papoose was sick, and it died that night, and there was one benefit in it– that there was more room” (Thirteenth Remove). Her sentiments reveal a lack of empathy towards the death of a human being – which is surprising since one of her children died earlier in the narrative – and a sense of detachment from the suffering of others.
Another point of similarity between Calvinism and the cult of the Many-Faced God is the belief that death was predetermined and, therefore, was inescapable. The Calvinist belief of “Unconditional Election” places God as the almighty judge of human lives who arbitrarily chooses who is to be “saved.” However, it was impossible for one to know whether or not he was saved and, therefore, Puritans took guesses as to whether they would enter the Kingdom of Heaven or burn in hell through their social status on Earth and spent much time praying to be saved. In the poem “The Day of Doom”, Michael Wigglesworth depicts the sinners – the “unelected”, those who did not pray, and the unconverted – as being trapped by God’s wrath: “No hiding place can from his Face, / sinners at all conceal, / Whose flaming Eyes hid things doth ‘spy, / and darkest things reveal.” (Stanza 13). Just as the “sinners” in the poem cannot escape their impending deaths – and the doom that follows soon after – neither can any human being according to Calvinism. Likewise, in the cult of the Many-Faced God, there is a governing of who must live and who must die by God himself and the will of God is understood to be the execution contracts they receive. As the Faceless Man Jaqen H’ghar states, “Death is certain”. The Faceless Men themselves are not allowed to execute people out of feelings of hatred or vengeance. Instead, they act as instruments to death as they carry out his bidding and execute whoever is destined to die.
Both religions involve an intense conversion process involving self-abnegation, or the abasement of oneself. For a Puritan conversion, one must publicly confess their past sins and declare his commitment to God in the future in the hopes of being saved. A pillar of Calvinism known as “Total Depravity” states that humans are inherently sinful, which becomes the basis for constant self-denial and shaming of oneself – a quality which is apparent in many Puritan writings. The supposed innate immorality of humans and the need for conversion is evident in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, as he states: “All wicked men’s pains and contrivance which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ, and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell one moment.”
In “Game of Thrones”, the character of Arya Stark wishes to join the Faceless Men and become a disciple of the Many-Faced God. However, the religion requires one to completely erase their past existence and individuality in order to join – leaving behind the lives they lived and their families/loved ones. In essence, Arya must murder herself and become “no one” in order to become a disciple. This measure of self-abnegation assures that the Faceless Men can take on whatever identity is necessary for their cause – with no reservations or distractions stemming from their personal lives – and maintain their devotion to the Many-Faced God.
A Faceless Man initially introduced himself to Arya as Jaqen H’ghar, but then precedes to refer to himself as “the man” and “no one” – demonstrating the self-abnegation demanded by the Many-Faced God.
Arya wins Jaqen’s approval by submitting herself to the requirements of the cult – namely by erasing her individuality.
The cult of the Many-Faced God bears several points of resemblance to the vengeful God of the Puritans. This may be explained by George R.R. Martin’s borrowing details from British history in creating the book series that “Game of Thrones” is based off of. In his rendering of the world of Westeros, Martin weaves in the history of the “War of Roses” and brings in elements of Paganism, Protestantism, and – most importantly – Puritanism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the cult of the Many-Faced God embraces beliefs that are very reminiscent of Puritan Calvinism.
Written by the Four Horsemen.