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Posts Tagged ‘Melisandre’

burning of seven(If you would like to catch up or refresh: Part One, Part Two)

Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is introduced to “Game of Thrones” fans with the burning of the seven.  In the name of the “Lord of Light,” she induces the Lord Stannis (Stephen Dillane) to burn the effigies of the seven gods of Westeros as a symbolic gesture of renunciation.  Again, one is reminded of Christianity; Christian missionaries were known to have orchestrated the destruction of idols.  But given the Gnostic/Manichean character of Melisandre’s religion, could there be something else going on here?

George_R._R._Martin_signing

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.  First of all, did George R.R. Martin — author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series on which “Game of Thrones” is based — have Gnosticism or Manichaeism in mind when crafting Melisandre’s character and religion?

This much is for sure: Martin draws heavily from his studies of medieval Europe in crafting the world of Ice and Fire, and he is very much dedicated to authenticity.  So we should ask whether Gnosticism made an appearance in the Middle Ages.

AlbigensiansWell, in fact, it did.  The Cathars and Albigensians managed to gain quite a foothold in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries.  Like the Red Woman’s religion — and here it is good to remember Davos Seaworth’s (Liam Cunningham) hard words about Melisandre being “a foreigner preaching a foreign religion” — their belief system came from the East, bringing with it the air of something new and exotic.  St. Dominic fought vigorously against this movement during his life; the Dominican Order,* which he founded for just that purpose, thrives to this day.

faith of the sevenThe attitude of the culture to which Albigensianism came toward its native Christianity was, for the most part, very similar to that of the people of Westeros toward their religion (which appears to be a paganized form of medieval Catholicism).  They held to it as a sort of solid cultural possession, but they didn’t believe in it in too profound a manner (that is, in such a way that it would affect their lives).  So if we are surprised at their susceptibility to something novel and exotic…well, we shouldn’t be.

As Gnostics, the Albigensians and Cathars eschewed the material and the idea that God could be present to it, let alone make Hiimself part of it via the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Some of them would publicly burn crucifixes in order to make their point…and here we go back to our first inquiry.  The Cathars were as ready to burn crucifixes as were Melisandre’s followers to burn the effigies of the seven.

*

Innocent VHere’s an interesting historical tidbit: Pope Innocent V (1225-1276) was the first priest from the Dominican Order to become Pope.  When he was elected, he brought the trademark white garments of the Dominicans to the papal office.  This started a whole new tradition…Pope_Francis_in_March_2013…and is why the Pope wears white to this very day.  I just thought it was interesting that such a familiar image came about as an indirect result of the phenomenon on which a key “Game of Thrones” character may be based.

Thanks for reading, and let’s keep an eye on that quirky priestess with the fire-kissed hair.

Images from “Game of Thrones” obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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MelisandreLet’s recap briefly: In part one, we explored part of Melisandre’s (Carice Van Houten) conversation with Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), on which occasion she tells the young princess that there are only two gods — the Lord of Light and the Lord of Darkness — rather than seven; it was also demonstrated that this dualistic theism resembles Manichaeism rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Melisandre_ShireenBut the next thing Melisandre says is even more telling.  Shireen goes on to ask if, since there are not seven gods, there are also not seven heavens and seven hells.

Melisandre replies: “There is only one hell, princess: The one we live in.”

GnosticismThis is a defining characteristic of Gnosticism, the wider (and much older) school of thought to which Manichaeism belongs.  Adherents of Gnosticism proposed that the material world (including our physical bodies) was evil and illusory.  In fact, they believed that it was created and governed by a demon, which many of the early Gnostics called the demiurge.  The true, good God and the spiritual life were accessible only to a chosen few.  Ultimately, the salvation of a spiritual elite was a matter of his/her soul escaping from the cage of the body at the moment of death.

melisandre-2If Melisandre’s religion is of the Gnostic variety, her readiness to do evil despite claiming to be a servant of good makes perfect sense.  First of all, her worldview does not define evil in terms of dishonoring Divinity, humanity, or creation.  Instead, it holds that the material world is evil simply by virtue of of being material.  Many of the early Gnostics, in fact, believed that actions almost all of us would agree are flat-out wrong were not wrong or sinful for them, because they were “spiritual men.”

Secondly, if the body is not part of who a person is but a prison from which to escape, then it really doesn’t matter what one does in and with the body (perverse living was well noted among the ancient Gnostics).

In my opinion, the broader Gnostic nature of the “Red Woman’s” religion goes miles further than its specifically Manichean aspect in explaining its (at best) ambiguous character.

I’ll delve a little bit more into this in the next post.  Hope I’ve gotten you sufficiently interested to continue reading 🙂

All “Game of Thrones” images obtained through a Google image search; other image from Wikipedia

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NOTE: Entire video embedded merely for visual aesthetics; for just the relevant portion, which is about two and one half minutes long, click here.

“The night is dark and full of terrors!”

So speaks Melisandre, the “Red Woman” (Carice Van Houten), priestess of the “Lord of Light.”  Apart from the scoundrels of House Lannister, she is probably the character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that everyone most loves to hate.

Rather than attempt an in-depth character analysis, I want to limit my focus to Melisandre’s religion.  I must admit, when I was first introduced to it, I thought it was a crack at Christianity, given it’s emphasis on there being only one true God and on issues such as sin and righteousness (not to mention the destruction of idols).

MelisandreSo let’s break it down: How is Melisandre’s religion similar to Christianity, and how is it different?

First, the similarities.  Like I said, it insists on the worship of one God.  Names and titles applied to the God of the Bible — such as “Lord of Light” and “Our Lord” — are applied here also.  Like Jesus Christ, Melisandre’s god also performs visible miracles — most notably the raising of the dead.

Okay, now for the differences.  The priests and priestesses of the “Lord of Light” practice blood magic and human sacrifice, which are very much repugnant to the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Furthermore, Melisandre is a seductress and an adulterous woman.  She very quickly persuades the lord Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) to make love to her by promising him an heir (something Stannis’ barren wife can’t give him).

Melisandre_ShireenBut the defining moment thus far happened in the third episode of the current season.  In this episode, Melisandre comes to share her faith with Stannis’ secluded young daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram).  She starts by telling Shireen that there are not seven gods (as her father’s religion taught), but only — get this — two gods: The Lord of Light, and the Lord of Darkness…and they are always locked in battle with one another.

To me, this came as both clarification and relief.  This is not Christianity.  This is Manichaeism.

ManicheansI won’t give you a history lesson, never fear…except to say that Manichaeism was an ancient religion declaring a dualistic universe in which a supreme good divinity and a supreme evil divinity — both equally powerful and equally divine — were engaged in perpetual struggle.  The turmoil in the world and in each human heart could essentially be traced to that. (St. Augustine of Hippo vigorously opposed this philosophy in the fourth century, as is well documented in his “Confessions.”)

But, as C.S. Lewis argued in “Mere Christianity,” this worldview is untenable.  If the two gods in question are both equal in power and opposed to one another, that means they are finite — which, in turn, means that they are contained by and dependent on Someone or Something Else.  Christian philosophers have long held the monotheistic worldview to be more logically consistent: 1) There is one God, Who is infinite, eternal, and all-good; 2) He created everything good, and that includes the material world; and 3) Goodness is therefore absolute, and evil is to good what the cavity is to the tooth.

melisandre-fire-3Would this explain Melisandre’s questionable morality?  Perhaps.  After all, if her dualistic worldview is true, then right and wrong are relative to one another; good is only good because it is not evil, and vice versa.  What is more, there’s really no question of either side being better than the other; which side you are on is a matter of preference.  One can much more easily justify the use of evil in the service of good as a Manichean dualist.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Wait ’till next time.

Image of Manicheans from Wikipedia; other images obtained through a Google image search

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