Warging and Skinchanging Unravelled
This essay takes a close look at warging and skinchanging. The main goal is to gain a better understanding of these supernatural powers, to figure out how they are acquired and how various characters might use them in the story. My study centres predominantly on a chapter analysis of the prologue to A Dance with Dragons, undoubtedly the most comprehensive package of information on the subject.
Having looked at both Targaryen and Stark bloodlines, my feeling is that the two bloodlines share a common source. One indication of a common ancestor is the bonding that obviously occurs between man and beast. Both dragons and wolves initiate communication with their respective human counterparts but the outcome is expressed differently in the two bloodlines. Dany does not appear to consciously skinchange her dragon, at least not in the obvious way we see some of the Stark children perform this spiritual union. As such, I shall be concentrating mainly on abilities we see in the Stark children, and in Varamyr for most of this essay.
My special thanks go to Pain killer Jane. We’ve exchanged lots of ideas, many of which are similar and converge to illuminate some of the more difficult mysteries in the narrative. I also recommend wolfmaid7’s essay on Those Who Sing. Her astute observations on the theme of singing in the narrative prompted me to think about how this ‘singing’ really works.
To begin with, I’ll share a little story about St. Francis of Assisi. It is the perfect introduction to this subject:
Another legend from the Fioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.
“Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil,” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger”, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.
Quoted directly from Francis of Assisi – Wikipedia
The story of the terrifying hungry wolf, Francis of Assisi’s journey to find the creature, and the pact the saint makes with the townsfolk set him up as a Last Hero figure. His special rapport with birds also appears significant in respect of ravens and dragons. It would not surprise me if GRRM was inspired by this Saint and his special rapport with animals. The concept of the “hungry wolf” that needs to be placated could be intrinsic to the story behind the white walkers of asoiaf.
Bonding with Beasts
How is the initial bond between man and beast established?
Tales of witches and wizards with power to direct their souls into plants and animals abound in folklore. In cultures with a belief in soul-dualism, the idea centres on an external soul that can be deposited and kept hidden in a suitable animal. Man and beast thus form a bond, their welfare dependent on each other and it was thought that when the animal died, so did the sorcerer. Bears, stallions, eagles, elk and boars were the preferred choice of powerful wizards, who could give them orders, including commanding them to kill an enemy.
During the time of the Inquisition, witches were accused of collaborating with familiar animals given to them by the devil. It was believed the witch and animal operated as a team and that familiar animals could even be sent to do her bidding. Black cats were a favourite vessel as were dogs, toads and other small animals. Modern Wiccan religion conceptualizes the familiar in terms of a familiar spirit, rather than a demon spirit, one that perpetually reincarnates to return to children of subsequent generations.
In the narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Bran and his siblings form a special relationship with their direwolves, sharing a bond that is distinctly supernatural. Irrespective of whether they choose to inhabit their animals, the direwolves become familiar animals to the children. An examination of relevant passages reveals that the familiar initiates contact with its human counterpart through singing. Consider Bran, Dany and Jon and their experience with their respective animals:
Of late, he often dreamed of wolves. They are talking to me, brother to brother, he told himself when the direwolves howled. He could almost understand them … not quite, not truly, but almost … as if they were singing in a language he had once known and somehow forgotten. The Walders might be scared of them, but the Starks had wolf blood. Old Nan told him so. “Though it is stronger in some than in others,” she warned.
There was only her and the dragon. Its scales were black as night, wet and slick with blood. Her blood, Dany sensed. Its eyes were pools of molten magma, and when it opened its mouth, the flame came roaring out in a hot jet. She could hear it singing to her.
“What is it, Jon?” their lord father asked.
“Can’t you hear it?”
Bran could hear the wind in the trees, the clatter of their hooves on the ironwood planks, the whimpering of his hungry pup, but Jon was listening to something else.
“There,” Jon said. He swung his horse around and galloped back across the bridge. They watched him dismount where the direwolf lay dead in the snow, watched him kneel. A moment later he was riding back to them, smiling. “He must have crawled away from the others,” Jon said. AGOT, Bran
Bran perceives the wolves in his dream as talking to him, singing to him. The notion of reincarnation surfaces as well, denoted by his feeling of hearing a language he had once known but forgotten. He relates these observations to his Stark wolf blood. Dany also hears the black dragon singing to her in her dream and she later associates it with her black and red dragon egg. In Jon’s case, he alone can hear the little wolf pup who will be named Ghost. Ghost is mute, yet Jon can hear him as though they share a sound frequency nobody else perceives. In all three cases, the animal calls out to the human, initiating contact to establish a bond.
How does the animal recognise its human counterpart?
Since both Old Nan and Bloodraven attribute warging and greenseeing to the blood, it appears likely that an inheritable blood-trait (or gene) is responsible for the supernatural ability. Perhaps this trait manifests itself in the aura of the human and is ‘recognized’ by the animal. The Asian concept of a universal life force serves as a model for this phenomenon.
In Far Eastern tradition, Chi is a universal life force, an energy that flows through every living being. Chi is an expression of the idea that all life, in fact all creation, is made of energy vibrating at different frequencies corresponding to sound, light and colour. Science indeed proves that every object on earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic field. Traditional Chinese medicine defines this energy field as the aura and it is perceived as an extension of the soul.
Since our physical and mental well-being manifest in the energy of Chi in the aura, the latter changes colour and frequency accordingly. Additionally, the aura connects to the soul by a silver thread or ribbon-like structure. Death severs this ribbon-like bond, releasing the soul.
In terms of the theme of bonding with a familiar animal, I posit that direwolves and dragons respond to a special bonding trait that manifests itself in the aura of the children. Animals perceive its vibration and are thus able to recognise their human counterpart.
Since animals are far more perceptive than humans, it would be natural for them to recognize the frequency and subsequently initiate the bond by singing. We can imagine a human aura vibrating at the right frequency then responding to this summons.
This theory also applies to the Targaryen practice of placing a dragon egg within the cradle of newborn babies. As both babies and dragons eggs are immobile, parents would have to ensure close proximity of the egg to the child for the unborn dragon to ‘find’ the child and for natural bonding to occur. A dragon that senses its counterpart human through the aura will then hatch. There’s a relevant quote from one of Dany’s chapters illustrating this:
She was lying there, holding the egg, when she felt the child move within her … as if he were reaching out, brother to brother, blood to blood. “You are the dragon,” Dany whispered to him, “the true dragon. I know it. I know it.” AGOT, Dany
The Sixth Chakra and the Third Eye
Once contact is established between a human and his familiar animal, the human begins to have dreams involving the familiar animal. Jojen explains that this initially takes place subconsciously, when Bran’s ‘third eye’ opens during sleep:
“Warg. Demon. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams.”
“The wolf dreams are no true dreams. You have your eye closed tight whenever you’re awake, but as you drift off it flutters open and your soul seeks out its other half. ACOK, Bran
How does this work? Related to the theory of universal energy flow is the concept of chakras – the seven energy centres of the body through which energy flows. Knowledge of what chakras are and how they function explain what the third eye is and how a union of souls between man and beast is achieved.
The existence of the Third Eye is central to Far Eastern religious and philosophical tradition and is part of the seven-chakra concept. Chakra is the Sanskrit word for wheel. The seven chakras are visualised as spinning vortexes of energy arranged vertically from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Each chakra has its own vibrational frequency, and is depicted by a specific chakra colour. Each chakra is also associated with particular bodily functions and corresponds to a specific aspect of human behaviour and development. They receive, absorb and distribute life energies.
The Third Eye is the sixth chakra (also called the Ajna-Chakra or Brow Chakra), located right between the eyes. It is the centre of perception, the seat of intuition and of direct spiritual vision. It deals with imagination, visualization and telepathy. Opening the third-eye is analogous to experiencing a spiritual awakening.
The awakend Third Eye is known by several names including the Middle Eye of Shiva, the Eye of Horus, and the Horn of the Unicorn (perhaps we can make some sense of the unicorn now).
In the quote above, Bran has not yet achieved spiritual awakening. His third eye has not opened and this means he cannot skinchange his wolf at will. Until he is able to open it, warging only takes place on a subconscious level, in the form of dreams. The essence of warging (and skinchanging) itself is a blending of souls. Once contact is established through singing, the human soul can seek out its other half – its kindred spirit – and can unite with it to become one within the animal. The brow chakra also allows telepathic communication between two living entities to take place.
In Hindu/Buddhist tradition, the sixth chakra also constitutes a gateway for spiritual energy to enter the body. This gives us an insight into the process by which the spirits of man and wolf (or beast) mingle.
Following on from the above, when a human wargs into a wolf, his soul leaves his body through the 6th chakra (third eye) to join with the wolf. Note that in contrast to the initial summoning process, it is the human soul, which travels out to the animal for the purpose of inhabitation. For the warg, this is an out-of-body experience.
Bran’s third eye finally fully opens in the darkness of the Crypts of Winterfell. He is now able to transfer his soul to Summer at will, enabling him to experience the world through his wolf. In this state, their souls merge, with Bran taking control of the wolf’s senses, muscles and voice. During inhabitation, his own body remains in a trance-like condition, unresponsive, indicating that his soul has indeed left his physical form. He does not eat during these periods either. Further, his soul remains connected to his mortal body via the silver cord, literally the only thread on which his life hangs while he inhabits Summer.
We gain a comprehensive insight into Varamyr’s biography and warging histroy in the prologue to A Dance with Dragons. The childhood story of the discovery of his warg nature inform us that Varamyr is a warg by birth, which additionally supports the notion that warging is a heritable trait. He eyes in particular are likened to those of a wolf:
The skinchanger was grey-faced, round-shouldered, and bald, a mouse of a man with a wolfling’s eyes.
In this chapter, we follow Varamyr’s last hours as a human being and learn a great deal about warging and skinchanging in the process. A man with the ability to take control of a dog or wolf spiritually is generally known as a warg. Haggon compares the spiritual union of man and wolf to a marriage: man and wolf become part of each other and both change.
Dogs were the easiest beasts to bond with; they lived so close to men that they were almost human. Slipping into a dog’s skin was like putting on an old boot, its leather softened by wear. As a boot was shaped to accept a foot, a dog was shaped to accept a collar, even a collar no human eye could see. Wolves were harder. A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf. “Wolves and women wed for life,” Haggon often said. “You take one, that’s a marriage. The wolf is part of you from that day on, and you’re part of him. Both of you will change.” ADWD, Prologue
Note that the collar suggests an element of control. It is the collar around the neck of a dog that allows its master a measure of control over the dog. Wolves, we hear, are less amenable to this kind of control. Despite this, forming a spiritual bond with a wolf appears to be a permanent affair, which once established, cannot be broken. Later on, we discover that a part of man’s spirit remains within the animal even after his death. Varamyr learns this when he inhabits Orell’s eagle after Orell’s death. He feels Orell’s hatred for Jon Snow and comes to hate the latter himself, so we see that the union of spirits has far-reaching consequences. It leaves a mark on both parties, influencing a person’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Bran also senses the presence of another being in the first raven he inhabits and finds out that all ravens still harbour a tiny spiritual remnant of the children of the forest that originally inhabited them.
An additional lesson we learn from Bloodraven is that it is easier to inhabit an animal that has already been ‘broken to the bit’, that is, has already known a warg or skinchanger.
Lord Brynden said, “but a horse that has known one rider will accept another. Young or old, these birds have all been ridden.
An interesting question arises here, especially in view of the observation that even young birds have been ridden. There are very few Children of the Forest left in contrast to the hundreds, even thousands of ravens that settle on diverse weirwoods. How can all these birds have been ridden, especially the young birds? The implication is that when the birds hatch, they already harbour a reincarnated soul and thus that souls can be passed on to the living through the generations.
Mastering the Wolf
Jojen teaches Bran one of the most important aspects of warging. He impresses upon Bran not to lose his humanity to the wolf. We learn that the longer a man stays in his familiar, the less human and the more beast-like he will become. We find out that when a warg lives his second life as a wolf, his soul is eventually completely absorbed by the host animal. As such, in life, it is imperative that a warg remember his human identity. He must be able to master the wolf, rather than be mastered by the wolf. Metaphorically, warging also means mastering one’s own ‘inner wolf’. This is the key to keeping control of one’s own spirit at all times.
The idea of being in control of the wolf (and one’s inner wolf) is also demonstrated by the passage in which we see Bran’s anger transferred to both Summer and Shaggy. Although he does not realise it, the direwolves’ attack on Jojen and Meera is fuelled by Bran himself. Still new to his supernatural ability, Bran has not yet understood that the telepathic link is so strong that his own personal emotions are instantly transmitted to Summer and even to Shaggy. To maintain control of the wolves, Bran must learn to control his feelings, his own ‘inner wolf’.
In this context, I think the motif of the decapitated Robb Stark with his direwolf’s head sewn onto his body implies Robb was not in control of his wolf, his inner wolf. Much as I deplore Robb’s death, it is his submission to the urge to bed Jeyne Westerling, as well as his marriage to her for honour’s sake that demonstrate his lack of control over his inner wolf nature. But there is more to this theme: having originally set out to free his captive father and sisters, the driving force becomes one of revenge after Ned’s execution. This in itself is understandable but accepting the crown was a very unwise decision. Declaring Robb Stark as the King of the North with a view to self-governance means splitting the North from the realm, creating an independent state. As King in the North, he tampers with territorial issues and puts himself directly in conflict with the Crown itself. Such a move is treasonous even in our world. No government will stand by and meekly accept the loss of an entire region. Robb does nothing to improve his position by embarking on this course. It changes the whole nature of his undertaking, making him a rebel and a traitor and closes all avenues of negotiation that may have been available to him otherwise. In addition to that, he also becomes a rival to potential allies, the other self-declared kings. An inability to master his ‘inner wolf’ ultimately brought disaster to him, his family and his bannermen.
A beast in Human Skin
A number of characters demonstrate the notion of succumbing to a beast nature quite literally. Take note of how Ramsay and Rorge are perceived (rightly):
“The Boltons have always been as cruel as they were cunning, but this one seems a beast in human skin,” (Ramsay) said Glover.
“There is nothing good about that helm, nor the men who wore it,” said the red priest. “Sandor Clegane was a man in torment, and Rorge a beast in human skin.”
The deeds perpetrated by these two characters are so vile that they are thought of as beasts in human skin. There is no conclusive evidence that either of these are wargs or skinchangers but Jojen’s warnings come to mind when we consider the obnoxious practices they engage in. Consider also the mechanism of a mingling of souls: Jojen tells us that the human soul seeks its other half. This is important in the context of retaining human qualities because it indicates that the human is aware of the connection between him and his familiar, consciously inhabits it and is able to maintain some control over the process. As such, the phrase ‘a beast in human skin’ may be a fact rather than an analogy. Could Ramsay and Rorge have been possessed by a ‘beast soul’? What if they were actually inhabited by a reincarnated demonic spirit at the moment of their birth?
An affected individual may not even be aware of the penetration of the beast soul. A person who lacks spiritual awareness will neither perceive the spiritual threat, nor be in the position to control the beast familiar. This could lead to an eventual take-over by the beast nature, with disastrous consequences. In a world of magic, animal familiars and shadow-babies, this is certainly plausible. In Hindu tradition, practitioners take measures to spiritually fortify and guard the sixth chakra because failure to do so would leave the gateway open to attacks from negative energy forces. Note that Gregor Clegane and Mad King Aerys (named a crowned beast) also share this image.
The Taboos of Warging and Skinchanging
The terms warg and warging refer specifically to a spiritual union between man and wolf. We thus understand that warging is only one aspect of skinchanging. As Varamyr’s teacher, Haggon distinguishes between wargs and skinchangers; He tells us that some skinchangers are capable of inhabiting beasts other than wolves, but not all. This implies that a warg cannot necessarily inhabit other animals. He also frowns on the practice of skinchanging other beasts:
Other beasts were best left alone, the hunter had declared. Cats were vain and cruel, always ready to turn on you. Elk and deer were prey; wear their skins too long, and even the bravest man became a coward. Bears, boars, badgers, weasels … Haggon did not hold with such. “Some skins you never want to wear, boy. You won’t like what you’d become.” Birds were the worst, to hear him tell it. “Men were not meant to leave the earth. Spend too much time in the clouds and you never want to come back down again. I know skinchangers who’ve tried hawks, owls, ravens. Even in their own skins, they sit moony, staring up at the bloody blue.” ADWD, Prologue
At a gathering, Varamyr is impressed by those who have bonded with animals other than wolves. As we see, the wolf-brothers are in the majority, while those capable of skinchanging other beasts are in the minority at this meeting; clearly, skinchanging into boars, shadowcats, and eagles is not commonplace and possibly requires something beyond the regular warging ability these people were born with. The wolf-brothers or wargs sound like they are a distinct community, a special subset of skinchangers in general.
Not all skinchangers felt the same, however. Once, when Lump was ten, Haggon had taken him to a gathering of such. The wargs were the most numerous in that company, the wolf-brothers, but the boy had found the others stranger and more fascinating. Borroq looked so much like his boar that all he lacked was tusks, Orell had his eagle, Briar her shadowcat (the moment he saw them, Lump wanted a shadowcat of his own), the goat woman Grisella … ADWD, Prologue
Is skinchanging into other beasts therefore dependent on a further genetic trait? Or can the ability be acquired through some other means? This is what we will explore in the next section.
Acquiring Supernatural Powers through breaking Taboos
Haggon does not fail to impress the taboos of warging and skinchanging on Varamyr. We learn of several abominations:
“Men may eat the flesh of beasts and beasts the flesh of men, but the man who eats the flesh of man is an abomination.”
Abomination. That had always been Haggon’s favorite word. Abomination, abomination, abomination. To eat of human meat was abomination (while in the wolf), to mate as wolf with wolf was abomination, and to seize the body of another man was the worst abomination of all. ADWD, Prologue
To sum up:
- A warg must not eat the flesh of man while warging his wolf.
- A warg must not mate with a female wolf while warging his male wolf.
- Spiritually seizing the body of another man is the worst abomination,
- Cannibalism (man eating man) is taboo,
Varamyr’s first abomination
Varamyr admits to breaking some of these taboos.
- He eats the flesh of man while inhabiting his wolves.
- He mates with the she-wolf Sly while in the body of his wolf One-Eye
- Most notably, he is guilty of devouring Haggon’s own heart after driving the latter out of his wolf and killing him.
In fact, the first time he tastes human flesh is when he consumes Haggon’s heart while in wolf form.
Haggon was weak, afraid of his own power. He died weeping and alone when I ripped his second life from him. Varamyr had devoured his heart himself. He taught me much and more, and the last thing I learned from him was the taste of human flesh. That was as a wolf, though. He had never eaten the meat of men with human teeth. ADWD, Prologue
A warg who breakes the taboo of eating human flesh compares with performing a blood ritual. When Dany vows to save Drogo’s life, her decision is greeted with horror by the Dothraki. Jhogo warns her „not to do this thing” and further, “this is bloodmagic. It is forbidden.”
Though Varamyr eats Haggon’s heart and drinks his blood while in his wolf-form, the act is a kind of cannibalism and in any case, it is an abomination. We have no reason to doubt Haggon, who was a warg with a lifetime’s worth of experience and one who obviously built on his knowledge by conferring with fellow wargs and skinchangers. We can assume he knew what he was talking about and purposly instructed Varamyr on the dangers of breaking taboos as part of Varamyr’s training. Further, eating a heart should rouse our attention because we’ve witnessed something similar first-hand: Daenerys’ stallion-heart ceremony in Vaes Dothrak.
I am the blood of the dragon, she told herself as she took the stallion’s heart in both hands, lifted it to her mouth, and plunged her teeth into the tough, stringy flesh. AGOT, Daenerys V
The Dothraki believe that eating the heart of a stallion (completely and without retching), will give strength to a developing child. Specifically, they believe the prince will be strong, swift and fearless. When Dany finishes the last morsel, she announces:
“Khalakka dothrae mr’anha!” she proclaimed in her best Dothraki. A prince rides inside me!
An old crone of the dosh khaleen then announces that the child will be “the Stallion that mounts the world”. That’s quite a bit of horse-riding imagery here! Bloodraven describes skinchanging in terms of riding (quote above). Here, eating a stallion’s heart gives strength – power to the unborn child – and in particular, this riding prince will mount the world.
On a similar note, consider Lightbringer, forged in Nissa Nissa’s heart and the idea that “her blood and her soul and her strength and her courage all went into the steel”. In an analogy to skinchanging, whereby a soul leaves its host to enter another entity. Piercing her heart causes Nissa Nissa’s soul to leave her body and enter the steel – clearly, all these instances demonstrate that supernatural powers are obtainable by ritually sacrificing or eating the human heart. What’s more, connecting the dots suggests that heart-eating is associated with skinchanging!
The Power of a Heart
Varamyr’s example shows that a warg who breaks the taboo of eating of man’s flesh while inhabiting his wolf gains the power to skinchange other animals, presumably especially when the heart is ingested. Numerous examples in history recall the tradition of acquiring strength by heating a human heart. It was not uncommon for the victorious to feast on the hearts of worthy enemies to claim their strength and courage. Moreover, Varamyr’s story provides additional evidence regarding the acquisition of his skinchanging powers:
From Threeskins to Sixskins
Varamyr earned the name Sixskins because he had mastered six animals – three wolves, a shadowcat, a bear and an eagle. According to the warg himself, he could take any beast he wanted, but this was not always so.
Prior to committing the abomination of consuming Haggon’s heart, he was known as Varamyr Threeskins, the three skins being his three wolves: One-Eye, Sly and Stalker. His fourth skin, the wolf Greyskin, ripped from Haggon, died shortly thereafter.
The hunter died weeping after Varamyr took Greyskin from him, driving him out to claim the beast for his own. No second life for you, old man. Varamyr Threeskins, he’d called himself back then. Greyskin made four, though the old wolf was frail and almost toothless and soon followed Haggon into death. ADWD, Prologue
It is after breaking the taboo of eating human flesh while in his wolf, of eating Haggon’s heart and drinking his blood, that Varamyr begins to take on the skins of other beasts. He perhaps unknowingly performs a blood ritual.
It is this abomination, this ‘bloodmagic’, which ultimately increases his power and elevates him from the status of a wolf-brother to the status of a true skinchanger.
There is yet more evidence for an ‘unnatural binding’ to beasts other than wolves:
Varamyr’s childhood accounts and his intimate relationship with his familiar wolves indicate he was born a warg. We also see this by the way he thinks of his wolves, almost lovingly, as his brothers, his pack. Inhabiting his wolves was like wearing an old boot.
My brothers. My pack. Many a cold night he had slept with his wolves, their shaggy bodies piled up around him to help keep him warm.
Conversely, his relationship with his bear and shadowcat has a completely different quality to it. These creatures fight him, they resist him fiercely and do not succumb easily when he tries to inhabit them:
His shadowcat used to fight him wildly, and the snow bear had gone half-mad for a time, snapping at trees and rocks and empty air …
It sounds as though the ‘boot doesn’t fit’. He masters his creatures, yes, but the union of spirits is much more difficult and is not achieved without a struggle. I would call this evidence of an unnatural bond, not one that manifests as a result of a skinchanging blood trait but through the breaking of a taboo.
The Second Abomination
Varamyr breaks another taboo – that which prohibits a warg from indulging in sexual intercourse with a female wolf while in warg form. Which additional powers could Varamyr have gained by this act? Well, since the rule forbids sex, it’s worth having a look at the warg’s sex-life.
We learn that he sends his shadowcat to stalk women for him. Indeed, Varamyr’s shadowcat seems to have strange powers:
Whenever he desired a woman he sent his shadowcat to stalk her, and whatever girl he’d cast his eye upon would follow meekly to his bed. Some came weeping, aye, but still they came. ADWD, Prologue
It’s rather unconventional that Varamyr sends the cat to stalk women, essentially to fetch them to him. Additionally, the beast appears to have some kind of mesmerizing power, which compells the women to follow. The passage makes it clear that the women do not come willingly and stresses that they come all the same, following the shadowcat. That Varamyr sends the cat is odd because it suggests he does not need to inhabit the animal for this purpose. It sounds rather like the Inquisitors notion of a familiar – one that carries out a witch’s bidding. The Stark children train their wolves to obey commands but so far, we have not seen similar behaviour. In fact, Bran gives up trying to teach Summer to fetch a mere stick. The direwolf is disinterested and simply ignores the command. Why then, does a shadowcat, presumably more even more difficult to train than a wolf or dog, do its master’s bidding? I suspect there is a different trait at work here.
The power to send the cat and the cat’s mesmerizing control over women must stem from another abomination – from breaking the taboo of mating with a wolf while inhabiting another wolf. Varamyr certainly did this and the sex-association makes it feel right.
We can conclude that breaking the sex-taboo gives the skinchanger more control over his familiar animal – he can, for example, give it commands and send it to carry out specific tasks.
To sum up the main ideas in this section:
- Initial communication occurs via ‘singing’. Successful communication requires that the aura of man and beast vibrate with the same frequency and bonding is initiated by the animal.
- The familiar animal is attracted to a blood trait in the human, which manifests itself in the aura of the human.
- Warging is a heritable trait, present in the blood.
- Warging and skinchanging are not the same. A warg can only inhabit wolves; a skinchanger can inhabit both wolves other beasts.
- The power to skinchange other beasts is acquired by breaking the taboo of eating man’s flesh while inhabiting a wolf. In particular, eating a man’s heart may be the key to increasing a warg’s powers.
- A male warg who breaks the taboo of mating with a she-wolf gains the power of commanding a familiar animal (in this case the shadowcat) to undertake certain tasks.
- By ‘mastering the wolf’, the human learns to take control of his ‘inner wolf’. It is a prerequisite to retaining human qualities and to avoiding a takeover by the beast nature.
- Characters described as ‘beasts in human skin’ may actually possess a ‘beast soul’.
Orell’s eagle and the cleansing fire
Varamyr lost his capacity to skinchange into other beasts (not his wolves) when Orell’s eagle, which he had taken for his own, met a fiery death. Consider the passage describing how he experiences his ninth death, a death by burning when the eagle is struck by a burning arrow:
His last death had been by fire. I burned. At first, in his confusion, he thought some archer on the Wall had pierced him with a flaming arrow … but the fire had been inside him, consuming him. And the pain …
Varamyr had died nine times before. He had died once from a spear thrust, once with a bear’s teeth in his throat, and once in a wash of blood as he brought forth a stillborn cub. He died his first death when he was only six, as his father’s axe crashed through his skull. Even that had not been so agonizing as the fire in his guts, crackling along his wings, devouring him. When he tried to fly from it, his terror fanned the flames and made them burn hotter. One moment he had been soaring above the Wall, his eagle’s eyes marking the movements of the men below. Then the flames had turned his heart into a blackened cinder and sent his spirit screaming back into his own skin, and for a little while he’d gone mad. Even the memory was enough to make him shudder. ADWD, Prologue
Varamyr’s previous deaths all occurred while he inhabited some creature or other. Bonded skinchangers feel the pain when their familiars are hurt or in pain. Varamyr’s own experience as a boy taught him that. His screams when his father smashed their old dog’s skull with an axe alerted his family to his warg nature.
We also see this with Jon and Ghost: Jon feels the pain when Ghost is attacked by the very eagle we are talking about here. It is the same with Daenerys – her bond with Drogon is so strong that she screams in unison with him when a spear is plunged into his neck:
The hero leapt onto his back and drove the iron spearpoint down at the base of the dragon’s long scaled neck. Dany and Drogon screamed as one.
That the warg feels pain when his familiar experiences injury or a violent death is not surprising but the extraordinary thing about Varamyr’s ninth death is that in this case, the fire consumes both him and the bird. The flames devour him inside, turn his heart to a black cinder and at the same time, drive his spirit out of the eagle. The pain is excruciating – he even admits to going mad for a while. It’s interesting that his heart is the target of this inner fire and it recalls eating Haggon’s heart, the abomination that originally bought him his extended skinchanging powers.
Compare this to Dany’s dragon dream, which rings familiar but with a very different outcome. Where Varamyr’s terror fans the flames, Dany shows no fear – she welcomes the fire. She feels no pain though her flesh blackens and her blood boils. At the end of the dream, she feels strong, new and fierce.
Yet when she slept that night, she dreamt the dragon dream again. Viserys was not in it this time. There was only her and the dragon. Its scales were black as night, wet and slick with blood. Her blood, Dany sensed. Its eyes were pools of molten magma, and when it opened its mouth, the flame came roaring out in a hot jet. She could hear it singing to her. She opened her arms to the fire, embraced it, let it swallow her whole, let it cleanse her and temper her and scour her clean. She could feel her flesh sear and blacken and slough away, could feel her blood boil and turn to steam, and yet there was no pain. She felt strong and new and fierce. AGOT, Daenerys
So what exactly is going on here? The inner fire, which cleanses and strengthens Dany, has the opposite effect on Varamyr. Is Varamyr’s terror responsible for this? Maybe that has something to do with it but I think there is more to his excruciating experience. The inner fire coursing through Varamyr cleanses him off the abomination he committed. It removes the taint as well as the power it conferred upon him. Remember what happens when Maester Cressen tries to poison Melisandre; both drink of Cressen’s poisoned wine. Mel survives. Cressen dies. Mel tells us that fire cleanses. Mel survived in her capacity as a Red Priestess because her magical inner fire neutralized the poison in her blood. Cleansing is exactly what happens to Varamyr. The spiritual cleansing process is represented by the blackening of his heart. Daenerys, through her ‘blood of the dragon’ is naturally possessed of the ability to bond with her familiar animal; the dragon appropriately sings to her and then scours her clean, imbibing her with renewed strength in the process. Varamyr had no such natural bond with the beasts that fought him every time he attempted to inhabit them.
After the cleansing process, Varamyr loses control over his snow bear and shadowcat but not over his wolves, his natural brothers and pack. His loss of power is so complete that he knows the animals would kill him, should he attempt to seize them again.
Varamyr had lost control of his other beasts in the agony of the eagle’s death. His shadowcat had raced into the woods, whilst his snow bear turned her claws on those around her, ripping apart four men before falling to a spear. She would have slain Varamyr had he come within her reach. The bear hated him, had raged each time he wore her skin or climbed upon her back. His wolves, though …
My brothers. My pack. ADWD, Prologue
Releasing the Spirit
Notice that fire also drives his spirit out of the bird in the process, indicating that a fiery death releases the soul.
We see this with Drogo as well. We catch a glimpse of his released spirit when the fire of the pyre consumes his mortal body.
Followers of the Red God also believe in fire as a liberator of souls. This prayer to R’hllor sums up the power of fire nicely:
“R’hllor,” Ser Godry sang, “we give you now four evil men. With glad hearts and true, we give them to your cleansing fires, that the darkness in their souls might be burned away. 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. Hear their pain, and grant strength to our swords that we might shed the blood of your enemies. Accept this sacrifice, and show us the way to Winterfell, that we might vanquish the unbelievers.”
“Lord of Light, accept this sacrifice,” a hundred voices echoed. ADWD, The Sacrifice
Significant here is the context in which this prayer occurs: the four men consigned to the fires are men in Stannis’ army who engaged in cannibalism. Starving, they ate their dead comrades; we can even sympathize with them but they broke the taboo of eating of another man’s flesh. How fitting that we are afforded a glimpse of the power of cleansing fires in relation to cannibalism as well!
In the context of this prayer, it is worth noting that Bloodraven describes the spirit remains within ravens as ‘a shadow on the soul’. I presume fire will drive out these ‘shadows’ as well.
One last piece of direct evidence confirming the role of fire in liberating souls comes from Jon’s experience with Othor:
Whatever demonic force moved Othor had been driven out by the flames; the twisted thing they had found in the ashes had been no more than cooked meat and charred bone. AGOT, Jon
A note on cannibalism
So far, no direct evidence has turned up regarding the kind of powers one might acquire by indulging in cannibalism. What we’ve seen so far suggests a progressive increase in powers, beginning with wolves and moving on to controlling wild beasts in a variety of ways. The next logical step would be gaining enough power to seize a human body. Only the most powerful skinchangers are capable of such a feat and while Bran may be a natural, less powerful skinchangers might have to resort to cannibalism. A strong hint in this context is Varamyr’s failure to seize Thistle’s body and the knowledge that he’s never directly practiced cannibalism.
From Skinchanging to Greenseeing – the Third Abomination
When Varamyr reverts to his original status as a warg, skinchanging other beasts is no longer be possible. The power obtained by breaking taboos was neutralized by the cleansing fire. His death is near, he knows. As he drags himself through the freezing snow towards a nearby weirwood, the thought of prolonging his earthly life by seizing Thistle’s body crosses his mind.
No one will ever know. I will be Thistle the spearwife, and Varamyr Sixskins will be dead. His gift would perish with his body, he expected. He would lose his wolves, and live out the rest of his days as some scrawny, warty woman … but he would live. If she comes back. If I am still strong enough to take her. ADWD, Prologue
At this point, we discover the benefits of being a skinchanger. One powerful enough to spiritually seize the body of another human being is assured of continued existence in this world. Whether skinchanging ability can be retained is unclear but Varamyr is ready to have a go at it. His attempt fails but we can learn a great deal by examining every aspect of his endeavour to snatch Thistle’s body.
Thistle puts up a terrific fight when Varamyr ‘leaps’ into her. His goal is not to simply co-exist with her as Bran does with Hodor, rather, he needs to achieve a total take-over and this means driving her soul out altogether. A tough fight ensues:
He summoned all the strength still in him, leapt out of his own skin, and forced himself inside her. Thistle arched her back and screamed. Abomination
She fights back fiercely, biting off their tongue, filling their mouth with blood, and clawing at him in her desperation. The reference to ‘their’ suggests Varamyr made some progress. From the description here, it sounds as though Varamyr’s spirit enters Thistle via her head, that is, through her Brow Chakra. There is a lot of blood. Note that the struggle takes place near a weirwood tree.
She raised her hands to his face. He tried to push them down again, but the hands would not obey, and she was clawing at his eyes. Abomination, he remembered, drowning in blood and pain and madness. When he tried to scream, she spat their tongue out. ADWD, Prologue
In the next instant, as he is dying, Varamyr sees through the eyes of the weirwood!
His spirit not only connects with beasts and above and below the ground, he is actually inside the weirwood, part of the tree. This is really quite remarkable because for a very short moment, Varamyr becomes a greenseer. The union with the tree only lasts a heartbeat, during which he sees their respective dying forms through the weirwood’s eyes. The moment ends, he leaves the tree, his spirit rising.
The white world turned and fell away. For a moment it was as if he were inside the weirwood, gazing out through carved red eyes as a dying man twitched feebly on the ground and a madwoman danced blind and bloody underneath the moon, weeping red tears and ripping at her clothes. Then both were gone and he was rising, melting, his spirit borne on some cold wind. He was in the snow and in the clouds, he was a sparrow, a squirrel, an oak. A horned owl flew silently between his trees, hunting a hare; Varamyr was inside the owl, inside the hare, inside the trees. Deep below the frozen ground, earthworms burrowed blindly in the dark, and he was them as well. I am the wood, and everything that’s in it, he thought, exulting. ADWD, Prologue
As his spirit is released from tree, he experiences what the Children of the Forest describe – his soul merges with all of nature and he thinks to himself: “I am the wood, and everything that’s in it”.
How is this possible? Of importance here is that Varamyr commits another abomination by attempting to take over another human’s body.
The entire struggle takes place near the weirwood tree and in the process, both drink blood after Thistle bites off their tongue, blood is shed, sacrificed, to the tree. I think it is via this cardinal sin, together with the blood ritual at the tree that Varamyr becomes one with the weirwood and gains greenseeing ability in the process. The blood-drinking in particular is an act of cannibalisim because it is Thistle’s tongue that is severed, her blood that Varamyr inadvertently drinks.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at what happens here because Bran’s ‘wedding the tree’ follows the same pattern. Bran is a warg and skinchanger. He regularly inhabits Hodor, who is probably half giant, half human – he achieves this without any difficulty, as if born to it, thus fulfilling one part of the equation. Blood is an ingredient in the weirwood paste he consumes to awaken the powers of greenseeing. There is one more thing Bran and Varamyr have in common, one tiny little detail: they both have no use of their legs. Shortly before the above takes place, Varamyr collapses in the snow:
He was almost there when his crutch snapped beneath his weight, and his legs went out from under him.
I do not think this is a coincidence. The wounded leg motif occurs often enough for it to be noticeable: Bran’s fall renders him paralyzed from the waist down, his father Ned suffers a grievous leg wound during the fight against Jamie Lannister, Ygritte shoots Jon in the leg as he escapes the wildlings, causing an a very painful injury that leaves him fevered and weak for a while. When Bloodraven instructs Bran on greenseeing, he reveals that the gods mark those with the gift with red or green eyes. He also remarks that the chosen ones are not robust and that their lives would be short but for their union with the trees. Perhaps the author has drawn on the legends of the Fisher King – a man wounded in the leg by the Spear of Destiny, unable to look after his kingdom, which becomes a wasteland. Healing of both the king and the land will only take place when a worthy knight asks the healing question or completes other quests, depending on the version. But that’s another story.
Getting back to the subject at hand, we can conclude that breaking the taboo of seizing a human body grants a skinchanger the power to become one with a weirwood and partake of all its recorded memories. To accomplish this fully, a blood sacrifice, and or cannibalism (most probably drinking or ingesting blood) in the presence of the weirwood is probably required.
Skinchangers do not Become Wights
Did you notice that Varamyr does not see his body rise as Thistle rises to become a wight? Varamyr does not rise. He is not amongst the wights advancing in the snow but he definitely died a true death; he feels the shock of cold that accompanies the advancing wights and it kills him:
That was his last thought as a man. True death came suddenly; he felt a shock of cold, as if he had been plunged into the icy waters of a frozen lake.
So why is he spared? Is he immune to rising? Well, kind of. Wargs and skinchangers do not rise because their souls can simply leave their bodies in the moment of death. They leave their corpses behind, empty and devoid of a soul. Because Varamyr intends to live on in One-Eye, he consciously ‘removes’ his soul from his body in the moment of death; he states beforehand that he will ‘leave this feeble flesh behind’.
Varamyr could feel the snowflakes melting on his brow. This is not so bad as burning. Let me sleep and never wake, let me begin my second life. His wolves were close now. He could feel them. He would leave this feeble flesh behind, become one with them, hunting the night and howling at the moon. The warg would become a true wolf.
Yes, Varamyr leaves his feeble flesh behind. His last thoughts include, “Let me sleep and never wake”, which when phrased slightly differently, translate to “Let me die and never rise (rise/wake as in undeath)”.
Should a warg succeed in leaving his body before death, his soul cannot be spiritually manipulated, neither can he be reanimated to become a wight.
An awful truth comes to light. The biggest and most shocking takeaway here: – all those wights out there are thralls with their souls intact. They are not simply dead, reanimated flesh. Their souls are in fact, enslaved. This is another reason why fire is the key to permanently destroying the undead. In addition to destroying the spark of life within the bones (bones remember), fire releases the spirit from the body. This has been established by example of Orell’s eagle. Flames release the spirit, setting it free at last, severing the bond between an undead corpse and its animating principle, the soul. Obviously, in addition to controlling magic, the White Walkers prevent the natural flight of the soul after death by binding the souls of the dead to their corpses.
The prayer to R’hllor incorporates another clue as well: “Accept their blood, Oh lord, and melt the icy chains that bind your servants”.
It doesn’t get more conclusive than that. The souls of wights are enslaved by ice magic; fire will liberate their souls and allow them to rest in peace.
Thistle and the Thing in the Night
Or maybe it wasn’t Mad Axe at all, maybe it was the thing that came in the night. The ’prentice boys all saw it, Old Nan said, but afterward when they told their Lord Commander every description had been different. And three died within the year, and the fourth went mad, and a hundred years later when the thing had come again, the ’prentice boys were seen shambling along behind it, all in chains. ASOS, Bran
The background here is the knowledge that wights are soul-bound by their White Walker captors. The thing that comes in the night is seen with four ghostly ‘prentice boys’ in tow. The ghosts of the boys are chained to this thing, the chains reminiscent of the icy chains mentioned in R’hllor’s prayer. Discussing the thing in the night in detail would break the bounds of this analysis but I recommend this tread by Mithras for more insights and discussion on that topic. At this stage, I shall only share my observations on Thistle.
As the wildings flee from the carnage at the Wall, many fall by the wayside or go their separate ways. Thistle, a spearwife, was the last of Varamyr’s companions. She is ‘tough as an old root, warty, windburnt, and wrinkled’. The spearwife also has a mole on her cheek with four dark hairs growing from it. That she is able to care for Varamyr’s wound also suggests she is a healer. Thistle even carries a needle and suitable thread with which she sews up his wound. From what we know about her, Thistle could be a woods witch, implying she could possess other powers as well. We’ve seen woods witches acting as healers and others who see the future, for instance. Her status as a woods witch is speculative but we should keep it in mind because what transpires after Varamyr tries to seize her body is passing strange.
As Varamyr’s spirit bonds with One-Eye, he sees the wights below and he sees Thistle rise, blue-eyes and all.
The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill. The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood. And in the pits where her eyes had been, a pale blue light was flickering, lending her coarse features an eerie beauty they had never known in life.
She sees me.
With her iclicled fingers like ten long knives, Thistle’s appearance is very menacing. The weirdest thing is that she sees Varamyr, sees him in his warg form. Why would that be? She did not recognize Varamyr the man in life, neither did she appear to sense his warg nature. How strange that now, in her wighted state, she should recognise his spirit in the wolf! The scene reminds me of Arya’s encounter with the Ghost of High Heart who recognizes the warg in Arya:
The dwarf woman studied her with dim red eyes. “I see you,” she whispered. “I see you, wolf child. Blood child.
Thistle is now ‘the thing’, and she has the status of a wight. The phrasing ‘the thing that had been Thistle’ recalls ‘the thing in the night’. We also know that one skinchanger can always sense another and dead Thistle actually sees Varamyr’s spirit wolf-form. She obviously wasn’t a skinchanger prior to her death so how did she acquire this ability?
A logical explanation would be Varamyr involuntarily passing the gift to her during their soul-struggle. Perhaps warging ability is not only transferable through inheritance but through a mingling of spirits – the spirits of a warg and a non-warg. Kind of sounds like an infection, but like the shadows left by the CotF in their ravens, a portion of Varamyr’s soul may have been left behind in Thistle. Jojen also tells us that there is power in a weirwood. Perhaps the blood also contributed. Whatever the case, this is not a comforting thought, especially considering that a malevolent entity has control over her soul. We have to ask ourselves if this entity, presumably the White Walkers, can direct her soul to take over another human, for instance.
I suspect that Thistle, in her role as an enslaved skinchanging wight may be able to do this. Consider Bran’s recollection of Old Nan’s story once again:
Or maybe it wasn’t Mad Axe at all, maybe it was the thing that came in the night. The ’prentice boys all saw it, Old Nan said, but afterward when they told their Lord Commander every description had been different. And three died within the year, and the fourth went mad, and a hundred years later when the thing had come again, the ’prentice boys were seen shambling along behind it, all in chains. ASOS, Bran
The boys who saw the thing all see something different. No description is the same.
I propose that the thing in the night is in fact a skinchanger wight. In this capacity, the thing could turn up wearing a different skin each time: man, beast or whatever it chooses. Descriptions of it would of course differ after each sighting. The boys who see it are marked for death. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown; maybe they are killed by Mad Axe, another haunt of the Nightfort, or perhaps the thing itself comes for them, kills them and by virtue of the power controlling the thing, captures the spirits of the boys.
Implications of the Thing in the Night
The imagery of four ghostly ‘prentice boys shambling along in chains behind the thing in the night strongly evokes the Others and the wights they control. Both are entities of the darkness, appearing only at night. Earlier on, I established that the souls of the undead are enslaved by their re-animators, represented here by the chains binding the apprentice boys to the thing. Note that the boys ‘shamble’, a feature they share with the clumsy, shambling wights. The thing in the night then, might be a stand-in for an Other.
It appears that the thing in the night is a template for the mechanism of control imposed on wights. This knowledge allows us to postulate further ideas:
- The Others could be reanimated entities.
- The Others could have been violated by a skinchanger or warg.
- Chaining the souls of the undead to their corpses suggests the soul or part of the soul is captured and bound before it can leave the body entirely. In many traditions, the soul itself is believed to be the source of a body’s vitality. As the incorporeal immortal essence of a living thing, it is also the vehicle by which a corpse is reanimated. Wights are not completely restored however. They lack vital processes such as heartbeat and blood circulation and are incapable of speech. Something is obviously missing, suggesting that the underlying concept here is one of soul-dualism.
This concept defines the soul as comprising of several independent parts, variously responsible for a person’s personality, intelligence or bodily functions. Melisandre’s example of birthing a shadow by extracting a portion of Stannis’ soul supports the idea of soul-dualism. We can infer that the magic employed in binding wights does not capture the part of soul (spirit or shadow) that drives biological processes in the body.
- Chaining or binding also recalls shadowbinding, a discipline which Melisandre and shadowbinders of Asshai are said to be capable of. Wights then, are rendered thralls by a form of shadowbinding.
Interestingly, the fourth boy does not die (his death is not mentioned). Instead, he goes mad just as Thistle herself does during the fight for her soul with Varamyr. Does this suggest that the fourth boy similarly fought for his soul and also has the potential to become another thing?
Even more intriguing is the association of madness with Targaryens in particular. Remember my thoughts on ‘a beast in human skin’ above. Mad King Aerys II was a ‘crowned beast’, his actions as despicable as those of Ramsay and Rorge. Could this ‘madness’ be the result of a malevolent bound shadow? I suspect it is and with all the evidence at hand, including Mel’s ability to actually birth shadows, the probability that all these malign characters were born with an evil spirit in tow is very high. Pieces of the puzzle are really coming together now. Consider the cleansing power of fire and remember Dany’s dream, during which she is scoured clean by dragon-fire. Waking the dragon takes on new meaning here because one of its main functions is to spiritually cleanse the human subject by driving out the shadow of madness within the soul.
Summary of this section
- Fire (real and inner fire) cleanses the blood and soul off taints brought about by committing an abomination.
- Fire drives the spirits of skinchangers out of a familiar animal.
- The souls of wights are enslaved.
- Fire releases the souls of the dead (including wights) from the body.
- Breaking the taboo of seizing a human body grants a skinchanger the power to become one with a weirwood and partake of all its recorded memories. This is the key to becoming a greenseer.
- Wargs and skinchangers do not rise from the dead as wights.
- Thistle’s association with the thing in the night evokes the Others and shadowbinding.
This analysis is by no means complete – in fact, it’s only the tip of the ice-berg. Varamyr’s chapter offers a great deal more on the subject of warging and skinchanging including hidden references to the role of the Children of the Forest, the Boltons and the Starks in respect of their special powers and connection to the Others. Still working!
References: The Golden Bough (1922) by Sir James George Frazer, Ch. 67, § 3. The External Soul in Animals
Zombie Woman / The Walking Dead (AMC)
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