Lord Varys is an enormously intricate, mostly mysterious character. Readers have divided opinions on his goals, character and origin. It is impossible to encapsulate Varys in one essay. While there are certain good resources out there, most of these merely scratch the surface, and miss out on the load of clues that George has given us, some that are quite surprising and take us across all of Essos. Much of what I will present is new, but certain basic ideas have been floating around. They simply were never tied to Varys before or gotten into as thoroughly. Since some of the investigation and results are quite stunning, I tackle Varys thoroughly, and therefore decided to break it all down in various essays. At least two of those deal with Varys’s origin. Another essay will concentrate on his trickster characteristics to examine his motives and plans. The final one will focus on the role implications and shifts within the ragtag of Exiles.
The story as spelled out to us
Pycelle claims that Varys is from Lys. Illyrio claims he was from Myr but that Varys had to flee Myr because of a rival thief. Tyrion seems to think that Varys originates from Myr as well. Illyrio at least confirms that Varys was a foreigner to Pentos, since the other street boys in Pentos beat and bullied Varys for being a eunuch and having a different accent.
[Pycelle] cleared his throat and spat a thick glob of phlegm onto the rushes. Above them, a raven cawed loudly in the rookery. “The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know?” (aGoT, Eddard V)
“Varys came from Myr.”
“So he did. I met him not long after he arrived, one step ahead of the slavers. By day he slept in the sewers, by night he prowled the rooftops like a cat. […] In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him. In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten. (aDwD, Tyrion II)
Both sources also link him to slavery. Pycelle claims he was born as a slave, while Illyrio claims that Varys had managed to ellude slavers who were in pursuit of him. Meanwhile Varys claims to have been part of a Mummer’s Troupe, until a sorcerer bought Varys from his master in Myr. The sorcerer had no further interest in Varys beyond castrating him and burning his manhood, and thus let him go, and Varys survived in Myr until he fled to Pentos.
“I was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly. Our master owned a fat little cog and we sailed up and down the narrow sea performing in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King’s Landing. One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. […] The mummers had sailed by the time he was done with me. Once I had served his purpose, the man had no further interest in me, so he put me out. When I asked him what I should do now, he answered that he supposed I should die. To spite him, I resolved to live. I begged, I stole, and I sold what parts of my body still remained to me. Soon I was as good a thief as any in Myr, […] (aCoK, Tyrion X)
How Pycelle ever came to learn that Varys was a slave from Lys is not known, and Pycelle is not alive anymore to reveal this. Still, if we combine the three claims, we can infer that Varys likely was born into slavery in Lys, most probably to a bedslave either in a household of Lys or in a pillow house. A few years later Varys was sold to the traveling folly until his owner sold him to the sorcerer in Myr, and there he was castrated. Still a boy, he fled Myr some years later and soon met and formed a partnership with Illyrio. Years and years go by, and following Maester Yandel’s chronology of Aerys II, it appears that Varys was hired by Aerys II to become his spymaster between 278-280 AC, after Steffon Baratheon’s death.
This is roughly what we can put together for Varys. Everything else is and will remain speculation if and when George either confirms or disproves them in the last two books. But that does not mean some of these theories are without some foundation, or that there cannot be interesting gems found along a spider trail.
Catelyn ignored his familiarity. There were more important questions. “So it was the King’s Spider who found me.” […] The title [Lord Varys] was but a courtesy due him as a council member; Varys was lord of nothing but the spiderweb, the master of none but his whisperers. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
The Spider is Varys’s nickname. Catelyn makes the obvious association to a spiderweb, and that in relation to spying and whispers. He has a network of spies. So the spying spider is a role association. It is spelled out for us, and the reason why we barely ever look beyond this meaning for the spy-der.
The second association is more subtextual. Spiders are predators who build sticky traps in which to catch their food, and have fangs that inject venom. So, when we think of spiders, we think of poisonous and fanged creepy crawlies on eight legs with eight eyes, scuttling around in the shadows and dank places giving us the heebie jeebus. George uses this cultural association too in the the books, through the prejudiced opinion and physical responses other characters have when interacting with Varys. For example when Pycelle warns Ned not to trust spiders, he thinks to himself how Varys makes his skin crawl.
“[…] Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.”
That was scarcely anything Ned needed to be told; there was something about Varys that made his flesh crawl. (aGoT, Eddard V)
Certain people (with arachnaphobia) cannot even bear to look at a picture of a spider.
George uses the spider shudder prejudice against Varys to make the first-time reader believe that Littlefinger is more trustworthy in aGoT. The distrust is so strong that even after Littlefinger is shown to be behind the murder of Jon Arryn and a lot of murderous and callous plots, betrays Ned Stark, grooms Sansa for his sexual predation, few readers are ever convinced that Varys does not have equally devious plans in mind. So, when Varys confirms that he intends to plummet the realm into chaos to help Aegon’s conquest, shows he is willing to murder good men for it, we chuckle and think, “I knew all along that we cannot trust Varys as far as we can throw him.” BryndenBFish’s excellent essay on the Mummer’s Folly comes to such a conclusion, making him a puppet master with Aegon just being one of his puppets (albeit his most important puppet).
Still, we ought to take a deeper look into spiders beyond the spelled out spy-derweb, beyond how they make our skin crawl. The next step is to look for stories and myths about spiders as they are part of the collective. The first mythical spider to come to mind is Arachne (‘Spider’), an extremely skilled weaver who denied she had learned her skill from Athena (the patron goddess of weaving). Both Athena and Arachne enter into a contest. Sure that she will win, Athena decrees the loser would have to give up weaving ever after. Arachne proves herself to be better skilled, but events lead to Arachne’s hanging, and Athena turns her into a spider so that she can weave forever more. Yes, the Arachne myth is ancient Greek myth1, but still very much part of the pop-art collective, as Gustave Doré’s illustration (at the top) of her in Dante’s Inferno is an often used picture for albums by (metal) bands.
You might argue, “But Arachne is a woman! Not a man. While Varys is a man.” Indeed, Varys is not a woman, but he is effeminate and a eunuch. Cersei points out to Tyrion how Varys is not guided by his cock like men such as Tyrion tend to, and Pycelle affirms that poison is a “woman’s weapon”, but als that of eunuchs.
“I have heard it said that poison is a woman’s weapon.”
Pycelle stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It is said. Women, cravens … and eunuchs.” (aGoT, Eddard V)
“Do you know why Varys is so dangerous?”
“Are we playing at riddles now? No.”
“He doesn’t have a cock.”
“Neither do you.” And don’t you just hate that, Cersei?
“Perhaps I’m dangerous too. You, on the other hand, are as big a fool as every other man. That worm between your legs does half your thinking.” (aCoK, Tyrion XII)
So, if the characters in the books tell each other to equate Varys with a woman, then so should we, and Arachne can be an applicable myth.
The myth is of interest as an origin and a trickster myth. Myths can be classified by what they aim to explain: order of the world or life, creation, fickleness of the gods, national or moral superiority to other people or civilisations, morality, but also a location’s name or origin of an animal’s known attributes or skills.
Arachne’s myth explains where spiders come from. And of course, Varys’s origin is a hot subject of speculation. Not only does the myth relate the origin of spiders, but Ovid explicitly tells us Arachne’s lineage in his Metamorphosis.
Arachne’s distinction lay not in her birth or the place that she hailed from but solely her art. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, practised the trade of dyeing wool in Phocaéan purple; her mother was dead but, like her husband, had come from the people. (Metamormphosis, book 6, Arachne, 6-9, Ovid, translation by David Raeburn)
When we then check the first ever description of Varys it becomes near tantalizing.
He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
Certainly the words weaving, thread and silk connect to spiders. The threads that spiders produce with their glands are silk. A weaving contest between goddess and human is the plot’s subject of the Arachne myth.
Purple in particular is tied to Arachne’s lineage: the color that first comes to mind when we think of Varys. More, while Athena and Arachne weave in shades with such a subtle variation of hues like the eye cannot tell where one color of the rainbow fades into another, both gold and purple are the colors singled out in Ovid’s telling of the contest.
Webs were woven in threads of Tyrian purple dye and of lighter, more delicate, perceptibly merging shades. […] Their patterns were also shot with flexible threads of gold, as they each spun out an old tale in the west of their separate looms. (Metamormphosis, book 6, Arachne, 61-70, Ovid, translation by David Raeburn)
I cannot but wonder whether Varys’s purple silks hint to his origin, his ancestry. But which “thread” to follow? The silk route or the color purple? And if the latter, do we look for a source of the dye, or another association in-world to purple? Since we are considering a spider, perhaps it is best to explore the entire webbing, for his origin may very well be a mixture of several corners of Planetos.
- The Spider’s origin:
- Part I – The Silk Route: Using the origin locations of silk, I discuss Varys’s physical features, using parallels and information we have been given about Naath, Qarth and the Grasslands. It highlights the parallel between Varys and the Unsullied, proposes that Qartheen are a leukist race, and how this impacts Varys’s story.
- Part II – The Color Purple: This essay goes into purple flowers, poison, perfume, eye color, dyes and purple dragonblood. We travel to Lys, Myr, Tyrosh and Braavos.
- The Spider Trickster: Arachne but several other mythical or legendary spiders are tricksters. This essay delves into various types of tricksters and how Varys matches a specific type.
- The Spider’s Ragtag Role: incorporates what we learned of the above and how it relates to Aegon.
- Actually it is a classical Roman myth set in Greece. The oldest source for the Arachne myth is Ovid’s Metamorphosis.