A Study of the Elements and Magic in ASOIAF
Magic in A Song of Ice and Fire is closely related to the elements (earth, fire, ice, water), blood and metal, all of which act at as conduits for the magical driving force.
This analysis explains the different forms of magic we encounter. After conducting a great deal of research on the subject of magic itself and comparing it with the original source material provided in the books, I’ve compiled a breakdown on what these different types of magic entail.
Topics in this first post are:
Magic and Mana | Guide to the Elements | Earth Magic – Trees, Darkness |Songs of the Earth
What is magic?
A simple dictionary definition reads: the art or practice of using charms, amulets, spells, or rituals to produce supernatural effects, invoke supernatural powers or influence events in nature.
Language is one of the most important aspects of magic. Exclusive secret words or incantations, magical symbols, herbs, ritual containers and specially crafted tools belong to the repertoire and paraphernalia of every self-respecting practitioner. Spells, songs, chants or blessings, often uttered in an archaic tongue are employed to access or to guide the power.
If only abracadabra still had its magical power! But I guess that word, having lost its secrecy,
no longer serves.
Divination, of which we see a lot of in the narrative, is another form of magic. Mel also engages in illusionary magic by conjuring up glamours to disguise individuals. Necromancy plays a role in bloodmagic, in raising the dead and in the Faceless Men’s application of the faces of the dead to disguise their assassins.
The ancient Hawaiian Concept of Mana
While not related to the elements, the Hawaiian concept of Mana is relevant to some aspects of magic in the story, notably to the idea of king’s blood.
Mana, as we think of it today, is a term used to denote a magical force in the world of computer gaming. It usually involves manipulation of the classical elements. The term is actually derived from ancient Hawaiian culture but the real thing cannot be defined as a magical force in the way we see it used in games. In fact, Western linguists are hard pressed to translate the word satisfactorily, for it denotes something for which we have no adequate expression.
Mana was a concept common to Polynesian peoples. It can be thought of as a kind of spiritual energy possessed by living things, inanimate objects and places, but is unlike and not related to the chi (universal life force) of Far Eastern religions. Mana gives power to individuals and can be gained or lost through various means. Thus, a person with great power and authority possesses a large amount of mana. Mana is spiritual power, effectiveness and prestige.
Some sites, such as volcanic islands are also believed to abound in mana, some such as Molokai, more so than others.
Hawaiians believed mana was the key to maintaining balance in the world and that it could be gained through so called pono actions, which are righteous deeds meant to maintain or restore balance.
The concept of balance in Hawaiian culture is personified through the god of war and politics (Ku) and the god of peace and fertility (Lono). Thus, mana could be gained through the act of war and violence in general, while Lono offered mana through acts of love or sexual relations.
A supreme ruler had to prove himself on both paths to mana, thus ensuring the prosperity of society. Failure of the king to maintain his mana meant disaster to the realm. Failure to secure mana also meant the death of the ruler and as such, chieftains had a great interest in waging war in order to secure this most vital spiritual energy. To maximise mana, the victors collected the mana of the defeated by sacrificing them to the god of war. Political power could be used to acquire mana but it worked both ways because mana could also be used to get political power. The concept of mana even extended to the dead. By means of certain funeral rites, the bones of the dead were invested with mana so that their spirits could be called upon for future assistance.
All this sounds very familiar. Consider the traditions of the Dothraki, their penchant for war and violence, the slaughter of their foes, collecting of severed heads, the practice of rape and the immediate downfall of a leader who is no longer able to ride. The term pono also happens to appear in the narrative in the form of Khal Pono. The concept of mana also applies to the Valyrians of old, to the Kings of the North, the Ironborn and the Lannisters. Littlefinger’s rise from rags to riches is a prime example of gaining mana through the acquisition of political power. There are yet more similarities between this concept of mana and the story.
Codes of Conduct and Royal Incest
The ancient Hawaiian code of conduct of laws and regulations is termed kapu. There were kapus for all aspects of life, including marriage, food and eating, fishing etc. A kapu offense could be material or spiritual, the latter of which was regarded as a theft of mana. Kapu laws can be understood as taboos and were strictly enforced, punishable by death.
In terms of gaining mana via sexual relationships, Hawaiian culture greatly valued marriages and relationships between high- (mana)ranking persons; nobles had a complex system of familial intermarriage designed to ensure propagation of mana in the offspring. The lineage of the mother was most important because the rank of a child could not diminish as long as the mother’s status was higher than that of the father. Conversely, the status of a child was lowered if his mother’s rank was lower than the father’s rank. Generally, the higher the parent’s rank, the higher the child’s. Commoners who had children with a person of high rank had the advantage of bearing children with a higher rank than themselves.
Royal incest was practiced by the nobility only and was necessary to uphold the kapu system. It was regarded with much respect; royal incest brought forth children of the highest mana and rank. The most perfect union was that of a full brother and sister of highest rank. Their offspring were divine and had kapu and mana equal to that of the gods.
Royal incest is of course a theme in the story and both Cersei and Viserys point out the divine nature of high-ranking individuals of Valyrian descent:
Many a night she had watched Prince Rhaegar in the hall, playing his silver-stringed harp with those long, elegant fingers of his. Had any man ever been so beautiful? He was more than a man, though. His blood was the blood of old Valyria, the blood of dragons and gods. AFFC, Cersei
For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sisters to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of old Valyria, the blood of the dragon. Dragons did not mate with the beasts of the field, and Targaryens did not mingle their blood with that of lesser men. AGOT, Daenerys
One could write a whole essay on the subject of mana in relation to the story. Perhaps mana is the basis of the magical forces we see. It’s possible. Whatever the case, the elements appear to be the medium through which magical force is directed to power spells and rituals and it is the elements in their role as conduits for magic that are the subject of my analysis.
George indicates the Elements we need to examine. We shall consider each in turn during this series of essays.
In ACOK, Bran III, Meera and Jojen renew their oath to the Starks of Winterfell with these words:
“To Winterfell we pledge the faith of Greywater,” they said together. “Hearth and heart and harvest we yield up to you, my lord. Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you.”
“I swear it by earth and water,” said the boy in green.
“I swear it by bronze and iron,” his sister said.
“We swear it by ice and fire,” they finished together.
This is where our journey begins. The Reeds swear by the elements of earth and water, ice and fire and bronze and iron. These are the elements that serve as conduits and tools for diverse forms of magic practiced by various actors on the stage. Fisrt, I’d like to share this quote with you; it really appealed to me and is a fitting introduction to the elements:
“God hath given me the true science of things, so as to know how the world was made, and the power of the elements, the beginning, and the end, and the midst of times, the change of seasons, the courses of the year, and the situation of the stars, the nature of human beings, and the quality of beasts, the power of winds, and the imaginations of the mind; the diversities of plants, the virtues of roots, and all things whatsoever, whether secret or known, manifest or invisible.
[ A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology; Or, The Art of Foretelling Future Events and Contingencies, by Ebenezer Silby, 1822]
The Classical Elements
The four major forces of the universe as understood at the time of Hippocrates were the classical elements of fire, water, earth and air. Many world views include a fifth element, aether (Greek) or void (Japan). The Greek notion of aether was grounded in the belief that while the other four were earthly, changeable and thus corruptible, the stars must be made of something different – an unchangeable, heavenly substance.
The Chinese concept classifies fire, wood, earth, metal and water as the five major elements, with a unique theory on how these elements generate, oppose, control and interact with each other to maintain a balance on earth.
In astrology, the twelve signs of the zodiac are also divided into four the elements: Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, Air signs are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, and Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces.
Also of note are symbolic representations of the elements in inanimate objects. In the Tarot, the cup corresponds to water, wands/staves/rods = air, fire = swords and coins/pentacles = earth. This is similar to the symbolism of the Holy Grail (or Christian Holy Chalice), which as a magical vessel, represents water while the sword Excalibur of Arthurian legend symbolizes fire.
The Hindu model assigns the elements to the five senses: this postulates that the five elements act as media for the experience of sensations. As such, the element earth can be perceived by sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. Water can be felt, seen, tasted and heard. Fire can be felt, seen and heard, air can only be felt and heard. Aether is regarded as sound and is inaccessible to all other senses.
The four elements eventually came to be associated with the different states of matter
– solid (earth), liquid (water), gaseous (air) and plasma (fire).
Generally, most ancient concepts agree with the notion that everything on earth is composed of these elements, this being another reason why they have always played a fundamental role in magic and alchemy.
With this basic knowledge, we can now embark on our journey through magic in relation to the elements.
The Element of Earth in Magic
Earth is the domain of the Children of the Forest. They are famous for singing the songs of the earth and for cultivating intimate relationships with their weirwood trees, which serve as repositories for their collective consciousness. In line with the precepts of magic, they sing in a language only they can speak, the True Tongue, and their songs are believed to be magical in nature. The CotF call themselves ‘those who sing the song of earth’, their preferred name. Lacking a written language, all their songs and knowledge eventually become one with nature, in particular with the trees:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the wood, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world. Maesters will tell you that the weirwoods are sacred to the old gods. The singers believe they are the old gods. When singers die they become part of that godhood.” ADWD, Bran
Weirwoods of the West
We cannot discuss weirwoods without mentioning the significance of trees in religion and mythology. The Tree of Life motif is a representation of divine creation and of the interconnectedness of all living things. Christian tradition references a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which grew alongside each other in the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Knowledge connects the heavens and the underworld, while the Tree of Life connects all forms of creation. Most religions recognize them as one and the same tree and both are forms of the World or Cosmic Tree. Some religions, such as Islam, do not distinguish between the two trees, referencing only the Tree of Immortality in the account of man’s betrayal and downfall.
The Chinese Tree of Life is a peach tree, which produces a single fruit every three thousand years. It is believed that he who eats of this magic fruit will become immortal. Like the World Tree, the Chinese Tree of Life also connects heaven and earth, its branches reaching up to the heavens, while its roots connects it with the earthly plane. Other examples include the world trees of pre-Christian Germanic mythology: Thor’s Oak, as well as Yggdrasil, the site where Odin, All Father of Norse mythology, achieves enlightenment.
As we see, the Tree of Life is intimately associated with knowledge and immortality, two features also evident in the weirwoods. The central heart tree of a godswood represents the Cosmic World Tree itself and is the axis mundi, a symbol representing the centre of the world where the heaven connect with the earth.
Weirwoods as Repositories of Knowledge
The old gods are worshipped in the North, with prayers and sacrifices offered via the ancient heart trees. Indeed, of the cardinal directions, the North is the most powerful. It is the direction of the unseen and of mystery and corresponds to the element Earth, dark colours, midnight, winter, the green of evergreen trees and the human body. Speech, silence and hearing are powers associated with the north. Weirwood trees belong to the earthly domain. Every castle in the North has a godswood with its impressive central weirwood, white of bark and crowned by a canopy of red leaves. Endowed with carved faces and all seeing eyes, they not only record events they witness, they also absorb the spirits of the deceased. The trees stand for the religion of the old gods, worshipped by the CotF and ancestors of the First Men in the North.
Years later he had tried to find his parents, to tell them that their Lump had become the great Varamyr Sixskins, but both of them were dead and burned. Gone into the trees and streams, gone into the rocks and earth. ADWD, Prologue
The entire spiritual make of an individual returns to nature, to the earth, trees and rocks. The sacred trees store all this information and remember it. Rather like a databank, but far more elegant. A greenseer is a telepath, one who is able to create a psychic link to a tree and thus access its stored memories. Trees do not have minds; they are the link to a vast collective consciousness, the medium through which knowledge can be tapped into. Distance is no hindrance, with the roots and the earth serving as a connecting medium to form what we like
to call the ‘weirnet’. Accessing this knowledge involves ‘wedding the tree’, becoming one with the tree itself. In Bran’s case, this mental link seems to persist even when he is not actively ‘skinchanging’ the tree. The last set of visions he experiences come to him after he has left the plant – dreams manifest in his mind without him inhabiting the tree or even sitting on his weirwood throne, indicating that he is capable of joining with the collective consciousness without the aid of the trees.
Seeds with Psychoactive Compounds
We are all familiar with plants containing mind-altering substances, at least in name. They have been used by mankind for millennia. Cannabis, opium, cocaine and ‘magic mushrooms’ are only a few examples of hallucinogens produced by nature. In ASOIAF, we are introduced to a vision-inducing elixir called ‘shade-of-the-evening’, produced by the warlocks of Qarth as well as ‘weirwood paste’, which awakens Bran’s talents.
Bran experiences the mind-altering qualities of weirwood paste when he eats his first bowlful.
It had a bitter taste, though not so bitter as acorn paste. The first spoonful was the hardest to get down. He almost retched it right back up. The second tasted better. The third was almost sweet. The rest he spooned up eagerly. Why had he thought that it was bitter? It tasted of honey, of new-fallen snow, of pepper and cinnamon and the last kiss his mother ever gave him. The empty bowl slipped from his fingers and clattered on the cavern floor. “I don’t feel any different. ADWD, Bran
Even though he does not feel different, the taste changes as he spoons it down, ranging from bitter to sweet, indicating a shift in his perception. Dany experiences similar sensations when she drinks shade-of-the-evening. This is followed by Bran’s first union with the trees, which Leaf says will “teach him”. Both characters experience the psychoactive properties of the concoctions they ingest.
In another chapter, we learn from the Ghost of Highheart that seeds also harbour knowledge and this passes from tree to seed in an everlasting cycle:
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
In fact, not only do seeds and living trees remember, the knowledge also lives on in dead trees, trees that were cut down or burnt thousands of years ago. Dead trees may no longer be part of the active process of ‘gathering’ information but they do retain the knowledge they once acquired.
Another property intrinsic to weirwoods is their capacity to prolong life.
A weirwood itself is strongly associated with life; It never dies a natural death:
A weirwood will live forever if left undisturbed. To them seasons pass in the flutter of a moth’s wing, and past, present, and future are one.
One can only speculate on why this is so, but considering the trees absorb the life force (perhaps mana) of thousands of creatures, the notion that they derive sustenance from these
in addition to minerals from the earth isn’t too far-fetched. As spiritual trees reaching up to the heavens, they may also tap into the universal energy of the cosmos itself. Whatever the case, Bloodraven’s life-span is obviously extendend by the tree to which he is welded.
Lord Brynden drew his life from the tree, Leaf told them. He did not eat, he did not drink.
“Most of him has gone into the tree,” explained the singer Meera called Leaf. “He has lived beyond his mortal span, and yet he lingers.
The Trees in Resurrection
More corpse than alive, with mushrooms sprouting from his cheeks, Bloodraven continues
to live, drawing life from the tree. Now, I think this quote is the best evidence we will find regarding one of the modes of resurrection – a reanimation via the medium of Earth.
Like the wights, Bloodraven neither eats nor drinks. He is described in terms of a corpse, in fact he is a living corpse and continues to linger beyond his years. It is very likely that the wights also draw life from the trees, that they are reanimated by the power inherent in the trees, mediated via a psychic link, as suggested by the mushrooms growing from Bloodraven’s cheeks. Of course such a feat could only be accomplished by a powerful greenseer, of which Bran and Bloodraven are representatives. That said, I’m certain there are other greenseers
out there, as yet undiscovered by us readers.
In this context, let us also remember the properties assigned to the North:
speech, silence and hearing.
Wights do not speak, they carry out their ‘work’ in silence, but they need to ‘hear’, spiritually hear their orders. Wights do retain all other senses. They do see, hear and probably smell.
Lord Beric’s reanimation did not come about through the medium of fire alone. His first resurrection took place in an ash grove, all subsequent ones in the hollow hill, a location of weirwood roots, one of which he rested in. They must have played a role in his raising
The Ghost of High Heart is another clue to the life-inducing powers of weirwoods. She is as old as the hills, claiming a thousand years, but even if that is an exaggeration, we do know she is way past her bedtime. As it happens, she is associated with the grove of weirwood stumps on the High Heart and for all we know, she may live beneath the hill, drawing on their power amongst the roots.
I’m personally convinced that the trees are involved in reanimation. Jojen does tell us that there is power in a living wood, a power as strong as fire. Fire magic is associated with healing and resurrection in the narrative and living trees appear to have similar qualities.
In Beric’s case, we see he is resurrected in an ash grove. My feeling is, there are other species of tree that equally serve the purpose. So let’s have a look at a few more.
Sacred Groves and Trees
Sacred Groves still exist in many countries and are the site of religious and spiritual rites. Jojen’s quote suggests that trees in the story in general possess power, and that this is not limited to weirwoods alone. Oak trees in particular may be quite important in this respect.
The heart tree at King’s Landing is an oak tree with a carved face, which suggests it has the same function as a weirwood.
The Whispering Oak of Dodona (ancient Greece) was a famous oracle of Zeus that imparted
its secrets by via its rustling leaves.
James G. Frazer writes:
Perhaps the oldest and certainly one of the most famous sanctuaries in Greece was that of Dodona, where Zeus was revered in the oracular oak.
The thunder-storms which are said to rage at Dodona more frequently than anywhere else in Europe, would render the spot a fitting home for the god whose voice was heard alike in the rustling of the oak leaves and in the crash of thunder. Perhaps the bronze gongs which kept up a humming in the wind round the sanctuary were meant to mimic the thunder that might so often be heard rolling and rumbling in the coombs of the stern and barren mountains which shut in the gloomy valley.
Prior to Zeus’ association with the oracular oak, Dodona was the oracle of a mother goddess and home to two dove-priestesses responsible for interpreting the whisperings of the tree.
The two black doves were prophetic birds of the chthonic realm (underworld), and thought of as the spirits of the dead and omens of death. Only they understood the language of the tree and could translate its meaning to those who lay and dreamt beneath the branches of the oak. The CotF’s relationship with weirwoods and ravens, within which a part of their souls live on beyond death, shares many features with this myth. In further parallels, the CotF are said to understand the speech of ravens and ravens were at one time even able to speak in the tongue of men.
Thor’s Oak, once situated in Geismar, Germany, was so holy that oaths were sworn before it.
In the 8th century, Thor’s Oak was eventually felled by the Christian missionary St. Boniface, again reminiscent of weirwoods and their extermination by the First Men and later the Andals. In addition, we have the cycle of ‘Merrymoon’ festivals associated with Royal Oak Day. It is a custom that begins with the Green Man of May Day. He wears a crown of oak leaves at the beginning and ends the festival wearing an oak leaf. In the narrative, Green Men are the caretakers of the weirwood grove on the Isle of Faces. Additionally, an Oak will live for more than 2000 years and its wood is nigh indestructible. It looks like George has endowed weirwoods with quite a bit of oak lore and that makes me wonder about the role of the ash, oak, chestnut and other trees mentioned in the story.
You’ll find more interesting information on Dodona here.
Ash, Chestnut and Oak
Consider these quotes from ADWD, Jon V
The drunkard was an ash tree, twisted sideways by centuries of wind. And now it had a face. A solemn mouth, a broken branch for a nose, two eyes carved deep into the trunk, gazing north up the kingsroad, toward the castle and the Wall. The wildlings brought their gods with them after all …
A mile farther on, they came upon a second face, carved into a chestnut tree that grew beside an icy stream, where its eyes could watch the old plank bridge that spanned its flow. “Twice as much trouble,” announced Dolorous Edd.
The chestnut was leafless and skeletal, but its bare brown limbs were not empty. On a low branch overhanging the stream a raven sat hunched, its feathers ruffled up against the cold. When it spied Jon it spread its wings and gave a scream. When he raised his fist and whistled, the big black bird came flapping down, crying, “Corn, corn, corn.”
Just north of Mole’s Town they came upon the third watcher, carved into the huge oak that marked the village perimeter, its deep eyes fixed upon the kingsroad. That is not a friendly face, Jon Snow reflected. The faces that the First Men and the children of the forest had carved into the weirwoods in eons past had stern or savage visages more oft than not, but the great oak looked especially angry, as if it were about to tear its roots from the earth and come roaring after them. Its wounds are as fresh as the wounds of the men who
ADWD, Jon V
Are the trees involved in the raising of White Walkers and the dead in general?
I’m currently working on this theory. The above quotes are interesting because each description holds clues to who may be involved in the return of the Others. It also suggests that there are (or have been) three different factions involved in appearance of the Others.
The passages speak for themselves. What I’ve figured out so far would break the bounds of this essay, but I ask you to contemplate the idea and contribute any notions you might have.
The Peach of Immortality
Renly’s peach has been discussed in great detail in fandom and there are many interpretations as to its meaning. In my personal view, it signifies the sweetness of everlasting life and is analagous to the magic fruit, taken from the (Chinese) Tree of Immortality.
A man should never refuse to taste a peach. He may never get the chance again. Life is short, Stannis. Remember what the Starks say. Winter is coming. ACOK, Catelyn III
Renly offers Stannis this peach, promising him that he has never tasted anything so sweet. He reminds Stannis that life is short and that the chance to eat one may never some again, evoking the Chinese interpretation of the peach of immortality. Renly also reminds Stannis that Winter is Coming and we know what comes with winter – the Others and the awakened dead. Renly himself symbolically rises from the dead when Garlan Tyrell wears his armour during the Battle of the Blackwater. Renly’s peach itself happens to come from Highgarden, a veritable botanical paradise. Prior to this the talk is of Jon Arryn’s murder and the Lannisters, who are described as a ‘nest of snakes’, again evoking the Garden of Eden. Renly himself is a symbol
of youth, one who clearly enjoys the sweetness of life.
The peach as a symbolic life giver turns up again in Dany’s chapter, when they find Vaas Tolerro, city of bones.
“I’ve brought you a peach,” Ser Jorah said, kneeling. It was so small she could almost hide it in her palm, and overripe too, but when she took the first bite, the flesh was so sweet she almost cried. She ate it slowly, savoring every mouthful, while Ser Jorah told her of the tree it had been plucked from, in a garden near the western wall.
“Fruit and water and shade,” Dany said, her cheeks sticky with peach juice. “The gods were good to bring us to this place.”
In a ruined city of death, Jorah finds a rare peach tree, which, interestingly, is located in a garden near the western wall (evoking Westeros), a little paradise of life amidst bones. The exhausted travellers are on deaths door; the peach is symbolic of a revival of life, its sweetness signifying rejuvenation. GRRM draws our attention to the peach again when he describes its juice on Dany’s cheeks, while she remarks that the gods were good to lead them to Vaes Tolorro, a place that saves them from certain death.
I don’t think any of this is coincidence. It’s very subtle and cleverly packaged but the peach, symbolises youth and rejuvenation and is an aspect of resurrection.
The Darkness of the Earth
One more thing worth mentioning here is the darkness that seems to be a prerequisite to waking Bran’s talents as a greenseer. Bloodraven relates the strongest trees to the darkest places of the earth. He tells him:
“Never fear the darkness, Bran.” The lord’s words were accompanied by a faint rustling of wood and leaf, a slight twisting of his head. “The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the earth. Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother’s milk. Darkness will make you strong.” ADWD, Bran
Darkness is indeed an aide to developing psychic ability. Seeing is difficult in the dark. As such, in darkness, the eyes profit from periphery vision, which helps to discern objects and events that lie outside of our normal range of vision. Training in darkness promotes periphery vision and enhances perception. In the real world, training methods include Night-Walking on moonless nights. Courses specially held for women aim to hone perception and instincts with a view to discerning danger, for instance. Arya essentially becomes a ‘night-walker’ following her blinding. Seeing through the cat’s eyes is an ability that manifests itself during this period of ‘blind-training’. She is also a night-walker in the true sense of navigating the dark because as we see, she masters the tunnel-system of the HoWaB; in spite of her blindness, she negotiates them even more deftly than seeing individuals.
Bran’s Third-Eye opens while the children are hiding in the Crypts of Winterfell – further proof of the powers of darkness in relation to psychic ability.
The exclusion of all light, the darkness of the earth, is therefore a key factor in developing and maintaining supernatural powers; it is no wonder then, that the strongest trees are rooted in the depths of the earth, in a medium without light that promotes ethereal cognizance.
Have you ever wondered what the ‘songs of the earth’ could be? Well, GRRM may have drawn on the Dreamtime Stories, also called songlines, of indigenous Australian people. Songlines also feature in the culture of Native American Navajo and the concept is simply amazing! Songlines can be thought of as a kind of mental cartography or navigation system, criss-crossing the entire continent of Australia. The ancient peoples wandered the continent, each clan composing songs of the earth to map the way from one place to another, complete with descriptions of landmarks to aid in navigation. Songlines unite oral storytelling with navigation, with each song explaining a route during the course of the mythical tale.
Much like a symphony, the songs came in sequences, and were handed down through the generations. Early Europeans were stunned by the ability of the Aborigines to travel deep into the continent’s interior without losing their way, picking out features along the path as they walked.
I think this is exactly what the children of the forest did in ancient times. There are a few hints to this in the narrative. Leaf talks of wandering through Westeros for years:
I was born in the time of the dragon, and for two hundred years I walked the world of men, to watch and listen and learn. I might be walking still, but my legs were sore and my heart was weary, so I turned my feet for home.” ADWD, Bran
Leaf walked the world of men two hundred years. I imagine she composed her songlines as she wandered. Indeed, a map is no use if it is not updated periodically and the world that men created would have changed the landscape considerably over time. Their speech, ‘the song of stones in a brook’, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water’, sounds like an analogy to the description of natural landmarks. Even the journey of Lomas Longstrider, who recorded the ‘seven wonders of nature’ and the ‘nine wonders made by man’, may be regarded as a clue to this fascinating form of mental cartography.
That the children also recorded historical events in the form of songs is evidenced by fragments of a ballad telling of the time when men sought the help of the singers to end the Long Night.
In a parallel to weirwoods as repositories of the collective consciousness of the deceased, Dreamtime Stories also encompass the idea that all worldly knowledge is accumulated through one’s ancestors. To share these dreamtime stories, indigenous Australians travelled songlines in spirit, via dreams, exchanging songs, dance, and mythic visions of dreamtime reality with other clans over great distances.
This is the essence of what greenseers are capable of in the narrative. Bloodraven is able to enter Bran’s and Jojen’s dreams in the form of the three-eyed crow and it wouldn’t surprise me if the red-eyed singer’s speciality is that of sending or mediating dreams and transferring knowledge manifest in the trees to various characters in the story. The singers are obviously master earth magicians, utilizing song and songlines (the songs of the earth) in conjunction with the power of the trees to navigate the earth, and to impart dreams and knowledge.
In view of this, the idea that they were responsible for the Hammer of the Waters may not be that far-fetched after all.
And so they did, gathering in their hundreds (some say on the Isle of Faces), and calling on their old gods with song and prayer and grisly sacrifice (a thousand captive men were fed to the weirwood, one version of the tale goes, whilst another claims the children used their own young.) And the old gods stirred, and giants awoke in the earth and all of Westeros shook and trembled. Great cracks appeared in the earth and hills and mountains collapsed and were swallowed up. And then the seas came rushing in, the Arm of Dorne was broken and shattered by the force of water, until only a few bare rocky islands remained above the waves.
TWOIAF, The Breaking.
Consider their mastery of geography via the songlines, knowing exactly where to apply a force in order to cause massive earthquakes, which in turn unleash tsunamis that flood the land. That they allegedly sacrificed hundreds of victims is another clue that furthers the argument because blood sacrifice is essential to generating a magical force of great power. A thousand sacrificed men (or their own offspring) would have engendered a surge of ‘mana’ strong enough to actually move the earth. In fact, the sacrifice of their own offspring would have produced even more mana (their children being their most precious asset) and would also explain their ‘dwindling’ and subsequent low population numbers. According to Leaf, the gods limited their numbers – this means that in terms of population, the loss of such a great number of their children would have seriously affected their survival as a race.
In the World Book, Archmaester Cassander suggests that it was not the singing of greenseers that caused the breaking of the Arm of Dorne. He proposes instead that the irregular seasons led to the melting of the frozen lands, causing the sea level to rise over the centuries. He names this slow rising of the waters ‘the Song of the Sea’. An interesting expression, and one that we should not ignore, especially in view of the drowned god, who sings in the ‘language of the leviathan’.
My god, he prayed, speak to me in the rumble of the waves, and tell me what to do. The captains and the kings await your word. Who shall be our king in Balon’s place? Sing to me in the language of leviathan, that I may know his name. AFFC, the Prophet
Like science, magic in ASOIAF must have developed over the centuries, with new branches of learning coming into existence and different disciplines combining to form novel and more powerful forms of magic. So too may the ‘language of the leviathan’ or the ‘song of the sea’ be a progression on the songs of the earth. In time, this magical singing would also include songs of ice and songs of fire and may have been extended by the use of musical instruments.
The Hammer of the Waters – a possible scenario:
There’s usually a nugget of truth in all legends, so I’ll offer you some food for thought on this.
Consider the clues we have: the CotF walk the land, composing magical songs of the earth, focussing on natural landmarks. Lomas Longstrider walks the continents, noting important natural and man-made landmarks. Could the First Men have learnt the art of song and taken it further by adding artificial landmarks to the lyrics? Could they have extended this art to include songs of the sea?
The Song of the Sea could be a reference to the Ironborn or more likely, to the ancestors of the Manderlys of that age who perhaps teamed up with the CotF in a joint venture.
The Order of Green Men may be a clue to this. When the peace pact was finally forged between the children and men, the Order was formed to watch over the weirwoods on the Isle of Faces.
So the gods might bear witness to the signing, every tree on the island was given a face, and afterward, the sacred order of green men was formed to keep watch over the Isle of Faces.
The Manderlys have close ties to the sea, their sigil a mermaid. They still claim membership to an order named Order of the Green Hand, originally founded by House Gardener of the Reach, whose sigil was a green hand. House Gardener itself directly descends from Garth Greenhand, a culture hero who brought argriculture to Westeros and who was very much in touch with nature. The Manderlys themselves originated from the Reach, from which they fled to the North where they were welcomed and granted land by the Starks. It’s possible that members of the Order of the Green Hand were recruited for The Order of the Green Men or that these two were one and the same. In fact, seeing as the Starks are strongly bound to the old gods, the Manderly’s association with the Order may have been a good reason for welcoming them in the North. Additonally, they were awarded the Wolf’s Den, another place of weirwoods, in return for swearing an oath that they would always be loyal subjects of House Stark.
There is also a link between ‘the language of the leviathan‘ and Wymann Manderly who is grossly overweight and described as a leviathan.
Plenty of dots indicating a connection here and worth looking into.
Whatever the case, singing is obviously a very powerful form of magic. There is also ample evidence that ‘singing’ is the key to establishing a bond between a warg or skinchanger and his familiar animal. You’ll find my thoughts on how this works here.
Patchface’s so called prophecies are also based on songs that he hears and repeats to his audience. Check out this post for my arguments in favour of this view.
We can regard singing as a type of spell (there is mention of spellsingers and of the moonsingers of the Jogos Nahi), that has the power to influence the elements and can
be used to manipulate certain aspects of life.
Earth magic is associated with:
- songs of the earth– which are used to map the earth
- trees in their function as repositories of history and knowledge
- the darkness of the earth, a key to developing and maintaining supernatural powers
- trees of life which confer longevity and are involved in resurrection
- the peach of immortality, symbolising youth and rejuvenation
- dreaming, psychic ability required to tap into this natural databank
Refer to article for more on songlines:
Next up in the series of Elemental Magic is the Element of Fire
A big thank you to my friend Michaela Seifert, who took the great photos presented here.