Today we are going to take a new angle on providing evidence for the GEOTD as not only the builders of Asshai, and not only the ancestors of Valyria, but as the people who essentially shaped the modern world of Plaentos or Grrth or whatever you want to call it. They are the starting point for all knowable history, and their fingerprints can be found in nearly every corner of the modern world.
It should be understood that any empire as massive as the GEOTD would have been a multi-ethnic conglomerate state, and we see that in wake of their collapse, several different nation-states popped up within their official borders with varying ethnicity, from the people of Hyrkoon, Yi Ti, and Nefer to the nomadic Jogos Nhai and the island nation of Leng.
Today we are going to go beyond those nations and peoples, and beyond the few dark sorcerers left huddling in the greasy black stone buildings of Asshai. We aren’t going to talk about the Daynes of Starfall, who are definitively, positively, 100% descended from the Great Empire, and whom we talked about in Great Empire of the Dawn: Westeros. We also aren’t going to discuss Valyria as descendants of the Great Empire, as we explored this relationship thoroughly in Great Empire of the Dawn: Dracomorph. Suffice it to say that Valyria seems to owe a very large part of their magical legacy to the Great Empire of the Dawn, and they are geographically close enough to the Jade Sea for us to see that it might an obvious place to flee the wrath of the Bloodstone Emperor and the Long Night chaos.
We are however going to talk about Qarth, which is a place a lot of people ask me about in relation to the Great Empire of the Dawn. We’re also going to discuss the evidence that suggests that the Sarnori and the Dothraki, two horse-loving people who inhabited the same grasslands at different but overlapping eras, are also descended from the Great Empire of the Dawn. This will also lead us back to discussion the Jogos Nhai, the horselords – er, excuse me, xorselords – who we know are children of the fallen Great Empire, because there are some thinly disguised and fairly compelling cultural parallels between the Dothraki and the Jogos Nhai, as you’ll see.
There’s nothing super monumental at the end of this search, so don’t expect me to try to sell you on the idea that you need to understand the Dothraki or Sarnori are related to the Great Empire of the Dawn to understand the conclusion of A Song of Ice and Fire. This is really just a fun exploration into the sneakily extensive world0building Martin has snuck into the margins of the five main books and, of course, our good old friend The World of Ice and Fire.
On the way to Valyria is Qarth, and I think the evidence is pretty good that there is some kind of cultural link between the GEOTD and Qarth. Qarth claims to be “ancient beyond memory of man” and “the greatest city that ever was,” although it’s hard to know how true that is. But what we can say is that the older Qarth is, the more likely it is to be connected to the Great Empire, because it’s actually sitting right on the doorstep of the stated borders of the Great Empire, right where the southern tip of the Bones Mountain meets the Jade Sea. It’s notable that the Qartheen are described as tall and milk-pale, so it’s definitely possible these fair looks come from the same branch of GEOTD lineage as Valyria. The cultural links are more clear however, and it may be that the Qartheen inherited some of the magical and knowledge of the GEOTD more than anything else.
The glorious (and false) vision of the Undying of Qarth that Daenerys sees in ACOK is another clue about the Great Empire of the Dawn, I believe. I think this vision, which the Undying are projecting into Dany’s mind, seems to represent the Undying trying to pose as the ancient people of Asshai, as opposed to Valyrians:
Beyond the doors was a great hall and a splendor of wizards. Some wore sumptuous robes of ermine, ruby velvet, and cloth of gold. Others fancied elaborate armor studded with gemstones, or tall pointed hats speckled with stars. There were women among them, dressed in gowns of surpassing loveliness. Shafts of sunlight slanted through windows of stained glass, and the air was alive with the most beautiful music she had ever heard.
A kingly man in rich robes rose when he saw her, and smiled. “Daenerys of House Targaryen, be welcome. Come and share the food of forever. We are the Undying of Qarth.”
“Long have we awaited you,” said a woman beside him, clad in rose and silver. The breast she had left bare in the Qartheen fashion was as perfect as a breast could be.
“We knew you were to come to us,” the wizard king said. “A thousand years ago we knew, and have been waiting all this time. We sent the comet to show you the way.”
“We have knowledge to share with you,” said a warrior in shining emerald armor, “and magic weapons to arm you with. You have passed every trial. Now come and sit with us, and all your questions shall be answered.”
This vision of impossibly lovely and grand splendor of wizards, kings and queens is clearly meant to resonate with Dany, who has lost her home and is searching for her identity and any connections to her lineage and history. These star-speckled and gemstone-studded fine folk look nothing like Valyrians, and since this entire thing is an illusion, one imagines the Undying could have portrayed themselves as Valyrians if they wanted to. Instead, they went for something different – and to me the only logical answer is that they were showing Dany their best, idealized memory of the Great Empire of the Dawn. They know the speech of dragonkind, see Dany as a fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and they sent the comet – this has Azor Ahai and dragonlords written all over it! But again, they aren’t posing as Valyrians, and given the use of the words “kingly” and “gemstones,” I have to think of the kingly ghosts with gemstone eyes who wanted Dany to “wake the dragon.” Here the air is “alive with music,” and the last line of AGOT, after Daenerys wakes the dragons, is “and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.”
Qaarth itself really seems like Martin’s first attempt at showing us the legacy of the ancient Asshai’i / the GEOTD. Qaarth claims to be the oldest city in the world, and though Asshai is probably older, Qaarth is built right on the edge of the former territory of the Great Empire, and would have commanded enormous strategic importance sitting astride the Jade Gates, then as now. They’ve even got a Tourmaline Brotherhood, which I always like to joke is a sect of devotees to the wisdom of the Tourmaline Emperor. Hard to say for sure, but the overall picture I am seeing is that Martin is leaving GEOTD breadcrumbs all around Qaarth. The idea that they all want Dany’s dragons in Qaarth lines up with the idea of Qaarth seeing themselves as the heirs to the ancient knowledge and magic of the Great Empire.
When you read the story of the Great Empire of the Dawn in TWOIAF, you see that right after Azor Ahai and Lightbringer defeated the forces of darkness and returned love and light to the world or some such, the diaspora mega-bomb that is the Great Empire’s dissolution is spelled out:
Yet the Great Empire of the Dawn was not reborn, for the restored world was a broken place where every tribe of men went its own way, fearful of all the others, and war and lust and murder endured, even to our present day. Or so the men and women of the Further East believe.
An empire larger than any seen since, one which probably built Asshai, a city larger than any seen since, was broken apart in terror and madness during the Long Night, and when the Long Night ended, every tribe of man went their separate way. That wording is another clue that the GEOTD was a multi-ethnic nation state, one which contained many “tribes of man.” This spreading out in all directions form the Great Empire probably began as soon as the horrific reign of the Bloodstone Emperor did:
When the daughter of the Opal Emperor succeeded him as the Amethyst Empress, her envious younger brother cast her down and slew her, proclaiming himself the Bloodstone Emperor and beginning a reign of terror. He practiced dark arts, torture, and necromancy, enslaved his people, took a tiger-woman for his bride, feasted on human flesh, and cast down the true gods to worship a black stone that had fallen from the sky.
( . . . )
In the annals of the Further East, it was the Blood Betrayal, as his usurpation is named, that ushered in the age of darkness called the Long Night.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Sounds like the kind of thing that might make you want to migrate a bit, or even a lot. I have to say, as much as I like moon meteors, if the President of the United States ever started ‘worshipping’ a black meteorite I’d have a few concerns; and if he were to practice cannibalism and necromancy, I’d say that it is indeed finally time to “move to Canada,” which is what people in the Unites States say when they are really concerned with whatever the current president is doing. It would have been the same for the millions of people living under the yoke of the Great Empire – people might start saying things like “I’ve heard the weather in the Summer Sea is lovely this time of year,” or even “Sothoryos can’t be that bad, can it?” In fact the Rhoynar fleeing the Valyrians isn’t a bad parallel – if the wrath of the Bloodstone Emperor, a presumed dragonlord, turned on your particular tribe of man, as the wrath of evil tyrants always does… you’d basically do anything and go anywhere – even Sothoryos – to get away.
Turns out people didn’t have to sail to Sothoryos to get away, although maybe some did. Those brindled men have to come from somewhere. No, as it turns out, George has actually told us exactly where a great many of the enslaved peoples of the Great Empire fled to: they fled across the Bones Mountains.
East, beyond Vaes Dothrak and the Mother of Mountains, the grasslands give way to rolling plains and woods, and the earth beneath the traveler’s feet turns hard and stony and begins to climb upward, ever upward. The hills grow wilder and steeper, and soon enough the mountains appear in the far distance, their great peaks seeming to float against the eastern sky, blue-grey giants so huge and jagged and menacing that even Lomas Longstrider, that dauntless wanderer (if his tales be true), lost heart at the sight of them, believing that he had at last reached the ends of the earth.
The ancestors of the Dothraki and the other horse peoples of the grasslands knew better, for some remembered crossing those mountains from the lands that lay beyond. Did they come west in hopes of fairer fields and plenty or in search of conquest, or were they fleeing before some savage foe? Their tales do not agree, so we may never know, but of their travails we may be certain, for they left their bones behind to mark their passing. The bones of men, the bones of horses, the bones of giants and camels and oxen, of every sort of beast and bird and monster, all can be found amongst these savage peaks.
From them the mountains take their name: the Bones. Tallest of all the mountain ranges in the known world from the Sunset Sea to Asshaiby-the-Shadow, the Bones extend from the Shivering Sea to the Jade Sea, a wall of twisted rock and sharp stone stretching more than five hundred leagues from north to south and a hundred leagues from east to west.
The Bones Mountains are a natural land barrier – almost comically so. But there are so many bones littered in the passes through these mountains that the entire mountain range is named after them. This sounds like a mass migration, from east to west, and a desperate one at that – they brought all their animals with them, all their elderly and sick and young, everyone. No matter how many died, turning back was not an option, and so their animals and people and children perished along the way and were simply left behind or perhaps buried in quickly-fashioned stone cairns. This quote from TWOIAF even poses the question: were these people perhaps fleeing some savage foe? Well, yes, we know that during the reign of the Bloodstone Emperor, people going east would have had to cross the Bones, and we know that in the wake of his reign, the tribes of men went their own ways and scattered. Among all the history we are given for the east, it’s the obvious mechanism to trigger the kind of desperate mass migrations that the skeletal evidence points too.
This reminds me very much of the Wildling migration towards the Wall, which Jon observes in ACOK:
Their encampment had no plan to it; he saw no ditches, no sharpened stakes, no neat rows of horse lines. Everywhere crude earthen shelters and hide tents sprouted haphazardly, like a pox on the face of the earth. He spied untidy mounds of hay, smelled goats and sheep, horses and pigs, dogs in great profusion. Tendrils of dark smoke rose from a thousand cookfires. This is no army, no more than it is a town. This is a whole people come together.
The Wildlings were fleeing from the Others – an enemy so terrifying that the they felt their only choice was to throw themselves against a 700 foot ice wall in a basically hopeless attack. Later when Jon is among the Free Folk, he sees women and children as well as their livestock animals. The Wildlings fled with with every man, woman, child, horse, pig, goat and dog – everything they valued carried on their backs, everything else left behind, forgotten, and abandoned. That kind of wholesale migration, the kind where you don’t even stop for the sick or dying, makes sense when you are fleeing from an enemy as terrifying as the Others… or the Bloodstone Emperor.
So consider this line again, from the passage about all the bones in the Bones Mountains: “..the bones of horses, the bones of giants and camels and oxen, of every sort of beast and bird and monster.” That almost sounds like the animals are fleeing a natural cataclysm, like a forest fire that drives all the animals from the wood, only on a huge scale. We know of just such a cataclysm of course, wink wink snap snap grin grin know what I mean know what I mean?
There are three well established passes through the mountains, and they are all three controlled by the last remnants of the lost kingdom of Hyrkoon, which was inside the Great Empire and which gave us “Hyrkoon the Hero,” one of the five given names of Azor Ahai. In other words, these passes have probably been in use since the time of the Long Night and the Great Empire. Here’s the quote from TWOIAF about these passes:
“A thousand roads lead into the Bones,” wise men say from Qarth to Qohor, “but only three lead out.” As impassable as the Bones appear from afar, there are indeed hundreds of footpaths, goat tracks, game trails, streambeds, and slopes by which travelers, traders, and adventurers may find their way into the heart of the mountains. In certain places, ancient carved steps and hidden tunnels and passages exist for those who know how to find them. Yet many of these paths are treacherous, and others are dead ends or traps for the unwary.
Small parties, well armed and well provisioned, may make their way through the Bones by myriad ways when led by a guide who knows the dangers. Armies, trading caravans, and men alone, however, are well advised to stay to the main routes, the three great mountain passes that bridge the worlds of east and west: the Steel Road, the Stone Road, and the Sand Road.
The Steel Road (so named for all the battles it has seen) and the Stone Road both originate in Vaes Dothrak, the former running almost due east beneath the highest peaks, the latter curving southeast to join the old Silk Road at the ruins of Yinishar (called Vaes Jini by the horselords) before beginning its climb. Far south of these, the Sand Road passes through the southern Bones (sometimes called the Dry Bones, for water is scarce there) and surrounding deserts, connecting the great port city of Qarth with the market city Tiqui, the gateway to the east.
Well that’s interesting – two of the roads through the mountains lead to Vaes Dothrak itself, and to the Dothraki grasslands more generally, and the other leads right to Qarth. That’s more evidence of an ancient GEOTD / Qarth connection, and thus we can see that Qarth would have been a logical place for people fleeing the downfall of the Great Empire to go. It’s actually the closest road if you were from Asshai, the lands which are now Yi Ti, or anywhere else in the south of the empire. Much of the traffic fleeing the Great Empire would have gone through Qarth, either by land or say, simply because of geography.
Those other two passes though, they dump you out right on the great grass sea, and the established roads from these two passes run to Vaes Dothrak, the Mother of Mountains, and the sacred Womb of the World. This all fits together well – the Dothraki have ancient memories of coming over the bones from the east, as we read a moment ago; the hard evidence proves thousands of people did just that; and two of those mountain passes lead right to the lands the Dothraki now occupy. Although the Dothraki now rule the entire plain of the grasslands, this has only been true since the Doom of Valyria and the century of blood that followed.
Travelers name these the Haunted Lands for the many ruined cities that dot them, or the Great Desolation for their emptiness, but it is as the Dothraki sea that these grasslands are best known today. That usage is comparatively recent, however, for the Dothraki are a young race, and it was only since the Doom destroyed Valyria that their khalasars came to dominate these lands, sweeping out of the east with fire and steel to conquer and destroy the ancient cities that once thrived here and carrying off their peoples into bondage.
The important part is the “sweeping out of the east” part. Before they spread out and conquered the Kingdom of Sarnor – which we will talk about momentarily – the ancestors of the modern Dothraki existed basically in the steppes of the Bones Mountains, most likely east of the Womb of the World. That’s where nomadic horse tribes tend to live anyway, on steppe land, so that all makes sense. Elsewhere in this same “Grasslands” section of TWOIAF it speaks of the Sarnori leading “many a foray against the bands of nomadic horseman who roamed the steppes to their east” throughout their history, just to drive the point home. The picture that emerges is that ancestors of the Dothraki seem to have crossed the Bones in the north and basically settled in the natural habitat they found there. They remained bottled up in the east by the Kingdom of Sarnor and the presence of Valyria for centuries and millennia, until they weren’t, and then they swept westward. This next bit is the beginning of the Dothraki’s encroachment on Sarnor following the Doom:
Contemptuous of the horselords, who had been no more than a nuisance to them for centuries, the Tall Men ignored the threat from the east for far too long, even as the khalasars began to raid across their eastern marches.
The Tall Men are the Sarnori, and their great kingdom or federation of kingdoms existed for several thousand years, essentially concurrent with Valyria. In the shadow of this great civilization existed the horselords of the Dothraki, which had been no more than a nuisance to the Sarnori up until the Century of Blood. They essentially prevented the Dothraki from spreading east, and this gives us the entire history of the Dothraki, more or less: their ancestors crossed the Bones in the distant past, they settled on the steppe land just on the other side of the mountain range, and then when the giant post-Valyrian power vacuum opened up, they moved west and destroyed the Kingdoms of Sarnor, making them the rulers of the entire grass sea that they are now.
We can also observe the Dothraki threat to the Sarnori seems to have built up gradually before finally overwhelming them, so we can probably infer that the destabilization of the fall of Valyria just sort of ‘happened to coincide’ with the growth of the Dothraki’s populace, power, and ambition. George even wrote a Ghengis Khan-like figure into the history, Khal Mengo, who was the first Khal to “unite the clans,” as they say, turning fractious horse tribes into one unified and terrible fighting force, and Ghengis Khan did with the Mongols.
We are going to come back to the Sarnori and the discussion of dispersal patterns following the collapse of the GEOTD, but before we move on from the Dothraki, let’s take a look at their cultural and religious beliefs of the Dothraki which show evidence of a GEOTD heritage. The main such link is an astronomy-based religion. The first God-Emperor of the Great Empire of the Dawn was said to descend from heaven a the beginning of his life and to ascend to heaven at the end, and the last God-Emperor was the Bloodstone Emperor, who worshiped a fallen star and founded the Church of Starry Wisdom, which is an actual astronomy-based religion that still exists in the current day of the story. If a comet was the root cause of the Long Night as I have proposed, then the Bloodstone Emperor may have either timed his dark deeds of blood magic which are remembered as having caused the Long Night to the comet’s arrival, or he may have even summoned it somehow through dark magic.
The official religion of the Great Empire seems to have been worship of the Maiden Made of Light and the Lion of Night, who were thought of as being in harmony before the Long Night when the Maiden Made of Light turned her back on the world and the Lion of Night came out to punish the wickedness of man. That’s the clue about the Maiden being the bright face of the sun, which is the exact thing that is elsewhere said to “turn its back on the world” during the Long Night. The Lion of Night I have interpreted as the more esoteric idea of a dark sun, for various reasons including the fact that the lion is the classic animal to depict the sun, and so a “lion of night” would be a dark sun or night sun. I’ve talked more about that elsewhere, and it has roots in a few real-world mythologies as well. More simply, we might say that the Lion of Night represents the night sky. Before the Long Night, day and night would have been in balance, as the Maiden and Lion of Night were said to be. During the Long Night. darkness reigns, and the sun is turned dark. Point being, it’s essentially a solar religion, and the Maiden Made of Light at least is surely based on the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu.
We know a lot more about the Dothraki religion, and it is heavy on astronomy. They believe that the sun and moon are man and wife, for starters, and gods as well:
The two Dothraki girls giggled and laughed. “You are foolish strawhead slave,” Irri said. “Moon is no egg. Moon is god, woman wife of sun. It is known.”
“It is known,” Jhiqui agreed.
We also know that Dany calls Drogo “my sun and stars,” while he calls her “moon of my life.” This probably reflects a natural association between the Khal and the sun in Dothraki culture, just as kings wear golden crowns to signify the favor of whatever sun god their culture worships. Sun gods aren’t exactly rare, but it’s worth noting that both the Dothraki and the GEOTD regard the sun as a god.
More important are the Dothraki beliefs concerning stars. This is from a Daenerys chapter of AGOT:
The Dothraki believed the stars were horses made of fire, a great herd that galloped across the sky by night.
Even in Westeros, the maesters know of this believe, and this is from a Theon chapter of ACOK:
The crows came in the blue dusk, with the evening stars. “The Dothraki believe the stars are spirits of the valiant dead,” Theon said. Maester Luwin had told him that, a long time ago.
This fiery horde, made up of their ancestors, and the Mother of Mountains with its black lake, the ‘womb of the world,’ are the two holiest things in the Dothraki religion. Drogo swears by them when he vows to retake the Seven Kingdoms for Daenerys:
This I swear before the Mother of Mountains, as the stars look down in witness.” – AGOT, Daenerys
There’s a lot of talk about the Dothraki doing things out in the open so the stars can bear witness – those are their ancestors, after all. This has to remind us of how the first Emperor of the Great Empire, the God-On-Earth, was thought to ascend to to the stars at the end of his reign:
For ten thousand years the Great Empire of the Dawn flourished in peace and plenty under the Godon-Earth, until at last he ascended to the stars to join his forebears.
When you think back to Drogo’s funeral pyre from which the dragons hatched, Dany does indeed perceive Drogo ascending to the stars. In fact let’s take a look at the Dothraki funeral ceremony, as it’s really poetic and beautiful as well as being interesting. These quotes are pulled from the same chapter, in the order they appear, but with the parts that don’t pertain to our discussion cut out:
They took the two straightest trees, hacked the limbs and branches from them, skinned off their bark, and split them, laying the logs in a square. Its center they filled with straw, brush, bark shavings, and bundles of dry grass. Rakharo chose a stallion from the small herd that remained to them; he was not the equal of Khal Drogo’s red, but few horses were. In the center of the square, Aggo fed him a withered apple and dropped him in an instant with an axe blow between the eyes.
Over the carcass of the horse, they built a platform of hewn logs; trunks of smaller trees and limbs from the greater, and the thickest straightest branches they could find. They laid the wood east to west, from sunrise to sunset.
The third level of the platform was woven of branches no thicker than a finger, and covered with dry leaves and twigs. They laid them north to south, from ice to fire, and piled them high with soft cushions and sleeping silks.
This is one of the only places where the phrase “ice and fire” is used in some form – the only other ones I can recall are the oath Jojen and Meera swear to Bran, and Rhaegar’s comments about his son having a song of ice and fire, so that seems significant. This is a very old concept, and a deeply magical one. The pyre is aligned to the cardinal directions, the afore-mentioned ice and fire for north and south, and sunrise and sunset for east and west. This is a staple concept of pagan / hermetic magical traditions, and is an intrinsically astronomical concept.
After preparing Drogo’s body by washing, braiding, scented oils, etc, his body is placed on the pyre, and Dany spells out the specifics of the Dothraki belief here:
When a horselord dies, his horse is slain with him, so he might ride proud into the night lands. The bodies are burned beneath the open sky, and the khal rises on his fiery steed to take his place among the stars. The more fiercely the man burned in life, the brighter his star will shine in the darkness.
George is also giving us some symbolic clues here to associate the Dothraki flaming steeds in the sky and dragons, as Drogo’s fiery steed turns out to be the red comet, the dragon’s tail. There’s actually another whole layer to this concept, as the dragons themselves may contain the souls of dead dragonlords, as J Stargaryen of Westeros.org has discovered by decoding the puzzle of the Valyrian-looking lemurs of the Norvoshi forests. At the very least, we can look at these beliefs about the stars and ascending to the stars and see that it could work very well as a remnant of the beliefs of the Great Empire which the ancestors of the Dothraki brought with them over the Bones Mountains.
As for which lineage of the Great Empire the Dothraki descend from, well that’s obvious: the Onyx Emperor. The gemstones of the emperors correlate to eye color, at least in Dany’s wake the dragon dream, and the very first time Dany sees Drogo, in her very first chapter, we get this:
Khal Drogo has never lost a fight. He is Aegon the Dragonlord come again, and you will be his queen.” Dany looked at Khal Drogo. His face was hard and cruel, his eyes as cold and dark as onyx.
In this scene, Dany was comparing the cruelty of Viserys to Drogo’s looks, while Illyrio calls him a reborn dragonlord. Interesting that the onyx eyes which could be reference to the dragonlords of the Great Empire comes side-by-side with the suggestion of Drogo as a reborn dragonlord! Later, when Drogo’s own cruelty is turned against Viserys, we get another Drogo’s-eyes-as-onyx reference:
Even now Viserys did not understand. “No,” he shouted, “you cannot touch me, I am the dragon, the dragon , and I will be crowned! ” Khal Drogo unfastened his belt. The medallions were pure gold, massive and ornate, each one as large as a man’s hand. He shouted a command. Cook slaves pulled a heavy iron stew pot from the firepit, dumped the stew onto the ground, and returned the pot to the flames. Drogo tossed in the belt and watched without expression as the medallions turned red and began to lose their shape. She could see fires dancing in the onyx of his eyes.
As a nod to the astronomy side of things, note the comparison of Drogo to Aegon the Dragonlord in the first scene and the description of his onyx eyes containing dancing fire as he prepared to kill the “dragon” Viserys. (“Viserys is less than the shadow of a snake.”) Both ideas are consistent with the idea of Drogo playing the role of sun to Daenerys’s moon, and between Drogo’s star being the red comet, which is like a dragon, Drogo giving his name to a huge black dragon, Drogon, and this comparison between Drogo and Aegon Targaryen, you have to wonder if George wasn’t already thinking about the Dothraki having an ancient connection to the far east.
To be honest I wouldn’t bet my life on it – he very easily could have “retconned” that idea in TWOIAF, with George including an Onyx Emperor in the list of GEOTD emperors to create this tie to the Dothraki. Certainly when he wrote TWOIAF, he was thinking this was, as evidenced by the quote about the Dothraki having a memory of crossing the Bones Mountains. That’s what’s important, really; it’s fun to try to figure when George had which idea, since we know he is a gardener style writer, but at the end of the day whatever he decides is true has always been true, and thus we have my theory here that the Dothraki are implied as having fled the GEOTD.
Additional corroboration of the Dothraki having an origin east of the Bones mountains can be found in the similarities between their culture and that of the Jhogos Nhai, the horse riders of the far eastern plains, whose lands lie squarely inside the old borders of the Great Empire of the Dawn.
The Jogos Nhai
The Jogos Nhai have a culture which parallels that of the Dothraki in many ways, but with several key differences. Logic would dictate that the Dothraki culture has branched off from the original “horse lord” culture, since they came over the mountains from the lands which the Jogos Nhai still inhabit, so we will generally interpret the culture of the Jogos Nhai to be closer to that of their common ancestor. It seems like they only have xorses east of the Bones, which is what he Jogos Nhai ride, so we can assume that the Dothraki ancestors adapted their zorse-riding skills to the larger horses they found on the other side of the mountain.
Unlike the Dothraki, whose khals lead huge khalasars across the grasslands, the Jogos Nhai travel in small bands, closely connected by blood. Each band is led by a jhat, or war chief, and a moonsinger, who combines the roles of priestess, healer, and judge. The jhat leads in war and battle and raid, whilst the other matters are ruled by the band’s moonsinger.
Dothraki khals make endless war on one another once beyond the sacred precincts of Vaes Dothrak, their holy city. But the gods of the Jogos Nhai forbid them to shed the blood of their own people (young men do ride out to steal goats, dogs, and zorses from the other bands, whilst their sisters go forth to abduct husbands, but these are rituals hallowed by the gods of the plains, during which no blood may be shed). Instead, the Jogos Nhai make endless war upon everyone else, from the Golden Empire of Yi Ti to the former Patrimony of Hyrkoon to the vanquished stone giants of the northern Bones Mountains, the Jhogwin, and also the N’gai, a people who have been reduced to one foggy underground city (Nefer).
Although the Dothraki khalasars are much larger than the bands of the Jogos Nhai, they are united by an oath of brotherhood between a khal and his bloodriders, which can be seen as a kind of ritual adoption. The ancient horse riders fleeing over the mountains would likely have been fragments of decimated kin groups, so it makes sense that they might have adopted each other via blood oath as a way of uniting to survive in a new land. (Major hat-tip to BrainFireBob of Westeros.org).
The Jogos Nhai taboo against killing other Jogos Nhai seems to have broken down during the course of the Dothraki’s migration and establishment of their new culture, but we do see an echo of this tradition in the Dothraki taboo against making war on each other within sight of the Mother of Mountains or shedding blood of any kind in Vaes Dothrak.
Both of our nomadic horse-warrior cultures seem to eschew the notion of inherited right to rule. The Dothraki khals are always the mightiest warriors, and if they become severely injured or weak, they lose their legitimacy and authority:
“Khaleesi,” Jhiqui said, “he fell from his horse.”
Trembling, her eyes full of sudden tears, Dany turned away from them. He fell from his horse! It was so, she had seen it, and the bloodriders, and no doubt her handmaids and the men of her khas as well. And how many more? They could not keep it secret, and Dany knew what that meant. A khal who could not ride could not rule, and Drogo had fallen from his horse.
“A khal who cannot ride is no khal,” said Jhogo. “The Dothraki follow only the strong,” Ser Jorah said.
And then a moment later:
“They took Khal Drogo’s herds, Khaleesi,” Rakharo said. “We were too few to stop them. It is the right of the strong to take from the weak. They took many slaves as well, the khal’s and yours, yet they left some few.” (AGOT, Daenerys)
We don’t get the details of how the moonsingers and jhats are chosen, but the Jogos Nhai do occasionally raise up a jhattar, a warleader or “jhat of jhats,” which seem to be a matter of choosing and not family legacy. We are told that when facing extinction at the hands of Lo Bu, the forty-third Scarlett Emperor of Yi Ti, one thousand rival clans gathered together and chose a female warrior named Zhea Zorseface as jhattar (which turned out to be a great decision).
This is probably a good place to briefly note the general badassery of the Jogos Nhai. Not only did Zia Zorseface string out Lo Bu’s thirteen armies, isolating and destroying each in turn before killing Lo Bu himself, gilding his skull, and making a drinking cup out it; but we also hear of Garak Squint-Eye, who slew the last of the Jhogwin, the stone giants of the Bones mountains. It’s hard to say who or what those “stone giants” really were, but they don’t sound like easy prey. The Jogos Nhai also whupped up on Hyrkoon for many centuries and likely had something to do with their downfall.
It seems likely that the tight familial bonds of the Jogos Nhai and their extreme hostility to outsiders arose as a survival mechanism during the anarchy of the Long Night and the difficult living conditions that would have persisted long afterwards. As the horse riding culture that did not flee the Bloodstone Emperor holocaust, they would have had to become tough as nails to survive – and I think that’s a fine description of the Jogos Nhai, “tough as nails.”
Physically, the Jogos Nhai are much shorter than the Dothraki, with skin that tends more to yellow than the bronze of the Dothraki. This does beg the question of where the height of the Dothraki came in – were they always a taller cousin to the ancient Jogos Nhai, even when they were both part of the GEotD, or did they gain their height though intermarriage with the ancient people of the grasslands after crossing the mountains? We are about to get to the Sarnori, who are tall like the Dothraki (only more so) and have the same skin and hair and eye coloring as the Dothraki, so there is potential for the “tall genes” to have entered the Dothraki gene pool after they had crossed the mountains.
The Dothraki reverence for the Mother of Mountains and the womb of the world is certainly lunar in nature; mountains, whose peaks float in the sky like moons, and lakes, whose surfaces shine like the moon, are specifically used as metaphors for moons throughout the series. The Silver Sea is a definite lunar symbol, and the Womb of the World bears the same symbolism. Most importantly, we know the Dothraki view the moon itself as a goddess and the wife of the sun. The Jogos Nhai, on the other hand, have an extreme reverence for their moonsingers, who basically govern all aspects of life that don’t have to do with war. Although Dothraki khals are always male, the crones of the Dosh Khaleen have absolute authority and are obeyed without question inside of Vaes Dothrak, which sits at the foot of the Mother of Mountains by the Womb of the World. This seems like an echo of the power held by the moonsingers, and we have to notice that twice now, we see the Dothraki revert to practices much closer to those of the Jogos Nhai – they don’t make war upon one another, and they place the power in the hands of the women.
As I said above, the warleaders of the Jogos Nhai, the jhats, were usually male, but the moonsingers governed all other aspects of society. In a strange inversion of wildlings culture, the women of the Jogos Nhai even kidnap their husbands! In other words, women, and specifically the moonsingers, were generally more powerful than men in daily life. Thus we see that the Jogos Nhai are much closer to a matriarchal society than their taller horse-rider cousins to the west, which fits with the general theme of society moving towards patriarchy after the Long Night. Jogos Nhai also have somewhat flexible gender roles (not something patriarchy is really known for), as it is acceptable in their society for a woman to choose to be a warrior or a man to choose to be a moonsinger, though a woman choosing the life of a warrior must dress and live as a man, and vise versa.
Mirri Maz Dur met a moonsinger in Asshai while she was studying magic there:
When I was younger and more fair, I went in caravan to Asshai by the Shadow, to learn from their mages. Ships from many lands come to Asshai, so I lingered long to study the healing ways of distant peoples. A moonsinger of the Jogos Nhai gifted me with her birthing songs…”
There’s a nice bit of symmetry here as Daenerys herself represents the moon (and indeed Drogo calls her “moon of my life” a couple of lines after this quote, just to remind us). Not only is the moon strongly associated with the femininity in cultures all around the world, in ASOAIF we have the specific theme of sacrifice and childbirth-death running all throughout the series. This pattern began with the fire moon’s death in childbirth, which Daenerys represents, as she was ritually (un)burnt to hatch dragons into the world just as the fire moon was. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the “moonsingers” to know the best birthing songs.
The moonsingers of the Jogos Nhai are also demonstrating the important ASOIAF theme of everything having its song. The Church of Starry Wisdom sings to the stars, and Melisandre and the R’hllorists do a lot of singing at their nightfires. Of course the real name of the children of the forest is “those who sing the songs of earth.” Songs in this sense are a form of worship and communion, so it’s safe to say that there’s a deep reverence for the moon in the culture of Jogos Nhai. Given that they lived inside the GEotD, they may well have a moon-destruction legend similar to the Qarthine “origin of dragons” story. Their reverence for the moon may have something to do with a sense of gratitude for the moon we have left, a memorial for the one which we lost, or perhaps the joy that was felt the first time the clouds cleared enough to see the remaining moon again. We’ve broken down all the symbolism of the Temple of the Moonsingers in Braavos before, and it’s all cold white marble, milkglass, and other ice moon imagery. That’s a fun bit but it’s off topic here, so I won’t go into all of that. It’s in the Moons of Ice and Fire series if you are curious.
One last note: there is a Dothraki, one of Drogo’s bloodriders, named Jhogo, which is one letter away from Jogo, as in Jogos Nhai.
The Jogos Nhai are fun, but aren’t our main topic here. To fill out the story of the Dothraki, we actually have to delve into the lost Kingdoms of Sarnor, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.
The kingdoms of the Sarnori and the Rhoynar probably tie for the title of most beautiful and advanced civilization since the Long Night. These are the places you would want to live if you had to live on Planetos. Tragically, the Dothraki destroyed the former and the Valyrians the latter. Knowing as we do that many people seem to have fled westward over the Bones mountains and into the grasslands, we certainly have to take a look at the first and greatest post-Long Night empire of the grasslands, the Kingdom of Sarnor.
The people of the grasslands from which Sarnor arose seem to represent their own disapora, independent of the Great Empire of the Dawn, it must be said. However, some remnants of GEotD culture seem to have come over the mountain with the ancestors of the Dothraki and other fugitives, and the same may be true of the ancestors of the Sarnori. There’s also a nice little tip-off to look for GEotD fingerprints in the Kingdom of Sarnor:
Their gleaming cities were strewn across the grasslands like jewels across a green velvet mantle, shining beneath the light of sun and stars. (TWOIAF)
Jewels across a green mantle calls to mind the gemstone emperors of the GEotD and the jade and green pearls which they wore. “Shining beneath the light of sun and stars” certainly calls to mind a civilization with a connection to astronomy, and taken together with the cities being compared to gleaming jewels, it calls to mind the gemstone eyes of the GEotD emperors. It could of course have no double meaning (the wyrms of doubt are ever churning), but it is an interesting choice of words, and taken with the idea that refugees from the east passed through the grasslands, there’s enough to make us take a look here and see what we find.
On top of all that, it must be said – the Sarnori are just really cool and interesting. Many amazing things and places are briefly alluded to: The Palace With a Thousand Rooms where the High King dwelt, Sathar the Waterfall City, Sallosh the City of Schollars with its vast library and painted walls, Sarnath of the Tall Towers, Mardosh the Unconquerable (not so unconquerable, as it turns out). They were ”warriors, sorcerers, and scholars,” which is a match for our general perception of Great Empire of the Dawn rulers as embracing the use of magic and the pursuit of (starry) wisdom and knowledge.
The Sarnori themselves are heirs to an older legacy which traces back to the Dawn Age: the Kingdom of the Fisher Queens, who ruled the lands adjoining the now-vanished Silver Sea. The maesters of The World of Ice and Fire, in somewhat contradictory fashion, name several places as the site of the first “civilization as we know it:” Ghis, Yi Ti, the grasslands of the river Sarne, the first cities of the Rhoynar, and of course Asshai. That indicates they probably don’t know for sure; the only thing we can safely infer from this is that all of these civilizations are among the first to arise after the global disaster of the Long Night. Here is maester Yandel’s introduction to the grasslands of the river Sarne:
It was here amidst these grasses that civilization was born in the Dawn age. Ten thousand years ago or more, when Westeros was yet a howling wilderness inhabited only by the giants and the children of the forest, the first true towns arose beside the banks of the river Sarne and beside the myriad vassal streams that fed her on her meandering course Northward to the Shivering Sea.
The histories of those days are lost to us, sad to say, for the kingdoms of the grass came and went in large measure before the race of man became literate. Only the legends persist. From such we know of the Fishers Queens, who ruled the lands adjoining the Silver Sea – the great inland sea at the heart of the grasslands – from a floating palace that made its way endlessly around its shores.
The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and the kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. Some maesters believe that the First Men originated here before beginning the long westward migration that took them across the arm of Dorne to Westeros. The Andals, too, may have arisen in the fertile fields south of the Silver Sea.
At some point, the mythical-sounding kingdom of the Fisher Queens came to an end, and the Silver Sea was reduced to three large lakes. I would certainly place my money on this decline occurring or at least beginning with the Long Night disaster. The realm of the Fisher Queens certainly sound like a Dawn Age kingdom, with their matriarchal society, wise and just reputation, favor of the gods, etc. The symbolism of the Silver Sea ruled by a matriarch is strongly evocative of moon imagery, and the Silver Sea itself fits the pattern of one moon breaking apart into three things which see from time to time (think of Dany’s three dragons to represent the moon meteor shower).
It should be noted that the Dothraki womb of the world seems to be a remnant of the Silver Sea – a look at the map shows two large lakes closer to the Sarne, and the only possible third lake is the womb of the world… which means that the Silver Sea would have been truly, truly massive! Like, really, really massive – look at the map! This is pretty important, I think, because it seems George has taken effort to obscure this information, never telling us outright that the WotW was part of the Silver Sea, instead leaving it for us to make the connection. Crowfood’s Daughter of the Disputer Lands has recently done a terrific video on this topic.
This is also a continuation of the moon imagery, from the Silver Sea to the Womb of the World and Mother of Mountains. When we consider the Dothraki tale of the First Man emerging from the Womb of the World, we have to wonder whether this story came down from the Fisher Queens themselves in some form and originally referred to the Silver Sea as a whole, and was later transferred to the Womb of the World. Obviously the story of an origin over the mountains is entirely incompatible with the ‘first human emerging from the Womb of the World’ story, so the Dothraki may have adopted the second one after crossing the mountains and mingling with the survivors of the Silver Sea kingdoms.
Following the fall of the Fisher Queens, the three principal surviving groups – the Cymmeri, the Zoqora, and the Gipps – were conquered and assimilated by a group who came to be called the Sarnori. They called themselves the Tagaez Fen, the “tall men.” The legendary founder of Sarnor, the man who “took to wife a daughter of the greatest lords and kings” from each of these three peoples to unite them and bind them to his will, was named “Huzhor Amai, The Amazing,” supposedly born of the last of the Fisher Queens. In a brief shout-out to Arthurian legend, I’ll just briefly mention that the concept of a “Fisher King” is that of a keeper of the holy grail, which is a metaphor for the bloodline of Christ, who was of course known as the “fisher of men.” This seems similar to the idea of Huzhor Amai as the guardian of the bloodline of the Fisher Queens.
I probably don’t have to point out the phonetic similarity between “Huzhor Amai” and “Azor Ahai,” because wow, are they similar.
It’s tempting to think that Huzhor Amai, last of the Fisher Queens, could be a garbled memory of a legendary ancestral hero named Azor Ahai. Even though I believe Azor Ahai was originally a bad dude, at some point he obviously became remembered as the hero, so this may be possible. However, all the other flaming sword heroes come from the other side of the Bones mountains, and nothing else about the Huzhor Amai story sounds like Azor Ahai or the Bloodstone Emperor (no flaming sword, no black stone, no dark magic, no usurpation or wife-murder, etc.).
I think it is more probable that the Sarnori language is phonetically similar to that of the Great Empire of the Dawn because some part of the Sarnori language originated there. The last hero of the Sarnori during their downfall at the hands of the Dothraki was named Mazor Alexi, another name bearing resemblance to Azor Ahai, but clearly, Mazor Alexi lived only four hundred years ago and is definitely not another name for Azor Ahai. I believe this lends credence to the idea of common phonetic roots between Sarnor and the Great Empire. The names ‘Azor Ahai’ and ‘Huzhor Amai’ are perhaps both derived from or named after an older hero, some ancient figure of GEotD lore, or else Huzhor’s name is recalling that of Azor himself. If the ancestors of the Sarnori did indeed migrate from the Far East to the grasslands, they may have carried a version of this name with them.
Alternately, it’s possible one or more of the people assimilated into the Sarnori culture was the descendant of the GEotD, and they brought this name or their language with them to the area, later to be adopted by their Sarnori conquerors.
It is ambiguous as to whether the “Sarnori” were living in the former Silver Sea area before their assimilation of the surrounding peoples or whether they migrated there and conquered. The Silver Sea Kingdom of Fisher Queens is almost certainly a pre-Long Night culture, but the the actual “Kingdom of Sarnor” arose approximately concurrent with Ghis and Valyria, the first empires to arise after mankind rose out of the darkness of post-Long Night Planetos. We know the Sarnori fought in the wars between Valyria and Ghis, the last of which was five thousand years ago (according to Daenerys’s memory – this is the only source for this), dating the rise of Sarnor to at least that long ago. Thus the timing of the conquest of the native peoples by the Sarnori does potentially line up with an exodus from GEotD territory. They claim a descent from the line of the Fisher Queens, but this could easily be another case of a conquering ruler “donning his floppy ears” to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. This is a well-known historical phenomena which George succinctly sums up with his clever “floppy ears” saying, and one which he reproduces in his world countless times.
Concerning the peoples who were united by the Amazing One himself, Huzhor Amai, a couple of things seem relevant here. The Cymmeri were supposedly “the first people to work iron,” although the Rhoynar also claim this title. Azor Ahai was seemingly a smith, as he “heated, hammered, and folded” the steel of Lightbringer the sword, which implies the GEotD had some knowledge of metalworking. I’ve laid out the case in the previous essay that the Valyrians were in all ways heirs to the magic of the GEotD. The GEotD had control of dragons and the sorcery needed to make fused stone structures, and their emperors appeared to Dany holding swords of pale fire, all of which makes it likely that the GEotD not only knew how to work steel, but likely knew the secret of making steel with dragon flame and sorcery in a forerunner of Valyrian steel. Thus, the Cymmeri’s metalworking knowledge may be a link to the far east.
The Zoqora, meanwhile, had brown skin and pale hair, and were long of limb, and eyes that were something other than black (TWOAIF). Venturing into the realm of the highly speculative, it’s possible ‘tall with pale hair and medium brown skin’ is the look of the gemstone emperors, or at least one of the races or tribes of the GEotD. The Dothraki, fellow GEotD fugitives, also have medium brown or ‘bronze’ skin tones, and are fairly tall. The Lengii are definitely a GEotD descendant, as their “Holy Island” island was specifically listed as a part of their empire, and they have “teak” colored skin, which is another way of describing medium brown, golden, or bronze coloring. The Lengi are also very, very tall, like the Sarnori, and have the same black hair. The only difference is the eye color – black for the Sarnori and golden for the Lengi, which is likely explained by the Lengi having interbred with the Old Ones… whoever they are.
We’ve mentioned the similarities in eye, skin, and hair color, and height between Sarnori and Dothraki, and it’s probably also worth noting that both cultures were very good with horses, just in different ways. The Sarnori have their deadly scythe chariots – that requires very advanced horsemanship, breeding, and training, and also very strong horses. Indeed, we are told they used specific breeds for specific purposes – black mares for their cavalry, and blood-red horses trained to work in teams to pull the scythe chariots. The Dothraki were nomadic, unlike Sarnor, which accounts for the different uses of horses, but there may well have been some ancient transference of culture, knowledge, and horseflesh, even if they were generally rivals. The Dothraki probably did not bring their horses with them from the east, as the Jogos Nhai have to use zorses for lack of large horse breeds. The horses seems to have been in the grasslands.
Given the similar coloring and the similar horse culture… it’s almost impossible not to conclude that the Sarnori and Dothraki share a common ancestor, likely on the west side of the mountains. One culture became urbanized, whilst the other remained nomadic, but it’s probably not a coincidence we get two somewhat similar looking horse peoples living right next to one another.
The Sarnori men and women are said to have had the custom of making war together, with the women twice mentioned as chariot drivers. Huzhor Amai’s Cymmeri wife supposedly made his armor, which we are later told is in fact steel. So, even though we have transitioned from female rulers, the Fisher Queens to male rulers, the High King and lesser Kings of Sarnor, we still see a remnant of some kind of gender equality and gender role flexibility. This is too broad of a concept to be specifically associated with the GEotD, but it fits in with the general narrative of shift from matriarchal societies to patriarchal ones, which is worthy of note as George seems to be depicting this phenomena across large parts of the world. On a cosmic level, this all goes back to the murder of the moon goddess.
There’s nice bit of symmetry here with the beginning and end of the story of the grasslands: The Fisher Queens “ruled from a floating palace that made its way endlessly around its shores,” while today “the khals drive their great herds of horses and goats endlessly across their “sea,” fighting one another when they meet and occasionally moving beyond the borders of their own lands for slaves and plunder…” We used to have wise and benevolent female rulers traveling an actual sea, now we have traveling bands of violent male killers in a grass sea, again illustrating the shift towards patriarchy and violent conquest.
Lastly, concerning Sarnor, it should be noted that they are some of the most accomplished seafarers and travelers in history. The Great Empire of the Dawn conquered Leng by sea, and if they reached Westeros in any meaningful capacity (meaning more than a handful of dragonriders flying on dragonback), then it was surely a maritime power as well. It’s likely they were in any case, simply because of their size and power. The travels of the Sarnori:
Sarnori traders traveled to Valyria and Yi Ti, to Leng and Asshai. Sarnori ships sailed the Shivering Sea to Ib and Far Mossovy. Sarnori kings warred against the Qaathi and the Old Empire of Ghis, and lead many a foray against the bands of nomadic horseman who roamed the steppes to their east. (TWOIAF)
That’s pretty extensive travel, and they seem to have an interest in lands formerly under the rule of the Great Empire. It’s really too bad about the burning of the great library at Alexandri– I mean Sallosh, city of scholars, or else I might not have to write this essay. 🙂
So, to sort of sum up our findings here, a lot of people seem to have fled the collapse of the Great Empire of the Dawn by going west over the Bones Mountains. Thus both genetics and culture from the various tribes of men that comprised the Great Empire spread out all through Essos: to Valyria, to Qarth, and to peoples of the grasslands such as the Sarnori and Dothraki. There’s also the question of the Andals, who are said to have possibly arisen in the grasslands south of the Silver Sea, because that hey that Hugor Hill mythology that bears some of the hallmarks of the Azor Ahai mythology, and Hugor is very close to Huzhor, as in Huzhor Amai. They also have that Starry Sept and a heavy astronomical component to their theology in general. Perhaps another day we can explore that possibility.