Note: After a little summer break, the Lost Among the Walking blog is back. I was going to post this last week but, as many Floridians, I left my home with my family for a few days to scape the worst of Hurricane Irma. This post deals with Game of Thrones, prophecies, and the notion of “cognitive dissonance.” I am working on a series of posts that will explore religion in the work of Gene Luen Yang, beginning with his “The Rosary Comic Book,” all the way to his recent run as main writer for Superman.
Season 7 of Game of Thrones is finally over and, while some important questions were answered (Jon Snow’s real parents!), many more are still unanswered (who will sit on the Iron Throne!). There is, in fact, a whole industry out there of recaps, blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and Reddit forums dedicated to predict not only what will happen in each individual episode, but also how the show will end.
Prophecies in Game of Thrones
A great deal of sleuthing relies upon the prophecies and visions that George R.R. Martin himself has written in his books, many of them also included in the TV show. In season 1, for example, Daenerys’ son with Khal Drogo is seen by the Dosh Khaleen (the widows of dead Dothraki Khals) as fulfilling the prophecy of the Stallion Who Mounts the World, the “Khal of Khals” who will finally unify the various Dothraki tribes. In season 4, a young Cersei Lannister received a prophecy from a witch in which she was told that all of her children would die, something that came to be true:
Bran Stark, in his new role as the Three-Eyed Raven can see not only all of the past, but also has glimpses of the future: in season 4 he had a vision of a dragon flying over King’s Landing, and in season 6, he saw the wildfire explosion plotted by Cersei and Qyburn that destroyed the Great Sept of Baelor before it happened. The most important prophecies throughout the book and the TV show though, and key to determine how Game of Thrones will end, are the ones that talk refer to “the prince that was promised,” the one who will save the world from darkness, Azor Ahai:
There will come a day after a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world. In this dread hour a warrior shall draw from the fire a burning sword. And that sword shall be Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and he who clasps it shall be Azor Ahai come again, and the darkness shall flee before him
(A Clash of Kings ch. 10)
Early in the show, Melisandre, the Red Priestesses claimed that the Lord of Light had shown her that Stannis Baratheon was Azor Ahai, and that he would sit on the Iron Throne. We all know how that prophecy turned out, but this did not discouraged Melisandre, who then believed that Jon Snow may, indeed, be Azor Ahai. There are lots of theories about who Azor Ahai may be in the show, with most predictions indicating that it will be either Jon Snow or Daenerys (for a thorough explanation of the prophecy and what it means you can watch this video), but one of the things that makes George R.R. Martin world so compelling is that prophecies in the world of Westeros are, more often than not, a tricky business, and characters in the show (and we as viewers) may believe them at their own peril. In his own words:
Prophecy is one of those tropes of Fantasy that is fun to play with, but it can easily turn into a straightjacket if you’re not careful. One of the themes of my fiction, since the very beginning, is that the characters must make their choices, for good or ill. And making choices is hard. There are prophecies in my Seven Kingdoms, but their meanings are often murky and misleading, and they seldom offer the characters much in the way of useful guidance.
George R.R. Martin
Or, in the words of Tyrion, a “prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head” (A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 40).
But what are prophecies, and how do they really work in a religious context? The Oxford English Dictionary defines prophecy as “that which is done or spoken by a prophet; the action or practice of revealing or expressing the will or thought of God or of a god; divinely inspired utterance or discourse,” and the The Encyclopedia of Religion traces the etymology of the term to the Greek word prophētēs, “a cultic functionary who spoke for a god; that is, the prophētēs delivered divine messages in association with a sanctuary where the god had made its presence known.” A general understanding of prophecies then, seems to present them as statements or declarations made at a certain point in time that can predict what will happen in the future.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible is considered to contain numerous examples of prophecy. One of the most famous is the one contained in Isaiah 7:14, that some Christians understand as prophesizing the birth of Jesus:
(An example of how Biblical prophecies are understood in some corners of Christianity)
Prophecies are also very important in Islam, like those referring to the arrival of the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam who will rule before the Day of Judgement and will free the world from all evil. In Buddhism, there are also lots of prophecies concerning the Buddha to come, Maitreya, and many scriptures refer to this figure:
“At that period, brethren, there will arise in the world an Exalted One named Maitreya, Fully Awakened, abounding in wisdom and goodness, happy, with knowledge of the worlds, unsurpassed as a guide to mortals willing to be led, a teacher for gods and men, an Exalted One, a Buddha, even as I am now. He, by himself, will thoroughly know and see, as it were face to face, this universe”Digha Nikaya, 26.
Prophecies do not Predict the Future, They Fulfill the Past
In Game of Thrones, prophecies operate very much in the way they do in the general context of world religions. They are vague, forward-looking statements, in some cases delivered by prophet-like figures, that attempt to predict future events. In reality, though, a more accurate understanding of prophecy would be to consider them not as statements that predict the future, but as statements that fulfill the past. They work backwards, not forward. Prophecies in a religious context are usually written in a way that allows them to insert themselves in an already established narrative, confirming expectations set up in the past. The case of Stannis Bareatheon was a good example of how this works in the context of Game of Thrones. Melisandre believes that he is “the prince that was promised,” and she stages a ritual that symbolically fulfills all of the details of the prophecy. As we know though, Stannis dies at the end of season 5, which makes Melisandre’s prediction fail.
After that, a more contrite Melisandre thinks Jon Snow may be Azor Ahai, which makes her predictions a moving target that will allow her to claim that she was able to predict the future once someone hits her moving bullseye. And that’s why the prophecy of Azor Ahai, if it were to happen in the real world, it can only be fulfilled retroactively: the person who sits in the Iron Throne will be Azor Ahai, and then past prophecies will be read and adjusted to confirm that reality. Prophecies do really offer hindsight 20/20!
When Prophecy Fails
Nonetheless, as seen in the show, prophecies can be stubborn, and defy human expectations and rationality. In the case of Melisandre, when she realizes that her visions from the Lord of Light have failed, she decides that she had only picked the wrong person, but the prophecy is still right. One of the most interesting studies of this phenomena (people and/or communities holding onto prophecies even on the face of its predictive failure) was described by Leo Ferstinger in his book When Prophecy Fails, a study of a small new religious movement in Chicago in the early 90s that believed in the imminent arrival of the end of the world, predicting the actual dates as to when it was to happen. The interesting point of the book is not that the prophecy (prophecies actually) did fail, but the mechanisms developed by the community of believers to justify why they did, and why the prophecies will be fulfilled in the future. Festinger called this phenomena “cognitive dissonance,” mainly the ability we have as humans of holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas at once. What is remarkable about Ferstinger’s book is not the way he chronicled the continued failure of the prophecies about the end of the world by the leader of the cult, but how the followers would rationalize and explain its failure while keeping up the hope that it would be fulfilled in the future. As Ferstinger argues, “a man with conviction is a hard man to change“:
“Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks. “But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. “
Belief and faith, it seems, trump rationality. Christians, for example, have been waiting for the end of the world since the very early days of the religion, and Christian prophets have been attempting to predict the actual date of the end of days and failing for centuries (the HBO show The Leftovers did a beautiful job exploring that human obsession with the end of the world). The failure of these prophecies, though, do not discourage many Christians of their certainty. And that’s the power of prophecy, they tap into the willingness of people to believe that we can predict the future, that in a world of chaos and uncertainty, there is a way to know what will happen. They seem to offer certainty in a world of uncertainty. Even though, as we have seen, prophecies have nothing to do with the future, and all to do with the past.
How Game of Thrones Will End
I do not know who Azor Ahai is, who will sit in the Iron Throne, or how Game of Thrones will end, but I am pretty sure that anyone who claims that they can predict how the show will end, will forget all of the wrong predictions they did along the way, and only focus on those that they got right because, as I said, prophecies do not predict the future, they fulfilled the past.
ps: I am writing this as Irma is hitting Atlanta, where we are staying with some friends after leaving our home in Florida escaping the worst of the hurricane. If you are in the affected zone please stay safe!