Winterfell and the North as Underworld

So far, the Chthonic voyage into the Crypts gave us the insight how Lyanna fits the profile of Persephone, and how as Queen of the Underworld she haunts and curses Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, making both of them tragic heroes. Ned’s voyage from Crypts to Dungeons suggests the Starks may have a deep connection with the underworld and that it might actually be their source of power. We also deduced out of this exploration a chthonic lexicon that George RR Martin uses for further reference in other scenes, point of views and chapters.

With this essay we investigate whether the underworld extends beyond the crypts – Winterfell castle, the godswood and the North in general.

The godswood of Winterfell

As we leaf from Ned’s crypt chapter to Catelyn’s first chapter, we enter the godswood with her, meet the heart tree, and Ned Stark through her eyes. The very first thing we learn and read in her chapter is that she never liked Winterfell’s godswood.

Catelyn had never liked this godswood.
She had been born a Tully, at Riverrun far to the south, on the Red Fork of the Trident. The godswood there was a garden, bright and airy, where tall redwoods spread dappled shadows across tinkling streams, birds sang from hidden nests, and the air was spicy with the scent of flowers.
The gods of Winterfell kept a different sort of wood. It was a dark, primal place, three acres of old forest untouched for ten thousand years as the gloomy castle rose around it. It smelled of moist earth and decay. No redwoods grew here. This was a wood of stubborn sentinel trees armored in grey-green needles, of mighty oaks, of ironwoods as old as the realm itself. Here thick black trunks crowded close together while twisted branches wove a dense canopy overhead and misshapen roots wrestled beneath the soil. This was a place of deep silence and brooding shadows, and the gods who lived here had no names.
But she knew she would find her husband here tonight. Whenever he took a man’s life, afterward he would seek the quiet of the godswood. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Right at the start of Catelyn’s first chapter, George contrasts Riverrun and its godswood that was Catelyn’s home when she was still a maiden with that of Winterfell’s. Like Robert’s speech that symbolizes life, the same is true for Riverrun’s godswood. Riverrun is far to the south. Its godswood is bright and thus full of light. Streams and birds make sound and are changeable. And the air smells of spices and flowers. The paragraph evokes the senses, a garden where one can see, hear and smell.

But the godswood of Winterfall is dark, untouched, moist, decaying. It is earthy, twisted, misshapen, black, brooding and deeply silent. It is has been ever-present, as old as time itself almost. It is stubborn, has needles, weaves, and with an overhead canopy it blocks the sky and it is as if you  are in an underworld. The names of those who dwell there are eventually forgotten – nameless. With so many chthonic lexicon words used for the godswood, and one even for the castle, this already suggests Winterfell and its godwood represent the underworld.

“How can that be?” you may ask. Crypts and dungeons as underworld setting where the dead ar buried or the imprisoned are left to die and be forgotten is not that odd. But the godswood and the castle where living characters work, play and dwell might seem a contradiction to being dead. But in mythology, the underworld is a world all by itself, with different regions, places and levels. It only takes a crossing from one bank to the other with the help of the ferryman Charon as long as you pay him an obol, or a sea voyage west to the edge of the living world where the sun sets, or a journey passing several gates. And once you are in the underworld there are castles, islands, rivers, mountains, meadows and hellish nether regions, including characters that work, play and dwell. In fact, in ancient mythology, the underworld is not that much different from earth. It is a second world. And George actually refers to this concept in Theon’s chapter during the wedding of Ramsay to Jeyne Poole in Winterfell’s godswood.

The mists were so thick that only the nearest trees were visible; beyond them stood tall shadows and faint lights. Candles flickered beside the wandering path and back amongst the trees, pale fireflies floating in a warm grey soup. It felt like some strange underworld, some timeless place between the worlds, where the damned wandered mournfully for a time before finding their way down to whatever hell their sins had earned them. Are we all dead, then? Did Stannis come and kill us in our sleep? Is the battle yet to come, or has it been fought and lost? (aDwD, Prince of Winterfell, courtesy Blackfyre Bastard)

The life-death contrast continues when Catelyn’s Faith of the Seven is set against that of the First Men, against her husband’s worship. The Faith uses smell, song, color and light. The gods have faces and names.

Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.
For her sake, Ned had built a small sept where she might sing to the seven faces of god, but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest.

The Faith of the Seven is a faith that focuses on life, celebrates life. While they acknowledge death itself with the Stranger aspect, barely anyone worships the Stranger. The Song of the Seven does not even contain a stanza for the Stranger. And while the Stranger can be regarded as a name, it is faceless, masked or hidden behind a shroud, Unseen. Not even the gender is definable.

And the seventh face . . . the Stranger was neither male nor female, yet both, ever the outcast, the wanderer from far places, less and more than human, unknown and unknowable. Here the face was a black oval, a shadow with stars for eyes. It made Catelyn uneasy. She would get scant comfort there.(aCoK, Catelyn IV)

George stresses the facelesness and namelesness of death in Catelyn’s thoughts. Unless we use modern reconstructive software, DNA testing and forenisch research, the dead lose their identity as they decay and only bones are left. Skeletons look alike, stripped from rank, status, gender,  faces, and thus also their names. This concept is still reflected in our modern day usage of John and Jane Doe – the name for a dead person whose identity is unknown.

The Old Gods of course are not actual gods – they are greenseers living under the ground, tapping into the roots of the weirnet to see the past and the future, and able to prolong their lifetime by merging with the roots of weirtrees, beyond the time given to the family and friends who once knew the greenseer. Later generations would forget his or her name.

Meera’s gloved hand tightened around the shaft of her frog spear. “Who sent you? Who is this three-eyed crow?”
“A friend. Dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer.” (aDwD, Bran II)

When Meera Reed had asked him his true name, he made a ghastly sound that might have been a chuckle. “I wore many names when I was quick, but even I once had a mother, and the name she gave me at her breast was Brynden.”
“I have an uncle Brynden,” Bran said. “He’s my mother’s uncle, really. Brynden Blackfish, he’s called.”
“Your uncle may have been named for me. Some are, still. Not so many as before. Men forget. Only the trees remember.” (aDwD, Bran III)

The only names and identities that are remembered are the Lords of Winterfell who get a statue of their likenness in the crypts. The other Stark bones are normally buried without a face and without a name in the tombs.

So, we have the unidentifiable Stranger as personification of death, and so are pretty much the greenseers. Meanwhile the rulers of Winterfell, both in the crypts and in the godswood cleaning the blood of their execution sword have names and faces. And this difference is significant. In mythologies the personification of death is not always the ruler of the underworld. The ruler is often not even dead. This seems to apply in aSoIaF when we consider Winterfell as a whole as an underworld, and not just the crypts.

Underground Pools and Rivers

At the center of the grove an ancient weirwood brooded over a small pool where the waters were black and cold. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Above is the first description in the series of a weirwood tree, a heart tree in a godswood, and the small pool. In several mythologies specific pools, wells or rivers are an important feature of the underworld. For example, Hades has five rivers. Two of these have a significant underworld function. The newly dead are ferried across the Acheron (river of sorrow, or woe) by Charon if they pay him an obol, from earth to the underworld. When the shades of the dead have crossed they are to drink from the Lethe (river of oblivion) – which can be a river, pool or well – so that they forget their life and can reincarnate. Thus the Lethe relates to the concept of loss of names and faces, of identity. Meanwhile, some mystic schools speak of the Lethe having a secret counterpart – the Mnemosyne (memory). The initiates were advized to drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe when they died to gain omniscience and remember everything.

Could the cold, black pool in the godswood be a reference to the Grecian Lethe? Might it even have a similar power? At the moment these questions cannot be answered with certainty without further information.

Ovid claimed the Lethe passed through the cave of Hypnos (god of sleep), and its murmur would bring drowsiness to the listener. While sleep is not death, the state of oblivion in sleep is often philosophically compared to that of death.1 Hence, Hypnos’ cave was located in Hades. Though it is purely speculative, several readers have wondered whether the underground river in Bloodraven’s cave might travel all the way under the Wall and is connected to the godswood pool. So, let us examine a few quotes from Bran’s chapters in a Dance with Dragons from the cave.

The last part of their dark journey was the steepest. Hodor made the final descent on his arse, bumping and sliding downward in a clatter of broken bones, loose dirt, and pebbles. The girl child was waiting for them, standing on one end of a natural bridge above a yawning chasm. Down below in the darkness, Bran heard the sound of rushing water. An underground river.
“Do we have to cross?” Bran asked, as the Reeds came sliding down behind him. The prospect frightened him. If Hodor slipped on that narrow bridge, they would fall and fall.
No, boy,” the child said. “Behind you.” She lifted her torch higher, and the light seemed to shift and change. One moment the flames burned orange and yellow, filling the cavern with a ruddy glow; then all the colors faded, leaving only black and white. Behind them Meera gasped. Hodor turned.
Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.
…[snip]…
The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river. (aDwD, Bran II)

We have a cave setting and a river running through it. And in the hall beside the chasm where the river runs at the bottom of it, Bloodraven is dreaming. Instead of writing a gaping chasm, George used yawning, which of course has the double entendre of the yawning we do when we are sleepy. So, we do actually seem to have references here of Lethe passing through Hypnos’ cave. On top of that, we also get a river crossing reference, and how Bran fears it might be the death of them if they do try to cross. This brings the Acheron to mind. Leaf’s answer implies this river is not to be confused with the Acheron. So, in a smart and neat way, George includes references to several rivers of Hades, without conflating them into one. Further interpretation and implication of this for Bran I will leave for a later chthonic essay on Bran, but at least we do seem to have the appropriate references of a Lethe-like underground river running through a dreaming cave situated in the underworld.

George ends the environment description with a black river mention. It is possible GRRM simply used black as a general reference where light is absent, but he usually tends to write dark instead of black then, while he tends to preserve black for the color description. In fact, dark is what you would actually expect here, because the river is not actually visible, just as you would have expected him to write dark water for the pool. So, there is a good chance we are meant to associate the river in the cave with the pool in Winterfell’s godswood.

Bran’s third chapter in aDwD has more of these dream-cave references and how the river sings a song. The chapter is even written in a manner as if several months went by like in a dream. Very noteworthy is this passage.

No sunlight ever reached the caves beneath the hill. No moonlight ever touched those stony halls. Even the stars were strangers there.  (aDwD, Bran III)

And that is pretty much how Hypnos’ cave is described: to never see the rise or setting of the sun, just as it does not witness noon.

If  indeed the cold, black pool of Winterfell’s godswood is connected to the underground river in Bloodraven’s cave, then several phrases and descriptions about it in the cave fit the Lethe. What is the relevance? It may have plot impact as a way for anyone in the cave to get back to Winterfell. It may have a magical forgetfulness impact if someone drinks from either the underground river or the pool. Or it may have no more significance than to serve as an environmental element to help us consider Winterfell, the North and the area beyond the Wall as an underworld on a meta-level.

The cold, black pool near the heart tree is not the sole pool in the godswood. Three other ponds are fed by an underground hot spring. Since these ponds are described as being murky green, they do not seem to be linked with the underground river of Bloodraven’s cave.

Across the godswood, beneath the windows of the Guest House, an underground hot spring fed three small ponds. Steam rose from the water day and night, and the wall that loomed above was thick with moss. Hodor hated cold water, and would fight like a treed wildcat when threatened with soap, but he would happily immerse himself in the hottest pool and sit for hours, giving a loud burp to echo the spring whenever a bubble rose from the murky green depths to break upon the surface. (aGoT, Bran VI)

Two Hades rivers might be of interest here. The Phlegethon means the flaming river, which sounds more like a lava current, than one of water. The Styx (hate) was the river where Achilles’s mother dipped him in as a child to make him invincible, except for his heel. In Greek mythology rivers or locations tend to have a deity or nymph of the same name, just as the realm Hades is ruled by Hades. So, there is a deity Phlegethon as well as a goddess Styx. Though married, Styx supposedly desired Phlegethon and was consumed by his flame. When Hades allowed her to run her course through or close the Phelegethon they were reunited. Water flowing parallel or close to a lava current would end up being heated. Such a combination could result in hot springs or ponds with steaming hot water to relax in.

Below, I give you Plato’s description of both rivers. Notice here how the Phlegethon is described as being muddy and turbid, and boiling, and how it fits George’s description of Winterfell’s bubble making, murky green hot pools.

The third river [the Pyriphlegethon] flows out between [Okeanos and Acheron], and near the place whence it issues it falls into a vast region burning with a great fire and makes a lake larger than our Mediterranean sea, boiling with water and mud. Thence it flows in a circle, turbid and muddy, and comes in its winding course, among other places, to the edge of the Akherousian lake, but does not mingle with its water. Then, after winding about many times underground, it flows into Tartaros at a lower level. This is the river which is called Pyriphlegethon, and the streams of lava which spout up at various places on earth are offshoots from it. Opposite this the fourth river issues [the Styx] . . . it passes under the earth and, circling round in the direction opposed to that of Pyriphlegethon, it meets it coming from the other way in the Akherousian lake. (Plato, Phaedo 112e ff)

The Heart Tree

The weirwood heart tree is the most obvious feature of Winterfell’s godswood.

“The heart tree,” Ned called it. The weirwood‘s bark was white as bone, its leaves dark red, like a thousand bloodstained hands. A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful. They were old, those eyes; older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true; they had watched the castle‘s granite walls rise around them. It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

Obviously, the cut faces in the bark bring the religious practice of tree worship to mind, something the Celts were famously known to do. Their most sacred tree was the oak and specifically tied to druid practice. Overall, the oak is the most sacred in any Indo-European mythology and associated with a thunder deity – the Greek Zeus, Norse Thor, Germanic Donar, Balthic Perkon, Celtic Taranis, and Slavic Perun. The likely reason for this thunder deity connection is the fact that oak trees have a higher chance of being struck by lightning than any other tree of the same height.

In Zeus’s 4000 year old oracle, Dodona in Epirus, the oak tree stood in the heart of the precinct. And the priests and priestesses interpreted the rustling of the leaves as the counsel given by Zeus. He was worshipped there as Zeus Naios, meaning “god of the spring below the oak“. In Homer’s Illiad, Achilles prays to Zeus, “Lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off, brooding over wintry Dodona.”According to Herodotus the Peleiades were the sacred women of the grove of Dodona. Peleiades means a flock of doves and is not to be confused with the Pleiades (seven nymphs that were sisters). According to legend the oracle of Zeus was founded there, because a black dove who spoke human language instructed people to do so.

The weirwood tree obviously is not an oak and the existence of oaks in Westeros sets the two tree genera apart. Nor does Ned Stark have much in common with Zeus or any thunder god. Still, a lot of the Greek oak worship fits the introduction of the heart tree of Winterfell’s godswood:

  • The weirwood tree is a heart tree, the heart of the godswood. And in King’s Landing where Robert is king – who has plenty of thunder stormgod references – the heart tree is an oak.
  • Catelyn described the heart tree as brooding. Meanwhile that brooding heart tree stands in wintry Winterfell, that lies far off [from the rest of Westeros]. This fits Homer’s reference in the Illiad.
  • Ned Stark sits under the heart tree beside the pool/spring, and could be called Ned Naios.
  • Murders of ravens tend to gather in the branches of weirwood trees: in Winterfell after it is burned, at Raventree, in the wildling village where Sam and Gilly are attacked by wights before meeting Coldhands, at the Citadel’s weirwood in Oldtown. Ravens are not doves, but in Westeros they have our earthly role of messenger birds (doves). Meanwhile black doves seem as rare as white ravens of the Citadel. And finally, the ravens once spoke their message instead of carrying it. Some ravens still oracle and instruct with human speech.
  • Osha tells Bran how the Old Gods speak via the rustling of the leaves.

Fair.” The raven landed on his shoulder. “Fair, far, fear.” It flapped its wings, and screamed along with Gilly. The wights were almost on her. He heard the dark red leaves of the weirwood rustling, whispering to one another in a tongue he did not know. The starlight itself seemed to stir, and all around them the trees groaned and creaked. Sam Tarly turned the color of curdled milk, and his eyes went wide as plates. Ravens! They were in the weirwood, hundreds of them, thousands, perched on the bone-white branches, peering between the leaves. He saw their beaks open as they screamed, saw them spread their black wings. Shrieking, flapping, they descended on the wights in angry clouds. They swarmed round Chett’s face and pecked at his blue eyes, they covered the Sisterman like flies, they plucked gobbets from inside Hake’s shattered head. There were so many that when Sam looked up, he could not see the moon.
“Go,” said the bird on his shoulder. “Go, go, go.” (aSoS, Samwell III)

A faint wind sighed through the godswood and the red leaves stirred and whispered. Summer bared his teeth. “You hear them, boy?” a voice asked.
Bran lifted his head. Osha stood across the pool, beneath an ancient oak, her face shadowed by leaves.
…[snip]…
Bran commanded her. “Tell me what you meant, about hearing the gods.”
Osha studied him. “You asked them and they’re answering. Open your ears, listen, you’ll hear.”
Bran listened. “It’s only the wind,” he said after a moment, uncertain. “The leaves are rustling.”
Who do you think sends the wind, if not the gods?” …[snip]… “They see you, boy. They hear you talking. That rustling, that’s them talking back.” (aGoT, Bran VI)

When Samwell and Gilly are attacked by wights on their way tot he Wall, having escaped the mutiny at Craster’s, they cry out how it’s “not fair”. But it’s rather the other way around. Life is unfair, and death is fair, since everybody is to die. The raven on Samwell’s shoulder instantly corrects him: “Fair, far, fear,” he says. Or in other words: death is fair, far, and feared. The raven speaks as oracle. Though ravens are chthonic messengers, aka psychopomps, in this scene they act like guardians and are ready to feast on the dead – the wights. They are carrion eaters after all. And in doing that they save Sam and Gilly and prevent the wights to escape or wreak any more havoc. Finally, the raven instructs Samwell to go.

In the second quoted scene, there are no ravens, but Osha explains how the Old Gods speak to him by rustling the leaves with wind. Notice too, how Osha here stands “across” the (cold, black) pool, beneath an oak (the tree worshipped by the Greeks), and stands in the shaodw. Both her position at the other side of a body of water and the shadow identify Osha as a chthonic charachter. She is like a dead person advizing Bran from the other side. She also proceeds to oracle to Bran, telling him that Robb is taking his bannermen the wrong way, to South of the Neck, and ought to take them North of the Wall.

The World Tree and the Well of Fate

There are some aspects of the heart tree that possibly cannot refer to Greek mythology since the Greeks had no world tree concept. A world tree is a collossal tree that supports creation, reaches into the heavens with its branches, while its roots make up the underworld and the trunk is like the earth’s axis. This motif can be found in Scandinavian, Slavic, Siberian, North and Meso-American mythology.² One of the best known world trees is the Scandinavian Yggdrasil of Norse mythology – an immense evergreen ash tree with three far reaching roots, each ending at a well, pool or lake with different purposes at distinct locations/worlds.

31. Three roots there are | that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel, | ‘neath the second the frost-giants,
‘Neath the last are the lands of men. (Poetic Edda, Grimnismol)

yggdrasils-roots

I will show that George RR Martin also puts weirwoods in different worlds and locations, as distinct in function as Norse mythology in does.

  1. Winterfell’s godswood and heart tree beside a pool with the crypts nearby.
  2. Bloodraven’s cave with an underground river rushing through a yawning chasm in a cold winterland where giants still roam.
  3. Hollow Hill in the Riverlands that does not feature a pool explicitly but is in the heart of the Riverlands with undead humans ruling.
  4. The Isle of Faces, an island, in the middle of a lake called the Gods Eye, in the Riverlands where greenmen guard a large grove of weirwood trees.
  5. A twisted, angry looking weirwood tree at Harrenhall.
  6. A weirwood tree in the Rock’s godswood that grew queer and twisted with tangled roots that have all but filled the cave where it stands, choking out all other growth.
  7. Three weirwood trees, known as the Three Singers, in Higharden’s lush green godswood whose branches have grown so entangled that they appear almost as a single tree with three trunks. Here too its branches reach over a tranquil pool.

The two main sources for Norse mythology both confirm and contradict each other about info on Yggdrasil’s roots. In the Ballad of Grimnir (Grimnismol) of the Poetic Edda – poems gathered in the 13th century from 10th century traditional sources, pre-dating the Christianization – it is said that underneath the three roots are the following worlds: Hel which lies in Niflheim, Jötunheimr (land of the frost-giants), and Midgard (world of men). The Prose Edda – written in the 13th century with the author Snorri Sturluson a Christian – agrees with Hel and Jötunheimr, but claims the third root to end in Asgard (land of the AEsir,  the gods), instead of Midgard. For the mythological connections in aSoIaF the disctinction matters less, because all locations are part of Westeros on Planetos, with mortal men. And regardless of their differences, both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda identify the same well or lake at either the Midgard or Asgard root: the Urdarbrunnr.

19. An ash I know, | Yggdrasil its name,
With water white | is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews | that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth’s well | does it ever grow.

20. Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the lake | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates. (Poetic Edda, Völuspá)

Three women reside at the Urdarbrunnr. They are Norns, the Germanic concept of the three Greek Fates. Norse mythology has more than three Norns, but only three live at the well – Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (debt or future). They spin threads of life, cut prphetic runes into wooden poles and measure the destinies of people and gods. Obviously their names make them the respresenatives of the past, present and future.

For this essay, especially Winterfell’s weirwood and pond location in relation to Norse mythology is of particular interest. Niflheim with Hel is the equivalent of the Greek Hades. It is a world of primordial ice and cold. That would seem to fit the North and Winterfell at a first glance. Niflheim means “mist world” or “mist home”, however, and  features nine rivers. On top of that it is ruled by a woman called Hel, nor does she have a consort. In short, there are a few too many references that do not make Winterfell match with Niflheim.

There are also too many inconsistencies for Winterfell to be located in Jötunheimr, where the frost giants live and the primordial Giinungagap (gaping chasm or yawning void) is located. The well at that root is is one of wisdom, and only a very few can drink from it in payment of a self-sacrifice. A barrier separates Jötunheimr from Asgard in order to keep the frost giants out. Westeros has a far better candidate than Winterfell to match with the root and well in Jötunheimr – namely Bloodraven’s cave.

This leaves only Midgard or Asgard at the Urdarbrunnr as a possible match for Winterfell. The Norse creation story claims there were only two worlds in the beginning – a world of ice (Niflheim) and a world of fire (Muspelheim). Where the two worlds met a creation steam formed, and all the other seven worlds were born from it. The unique hot springs of Winterfell and the name – winter fell – suggest Winterfell is the middle, rather than the extreme north. From that perspective it would match Midgard as a root location much better. After all, the Stark family and Winterfell are arguably also the main story (aside from Daenarys and Tyrion).

Meanwhile, the crypts and statues of Kings of Winter and Lords of Winterfell with swords in their laps can be said to resemble slain heroes in Valhalla of Asgard (hall of the slain/the fallen). Theon’s dream of the feast of the dead in Winterfell’s hall would add to that impression. The large Winterfell hall is full of noble guests, filled with music and laughter with wine and roast served by girls. In Valhalla the warriors drink mead, eat undefined meat dish³ and Valkyries serve it all.

That night he dreamed of the feast Ned Stark had thrown when King Robert came to Winterfell. The hall rang with music and laughter, though the cold winds were rising outside. At first it was all wine and roast meat, and Theon was making japes and eyeing the serving girls and having himself a fine time . . . (aCoK, Theon V)

Next, Theon notices the whole atmosphere growing dark and realizes he is feasting with the dead instead of the living. As in Hades, the dead still have their mortal wounds, the majority having died violently: Robert with his guts spilling out, a headless Eddard, decaying corpses, … The dead are described in a certain order related to time: first the present (from aGoT to aCoK), then the past (pre-aGoT) and finally the future (post-aCoK).

until he noticed that the room was growing darker. The music did not seem so jolly then; he heard discords and strange silences, and notes that hung in the air bleeding. Suddenly the wine turned bitter in his mouth, and when he looked up from his cup he saw that he was dining with the dead.

King Robert sat with his guts spilling out on the table from the great gash in his belly, and Lord Eddard was headless beside him. Corpses lined the benches below, grey-brown flesh sloughing off their bones as they raised their cups to toast, worms crawling in and out of the holes that were their eyes. He knew them, every one; … [snip]… and all the others who had ridden south to King’s Landing never to return. Mikken and Chayle sat together, one dripping blood and the other water…[snip]… even the wildling Theon had killed in the wolfswood the day he had saved Bran’s life.

But there were others with faces he had never known in life, faces he had seen only in stone. The slim, sad girl who wore a crown of pale blue roses and a white gown spattered with gore could only be Lyanna. Her brother Brandon stood beside her, and their father Lord Rickard just behind. Along the walls figures half-seen moved through the shadows, pale shades with long grim faces. The sight of them sent fear shivering through Theon sharp as a knife.

And finally Robb and Grey Wind enter the hall. When Theon has his dream, Robb is still in the Westerlands, most likely having just married Jeyne Westerling. Robb married her after taking her maidenhood when he had comfort-sex with her, grieving of the news that Theon had killed Bran and Rickon.

And then the tall doors opened with a crash, and a freezing gale blew down the hall, and Robb came walking out of the night. Grey Wind stalked beside, eyes burning, and man and wolf alike bled from half a hundred savage wounds. (aCoK, Theon V)

So we have the fallen and the slain feasting in a hall, heroes and heroines of the past, the present as well as arrivals of the future, which combines the concept of Valhalla with the three Fates, and thus the Yggdrasil root (underworld) location of the Urdarbrunnr at Asgard.

Alternatively, Highgarden’s godswood may fit the model too. The Reach seems pretty much the land of milk and honey, rich in food, drink and money. The name Highgarden would seem like a good alternative to a heavenly garden of the gods such as Asgard (garden of the gods). Its godswood too is said to have a pool, and the three weirwoods are called the Three Singers. This seems an allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth which includes Three Witches who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to power but also his downfall. They are alternatively known as the Weird Sisters. Many editions include a footnote to explain that at Shakespeare’s time the word weird was a different spelling of the Old English wyrd, but carried the same meaning – fate.

Consider the PIE root *wert- (to turn, rotate) and its different variations in European languages in the table below.

PIE root Old Norse Old English Old Saxon English Common Gemanic Old High German Dutch German
*wert- urdr wyrd wurd weird *wurdíz wurt worden werden

All these words encompass the meaning of “to come to pass, to become, to be due” and were used for the concept of fate. The Old English wyrd (fate) eventually developed into the modern English adjective weird. Its use develops in the 15th century to mean “having power to control fate”, for example in the name of the Weird Sister. The modern meaning as “odd, strange” is only first attested in 1815, but its usage is then still tied to the supernatural or portentious. It is not until the early 20th century that it is increasingly applied to everyday situations, although in fantasy literature and Frank Herbert’s Dune words such as wyrd and weird are often again associated with the supernatural and with divination powers.

Now, weird- or wyrd- is not exactly the same as weir- and a weir is a pre-existing word that is used to indicate either a type of dam or fishing trap, and anologies can be made how the weirwood trees trap Children of the Forest, Bloodraven, … But I think it is most likely that George derived weir- from weird. One reason is that weirdwood does not flow as easily in pronunciation as weirwood, and since George is not a linguist as Tolkien was, he simply dropped the consontant ‘d’. Let us not ignore that George Martin’s weirwood tree harks back to the fate concept in how it is used to watch events in Westeros from the past, the present and even the future. It is after all a ‘fate tree’.

“Once you have mastered your gifts, you may look where you will and see what the trees have seen, be it yesterday or last year or a thousand ages past. Men live their lives trapped in an eternal present, between the mists of memory and the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come. Certain moths live their whole lives in a day, yet to them that little span of time must seem as long as years and decades do to us. An oak may live three hundred years, a redwood tree three thousand. 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…” (aDwD, Bran III)

In a way, any weirwood tree is a well to derive the fate of a person from, but in combination with a pool and three singers, that are weird wood, in a High Garden and fields of plenty we get the most evocative representations of Yggdrasil’s root at the Urdarbrunnr. The extra connection to a weir is a bonus.

It is quite possible that both Winterfell and Highgarden are Asgard root locations equally, as each other’s counterparts. This would fit the many other times Highgarden is set against Winterfell – Robert’s life speech, the roses, Renly thinking Margaery might look like Lyanna, Loras basically re-enacting joust mummery with his grey mare and blue forget-me-nots as stand-in for Lyanna. It is as if Highgarden and Winterfell are two sides of the thematical same coin.

Aside from the three Norns, the Urdarbrunnr is of significance in relation to the color of Yggdrasil’s bark and consequentionally to the weirwood tree. Yggdrasil’s bark is said to be white, as are weirwoods. But Yggdrasil is an ash tree and ash trees don’t have white stems. Norse mythology solved the issue by claiming that Yggdrasil was daily washed white with the white water and clay/lime of the Urdarbrunnr.

It is further said that these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter XVI)

Basically Yggdrasil is treated daily with a whitewash – a technique where wet lime is spread across house walls made of wattle mats to help isolate the dwelling. The three Norns throwing a mix of white water and clay across Yggdrasil’s stem refers to this technique of protection.

“Hold on a minute!” I hear you think. “The water of Winterfell’s pool is described as BLACK, not white.” Correct. The pool has the opposite color. But what is Ned doing under the wierwood tree, near the pool? He is washing the greatsword Ice with and in the water of the pool.

Catelyn found her husband beneath the weirwood, seated on a moss-covered stone. The greatsword Ice was across his lap, and he was cleaning the blade in those waters black as night. A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet, but the red eyes of the weirwood seemed to follow her as she came. “Ned,” she called softly. (aGoT, Catelyn I)

So, why would George not make the pool white colored? After all, the color white belongs to the chthonic lexicon as the color of bone and snow. The issue though would have been the double meaning of whitewashing: suppressing negative information or impression to make an act, person or group of people appear better than they are. By having Ned wash Ice in black water George avoids the visual metaphor of that meaning of whitewashing.

Finally you may wonder how I can reconcile Winterfell being both an underworld (especially Greek Hades) and the Norse Asgard and/or Midgard, especially when Niflheim is the Norse underworld of the dead and yet I rejected it as the possible referenced location for Winterfell. At a first glance the Norse division of realms gives the impression that only Niflheim is the Norse Underworld, as it is the place where the dead go, including dead gods like Baldr. But a treeroot is also chthonic in nature, and Yggdrasil’s roots end up in three different realms. At least one root locale does not compare to the classic idea of an “underworld” – namely the celestial Asgard. And yet it serves as a realm for the dead, since Freyja’s palace and Odin’s palace (Walhalla) at Asgard are the final destinations of dead warriors. The fact that the three Norse wells of the three different realms are found beneath the treeroots make them chthonic, regardless whether one root ends in the heavens and the other in a nether world.

As I mentioned, there are two more locations and roots with the Yggdrasil tree that can be strongly identified with the aforementioned godswoods or weirwood root locations. I will not go into these for the moment, however. I wish to save the most of Bloodraven’s cave for Bran’s Chthonic essay, and the Riverlands and Hollow Hill for Cat’s Chthonic voyage, so I will come back to it then.

Implication

If  Winterfell, the castle and the godswood, are features of aSoIaF’s symbolical underworld, then this has narrative implications – we actually start the books in the underworld already. The crypts acted as a portal to have underworld characters cross back into the realm of the living.

  • The Prologue: introduction to the Others on the prowl and how they defy the laws of nature by raising people from death as wights; basically wights and Others represent dead shades wishing to escape from the underworld.
  • Bran’s first chapter: introduction to the ruler of the underworld Ned Stark through the eyes of his son as he judges a deserter strictly by the letter of the law and dutifully executes his judgement himself without taking pleasure in it.
  • Cat’s first chapter: introduction to the wife of the ruler of the underworld, Catelyn Stark, and how she experiences living in the underworld, not being a native to it.
  • Ned’s first chapter: festive welcoming of visitors to the underworld, and a voyage into the portal crypts where the ruler of the underworld is invited to cross to the realm of the living by the king.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

In this essay I have shown that the godswood and Winterfell are described in a manner that we can identify them as being part of an underworld as much as the crypts are by using the chthonic lexicon that I started to build with the quotes of the previous two essays. We should regard Winterfell as a whole as an underworld.

Aside from the in-world preliminary lexicon, comparison to Greek and Norse chthonic mythology yields a ton of references for Winterfell’s godwood and Bloodraven’s cave. We find surprisingly accurate references in the books to several rivers of Hades: the black, cold pool and underground river of Bloodraven’s cave with the Lethe, and the hot springs with the Phlegethon and Styx. This makes Bloodraven’s cave the equivalent to the cave of the god of sleep, Hypnos. Likewise, we also find references to link Winterfell and its pool near the weirwood tree with the Norse Urdarbrunnr  (Ned Stark washing off blood from Ice) and Valhalla (Theon’s nightmare of the feasting dead of the past, present and future). These references underline how the North and region beyond the Wall are identifiable as a chthonic realm.

I also explored several features regarding the weirwood tree in relation to the Norse world tree Yggdrasil as well as, surprisingly, the Greek oak oracle at Dodona. I say, surprisingly, because the Greeks did not have a world tree concept nor ar they renowned for tree worship as the Celts were. But Osha’s belief  on how the Old Gods communicate, the ravens that flock to weirwoods and advize Samwell, together with the Illiad’s geographical reference of the Oracle of Dodona show that Greek mythology has been a major source contributing to George’s world building, along with the Germanic and Celtic idea of the three fates, the wyrd sisters.

Summary of chthonic locations

Mythological locations or features Function aSoIaF characters
Cave of Hypnos in Hades Home of the god of sleep Bloodraven’s cave
Lethe River or pool of forgetfulness in Hades, the dead drink of it to forget their life before death in order to be allowed to reincarnate, runs along Hypnos’ cave, creates drowsiness with its murmur Cold black pool of Winterfell’s godswood, underground river in Bloodraven’s cave
Phlegethon Lava stream (river of fire) in Hades. Joins with the Styx Underground cause of the hot springs at Winterfell
Styx Murky river of hatred on which the gods vow and do not break their word. Joins with the Phlegethon. Three hot pools of Winterfell
Oracle of Dodona A sacred grove in wintry Northern Greece, where priestesses, the Peleiades (‘flock of doves’), interpreted the rustling of the leaves of a sacred oak in the heart of the grove. Legend claims a black dove flew to Dodona and instructed people in human speech to build an oracle there. Weirwood heart tree in Winterfell’s godswood, heart tree in godswood of King’s Landing (oak).
Yggdrasil World tree in Norse myth. It is an evergreen ash tree, whitened by the daily whitewash applied from the Urdarbrunnr Weirnet, weirwood trees
Valhalla One of Odin’s halls where the selected slain feast and prepare for Ragnarok.The slain are those picked by Valkyries in battle. Winterfell’s hall and crypts per Theon’s nigthmare
Urdarbrunnr The well, pool or lake of the three main Norns covering past, present and future and determining the fate of men. One of Yggdrasil’s roots ends at the Urdarbrunnr. The three Norns are otherwise known as the weird or wyrd sisters in the English tradition. They pour water and lime from the well each day over the world tree, from which it gets it white color. Two different sources locate it either in Midgard or Asgard. A hall where the gods gather is built nearby. Cold, black pool in Winterfell’s godswood, beside the weirwood, in which Ned Stark cleans his greatsword Ice. The pool beside the Three Singers (three tangled weirwood trees) in Highgarden’s godswood.
Jötunheimr Realm of the frost giants Land North of the Wall, where the giants still live
Ginnungagap The ‘yawning void’ or ‘gaping abyss’ is a primordial void from which the Norse cosmos was born and that is located in Jötunheimr The ‘yawning chasm’ in Bloodraven’s cave where the underground river runs through in the darkness.
Mimisbrunnr Well of knowledge that lies beneath one of the three roots of Yggdrasil, for which the seeker must make a sacrifice in order to be allowed to drink from it. Located in Jötunheimr. Weirnet connected to weirwood grove at Bloodraven’s cave.

Notes

  1. Not only the Greeks thought the experience of being dead is like sleeping (and dreaming), but Alan Watts refers to this belief as well in one of his 20th century speeches.
  2. It is such a popular concept in early religions and mythologies that scholars proposed an evolutionary hypothesis to explain its origin. Primates originate from ancestors who lived in trees, and the majority of them still spend a large part of their lives in trees. Thus the idea of a vast tree being our whole world might still be present in our Jungian collective subconscious as either an instinct or archetype, just as much as it is a source of survival and wisdom as a tree of life.
  3. It sometimes is translated as boar meat, but the Old Norse words Sæhrímnir is difficult to translate. Some scholars make it out to be some soothy sea-animal dish. The beast’s name though is listed by Snorri in an appendix as a boar.

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