Game of Thrones was never going to be your typical sword-and-sandal fantasy series. It’s about humans, not Tolkienesque elves and goblins, and their ambitions to rule over a land where superstition is much more common than the supernatural.
At least at first. The opening scene in the show—its prologue, in George R.R. Martin’s books—ends in an attack by the White Walkers, ghouls believed to exist only in frightful children’s tales. But after that, we wait a long while before seeing anything unnatural again. On the show, it’s not until Season 4 that we’re treated to something as typical of high fantasy as a magic fireball (except for dragons, though can’t those be explained within the realm of herpetology?). In other fictions, that stuff is par for the course.
This slow rollout of magic is one of Martin’s best moves. A few months ago, the soup-obsessed author compared a writer’s use of magical elements to “salt in a stew.” Throw in too much of it, he said, “and it overwhelms the thing.” A high dose of magic right from the jump would have thrust Game of Thrones squarely into the fantasy category, and not everyone wants to own up to being a fantasy nerd. With Game of Thrones, they didn’t really have to. For a while, the series had enough elements of the thriller—and HBO-grade blood, sex, and intrigue—to almost make us forget the question: When are we going to see those White Walkers again?
But for the characters themselves, magic and the belief in unseen powers is all too important. In the game of thrones, it matters who you call god. Some gods appear able to kill your foes, revive your friends, and allow you to change your appearance for your next act of subterfuge. Others, viewers and readers are led to believe, don’t grant any of the miracles that would seem to prove their existence.
I say “seem” here because in Game of Thrones, the supernatural isn’t always associated with a god (or gods); even when someone says it is, they might just be wielding vulgar magic and attributing it to some deity or other.
In one of his more doubting moments, the scholarly “maester” who wrote the encyclopedic The World of Fire & Ice (actually written, of course, by Martin and others) confesses that “Divination, bloodmagic, and necromancy are whispered of, though such reports can seldom be proved.”
But there’s enough to make a case for piety, and it certainly couldn’t hurt. So if you could walk into Westeros with a new religion to call your own—forget whom your parents worshipped, we’re talking about Pascal’s Wager here—which should you choose? Here, ranked from least to most effective, are the main religions in Game of Thrones. May the best gods win.
The New Gods (also known as the Seven)
When the second wave of human migrants came to Westeros, they brought their New Gods with them. As long as you’re not too far north, the Seven—Father, Smith, Warrior, Mother, Maiden, Crone, and Stranger—are the main deities on the continent. Sadly, they don’t seem to answer anyone’s prayers.
The one thing they provide is what a religion might here on Earth: shared identity and a basis for socio-political organization. Most recently, this was the revived Faith Militant that challenged Cersei and shamed he in the streets of King’s Landing. To quote one theologizing Redditor, “as various religions in our world will tell you, there’s nothing false about political power.”
But for our opportunistic purposes, that power was all but snuffed out in the glorious, green wildfire explosion that closed out Season 6. There isn’t much reason to think it will build itself back up in a six-episode final season, even if many of the contenders to the Iron Throne still recognize the Seven.
The Horse God
The Dothraki god has a cool name, and that’s about it. It doesn’t figure much in Dothraki culture, other than providing the messianic promise of a “Stallion Who Mounts the World,” and that proved to be a dud. Mirri Maz Duur, a priestess belonging to a people under the Dothraki’s thumb, convinced Daenerys to sacrifice her unborn son for a chance at healing her husband, Khal Drogo. That, of course, turned out to be a monkey’s paw; Drogo survives but is left in a catatonic state.
But who knows how much of that was a god’s work and how much was nature running its course in a world without antibiotics? Another reason to skip out on the Horse God is that it’s not clear how to worship him—though you can guess it’d be in some painful, violent way—especially so far from the Dothraki homeland.
The Drowned God
The Faith of the Seven spread through Westeros, but it failed to make inroads among the Iron Islands. They already had their own god, though he doesn’t appear to do much either, other than revive “drowned” clergymen as they take part in a baptism-like ritual in the sea. (Isn’t that just what happens when you haven’t quite “drowned” enough?)
One bonus for the Drowned God’s priests is clearly just cultural, according to The World of Fire & Ice: “Wherever they might wander, lords and peasants are obliged to give them food and shelter in the name of the Drowned God.”
You could call the Drowned God your own for the sake of the snacks and a free place to stay … but you can do better.
The Many-Faced God (also known as the God of Death)
Here’s where things start to get good. The Many-Faced God clearly confers some perks to its followers—or at least, to its fully devoted ones (common folk don’t seem to get much from their gods in Game of Thrones).
Through arduous training in Braavos’ House of Black and White, Arya Stark learns to change her appearance, allowing her to start crossing names off the kill list she’s kept ever since her family and house’s decimation.
One caveat: This religion is a syncretic one, taking bits and pieces from all kinds of other faiths. Honored in that amalgamation is the Stranger, one of the seven New Gods, so maybe they’re worth something after all.
But on the whole, while this religion offers the tangible advantage of face-stealing, our two upcoming finalists do that and then some, without necessitating a stint at the House of Black and White.
The Old Gods
Before the New Gods were introduced to Westeros, there were the old. Another young Stark demonstrates the concrete manifestations of this religion, which runs strong in his native Winterfell. As a greenseer, Bran taps into a timeless panopticon via sacred weirwood trees (the spooky ones with faces carved into them). With eyes on the past, Bran gives us a lot of backstory on Robert’s Rebellion, the war that shaped the status quo at the start of George R.R. Martin’s epic: The Baratheons are in power, the Starks and Lannisters support them, and the Targaryens are in exile after nearly 300 years of rule.
Bran is also able to possess other creatures—skinchanging—to benefit from their (literal) bird’s-eye view, or use their muscle to turn the tide of a fight. It’s not clear whether that kind of power comes from the sacred godswoods as well, but there’s a historical link: Skinchangers and greenseers are among the Children of the Forest who inhabited Westeros before humans drove them north. And the weirwood trees’ faces themselves were carved by these elflike creatures, who went on to create the White Walkers as a weapon against rampant human expansion.
You could do much worse than following the Old Gods, considering how much applied magical stuff there is here.
The Red God (also known as the Lord of Light)
If there’s any Sunday school worth going to, it’s this guy’s. Followers of R’hllor, as he’s also known, were kept mostly to the continent of Essos before the events of Game of Thrones. The Red God is apparently able to send forth unstoppable shadow assassins, resurrect the dead, and change a person’s appearance. In Melisandre’s rituals, this stuff comes at the cost of spilling “king’s blood.” And if you’re royal yourself, like Stannis Baratheon was, that often means killing your relatives.
The Red God may also provide the teleological framework for the entire series. Ancient prophecy has it that a messianic figure, Azor Ahai, will one day return to end a cosmic struggle with “the Great Other.” There are quite a few candidates for who that could be, chief among them Daenerys and Jon Snow.
Of course, Melisandre might be in over her head, casting placebos rather than spells. But until we know for sure, the safe bet is to follow the Red God. The night is long and full of terrors. Sticking with the Red God is your best chance at seeing the sun rise.