The Burnt Offerings of Whitetree Village
tl:dr podcast summary
Whitetree is an intriguing place. It’s the fourth village the brothers of the Night’s Watch encounter on their ranging beyond the Wall and like the villages before, it is empty, all the wildlings gone. Dominating the center of the village is a huge ancient weirwood. Its girth is massive, a good eight feet wide (almost 2.5 meters). Its canopy of red leaves spans the entire village. A monstrous tree indeed.
The next discovery is very unsettling:
The size did not disturb him so much as the face … the mouth especially, no simple carved slash, but a jagged hollow large enough to swallow a sheep. Those are not sheep bones, though. Nor is that a sheep’s skull in the ashes. aCoK, Jon II
This weirwood’s mouth is a hollowed out to accommodate sizable objects, such as sheep. Adding to the allusion to swallowing, the tree-mouth is jagged, suggesting teeth. And disconcertingly, Jon finds human remains buried in ashes. Indeed, this is the next mystery because someone, dead or alive, was burned within the tree. When Jon reaches into the hollow to retrieve a skull, he notices that the insides of the hollow are blackened by fire, and the skull is buried under a pile of ashes. A fire definitely blazed within that tree.
He knelt and reached a gloved hand down into the maw. The inside of the hollow was red with dried sap and blackened by fire. Beneath the skull he saw another, smaller, the jaw broken off. It was half-buried in ash and bits of bone. aFfC, Jon II
Fire in a weirwood? This goes counter to everything we know about the trees. At the top of the hollow hill in the Riverlands, the Ghost of High Heart’s wisdom informs us that fire is anathema to weirwoods:
“Look in your fires, pink priest, and you will see. Not now, though, not here, you’ll see nothing here. This place belongs to the old gods still … they linger here as I do, shrunken and feeble but not yet dead. Nor do they love the flames. For the oak recalls the acorn, the acorn dreams the oak, the stump lives in them both. And they remember when the First Men came with fire in their fists.” aSoS, Arya XIII
If the freefolk of Whitetree worship the old gods and weirwoods have no love of flames, why do they use the tree as a receptacle for burning humans? Interesting is that the weirwood seems none the worse for the fiery ordeal. Tall it stands, its trunk white and unaffected, its leafy canopy shading the whole village. Lord Commander Mormont assumes they are seeing a case of wildlings burning their dead and wonders why they do this. But why use the tree as a crematorium when a pyre in the open would serve just as well? Is this a ritual or a sacrifice of some sort?
The mention of sheep, a classic sacrificial animal, could be a hint in this direction. My reading on ancient sacrificial practices tells me that the precise location of the offering is important. Human victims or animals were sacrificed directly on an alter or within a designated consecrated space. The Whitetree weirwood qualifies as a consecrated space and if burnt offerings were the preferred method of the inhabitants of Whitetree, then it makes sense to carry out the sacrifice directly within the tree. It is of course possible that the victim was killed and blooded beneath the tree prior to being burnt within. Alternatively, the poor wretches may have been burned alive.
Right after the hollow with the burnt offerings is discovered, our attention is drawn to Longclaw, Jon’s Valyrian steel sword. The re-forging of Valyrian steel is rumoured to require sacrifices, and it is thought even infants are offered in the process. Is the author giving us a hint about sorcery rooted in fire and blood taking place at this location? Whatever the case, Whitetree is very unusual.
A Ritual of Fire and Blood?
We can craft a hypothesis based on what we know of weirwoods, Melisandre’s practice of burning people alive as a sacrifice to her god and the fact that Craster’s mother hailed from Whitetree village. Craster probably grew up with the belief-system of the community living there. The wildlings are very diverse, there are sub-cultures within the whole, all strange and most of all ancient. Whitetree’s beliefs could differ from the rest. Burnt offerings are carried out instead of blood sacrifices or perhaps blood offerings are made as well; we cannot be sure. Recall also, that the Alchemists’ Guild held sway in Westeros for centuries before the maesters of the Citadel supplanted them. As such, in ancient times, fire magic may have been far more prevalent on the continent than we imagine.
Craster sacrifices his sons to the Others and sees them as his gods. The “cold gods”, as Gilly calls them. No doubt this refers to the White Walkers. Is this something he personally came up with or are his practices rooted in the beliefs of the people of Whitetree? Let’s assume the latter. In this case the villagers of Whitetree might always have worshipped the “cold gods” and carried out rituals and sacrifices to support them. The practice of burning humans within a weirwood might be one of these rituals. If so, to what purpose?
Releasing the Souls of the Dead
Consider what we know about weirwoods: the children of the forest believe that the spirits or consciousness of all who die, go into the trees and into nature at large, so there is soul-material within the trees. Burning a person, dead or alive, releases the soul from the body. When Drogo’s body burns on the pyre, Dany sees his spirit rising, riding his stallion to the Nightlands the Dothraki believe in. This is what Mel’s burning practice is all about, the release of the soul, as evidenced in fervent prayers to R’hllor during a sacrifice.
Let their vile flesh be seared and blackened, that their spirits might rise free and pure to ascend into the light. Accept their blood, Oh lord, and melt the icy chains that bind your servants. aDwD, the Sacrifice
Melisandre also burns the Storm’s End weirwood and gives the wildlings branches of weirwood which they must burn upon entering Castle Black. Beyond her determination to wipe out rival Gods, it is unclear why she does this. However Mel considers her fires to have a cleansing effect. Fire both cleanses and releases the soul from the body.
With glad hearts and true, we give them to your cleansing fires, that the darkness in their souls might be burned away. aDwD, the Sacrifice
I suggest the same happens when a weirwood is exposed to the flames. When the wood burns, it is cleansed and resident spirits are released. Perhaps this is why the Harrenhal weirwood has such a terrible angry face. It may have lost its spirits and memories after suffering collateral damage from Aegon the Conqueror’s dragonfires. It may well be that fire destroys the wood-bound consciousness of weirwoods, releasing ancient soul-matter and destroying memories. So how does this information relate to the burnt offerings of Whitetree?
Burnt Offerings for the Others
Melisandre burns people as a sacrifice to influence the weather, specifically to conjure up winds to propel Stannis’s ships, for instance. At the Crofter’s village, her followers believe a fire sacrifice to the Red God will calm the winter storm engulfing them.
This knowledge can be applied to Whitetree. What if the villagers of Whitetree are devoted to aiding the Others? Craster is doing his bit by giving away his infant sons to the Others. Why not his people? With all this in mind, it’s possible the practice of burning offerings within the massive weirwood is a sacrifice designed to release a profusion of soul-energy to power the weather magic of the Others, allowing them to create those cold winds and mists they are associated with. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me.
The White Walkers are dismayed by fire. Should such a sacrifice be necessary to power their weather magic, they would be well served by outside help. Why would the people of Whitetree help the Others? Well, why does Craster give them his sons? An age old pact, honouring an ancient debt, a service in return for his safety? Is Craster unique amongst the wildlings or do his kinsmen and women from Whitetree sacrifice to the same cold gods? He bears a heavy curse according to Ygritte. Do other clans of the freefolk engage in similar practices? We are yet to find out.
Brothers of the Night’s Watch reach the wildling village of Whitetree, only to discover it deserted. In the middle of the village stands a monstrous weirwood, its mouth an open hollow large enough to swallow a sheep. The insides of the hollow are blackened by fire. Buried beneath a pile of ashes, Jon retrieves human remains, two skulls and bones. This find is suggestive of a sacrifice.
The children of the forest believe the spirits or consciousness of all who die go into the trees. Followers of the Red God believe burning a person, dead or alive, releases the soul from the body. Melisandre also sacrifices living victims to her fires, with the express purpose of conjuring up winds to blow Stannis’s ships across the sea. Weather magic!
This knowledge can be applied to the mysterious burnt offerings at Whitetree. The wildlings are very diverse, there are sub-cultures within the whole, all strange and most of all ancient. What if the villagers of Whitetree are devoted to aiding the Others? Craster, whose mother was a woman from Whitetree, is doing his bit, why not his people?
With all this in mind, it’s possible the practice of burning offerings within the massive weirwood is a sacrifice designed to release a profusion of soul-energy, which in turn powers the weather magic of the white walkers, allowing them to create the cold winds and mists they are associated with.
Thanks for reading and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
More on Fire Magic: The Elements and Magic – Fire Magic