I often tell people that one of the most amazing things about A Song of Ice and Fire is George R. R. Martin’s ability to incorporate elements and ideas of so many different influences to create his own tapestry of symbol, archetype, and myth. As we all know, George studied Norse myth in college and draws from it quite heavily, and George also draws from J. R. R. Tolkien, who in turn drew upon Norse myth to create his fantasy world. But George is also drawing from many other mythologies and religions, as well as from selected bits of world history like the War of the Roses, and even from things like Marvel comics or Hanna Barbara’s Thundarr, an old Saturday morning cartoon that began each week with a runaway planet / red comet cracking the moon and causing disasters on earth, followed by a hero, Thundarr, who fights with a glowing white “sun sword.” It seems to me that George pulls from absolutely any idea or story which has influenced him along the journey of his life, be it myth, history, or comic, and he’ll even throw in references to obscure things like Oscar Wylde stories, Grateful Dead lyrics or the Giants – Patriots Super Bowl game. All of these and more are synthesized together into the harmonious maelstrom of stories and characters that make up A Song of Ice and Fire.
It might sound complicated and difficult, but just remember – the result is the highly readable series we know and love. ASOIAF never becomes weird or clunky because of these kinds of references to external ideas – you probably flew right by most of these things on your first read, as I did. Most of these influences show up in the symbolism, world-building, and the backgrounds of the characters – the things which make up the set and setting for the players to play on. The players themselves are always on center stage, but the richness of the set and the script owe a lot to Martin’s ability to creatively synthesize all the great things which have inspired him. By doing so, he’s carrying the torch of his forerunners and inspiring a new generation – people like you and me – to expand our knowledge of literature, myth, history, and I guess, Marvel comics. It’s almost like a time-capsule of story-telling.
I picture it working like this… at some point early on, Martin decides to include flaming swords in his story, being such a staple fantasy element. So, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, he’s going to draw upon all his favorite flaming swords from, well, everywhere. We get nods to Sigurd’s Gram, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Elric of Melnibone’s Stormbringer, the magic swords of Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Aragorn’s Narsil and the meteor swords Anguirel and Anglachel from Tolkien’s Silmarillion; and let’s not forget Darth Vader’s red lightsaber or Thundarr’s sun sword, or that flaming sword held in the hands of the angel guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Lightbringer is not a one-for-one adaption of any of these swords, but rather a descendant or cousin of them all.
Today we are going to talk about the Old Ones – both Martin’s version of the Old Ones and the more famous Old Ones from the works of H. P. Lovecraft. You might think that since H.P. Lovecraft is the only one to write about “the Old Ones,” Martin must be adapting them straight from Lovecraft, Au contraire, my friends! It turns out Lovecraft isn’t the only one to write about the Old Ones, and the other folks who have written about them lived centuries and centuries ago. What do I mean? Well, as George R. R. Martin says, “keep reading,” or “keep listening,” as it may be…
✧ Greenseer Kings of Ancient Westeros
✧ Return of the Summer King
✧ The God-on-Earth
End of Ice and Fire
✧ Burn Them All
✧ The Sword in the Tree
✧ The Cold God’s Eye
✧ The Battle of Winterfell
✧ Astronomy Explains the Legends of I&F
✧ The Bloodstone Emperor Azor Ahai
✧ Waves of Night & Moon Blood
✧ The Mountain vs. the Viper & the Hammer of the Waters
✧ Tyrion Targaryen
✧ Lucifer means Lightbringer
Sacred Order of Green Zombies A
✧ The Last Hero & the King of Corn
✧ King of Winter, Lord of Death
✧ The Long Night’s Watch
Great Empire of the Dawn
✧ History and Lore of House Dayne
✧ The Great Empire of the Dawn
✧ Flight of the Bones
Moons of Ice and Fire
✧ Shadow Heart Mother
✧ Dawn of the Others
✧ Visenya Draconis
✧ The Long Night Was His to Rule
✧ R+L=J, A Recipe for Ice Dragons
The Blood of the Other
✧ Prelude to a Chill
✧ A Baelful Bard & a Promised Prince
✧ The Stark that Brings the Dawn
✧ Eldric Shadowchaser
✧ Prose Eddard
✧ Ice Moon Apocalypse
Weirwood Compendium A
✧ The Grey King & the Sea Dragon
✧ A Burning Brandon
✧ Garth of the Gallows
✧ In a Grove of Ash
✧ Venus of the Woods
✧ It’s an Arya Thing
✧ The Cat Woman Nissa Nissa
Weirwood Compendium B
✧ To Ride the Green Dragon
✧ The Devil and the Deep Green Sea
✧ Daenerys the Sea Dreamer
✧ A Silver Seahorse
Signs and Portals
✧ Veil of Frozen Tears
✧ Sansa Locked in Ice
Sacred Order of Green Zombies B
✧ The Zodiac Children of Garth the Green
✧ The Great Old Ones
✧ The Horned Lords
✧ Cold Gods and Old Bones
We Should Start Back
✧ AGOT Prologue
The Old Ones
So you’re cruising along, reading through TWOIAF and you’ve worked your way all the way to the Essos material in the back, and you come across this really weird place called the Holy Isle of Leng in the Jade Sea. It’s a large, verdant island which is home to “ten thousand tigers and ten million monkeys,” according to Lomas Longstrider. That sounds cool, and slightly weirder are the “spotted humpback apes said to be almost as clever as men” and “hooded apes as large as giants.” Ok, this place sounds exotic, you think to yourself, and it seems like evolution is happening here – then things start to get truly creepy in only the second paragraph:
Leng’s history goes back almost as far as that of Yi Ti itself, but little and less of it is known west of the Jade Straits. There are queer ruins in the depths of the island’s jungle: massive buildings, long fallen, and so overgrown that rubble remains above the surface…but underground, we are told, endless labyrinths of tunnels lead to vast chambers, and carved steps descend hundreds of feet into the earth. No man can say who might have built these cities, or when. They remain perhaps the only remnant of some vanished people.
Alright! If you’re at all like me, that’s the kind of thing that you get excited for. Underground cities? Some vanished people? Tell me more! Well, the narrative returns to conventional history about how Leng was colonized by Yi Ti and has two types of people, the very tall native Lengii and the short Yi Tish – but your eyes can’t help but roam down to the sidebar on the next page, where it tells us more about those ruins in the jungle, and it is here that we encounter the Old Ones:
Legends persist that the Old Ones still live beneath the jungle of Leng. So many of the warriors that Jar Har sent down below the ruins returned mad or not at all that the god-emperor finally decreed the vast underground cities’ ruins should be sealed up and forgotten. Even today, it is forbidden to enter such places, under penalty of torture and death.
Hot damn! Now that is the good shit – underground cities from which people either come back insane or not at all! It’s very mysterious, and there’s one other reference to the Old Ones in the Leng section a bit further on:
It was mariners from the Golden Empire who opened Leng to trade, yet even then the island remained a perilous place for outsiders, for the Empress of Leng was known to have congress with the Old Ones, gods who lived deep below the ruined subterranean cities, and from time to time the Old Ones told her to put all the strangers on the island to death. This is known to have happened at least four times in the island’s history if Colloquo Votar’s Jade Compendium can be believed.
Ok, so it’s even creepier now – the God Empress of Leng “has congress with the Old Ones” and every once in a while they just tell her to ‘execute all the foreigners?’ That’s… lovely. “Vote Kiara for Congress: Death to All Foreigners!” Things are a bit better these days, with no more executions and an independent Leng ruled by a God Empress who takes one Yi-Tish husband and one native Lengii husband, and the Old Ones are not mentioned by name anywhere else in ASOIAF, at least not directly. So it’s hard to know what to do with these tales of the Old Ones and their creepy underground cities… unless you’ve read any Lovecraft.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the works of H.P. Lovecraft will probably recognize the phrase “the Old Ones.” The Old Ones are (quoting from the Lovecraft Fandom wiki) “a group of unique, malignant beings of great power. They reside in various locations on Earth, and once presided over the planet as gods and rulers.” They are separate from other gods and monsters such as the Deep Ones (who also appear in ASOIAF lore) or the Cthonians or beings like Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep. The Old Ones use a lot mind control and psychic warfare and are generally bad news for mortals.
Generally speaking, there are a handful of clear references to H. P. Lovecraft in far eastern Essos, such as K’Dath, a city in the Grey Waste beyond the Five Forts, or Carcosa, which is similarly beyond the realms of mortal men on the edge of the map. Leng itself is a name drawn from Lovecraftian lore, where it takes the form of either a plateau that exists only in the dreamworld or, possibly (it varies a bit from story to story) as an ancient city in Antarctica built by – who else – the Old Ones. Then there is Ib, Sarnath, the Cult of Starry Wisdom, all of which are from Lovecraft, as well as basically everything about Asshai and that black meteor worshiped by the Bloodstone Emperor (who founded the ASOIAF version of the Church of Starry Wisdom), since magically toxic meteors that poison people and the land is a reoccurring element of a few Lovecraft stories.
So if you recognized any of those nods to Lovecraft as you read the eastern sections, you probably came away with the idea that just as Martin draws from Tolkien and the same Norse myth Tolkien drew from to create most of the Northern culture and weirwood magic, he’s using a lot of Lovecraft ideas to create eastern Essos. You’d be right, and I think Martin is actually making a statement about Lovecraftian lore here. Tolkien is credited with creating the template for fantasy fiction, and eventually fantasy authors began using and re-purposing his orcs and elves and hobbits in their own fiction. By having his own version of Deep Ones and Old Ones, Martin is telling us that Lovecraft’s monsters have entered the universal fantasy lexicon, along with the orcs and hobbits, and that authors should feel free to adapt them to their own stories.
However, for some reason a lot of people make the mistake of recognizing the Lovecraftian influence in some of these elements of ASOIAF and concluding that they are “just” nods to Lovecraft, as if that precludes them from being relevant to the story. That’s silly, because George gives nods to all kinds of stuff, constantly, and it never means that that’s “all” it is. One of the famous football references comes in the middle of Jon’s death scene, with “wun wun the giant” standing in for Phil Sims, a Giants Quarterback who wore the number eleven (one-one). Ser Patrek wears a blue star on silver and white like the Dallas Cowboys, the hated rivals of the Giants. But those blue stars also help Ser Patrek to symbolize the Others in another scene, and of course Jon’s death scene itself is kind of important! So while some of these Lovecraft nods don’t really mean much, like the cities in the Grey Waste, the concept of the Old Ones is not inconsequential, but rather something more.
The tales of people going mad from exploring the ruins of the Old Ones in the jungles of Leng is very, very consistent with Lovecraft, where the human mind’s struggle to maintain sanity in the face of forces far greater than itself is a major theme of his work – perhaps the major theme. People are constantly going insane in Lovecraft stories, to put it simply, and it’s always due to mankind trying to comprehend something to which is just too terrifying for the human mind. In the Lovecraft Universe Leng is an abandoned city built by the Old Ones or a plateau with multiple abandoned cities, as I mentioned, and in the ASOIAF universe it’s an island with abandoned cities built by the Old Ones – pretty much the same thing. The Old Ones whispering in the ear of the Empress and commanding her to commit mass murder is also very Lovecraftian and consistent with the modus operandi of the Lovecraftian Old Ones, who tend to use psychic invasion / suggestion as their preferred tool. But there’s something else going on with Leng that is very mysterious that at first doesn’t appear to really have anything to do with Lovecraft… but which will lead us back to a different sort of Old One.
It has to do with those native Lengi people:
On the southern third of Leng dwell the descendants of those displaced by the invaders from the Golden Empire. The native Lengii are perhaps the tallest of all the known races of mankind, with many men amongst them reaching seven feet in height, and some as tall as eight. Long-legged and slender, with flesh the color of oiled teak, they have large golden eyes and can supposedly see farther and better than other men, especially at night. Though formidably tall, the women of the Lengii are famously lithe and lovely, of surpassing beauty.
Large, golden eyes that can see better in the dark, hello! That can only remind us of one thing: the children of the forest.
That was not Arya’s voice, nor any child’s. It was a woman’s voice, high and sweet, with a strange music in it like none that he had ever heard and a sadness that he thought might break his heart. Bran squinted, to see her better. It was a girl, but smaller than Arya, her skin dappled like a doe’s beneath a cloak of leaves. Her eyes were queer—large and liquid, gold and green, slitted like a cat’s eyes. No one has eyes like that. Her hair was a tangle of brown and red and gold, autumn colors, with vines and twigs and withered flowers woven through it.
That was from ADWD, and elsewhere it says they have nut-brown skin. You may not have a clear image in your mind of teak – the word used to describe the skin tone of the Lengii – but it’s basically a golden-hued medium brown, with “oiled teak” suggesting a shade darker than medium. The point I am making is obvious – the skin tone of the native Lengi is very close to that of the children, and the very unique large golden eyes which can see in the dark again reminds us of the children of the forest. Now, the Lengi don’t have slitted cat’s eyes like the children – although the tiger symbolism of Lengi’s valued tiger skins (which Illyrio trades in by the way) could be a nod to cat’s eyes, and perhaps even skinchanging. However, large eyes are generally found on creatures which are either nocturnal or cave-dwelling, and like the Old Ones in their underground cities, the children of the forest we see are living underground, in Bloodraven’s cavern. In AGOT, Maester Luwin tells us they’ve always done so:
They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful.
Note the physical descriptions here: dark and beautiful, slight, quick, and graceful; compare that to the Lengii, who are described as slender, lithe, and lovely; and again, with matching skin tones and eye color. If the Lengii were not so tall, most everyone who read TWOIAF would have immediately suspected them of having children of the forest blood!
So here’s what I think. I think the Old Ones of ASOIAF are some kind cousin to the children of the forest, the “tall elves” to the children’s “short elves” I think the native Lengii interbred with these tall, elf-like Old Ones – just as all there are hints of people breeding with magical beings all over the story. I think the unusual traits we see in the native Lengii are evidence of their Old Ones ancestry, and clue us in to what the Old Ones look like. This would be comparable to Jojen having moss green eyes like a child of the forest greenseer; the crannogmen have a trace of children of the forest blood, and so they are a bit shorter than average men and occasionally turn up with green eyes and green gifts like Jojen’s green eyes and greensight. The large, golden eyes which are ideal for seeing in the dark that the Lengii possess really do make sense as a trait originally found in the subterranean -dwelling Old Ones.
Likewise, we can assume that the extreme height is an Old Ones trait. If the Old Ones were short like the children, the Lengi would have become shorter by interbreeding with them, as the Crannogmen did. Instead, the native Lengii are said to be the tallest people in the world, rivaling the tall men of Sarnor and the long-vanished Mazemakers of Lorath who left behind only their mazes and very large bones behind. From this I can only conclude that if the Lengii interbred with the Old Ones, the height of the native Lengii can probably be traced to the Old Ones, just as the golden eyes probably can be. If they are some kind of elf, that would make sense – fantasy elves (like those in the Lord of the Rings) are frequently tall, after all. They would be some sort of taller cousin to the children, perhaps.
Now, we’ll come back to the height issue in a moment, but there was an exciting clue about children of the forest and caves delivered to us in the Arianne chapter of TWOW that George has released early. There is a passage where Arianne is in the Rainwood in the Stormlands, a place that used to populated with children of the forest, and she’s underground in a cave and sees something rather remarkable:
…all at once she found herself in another cavern, five times as big as the last one, surrounded by a forest of stone columns. Daemon Sand moved to her side and raised his torch.
“Look at how that stone’s been shaped. Those columns in the wall there. See them?”
“Faces,” said Arianne. So many sad eyes, staring. “This place belonged to the Children of the Forest.”
“A thousand years ago.”
We’ve seen the children living in caves, but this is something entirely new here – carved faces such as one would see on a weirwood tree, but instead carved into stone. The stone columns are described as a forest, which makes us wonder if perhaps they are actually petrified weirwood trees, turned to stone in the ancient past, but one certainly has to wonder how weirwoods could grow this far underground without any light. If this cave weren’t so deep underground, maybe we could speculate that the topography has changed to somehow of the eons, but it really doesn’t make sense as it is – there’s really no way open ground suitable for trees becomes a cave deep underground, even after thousands of years.
No, it would seem that what have here is just what it looks like – evidence of children of the forest carving heart tree-style faces into stone. “Is it possible that…” (Ancient Aliens voice) …the carvers of these faces were able to look out through their stone eyes as they would the face of a heart tree? That would be something of a game-changer; however we can’t make this assumption without more evidence – they might have simply been carved to look like heart trees for a more ornamental / symbolic purpose. Setting aside the issue of the faces, we’ve really never seen any evidence of the children working in stone at all, apart from perhaps flint-napping some dragonglass knives for the black brothers – so this really has the potential to change the way we view the children. We are told they did not built castles and cities as man does, only those secret tree towns (which I presume look like Ewok villages), but is it possible they were doing more underground than simply living in caves? Were they shaping the stone, like the Old Ones in the underground cities?
The only other suggestion of the children doing anything with stone comes in Cat’s memory of the legend of Storm’s End from ACOK:
A seventh castle he raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build it, shaping the stones with magic; others claimed that a small boy told him what he must do, a boy who would grow to be Bran the Builder.
It’s always been hard to know what to make of the notion of the children “shaping stones with magic,” since that doesn’t sound like anything we associate with the children – I’ve suggested before this might be a garbled account of dragonlords using their fused stone technology at Storm’s End or perhaps elsewhere, although if there is fused stone at Storm’s End then it would have to be hidden beneath its curtain wall, which doesn’t really make sense. If you could make fused stone, you’d probably just make the whole castle from it as opposed to only the base or foundation. Still, it’s possible the outer masonry we see was added later, so we can’t rule it out – all we know is that the only people said to have been able to shape stone with magic are dragonlords creating fused stone with dragonfire and sorcery.
The fact we can’t come to a satisfactory explanation for this line about the children shaping stone with magic is what makes it tantalizing – there’s a mystery here we don’t understand yet, it seems. It’s possible the answer has something to do with those stone faces on the pillars in that cave in the Rainwood. It seems likely that we don’t know everything there is to know about the children yet, and I think George has intentionally kept their secrets for the last leg of the story. We already expect to learn a lot more about them from Bran’s weirwood visions in TWOW, and the fact that he has a character who’s plot line doesn’t really involve greenseer-related stuff, Arianne, wandering into an old children of the forest cave really shows that this is something that is coming to the fore in the final books.
Still, with all that said, Leng is a loooong way from Westeros. However if you’ve read TWOIAF you probably remember the tale of the Ifequevron, a short race a woods-people that used to live in Essos, north of the Dothraki Sea and South of Ib. There are two quotes about them:
In the southeast the proud city-states of the Qaathi arose; in the forests to the north, along the shores of the Shivering Sea, were the domains of the woodswalkers, a diminutive folk whom many maesters believe to have been kin to the children of the forest…
And then this one, courtesy of the Sea Snake:
The fabled Sea Snake, Corlys Velaryon, Lord of the Tides, was the first Westerosi to visit these woods. After his return from the Thousand Islands, he wrote of carved trees, haunted grottoes, and strange silences. A later traveler, the merchant-adventurer Bryan of Oldtown, captain of the cog Spearshaker, provided an account of his own journey across the Shivering Sea. He reported that the Dothraki name for the lost people meant “those who walk in the woods.” None of the Ibbenese that Bryan of Oldtown met could say they had ever seen a woods walker, but claimed that the little people blessed a household that left offerings of leaf and stone and water overnight.
These “woods walkers” sound exactly like children of the forest, or very similar to them, and “woods walker” is a phrase that reminds us a lot of “white walkers of the woods,” another name for the Others (who seem to have been created in part through greenseer magic). Setting the potential clue about the Others aside, it would seem that the story of the Ifequevron is included in ASOIAF primarily to show us that children of the forest – or creatures of their sort – once lived throughout the wold, and not only in Westeros.
There’s one other potential race of beings that sound like they could be related to the children:
Northwest of Sothoryos, in the Summer Sea, lies the mysterious island of Naath, known to the ancients as the Isle of Butterflies. The people native to the island are a beautiful and gentle race, with round flat faces, dusky skin, and large, soft amber eyes, oft flecked with gold. The Peaceful People, the Naathi are called by seafarers, for they will not fight even in defense of their homes and persons. The Naathi do not kill, not even beasts of the field and wood; they eat fruit, not flesh, and make music, not war.
The god of Naath is called the Lord of Harmony, oft shown as a laughing giant, bearded and naked, always attended by swarms of slender maidens with butterfly wings. A hundred varieties of butterflies flitter about the island; the Naathi revere them as messengers of the Lord, charged with the protection of his people. Mayhaps there is some truth to these legends, for whilst the docile nature of the Naathi seem to make their island ripe for conquest, strangers from beyond the sea do not live long upon the Isle of Butterflies.
Again we see the large, golden eyes present, and the approximate skin tone and size are also potential matches. One can’t help but notice the Daoist philosopy of the Lord of Harmony, which is very consistent with the beliefs of the children, and like the children, the Naathi to live in nature and seem to be largely peaceful. They worship a very Garth-like figure, it must be said – bearded and laughing and naked, and surrounded by swarms of maidens? He’s very, very Garth-like.
Naath is quite far away from… well, everything, really, and again we find ourselves on an island, as we were with Leng. The children of the forest tell Bran that they have sung their songs for a thousand thousand years, which would mean one million years, and although we have no way to know the truth of that, it seems logical to view Leng, the forest of the Ifequevron, and Naath as the last little pockets and remnants of “the elves” that remain outside of Westeros – if in fact these other races are related to the children of the forest at all.
A complementary idea to that of children and related elf creatures once having lived outside of Westeros is the fact that giants seem to have existed outside of Westeros – namely, the Jogwihn, the so-called “stone giants.”
The quest to puzzle out the nature of the Old Ones has one other thread to follow, besides the elf-related ideas. There are two other cultures which we might be able to draw a tentative link to, primarily based on height, and those would be the Sarnori and the ancient Lorathi. The Sarnori (Tagaez Fen in their language, which means the tall men) are relevant because the very approximate physical description mostly matches the Lengii: they are exceptionally tall and have a similar medium-dark, golden skin tone (they actually sound a lot like the Dothraki, whom they are almost certainly related to). The difference is the eye color; the Sarnori typically had black eyes (again like the Dothraki) instead of the golden eyes of the Lengi.
As I mentioned earlier, both Leng and Sarnor are words taken from Lovecraft, so it’s very plausible Martin is imaging the AOSIAF versions of these places as being linked as well. The ancestors of the Sarnori seem to have come over the Bones Mountains from eastern Essos (the former lands of the Great Empire of the Dawn), and they have their own Azor Ahai-like legend of a hero named Huzhor Amai. That could be relevant, because according to YiTish history, Leng was a part of the Great Empire of the Dawn. That means there actually could be a plausible genetic link between the Sarnori and Leng, albeit a very ancient one.
Lorath is perhaps the more intriguing match. Here I am speaking of the ancient people who first settled there, who do not appear to be related to or connected with the later inhabitants of the city known as Lorath. Before the modern-day city was built, there was an interesting religious cult who lived here, the followers of the Blind God Boash, who were ascetics who sought after enlightenment and nirvana. But before them, there was a people known only to us as the Mazemakers.
Sprawling constructs of bewildering complexity, made from blocks of hewn stone, the mazemakers’ constructions are scattered across the isles—and one, badly overgrown and sunk deep into the earth, has been found on Essos proper, on the peninsula south of Lorath. Lorassyon, the second largest of the Lorath isles, is home to a vast maze that fills more than threequarters of the surface area of the island and includes four levels beneath the ground, with some passages descending five hundred feet.
Scholars still debate the purpose of these mazes. Were they fortifications, temples, towns? Or did they serve some other, stranger purpose? The mazemakers left no written records, so we shall never know. Their bones tell us that they were massively built and larger than men, though not so large as giants. Some have suggested that mayhaps the mazemakers were born of interbreeding between human men and giant women. We do not known why they disappeared, though Lorathi legend suggests they were destroyed by an enemy from the sea: merlings in some versions of the tale, selkies and walrus-men in others.
The underground portions of these stone mazes – which seem to be the larger portion of the complex as a whole – really do match the descriptions we are given of the underground cities in the jungles of Leng. That doesn’t mean they’re connected of course, but when taken together with the very large skeletons which seem to be somewhere between the height of giants (12′ – 14′) and men – it seems like we are in the 8 feet or so region again, like the Lengi and Sarnori. The main difference between the mazes of Lorath and the subterranean cities of Leng is the insanity – there are no reports of bad things happening to people who visit the mazes of Lorath, certainly not like at Leng. We don’t know why that is – perhaps the Old Ones abandoned the Lorathi site after their wars with the merlings and selkies, but remain on Leng to give the God-Empress bad advice on issues of tourism and immigration; or perhaps one place is cursed and the other not, or perhaps there’s some other reason.
Overall, these links are tentative – and they are meant to be. George is trying to create the feel of older cycles of existence lying beneath the layers of more modern history, so all we can ever get are glimpses of the Deep Ones or the Old Ones or the Mazemakers. They are supposed to tantalize us and leave us wondering what came before. However, when Martin references things from other famous works of literature like the Old Ones, he’s inviting us to dig into the source material to get a better sense of the context he’s drawing from. In this case, I read a long and twisting Lovecraft story called “The Doom that Came to Sarnath, and I found some juicy nuggets which will inform our quest for the truth that lies beneath the jungles of Leng. I also told you that Lovecraft wasn’t the only one to write about the old ones, so let’s take a look at those things to see what was on Martin’s mind when he crated these mysteries.
Return of the Men with Antler Hats
Here’s where Martin’s creative blending of multiple outside influences comes in. “The Old Ones” are a race of Lovecraftian beings, it’s true enough. But we’ve also talked quite a lot about the horned god archetype of European folklore which can manifest as Cernunnos, or Herne the Hunter or the Green Man or a host of other related horned deities, and of the absolutely massive influence this folklore has on ASOIAF. Curiously, one of the classic names for the horned god is “the great old one.”
Dun dun dun!
This is kind of important, because as we know, the horned god ideas feature prominently in the legends and culture of Westeros, from Garth the Green to the Sacred Order of Green Men on the Isle of Faces to the antler hats of House Durrandon and then Baratheon to the Horned Lord constellation and the legendary wildling King-Beyond-the-Wall of the same name. If the Old Ones of Leng are playing into this stag man / horned lord idea, they might be more relevant to the story that first appeared. The idea of Cernunnos as an “Old One” is also a big boost for the theory that the Old Ones are some kind of elf creature, potentially related to the children of the forest – Cernunnos is very elflike, and more specifically, he’s a stag-man, and the children have brown skin dappled with white spots like a deer. You can kind of see how this could come together – the Old Ones could be our long lost race of stag men!
Specifically I am thinking about Garth the Green and the Sacred Order on Green Men who were mysteriously “formed” after the ancient Pact between children and First Men that was signed on the Isle of Faces. We’ve been wondering what those “green men” are, assuming they are not just children of the forest – my two best ideas were that they were either green men as in green zombies, like Coldhands, or that they were indeed some kind of elf-like, stag man humanoid. Well, it could certainly be both – zombie stag men, if you will – but lets think about the stag man / tall elf option on its own. Could the Old Ones from Leng be our stag men, who are created in the image of “The Great Old One,” the horned god himself? Did they come all the way to Westeros to become the green men who live on the Isle of Faces? Or perhaps the Old Ones on Leng and the Green Men are simply related / similar beings?
Well, as Bran tells us, “All the tales agreed that the green men had strange magic powers.” Bran learned from Old Nan that “The green men ride on elks,” and that “sometimes they have antlers too.” We knew that already, and we know this image of the stag man is an old and powerful one which left its imprint all over Westeros. Garth the Green is cast in the role of a stag man and fertility god, and he was said to be the first man in Westeros. The Durrandon tradition of the antlered man dates back to ancient times in all likelihood, while even the wildlings, cut of from Westeros by the Wall, know of the tradition. Grigg the Goat – who is implied as a horned fellow, you will notice – tells Jon he dreams of visiting the Green Men on the Isle of Faces, and they even refer to the constellation Westeros calls the Stallion as the Horned Lord. So it’s an old, old tradition, perhaps the oldest set of cultural / religious beliefs in Westeros.
Was it based in fact? Did these stag men ever exist? Are the Green Men who guard the weirwoods on the Isle of Faces really the Old Ones from Leng?
Well, what if I told you that in Lovecraft’s version of Leng, the native race of humanoids is a type of “horned and hooved almost-human?” That’s right, although the Old Ones themselves are weird, five-tentacled and five-winged blob things, the abandoned cities on the plateau of Leng are inhabited by some horny goat people, as we see in Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. They actually sail pitch-black merchant ships around the dreamworld, and can even fly them to the moon. In Dream-Quest, they abduct the main character on one of these ships and take him to the dark side of the moon, but fortunately he is rescued by cats, whom he had previously befriended.
Don’t ask about the cats, it’s a weird story. The point is that horny humanoids on Leng is not a new idea. I mean, I did come up with it on my own through the process outlines in up to this point, but then someone told me that yeah, actually Lovecraft already put horned folk on Leng. Here’s a bit from Dream-Quest, and the scene starts with the main character, Randolph Carter, flying on the back of a wyvern-like creature called a Shantak:
The Shantak now flew lower, revealing beneath the canopy of cloud a grey barren plain whereon at great distances shone little feeble fires. As they descended there appeared at intervals lone huts of granite and bleak stone villages whose tiny windows glowed with pallid light. And there came from those huts and villages a shrill droning of pipes and a nauseous rattle of crotala which proved at once that Inquanok’s people are right in their geographic rumours. For travellers have heard such sounds before, and know that they float only from the cold desert plateau which healthy folk never visit; that haunted place of evil and mystery which is Leng.
Around the feeble fires dark forms were dancing, and Carter was curious as to what manner of beings they might be; for no healthy folk have ever been to Leng, and the place is known only by its fires and stone huts as seen from afar. Very slowly and awkwardly did those forms leap, and with an insane twisting and bending not good to behold; so that Carter did not wonder at the monstrous evil imputed to them by vague legend, or the fear in which all dreamland holds their abhorrent frozen plateau. As the Shantak flew lower, the repulsiveness of the dancers became tinged with a certain hellish familiarity; and the prisoner kept straining his eyes and racking his memory for clues to where he had seen such creatures before.
They leaped as though they had hooves instead of feet, and seemed to wear a sort of wig or headpiece with small horns. Of other clothing they had none, but most of them were quite furry. Behind they had dwarfish tails, and when they glanced upward he saw the excessive width of their mouths. Then he knew what they were, and that they did not wear any wigs or headpieces after all. For the cryptic folk of Leng were of one race with the uncomfortable merchants of the black galleys that traded rubies at Dylath-Leen; those not quite human merchants who are the slaves of the monstrous moon-things! They were indeed the same dark folk who had shanghaied Carter on their noisome galley so long ago, and whose kith he had seen driven in herds about the unclean wharves of that accursed lunar city, with the leaner ones toiling and the fatter ones taken away in crates for other needs of their polypous and amorphous masters. Now he saw where such ambiguous creatures came from, and shuddered at the thought that Leng must be known to these formless abominations from the moon.
I’m not saying this is exactly what Martin pictures the Sacred Order of Green Men looking like, but I can tell you from some of the moon lore in this book and other clues that Martin has almost certainly read this particular book which contains the idea of horned creatures doing occult things around camp fires in a forbidden land called Leng. They aren’t the Old Ones themselves, as I said, but Martin likes to switch things around when he borrows from them anyway. If my hypothesis that a race of horned or antlered humanoids known as the green men in Westeros are related to or the same as the mysterious Old Ones on the Isle of Leng in the Jade Sea is correct, then it would simply mean Martin switched things around a bit and made his Old Ones the horned creatures themselves instead of the vanished people who made their cities.
Given that Cernunnos, the OG stag man nature god whom Martin seems to adore, just so happens to be known as “The Great Old One,” this change is actually a stroke of genius. It seems that he noticed weird intersection of horned people and the phrase “old ones” that exists between the horny goat people living in the cities of the Old Ones on Lovecraft’s Leng and the horny Cernunnos who is called The Great Old One, and thought he would have himself a lark. And thus we get Martin’s Old Ones of Leng, who are really the same as the Green Men from the Isle of Faces. They’re tall and dark and presumably, terrifyingly beautiful, and they wear antler hats and do moon magic.
The fact that Lovecraft’s horned creatures – referred to as “the men of Leng” – can sail to the moon on a ship in the dreamworld works very well with some of the Mythical Astronomy theories about what Martin is doing with the green men and the moon. Namely, I believe the legend of mass sacrifice on the Isle of Faces to call down the Hammer of the Waters is actually a telling of Azor Ahai performing a blood magic ritual with a child of the forest Nissa Nissa that cracked the moon. The simple idea of the horned folk from Lovecraft’s Leng being able to sail ships in the dreamscape also seems very compatible with the basic notion of the green men as greenseers who sail the astral plane on their weirwood “boats.”
When you read about those underground ruins in the jungles of Martin’s Leng that lead down… to god knows where, that’s very similar to the main city of Lovecraft’s plateau of Leng, and once again we see it thronging with horny folk:
There, all alone in the hush and the dusk and the cold, rose the uncouth stones of a squat windowless building, around which a circle of crude monoliths stood. In all this arrangement there was nothing human, and Carter surmised from old tales that he was indeed come to that most dreadful and legendary of all places, the remote and prehistoric monastery wherein dwells uncompanioned the High-Priest Not To Be Described, which wears a yellow silken mask over its face and prays to the Other Gods and their crawling chaos Nyarlathotep.
( . . . )
..Carter followed where he led, and passed within the circle of standing rocks and into the low arched doorway of that windowless stone monastery. There were no lights inside, but the evil merchant lit a small clay lamp bearing morbid bas-reliefs and prodded his prisoner on through mazes of narrow winding corridors. On the walls of the corridors were printed frightful scenes older than history, and in a style unknown to the archaeologists of earth. After countless aeons their pigments were brilliant still, for the cold and dryness of hideous Leng keep alive many primal things. Carter saw them fleetingly in the rays of that dim and moving lamp, and shuddered at the tale they told.
Through those archaic frescoes Leng’s annals stalked; and the horned, hooved, and wide-mouthed almost-humans danced evilly amidst forgotten cities. There were scenes of old wars, wherein Leng’s almost-humans fought with the bloated purple spiders of the neighbouring vales; and there were scenes also of the coming of the black galleys from the moon, and of the submission of Leng’s people to the polypous and amorphous blasphemies that hopped and floundered and wriggled out of them. Those slippery greyish-white blasphemies they worshipped as gods, nor ever complained when scores of their best and fatted males were taken away in the black galleys. The monstrous moon-beasts made their camp on a jagged isle in the sea, and Carter could tell from the frescoes that this was none other than the lone nameless rock he had seen when sailing to Inquanok; that grey accursed rock which Inquanok’s seamen shun, and from which vile howlings reverberate all through the night.
And in those frescoes was shewn the great seaport and capital of the almost-humans; proud and pillared betwixt the cliffs and the basalt wharves, and wondrous with high fanes and carven places. Great gardens and columned streets led from the cliffs and from each of the six sphinx-crowned gates to a vast central plaza, and in that plaza was a pair of winged colossal lions guarding the top of a subterrene staircase. Again and again were those huge winged lions shewn, their mighty flanks of diarite glistening in the grey twilight of the day and the cloudy phosphorescence of the night. And as Carter stumbled past their frequent and repeated pictures it came to him at last what indeed they were, and what city it was that the almost-humans had ruled so anciently before the coming of the black galleys. There could be no mistake, for the legends of dreamland are generous and profuse. Indubitably that primal city was no less a place than storied Sarkomand, whose ruins had bleached for a million years before the first true human saw the light, and whose twin titan lions guard eternally the steps that lead down from dreamland to the Great Abyss.
Down to the Great Abyss… alrighty then. Cheerful guy, that Lovecraft. So as you can see, the horned men of Leng used to rule this ancient city of Sarkomand before becoming enthralled to the nasty moon-beasts. They ruled it… oh let’s see, over a million years ago, okay, so that’s pretty old. You kind of get the idea here – this is basically the lore that Martin is tapping into when he speaks of ruined, subterranean cities on a forbidden isle called Leng where men go down into the earth and come out mad, or not at all. And at the risk of repeating myself – the big takeaway is that these ancient, creepy cities of Leng are the dominion of people with horns growing out of their head. Ergo, it’s not as crazy as it first sounded, my theory about horny Garth people being the truth behind both the Sacred Order of Green Men on the Isle of Faces and the Old Ones on the Isle of Leng.
I’ll also point out that the ideas of the God Empress of Leng periodically getting advice from the Old Ones to sacrifice all the foreigners on the island kind of reminds me of the legend of the children sacrificing hundreds of captive humans on the Isle of Faces to call down the Hammer. In both cases we have mass human sacrifice on an island, though we can only speculate about the Old Ones in turn harnessing the power of these mass sacrifices on Leng to work some sort of magic.
Martin has said we will get to see the Isle of Faces before the series is out, and it’s foreshadowed heavily in the first three books as well as in the more recent histories of Targaryen-ruled Westeros. That means we should get a glimpse of these green men, whatever they are, and when we do, we might see some sort of Cernunnos-looking antlered dude. He probably will not explain that see, thousands of years ago, his ancestors came here from Leng when the God Empress of Leng was happily married to a God Emperor of the Great Empire of the Dawn, but then the whole Bloodstone Emperor thing happened and everything went south and they ended up stuck in Westeros on this foggy isle… no, Cernunnos won’t explain that to whichever of our heroes ends up going to the Isle of Faces, but you and I will know that we stand before of the Great Old Ones from the – how did he put it – “that haunted place of evil and mystery which is Leng.”
There’s one more angle to this, and again it consists of Martin finding a weird natural confluence of Lovecraftian ideas and European folklore. So, among the grouping of incomprehensible deities known as the Great Old Ones, a group which includes Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep among many others, we find one named Yig. Yig is a Great Old One who is known as the father of serpents, and he takes the form of a snake with scaled arms like a human. Of course we also know that Martin used the name Ygg in Ironborn folklore as a way of referring to the weirwoods, and this is of course a shortening of the name Yggdrasil, upon which the weirwoods are based. But if the Old Ones are the green men, and if they are greenseers, then we have Old Ones living inside an Ygg tree… and one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones is Yig. Even better, our idea about Azor Ahai – the father of dragons – invading the weirwoodnet would merge both Ygg / Yig ideas, and give is a dragon in a Ygg tree who is the father of serpents and who is either an Old One or who is using their magic.
Sooo… that’s the theory. It’s not bad, if I do say so myself – the idea of some old tall elvish race living in caves beneath Leng is pretty fun, and since we should get a glimpse of the Isle of Faces, we stand a good chance of finding out if it is true or not. But here’s the thing: if we weren’t tuned into George’s use of symbolism, metaphor, and wordplay, then this is about as far as we could take the theory.
Well. Fortunately you know that this isn’t where our theory ends, but rather where it begins. Fortunately, you know that Martin always leaves us clues via symbolism and wordplay, boy is that ever the case with the Old Ones.
The Old Gods
So, I ask again: did these stag men ever exist? Are the Green Men who guard the weirwoods on the Isle of Faces really the Old Ones from Leng?
Prepare to get shocked. This is the first scene in Winterfell in the entire series:
For her sake, Ned had built a small sept where she might sing to the seven faces of god, but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest.
OH MY GOD Ned prays to the Old Ones. They are the vanished gods of the greenwood – you’ll notice how this also plays into the Lovecraftian ideas of the Old Ones as gods vanished or hibernating gods who used to have dominion over the earth. What the northmen refer to as the Old Gods is really the hive mind made up of all the dead greenseers which inhabits the weirwood tree consciousness, and… these are the Old Ones? If the first greenseers were green men, this makes sense – the Old Gods are the greenseers, and the first greenseers might have been green men… who are really the Old Ones from Leng.
I ask you: is it more likely that George R. R. Martin, steeped in both Lovecraftian lore and Cernunnos lore as he is, accidentally used the phrase “the old ones” in the scene where he introduces us to the heart tree and the godswood, or is it more likely that he did it on purpose? At the very least, it seems he likes to draw upon the accumulated mystique of phrases like “the old ones”, “the deep ones,” “the horned lord,” etc, and I think he’s doing that and more.
Because… it ain’t just Ned praying to the Old Ones:
The gate is lost. Donal Noye had closed and chained it, but it was there for the taking, the iron bars glimmering red with reflected firelight, the cold black tunnel behind. No one had fallen back to defend it; the only safety was on top of the Wall, seven hundred feet up the crooked wooden stairs. “What gods do you pray to?” Jon asked Satin. “The Seven,” the boy from Oldtown said. “Pray, then,” Jon told him. “Pray to your new gods, and I’ll pray to my old ones.” It all turned here.
That was from ACOK, from the battle to defend Castle Black from the Magnar of Thenn and his wildling raiders. Satin will pray to the Seven, and Jon will pray to his Old Ones. Just like his father! The implication is the same as in the previous scene: the greenseers inside the weirwoodnet are the Old Ones – some of them, at least.
The notion of the Old Gods as stag men has been suggested to us from the start, simply by the fact that we are told Garth-like green men guard the Isle of Faces, an island dedicated to the growing of hundreds of weirwood trees. The idea that these green men would be able to tap into the power of the weirwood trees they guard… should surprise no one. Garth the Green himself was said to have planted three weirwood trees in the godswood of Highgarden, and Garth the Green is described in exactly the same way as the Green Men on the Isle of Faces, suggesting that links exist between green men with antler hats and weirwood trees.
Then there is the fascinating topic of the etymology of “weir,” a word used to describe a wooden sluice-gate or dam built over a flowing body of water. It’s often called a fishing weir, it can sometimes be used as a bridge, and most importantly, it’s also called a “fish garth.” Ergo, a weirwood could also be called a Garth-wood, and Martin plays off of this fishing weir / fishgarth idea when he tells us that
For men, time is a river. We are trapped in its flow, hurtling from past to present, always in the same direction. The lives of trees are different. They root and grow and die in one place, and that river does not move them. The oak is the acorn, the acorn is the oak. And the weirwood … a thousand human years are a moment to a weirwood, and through such gates you and I may gaze into the past.”
Time is the river, and the weirwoods are the weir, straddling the stream without being moved by it – it’s the exact definition of a weir. This is really clever writing because Martin is literally sketching us a picture of the weirwoods as a fishing weir while also using it as a metaphor for the eternal, outside-of-time status of the weirwoods. It leaves us with no doubt that George is aware of the fishing weir idea and is incorporating it into his trees of the same name.
I’d say we can conclude that he’s aware of the “fish garth” phrase too. Not only did Garth the Green plant those three weirwoods at Highgarden which are called “The Three Singers,” and not only are the words garth and weir interchangeable in some contexts – it turns out that the word “garth” can also refer to an enclosed central garden – like a godswood! That means that weirwoods are essentially Garth trees in Garth gardens, which is a classic example of George layering on variations of the same symbolic idea in one place so we will notice it and be impressed. Weirwoods are garth-trees that grow in garth-gardens, and here’s Garth the founder of house Gardener planting weirwoods in Highgarden Godswood. It’s like a Dr. Seuss rhyme!
So again we must ask – given all that, is it possible George is unaware of the meaning of the word garth and just accidentally named his Cernunnos god “Garth” and his sacred trees “weirwoods?” No, of course not. The master is at work here, and this is high level wordplay and a demonstration of George’s mastery of folklore. The fact that “Weir” is also the last name of Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, was icing on the cake; but likely not the reason he chose the name weirwood.
Here’s a more grisly example of George playing with the garth / weirwood associations, one which we looked at in Weirwood Compendium 3. I’m talking about those eyeless, decapitated heads of the three Night’s Watch Rangers Jon finds north of the Wall mounted on tall spears of ash wood. I called them grisly weirwood totems because carved, bloody eyes and bloody mouths are weirwood symbols, and weirwoods are symbolic ash trees because they draw so much from Yggdrasil, the great ash tree. So, they are ash tree with carved faces made of dead people – you get the idea. One of those rangers was named Garth Greyfeather, while the other two rangers were also given horned god / green man names (Black Jack Bulwer and Hairy Hal), so this whole scene seems like a clue about ‘Garth people’ or ‘horned folk’ you might say dying and going into the weirwood hive mind. Becoming weirwood trees, as the greenseers do. It also seems to have something to do with the green zombie theory, since these are sacrificed Night’s Watch rangers, and due to other symbolism that is off topic here.
So, let’s sum up and bring this back to the old ones:
- Garth and horned people are joined at the hip with weirwoods, the green men on the Isle of Faces guard weirwoods, the word weir is in some instances interchangeable with the word garth, and godswoods are George’s version of real gardens called garths.
- Garth the Green is Cernunnos combined with the Green Man, basically, and Cernunnos is “the great Old One.”
- As we saw in those first two “old ones” quotes, George might be implying the old gods – the beings that make up the hive mind of the greenseers we call the weirwoodnet – as “the old ones.”
You see how this begins to come together. If the first greenseers were green men such as we hear about on the Isle Faces, this all makes sense. It means that garth people – these tall stag men who are modeled after Cernunnos the Old One – were the first “Old Gods.” It kind of makes sense the last of these antlered folk might live on the magically warded, Avalon-like Isle of Faces, guarding the last surviving concentration of weirwoods south of the Wall.
You surely remember the first time we saw the “horned god” phrase in ASOIAF, which comes as Ned remembers young Robert Baratheon:
He saw the king as he had been in the flower of his youth, tall and handsome, his great antlered helm on his head, his warhammer in hand, sitting his horse like a horned god.
Perhaps more interesting is this similar quote about young Robert and his antlered helm:
Six and a half feet tall, he towered over lesser men, and when he donned his armor and the great antlered helmet of his House, he became a veritable giant. He’d had a giant’s strength too, his weapon of choice a spiked iron warhammer that Ned could scarcely lift.
So, giant, fearsome antlered folk… Since the Lengii are super duper tall, and by extension the Old Ones of their island as well, this quote aligning the horned god with a giant is tantalizing. Robert is by far our best living incarnation of the Garth / horned lord archetype, so it seems like Robert’s giant symbolism might actually be a clue about the green men. The green men would have to be tall if they are related to the Old Ones of Leng. Also, if they were short, it seems like the humans would have just considered them children of the forest. But instead they have this separate name – the Sacred Order of Green Men – and their description as having green skin and antlers matches the legend of Garth much more closely than it does the children. Thus, it is at least possible, if not probable, that the green men on the Isle of Faces are or were some actually other kind of tall, Cernunnos-like people… and Cernnunos is the Great Old One.
Heck, even those spears of ash wood upon which the heads of Garth and his fellow rangers were mounted were eight feet tall, so those were giant weirwood garth and horned lord totems.
If you think it’s just these two possible double-entendres with the phrase “Old Ones” or “Old One,” you haven’t listened to Mythical Astronomy very often. It’s a bit ridiculous, actually.
Old Ones at White Harbor
At the harvest feast at Winterfell early on in ACOK, Bran is seated in the oaken seat of his father and presides over the feast. Harvest feasts are prime horned lord territory – that’s when the horned god is sacrificed in most mythologies, as fall turns to winter. You may recall that about Garth the Green, TWOIAF says that
In some stories the green god dies every autumn when the trees lose their leaves, only to be reborn with the coming of spring.
And that is of course par for the green god course. In the Oak and Holly King setup, Bran is symbolic of the sacrificed Oak King here at the Harvest Festival, sitting in the oaken seat as he is, and of course his name “Bran” implies him as food and bread for the people, which is why the crows are always asking him for corn – he’s the corn king who feeds the people with his life, with the corn king being a modern name for the archetype that includes Cernunnos and the green man and all the rest of the sacrificed nature gods.
And in comes Wyman, talking of the Old Ones at White Harbor who seem to have a thing for stags:
“Why, no prince is ever late,” the Lord of White Harbor responded amiably. “Those who arrive before him have come early, that’s all.” Wyman Manderly had a great booming laugh. It was small wonder he could not sit a saddle; he looked as if he outweighed most horses. As windy as he was vast, he began by asking Winterfell to confirm the new customs officers he had appointed for White Harbor. The old ones had been holding back silver for King’s Landing rather than paying it over to the new King in the North. “King Robb needs his own coinage as well,” he declared, “and White Harbor is the very place to mint it.” He offered to take charge of the matter, as it please the king, and went from that to speak of how he had strengthened the port’s defenses, detailing the cost of every improvement.
In addition to a mint, Lord Manderly also proposed to build Robb a warfleet. “We have had no strength at sea for hundreds of years, since Brandon the Burner put the torch to his father’s ships. Grant me the gold and within the year I will float you sufficient galleys to take Dragonstone and King’s Landing both.” Bran’s interest pricked up at talk of warships. No one asked him, but he thought Lord Wyman’s notion a splendid one. In his mind’s eye he could see them already. He wondered if a cripple had ever commanded a warship.
So, the old ones customs officers were replaced by Wyman – he surely threw them in prison, perhaps in the wolf’s den if he was especially wroth. We’ll go to the Wolf’s Den in a moment, which is why I mention it, but notice that the Old Ones customs agents were holding back silver, and silver coins are stags. The green men rode stags, in some legends, and looked like stags in others, so this seems thematically on point.
Wyman then offers to build ships, which Bran can see in his mind’s eye – this seems a clear allusion to the metaphor of weirwoods as astral-projection ships for the mind to sail the universe with, an idea we’ve explored extensively in the Weirwood Compendium. The Grey King’s weirwood boat is the most obvious example of this symbolism, and sends the message the weirwoods are ships of a kind, ones the greenseer can use. Thus Bran can see the ships in his mind’s eye, and we are meant to think of Brandon the Shipwright Stark who sailed his fleet into the Sunset Sea and was never heard from again, an allusion to be lost in the “green sea” of the weirwoodnet.
Okay, so let’s go to White Harbor and look for Old Ones. Spoiler alert: they are here. As you may recall, the Wolf’s Den is the oldest part of White Harbor, being an old fortress made of black stone which houses White Harbor’s godswood, which of course has a very old weirwood. This is from Davos’s ADWD sojourn in the Wolf’s Den:
Aside from his keepers, Davos Seaworth had the Wolf’s Den to himself. He knew there were true dungeons down in the castle cellars—oubliettes and torture chambers and dank pits where huge black rats scrabbled in the darkness. His gaolers claimed all of them were unoccupied at present. “Only us here, Onion,” Ser Bartimus had told him. He was the chief gaoler, a cadaverous one-legged knight, with a scarred face and a blind eye. When Ser Bartimus was in his cups (and Ser Bartimus was in his cups most every day), he liked to boast of how he had saved Lord Wyman’s life at the Battle of the Trident. The Wolf’s Den was his reward. The rest of “us” consisted of a cook Davos never saw, six guardsmen in the ground-floor barracks, a pair of washerwomen, and the two turnkeys who looked after the prisoner. Therry was the young one, the son of one of the washerwomen, a boy of ten-and-four. The old one was Garth, huge and bald and taciturn, who wore the same greasy leather jerkin every day and always seemed to have a glower on his face. His years as a smuggler had given Davos Seaworth a sense of when a man was wrong, and Garth was wrong. The onion knight took care to hold his tongue in Garth’s presence.
Ok, wow, so the Old One here is actually called Garth. He’s huge too, so score another one for the notion of the green men being large horned folk. As I have noted before, there are a total of 12 people “staffing” the Wolf’s Den, with Davos as the +1 to make the last hero math that mimics the last hero and his twelve companions. The last hero math is a crucial part of the green zombies theory, so seeing it here with Garth the Old One makes a lot of sense. Another of this crew is the one-eyed Ser Bartimus, who seems an Odin call-out.
As Davos sits in this cell, it says that
The onion knight had not forgotten Wyman Manderly’s last words to him. Take this creature to the Wolf’s Den and cut off head and hands, the fat lord had commanded. I shall not be able to eat a bite until I see this smuggler’s head upon a spike, with an onion shoved between his lying teeth. Every night Davos went to sleep with those words in his head, and every morn he woke to them.
That’s a close match to Garth Greyfeather, Black Jack Bulwer, and Hairy Hall, whose severed heads were mounted on spears, and the severed hands give us the bloody hand weirwood leaf symbol. Wyman Manderly, who passes this sentence on Davos which would have been carried out by Garth the “wrong-smelling” jailer, is himself is a kind of Garth symbol, being huge and gluttonous and having a large family a she does. Most tellingly, he also calls himself a Knight of the Green Hand, which is an old order of knights originating in the Reach who are obviously inspired by Garth and the Green Men. Cernunnos and other horned gods can sometimes be wrathful and deadly, hence the executioner symbolism of Wyman and Garth the jailer, and of course you may recall that
A few of the very oldest tales of Garth Greenhand present us with a considerably darker deity, one who demanded blood sacrifice from his worshippers to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Having a closer look at this nasty Garth the jailer, we see that he brings Davos porridge every morning – whether or not the porridge is meant as a weirwood paste symbol, we can observe the classic fertility god role of Garth as one who feeds the people and blesses the people with abundant harvests. Pretty cool that Martin is juxtaposing both Garth ideas here, that of one who feeds others and one who sacrifices others.
The highlight of the scene is the story of Brandon Ice Eyes retaking the Wolf’s Den. and again we see clues that the Old Ones are the Old Gods of the weirwood:
“Then a long cruel winter fell,” said Ser Bartimus. “The White Knife froze hard, and even the firth was icing up. The winds came howling from the north and drove them slavers inside to huddle round their fires, and whilst they warmed themselves the new king come down on them. Brandon Stark this was, Edrick Snowbeard’s great-grandson, him that men called Ice Eyes. He took the Wolf’s Den back, stripped the slavers naked, and gave them to the slaves he’d found chained up in the dungeons. It’s said they hung their entrails in the branches of the heart tree, as an offering to the gods. The old gods, not these new ones from the south. Your Seven don’t know winter, and winter don’t know them.”
Davos could not argue with the truth of that. From what he had seen at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, he did not care to know winter either. “What gods do you keep?” he asked the one-legged knight.
“The old ones.” When Ser Bartimus grinned, he looked just like a skull. “Me and mine were here before the Manderlys. Like as not, my own forebears strung those entrails through the tree.”
“I never knew that northmen made blood sacrifice to their heart trees.”
“There’s much and more you southrons do not know about the north,” Ser Bartimus replied.
All in all, it’s a great little passage. We’ve gone into all the symbolism here before, with Brandon Ice Eyes and the frozen White Knife river as a symbol of an icy white sword and all that, but this time we are looking at that sentence staring us in the face and telling us that the Old Gods of the North are the Old Ones. Once again we see the theme of human sacrifice mentioned, in keeping with the Cernunnos theme. Add it to Garth the Old One and his constant threats to chop off Davos’s head, plus Wyman’s Knight of the Green Hand status, and we can see once again that Martin has piled the Green man symbolism up quite high here at White Harbor, alongside three uses of the “Old Ones” phrase.
Finally, and as we have noted previously, fish garths / fishing weirs are basically traps for fish, and weirwoods can be seen as traps for greenseers in that they physically pinion the body of the greenseers like a fish caught in a weir, and it may even go further than that. Thus it is notable to find a prison with a godswood and a jailer named Garth.
Odin Says Hello
From the one-legged Ser Bartimus, companion to the brutish Garth the Old One to a one-legged keeper of a well in Meereen, we are finding more Old Ones in ADWD. This is from a Tyrion chapter:
Midday had come and gone before he and Penny reached the well, where a scrawny one-legged slave was drawing water. He squinted at them suspiciously. “Nurse always comes for Yezzan’s water, with four men and a mule cart.” He dropped the bucket down the well once more. There was a soft splash. The one-legged man let the bucket fill, then began to draw it upward. His arms were sunburnt and peeling, scrawny to look at but all muscle.
“The mule died,” said Tyrion. “So did Nurse, poor man. And now Yezzan himself has mounted the pale mare, and six of his soldiers have the shits. May I have two pails full?”
“As you like.” That was the end of idle talk. Is that hoofbeats you hear?
The lie about the soldiers got old one-leg moving much more quickly. They started back, each of the dwarfs carrying two brim-full pails of sweet water and Ser Jorah with two pails in each hand.
The day was growing hotter, the air as thick and wet as damp wool, and the pails seemed to grow heavier with every step. A long walk on short legs. Water sloshed from his pails with every stride, splashing round his legs, whilst his bells played a marching song. Had I known it would come to this, Father, I might have let you live. Half a mile east, a dark plume of smoke was rising where a tent had been set afire. Burning last night’s dead. “This way,” Tyrion said, jerking his head to the right.
Old one leg, huh? It’s disguised a bit, but we know it’s meant as another Old Ones reference because this man is in charge of a well – think of the well of Mimir which Odin throws his eye into in order to drink from – and because he’s also hearing the hoofbeats of a horse which is not visible, the pale mare. That’s a reference to Odin riding his shamanic horses, Yggdrasil and Sleipnir, both of which are not actual horses but instead metaphors for astral projection. I’m going to get into that in Weirwood Compendium 9, but take my word for it for now. Odin is a horned god in his own right, and he is a shamanic god above all else, the god of magic. Since Martin has modeled Bloodraven on Odin and the weirwoods on Yggdrasil, it makes sense to see Martin calling out to Odin and the Old Ones at the same time. The idea of drinking from Odin’s well would translate into ASOIAF terms as eating the weirwood paste, and the point is that is the mind-expanding fire of the gods in an edible form. The idea of moon-onion being place in between the teeth of Davos’s decapitated head gets at the same idea, and so to with Garth bringing Davos porridge.
Finally, the last paragraph mentioned the rising smoke column which comes from a pyre of the dead. The flip side of the ash tree symbolism of Yggdrasil is that Martin can use a rising column of smoke and ash to simulate a weirwood, with that symbolism extending to the idea of the weirwood as burning trees and burning trees looking like mushroom clouds. I point this out simply to show continuity of theme here – it’s a bunch of greenseer and weirwood stuff, with some death sacrifice thrown in.
Now in Norse myth, Odin is known for wandering the land in disguise, with his tell being that whatever person or animal he is disguised as will have one eye. Martin gives a nod to this when Bloodraven, disguised as Maynard Plumm via a glamour, appears momentarily to Dunk as a shadowed, hooded shape with one eye, though the eye turns out to be his moonstone broach. Now check out the wandering Septon Meribald, who sleeps with the Old Ones:
Meribald was a septon without a sept, only one step up from a begging brother in the hierarchy of the Faith. There were hundreds like him, a ragged band whose humble task it was to trudge from one flyspeck of a village to the next, conducting holy services, performing marriages, and forgiving sins. Those he visited were expected to feed and shelter him, but most were as poor as he was, so Meribald could not linger in one place too long without causing hardship to his hosts. Kindly innkeeps would sometimes allow him to sleep in their kitchens or their stables, and there were septries and holdfasts and even a few castles where he knew he would be given hospitality. Where no such places were at hand, he slept beneath the trees or under hedges. “There are many fine hedges in the riverlands,” Meribald said. “The old ones are the best. There’s nothing beats a hundred- year- old hedge. Inside one of those a man can sleep as snug as at an inn, and with less fear of fleas.”
That’s pretty great, a wandering holy man who sleeps either “beneath trees” or under the old ones hedges who count their ages in centuries. Sounds like greenseer activity, right? Of course we have caught George using phrases like “beneath the trees” to imply greenseer activity before, and I am saving some tremendous stuff along those lines from the Hedge Knight (Dunk and Egg book 1) for the next couple of Weirwood Compendium episodes. The next paragraph gives a description of Meribald, check it out:
The septon could neither read nor write, as he cheerfully confessed along the road, but he knew a hundred different prayers and could recite long passages from The Seven- Pointed Star from memory, which was all that was required in the villages. He had a seamed, windburnt face, a shock of thick grey hair, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Though a big man, six feet tall, he had a way of hunching forward as he walked that made him seem much shorter. His hands were large and leathery, with red knuckles and dirt beneath the nails, and he had the biggest feet that Brienne had ever seen, bare and black and hard as horn. “I have not worn a shoe in twenty years,” he told Brienne. “The first year, I had more blisters than I had toes, and my soles would bleed like pigs whenever I trod on a hard stone, but I prayed and the Cobbler Above turned my skin to leather.” (AFFC, Brienne)
Alright, so he’s a big man, and he’s both burned and shocked, which makes me think of the symbolic weirwood tree set ablaze by the Storm God’s thunderbolt, since that is such a central weirwood motif. The idea of his face being seamed implies cracks and crevices like the bark of a tree, perhaps. Taking a look at his hands, we see they are red, like the bloody hand weirwood leaves, and he has dirt under his fingernails, evoking the idea of weirwood leaves lying in the dirt. It reminds me of Jon observing the ground at the Weirwood Grove of Nine: “The forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves, bloodred on top, black rot beneath.” And sure enough, when we look down at Meribald’s huge feet, we see the color black as well, as his feet are “bare and black and hard as horn.”
In other words, he’s both a good visual model of a weirwood tree and a horned lord to boot! No wonder he likes to sleep in the hedges of the Old Ones. All that about leather skin might be a nod to skinchanging as well, I should think. And then there’s this:
“Going barefoot was my penance. Even holy septons can be sinners, and my flesh was weak as weak could be. I was young and full of sap, and the girls … a septon can seem as gallant as a prince if he is the only man you know who has ever been more than a mile from your village. I would recite to them from The Seven-Pointed Star. The Maiden’s Book worked best. Oh, I was a wicked man, before I threw away my shoes. It shames me to think of all the maidens I deflowered.”
Oh ho, so he’s got sap inside him like a tree! He has the words of god inside him too, as he has committed much of the Seven-Pointed Star to memory, which makes us think of the weirwoods as a library for greenseers, a repository for the knowledge of the Old Gods. And look – young Meribald was more than a little Garth-like, wasn’t he, what with his deflowering countless maidens and his hedonism? So it wasn’t just the horny feet, he’s a horny guy all the way around. He also wanders the Riverlands handing out rare and valued oranges from a seemingly bottomless bag, another nod to Garth and Green Man lore. He carries a staff like Odin, and uses the “The Quiet Isle” as a kind of home base when he isn’t wandering the realm. The Quiet Isle is an island of holy men who have taken vows of silence, and this of course makes us think of the Isle of Faces, which Catleyn describes in that first AGOT godswood scene where George names the Old Gods of the weirwoods as the Old Ones:
In the south the last weirwoods had been cut down or burned out a thousand years ago, except on the Isle of Faces where the green men kept their silent watch.
Isle of Faces has green men keeping silent watch, the Quiet Isle has a kind of brotherhood of men who take vows of silence. Horny old Meribald has red hands, sap inside him, he’s shocked and windburnt and seamed, and he sleep in the tree-abode of the Old Ones. This seems a pretty good clue linking the Old Ones to the Isle of Faces.
You really have to like how all of these scenes with Old Ones quotes link back to each other in interesting ways, and how they all contain a lot of the same motifs. There was even a bit of green zombie talk in the Meribald chapter when he mentions that Dog has killed a dozen wolves – but he’s afraid of the giant wolf pack led by Nymeria, Arya’s direwolf.
Oh and the name Meribald – since “mer” means sea and the dark spots on the moon are called maria (the plural of mere), Meribald might translate to bald sea or better yet, bald moon. One thinks of Septon Moon from Fire and Blood, another dead-ringer for a Garth figure.
Speaking of Septons, let’s finish off this section with another Old Ones quote about Septons from a Cersei chapter of AFFC:
The draperies swayed back and forth in a wash of crimson silk. “Orton told me that the High Septon has no name,” Lady Taena said. “Can that be true? In Myr we all have names.”
“Oh, he had a name once . They all do.” The queen waved a hand dismissively. “Even septons born of noble blood go only by their given names once they have taken their vows. When one of them is elevated to High Septon, he puts aside that name as well. The Faith will tell you he no longer has any need of a man’s name, for he has become the avatar of the gods.”
“How do you distinguish one High Septon from another?”
“With difficulty. One has to say, ‘the fat one,’ or ‘the one before the fat one,’ or ‘the old one who died in his sleep.’ You can always winkle out their birth names if you like, but they take umbrage if you use them. It reminds them that they were born ordinary men, and they do not like that.”
“My lord husband tells me this new one was born with filth beneath his fingernails.”
So the High Septons have no names, huh? Because they are avatars of the gods? “and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest.” The Old Gods are the combined and merged spirits of dead greenseers, and they are the Old Ones – and they are nameless. Here we have the nameless, godly High Septon, one of whom was “the old one who died in his sleep.” Was he sleeping beneath the old ones hedges like Meribald? Dying in your sleep sounds like a poetic way to talk about greenseers fading away into the green dream as they die, so the Old Ones may have indeed “died in their sleep.”
We also note that the “new one” High Septon (who is the “High Sparrow”) was born with dirt under his fingernails, very like Meribald, and it’s likely he has slept under a few hedges too – the old ones are the best, I’ve heard. I also have to mention that, for some odd reason, the High Septon carries a weirwood staff topped with a crystal orb. That’s an ice moon symbol on top of the cosmic axis tree, of course, but on a more basic level, it’s simply an Odin-like weirwood staff for the Old Ones Septons to carry as they die in their sleep under hedges and trees.
17 thoughts on “The Great Old Ones”
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