The Silk Route
In the introduction I pointed out how Arachne’s spider-myth is an origin myth and that Ovid’s version includes Arachne’s ancestry in a manner that should perk our interest about Varys’s. Using the very first description we have about Varys in Catelyn’s chapter in King’s Landing, I argued that we ought to investigate the Planetos Silk Route.
The actual real-world historical “silk route” was both a maritime as well as an overland route. It originated with the Chinese seeking to trade with the Central Eurasian communities that were renowned for their horse breeding. The Chinese mined jade, lapis lazuli and spinel (if rose tinted it was called Ballas ruby). Around 2000 BC a steppe route to trade jade and minerals for horses came about. Over time, the Chinese began to carve their jade adopting Scythian art. Cultivated silk went also westward, while gold went eastward. By the middle ages, after the collapse of Byzantium, the Arabs controlled much of the caravan routes all the way to Moorish Spain. The Middle East was the midway trade hub. Spices, incense, glass, wood and certain foodware traveled east and from China and India came silk, lacquer and porcelain to the Mediterranean. By then the overland caravans used camels to carry the loads while traversing the various deserts. If religion was cited for popes and kings as reasons to set up crusades, its riches were the lure to sign up. Control of the mediterranean gateway and route sparked the more baser desire. When that ultimately failed, seamanship had vastly improved and European kingdoms sought sailing routes to trade with India, China and Japan directly.
On Planetos there was once a Silk Road.
The Steel Road (so named for all the battles it has seen) and the Stone Road both originate in Vaes Dothrak, the former running almost due east beneath the highest peaks, the latter curving southeast to join the old Silk Road at the ruins of Yinishar (called Vaes Jini by the horselords) before beginning its climb [into the Bone Mountains]. (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond)
According to the Wiki of Ice and Fire, it ran from Yinishar through the Bone Moutains to Shamyriana. From Yinishar two other routes go eastward: one along the shores of the inland saltwater Poison Sea and edges of the Red Waste into Lhazar and another passes north of Lhazar into former Ghiscari territory. Eventually both end up in Mereen. While caravans may still travel these roads either to cross the Bone Mountains or take the Stone Road to Vaes Dothrak, it is clear that aside from the Lhazarene cities all the other cultures and cities once there were either destroyed by the Doom or the Century of Blood in which the Dothraki gained dominion over the grasslands, making it an uncultured wasteland. So, the Silk Road fell out of use as a major trade route between the far east and the Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay of Essos. Instead, the silk route is mostly a maritime one. Silk can be traded for in various ports and islands of Essos – Naath, Qarth, and Asshai. To a lesser extent there is a connection with the Sarnori as well. I will investigate the parallels and reverse parallels that spring from these locations, especially in regard to Varys.
Note: I often refer to symbolic interpretations with the colored coat of horses in this essay, which are based and expand George’s parallel use of horses in relation to those who ride them. For the basic fundamental idea I refer and advize the themed esays of The Trail of the Red Stallion, in particular Ned Stark’s Wrong Bet as background reading.
- Naathi Bedslaves
- The Unsullied: Purest Creatures
- Spider Silk
- Tagaez Fen
- White As Milk
- Qartheen Slaves
- Sorrowful Man
- Xaro Xhoan Daxos
- Grassroot Civilisations
- Lyber and the Spider Goddess
- Asshai by the Shadows
- Red Silk for a Black Cloak
- Asshai Citizens
- From a Colony to a Port
- Summary and Conclusion (tltr)
The silk route to Naath poses a literary problem: (1) butterflies are not predatory as spiders and (2) Naathi silk is becoming a rarity. The chances that Varys’s silk is Naathi silk are slim.
Such [corsair] raids have become so frequent since the Century of Blood that the Peaceful People have largely abandoned their own shores, moving inland to the hills and forests, where it is harder for the slavers to find them. Thus the fine handicrafts, shimmering silks, and delicate spiced wines of the Isle of Butterflies are seen less and less in the markets of the Seven Kingdoms and the Nine Free Cities. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)
There is however, much less of a literary issue for a slave connection. Naathi are the most favored slaves for being so docile.
The Peaceful People always bring good prices, it is said, for they are as clever as they are gentle, fair to look upon, and quick to learn obedience. (tWoIaF – Beyonde the Free Cities: Naath)
The Peaceful People, [Missandei’s] folk were called. All agreed that they made the best slaves. (aSoS, Daenerys II)
Pycelle claims Varys was born a slave in Lys, implying his mother must have been a slave, already. Most readers speculate his mother would have been a bedslave. I’ll bet though that you just never considered that she might be Naathi. The world book reveals that one pillow house in Lys is famed for their Naathi bedslaves.
It is reported that one pillow house on Lys is famed for its Naathi girls, who are clad in diaphanous silken gowns and adorned with gaily painted butterfly wings. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)
Illyrio mentioned to Tyrion how Varys hid and stayed ahead from slavers in Pentos.
“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.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)
Since the peace treaty between Braavos and Pentos, slavery is officially forbidden in Pentos (though the servants are bought as slaves elsewhere), and yet we have slavers prowling the streets. Of course laws will never stop poaching slavers from abducting street urchins, but in the way Illyrio mentions it, he implies that he himself never seemed in any danger of that, but Varys in particular. Varys remained out of sight to them, only coming out at night and even then staying on the rooftops. Is something distinctively recognizable about him from a distance, marking him a slaver target? Like a distinct skin tone?
Add Varys’s behavior of perfect servitude to members of the small council, lords and ladies, and members of the royal court.
“Oh, your poor hands. Have you burned yourself, sweet lady? The fingers are so delicate … Our good Maester Pycelle makes a marvelous salve, shall I send for a jar?” […] Varys bobbed his head. “I was grievous sad to hear about your son. And him so young. The gods are cruel.” […] “Good lady,” Varys said with great solicitude. “There are men in the Free Cities with wondrous healing powers. Say only the word, and I will send for one for your dear Bran.” (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
For a literary parallel it does not really matter that this behavior is only part of his mummer’s repertoire to lull people into underestimating him, even when they distrust him, not when George uses symbolism and parallels in an actual mummer’s act, such as
- Penny and Groat on their dog and pig at the Purple Wedding
- Penny and Tyrion in Daznak’s Pit
- The play and rehearsal scenes in Arya’s tWoW excerpt chapter Mercy.
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The Unsullied: Purest Creatures
At this point, you might be ready to point out to me that Varys does kill Pycelle by bashing his head in and fires arrows at close range into Kevan Lannister’s chest, all the while plotting war, and how that certainly is not the Naathi way.
The Peaceful People, the Naathi are called by seafarers, for they will not fight even in defense of their homes and persons. The Naathi do not kill, not even beasts of the field and wood; they eat fruit, not flesh, and make music, not war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)
Point granted, but Missandei’s Naathi brothers Mossador and Marselen are Unsullied. In order to become Unsullied, they killed a puppy and a slave’s newborn child. Mossador’s and Marselen’s training and experiences since childhood hardened and desensitized them.
The obvious parallel between Unsullied and Varys is the fact that they are eunuchs, who were castrated “root and stem”.
“In Yunkai and Meereen, eunuchs are often made by removing a boy’s testicles, but leaving the penis. Such a creature is infertile, yet often still capable of erection. Only trouble can come of this. We remove the penis as well, leaving nothing. The Unsullied are the purest creatures on the earth.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)
“He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
Vary’s wording is not simply a euphemism for the removal of both testicles and penis, but also an expression that implies his ancestral stem and cultural roots were cut away from him, which may have changed him so profoundly he may not share his ancestry’s cultural beliefs, even if he may still have the servile nature. Just like Mossador and Marselen, Varys may have roots to Naath, but can plan, act and behave in a manner that would sadden his hypothetical Naathi ancestors. If Missandei’s brothers have killed, then so could a Naathi eunuch in King’s Landing.
That George wants us to make a transference parallel between Unsullied and Varys, because of that complete castration, becomes obvious when we compare what happened to the remains. Varys’s sorcerer burnt his parts as an offering on a brazier, while the Unsullied burn their manhoods themselves on an altar to a goddess called the Lady of Spears.
“I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
Grey Worm looked troubled. “The goddess is called by many names. She is the Lady of Spears, the Bride of Battle, the Mother of Hosts, but her true name belongs only to these poor ones who have burned their manhoods upon her altar. […] (aDwD, Daenerys VI)
The Burning of Male Parts
A third surprising scene that parallels Varys’s description of burning his manhood on the brazier is set in Qarth. Upon the return to Xaro’s Palace, after her unsuccesful appeal to the Pureborn, Daenerys puts on a “loose robe of purple silk” and charrs pieces of chopped snake above a brazier to feed it to her dragons.
While it is not an actual offering of a chopped penis to a god or demon, “one-eyed snake” is slang for penis. George could have used any type of meat for Dany to chop up and charr. Instead he picked the one animal that resembles a penis. Meanwhile Dany’s dragons can be either feared as demons or worshipped and given offerings like gods.
If we are indeed to make a connection between this scene of Dany feeding her dragons, Varys’s castration and the Unsullied burning their manhoods on the altar, this suggest burned offerings of a penis helps the god/demon in the blue flame and Lady of Spears grow bigger. Someone who burns his cut penis on an altar sacrifices his potential descendants, sacrifices all his sons.
Even though he never sacrifices his privates, Craster does offer all of his newborn sons to his “gods”. Craster helped the Others grow in numbers and power. Likewise Stannis sacrifices his seed and thus his potential sons to the shadow, instead of descendants. And of course Dany’s sacrifice of her son and Drogo helps birth the dragons, which are her “gods” so to speak. Take not of the fact that Mirri Maz Duur’s ritual left Drogo impotent.
At heart the male sacrifice of descendants seems to be the necessary ingredient to empower magical creatures or spirits. The Unsullied and Craster show that it matters little whether the descendants that are sacrificed are of royal blood or not. And Varys and Dany show it does not even have to be a voluntary sacrifice, but works under duress just as well. The most important resulting question then with Varys’s burning of his manly parts is which power it awoke or helped to grow. And could the blue flames be an indication this sorcerer aimed to stir or help the Others grow?
There is also a reverse parallel between the castration of Varys and Unsullied. The sorcerer who cut Varys regarded the boy as a waste product. Varys could die for all he cared. He was only insterested in Varys’s manhood and his ritual. Varys’s survival and becoming the Spider, was a by-product of the experience.
“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.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
But the slavers of Astapor are only interested in the castrated boys, while the testicles and penis are the waste product. It are the Unsullied themselves who burn their parts on an altar to a warrior goddess.
Athena, Lady of Spears
The Unsullied’s goddess goes by the epithets of Lady of Spears, Bride of the Battle, or Mother of Hosts. At least two of those are references to the Greek “virgin” goddess Athena. She was a goddess of war. Not the “savage” type like that of Ares dictated by bloodlust, violence and slaughter. No, her war was disciplined and strategic, not unlike the disciplined lockstep legions of Old Ghis.
And, aside from her helmet, one of Athena’s famous attributes is the spear. It is this Greek Lady of Spears who competed with Arachne. (See image left: Athena Giustiniani Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena with helmet and speaer)
As much as Varys and the Unsullied share a similar experience of pain and loss, the aftermath is so different that in some ways they become almost the opposite of one another. Varys is extremely sensitive to the sight of blood and pain, especially his own.
Varys lifted the knife with exaggerated delicacy and ran a thumb along its edge. Blood welled, and he let out a squeal and dropped the dagger back on the table.
“Careful,” Catelyn told him, “it’s sharp.”
“Nothing holds an edge like Valyrian steel,” Littlefinger said as Varys sucked at his bleeding thumb and looked at Catelyn with sullen admonition. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
“Ser Jaime?” Varys panted. “You frightened me.”
“I meant to.” When he twisted the dagger, a trickle of blood ran down the blade. “I was thinking you might help me pluck my brother from his cell before Ser Ilyn lops his head off. It is an ugly head, I grant you, but he only has the one.”
“Yes . . . well . . . if you would . . . remove the blade . . . yes, gently, as it please my lord, gently, oh, I’m pricked . . .” The eunuch touched his neck and gaped at the blood on his fingers. “I have always abhorred the sight of my own blood.” (aFfC, Jaime I)
Unsullied are given a daily drink to make them insensitive to pain. Kraznys can slice off a nipple and the Unsullied (a Lyseni one) does not even flinch.
“The wine of courage,” was the answer Kraznys gave her. “It is no true wine at all, but made from deadly nightshade, bloodfly larva, black lotus root, and many secret things. They drink it with every meal from the day they are cut, and with each passing year feel less and less. It makes them fearless in battle. Nor can they be tortured.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)
Courage is a trait that Varys argues he does not have to Eddard and to Tyrion. Jaime only has to draw a bit of blood to make Varys comply in rescuing Tyrion even though Varys helped Tyrion in looking guilty of the murder of Joffrey.
Neither Varys nor Unsullied can rape anyone by penetration, but the Unsullied do not plunder nor steal, while Varys survives for years as a thief, even was the prince of thieves* in Myr.
* The prince of thieves of course is also a title and reference to a Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner.
“[…] Plunder interests them no more than rape. […] The Unsullied are not permitted to steal. […] Other slaves may steal and hoard up silver in hopes of buying freedom, but an Unsullied would not take it if the little mare offered it as a gift.” (aSoS, Daenerys II)
“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, and when I was older I learned that often the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
“In Myr he was a prince of thieves, until a rival thief informed on him.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)
And yet, like Unsullied, Varys evolves into a eunuch who does not take gold, silver and gems, but is interested only in secrets. The prince of thieves became a fence, then a blackmailer and eventually a spymaster.
“[In Pentos] Varys spied on lesser thieves and took their takings. I offered my help to their victims, promising to recover their valuables for a fee. Soon every man who had suffered a loss knew to come to me, whilst city’s footpads and cutpurses sought out Varys … half to slit his throat, the other half to sell him what they’d stolen. We both grew rich, and richer still when Varys trained his mice. […] We left the gold and gems for common thieves. Instead our mice stole letters, ledgers, charts … later, they would read them and leave them where they lay. Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed. ” (aDwD, Tyrion II)
And so despite having to survive in a completely different manner than the Unsullied, his fears and low treshhold for pain, Varys too became a pure creature who is not interested in plunder or rape.
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The big elephant in the room would be the distinct physical features of Naathi. They have round flat faces, dusky skin, and large soft amber eyes, often flecked with gold.
The people native to the island are a beautiful and gentle race, with round flat faces, dusky skin, and large, soft amber eyes, oft flecked with gold. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Naath)
Surely, someone would have noticed if Varys had dusky skin, right? Or would they? We do not explicitly know …
- the color of Varys’s eyes. No POV has ever revealed it to us. We can presume that his eyes are unlikely to be amber, flecked with gold, because such eye color would have been remarked on, as much as when he would have had purple eyes. Of course, if Varys has a mixed ethnical parentage, then he could still have a Naathi mother and yet not display amber eyes.
- his hair color, since he is bald.
- his tan or natural complexion, since he powders his face and hands. (It can be logically deduced though as we shall see in the Qartheen section)
The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. (aGoT, Catelyn IV)
His hand left powder stains on Ned’s sleeve,[…] (aGoT, Eddard IV)
Readers speculate that Varys shaves his head to hide the natural color of his hair, but he can just be naturally bald. What is definitely suspect is the powdering of both face AND hands. Powder is used to conceal the true complexion, either to bronze it, or to make the skin tone a shade paler. That is why it is called “concealer”. Varys conceals his natural skin tone.
Incidentally or not so incidentally, we have a round face description for Varys. We just are not certain whether it would still be a round face if Varys were slimmer. And maybe his plumpness is a type of concealment too: Westerosi would assume his face is round because of his plumpness, and never consider his round face may be the features he was born with.
A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, […] (aGoT, Arya III)
Obviously, my point is that we cannot ascertain nor exclude any distinguishable ethnic features (for now). Beneath the powder and the baldness, a mixture of all kinds of origins may be lurking – Naathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazarene, …. We know Varys conceals features and thus we must work with literary parallels, symbolically related clues and hints to speculate what his origins may be.
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If butterfly silk does seem a miss-match for spiders, then why not search for a people with spider silk? And in fact such a thing existed on Planetos: the riders of the Sarnori of old wore spider silk.
Their riders wore steel and spider silk and rode coal-black mares, whilst the greatest of their warriors went to battle in scythed chariots pulled by teams of bloodred horses (oft driven by their wives or daughters, for it was the custom amongst the Sarnori for men and women to make war together). (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
So, spider silk is indeed a thing*! Or rather it was. At the very least it seems to confirm the validity in exploring the silk route for the Spiders’ origin.
*In 2009 a real world manufactured spider silk cloth was exhibited in museums. More in this article with pictures of the result.
Coal-Black and Bloodred Horses
Notice how we get two types of colored horses mentioned in the quote about the Sarnori riders. These horses and their colors are not simply mentioned for an individual rider, but for its people, and the color division is heavily implied to be criss-crossed by gender. The men ride the black mares, while the women drive the chariots pulled by bloodred horses. The savvy reader might notice how George does not just say black and red, but coal-black and bloodred. Unless mined, coal is charcoal, which is manufactured by burning wood. In other words, those coal-black mares are associated with “fire”, while “blood” hardly needs any further explanation. We have the color scheme of the Targaryen sigil here – black and red – and the words of House Targaryen, “fire and blood“.
Combined with spider-silk, we thus have an association between spiders and House Targaryen. However, I must point out that this association as used in the description about the Sarnori is symbolic, for the Sarnori most certainly do not look like Valyrians.
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The Sarnori are brown of skin, and have black hair and black eyes, matching the coat color of the coal-black mares.
Long of limb and brown of skin they were, like the Zoqora, though their hair and eyes were black as night. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
How the concealment of Varys’s features might disguise Naathi ancestry, applies just as well for Sarnori. The Sarnori features are not out of the range of possibilities. Beneath the powder and bald head may lurk brown skin and black hair. And without the rest, very dark eyes might not startle any Westerosi. That leaves us Sarnori’s long limbs. Once again, we have no explicit description of the Spider’s height. His height is only relayed to us relative in comparison to other characters.
“Wine,” a voice answered. It was not the rat-faced man; this gaoler was stouter, shorter, though he wore the same leather half cape and spiked steel cap. “Drink, Lord Eddard.” He thrust a wineskin into Ned’s hands. The voice was strangely familiar, yet it took Ned Stark a moment to place it. “Varys?” (aGoT, Eddard XXV)
Arya saw Varys the eunuch gliding among the lords in soft slippers and a patterned damask robe, and she thought the short man with the silvery cape and pointed beard might be the one who had once fought a duel for Mother. (aGoT, Arya V)
Varys is smaller than Eddard’s regular rat-faced gaoler (and we don’t know how tall that one is). But Varys is not “short”. Arya uses “short” for Littlefinger and thus her lack of height mention for Varys implies he appears to be of “normal” height to her. If I were to ask you how tall Varys may or not be, you will probably answer “average” or slightly smaller than average.
Tobho Mott describes the man who paid for Gendry’s apprenticeship, and many readers presume that this mysterious man is Varys in disguise.
Varys is stout and round of shoulder, and he may wear a false beard for disguise, as he does for the Rugen gaoler disguise (different color here). When Varys ventures outside of the Red Keep, he often uses a cloak or robe with hood or cowl to hide his face. The rich, purple cloak seems to be the element that makes it certain in many readers’ minds, for readers associate Varys with purple clothing. But so would characters in King’s Landing who know Varys. If say Janos Slynt or a knight of the Red Keep were to venture in Steel Street or Tobho’s shop and would see this stout, round shouldered man with rich, purple cloak, they would likely assume it is Varys, without ever needing to see his face. So, the purple cloak ruins the success of the disguise.
Either this msytery man was not Varys, or George made a mistake. George could have thought to use the purple cloak as a hint for readers to help us identify the mystery man to be Varys, but never realized that this would make him recognizable to in-world characters. So, yes, I mention this description, though with the added warning that it may not be Varys.
If this man was indeed Varys, then we have our third relative measurement of his height: not as tall as Ned Stark. Catelyn mentions Ned was smaller than his late brother Brandon Stark. This mistakenly leads to the conclusion by readers that Ned Stark was at best average. But Tobho Mott uses the words “not as tall as you”, implying that Tobho regards Ned Stark a tall man, even though he is not one of the notorious giants. Otherwise Tobho would have said, “smaller than you”. Ned considers the Baratheon brothers as giant-tall, and thus exceptionally tall. Robert is 6 ft 6. Ned also has to be able to wield the greatsword Ice easily. At the start of the series the adolescent Robb of fourteen is not yet as tall as Ice, but afterwards he catches up fast. This suggests that Ice is at least 5 ft 2 (160 cm), likely making Ned 5 ft 11- 6 ft (180-183 cm), which is as tall as the average Belgian or Dutch men, who hold the two largest averages for men in the world according to nationality since 2016. So, Lord Varys is likely about 5 ft 8 tall (175 cm).*
*For archived height discussions of characters this might be a fun read: height hierarchy.
Average height is not what we would picture for a Sarnori who are said to be tall, and proudly called themselves Tagaez Fen, which means “Tall Men”.
Westeros remembers [Qaathi’s] conquerors as the Sarnori, for at its height their great kingdom included all the lands watered by the Sarne and its vassals, and the three great lakes that were all that remained of the shrinking Silver Sea. They called themselves the Tall Men (in their own tongue the Tagaez Fen)
Height varies. Around 60-80 % of height is hereditary (depending on “race”), and 20-40 % is determined by environmental factors (nutrients). A person’s height is inherited from both parents. Simply put, with a mixed ethnical heritage with different averages in height, the child would be taller than the parent with the smallest ethnic average, but smaller than parent with the tallest ethnic average. So, if for example Varys were to have a Sarnori father who bedded his Naathi bedslave mother in Lys, then Varys can certainly end up being only average in height.
Let us also not forget the impact Varys’s living conditions would have had on his ability to grow. Diet during childhood and youth heavily influences the ability of an individual to reach his or hers genetic height potential. Children who have been malnourished, knew hunger and had a poor one-sided diet for a while, will never grow into their full potential adult height.
Proteins and Growth
Proteins are essential nutrients for physical growth, muscle building and maintenance. There are various types of proteins that our digestion breaks down into amino acids essential to make sure our body cells lilterally do not collapse. We can only acquire them through food. Not every food source is an adequate provider for those different proteins. On top of that, certain porteins are only present in a limited amount.
The diet that provides an optimal amount of the four most limited proteins in food is one that consists of meat and nuts, which is exactly the diet that hunters and gatherers rely on. If you rely on cereals and grains (staples) like a farmer, you will need fruit and fresh vegetables with that. Staples are rich in sugars to provide energy for immediate use or storage (fat), but as a mono-diet it hampers muscle build up and growth. This is the reason why average height collapsed when people shifted from hunting and gathering to farming, and did not pick up again in the second half of the 20th century.
So, when Varys had to survive on the scraps that he could steal in the streets of Myr and Pentos as a child, he was bound to lack the necessary amount of proteins to grow into his maximal height potential. Meat would only be occasionally on his menu, and of the lean variety. Fresh fruit and vegetables would have been something he rarely – if ever – ate.
This lack of acquiring the necessary variation of proteins through food is aggrevated for Varys due to his castration. As a eunuch he had reduced testosterone production, while this hormone promotes protein synthesis necessary for growth in children.
We can therefore be almost certain that Varys is not as tall as his genetics otherwise may allow him to be. At least one parent of Varys who never knew food shortage or lack of variation would certainly be a tall woman or man. Hence, Varys’s average height does not exclude Sarnori ancestry for Varys, or any other ancestry of tall people, certainly if he has mixed heritage. Once again, George made sure that we cannot ascertain Varys’s ancestry through his physical height.
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With the Naathi I mentioned that one of the symbolical issues for Naathi silk was that it is not common at the markets anymore. With the Sarnori it is even worse: the number of Sarnori is in decline. Their last remaining city, Saath, only exists by the grace and help of Ib and Lorath.
Let it suffice to say that of all the proud Sarnori cities, only Saath remains unruined today, and that port city is a sad place, much diminished from what it once was, surviving largely because of support from Ib and Lorath (whose colony of Morosh is nearby). Only in Saath do men still name themselves Tagaez Fen; fewer than twenty thousand remain, when once the Tall Men numbered in the millions. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands)
More, the book series itself does not mention Saath or one Sarnori. Whenever a group of slaves, merchants or sailors in ports are described, there is not one Sarnori, while even Ibbinese and brindle-skinned men are mentioned (different species of humans). Without the World Book, we would not even know the Sarnori existed or ever existed. That tells us two things:
- Sarnoris do not sail, nor do others sail to Saath to trade. There is a better chance that silk comes from Naath, than it coming from Saath.
- If no Sarnori is mentioned as a character in the series, then they are irrelevant to the ancestry of a character within the story in a physical way.
We can thus safely conclude that Varys has no actual Sarnori ancestry. This does not mean that this section was fruitless. Sarnori are not the sole tall people in the books. And I want you to keep the mention of spider-silk in the back of your mind for the area where it appeared. As the Sarnori were not the sole people whose origin are the Grasslands.
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Varys’s silk is far more likely to originate from is Qarth, a city that Varys’s partner in crime, Illyrio, trades with often. The Qartheen Xaro even sails to Mereen on a “silken cloud”.
Many ships of Westeros had sailed as far as Qarth to trade for spices and silk, but he dared to go farther, reaching the fabled lands of Yi Ti and Leng, whose wealth doubled that of House Velaryon in a single voyage. Nine great voyages were made upon the Sea Snake, and on the last, Corlys filled the ship’s hold with gold and bought twenty more ships at Qarth, loading them with spices, elephants, and the finest silk. (tWoIaF – The Targaryen Kings, Jaehaerys I)
[Xaro] had come from Qarth upon the galleas Silken Cloud with thirteen galleys sailing attendance, his fleet an answered prayer. (aDwD, Daenerys III)
If in the past, Yinishar was the Essosi Constantinople of the overland caravan route, Qarth has become the Constantinople of the maritime route. We have the mention of spices, silk, but also jade for the sea.
Of the Qaathi cities, only Qarth remains, dreaming of past glories beside the jealously guarded Jade Gates, which link the Summer and Jade seas. […] Forced to look instead to the sea, the Pureborn who ruled Qarth swiftly constructed a fleet and took control of the Jade Gates—the strait between Qarth and Great Moraq, which joins the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea. With the Valyrian fleet destroyed, and Volantis’s attention turned west, there were none to oppose them as they established control over the most direct route between east and west, and so gained immeasurably in both trade and levied tolls for safe passage. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
In that sense, Qarth may not be the city where silk actually originates from, but it is the city to trade for it by people in Essos and Westeros west of Qarth. When it takes months of sea-voyage to trade for certain goods, then the trade city is as good as “origin”. The turkey (bird) is a Central American bird that did not exist as a species on other continents. It was imported into Europe via Turkey, by turkey merchants, a reference that was shortened into turkey. So, a bird of Central American origin was instead called after its trading origin. Likewise Westerosi would tend to refer to silk imported via Qarth as Qartheen silk, even though it is most likely produced and woven somewhere else. To complete the picture of Qarth as an equivalent to the Constantinopel of silk trade, Qartheen ride camels, instead of horses, which is very suggestive of the silk route concept and its caravans.
White As Milk
Like the Sarnori, the Qartheen are tall. The same arguments about Varys’s relative length and how he may have tall ancestors apply here. Like the Naathi and Sarnori, the Qartheen have a distinctive skin tone, but instead of dusk or dark they are so pale that the Dothraki call them Milk Men.
They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. […] Her Dothraki called the Qartheen “Milk Men” for their paleness, […]. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
Powder can be used to lighten a dusky complexion, as well as darken pale skin. Pale skin would be distinct enough for slavers to pick Varys as a boy from a distance should he show himself by day, but equally not that distinct for the Pentosi street urchins to be bothered more by his accent and being a eunuch than his skin tone.
“In Pentos his accent marked him, and once he was known for a eunuch he was despised and beaten.” (aDwD, Tyrion II)
I mentioned how we may after all deduct and conclude what Varys’s true complexion may be underneath all that powder. In the five books published so far, we have two references that Varys appears pale.
The eunuch was lurking in the dark of a twisting turnpike stair, garbed in a moth-eaten brown robe with a hood that hid the paleness of his face. (aSoS, Tyrion XI)
He stood in a pool of shadow by a bookcase, plump, pale-faced, round-shouldered, clutching a crossbow in soft powdered hands. Silk slippers swaddled his feet. “Varys?” (aDwD, Epilogue)
The question is whether Varys is wearing powder during these “observations”. Kevan claims that Varys’s hands are powdered. But like Sherlock Holmes I ask you, “How does Kevan know this, when Varys stands several feet away from Kevan in a pool of shadow?” Kevan refers to the hands as soft, and yet, at that particular moment, Kevan cannot actually feel how soft Varys’s hands are. Kevan is merely assuming that Varys’s hands are powdered and soft, based on memory and experience, not through any actual observation through the senses. And while those hands will undoubtedly be soft, this is not necessarily true for the powder. In fact, there is a very good reason why Varys would not have powdered his hands: powder stains and leaves traces. This powder staining has been noticed by several POVs, repeatedly. As a trained mummer, Varys would be aware of it himself. Varys would be a fool to leave traces of powder on the crossbow, when he wants to make it look as if the Tyrells or Tyrion killed Kevan in Cersei’s mind.
“I thought the crossbow fitting. You shared so much with Lord Tywin, why not that? Your niece will think the Tyrells had you murdered, mayhaps with the connivance of the Imp. The Tyrells will suspect her. Someone somewhere will find a way to blame the Dornishmen. Doubt, division, and mistrust will eat the very ground beneath your boy king, whilst Aegon raises his banner above Storm’s End and the lords of the realm gather round him.” (aDwD, Epilogue)
Whatever Varys is, he is most certainly not a fool!
So, once we combine Varys’s murder purpose in aDwD’s epilogue, the darkness, the distance between Kevan and Varys, Varys holding the murder weapon and the various times we’ve seen and been reminded that powder leaves traces we can logically conclude that Varys was not wearing powder on his hands and face at all when he murdered Pycelle and Kevan. This is the strongest clue that Varys’s natural skin tone is as pale as the powder he uses. Beneath the powder is a pale man, and he conceals it with powder of the same tan, making Kevan assume wrongly that Varys’s hands (and face) are powdered.
How pale is Varys then? In both cases (Tyrion and Kevan) Varys is featured in a dark environment. When he helps Tyrion escape, they are at the levels of the dark cells beneath the Red Keep, at night. On top of that his face is shadowed by a hood. When Kevan describes him in Pycelle’s office, Varys stands in a pool of shadow, again at night. One must be white as milk to appear pale even when hiding in the shadow at night. You can test this in the evening by dousing the lights, allow for your eyes to adjust to darkness and have yourself or a friend stand a few feet away from a mirror. This ultra paleness is probably the reason why even at night, young Varys prowled the roofs of Pentos to stay ahead of slavers, with only the grime and dirt of the sewers to protect him by day.
My deduction that Varys is as pale as a Qartheen leads to two questions:
- What can be the possible motive for Varys to conceal his natural paleness with powder that is equally pale? He might just as well not use powder, right?
- Can we now throw out dusky Naathi as hypothetical ancestors of Varys?
Half this essay will argue that the answer to both 1 and 2 is “no”.
Now, I could argue that Varys aims to make people believe he only looks pale because of the powder, not his skin, in an attempt to mask his Qartheen origin. Concealer wears off, by wiping sweat off, etc. Just like Kevan, people would not notice any difference and simply continue to assume he is still fully powdered. However, I would find that more of an added benefit that Varys discovered over the years than the actual true reason. Instead I argue that his primary reason is how it serves as a sunblock.
Skin tone is controlled by several genes regarding the production ability of skin cells to produce melanin (protecting our skin against UV’s destructive rays) as well as the type of melanin. As a result a child tends to be not as dark as the darkest parent, nor as pale as the fairest parent, but something in between that. This common principal is why you might assume that if Varys is as pale as a Qartheen, then we can safely rule out any mix between a Qartheen and a Summer Islander, Dothraki, Sarnori or Naathi, … However, Qartheen being as pale as milk in the climate they live for the past centuries, despite wearing robes that expose one breast and showing no sign of tanning, suggests that what causes them to remain so pale is either albinism or leukism. Upon investigation, most clues point to leukism, in particular a dominant genetic form. And this would mask once again any ancestral mixture of ethnicities.
Albinism is caused by reduced production of melanin. If there is still some production it is called hypomelanism. When there is no production of melanin whatosever it is called amenalism. Various known mutations exist with varying impact on the affected parts of the body. Ocular albinism only affects the eyes (and/or inner ears), but not the hair, nor skin. Oculocutaneous albinism (OCA) affects skin, hair and eyes in variable degrees for different subtypes. One of those is temperature sensitive, allowing cool regions of the body to produce melanin normally, and thus certain OCA albinos can have dark hair (example: siamese cats). In other words, visible related features can vary along a spectrum, nor is albinism necessarily absolute.
What causes eye color in general? The iris (what we see as the colored section of the eyeball), exists of two layers:
THERE ARE NO BLUE, GREEN, PURPLE OR GREY PIGMENTS in the iris! These eye-colors are structural colors, brought about by the scattering and interference of light as it hits gass molecules or translucent fluids or solids: the Tyndall effect for blue, purple and green, and Mie scattering for grey. These are similar mechanics that make the sky and oceans look blue, green or grey depending on the density, moisture of the medium and the wavelength of visible light that manages to reach our sight first. The largeness of the molecules of a medium in comparison to wavelength determines what color of light will be scattered. Shortest wavelengths of light are first violet and then blue. In order for eyes to be “true violet” the molecules of the collagen within the stroma must be smaller than 450 nm. Then blue can pass and be absorbed by the black eptiheleum and only the violet will be scattered.
The reason that in extremer forms of albinism people have “red eyes” has to do with reduced pigment epitheleum. As mentioned, normally the epitheleum is a double layer of two cells, both with black pigment. In the case of albinism only one layer of cells has black pigment or even neither has. The epitheleum is not 100 % opaque anymore, and thus light other than the one passing the pupil drops onto the retina, and then is reflected back out of the iris. For the person having albinism this will blur their vision, and people observing the eyes of the albino will see the blood in their iris. Even in these amenalistic cases light will still be scattered by the translucent stroma, and thus the person will have at least partially blue eyes.
I am not the first reader to notice how the range of phenotype traits of hypomenalistic albinism match the “typical” appearance of Valyrians and Targaryens, or Daynes for that matter. Since various forms of albinism came about spontaneously and independently in different regions of the real world, it would explain why non-Valyrians such as the Daynes and the Hightowers display a similar phenotype. The temperature sensitive partial albinism would match the description of Ashara Dayne having pale skin, purple eyes and brown hair. Both are families of First Men descent, as are the Blackwoods (who do not display the features, but may be genetic carriers). Brynden Rivers, a confirmed amenalistic albino, was a child of Missy Blackwood and Aegon IV Targaryen.
Most forms of albinism are recessive: both parents have to be carriers of the albino gene, in order for the child to have the features (phenotype). The Targaryens preferring incestuous relationships fits with a recessive phenotype. The Daynes and Hightowers, Missy Blackwood as mother of Bloodraven or Betha Blackwood as mother of the children of Aegon V can be used to argument that certain families of the First Men are carriers of another recessive form of albinism. Notice too how the Targaryens, Velaryons, the Daynes, Hightowers, Lyseni and even the Valyrians at the Valyrian peninsula lived or live on islands or isolated peninsula. These locations are prone to genetic drift: a phenomenon where a recessive genotype can become so widespread among the local population that it becomes a typical phenotype. (Credit to The Weirwoods Eyes for the latter observation)
I will list and debunk some of the counter-arguments against Valyrian traits being recessive albinism.
I certainly think the proposal that the Valyrian phenotype is a benign fantasy hypomelanistic albinism, where eyesight or hearing is unaffected, and that varies upon a spectrum is a valid one.*
* The Fattest Leech has posted a nice list about Targaryens with a non-Targaryen mother in this westeros.org thread. In how far the Targaryen family tree can rudimentary come about as phenotype if recessive, I explain in this post in the same thread.
Leukism or leucism (from Greek “leukos”, which means “white”) is a condition where the coat, hair, feathers and skin lack the pigment production cells (albinos have the cells, but either do not or only partially produce melanin). Leukism only affects skin and coat, not the eyes. Skin and coat are formed from the neural crest during development, while eye tissue is formed from the neural tube. And the genetic mutation causing leukism affects the neural crest, not the neural tube. So, while leukists have skin comparable to an amenalistic albino, they have normal colored eyes: brown, dark or green eyes. Real world examples are white lions, white doves, white tigers, and true white horses.
Just as with albinism there are partial variants with only localized absence of pigment cells, resulting in patches, or piebald. A tuxedo cat, spotted doves, or a piebald horse are common examples. In the real world only piebald is known to occur within humans: piebaldism and Waardenburg syndrome (often accompanied with partial or complete deafness). The individual would sport a white front lock of hair (such as the late Indira Ghandi), and/or visible patches of white or pink skin against normal darker skin. Complete leukism in humans is not described in scientific literature so far. Which is an oddity as leukism and piebald is all caused by a regular occuring random mutation on a gene that we share with pretty much any mammal.
Most of the leukism variants, whether piebald or complete are autosomal dominant, meaning that it will express itself physically if only one parent passes it on, irrespective if the child is male or female. The known variants (complete or partial) with housecats, horses and people are all dominant. An exception are white lions and white tigers, which is recessive. Of interest is the dominant white leukism with horses. They have a true white coat (no pigment cells) and brown eyes (pigmented). Their skin is non-pigmented as well, appearing pink because of the capillaries beneath the skin. The mutation can appear spontaneously in all type of breeds. The name already implies that it is a dominant gene (W). Twenty mutations of the relevant KIT-gene are currently known to cause dominant white. Many of these mutations are nonsense mutations: some DNA code ends up wrongly translated into a halt-whatever-you’re-doing signal in the messenger RNA. As a result such mutations make a homozygous (WW) embryo non-viable. It will die at such an early stage of gestation that it will be reabsorbed rather than aborted. With such a variant only a Ww embryo can grow into a foal. But other type of mutations that cause dominant white may allow for a viable homozygous “true white” horse.
There are several examples of leukistic animals in the series: the white hart that Robert and Joffrey hunt, the white lion that Drogo hunts down and the white ravens are the first to come to mind.
A white hart had been sighted in the kingswood, and Lord Renly and Ser Barristan had joined the king to hunt it, along with Prince Joffrey, Sandor Clegane, Balon Swann, and half the court. (aGoT, Eddard XI)
“I had a dream that Joffrey would be the one to take the white hart,” she said. […] White harts were supposed to be very rare and magical, and in her heart she knew her gallant prince was worthier than his drunken father. (aGoT, Sansa III)
Drogo would take his bloodriders and ride in search of hrakkar, the great white lion of the plains. […] The brazier was cold again by the time Khal Drogo returned. Cohollo was leading a packhorse behind him, with the carcass of a great white lion slung across its back. Above, the stars were coming out. The khal laughed as he swung down off his stallion and showed her the scars on his leg where the hrakkar had raked him through his leggings. “I shall make you a cloak of its skin, moon of my life,” he swore. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)
“Ah, here is Pylos with the bird.” Shireen gave a cry of delight. Even Cressen had to admit the bird made an impressive sight, white as snow and larger than any hawk, with the bright black eyes that meant it was no mere albino, but a truebred white raven of the Citadel. (aCoK, Prologue)
At the very least they prove that George knows, recognizes and features leukism in the series (as he does in other stories of his work).
There does not appear to be a typical eye-color or hair color related to a form of albinism for the Qartheen. Their paleness is purely skin related. So, a form of fantasy leukism may account for their pale white skin. This would explain why no tanning is in evidence (neither on individual basis, nor across the centuries of generations) despite the climate and sparse dress. Certainly as a fantasy element, George could perfectly elect to create people on Planetos that are the “true white horses” amongst humans.
Hypothetically a complete leukism mutation such as Dominant White should be possible with humans. However, if a hypothetical human being were to have Dominant White leukism similar to a true white horse in the real world then he would have white or silver hair (the coat), normal colored eyes of the possible range, and porcelain pink skin, not actual milk-white skin. The Dominant White horse has a white coat and pink skin, not a white skin. The skin beneath the tuxedo of your housecat (piebald leukism) is a healthy pink. In the aSoIaF case of fantasy human leukism, I propose that George made the skin white while the hair and eyes are unaffected.
It is quite a jump to go from “George features leukistic mammals and birds” to “and also leukistic humans”, let alone “Qartheen in particular”. I cannot expect anyone, including myself, to consider such a thing without providing “evidence” for it. And of course, since this is not a real world where we can test the skin cells or genes of any book character, but a fictional fantasy world in timesetting with minimal understanding of science written by a mystery author who will not give us straightforward world-building answers the “evidence” will be literary allusions and parallels.
Firstly, we should ask ourselves whether there are other examples where George applies a coat pattern of a domesticated animal breed physically onto a race of people, and not necessarily leukism.
- Black mares and Sarnori who are black-haired, black-eyed and brown skinned.
- The brindle-skinned men of Sothoryos, another species of men whose skin is brindled like a dog’s coat may be brindled.
The Sothoryi are big-boned creatures, massively muscled, with long arms, sloped foreheads, huge square teeth, heavy jaws, and coarse black hair. Their broad, flat noses suggest snouts, and their thick skins are brindled in patterns of brown and white that seem more hoglike than human. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)
Pale Qartheen, black Summer Islanders, copper-skinned Dothraki, Tyroshi with blue beards, Lamb Men, Jogos Nhai, sullen Braavosi, brindle-skinned half-men from the jungles of Sothoros—from the ends of the world they came to die in Daznak’s Pit. (aDwD – Daenerys IX)
The brindle-skin reference applies to Tyrion. The quote itself uses the phrase “brindle-skinned half-men.” Half-man is what the clans of the Mountains of the Moon call Tyrion. Now, Tyrion may not have visible brindled skin, but his hair is brindled. If horses can represent their riders or aspects of a character, we could also consider traits of a character into a horse context. In this case, Tyrion’s brindled hair could be applied onto the coat of a hypothetical horse. Brindling with horses is not a genetic trait, but believed to be the result of spontaneous chimerism*: the clumping together of two pre-embryonic fertilized eggs (fraternal twins) resulting in a mish-mash of DNA that develops into one individual (see also House Blackfyre, the penultimate section about Maelys Blackfyre). This would be one of the snippets of literary parallel evidence that Tyrion is a chimera. And though Tyrion’s skin may not be visibly brindled to the naked eye, his skin would be brindled with the DNA of fraternal twins.
*A certain brindle coat amongst horses has been proven to be hereditary, and thus not due to chimerism, but this is very recent evidence of only as late as 2016, and thus unknown to George RR Martin at the time of writing the first five books of the series.
If Qartheen are Dominant White leukists in the fantasy form I propose, the dominancy of it would explain why the descendants of kings and queens of Qarth insist on being regarded as Pureborn.
Descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth, the Pureborn commanded the Civic Guard and the fleet of ornate galleys that ruled the straits between the seas. […] The merchant princes, grown vastly rich off the trade between the seas, were divided into three jealous factions: the Ancient Guild of Spicers, the Tourmaline Brotherhood, and the Thirteen, to which Xaro belonged. Each vied with the others for dominance, and all three contended endlessly with the Pureborn. (aCoK, Daenerys III)
The Pureborn of Qarth are the descendants of the kings and queens of Qarth – royalty in other words. The word “pureborn” is loaded with meaning, beyond “I’m Royal blood” or “trueborn” – it is used as a qualifier on racial purity and thus implies that other milk-white Qharteen are “impure”. The Qartheen are not the sole obsessed with the purity of blood. The dragonlords of Old Valyria were, including Targaryens, as well as the nobility of Lys.
The blood of Valyria still runs strong in Lys, where even the smallfolk oft boast pale skin, silver-gold hair, and the purple, lilac, and pale blue eyes of the dragonlords of old. The Lysene nobility values purity of blood above all and have produced many famous (and infamous) beauties. (tWoIaF – The Free Cities: The Quarrelsome Daughters, Myr, Lys and Tyrosh)
And yet only the Qartheen make a point of it to use a title to indicate purity of blood, whereas the dragonlords and the nobles of Lys do not. Why? People tend to go by appearances. If someone with Valyrian features hatches an egg or becomes a dragonrider they are considered pure of blood, regardless whether they are trueborn or not. Precluding the Dance of the Dragons, the “greens” supporting Queen Allicent Hightower and her sons use this argument to predict that Rhaenyra’s sons (who do not have Valyrian features) will not be able to hatch their dragon eggs. With their non-existent genetic knowledge, they go by “if he/she looks and flies like a Targ, they’re pureborn,” and if not, they are impure. Going by appearances only works (well half of the time), because the Valyrian genotype is recessive, and thus is a rare phenotype. Children of mixed pairings with slaves and commoners from other regions of the world do not tend to sport Valyrian looks and thus are visibly “impure”. But if the Qartheen’s feature of being white as milk is dominant then the sons of royalty, merchants, spicers, pirates, courtesans, bedslaves and the kitchen slave will be white as milk too, no matter it their mother or father is Qaathi, Dothraki, Ghiscari, Lhazareen, Naathi or of the Summer Islands.
Notice that when Dany passes through the streets she considers every man and woman lining up the streets or the balconies looking like a lord or lady.
The Qartheen lined the streets and watched from delicate balconies that looked too frail to support their weight. They were tall pale folk in linen and samite and tiger fur, every one a lord or lady to her eyes. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
When “purity” is not visibly discernable in a society clinging to a stratification according to birth, while commoners can be as rich or richer than royalty, the latter must resort to the verbal claim by calling themselves Pureborn. It is all that is left to them to maintain a line of separation between themselves, other nobles, rich commoners and slaves fathered by Qartheen. This is not unlike Dany’s brother Viserys who must beg while in exile but verbally insists on being called the true king of Westeros, even though everything he owns is gifted to him.
Now, we can return to the question that started all this talk of albinism and leukism: if Varys is pale as a Qartheen, can he have a Naathi mother or grandmother? Well, yes, he can if Qartheen paleness is dominant leukism. A child of a Naathi bedslave in Lys and Qartheen trader visiting the pillow house would not have a lovely bronzed shade between dusk and white, but be as pale as milk too. Dominant white leukism might betray a Qartheen ancestry, but equally hides and disguises every other ancestry. So, Varys’s powder conceals his natural skin tone, which turns out to be as pale as the powder, but then his natural skin tone conceals every other possible genetic ancestry other than the Qartheen one.
Via Dany’s handmaiden Doreah we know that Qartheen traders do visit the pleasure houses of Lys.
“A trader from Qarth once told me that dragons came from the moon,” blond Doreah said as she warmed a towel over the fire. […] Magister Illyrio had found her in a pleasure house in Lys. (aGoT, Daenerys III)
By now, you might consider the idea of Qartheen being a population of leukists that pass on their dominant white-skinned gene in analogy of horses as diverting. But you may want to remind me that Qartheen ride camels, not horses. Well, it would be glaringly obvious if Qartheen rode”true white horses”. As Dominant Whites, the Qartheen themselves are the horses already. Without camels we lose the “silk route” Constantinople symbolism for the city. And finally, at Yunkai, an actual white camel is featured. Yunkai lies along the silk trade route and is a trade partner of Qarth.
The envoys from Yunkai arrived as the sun was going down; fifty men on magnificent black horses and one on a great white camel. (aSoS, Daenerys IV)
This leukistic camel was likely a trade gift from the Qartheen, since Qartheen are the ones only riding camels, while the Yunkai tend to ride horses.
You may also agree with my point that it is unlikely that Varys powdered his hands to commit the murder of Kevan with a crossbow, and therefore he is truly a very pale man. But are there clues to actually link Varys’s paleness to leukism? Well, there are. Consider the mention of spotted spiders in Sothoryos.
[…], and spotted spiders weave their webs amongst the great trees. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: Sothoryos)
The whole line about these spotted spiders applies metaphorically to Varys weaving webs between the family trees of the great houses in Westeros. But that metaphor would work just as well if the spiders were not spotted. So, the spiders having spots is significant by itself. And since Varys is the sole character called The Spider, the spots tell us something about Varys, but what? Is it entirely metaphorical in the sense of “a spider does not lose his spots” or is it a physical clue about the Spider?
George has several characters called “spotted” for their physical features. Sylva Santagar for example is called “Spotted Sylva” for her freckles, which is another genetic skin trait related to melanin overproduction. People with freckles do not lack pigment cells in their skin. It is a trait where skin cells overproduce melanin, but the cells are unevenly distributed. The main point here is not that “spotted” = “freckles”, since it is unlikely that Varys powders his face and hands merely out of vanity over freckles, but that George uses “spotted” in relation to physical features. Freckles are but one example, but it could also apply for piebaldism.
Note that Sylva’s friends also pretend they call her Spotted Sylva for her “origin”, House Spotswood, and thus the spotting of the spiders weaving in the woods is a clue to Varys’s ancestry. This most certainly is not a reference to Varys having Sothoryi origin, since we are told the women can only breed with males of their own species. This only leaves spotted spiders as a reference to leukism and piebald (which is most certainly dominant).
Spotted Spider of House Webber
Above I interpreted Spotted Spiders of Sothoryos exclusively how it could fit Spider Varys. However, it may not be a reference to Varys at all, but to an entirely different historical character – Rohanne Webber who appears in the story The Sworn Sword of the Dunk & Egg novellas. The sigil of house Webber is a black field with a spotted spider in a silver web. Rohanne Webber was nicknamed the Red Widow for the many husbands that died, since she was 10. She had red hair and freckles (like Spotted Sylva). And in the novella The Sworn Sword, her soldiers and knights are generally referred to as “spiders”. Eventually, she married six times and only had surviving children with her last husband, Gerold Lannister. Her children with Gerold were the twins Tywald and Tion Lannister, Tytos and Jason. Tytos fathered Tywin, Kevan, Genna, Tygett and Gerion Lannister, while Jason fathered Joanna Lannister, Stafford and Damon.
Freckled Rohanne Webber of the Reach House Webber with the Spotted Spider sigil is thus the grandmother of Tywin, Kevan and Genna Lannister, and the great-grandmother of Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion on both the paternal and maternal side, as well as the great-grandmother of Lancel, missing Tyrek and long haired Daven Lannister on the paternal side.
If we combine this with the brindle-skinned half-men of Sothoryos and how they are tied to Tyrion’s chimerism, then it is far more likely that the Spotted Spider reference in the World Book alludes to House Webber and how Rohanne managed to have woven a web so wide that she has descendants in the Riverlands, marrying into House Frey, great-great grandchildren on the throne (Joffrey and Tommen) and a great-great-granddaughter betrothed to Trystane Martell, a prince of Dorne, than the Spotted Spiders being a reference to Varys.
Another hint for it is Daenerys voyage into the Red Waste, which is what is left of the Qaathi kingdom of city-states, aside from Qarth. Now first notice that when she travels into this ancient kingdom, she does this as bald as Varys, and she wears the pelt of the leukistic white lion, slain in the Dothraki Sea by Drogo.
Her hair had burned away in Drogo’s pyre, so her handmaids garbed her in the skin of the hrakkar Drogo had slain, the white lion of the Dothraki sea. Its fearsome head made a hood to cover her naked scalp, its pelt a cloak that flowed across her shoulders and down her back. (aCoK, Daenerys I)
The white lion is an appropriate leukistic animal for Dany, as the mutation that causes lions to be white is recessive, just as the Valyrian features are recessive, in contrast to the proposed Dominant White of the Qaathi.
Following the comet, Dany’s khalasar ride into the Red Waste until they come across Vaes Tolorro, one of the Qaathi cities sacked by Dothraki. Its every wall and building is white as the moon, windowless, and it seems as if these people never knew color.
Dany was about to command them to make camp when her outriders came racing back at a gallop. “A city, Khaleesi,” they cried. “A city pale as the moon and lovely as a maid. An hour’s ride, no more.” […] When the city appeared before her, its walls and towers shimmering white behind a veil of heat, it looked so beautiful that Dany was certain it must be a mirage. […] How long the city had been deserted she could not know, but the white walls, so beautiful from afar, were cracked and crumbling when seen up close. Inside was a maze of narrow crooked alleys. The buildings pressed close, their facades blank, chalky, windowless. Everything was white, as if the people who lived here had known nothing of color. (aCoK, Daenerys I)
So, in a sense we go from a leukistic lion, to a leukistic city, ending with Dany meeting three (leukistic) Qartheen. The description of the city itself is as befitting of the Qartheen mentality as it is of Varys with his chalked or “powdered” hands and “facade”: crooked, nothing but a beautiful mirage in motivation, until you look closer and the deception cracks and crumbles.
Finally, there are complete leukistic spiders mentioned in the lore of Westeros: the legendary ice spiders.
The horn blew thrice long, three long blasts means Others. The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows, the monsters of the tales that made him squeak and tremble as a boy, riding their giant ice-spiders, hungry for blood … (aSoS, Samwell I)
“[…] Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part’s plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don’t know what those are. […]” (aFfC, Samwell I)
The tales go on to say [the Others] rode monstrous ice spiders and the horses of the dead, resurrected to serve them, just as they resurrected dead men to fight on their behalf. (tWoIaF – Ancient History: The Long Night)
You might suppose those spiders are wighted giant spiders covered in hoarfrost like the dead horses. But Old Nan, who knows more grains of truth than maesters would give credit, describes them as “pale white” and big. The illustration of the World Book by Marc Simonetti agrees with Old Nan’s description – spiders with actual white skin and hair and black eyes (not blue). “
[…] And the Others smelled the hot blood in [the Last Hero], and came silent on his trail, stalking him with packs of pale white spiders big as hounds—”(aGoT, Bran IV, Old Nan’s story)
If the Ice Spiders are actually living leukist spiders, then they are a metaphor for Varys, and not just a horror story detail that George put in the books for shuddering effect alone. No wonder Sam would not know what they are, because Sam explaining them would be breaking the 4th wall.
The Others generally do not ride “ice horses”, but wighted ones. The horses do not reflect the physical state of the Others, but “how they ride to power”: the animated dead are their armies. This metaphor can then be transferred to the pale white spiders: the Others ride to power because of Varys. If the ice spiders only serve as a metaphor, then we will never see actual ice spiders, just like we will never see spotted spiders of Sothoryos.
It is noteworthy that the ice spiders are only mentioned in relation to history. The metaphor thus is not about how Varys’s actions to plummet Westeros into war to install his self-chosen Aegon on the throne help the Others. If that were the case, then we also would have Others riding ice lions and ice mockingbirds or ice giants. Can we think of a past event in Varys’s life that might have helped the Others? Well, yes – decades ago, the sorcerer burned Varys’s parts for a demon or being in blue flames. And the eerily similar, but mundane scene of Dany charring a snake on a brazier and feeding it to her dragons in Qarth combined with her noticing how they are growing strongly suggests that is what the ritual accomplishes – it feeds whatever power or magic you give it to. Many have wondered and speculated whether the voice that Varys heard may have been related to the Others. The ice spiders being a metaphor for a leukistic Varys would be evidence for it.
All the leukist animals tell us something about Varys. So why not the actual leukistic spiders too?
- The white hart is featured at a time when Varys appears to serve Robert Baratheon, a deer stag. On top of that Varys blames Ned Stark for Robert’s death, just as wolves are blamed for devouring the white hart that Robert was hunting.
- A bald Dany wears the pelt of a white lion (a skinchanger metaphor) at a time Varys pretends to serve the Lannisters and Tyrion in particular. He skinchanged from a white hart into a white lion.
- White ravens only carry the important messages.
- White camel at Yunkai with a party trying to dissuade Dany from her conquering war path in Slaver’s Bay and just go to Westeros instead. It is likely a Qartheen trade gift to Yunkai, like Illyrio and Qarth both wish to gift Dany riches to convince her to sail West. Certainly at the time, Varys hoped for the same.
- Spotted spiders in Selhorys weave their webs between trees, like Varys does between the great houses.
White Dwarf Elephant
In aDwD, Tyrion sees a white dwarf elephant in Selhorys, after he convinced Aegon to go West during a game of cyvasse and before Jorah abducts Tyrion at the brothel. He sees more of these in Volantis. Meanwhile Quentyn Martell observes Old Volantis is full of them.
Real world white elephants are not leukists, but albinos. This is the reason why I did not include it in the above list of leukist animals. Furthermore, while ice spiders, white ravens and white lions and camels are portrayed as large – as big as hounds, larger than normal black ravens and great, respectively – and spotted spiders must be large in order to make such great webs to deserve a mention in the world book about Sothoryos, the white elephants in the books are dwarf elephants. The repeated dwarf mention is thus a link to Tyrion. Other comparisons and mentions imply it is a relevant Tyrion symbol in relation to Illyrio and Old Volantis. So, I will save any meaningul exploration to them for an essay on either Illyrio or Tyrion.
You may argue that complete skin leukists would have to shun the sun. Windowless houses in Vaes Tolorro seem to agree with a lifestyle of avoiding sunlight. And white houses and walls reflect all light away from the house. So, why then do Qartheen children run around naked, and do other Qartheen line the streets and gather on balconies in clothing that leaves them half bare? This is not the type of behavior that fits someone who has no pigment cells to protect the skin against harmful ultraviolet light.
As she rode her silver into the city, small children rushed out to scatter flowers in her path. They wore golden sandals and bright paint, no more.
Notice how the children’s implied naked bodies are “painted”. Paint does not have to be just ornamental, but could act like a sunblock. And I argue that powder may serve Varys for the same purpose.
Then consider the architectural description of Qarth. First there are three city walls.
Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: […] The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: […] The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
Different types of material and color reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light as well as radiation that we cannot “see” but feel or be affected by, such as infrared (aka heat) and ultraviolet. Red sandstone reflects red wavelength light and infrared, grey granite reflects most light, while black marble absorbs all light. These walls do not solely function as triple protection against enemies and ornamentation, but are shields against sunlight and sun radiation. First heat is reflected, then the shorter wavelengths are reflected, and finally whatever wavelength manages to still pass is absorbed.
All the colors that had been missing from Vaes Tolorro had found their way to Qarth; buildings crowded about her fantastical as a fever dream in shades of rose, violet, and umber. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
Buildings that crowd imply high buildings built close together. The streets would be dappled in shadow most of the day. Rose and violet serve as a shield against violet and ultraviolet light, while umber serves as another heat reflector.
Pyat Pree conducted her little khalasar down the center of a great arcade where the city’s ancient heroes stood thrice life-size on columns of white and green marble. They passed through a bazaar in a cavernous building whose latticework ceiling was home to a thousand gaily colored birds. Trees and flowers bloomed on the terraced walls above the stalls, while below it seemed as if everything the gods had put into the world was for sale. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
Yes, they have roof gardens and squares with fountains, but these are the ornamentals where the crowds of Qarth do not linger or gather. They line up the narrow streets, buy and haggle in the cavernous bazaar, or gather in the central arcaded plaza. And they travel by palanquins, behind opaque curtains that effectively seal out the heat and sight of the world.
The drapes kept out the dust and heat of the streets, but they could not keep out disappointment. Dany climbed inside wearily, glad for the refuge from the sea of Qartheen eyes.[…] Reclining on cool satin cushions, Xaro Xhoan Daxos poured ruby-red wine into matched goblets of jade and gold, his hands sure and steady despite the sway of the palanquin. […] “Khaleesi,” Aggo called through the drapes as the palanquin jerked to a sudden halt. Dany rolled onto an elbow to lean out. They were on the fringes of the bazaar, the way ahead blocked by a solid wall of people. (aCoK, Daenerys III)
Xaro’s palace matches the description of an Italian palazzo – roomy, airy, wide, but in daylight shadow. Even the pool that Dany bathes in is not touched by sunlight.
She had not expected a palace larger than many a market town. […] Xaro swore that his home could comfortably house all of her people and their horses besides; indeed, it swallowed them. An entire wing was given over to her. She would have her own gardens, a marble bathing pool, a scrying tower and warlock’s maze. […] In her private chambers, the floors were green marble, the walls draped with colorful silk hangings that shimmered with every breath of air. […] When all the men had gone, her handmaids stripped off the travel-stained silks she wore, and Dany padded out to where the marble pool sat in the shade of a portico. The water was deliciously cool, and the pool was stocked with tiny golden fish that nibbled curiously at her skin and made her giggle. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
Where Vaes Tolorro shows primitive architectural tactics to hide from the sun, Qarth made an architectural art of it to appear to live out in the open, a feast for eyes, but effectively living in cool shadow. Qarth is like an Italian city, light and airy, yet one is rarely exposed to the sun directly in the narrow shaded streets or beneath the vaulted arcades.
Now consider likewise how Varys traverses the city and keep. When he is out in the streets, he tends to wear the disguise of a begging brother, with a hood or cowl. He travels in and out the red keep via underground passages. King’s Landing is not built to avoid sunlight, like Qarth. So, he must make due by operating beneath cloaks and shadowed, dark passages, or as a child in Pentos sleep by day in the sewers and only come out at night.
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We could imagine how a Qartheen merchant might have anchored at Lys for trade, and have a night out in the red district, bed a bedslave and father Varys on her. But can Qartheen also end up as slaves? Well, yes. Amongst the 1000 Unsullied (eunuchs) that Daenerys inspects on the Plaza of Pride in Astapor, she sees Dothraki, Lhazarene, Summer Islanders, Ghiscari and pale Qartheen. And a Lyseni gets his nipple cut off.
More than half had the copper skins and almond eyes of Dothraki and Lhazerene, but she saw men of the Free Cities in the ranks as well, along with pale Qartheen, ebon-faced Summer Islanders, and others whose origins she could not guess. And some had skins of the same amber hue as Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the bristly red-black hair that marked the ancient folk of Ghis, who named themselves the harpy’s sons. (aSoS, Daenerys II)
Of course, it should be noted that if Qartheen are indeed dominant white leukists, then they may have only gotten their appearance because of a trader fathering a child on a bedslave.
Historically, Qaathi were taken into slavery over the course of the last four centuries. Qarth is the last remaining city of the Qaathi civilisation that arose in the grasslands, far more north and now dominated by the Dothraki. The Qaathi were natives to the grasslands, much like the white lion is. They built towns, occasionally coming into contact and conflict with the Sarnori who built their kingdom around the Silver Sea. More often than not, the Qaathi lost the wars with Sarnori and migrated more south, building new city-states, including Qarth at the Jade Sea. But the southern soil turned to desert, the Red Waste, as they tried to gain a foothold there. The Dothraki mopped up the remainder in the Century of Blood (between 400 and 300 years ago) after the Doom. Those who survived the Red Waste, were killed, driven off or sold into slavery by the Dothraki. Only Qarth with its triple wall survived and eventually flourished. Vaes Tolorro (“City of Bones”) where Dany shelters early in aCoK is one such sacked Qaathi city. Nearby Dany’s scouting bloodriders come across similarly sacked, but smaller cities, such as Vaes Orvik (“City of the Whip”), alluding to those Qaathi habitants having been whipped into enslavement.
And this is where it becomes very interesting. The Wiki cites GRRM’s A World of Ice and Fire app as a source for a Qaathi city once called Qolahn. The Dothraki renamed it Vaes Qosar, which means – and I kid you not – City of Spiders. While there are several references to spiders in the World Book, most refer to attributes or features. This one though is an origin reference. It is situated in the southern ranges of the Red Waste, north of Qarkash and north west of Qarth. If the Dothraki renamed it, because they conquered it, then we know what happened to the citizens of that city – they were sold into slavery. Does Varys’s ancestor originate from this Vaes Qosar?
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When Varys murders Kevan Lannister he apologizes profusedly.
The eunuch set the crossbow down. “Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children. […] This pains me, my lord. You do not deserve to die alone on such a cold dark night. There are many like you, good men in service to bad causes … but you were threatening to undo all the queen’s good work, to reconcile Highgarden and Casterly Rock, bind the Faith to your little king, unite the Seven Kingdoms under Tommen’s rule. […] Are you cold, my lord?” asked Varys. “Do forgive me. The Grand Maester befouled himself in dying, and the stink was so abominable that I thought I might choke. […] I am sorry.” Varys wrung his hands. “You are suffering, I know, yet here I stand going on like some silly old woman. Time to make an end to it.” (aDwD, Epilogue)
“Forgive me, this pains me, forgive me, I am sorry”- Varys sounds like a Sorrowful Man, the assassins in Qarth, who apologize to their victims before killing them.
“Suppose a Sorrowful Man came to my palace one night and killed you as you slept,” said Xaro. The Sorrowful Men were an ancient sacred guild of assassins, so named because they always whispered, “I am so sorry,” to their victims before they killed them. The Qartheen were nothing if not polite. (aCoK, Daenerys III)
While Varys is a sorrowful man when he kills his victim, I in no way try to make the case that Varys is of the guild of Sorrowful Men. I am merely pointing out the striking parallel. The Sorrowful Men and their politeness were born out of the Qartheen belief that this is the civilised way of killing someone. Whatever or whomever Varys is, he most certainly remains polite, empathic and civilised like a Qartheen, even when murdering Kevan Lannister.
In the last section “Now it Ends” of the chthonic cycle essay of the Cursed Souls of Eddard and Robert I mentioned King Pentheus of Thebes who is thorn and shredded by the maenads while spying on them as they mistake him for a boar. Of relevance here is the meaning of the name Pentheus: “Man of Sorrows” or, well a “Sorrowful Man”. The Greek root is the word pénthos for grief, sorrow or mourning. And of course that is exactly the name for Illyrio’s city, Pentos. It is doubtful that George chose this name by coincidence, since this type of grief is caused by the loss of a loved one, which is exactly what Illyio reveals to Tyrion in aDwD. Relevant for this essay and the section, is that Varys spent most of his teen and young adult life in Pentos after escaping Myr, and it is in Pentos that Varys transforms from a common thief into the pure creature of a civilised spymaster who kills his targets politely and apologetically.
If a single tear had been rolling out Varys’s eye like Xaro Xhoan Daxos in aDwD’s epilogue as he speaks to Kevan, the picture of a Qartheen would be complete. And the whole of Varys’s enigmatic behavior, from inaction, betrayals, to helping, combined with his self-proclaimed excuses not to act against injustice or motivations to commit murder are very reminiscint of the same behavior of the Pureborn and Xaro Xhoan Daxos that puzzles Dany so during her stay in Qarth, just as Varys’s behavior and motives puzzle us, the readers. Xaro certainly can do the tear mummery to perfection, so much that George eventually uses the phrase mummer’s tears, which should bring Varys to mind.
The Qartheen wept often and easily; it was considered a mark of the civilized man.[…] A single perfect tear ran down the cheek of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
The master of the Indigo Star was Qartheen, so he wept copiously when asked about Astapor. “The city bleeds. Dead men rot unburied in the streets, each pyramid is an armed camp, and the markets have neither food nor slaves for sale. And the poor children! King Cleaver’s thugs have seized every highborn boy in Astapor to make new Unsullied for the trade, though it will be years before they are trained.” (aSoS, Daenerys VI)
“Shall I ask again?” wondered Xaro. “No, I know that smile. It is a cruel queen who dices with men’s hearts. Humble merchants like myself are no more than stones beneath your jeweled sandals.” A single tear ran slowly down his pale white cheek.
Dany knew him too well to be moved. Qartheen men could weep at will. “Oh, stop that.” […] I know [an enemy] stands before me now, weeping mummer’s tears. (aDwD, Daenerys III)
Xaro is not the sole Qartheen weeping tears in front of Dany. The master of the ship Indigo Star weeps as well as he relates what is happening in Astapor. Notice how he laments the “poor children”, like Varys laments little Rhaenys, Robert’s bastard children murdered by the Gold Cloaks, or manipulates Ned Stark over Sansa, or tells Kevan he does it “for the children”.
While Varys does not cry perfect single tears, he washes his hands (from lies and manipulation), and feigns to be close to tears often, and always in relation to the “children”. Of course in feudal Westeros with its macho culture, an actual weeping eunuch would serve his mummer’s purpose less than a near-weeping man.
“Rhaenys was a child too. Prince Rhaegar’s daughter. A precious little thing, younger than your girls. She had a small black kitten she called Balerion, did you know? I always wondered what happened to him. Rhaenys liked to pretend he was the true Balerion, the Black Dread of old, but I imagine the Lannisters taught her the difference between a kitten and a dragon quick enough, the day they broke down her door.” Varys gave a long weary sigh, the sigh of a man who carried all the sadness of the world in a sack upon his shoulders. “The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me … why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones? Ponder it, if you would, while you wait upon the queen. And spare a thought for this as well: The next visitor who calls on you could bring you bread and cheese and the milk of the poppy for your pain … or he could bring you Sansa’s head. The choice, my dear lord Hand, is entirely yours.” (aGoT, Eddard XV)
“The poor child,” murmured Varys. “A love so true and innocent, Your Grace, it would be cruel to deny it … and yet, what can we do? Her father stands condemned.” His soft hands washed each other in a gesture of helpless distress. (aGoT, Sansa IV)
“Your own sweet sister,” Varys said, so grief-stricken he looked close to tears. “It is a hard thing to tell a man, my lord. I was fearful how you might take it. Can you forgive me?” (aCoK, Tyrion II, in response to Varys knowing that Cersei gave Slynt the order to kill Robert’s bastards)
“Alas, our beloved Tyrek has quite vanished, the poor brave lad.” Varys sounded close to tears. (aSoS, Tyrion III)
Aside from pretending to be close to tears, Varys’s birth connection to Lys implies the Tears of Lys, a poison that Varys claims killed Jon Arryn, but he himself proposes as murder weapon to kill Daenerys during the council meeting in aGoT.
“Kinder,” Varys said. “Oh, well and truly spoken, Grand Maester. It is so true. Should the gods in their caprice grant Daenerys Targaryen a son, the realm must bleed.” […] “By now, the princess nears Vaes Dothrak, where it is death to draw a blade. If I told you what the Dothraki would do to the poor man who used one on a khaleesi, none of you would sleep tonight.” He stroked a powdered cheek. “Now, poison … the tears of Lys, let us say. Khal Drogo need never know it was not a natural death.”(aGoT, Eddard VIII)
All of these tears are “fake tears” and “mummer’s tears”. In fact, not only are the tears of Lys false tears, Varys is performing a mummery in that small council meeting. Varys has no intention to have Dany die: with the same karavan bringing the poisonor also arrives a letter for Jorah to stop and reveal the plot. Its sole intent is to provoke Drogo into action. And it would have worked if Drogo had not gotten himself killed by putting mud on a large surface wound.
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Xaro Xhoan Daxos
Speaking of Xaro, …
The bald man with the jewels in his nose answered in the Valyrian of the Free Cities, “I am Xaro Xhoan Daxos of the Thirteen, a merchant prince of Qarth.” (aCoK, Daenerys I)
Xaro was a languid, elegant man with a bald head and a great beak of a nose crusted with rubies, opals, and flakes of jade. (aCoK, Daenerys II)
The jewelry in his beaked nose I will leave for the next essay, but here I want to focus on his baldness. Graned, many characters are bald in this series, and not every balding man is a parallel, stand-in or clue to Varys: Tywin, Stannis, Old Bear Jeor Mormont, his son Jorah Mormont, Pycelle, Aemon Targaryen, many and more. Most of these characters are balding as a result of age or only partially bald and they have otherwise nothing else in common with Varys. But some share more attributes or similarities with Varys other than baldness, and therefore can be considered to be a possible parallel or stand-in.
- Strong Belwas: bald, beardless, big, eunuch, freed slave.
- Aegon V (aka Egg): hairless as an egg, his brother Aerion Brightflame threatened to castrate Egg and held a knife to his male parts, Aegon V aimed to reduce the power of the lords of Great House in favor of an absolute monarchy ruling for the common folk, and thus a breakdown of feudal society.
- Hairless Dany: like Egg, who has parallels with Varys.
- She wears the skin of the leukistic white lion.
- Her charring a chopped up snake on a brazier and feeding it to magical creatures, while wearing purple silk.
- Chooses her dragon over her achieved peace and compromize in Mereen, disappears and chooses “fire and blood” in the grasslands, around the time that Varys commits to Aegon (the mummer’s dragon).
So, let us look at the parallels between Xaro and Varys, aside from baldness.
- Xaro and Varys speak alike, with self pity and empathy, yet plot ruthlessly.
- Neither are “pureborn”, yet both are pale as milk.
- Both men dislike magic and advize Dany and Tyrion respectively against using it.
- Neither Varys nor Xaro are interested in women for the first is a eunuch and the second is homosexual.
Xaro’s flowery protestations of passion amused her, but his manner was at odds with his words. While Ser Jorah had scarcely been able to keep his eyes from her bare breast when he’d helped her into the palanquin, Xaro hardly deigned to notice it, even in these close confines. And she had seen the beautiful boys who surrounded the merchant prince, flitting through his palace halls in wisps of silk. (aCoK, Daenerys III)
In [Xaro’s] honor Daenerys had donned a Qartheen gown, a sheer confection of violet samite cut so as to leave her left breast bare. Her silver-gold hair brushed lightly over her shoulder, falling almost to her nipple. Half the men in the hall had stolen glances at her, but not Xaro. It was the same in Qarth. She could not sway the merchant prince that way. […] “I may be a young girl, but I am not so foolish as to wed a man who finds a fruit platter more enticing than my breast. I saw which dancers you were watching.”
Xaro wiped away his tear. “The same ones Your Grace was following, I believe. You see, we are alike. […]” (aDwD, Daenerys III)
Varys cites a personal reason to hate and fight Stannis: Stannis consorts with a sorceress and meddles in magic. Meanwhile Xaro time and time again attempts to dissuade Dany from seeking council with the Undying and expresses distrust and dislike of their warlocks, like Pyat Pree.
[…] since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.” (aCoK, Tyrion X)
“The young queen is wise beyond her years,” Xaro Xhoan Daxos murmured down at her from his high saddle. “There is a saying in Qarth. A warlock’s house is built of bones and lies.” […] “Once they were mighty,” Xaro agreed, “but now they are as ludicrous as those feeble old soldiers who boast of their prowess long after strength and skill have left them. They read their crumbling scrolls, drink shade-of-the-evening until their lips turn blue, and hint of dread powers, but they are hollow husks compared to those who went before. Pyat Pree’s gifts will turn to dust in your hands, I warn you.” (aCoK, Daenerys II)
The merchant prince sat up sharply. “Pyat Pree has blue lips, and it is truly said that blue lips speak only lies. Heed the wisdom of one who loves you. Warlocks are bitter creatures who eat dust and drink of shadows. They will give you naught. They have naught to give.” (aCoK, Daenerys III)
And of course, like Varys, Xaro is not really on Dany’s side. His sole aim to pretend to be her friend and acting like a suitor is because he wants a dragon. One of the reasons that Illyrio and Varys would want Dany to marry Aegon are her dragons. Dragons are a military power as much as a horde of Dothraki are.
A last visual parallel between Xaro and Varys can be found in aDwD, when Xaro is described in similar clothing than Varys’ introduction to the reader.
The pale, lean, hawk-faced man who shared her high table was resplendent in robes of maroon silk and cloth-of-gold, his bald head shining in the torchlight as he devoured a fig with small, precise, elegant bites. (aDwD, Daenerys III)
Notice how George puts the spotlight, euhm torchlight, onto Xaro’s bald head.
The differences matter just as much as the anologies. Instead of purple silk “robes” in the above quote, we have maroon – dark, brown red. I will go into the dye use of maroon versus purple in the Part II Color Purple essay. Another, glaring difference is that while Varys is plump, Xaro is slender and lean. This is due to Varys being a eunuch, while Xaro is not.
“The slaves in the spiked bronze hats?” Dany had seen Unsullied guards in the Free Cities, posted at the gates of magisters, archons, and dynasts. “Why should I want Unsullied? They don’t even ride horses, and most of them are fat.”
“The Unsullied you may have seen in Pentos and Myr were household guards. That’s soft service, and eunuchs tend to plumpness in any case. Food is the only vice allowed them.[…]” (aSoS, Daenerys I)
As mentioned in the Tall Men section of the Sarnori, having been castrated, Varys has a reduced production of the hormone testosterone. While in children it promotes protein synthesis and thus growth, in adults testosterone boosts the build-up of muscle, bone-mass and body hair. Men producing higher levels of testosterone grow taller and tend to make muscle mass, and thus be lean and slender. They also grow more cartilege on the nose bridge during puberty, and their previous small, cute noses can grow into a big hawk nose. Men’s noses are bigger than women and have more variations in profile because of this. This is the basic idea behind a “man with a big nose has a big penis”. And thus, Xaro is the vision of what a non-castrated Varys would look like basically. If Varys had not been castrated, he would be lean, slender, tall, sexually active and have a masculine, noteworthy nose. And it is with this non-castrated version of Varys that I rest my case on the numerous hints of Varys having ties to Qarth, other than the place where Illyrio acquires silks for Varys.
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The Grasslands is the area that is portrayed as the area where civilzation was born, of not just one people, but many.
Beyond the Forest of Qohor, Essos opens up upon a vast expanse of windswept plains, gentle rolling hills, fertile river valleys, great blue lakes, and endless steppes where the grass grows as high as a horse’s head. […] It was here amidst these grasses that civilization was born in the Dawn Age. Ten thousand years ago or more, when Westeros was yet a howling wilderness inhabited only by the giants and children of the forest, the first true towns arose beside the banks of the river Sarne and beside the myriad vassal streams that fed her on her meandering course northward to the Shivering Sea. The histories of those days are lost to us, sad to say, for the kingdoms of the grass came and went in large measure before the race of man became literate. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
Where our primate ancestors lived in the trees of the forests of fruit, it was the move into the plains and steppes that forced primates to walk on their hind legs as well as make tools to defend one self against predators. The latter pushed the evolution of the brain capacity in overdrive, leading to invention after invention. And thus the plains and steppes that lacked natural shelters were the regions where the first settlements were built by humans, even if they were hunter gatherers, such as the huts built with mammoth bones in the Ukraine during the Upper Paleolithic (15000 years ago).
The area of the Grasslands on Planetos seems to have functioned as a similar type of accelerator for cultures to develop. Not only is it the origin region of the Sarnori and the Qaathi, but the maesters also speculate that the First Men and Andals may have originated from this region before they migrated westward.
Some maesters believe that the First Men originated here before beginning the long westward migration that took them across the Arm of Dorne to Westeros. The Andals, too, may have arisen in the fertile fields south of the Silver Sea. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
The Qartheen claim that civilisation began with them. Meanwhile, the Sarnori claim descent of the Fisher Queens, who ruled the lands around the Silver Sea at the heart of the grasslands from a floating palace making its way around the shores. The Fisher Queens were sought out as wise women by kings and lords of other people for counsel.
The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
The son of the last Fisher Queen, Huzhor Amai, wed a woman of each of the three people – the Zoqora, Gipps and Cymmeri – surrounding the Silver Sea and bound them to him to become the Sarnori.
In the Sarnori section, I mentioned how their riders wore spider silk, but also stipulated that it is very unlikely that Varys actually has a Sarnori origin. Meanwhile, the literary hints and clues heavily favor a Qaathi origin for Varys instead. Aside from both people being “tall men”, they share the Grasslands as origin region where both initially established their kingdoms and fought each other, before the Dothraki conquered the Grasslands. The Qaathi migrated more south, until they reached the southern seas and established Qarth. Both people were largely conquered and destroyed by the Dothraki in the same Century of Blood, until each people only had one city left. And it is in this last remaining bastion that their fates reversed: Saath is a pitiful city depending on the generosity and help of Ib and Lothar, while Qarth is a rich jewel of a city along the Jade Sea. Hence, the spider-silk reference with the Sarnori does not imply a literal Sarnori origin for Varys, but is a Grassroot clue to the region of origin of the Qartheen civilisation with multiple ties to Varys.
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Lyber and the Spider Goddess
It is in this cradle of civilisations that we come across another spider reference other than spider silk: the lost city Lyber of an unnamed culture who revered a spider goddess.
We hear as well of the lost city Lyber, where acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless, bloody war. (tWoIaF – Beyond the Free Cities: the Grasslands)
This is the closest allusion to the Greek Arachne, who is often portrayed as a goddess in fantasy games. It makes sense to put such a reverence in the region from which civilisation originated, since “weaving” (the spider’s activity) is considered to be one of those fundamental cultural hallmark activities of a civilisation. If farming and husbandry renders people independent from gathering and hunting their food, the ability to weave ends the need to hunt furs and skins for clothing. The more cultures separate themselves of natural habitat, the more civilised they will claim themselves to be. Both Athena and her weaving rival Arachne represented this cultural milestone for the Greeks.
Arachne is not the sole ‘spider goddess’ in ancient civilisations. Near Mexico City thousands of tourists visit the mighty pre-Colombian site of Teotihuacan, known for its multiple pyramid complexes, with the moon and sun pyramids as the largest ones. Another famous temple there, the third largest pyramid, is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Though the origin of the feathered serpent likely comes from the older Olmec culture, the Teotihuacan temple (150-200 AD) has the earliest classic depictions of the feathered serpent as we see in later cities across all of Meso-America. Because it became such a widespread god, known as Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs and Kukulcan with the Yucatec Mayans, most people assume that he was the primary deity of Teotihuacan.
He was not. The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan was the primary deity (see top image of this essay). She is depicted on murals in the living quarters of the highest status people, but also featured in the Temple of the Jaguars, Temple of Agriculture, on pottery and even the back of mirrors, and there is a statue of her that once stood at the base of the Pyramid of the Moon. She simply is not as infamous with us modern people, because she was not as popular or widespread after Teotihuacan’s downfall in the 6th century.
Water flows from her hands. She wears a headdress with an owl mask, a nose pendant with three to five spider fangs and her retinue in the tree growing behind or above hers are little birds, spiders and butterflies. Thsoe should ring a bell when it comes to Varys who uses little birds for spies, is nicknamed the spider, and both spiders and butterflies weave silk.
The archeologist Karl Taube dubbed her the “Teotihuacan Spider Woman”. Especially spiders are often associated with her: they scurry in the background, over her dress, or if she holds a shield a spider-web is depicted on them. Since both the spider and owl were regarded as creatures of the darkness, she was most likely a chthonic underworld goddess, who simultaneously lies at the base of creation and civilisation, but also war. While there are later war-goddess derivates from her such as the Aztec Cihuacoatl, a major difference between them is that while he Aztecs focus on military glory to hold off an apocalypse, the Teotihuacan depictions give this ‘paradise on earth’ feel.
Peculiar is how both Lyber and Teotihuacan share a bloody feud between a spider goddess and a serpent god. Rich dwellings built near a temple of a certain deity are believed to have been occupied by powerful families or functionaries who held a dual spiritual and political role of importance in Teotihuacan. This is true for both the Great Goddess and Quetzalcoatl.
Even though a city-state, Teotihuacan exerted military control as far as the Mayan Peten region, such as Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras). According to an inscription in a monument in Tikal, Spearthrower Owl ascended the throne of an unspecified polity in 374 AD, but presumably Teotihuacan. Notice how this king of Teotihuacan associates himself with the owl, while the Great Goddess has an owl mask in her headdress. Then in 378 AD a military powerful figure called Fire is Born arrives in the Peten area, in Teotihuacan dress, conquers Tikal, killing the king of Tikal. He is believed to have been Spearthrower Owl’s general. In other words, Fire is Born and Teotihuacan committed a military coup in Tikal. And in 379 AD the son of Spearthrower Owl, Curled Nose, ascended the throne of Tikal, while Fire is Born remained the military overlord over the Mayan region. The interesting thing is that the overthrown family who was exiled from Tikal were referred to as the Feathered-Serpent people. After the coup, the Tikalese temple of the Feathered Serpent was burned, its sculptures torn down and a platform was built in front of it to hide its facade. More, around the same time, in the 4th century AD, a platform was also built in front of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan to obscure it from view from the main road as well. So, there was a bloody feud between those who affiliated themselves with the serpent god and those who affiliated with the great goddess, not just in Teotihuacan, but extending as far as Guatemala and Honduras.
It was long believed that Teotihuacan’s downfall was brought on by foreign enemies during a period of drought in the 6th century. Evidence though has shown that while dwellings of the elite and temples were burned and destroyed, no violence was done to the dwellings of the lower classes, suggesting that an internal uprising of the middle class and commoners (a revolution) caused the collapse of Teotihuacan, once the sixth largest city of its era across the globe with its 125,000 citizens. Spider Woman was forgotten and lost the feud of cultural legacy and focus. Instead of striving to create a utopia the apocalyptic war view of domination won out. And the iconographic win of the Feathered Serpent over the Great Goddess after Teotihuacan’s downfall may very well have served as an inspiration for George for Lyber and its bloody feud.
The name Teotihuacan comes to us from the Aztecs who occupied the highlands of central Mexico 1000 years later and is Nahuatl for ‘birthplace of the gods’. We do not know what the citizens called their own city, only that their contemporary Mayans called it ‘place of reeds’, which is likely as generic as our present day ‘The City’ with everyone understanding what city the person refers to in that country: for example New York in the States, Antwerp in Belgium.
We have something similar for Lyber. As it is a lost city and civilisation it is unclear who its citizens were or what they called their city themselves, exactly like Teotihuacan. George likely derived the name Lyber from the Latin “Liber” which means “free” or “the free one”. What are city-states called in Essos even now? Free Cities. So, linguistically the name Lyber suggests the name originates from a much later, possibly Valyrian, era where cities not under direct control of Valyrians were generically called free cities. As they stumbled upon the ruins of a lost, but once huge city with temples depicting a spider goddess and a serpent god and evidence of internal strife, the discoverers simply called it Lyber as they would call any city-state that was independent of Valyrian rule.
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Asshai by the Shadow
Red Silk for a Black Cloak
We have one book reference that connects silk to Asshai – namely Mance Rayder’s story of the red silken inner lining of his cloak that prompted him to desert the Night’s Watch.
“One day on a ranging we brought down a fine big elk. We were skinning it when the smell of blood drew a shadow-cat out of its lair. I drove it off, but not before it shredded my cloak to ribbons. […]” [The King-Beyond-the-Wall] chuckled. “It shredded my arm and back as well, and I bled worse than the elk. My brothers feared I might die before they got me back to Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower, so they carried me to a wildling village where we knew an old wisewoman did some healing. She was dead, as it happened, but her daughter saw to me. Cleaned my wounds, sewed me up, and fed me porridge and potions until I was strong enough to ride again. And she sewed up the rents in my cloak as well, with some scarlet silk from Asshai that her grandmother had pulled from the wreck of a cog washed up on the Frozen Shore. It was the greatest treasure she had, and her gift to me.” He swept the cloak back over his shoulders. “But at the Shadow Tower, I was given a new wool cloak from stores, black and black, and trimmed with black, to go with my black breeches and black boots, my black doublet and black mail. The new cloak had no frays nor rips nor tears . . . and most of all, no red. The men of the Night’s Watch dressed in black, Ser Denys Mallister reminded me sternly, as if I had forgotten. My old cloak was fit for burning now, he said. I left the next morning . . . for a place where a kiss was not a crime, and a man could wear any cloak he chose.” He closed the clasp and sat back down again. (aSoS, Jon I)
We can almost certainly dismiss Varys as having an Asshai origin – no children are born there. The citizens are all immigrants from somewhere else, so to speak. And while Mance Rayder’s cloak of black with red silk calls forth the colors of House Targaryen, as did the coalblack and bloodred horses of the Sarnori, I would also remind the reader that the color red is associated to false trails in the books. Red silk from Asshai is a false origin lead, though it does seem to alter a person’s mind on what sort of life they will live drastically, and thus destiny.
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Even if Asshai silk is a false lead for Varys’s ancestry, my previous speculation about leukism and architectural peculiarities about Vaes Tolorro and Qarth to avoid sunlight may have made you wonder, “What about people of Asshai?” There are Asshai citizens, and Asshai shadowbinders, but not Asshai people. That is perhaps the metaphorical reason why nobody rides horses in Asshai!
An account by Archmaester Marwyn confirms reports that no man rides in Asshai, be he warrior, merchant, or prince. There are no horses in Asshai, no elephants, no mules, no donkeys, no zorses, no camels, no dogs. Such beasts, when brought there by ship, soon die. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)
What physical skin issues would lead to people to settle in Asshai in the first place, even though it is so inhospitable to life? Which real world disorder has symptomes and treatments that could be an inspiration for both fire and blood magic, when Asshai was built in an area that is hardly ever touched by direct sunlight?
Travelers tell us that the city is built entirely of black stone: halls, hovels, temples, palaces, streets, walls, bazaars, all. Some say as well that the stone of Asshai has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it, that it seems to drink the light, dimming tapers and torches and hearth fires alike. The nights are very black in Asshai, all agree, and even the brightest days of summer are somehow grey and gloomy. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)
Even at the brightest day there is no sun at Asshai, but the sky is grey and gloomy, whether from mist or thick packs of ever present clouds. It is an ideal location for people who wish to avoid the sunlight. The black stone drinks and absorbs the sun, daylight and artificial light. One must be truly motivated to settle here or establish a colony to overcome the drawback of its inhospitability to life: animals die, no ability to grow food. Planetos tends to deal with certain diseases by creating a colony. For example, Chroyane serves as a colony for those with Grey Scale from all over the world and food is delivered to them. Where Chroyane’s isolated colony serves to protect the general populace of any city from contracting Grey Scale, with Asshai it should be a haven protecting those who would suffer horribly in any other parts of the world with normal ligth levels.
Only those people who are extremely light sensitive, even from artificial light would originally see Asshai as a salvation for them. This goes beyond leukism and albinism, though such people might appreciate a few years out of the sun. An extreme form of light sensitivity is associated with Erythropoietic Protoporphyria (EPP) or Protoporphyria or other variants of chronic porphyria disorders. It is a metabolism disorder caused by the deficiency of an enzyme in the blood that forms haeme of haemoglobin. As a result a surplus of unbound protoporphyrin and iron circulates through the body, including the skin. Unbound, the first is sensitive to UV-B light (also emitted by artificial or indirect light) and exposure to light sets of a chain reaction of a burning sensation (the nerves) as if being on fire, as well as the formation of lesions and blisters similar to 2nd degree burns.
Before arriving in Asshai, people may have developed scar tissue on any skin exposed to light, including the face. They would wear veils and masks, both to protect their faces from light as well as hide the lesions and scars.
Those who walk the streets of Asshai are masked and veiled, and have a furtive air about them. Oft as not, they walk alone, or ride in palanquins of ebony and iron, hidden behind dark curtains and born through the dark streets upon the backs of slaves. […] Most sinister of all the sorcerers of Asshai are the shadowbinders, whose lacquered masks hide their faces from the eyes of gods and men. (tWoIaF, The Bones and Beyond – Asshai by the Shadow)
Curious is that maester Yandel claims in the World Book that shadowbinders typically wear lacquered masks. Quaithe of Qarth wears one and is a shadowbinder. But the Red Witch Melisandre “of Asshai” is also a shadowbinder and wears no mask, only a glamor (as of yet unconfirmed in the books, but strongly implied). Why not? Well, Melisandre is described as having red eyes, which is a strong indicator that she has at the very least occular albinism. Her albinism would promote her to seek shelter from the sun, but her skin would not blister or form lesions because of light. She may hide her true age, but there is no need to protect her face from any type of light with a mask.
Finally, shadowbinding is closely tied to blood magic. One of the chronic variants of porphyria is treated by bloodlettings, in order to reduce the surplus of iron. The need for the bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms, even in Asshai, would promote the discovery and experimenting with blood magic in combination with shadow magic.
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From a Colony to a Port
Unfortunately, exactly because of the low levels of light, nothing grows at Asshai but ghost grass and for some reason no animal survives for long. Colonies like these require food deliveries. Chroyane shows that food deliveries can be erratic, however, if they solely depend on the will and humane heart of a ship’s captain or a city’s triarch.
“Hatred does not stir the stone men half so much as hunger.” Haldon Halfmaester had wrapped a yellow scarf around his mouth and nose, muffling his voice. “Nothing any sane man would want to eat grows in these fogs. Thrice each year the triarchs of Volantis send a galley upriver with provisions, but the mercy ships are oft late and sometimes bring more mouths than food.”(aDwD, Tyrion V)
If a colony has something to sell that other people may want then people happily sail to the end of the seas for it. Dragonstone, amber and gold from the mountain range of the Shadow Lands serve excellently, as does practicing of magic.
No children are born here, and thus its populace is entirely dependent on settlers, who have no interest in having a family or farm. Despite it being a large city, the populace is small.
Asshai is a large city, sprawling out for leagues on both banks of the black river Ash. Behind its enormous land walls is ground enough for Volantis, Qarth, and King’s Landing to stand side by side and still have room for Oldtown. […] Yet the population of Asshai is no greater than that of a good-sized market town. By night the streets are deserted, and only one building in ten shows a light. Even at the height of day, there are no crowds to be seen, no tradesmen shouting their wares in noisy markets, no women gossiping at a well. (tWoIaF – The Bones and Beyond: Asshai-By-The-Shadow)
Its populace cannot really grow, but it has managed to spark enough interest for individuals of all cultures to settle there temporarily. The safety from sunlight would be a draw for amenalistic albinos and leukists, such as Melisandre. The uncensured teaching of magic without restrictions would draw temporary settlers of people who have no light sensitivity issues themselves. So, one can see how Asshai therefore censures no magical practice and became an attractive colony for people who do not suffer from this allergy to light.
We have met quite a few characters who were trained in Asshai:
- Mirri Maz Dur of the Lazarene who attempted to save Drogo with a blood magic ritual.
- Melisandre who was taught shadowbinding, knows the tongue of Asshai and has read the prophecy of Azor Ahai returned there.
- Quaithe of Qarth, a shadowbinder with lacquered mask, who warns Dany in Qarth and via glass candles (presumed) in Mereen, and who attempts to guide Dany to go to Asshai to learn the “truth”.
- Maester Marwyn who is one of the few maesters who believes in magic and is skeptical of the anti-magic faction amognst the maesters.
Would it be so farfetched to expect Varys’s sorcerer who cut him stem and root as a child to have studied at Asshai as well? If so, then he “created” what Varys became: plucked him from his destiny with the mummers, made a eunuch of him, let him go to die or survive in the streets of Myr and form a deep hatred against magic, and ultimately the Spider.
Asshai has some type of library of old lore and prophecies. Since people cannot grow anything there and the colonists originally would have risen by people who require to avoid light or remain inside, it is not illogical that with too much time on their hands they wrote and amassed lore that came with the trade winds. If Varys’s sorcerer indeed tried to raise or empower the Others, then Asshai is the most likely place he would have learned much and more about the Long Night, aside from the Citadel of the maesters, the library of Winterfell and Castle Black. Their rolls may even contain references to the infamous ice spiders.
Some speculate that the sorcerer recognized Valyrian traits in Varys when he was with his mummer’s troupe in Myr and therefore performed the castration ritual. However, I suspect it was his paleness that would have caught the sorcerer’s attention.
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Summary and Conclusion (tltr)
In order to verify Varys’s origin it is near impossible to use his physical features. At best we can establish that he has a round face, either because of his plumpness or ethnicity. Using the logic of Sherlock Holmes in aDwD’s epilogue we have a strong indication that Varys has a very pale complexion beneath his powder. He is of average height, but his castration and life as street urchin in his youth may have hampered his growth. We do not know his eye-color, but the lack of remarks on this from POVs indicates they are not of an exceptional or remarkable color. Since he is bald, his hair could have any color.
Our stop-over at Naath taught us that Lys has a pillow house famous for its Naathi bedslaves there and that they make the best, obedient slaves. We can observe that Varys behaves servile and obediently. On top of that he is extremely sensitive about blood. If the training of Unsullied can turn Naathi boys into men who kill puppies and newborn babies, then Varys’s life experiences can turn him into a man who is willing to murder for his goal. There are several parallels between Unsullied and Varys as well as reverse parallels, but the most noteworthy is the burning of their penis and testicles and thereby sacrifice potential descendants to a demon or god(dess) or magic that indicates this ritual empowers the target power. We even have this parallel when Dany chops up a snake and charrs the pieces on a brazier for her dragons in Qarth.
Traveling to the Grasslands we come across three remarkable spider references:
- Sarnori riders wore spider-silk.
- The rivaling kingdom of the Qaathi was pushed southward out of the Grasslands by the Sarnori into the region that became a Red Waste, with only Qarth still standing and even flurishing at the Jade Sea. One of the ruined Qaathi cities was nicknamed “City of Spiders” by the Dothraki.
- Somewhere in the Grasslands there once was a city-state, now known as Lyber, where a Spider Goddess was revered, but also a Serpent God. The accolytes of these gods held an internal bloody feud that would lie at the basis of the collapse of this lost city. Inspiration for this Lyber’s history is likely real world Meso-American Teotihuacan where political followers of the Great Goddess (who is very much a Spider Woman) and the Feathred Serpent were military rivals at some point. The collapse of that city-state is believed to have been internal revolution from the common class against the elite.
Having three spider references that all relate to origin in an area where several people claim to have invented civilisation is what I consider a jackpot (you need more for a bingo). Spider-silk leads us to the Grasslands where a Spider Goddess was revered by unknown people. The City of Spiders is the strongest geographical indication that part of Varys’s ancestry is Qaathi, or Milk Men, as tall as Sarnori, but pale as milk.
Since George features several leukistic animals in the books, for which we can easily find a link to Varys, I argue that George may actually have made a people in Essos leukists like True White Horses, who carry a Dominant White Gene. Leukism does not affect the color of eyes as albinism would. Circumstantial evidence points to Qaathi and their surviving Qartheen being such leukists. While initially they made cities to hide from the sun, Qarth is a wonder of architecture where people can actually go about half naked in the city without ever fearing the sun, as all important meeting places, markets and streets would be in the shadow most of the day. As a Dominant White gene this form of leukism would mask any other ethnicity mixed into a Qartheen’s ancestry that could otherwise be determined by skin tone. Hence the elite of royal descendance try to distance themselves from the other Qartheen by their title as “Pureborn”, as there would be no other way to discern ethnic purity.
Varys has quite striking parallels with Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Any difference in appearance (nose, weight, height) is due to Varys’s castration. Like Qartheen he prides himself on being polite and civilised, be at the brink of mummer’s tears over the poor children, but is in fact far more ruthless. He murders Kevan much like an apologetic Sorrowful Man. Not so incidentally, Pentos is Greek for “man of sorrows” or “sorrowful man” and is the city where Varys transformed himself from the prince of thieves hiding from slavers into the spymaster Spider.
Two spider references indicate that Varys himself is a leukist: the piebald Spotted Spiders of Sothyros and the infamous Ice Spiders of the Others. If this interpretation of leukism hints are correct, then the Ice Spiders serve as a metaphor how Varys’s ritual castration and burning of his private parts may have helped the Others. The leukism would be the main reason that Varys wears powder – it primary serves as a sunblock and secondary makes people assume his palenessis is due to powder.
So, I propose that Varys has Qaathi ancestry, either because his grandfather or father was a Qartheen merchant who bedded a woman at Lys, or because they were taken into slavery by the Dothraki. Just like Xaro he is not “pureborn” but instead an ethnic mixture. We cannot exclude him from having Naathi ancestry, because of the leukism.
Beyond this I clarified albinism and how Valyrian traits, the Daynes, Hightowers appear to be independent fantasy mutation types of these. Genetic drift with island populations can explain how such a recessive genotype can become a regular reappearing phenotype. In discussions many fail to account for the various hypomelanistic forms of albinism nor recognize that the argument about acuity is pointless when even an amenalistic albino like Bloodraven can shoot arrows with the sight of a hawk.
In the sidenotes I pointed out that the brindled half-men of Sothoryos are a hint for Tyrion being a chimera twin and mentioned that the many appearances of white dwarf elephants in aDwD tie Tyrion to recessive albinism.
I also propose Asshai was sought out as a refuge colony by people suffering from porphyria (allergy to light). Bloodlettings to alleviate symptoms in that area would have led to the discovery of using blood magic to shadowbind, thereby attracting non sufferers to experiment and learn there. This real world disease would explain the wearing of veils and masks even in an area where the sky is most ofthe time overcast. While Varys certainly could not have an Asshai origin through ancestry, it is not unlikely that the sorcerer who maimed him was trained there in blood magic. His research there about the long night might have prompted the sorcerer to find a perfect victim to empower the Others, thereby setting Varys on his Spider path.
The red thread between Unsullied, Varys, Qarth and Lys is the concept of purity. Kraznys mo Nakloz refers to full castrates as the purest creatures. In Qarth the descendants from Qartheen kings call themselves Pureborn. And in Lys the noble families are invested in pure Valyrian blood. Varys would not be regarded as pure blooded by Lyseni or Qartheen Pureborn. He however evolved into a “puremade” creature, the Spider, who may lurk in the dark, and disguise himself behind layers of ambiguity, but will neither rape nor plunder.
The dominant white leukism could potentially explain Varys’s background. Let’s say that hypothetically a Naathi bedslave slept with a Qartheen merchant. Lyseni aim to breed slaves, especially bedslaves, for beauty. The Lyseni owner might have expected a beautiful ethnic mixture, but to his or her horror instead the child was as pale as his Qartheen father, proving its dominancy over dusky skin. Such a dominant gene could not be tolerated to breed on Lys and thus was sold to a traveling mummer’s troupe. The sorcerer selected Varys for the same reasons – pale as milk skin and nobody would care if the boy would lose his ability to breed. This is of course a pure speculative scenario. We could add even more mixtures in Varys’s ancestry, including Valyrian, but ultimately the Qartheen and leukistic link is the likeliest reason he was sold to serve as a slave away from Lys and why the sorcerer noticed him over any other boy (at least this far west in Essos).
Despite the fact that the link to Qarth is so strong for Varys, I do think that George intends him to be a mixture of many and more people and keep his origin hidden behind layers of ambiguity and disguises, including genetic disguises such as leukism. Ultimately itis this that makes Varys someone “of the people”. It is why the Spider is so strongly linked to the the Grasslands, which is portrayed as a corridor and hotbed of several people that built and destroyed civilisations, era after era.
Qarth serves Varys’s characterization, behavior and self-proclaimed motivation extremely well. At the very least it links Varys to the hypocrisy of those who claim to be civilised. Qartheen regard themselves to be the inventors of civilisation and the most civlised, and yet they declare war on Dany and help the Yunkai, because she messes up their business interests in slave trade. Qarth has slaves do the menial work. They may treat them kindly. They may not capture slaves like the Dothraki, nor do they train them like the Yunkai, but they buy them and use them. They are the equivalent of the consumers in our western civilised world who pride themselves that all our children have the protected right to get education and seek their own career, but just as well buy clothes from Asian countries where children make them in bondage. Our governments back trade agreements with such countries, even if a dictator or non-democratic government oppresses their people. And just like the Qartheen and Varys many people of our world actually believe we are more civilised. Like Varys they may wash their hands and sound close to tears when they hear or see atrocities somewhere else in the world, but throw up their hands in despair, “What can I alone do against it? I’m just one person,” but just as well would deny refugees from war devestated or extremely poor regions access to safety. Instead every so and so years we vote, to help someone into power we hope or believe might set everything to right, while of course equally we vote for that candidate to serve our own self-interest.
The civilised world funds and backs wars, dictators, oppression and abuse of the common folk. Heck they participate in it. Let us not forget that at the time that George started to publish his series the US had gone to their first war in Iraq, under Bush senior. Europe did nothing while former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, with genocide being committed under the watchful eye of UN blue helmets. While one people in Ruanda macheted millions of the other, the overall international response in the West was ‘pffff, let them kill each other,’ nor did anybody even care about warlord atrocities in Congo. And instead of getting better, it has grown worse the past two decades, and all the while global climate change should be our main social priority.
With Varys, and with Qarth, George reminds us of civilisation’s hypocrisy – pretty empathic words and heartfelt tears, that likely are not even that insincere, but at best followed up with inaction, at worst self-interested war mongering, albeit all very politely. And just once in a while the Western civilisation and Varys save a child’s life.
For more analysis on Qarth and Varys as parallels to the Others via ice spider connections, check out the Plutonian Others.