Craster’s Black Blooded Curse

Another one of those famously violent and accursed places is Craster’s Keep, with Craster and his wives – who are actually his daughters – him sacrifing his sons, his extortion of Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (aka the Old Bear), the mutiny and aftermath events. After the horror of Harrenhal (see Harrenhal’s Curse), Craster’s Keep may very well be the runner up of most horrific places.

While Craster and his Keep only appears in two chapters, they are littered with bear references, verbally, symbolically as well as bear characters, including a bear kill and bear wedding, but also plenty of Goat or Ram-characters, who are not so different from Vargo Hoat. To untangle the whole bear revenge, which includes the attack on the Fist of the First Men, I have to split the concept in several essays. The first essay focuses on the numerous hints we are given about Craster’s character. I will reveal to you a tale of murder and cannibalism, and a proposal on the fate of Benjen and his six rangers. Craster bears a heavy black blooded curse indeed.

For those who are unfamiliar with bear-folklore, that I will reference here and there in this essay, I urge you to read my introduction on bear-lore

Chekhov Bear Skulls, Axes and Murder

On the southwest, [Jon] found an open gate flanked by a pair of animal skulls on high poles: a bear to one side, a ram to the other. Bits of flesh still clung to the bear skull, Jon noted as he joined the line riding past. (aCoK, Jon III)

Surprise, surprise – well not really – what hangs in plain sight at the poles of Craster’s Gate? A bear skull and a ram’s. It sounds like the bear has been killed recently, since flesh still clings to it. And I would think that hanging a bear’s skull high on a pole does not really count as a proper burial. I sincerely doubt that Craster held any symbolical wedding with the bear carcass. As for the ram’s skull: that would be Craster’s permanent scapegoat for the bear kill.

Edd points out that bear skull again, when Jon asks him for Jeor’s axe as a gift for Craster the host. If something hanging from a pole (rather than a wall) is pointed out twice by characters in the same chapter, the author is clearly saying, “That bear skull is important! It’s not just some grizzly detail for decorative purposes to set the mood.” (see what I did there?) .

“Give the wildling an axe, why not?” [Dolorous Edd] pointed out Mormont’s weapon, a short-hafted battle-axe with gold scrollwork inlaid on the black steel blade. “He’ll give it back, I vow. Buried in the Old Bear’s skull, like as not. Why not give him all our axes, and our swords as well? I mislike the way they clank and rattle as we ride. We’d travel faster without them, straight to hell’s door. Does it rain in hell, I wonder? Perhaps Craster would like a nice hat instead.”
Jon smiled. “He wants an axe. And wine as well.”
“See, the Old Bear’s clever. If we get the wildling well and truly drunk, perhaps he’ll only cut off an ear when he tries to slay us with that axe. I have two ears but only one head.”
“Smallwood says Craster is a friend to the Watch.”
“Do you know the difference between a wildling who’s a friend to the Watch and one who’s not?” asked the dour squire. “Our enemies leave our bodies for the crows and the wolves. Our friends bury us in secret graves. I wonder how long that bear’s been nailed up on that gate, and what Craster had there before we came hallooing?”

Sure, Edd is droll and funny with his dry humor, but he is also a wise character. He tends to use his speeches to hint at something. Craster has just extorted Old Bear Jeor Mormont out of wine and an axe. Edd certainly portrays Craster as a greedy extortionist by suggesting Craster wants all of their axes and swords. He also suggests betrayal by Craster, turning the bear’s gifts against him. The “Old Bear’s skull” parallels the bear’s skull on the gate. And while Edd uses a figure of speech of Craster burying an axe into a bear skull, he is also saying that an enemy pretending to be a friend kills you and then buries you in secret. Edd regards Craster as an enemy of Jeor Mormont and the Night’s Watch, only posing to be a friend.

Later in the chapter, the next morning, a curious conversation follows between Dywen, Grenn and Edd about bears that Jon overhears. Dywen is a bit of bear fan, and once claimed to have seen a fifteen foot huge bear North of the Wall (which Jeor Mormont dismissed as big fish talk) while in the company of Grenn. It is this bear that Dywen refers to in the quoted conversation below.

Jon wolfed it down while listening to Dywen boast of having three of Craster’s women during the Night.
“You did not,” Grenn said, scowling. “I would have seen.”
Dywen whapped him up alongside his ear with the back of his hand. “You? Seen? You’re blind as Maester Aemon. You never even saw that bear.
What bear? Was there a bear?”
There’s always a bear,” declared Dolorous Edd in his usual tone of gloomy resignation. “One killed my brother when I was young. Afterward it wore his teeth around its neck on a leather thong. And they were good teeth too, better than mine. I’ve had nothing but trouble with my teeth.”

First of all, with the meta-line that there is always a bear George tells the reader to look and hunt for bears in the books. They are important, they are involved in every plot arc.

But let us take a deeper look at Edd’s story about his brother. One of the wards against bear power, instead of looking through brass rings, was wearing a belt of bear teeth. Edd reverses this bear-lore. A bear killed his brother, then put his brother’s teeth on a thong and wore it around its neck. The men of the Night’s Watch call each other brother. So, is Edd talking here about an actual sibling or a brother of the Night’s Watch? Who else in that company of black brothers sitting around the breakfast fire has teeth issues? That would be Dywen, who has wooden replacement teeth. If Edd says he has trouble with his teeth, like Dywen has teeth issues, then he is allying himself with Dywen – he respect and protecst the Old Bear, like Dywen, his brother, as well as mistrusts Craster. This is Dywen’s opinion about Craster.

Dywen said Craster was a kinslayer, liar, raper, and craven, and hinted that he trafficked with slavers and demons. “And worse,” the old forester would add, clacking his wooden teeth. “There’s a cold smell to that one, there is.”

Also, Dywen’s nose is always right.

There is a link between Edd’s quoted words, Dywen and axes. When Jon and Sam say their vows at the heart tree beyond the wall, in aGoT, they find two of Benjen’s (wighted) men who end up attempting to assassinate Jeor Mormont.

Squatting beside the dead man he had named Jafer Flowers, Ser Jaremy grasped his head by the scalp. The hair came out between his fingers, brittle as straw. The knight cursed and shoved at the face with the heel of his hand. A great gash in the side of the corpse’s neck opened like a mouth, crusted with dried blood. Only a few ropes of pale tendon still attached the head to the neck. “This was done with an axe.”
“Aye,” muttered Dywen, the old forester. “Belike the axe that Othor carried, m’lord.” (aGoT, Jon VII)

Since the axe is missing, nor is there any sign of blood on the location, Ser Jaremy Rikker and Dywen conclude they were murdered somewhere else. Indeed, Sam points out that they are dead for a longer while, since their blood is not fresh anymore. Dywen then suggests someone transported them there.

Dywen sucked at his wooden teeth. “Might be they didn’t die here. Might be someone brought ’em and left ’em for us. A warning, as like.” The old forester peered down suspiciously. “And might be I’m a fool, but I don’t know that Othor never had no blue eyes afore.”
Ser Jaremy looked startled. “Neither did Flowers,” he blurted, turning to stare at the dead man.

Since they turn out to be wights who can walk, the reader dismisses Dywen’s literal suggestion here. Wights can walk on their own. Dogs and horses are terrified from Othor’s and Jafer’s wighted corpses, which explains why most animals stay clear of them and no scavenger has gnawed on them. Except Ghost did bite one of the hands off. At Bloodraven’s cave both Summer and the normal wolves feed on wights, and so do ravens. Even so, while it is clear that Jafer and Othor were not killed on that location, the black dusty blood, black hands, white skin do not prove they were killed a long time ago at all.

On the other hand, we are not even sure how long Jafer and Othor were lying there to be found. Ghost found Jafer’s body and bit off his hand, the evening that Jon and Sam said their vows at the grove North of the Wall. This happened near evenfall.

Mormont to the new recruits about to be sworn in:”At evenfall, as the sun sets and we face the gathering night, you shall take your vows. From that moment, you will be a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch.”

[Sam and Jon] said the words together, as the last light faded in the west and grey day became black night. “Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow,” they recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. (aGoT, Jon VI)

And only the next morning do the rangers go out with Jeor, Jon and Snow to find and look at the bodies.

“Gods have mercy,” the Old Bear muttered. He swung down from his garron, handing his reins to Jon. The morning was unnaturally warm; beads of sweat dotted the Lord Commander’s broad forehead like dew on a melon. (aGoT, Jon VII)

So, we know that Jafer and Othor stayed put at the same location, for at least a night. If they lay there as wights for a night, they may have been there for two nights, a week, a month or even longer for all we know. I hear you protest loudly against this, “Surely, the rangers looking for them or hunters would have found them!” Well, would they? How do rangers travel? On horseback. And the horses would have naturally made a wide bow around them.

His horse was nervous, rolling her eyes, backing away from the dead men as far as her lead would allow. Jon led her off a few paces, fighting to keep her from bolting. The horses did not like the feel of this place. For that matter, neither did Jon.

What do the hunters use? Hunting dogs. The dogs were useless, when the rangers and hunters already knew there were bodies North of the Wall. Any hunting party looking for game with the dogs would have been led anywhere but the location of Jafer’s and Othor’s bodies. Only Ghost was able to lead them to the bodies.

The dogs liked it least of all. Ghost had led the party here; the pack of hounds had been useless. When Bass the kennelmaster had tried to get them to take the scent from the severed hand, they had gone wild, yowling and barking, fighting to get away. Even now they were snarling and whimpering by turns, pulling at their leashes while Chett cursed them for curs. (aGoT, Jon VII)

And the evening that Jon and Sam said their vows was the first time that Ghost hunted North of the Wall. Jon used to take Ghost hunting South of the Wall when he was still a recruit. This means that if Jon and Sam would have made their vows a week later, Jafer and Othor would have been found a week later, and thus would lay unmoved for a week. Hence, they might actually have been lying there for quite a while.

While sweeps were done to look for Benjen and his rangers, it is actually doubtful they searched this close to the Wall. We cannot even know how long Jafer and Othor lay there.

At the very least, Dywen’s remark suggests that Craster may have helped the Others with more than baby sons. There is a theory on reddit that goes deeper into Craster’s lies, reconstructs the likely events preceding the prologue and what the Others may be after, which I certainly recommend as a read: a cold death in the snow – the killing of a ranger.

Edd does not just warn Jon that Craster is an enemy of Jeor and how brothers of the Night’s Watch need to protect the Old Bear at present. When he points at the bear skull at the gate, he hints that he suspects Craster has betrayed them before – Waymar Royce and Benjen.

Jon realizes that Craster is a liar when Gilly mentions having seen Others or wights, which contradicts Craster’s denial regarding wights (sort of) after Mormont reveals the fate of Jafer and Othor to him. Let us follow that axe around, shall we?

The woman’s mouth hung open, a wet pink cave, but Craster only gave a snort. “We’ve had no such troubles here . . . and I’ll thank you not to tell such evil tales under my roof. I’m a godly man, and the gods keep me safe. If wights come walking, I’ll know how to send them back to their graves. Though I could use me a sharp new axe.” He sent his wife scurrying with a slap on her leg and a shout of “More beer, and be quick about it.”
No trouble from the dead,” Jarmen Buckwell said, …
…[snip]…
“The cold gods,” [Gilly] said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows.”… [snip]…”Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold.”
She has seen them, he thought. Craster lied. (aCoK, Jon III)

Well, Craster lies in a clever way. Even if he saw wights, they give him no trouble, because the Others keep him safe, for the moment. But how odd is it that Craster mentions wanting a sharp new axe in the same paragraph about the wight topic in answer to Jeor Mormont’s story about Jafer and Othor, one of which at least was killed by an axe.

What does Craster need a new axe for? According to reports the forest is practically empty of game and animals. All the villages are empty as well, either wighted or with Mance Rayder at the Milkwater. And even if Mance tramples Craster’s Keep, one axe will make little difference. It certainly is completely worthless against Others (unless it was made of dragonglass or dragonsteel). And what happened to his previous axe then?

“Gared says they were chasing raiders. I told him, with a commander that green, best not catch ’em. Gared wasn’t half-bad, for a crow. Had less ears than me, that one. The ‘bite took ’em, same as mine.” Craster laughed. “Now I hear he got no head neither. The ‘bite do that too?

Craster gave a shrug. “Happens I have better things to do than tend to the comings and goings of crows.” He drank a pull of beer and set the cup aside. “Had no good southron wine up here for a bear’s night. I could use me some wine, and a new axe. Mine’s lost its bite, can’t have that, I got me women to protect.”

Craster’s axe lost its bite, and earlier he refers to Gared’s beheading and whether the ‘bite did that too. So, axe, bite, and beheading as we saw done to Othor. Nor is it the first time that bite, steel and beheading goes hand in hand. George uses that phrase when Jon hacked at Othor in the Old Bear’s room.

Jon hacked at the corpse’s neck, felt the steel bite deep and hard. (aGoT, Jon VII)

Mormont offers Craster an escort to the Wall for his safety. Keep that remark by Dywen of someone bringing Jafer and Othor to the location where they were found in the back of your mind. Now watch Mormont’s pet raven. He does not just scream a word. He does something.

“You are few here, and isolated,” Mormont said. “If you like, I’ll detail some men to escort you south to the Wall.”
The raven seemed to like the notion. “Wall,” it screamed, spreading black wings like a high collar behind Mormont’s head.
Their host gave a nasty smile, showing a mouthful of broken brown teeth. “And what would we do there, serve you at supper? We’re free folk here. Craster serves no man.” (aCoK, Jon III)

Now how about that nice pet raven, spreading his wings behind a bear’s skull and screaming “Wall”. The raven’s wings serve as a figurative wall behind Mormont’s head. Checkhov’s Old Bear skull on the wall? That makes for a 3rd reference of a bear skull on a wall/pole. Also, did Craster escort Jafer and Othor to the Wall, which resulted in an assassination attempt on the Old Bear?

Remember how Craster mentioned wine before? The wine and serving are more of George’s callbacks to the wight chapter in aGoT: Jon was to serve Jeor wine, and Jon attacked Alliser Thorne during supper.

[The Old Bear] was seated by the window, reading a letter. “Bring me a cup of wine, and pour one for yourself.”…[snip]…”I told you to sit,” Mormont grumbled. “Sit,” the raven screamed. “And have a drink, damn you. That’s a command, Snow.”…[snip]…”Lord Eddard has been imprisoned. He is charged with treason. It is said he plotted with Robert’s brothers to deny the throne to Prince Joffrey.” (aGoT, Jon VII)

Craster’s choice of words are uncannily precise references to the whole chapter. And he seems to enjoy it too. It is almost as if he had eyes and ears himself in that chapter of aGoT. Now, I am not actually saying that Craster actually was a witness to it all through some magical means. But George references the wight assassination chapter in aGoT with the chapter of Craster’s Keep in wording repeatedly.

It certainly makes Old Mormont’s assertion about Jon’s uncle one full of dark irony. (wink wink)

“Your uncle could tell you of the times Craster’s Keep made the difference between life and death for our rangers.”

The last time, it probably meant “death”. What exactly did Craster mean when he said he never missed Benjen, hmmm? As in he killed him with one sure stroke?

“I’ve not seen Benjen Stark for three years,” he was telling Mormont. “And if truth be told, I never once missed him.”

The Ram

Thoren Smallwood swore that Craster was a friend to the Watch, despite his unsavory reputation. “The man’s half-mad, I won’t deny it,” he’d told the Old Bear, “but you’d be the same if you’d spent your life in this cursed wood. Even so, he’s never turned a ranger away from his fire, nor does he love Mance Rayder. He’ll give us good counsel.”

Thoren Smallwood has taken over Benjen’s duties, since Benjen’s disappearance, and he is convinced that Craster is a friend to the Watch. But the hints about axes, the bite and bear skulls suggest he is the opposite.

What did Dywen do in the breakfast scene? He whapped Grenn on the ear, which is a reference to Craster. Here follows Jon’s description of Craster in aCoK, as well as Samwell’s in aSoS.

Craster sat above the fire, the only man to enjoy his own chair. Even Lord Commander Mormont must seat himself on the common bench, with his raven muttering on his shoulder… [snip]…Craster’s sheepskin jerkin and cloak of sewn skins made a shabby contrast, but around one thick wrist was a heavy ring that had the glint of gold. He looked to be a powerful man, though well into the winter of his days now, his mane of hair grey going to white. A flat nose and a drooping mouth gave him a cruel look, and one of his ears was missing. (aCoK, Jon III)

Craster was a thick man made thicker by the ragged smelly sheepskins he wore day and night. He had a broad flat nose, a mouth that drooped to one side, and a missing ear. And though his matted hair and tangled beard might be grey going white, his hard knuckly hands still looked strong enough to hurt…[snip]… Craster owned but one chair. He sat in it, clad in a sleeveless sheepskin jerkin. His thick arms were covered with white hair, and about one wrist was a twisted ring of gold. (aSoS, Samwell II)

Craster is missing an ear! Who else has an ear issue? Vargo Hoat, the Goat. Brienne bit Vargo’s ear and it got infected. Craster lost his ear because of the ‘bite (meaning frostbite).

Notice the emphasis on Craster wearing sheepskins, and how his arms are covered with white hair. If a character is a bear-character because he wears a bearskin, such as Tyrion, then a person wearing sheepskins is a sheep. What was the other skull hanging on the gate? A ram’s. Both Craster and Vargo are ram-characters, since both a male goat and a male sheep are called ram. Even the rest of the description fits for a ram – broad flat nose, droopy moouth, and his hands sound more like short and stubby. There you go, hello Craster.

craster_ram.jpg

They are both greedy men. Greed is the key. They differ however on what they are greedy about. With his chain of golden coins, Vargo is greedy after matter – gold, sapphires and the largest castle in all of Westeros, Harrenhal. Craster is equally proud to be master of his own keep, sitting on the sole chair, but he wears only one golden ring around his arm and he does not care about his home being a leaky, muddy sheeppen or pigsty covered in layers of shit. Instead, Craster is sexually greedy, having nineteen wives.

Dywen clacked his teeth some more. “Might be I do. Craster’s got ten fingers and one cock, so he don’t count but to eleven. He’d never miss a couple.”
“How many wives does he have, truly?” Grenn asked.
More’n you ever will, brother. Well, it’s not so hard when you’re breeding you own. There’s your beast, Snow.”

“Are you one of Craster’s daughters?” [Jon] asked.
She put a hand over her belly. “Wife now.”…[snip]…”I’ll . . . I’ll be your wife, if you like. My father, he’s got nineteen now, one less won’t hurt him none.” (aCoK, Jon III)

The running joke is how Craster won’t miss one of his wives, but they all know he would be able to count to nineteen and begrudges any man one of his.

I highlighted the last sentence Dywen says to Jon, referring to Ghost returning from his unsuccesful morning hunt. While it supposedly points to another context (Ghost), it is still very uncannily true about the sort of man Craster is. He looks human, but his nature is, well, beastly.

Mormont to Jon: “Does Craster seem less than human to you?”
In half a hundred ways. “He gives his sons to the wood.”

And I do not mean ‘animal-like’ here, because that would be insulting to animals, but The Beast. (Cue in the Number of the Beast. What? Grenn was asking for a number, no?) Satan or the Devil is pictured how? With a ram’s head and a goat’s legs. Who was this image based on? The Greek Pan. Pan was dualistic in nature: a hunter god and a virile pastoral god who fucked sheep, which is exactly the difference between Vargo and Craster. Pan’s parentage was unclear (as is Craster’s, we know even less of Vargo), and he was the sole god who managed to die (of the Greek Pantheon). And when Greek hunters had ill success on the hunt they would scourge his statue. So, Pan was the hunters’ scapegoat for failure! There are also several legends that involve “hearing”. One is about a competition between Pan’s flute and Apollo’s lyre. Except for King Midas, everybody else judges Apollo the winner. Because Midas has no “ear for music”, Apollo changes his ears into that of a donkey’s.

Of course rams are not in fact part of the bear-hunt folklore, except for the proverbial scapegoats. George made the scapegoat an actual ram figure (a goat) in the song, and fits these rams with other mythological rams.

Now, if Craster is a ram, then his children are lambs. Both Edd and Sam talk about food: Craster’s children and lamb.

“Lord Mormont’s in the hall,” [Dolorous Edd] announced. “He said for you to join him. Best leave the wolf outside, he looks hungry enough to eat one of Craster’s children. Well, truth be told, I’m hungry enough to eat one of Craster’s children, so long as he was served hot…”

By the time the telling was done, it was dark outside and Sam was licking his fingers. “That was good, but now I’d like a leg of lamb. A whole leg, just for me, sauced with mint and honey and cloves. Did you see any lambs?
“There was a sheepfold, but no sheep.”
“How does he feed all his men?”
“I didn’t see any men. Just Craster and his women and a few small girls. I wonder he’s able to hold the place. His defenses were nothing to speak of, only a muddy dike…”

“For the baby, not for me. If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy, and she’s had six and knows these things. He gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often. That’s why he started giving them sheep, even though he has a taste for mutton. Only now the sheep’s gone too. Next it will be dogs, till . . .” She lowered her eyes and stroked her belly. (aCoK, Jon III)

So, basically, Edd is talking about wanting lamb, while Sam is talking about a leg of Gilly. And since Craster’s children are lambs, he can offer sheep to the Others. As an aside, while an army of Ice Spiders may give many the creeps, what about a flock of murderous Ice Sheep? And in case you think that is ridiculous, you might want to read up on your Cupid & Psyche, where Psyche has to gather golden hairs of murderous and deadly sheep.

Guest Right

“I’m a godly man, and the gods keep me safe.”

This is something that Craster tends to claim often and loud about himself. His gods certainly are not the Old Gods though. Every wildling village has a weirwood tree, but there is not one within the vicinity of Craster’s sheep hovel. No, his gods are the Others, necromancers that enslave the dead. Cue in wise Edd again:

“Dywen now, he says we need to learn to ride dead horses, like the Others do. He claims it would save on feed. How much could a dead horse eat?” Edd laced himself back up. “Can’t say I fancy the notion. Once they figure a way to work a dead horse, we’ll be next. Likely I’ll be the first too. ‘Edd,’ they’ll say, ‘dying’s no excuse for lying down no more, so get on up and take this spear, you’ve got the watch tonight.’ Well, I shouldn’t be so gloomy. Might be I’ll die before they work it out.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

Meanwhile Craster enslaves his daughters to be his wives.

Craster grabbed a passing woman by the wrist. “Tell him, wife. Tell the Lord Crow how well content we are.”
The woman licked at thin lips. “This is our place. Craster keeps us safe. Better to die free than live a slave.”
Slave,” muttered the raven.

Smart bird! Craster is right up there with the Bloodstone Emperor and the Night’s King: aiding and abetting (and worshipping) necromancers, involved with black sorcery, enslaver, incest, rape, wife-beating, human sacrifice, … Lying is one of his least crimes. He tramples about every belief of First Men, certainly wildling beliefs.

Ygritte to Jon”Craster’s blood is black, and he bears a heavy curse.” (aSoS, Jon III)

But somehow the Night’s Watch and readers think this man follows guest-right customs and would not anger the gods for breaking it. Hmm….

Well let us inspect Craster’s application of guest-right, shall we? When Craster and Jeor finally sit down on the terms of the Night’s Watch staying at Craster’s, Craster expects the Night’s Watch to want a roof and pigs. Mormont only confirms the roof. Craster offers one night, meat and beer for twenty. The Old Bear accepts only the roof for one night and offers Craster supplies (food and wine), plus one axe as a welcoming guest gift. How about that! Craster loses nothing, just space and gains food, drink and an axe. That is a mighty good bargain for Craster, who does not have two hundred men and horses aplenty tagging along in need of food. And Gilly mentions the next morning how Jeor also gave Craster a crossbow, which I take is Jeor’s parting gift.

“Might be that I could tell you where to seek Mance Rayder. If I had a mind.” The brown smile again. “But we’ll have time enough for that. You’ll be wanting to sleep beneath my roof, belike, and eat me out of pigs.”
A roof would be most welcome, my lord,” Mormont said. “We’ve had hard riding, and too much wet.”
“Then you’ll guest here for a night. No longer, I’m not that fond o’ crows. The loft’s for me and mine, but you’ll have all the floor you like. I’ve meat and beer for twenty, no more. The rest o’ your black crows can peck after their own corn.”
“We’ve packed in our own supplies, my lord,” said the Old Bear. “We should be pleased to share our food and wine.”
Craster wiped his drooping mouth with the back of a hairy hand. “I’ll taste your wine, Lord Crow, that I will. One more thing. Any man lays a hand on my wives, he loses the hand.”
…[snip]…
Mormont beckoned [Jon] closer. “Send [Sam] here after he’s eaten. Have him bring quill and parchment. And find Tollett as well. Tell him to bring my axe. A guest gift for our host.”
…[snip]…
“Old Lord Crow, him with the talking bird, he gave Craster a crossbow worth a hundred rabbits.” (aCoK, Jon III)

This is not a true guest-right custom though. It is guest-right standing on its head. It is the host who provides food, beverage, welcome gifts and departing gifts. But here, the guests end up providing the food, drink and gifts. George was very sly in revealing proper guest-right custom, certainly in relation to Craster. Guest right is often talked of, but the actual practice of it is revealed in steps, book by book:

  • aGoT only affirms that guest-right is denied by the host laying bared steel on his lap (or table) in Bran IV.
  • aCoK only confirms that a guest who eats solely his own food that he brought along is not bound to guest-right rules, per Jon’s thought not to eat Craster’s food, in Jon III.
  • aSoS reveals that the host provides bread, salt (in butter, cheese or sausage) and wine at his table or board, calls them guests, and that the consummation of it by the guest seals the claim to guest-right in Catelyn VI. This is confirmed in Jon I when Jon ate chicken and bread and drank mead with Mance; for the parlay with the Lords Declarant at the Eyrie in aFfC, Alayne I; Prince Doran ensuring Balon is a protected guest in aDwD, the Watcher; when Lord Wyman Manderly offers the imprisoned Davos bread and “salt” and wine (which Davos refuses) in Davos IV.
  • aFfC reveals that the person or side who unsheats his sword and threatens the other’s life (verbally or physically) counts as breaking of guest-right, and lifts the protection, in Alayne I. When Lyn Corbray unsheats Lady Forlorn, challenges and threatens Petyr Baelish, his fellow Lords Declarant fold in shame and fear. Petyr Baelish makes it very  clear that he is within his right to arrest them as traitors after that and that they cannot fall back on claims of safe passage.
  • aDwD reveals that guest-right ends with the host giving his guests a parting gift and send them on their merry way, with Lord Manderly doing exactly that, before he has the Freys killed.
  • tWoW, Alayne I reveals that the host offers welcoming gifts at the feast before the start of the Tourney

Guest-right is only invoked when it includes bread in combination with salted food and wine (or mead), given by the host to the guest, and consumed at the host’s table or board. The display of bare steel either denies or ends guest-right protection, both towards the host and the guest.

Meanwhile, George uses Craster and Gilly’s comments about guest-right in aCoK to misrepresent the custom to the reader, before we actually learn the truth of it in other arcs. If you go by Craster’s words in Jon III of aCoK, you get the impression that guest-right is more about the host being protected against a guest’s possible violence, and that having a roof over your head and be allowed to sit at a fire makes you bound to guest-right as well as protects you from harm by the host. That of course is complete rubbish, otherwise Catelyn would not have insisted on bread & salt at the Twins, before they were shown to their rooms.

“Black brothers are sworn never to take wives, don’t you know that? And we’re guests in your father’s hall besides.”
“Not you,” she said. “I watched. You never ate at his board, nor slept by his fire. He never gave you guest-right, so you’re not bound to him.” (aCoK, Jon III)

If you go by Gilly’s words you would end up thinking that eating your own food and drinking your own wine at a man’s board and table makes the host bound to his guest and the guest to his host, and his host’s rules. But again that is rubbish. Why did Lord Wyman Manderly take all of his own food with him when he joined Lord Bolton in the first place? So, that he was free to conspire against his host and his host’s guests.

We already know that Craster is despised by all other wildlings, seen as heavily cursed for his incest. Craster does not follow the Old Gods, nor the customs of First Men. Craster only cares about his guests believing themselves to be bound by guest-right insofar he feels secure they will not attempt to harm or insult him and his. To Craster it is some prerogative that he gives by calling people guests and allowing them to sleep at his fire, while they feel compelled not to harm him, even if nothing what is agreed on actually constitutes guest-right.

Now, in the morning, an hour before departure, we get even more guest-right reversal. Only after sleeping under his roof by his fire are the guests given Craster’s food at his board, even though they are about to leave.

The Old Bear sat at Craster’s board, breaking his fast with the other officers on fried bread, bacon, and sheepgut sausage. Craster’s new axe was on the table, its gold inlay gleaming faintly in the torchlight. Its owner was sprawled unconscious in the sleeping loft above, but the women were all up, moving about and serving…[snip]…Have you eaten? Craster serves plain fare, but filling.”

So, we have Jeor eating bread and salted meat at Craster’s board. That should finally establish guest-right. But then that axe lies bare steel on the same board, or table. Having the axe lie there, denies guest-right safety to Craster’s guests. Meanwhile, Craster feels secure enough that his guests feel bound to their much-ado-guest-right and will not harm him for he sleeps at the loft, not even bothered one bit.

When we revisit Craster’s Keep after the Fist with Samwell, we have this:

They’d covered poor Bannen with a pile of furs and stoked the fire high, yet all he could say was, “I’m cold. Please. I’m so cold.” Sam was trying to feed him onion broth, but he could not swallow. The broth dribbled over his lips and down his chin as fast as Sam could spoon it in…[snip]… About the hall, a ragged score of black brothers squatted on the floor or sat on rough-hewn benches, drinking cups of the same thin onion broth and gnawing on chunks of hardbread. (aSoS, Samwell II)

The men are only given meager onion broth by Craster, so meager that Bannen dies from starvation. You can eat, but be so underfed, that you still starve and die. This is the official medical conclusion why Chris McCandless died in his bus in the Alaskan wild: that though he did eat, he was so malnourished and underfed he gradually lost ability to search and find enough food, until he could not leave the bus at all anymore, and died.

Does giving onion broth to your guests establish guest-right? In combination with hardbread it does. However, guest-right does not just bind the guest to not harm his host, it also binds the host to make sure his guests do not come to harm. And does Craster do that? No.

“That one’s dead.” Craster eyed the man with indifference as he worried at a sausage. “Be kinder to stick a knife in his chest than that spoon down his throat, you ask me.”
“I don’t recall as we did.” Giant was no more than five feet tall—his true name was Bedwyck—but a fierce little man for all that. “Slayer, did you ask Craster for his counsel?”…[snip]…”Food and fire,” Giant was saying, “that was all we asked of you. And you grudge us the food.”
Be glad I didn’t grudge you fire too.”

He had sausages for himself and his wives, he said, but none for the Watch. (aSoS, Samwell II)

He begrudges them food, lets his guests starve, and he suggest that one guest kills another guest with a blade. None of that is the behavior of a host who respects guest-right.

“Bugger his wound.” Dirk prodded the corpse with his foot. “His foot was hurt. I knew a man back in my village lost a foot. He lived to nine-and-forty.”
“The cold,” said Sam. “He was never warm.”
“He was never fed,” said Dirk. “Not proper. That bastard Craster starved him dead.”

And yet, despite the hardbread and salt (assumed to be in the onion broth), it can be argued that though a cruel host, Craster is not breaking guest-right (not yet). I highlighted how the brothers had to eat the meager food on the floor and seated on benches, without actually eating at his board or table. So, they ate his meager fare, were starved, but denied a place at his table. Hence there is not actual guest-right established, yet again. And we know this, because his table is only actually installed later in the chapter.

His wives and daughters dragged out the benches and the long log tables, and cooked and served as well.

When Craster learns that the men of the Night’s Watch will leave the next day, he has his wives roast the horses of the Night’s Watch (their food) that were slaughtered because they were too weak to go on. He also two loaves of bread of his larder handed out for a feast. The host’s bread being eaten at his table while seated by him is what invokes guest-right properly. It is the first and only time we witness the proper custom being performed.

All the same, I’ll see you off proper, with a feast. Well, a feed. My wives can roast them horses you slaughtered, and I’ll find some beer and bread.”

Craster owned but one chair…[snip]…Lord Commander Mormont took the place at the top of the bench to his right, while the brothers crowded in knee to knee; a dozen remained outside to guard the gate and tend the fires….[snip]…When Craster’s wives brought onions, he seized one eagerly…[snip]… There was bread as well, but only two loaves. When Ulmer asked for more, the woman only shook her head. That was when the trouble started.
“Two loaves?” Clubfoot Karl complained from down the bench. “How stupid are you women? We need more bread than this!”…[snip]…”Then stuff bread in your ears, old man.” Clubfoot Karl pushed back from the table. “Or did you swallow your bloody crumb already?”

So, they are all seated at Craster’s table, had a slice or crumb of bread, a slosh of beer, and salt with their own horsemeat. Clubfoot Karl may complain all he likes about the amount of bread, but simply a nibble (per Catelyn at the Twins) is enough to establish guest-right. At this point both Craster and the men of the Night’s Watch are bound by guest-right.

Though insults fly around, nobody makes a verbal threat nor physical one to Craster or Mormont. The person who breaks or ends guest-right is Craster himself. He draws his axe, waves it around and vaults to assault his guests, and only then the mutineers’ knives are drawn.

. . . but Craster stood, and his axe was in his hand. The big black steel axe that Mormont had given him as a guest gift. “No,” he growled. “You’ll not sit. No one who calls me niggard will sleep beneath my roof nor eat at my board. Out with you, cripple. And you and you and you.” He jabbed the head of the axe toward Dirk and Garth and Garth in turn. “Go sleep in the cold with empty bellies, the lot o’ you, or . . .” .

“Who calls me bastard?” Craster roared, sweeping platter and meat and wine cups from the table with his left hand while lifting the axe with his right…[snip]…Craster moved quicker than Sam would have believed possible, vaulting across the table with axe in hand. A woman screamed, Garth Greenaway and Orphan Oss drew knives, Karl stumbled back and tripped over Ser Byam lying wounded on the floor. One instant Craster was coming after him spitting curses. The next he was spitting blood. Dirk had grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and opened his throat ear to ear with one long slash.

No, Craster does not care about guest-right, at least not towards his guests. Craster breaks guest-right, and turns the bear’s gift against the guests, not in defense, not because he is threatened, but because he is insulted. He very much verbally denies these men guest-right. So, while Dirk is a murderer when he slits Craster’s throat, slaughters him like a ram by opening his throat from ear to to ear with one long slash, he did not break guest-right. (And no, I’m not saying Dirk, Karl, Ollo, the Garths are good persons, only that they did not break guest-right)

When Mormont cries foul on his men for murdering the host, after the host himself already waved an axe, denied certain people guest-right and attempted to assault Karl with the axe, then Mormont’s assertion is wrong. People who are told by the host they are no guests while waving bare steel at them do not break guest-right when they murder him.

The Lord Commander stood over Craster’s corpse, dark with anger. “The gods will curse us,” he cried. “There is no crime so foul as for a guest to bring murder into a man’s hall. By all the laws of the hearth, we—”

 As for Sam – he is from the Reach, southron and hardly knows the ins and outs of this First Man custom.

We are guests, Sam reminded himself. Gilly is his. His daughter, his wife. His roof, his rule.

They were guests, but not bound to guest-right, not until the feast, and it was over when Craster pulled out the axe and broke guest-right himself. And even if you are inclined to take guest-right in its broadest sense as Sam and Mormont does, Craster would have murdered a man under his own roof over an insult while he was one man against forty, if Dirk had not stepped in.

Game

The white wolf hunted well away from the line of march, but he was not having much better fortune than the foragers Smallwood sent out after game. The woods were as empty as the villages, Dywen had told him one night around the fire. “We’re a large party,” Jon had said. “The game’s probably been frightened away by all the noise we make on the march.”
“Frightened away by something, no doubt,” Dywen said. (aCoK, Jon II)

Mormont leaned forward. “Every village we have passed has been abandoned. Yours are the first living faces we’ve seen since we left the Wall. The people are gone . . . whether dead, fled, or taken, I could not say. The animals as well. Nothing is left. (aCoK, Jon III)

The villagers might have packed up and left to meet with Mance Rayder, but the forest game is another matter. Something is going very wrong here and it should involve bears, who are guardians of the forest game as well as providers of it. A healthy forest has bears denning and roaming free. A forest without bears (and wolves and beavers) will eventually become lifeless. Only two “players” North of the Wall are in posession of a bear – Craster has recently eaten a bear (and hosted Old Bear Mormont for a day and a night), the Others have wighted a snow bear. Craster is the sole one who is still well fed, with pigs and rabbits running around, and food aplenty in a secret larder… for the moment. Just those two bear elements reinforce a bargain was struck between Craster and the Others, from which Craster benefited, and empties the forest.

“The boy’s brothers,” said the old woman on the left. “Craster’s sons. The white cold’s rising out there, crow. I can feel it in my bones. These poor old bones don’t lie. They’ll be here soon, the sons.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

Craster gives his sons to the Others. Since there are no witness reports of crawling baby wights, Craster’s sons are indeed turned into Others. By helping the Others to multiply, they do not attack him.

In aSoS, Craster claims he is safe, but for how much longer would he have been safe? The more Others there are, the emptier the forest is, and the more they come calling at Craster’s for sons. Craster is greedy. But the Others are greedier. He has already been put into a position where he has to sacrifice food – all his sheep are gone in aCoK, no dog is mentioned anymore in aSoS, nor any pigs. It seems he has been given dogs and pigs to Others. He is indeed getting down on food. That troubles him so much that Craster actually smiles when he has a son. For a man who does not generally want sons, Craster sounds very relieved when Gilly births a son, and of course very reluctant to give him up to be brought up with the Night’s Watch.

The Old Bear broke off as Craster emerged from between the deerhide flaps of his door. The wildling smiled, revealing a mouth of brown rotten teeth. “I have a son.”
“Son,” cawed Mormont’s raven. “Son, son, son.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

The Secret Larder

Now that I have presented enough evidence about Craster’s character, including the fact that Craster does not care one twit about guest-right, nor fears attempting to murder a man of the Night’s Watch while he is in the obvious minority, I will now present the evidence that hints that Craster is also a cannibal.

While the Night’s Watch has to live on onion broth (and the onions appear half rotten besides), Craster and his wives live on black sausages.

They all needed more food. The men had been grumbling for days. Clubfoot Karl kept saying how Craster had to have a hidden larder, and Garth of Oldtown had begun to echo him, when he was out of the Lord Commander’s hearing. Sam had thought of begging for something more nourishing for the wounded men at least, but he did not have the courage.

Craster gnawed on his hard black sausage. (aSoS, Samwell II)

Well, Craster did have pigs running around before, so nothing strange there. And he had sheep-sausages during the first visit as well. And yet…

When the men of the Night’s Watch hold a burning funeral for Bannen, George reminds us that human flesh tastes like pork.

When he looked at the fire, he thought he saw Bannen sitting up, his hands coiling into fists as if to fight off the flames that were consuming him, but it was only for an instant, before the swirling smoke hid all. The worst thing was the smell, though. If it had been a foul unpleasant smell he might have stood it, but his burning brother smelled so much like roast pork that Sam’s mouth began to water, and that was so horrible that as soon as the bird squawked “Ended” he ran behind the hall to throw up in the ditch.

A link is established between pork and humans, like in the aCoK chapter Jon III a link was made between lamb and Craster’s children. But notice also the allusion that dead Bannen sits up and attempts to fight off the flames. It does not matter whether Bannen had truly become a wight or that Sam is just hallucinating it. The important point is that in one paragraph a meta-link is created between wights and pork. If Sam’s vision of dead Bannen sitting up was true it shows that even if Others send no pre-existing wights to attack Craster, the wighting power or magic has grown strong enough that any dead person automatically becomes a wight after a short while. Neither Craster nor the Others can prevent that from happening if a man dies on his floor. If this is the case then it is understandable why Craster is bitching about men dying on his floor.

That link between pork and dead human flesh is repeated a second time, almost half a page later, when Edd checks on Samwell and takes a piss in the meantime at the ditch. Where Samwell’s paragraph is about the smell, Edd actually talks of eating human flesh.

“Never knew Bannen could smell so good.” Edd’s tone was as morose as ever. “I had half a mind to carve a slice off him. If we had some applesauce, I might have done it. Pork’s always best with applesauce, I find.” Edd undid his laces and pulled out his cock. “You best not die, Sam, or I fear I might succumb. There’s bound to be more crackling on you than Bannen ever had, and I never could resist a bit of crackling.” He sighed as his piss arched out, yellow and steaming.

Since Edd talked of eating Craster’s children in the other Craster chapter in aCoK, it is likely that Edd’s words parallels more than one scene in aCoK. The morning that Jon woke up outside Craster’s, he smelled bacon and made his morning water, before wolfing down his breakfast. The breakfast Jon ate was fare of the Night’s Watch, not Craster’s, and so his bacon was sure to be true bacon.

Someone had gotten a fire started; he could smell woodsmoke drifting through the trees, and the smoky scent of bacon…[snip]…A few yards away he made water into a frozen bush, his piss steaming in the cold air and melting the ice wherever it fell…[snip]…Grenn and Dywen were among the brothers who had gathered round the fire. Hake handed Jon a hollow heel of bread filled with burnt bacon and chunks of salt fish warmed in bacon grease. He wolfed it down while listening to Dywen boast of having three of Craster’s women during the night. (aCoK, Jon III)

Then, Jon seeks out Mormont and finds him having Craster’s breakfast. What is the breakfast? Bread, “bacon” and sheepgut sausage. And we have that Chekhov axe lying in full sight too. I already quoted parts of that scene in the gues-right section, but I will quote a larger part of it here.

“Ignore that wretched beggar bird, Jon, it’s just had half my bacon.” The Old Bear sat at Craster’s board, breaking his fast with the other officers on fried bread, bacon, and sheepgut sausage. Craster’s new axe was on the table, its gold inlay gleaming faintly in the torchlight…[snip]…Have you eaten? Craster serves plain fare, but filling.”
I will not eat Craster’s food, he decided suddenly. “I broke my fast with the men, my lord.” Jon shooed the raven off Longclaw. The bird hopped back to Mormont’s shoulder, where it promptly shat. “You might have done that on Snow instead of saving it for me,” the Old Bear grumbled. The raven quorked.

Thrice we have a scene about bacon (smell or sight) combined with someone either peeing or shitting. Mormont’s raven cannot pee, only shit. Ravens do eat human corpses, so a raven would know what a human tastes like. Mormont’s raven is said to be more of a fan of vegetarian grub – fruit and corn. However, that morning it ate half of the Old Bear’s bacon. Did the raven want to make sure what the bacon’s nature truly was?

Jon decides not to eat Craster’s food. At the time we are led to believe this is for guest-right pruposes. But as I pointed out, Craster’s axe on the table is a veiled denial of guest-right to anyone eating his fare. More, Jon never returned to Craster’s and never will, since Craster is dead now. Jon not eating Craster’s food thus has no significance with regards to preventing Jon from breaking guest-right. It can only have significance in the sense that he never ate Craster’s “filling fare”. Is it possible that the bacon served that morning, was not true bacon at all, but from human origin? Perhaps the raven shat on Mormont, because he had eaten human flesh, said to be pork?

It would not be the only scene in the series where people end up eating human flesh, believing it to be pork. Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor also eat “pork” after Coldhands returned with meat to the village’s hall in aDwD. Most readers though would figure out that what Meera, Jojen and Bran eat is not the pig-animal, but a pig of a mutineer and deserter of the Night’s Watch, since Coldhands had just killed several of the mutineers, and Bran had just skinchanged Summer who ate the remains of a killed mutineer.

His nose twitched to the smell of roasting meat. And then the forest fell away, and he was back in the longhall again, back in his broken body, staring at a fire. Meera Reed was turning a chunk of raw red flesh above the flames, letting it char and spit. “Just in time,” she said. Bran rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand and wriggled backwards against the wall to sit. “You almost slept through supper. The ranger found a sow.”
Behind her, Hodor was tearing eagerly at a chunk of hot charred flesh as blood and grease ran down into his beard. Wisps of smoke rose from between his fingers. “Hodor,” he muttered between bites, “hodor, hodor.” His sword lay on the earthen floor beside him. Jojen Reed nipped at his own joint with small bites, chewing each chunk of meat a dozen times before swallowing. The ranger killed a pig. (aDwD, Bran I)

When the brothers of the Night’s Watch begin to speak aloud of what they think Craster has in his secret larder, they list more than what I quoted below, including oats, corn, barley, dried berries, cabbages and pine nuts, and mutton. But I only quoted what was pork related and the apples to make the accompanying applesauce for Edd. If Craster is down to eating his “pork” sausages though, the men’s fantasy is getting overheated. The sheep have been given to the Others, and by the time we return there with Sam we see neither dog nor pig running around. Those probably were also given to Craster’s gods. I do not think Craster’s secret larder is as richly filled as the men of the Night’s Watch believe it is.

“Hams,” Garth of Oldtown said, in a reverent voice. “There were pigs, last time we come. I bet he’s got hams hid someplace. Smoked and salted hams, and bacon too.”
“Sausage,” said Dirk. “Them long black ones, they’re like rocks, they keep for years. I bet he’s got a hundred hanging in some cellar.”
…[snip]…
“Apples,” said Garth of Greenaway. “Barrels and barrels of crisp autumn apples. There are apple trees out there, I saw ’em.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

Gilly’s mother and sisters give Samwell and Gilly food before they escape Craster’s Keep and make for the Wall. At the wildling village with the weirwood tree that Sam hopes is Whitetree, but is not, only a few black sausages are left. We then get a description on how to eat them and what they taste like.

Nothing was left but a few black sausages, as hard as wood. Sam sawed off a few thin slices for each of them. The effort made his wrist ache, but he was hungry enough to persist. If you chewed the slices long enough they softened up, and tasted good. Craster’s wives seasoned them with garlic.(aSoS, Samwell III)

You may argue that the black sausages are hard because of the cold, but that would not make them woody. And Craster needed to gnaw and chew and worry on his black sausages inside the keep as well. And if they wished, Sam or Gilly could keep the sausages from freezing. The woodiness, the hardiness and the blackness of the sausages suggest they are made of the blood from wights.

[Sam] looked as though he was going to be sick. “This man … look at the wrist, it’s all … crusty … dry … like …”
Jon saw at once what Sam meant. He could see the torn veins in the dead man’s wrist, iron worms in the pale flesh. His blood was a black dust. (aGoT, Jon VII)

Admittedly I call them “pork” sausages in the beginning. It is never actually spelled out what they are made of. They are simply called black sausages, which are blood sausages. We just don’t know whose or which blood. It’s even more peculiar that Sam, who likes to eat, refrains from making any further reference to the black sausage source. Sam says they taste good, and that they are seasoned with garlic. For a man who loves food and loves talking of food, “good” is peculiarly non-descript. I think this even furthers the idea that they are of a source that Sam does not wish to identify (or he’d retch). And that GRRM wishes to leave it out in the open what they truly are

Far earlier, I quoted, well, a lot of quotes. So, I will repeat the crucial quotes together with others I have not included before. I think you will see the picture.

Craster to Jeor Mormont: If wights come walking, I’ll know how to send them back to their graves. Though I could use me a sharp new axe.

Dolorous Edd to Jon: Our enemies leave our bodies for the crows and the wolves. Our friends bury us in secret graves. (aCoK, Jon III)

Dirk speared a chunk of horsemeat. “Aye. So you admit you got a secret larder. How else to make it through a winter?”

“The blackest crows are down in the cellar, gorging,” said the old woman on the left, “or up in the loft with the young ones. They’ll be back soon, though.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

Obviously those blackest crows, the mutineers, would not come across wights or body parts in the cellar, because sausage is all that is left of those rangers. The sausages are a wight’s secret grave. Bran’s last chapter in aDwD shows us that wights can be eaten, and that bones or limbs cease to be animated once the bone marrow is gotten into.

Summer dug up a severed arm, black and covered with hoarfrost, its fingers opening and closing as it pulled itself across the frozen snow. There was still enough meat on it to fill his empty belly, and after that was done he cracked the arm bones for the marrow. Only then did the arm remember it was dead.(aDwD, Bran III)

The above description suggest that wight meat and blood that is separated from the bones can be eaten without issue. The sole alternative to send a wight to his grave, aside from burning it, is breaking every bone of its body. No wonder that Craster’s axe lost its bite and he needed a new one to replace his own and Othor’s. Well, that and a maul.

Jon had to laugh. “Craster’s one man. We’re two hundred. I doubt he’ll murder anyone.”
“You cheer me,” said Edd, sounding utterly morose. “And besides, there’s much to be said for a good sharp axe. I’d hate to be murdered with a maul. I saw a man hit in the brow with a maul once. Scarce split the skin at all, but his head turned mushy and swelled up big as a gourd, only purply-red. A comely man, but he died ugly. It’s good that we’re not giving them mauls.” (aCoK, Jon III)

Ygritte would say, “Oh, you know nothing, Jon Snow.”

The axe murderer

Craster tried to murder a man with an axe, while forty men sat eating at his table. Would Craster hesitate to attack a man by himself if said ranger witnessed what gods Craster sacrificed his sons to, or attempted to interfere? Would Craster hesitate attacking one or two, after six rangers split up and went outside in search for their missing brother? He would not. Because of the actual little information we have, this is the highly speculative section of the essay, and by no means conclusive.

So, we have Jafer being killed with an axe that hit him in the side of his neck and near took his head off. Dywen suggested it might be Othor’s axe, and since Dywen’s suggestions and observations often seem to be the correct ones, I think we should follow Dywen’s hint and that we should at least conclude that Jafer was indeed killed by Othor’s axe. But who wielded Othor’s axe?

To take a man’s head near off and kill him with one axe blow, especially standing, moving about and trying to defend himself seems a hard thing to do. Just remember how many times Theon had to strike three times with the axe to cut Harlen’s head off, and Harlen was hunched down and holding his head still.

Theon had to take the axe himself or look a weakling. His hands were sweating, so the shaft twisted in his grip as he swung and the first blow landed between Farlen’s shoulders. It took three more cuts to hack through all that bone and muscle and sever the head from the body, and afterward he was sick, remembering all the times they’d sat over a cup of mead talking of hounds and hunting. (aCoK, Theon V)

That the axe wound was taken to the side of the neck, suggests that Jafer was seated or hunched down, and caught unawares. The stroke going so deep not only means force, but that Jafer was holding his head still in this seated position, staring or watching something, and was approached silently until almost the last moment. Then he suddenly looked up to regard his murderer in the eye as the axe fell. Gravity helped, and Jafer looking up at that moment has the axe land in the side of his neck. (courtesy to Darkstream for the discussion)

Othor is called a big man, and because of the Will-Waymar scene in the prologue it is tempting to imagine a similar scenario, where Othor had become a wight and caught Jafer hiding and watching from the Others. It was Othor’s axe, thus we are inclinded to believe Othor wielded it after becoming a wight, taking Jafer by surprise. However, George is very skilled in setting up a suggestive parallel that later turns out to be false: Lysa claims Cersei poisoned Jon Arryn, Jaime threw Bran out of the tower and Littlefinger claims the Valyrian Steel dagger used to assassinate Bran. Voila it ought to be clear as day who, why and how. Just follow Occam’s Razor. But then it turns out that Lysa murdered her husband herself, that the dagger was Robert’s and that Joffrey gave it to the catspaw, because Joffrey thought to do what his father had said would be a mercy in a by-the-by.  Occam’s Razor does not tend to apply.

Furthermore, wights rarely use weapons at all. Wights kill mostly with their hands – rip or claw a head off or disembowel someone. Their preferred method to kill humans is to strangle them and rip the head off.

The broken sword fell from nerveless fingers. Will closed his eyes to pray. Long, elegant hands brushed his cheek, then tightened around his throat. They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold. (aGoT, Prologue)

His guard was sprawled bonelessly across the narrow steps, looking up at him. Looking up at him, even though he was lying on his stomach. His head had been twisted completely around…[snip]… The guard’s sword was in its sheath. Jon knelt and worked it free.

Ghost leapt. Man and wolf went down together with neither scream nor snarl, rolling, smashing into a chair, knocking over a table laden with papers…[snip]…[Jon] glimpsed black hands buried in white fur, swollen dark fingers tightening around his direwolf’s throat. Ghost was twisting and snapping, legs flailing in the air, but he could not break free. (courtesy Darkstream)

When he opened his mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers into Jon’s mouth. Gagging, he tried to shove it off, but the dead man was too heavy. Its hand forced itself farther down his throat, icy cold, choking him.(aGoT, Jon VII)

[Maslin] was still shrieking for quarter as the wight lifted him in the air by the throat and near ripped the head off him. (aSoS, Samwell I)

His fumbling fingers finally found the dagger, but when he slammed it up into the wight’s belly the point skidded off the iron links, and the blade went spinning from Sam’s hand. Small Paul’s fingers tightened inexorably, and began to twist. He’s going to rip my head off, Sam thought in despair…[snip]… The wights were all around her. There were a dozen of them, a score, more . . . some had been wildlings once, and still wore skins and hides . . . but more had been his brothers. Sam saw Lark the Sisterman, Softfoot, Ryles. The wen on Chett’s neck was black, his boils covered with a thin film of ice. And that one looked like Hake, though it was hard to know for certain with half his head missing. They had torn the poor garron apart, and were pulling out her entrails with dripping red hands. (aSoS, Samwell II)

That was when his shout became a scream. Bran filled a fist with snow and threw it, but the wight did not so much as blink. A black hand fumbled at his face, another at his belly. Its fingers felt like iron. He’s going to pull my guts out…[snip]…”HODOR!” he bellowed, and slashed again. This time he took the wight’s head off at the neck, and for half a moment he exulted … until a pair of dead hands came groping blindly for his throat. (aDwD, Bran II)

The only time we hear of a weapon being used by a wight is when headless Jafer took out Jaremy’s dagger and planted it in Jaremy Rykker’s bowels (courtesy MacGregor of the North). Bowels is a typical targeted area for a wight. The dagger was a lucky draw or grasp during the fight by the headless wight and some fleeting memory what to do with it once it felt the dagger in its hands.

The other wight, the one-handed thing that had once been a ranger named Jafer Flowers, had also been destroyed, cut near to pieces by a dozen swords … but not before it had slain Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men. Ser Jaremy had finished the job of hacking its head off, yet had died all the same when the headless corpse pulled his own dagger from its sheath and buried it in his bowels. (aGoT, Jon VIII)

To become a wight, a man first has to die, and would fall to the ground for a while. Let us imagine that Othor died with his axe in his possession, he dies and sags down or drops, and the axe … would slip out of his hands. By the time Othor gets back up as a wight, he would not search or look for his axe, walk a distance with it and then take someone’s head off. No, he would just get up, leave the axe lying on the forest floor, and try to strangle the first man he comes across. The axe would be forgotten. And indeed, Othor is not carrying his axe with him when they find him. More, Othor could have taken the sword from Jon’s guard, but did not. I therefore am inclined to dismiss Othor as the man who killed Jafer with Othor’s axe.

Instead we get another parallel. How does Craster acquire Mormont’s axe? It was given to him as a “guest gift” by Jeor. Now imagine Benjen’s rangers arriving at Craster’s searching for Waymar. They came upon abandoned wildling village after wildling village. Craster does his usual, “Meh, I might know something, but yadayadayada. I could use me a new sharp axe.” And Othor’s axe becomes Craster’s axe to buy the informaton from him. That night, Craster has a son and he goes out to sacrifice it to the Others in the woods. Jafer Flowers happens to be outside, to take a piss round the back, notices Craster, follows him and witnesses who Craster’s gods are. And then Jafer hears something, looks up, and Crasters lets Othor’s axe drop. Craster is not a big man. But when Jafer is seated or hunched down that matters little. What matters is that he has force, is used to butchering animals, and gravity does the rest. It would certainly fit George’s less straightforward murder scenario’s far better.

So, what about Othor then? Here is the description of Othor’s wounds:

Jon remembered Othor; he had been the one bellowing the bawdy song as the rangers rode out. His singing days were done. His flesh was blanched white as milk, everywhere but his hands. His hands were black like Jafer’s. Blossoms of hard cracked blood decorated the mortal wounds that covered him like a rash, breast and groin and throat. Yet his eyes were still open. They stared up at the sky, blue as sapphires.(aGoT, Jon VII)

Nobody makes an explicit statement of the type of weapon used on Othor, or whether a weapon was even used it at all. All that we positively know is that they were all three mortal wounds, pierced skin and cover him like a rash. The pierced skin mention at least excludes a maul or hammer.

That said, they consider it the butchery work of armed men. Rykker thinks and says it was wildling axes (take note of the fact he talks of “axes”, not “axe”) right after Jon observes Othor’s corpse.

Ser Jaremy stood. “The Wildlings have axes too.”
Mormont rounded on him. “So you believe this is Mance Rayder’s work? This close to the Wall?”
“Who else, my lord?”

Cue in the reader thinking, “The Others!” That seems a logical conclusion since the reader does not even know Craster. Craster is not mentioned in aGoT. As reader we are led to believe that it was either Mance’s wildlings or the Others. And since Othor and Jafer both turn out to be wights, it seems a sure conclusion that it was the work of Others, and we never question it when later we are introduced to our first wildling who is actually nothing like Mance’s wildlings. Since Othor has multiple wounds, we think a similar scenario played out as in the prologue: “Othor was struck down by multiple Others, became a wight and killed Jafer with his axe. Occam’s Razor!” But as I pointed out, there is an issue with Othor lumbering around as a wight with an axe.

We also have pointers that Othor is not like Waymar. Waymar was of noble birth, with a rich sable cloak and carrying a sword. One Other dueled with Waymar, while the rest of the Others watched curiously. When his sword shatters, they all make a sound that Will thinks is laughter, and they all move in on Waymar and slash him a dozen times with their pale crystalline swords.

The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery. The pale blades sliced through ringmail as if it were silk….[snip]… Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy…[snip]… Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine clothes were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. (aGoT, Prologue)

Do we see even anything remotely like that with Othor? Jeor calls the result of Jafer and Othor’s corpses butchery, but if those blades slice through ringmail and thick clothes as if it all was silk, then they would also slice through flesh and bone as if it were butter. Surely, even if done by one or two Others, the result would be noted by Jon, Rykker, Dywen and Jeor. But they do not. And yes, I am arguing absence of evidence. And then we have Samwell witness how an Other kills Small Paul while they are on the run from the Fist.

The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. The weight of him tore the strange pale sword from the Other’s grip.(aSoS, Samwell I)

Now, surely, Rykker, Dywen and Jeor and Jon would notice and remark on it if Othor had wounds like that of Small Paul. Ser Jaremy Rykker is a knight. Jeor was a lord once. Jon fights with a sword. And Dywen likes making correct observations. These men would recognize a sword wound from an axe wound. Instead, they only mention axes. When Jeor asks Ser Jaremy how they were killed, Jaremy first says, “This was done by an axe,” about Jafer’s corpse. After Jon observes Othor’s body, Jaremy says, “The wildlings have axes too,” certainly implying to Jeor, Dywen and Jon that Othor’s wounds were also caused by an axe, and nobody disagrees with him about the type of weapon. Jeor only disagrees about it being Mance and so close to the Wall. I therefore think it is safe to conclude that Othor’s wounds look to the witnesses as axe wounds, not silk slicing swords. And Others do not use axes.

Aside from the throat, the chest and groin are not areas that are targeted by wights, and they usually focus on one area and keep going for that, even if it is a dagger they accidentally happen to grab. So, we can dismiss wights having killed Othor too. Furthermore, these were all wounds taken in frontal confrontation, and the groin area suggests that Othor was standing upright at the time. The complete picture implies he faced one combattant. For that combattant to hit him in the chest and groin and neck, he had to be quick. I therefore conclude that Othor was killed by a man, and that man would have been Craster.

Also, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that people only become wights when they are killed by wights or Others. The Night’s Watch certainly does not seem to rely on this. They burn every dead person now. And here, Sam’s observation of Bannen sitting up in his burning pyre and trying to fight it becomes crucial. What if it was just the magic of the Others North of the Wall strengthening and it is simply enough that you die – from the cold, starvation, murdered by another human, choked on a chicken bone? You die, and hours later, when the moon is high, you rise as a wight North of the Wall. If you find you find yourself on a burning pyre like Bannen, you won’t get to do any harm. If you are carried South of the Wall before having become a wight, you remain dead.

When Craster yammers on how no good ever came from Black Crows coming or staying at his house, it points to a confrontation having occurred before. It is clear that Craster expresses sentiments akin to seeing black crows nosing around his home, apart from eating his food. Ranger party after party had gone missing. Rangers came nosing around.

The wildling spat. “Crows. When did a black bird ever bring good to a man’s hall, I ask you? Never. Never.”…[snip]… “A godly man got no cause to fear such. I said as much to that Mance Rayder once, when he come sniffing round. He never listened, no more’n you crows with your swords and your bloody fires. That won’t help you none when the white cold comes. Only the gods will help you then. You best get right with the gods.”…[snip]…When Craster learned that his unwanted guests would be departing on the morrow, the wildling became almost amiable, or as close to amiable as Craster ever got. “Past time,” he said, “you don’t belong here, I told you that.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

The scene where Craster attacks Karl is actually, yet again, a callback to that very same chapter of Jon in aGoT where they inspect the bodies of Jafer and Othor. Right after their bodies are brought back to Castle Black and Jeor informs Jon about the arrest of his father for treason, Jon goes to the hall for his dinner, and while everybody else tries to show sympathy with Jon, Thorne mocks him. Jon forgets himself, goes berserk and attacks Thorne. Here is the scene in question.

And then he heard the laughter, sharp and cruel as a whip, and the voice of Ser Alliser Thorne. “Not only a bastard, but a traitor’s bastard,” he was telling the men around him.
In the blink of an eye, Jon had vaulted onto the table, dagger in his hand. Pyp made a grab for him, but he wrenched his leg away, and then he was sprinting down the table and kicking the bowl from Ser Alliser’s hand. Stew went flying everywhere, spattering the brothers. Thorne recoiled. People were shouting, but Jon Snow did not hear them. He lunged at Ser Alliser’s face with the dagger, slashing at those cold onyx eyes, but Sam threw himself between them and before Jon could get around him, Pyp was on his back clinging like a monkey, and Grenn was grabbing his arm while Toad wrenched the knife from his fingers. (aGoT, Jon VII)

And while the scene at Craster’s involves a different location, different weapon, different person, other than that it is the same scene, with a different ending.

“Bloody bastard!” Sam heard one of the Garths curse. He never saw which one.
“Who calls me bastard?” Craster roared, sweeping platter and meat and wine cups from the table with his left hand while lifting the axe with his right.
“It’s no more than all men know,” Karl answered.
Craster moved quicker than Sam would have believed possible, vaulting across the table with axe in hand. A woman screamed, Garth Greenaway and Orphan Oss drew knives, Karl stumbled back and tripped over Ser Byam lying wounded on the floor. (aSoS, Samwell II)

Are we witnessing a repeat of what happened at Craster’s between him, Jafer and Othor? Maybe. Maybe not. I do not think the parallel necessarily implies this. But it does imply Craster yet again as being involved in the murder of Jafer and Othor and Dywen’s suggestion that they were laid half a day’s ride as warning.

I speculate that at least Jafer and Othor arrived at Craster’s, with several other rangers; that Jafer witnessed vital information about the Others in relation to Craster out in the woods, but Craster discovered Jafer snooping, fell on him, caught him unawares and killed him with the axe that Othor had given him. The blow to the neck would have prevented Jafer from making any sound. Craster then returned feigning alarm and “panic” (Pan is the god of panic) that something had attacked Jafer and him, causing the rest of the rangers to leave in search for Jafer and the mystery assailant. Some met their fate at the hands of an Other, and Craster attacked Othor with Othor’s axe in a frontal confrontation, turning Othor’s gift against him. When the rangers became wights, Craster sent them to their sausage grave, except for Othor and Jafer.

I would suggest that Dywen was right – somehow Craster escorted Othor’s and Jafer’s bodies to the Wall as a warning for the Night’s Watch, to tell them: “You want to know why your rangers go missing? Well, this is what happens to your rangers! Now, stop bugging me and mine. You don’t belong North of the Wall, and you best get right with the gods.” How he did this, I do not know, let alone when.

But how about Benjen? Months before finding Jafer and Othor, we only know this tidbit about Benjen’s possible whereabouts.

Ser Jaremy Rykker had led two sweeps, and Quorin Halfhand had gone forth from the Shadow Tower, but they’d found nothing aside from a few blazes in the trees that his uncle had left to mark his way. In the stony highlands to the northwest, the marks stopped abruptly and all trace of Ben Stark vanished.(aGoT, Jon IV)

This would suggest that Benjen split up his ranger team. At the very least it sounds as if Benjen vanished near or in the Frostfangs. At the Fist though, the raven repeats “Dead,” several times during the conversation between Jeor and Jon about Benjen’s fate. This either means he wighted or was killed after he became a wight. The importance on Jon not eating the bacon at Craster’s suggests heavily that somehow he ended up at Craster’s. And I think certainly his rangers became wight-sausage and ranger-bacon, except for Jafer and Othor.

As a conclusion I will quote Jon twice in aCoK, Jon III, thinking of finally having answers to what happened to Benjen. While none of them ever seem to realize it, at least the reader can find the clues to formulate an answer in that chapter, and the other one at Craster’s Keep. And it is a very typical hint by George to reader – the answers are here!

Jon had often heard the black brothers tell tales of Craster and his keep. Now he would see it with his own eyes. After seven empty villages, they had all come to dread finding Craster’s as dead and desolate as the rest, but it seemed they would be spared that. Perhaps the Old Bear will finally get some answers, he thought.

Perhaps tonight the Old Bear will learn something that will lead us to Uncle Benjen.(aCoK, Jon III)

Summary (tl;tr)

Craster is a ram-character who shares plenty of character and features with Vargo Hoat. And much of their nature or features seem to drafted after the only (Greek) god who died, Pan. They are both like wannabe Bloodstone Emperors

Features Vargo Hoat Craster Bloodstone Emperor
Ram (male goat, or sheep)

The Goat, for his goat horned helm and braided goatee. Black Goat banner from Qohor.

A ram’s skull on the gate, described much to look like a sheep, wears only sheepskins and prefers mutton Unknown
Ear bite Brienne bites his ear, which gets infected The frostbite took his ear Unknown
Greedy A chain of linked coins, greedy for gold, sapphires and lordship over biggest castle of Westeros, Harrenhal Nineteen wives Murders his own sister to become emperor
Sexual abuse Rape, subjected to medical inspection Rape, incest Takes a tiger-woman to wife, common people gave themselves to lust and incest in his time
Enslavement Chops the feet and hands of his servants to prevent them from running off Enslaves his daughters/wives through isolation and lack of knowledge Enslaved his people
Torture Dismembers people, throws people in a bear pit, is tortured himself by losing feet and hands Beats his wives Torture
Necromancy Kept the necromancing expelled maester Qyburn in his company His gods, the Others, are necromancers. He may have helped them to victims to be wighted such as Waymar and the ranging to the Fist Practiced necromancy
Dark Arts Qyburn meddles in dark arts Sacrifices his sons to the Others to be safe from Others and wights Practiced dark arts
Cannibalism His limbs are prepared to feed to prisoners, including himself and slobbered it with great gusto Ranger bacon and black sausages made from wight blood Feasted on human flesh
Worship of evil god(s) The Black Goat of Qohor requires daily blood sacrifice of animals, criminals on holidays, children of high nobles during crisis The Others High Priest of Church of Starry Wisdom, worship of black meteor
Game foraging Forages villages twice, first for Tywin, then for Roose until people have nothing, and then he forages heads Helps to create more Others who forage the Haunted Forest and Frostfangs clear of people and animals into an army of wights Blood Betrayal ushered in the Long Night
Extortion Via the physical capture of a bear, kept alive in a bear pit, denying him a maiden Extortion of the Old Bear out of wine, food and weaponry for highly needed information Unknown
Guest Right Unknown Reverses, denies it in a veiled manner, or breaks it Unknown
Used by two sides Both Tywin and Roose use Vargo to forage the area, but care not for his demise The Night’s Watch uses him for information, the Others for sons and possible other aid, but care not for his demise Supposedly not since he was emperor

I propose that not only Craster broke guest-right just minutes before the mutiny, but that Craster also had an ugly confrontation with at least some of Benjen’s rangers, including Jafer Flowers and Othor, and caused their death directly and indirectly with Othor’s axe given to him similarly as Jeor’s axe. They ended up as wights. Crasters knew exactly what to do with them – he turned them into bacon and black sausages with axe and maul, except for Jafer and Othor. Possibly he delivered those two near the Wall as a warning, in the hope they would be found and stop the Night’s Watch from sending rangers North of the Wall to investigate and stick their nose in his business where they did not belong. Except, the Others saw a different use in them. Sadly enough this means that Benjen ended up as either bacon or sausage or both. That is why it was crucial that Jon never ate Craster’s filling breakfast. It is bad enough for someone unwittingly eating human remains of someone they never knew. But Jon eating Benjen Bacon would just be nasty.

Bear ancestry

A stab at me, Asha thought, but let it be. “You are wed.”
No. My children were fathered by a bear.” Alysane smiled. Her teeth were crooked, but there was something ingratiating about that smile. “Mormont women are skinchangers. We turn into bears and find mates in the woods. Everyone knows.” (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

The Mormont Women

House Mormont has their seat on Bear Island that lacks resources. Living and surviving on an island with such poor resources, we could imagine how there might come about a sacred bear belief at Bear Island, exactly because it is teeming with bears. Various subarctic regions the world round – where bear encounters were normal – share similar bear folklore, from the Germanic area to Siberia, Japan and Northern Native America. It is no surprise then that a northern subarctic island, teeming with bears and woods, where people rely on fishing and hunting for survival would feature similar folklore.

“My home . . . you must understand that to understand the rest. Bear Island is beautiful, but remote. Imagine old gnarled oaks and tall pines, flowering thornbushes, grey stones bearded with moss, little creeks running icy down steep hillsides. The hall of the Mormonts is built of huge logs and surrounded by an earthen palisade. Aside from a few crofters, my people live along the coasts and fish the seas. The island lies far to the north, and our winters are more terrible than you can imagine, Khaleesi. … Bear Island is rich in bears and trees, and poor in aught else.(aCoK, Daenerys I)

The Mormont blazon is a black bear over a green wood. They have an acenstral Valyrian Steel bastard sword called “Longclaw”. The gate of the hall has a carving of a woman in a bearskin with a child in one arm suckling at her breast and a battleaxe in the other. Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont was called the “old bear”. Dany refers to the son, Jorah Mormon as “bear”. Maege Mormont is called the “she-bear”, and her heir – after Dacey is killed at the Red Wedding – Alysane Mormont is called the “young she-bear”. Both Maege and Alysane are unwed and have children they claim to have been fathered by bears, and they claim the women are skinchangers.

We can easily recognize that Mormont women portray themselves as a female version of Tolkien’s Beorn (skinchanging bear and warrior women). Metaphorically women are armed against all the potentially violent forces of the island, or as they are “bears” they are “warriors” just as well. The Mormonts fit the subarctic folklore of the nature of bears (skinchangers, woods, magical sword, bears for fathers of their children). They even match the biological rearing patterns and lifestyle of solitary bears where males mate but remain functional bachelors, while the females rear their cubs by themselves. Though Jorah and Jeor were married at one time, they lead a bachelor’s life in the books: Jeor as Lorc Commander with the celibate Night’s Watch and Jorah who is widowed from his first wife and living separated from his second. Meanwhile the women certainly had lovers, but are bachelorettes in  life.

But is there truth in Alysane’s claim? Or is it just a bunch of lies? And if so, why did they use this lie at least two generations in a row?

It is completely possible that Mormont women are skinchangers to bears, just as the Starks are wargs to wolves. aDwD’s prologue featuring Varamyr at least shows us that some people can bond and skinchange a bear, though not without danger and difficulty.

Varamyr Sixskins was a name men feared. He rode to battle on the back of a snow bear thirteen feet tall, kept three wolves and a shadowcat in thrall, and sat at the right hand of Mance Rayder. It was Mance who brought me to this place. I should not have listened. I should have slipped inside my bear and torn him to pieces… [snip]… Varamyr had lost control of his other beasts in the agony of the eagle’s death. His shadowcat had raced into the woods, whilst his snow bear turned her claws on those around her, ripping apart four men before falling to a spear. She would have slain Varamyr had he come within her reach. The bear hated him, had raged each time he wore her skin or climbed upon her back… His shadowcat used to fight him wildly, and the snow bear had gone half-mad for a time, snapping at trees and rocks and empty air, but this was worse. (aDwD, prologue)

Varamyr has more affinity with wolves, like his mentor Hagon, and warging seems more common. But he was strong enough to skinchange into other animals as well. It is hinted that Bran can skinchange ravens because of this and shown to us that Arya skinchanges cats at will in Braavos aside from Nymeria when she dreams. Still, just as there are people with an affinity to wolves, other people have an affinity to a boar, eagle, goat or a bear. Notice too, that Varamyr skinchanges a she-bear, and that it are the Mormont women alone who claim to be skinchangers.

“There’s a carving on our gate,” said Dacey. “A woman in a bearskin, with a child in one arm suckling at her breast. In the other hand she holds a battleaxe. She’s no proper lady, that one, but I always loved her.” (aSoS, Catelyn V)

The improper carving of a woman in a bearskin at the gate of the Mormont hall reveals that the claim of Mormont women being skinchangers is an old one. The allusion of her being improper and a child suckling at her breast indicates the lady of the carving is naked, except for the bearskin. In legends, a naked character with a bearskin usually does imply the character has the nature of a bear.

But the claim that human children were fathered by a bear while they had skinchanged into bears themselves is far stranger. Skinchanging in folklore means physically changing into an animal. In aSoIaF it means being able to enter and control the mind of an animal, not actually changing shape. When Bran eats the prey that Summer hunted, while he’s warging Summer, Bran feels like he has just eaten, but Bran’s stomach remains empty.

Jojen shook his head. “No. Best stay, and eat. With your own mouth. A warg cannot live on what his beast consumes.” (aSoS, Bran I)

If a skinchanger’s stomach does not get filled by his animal eating, then surely a skinchanger will not get pregnant by his bonded animal copulating with another animal. So, Maege’s daughters and Alysane’s children having been fathered by a bear through skinchanging is an impossibility, and therefore certainly a lie.

What George seems to feature in the Mormont women is something akin to the totemic bear-wedding and ancestry, where the hunted bear’s bride gets to keep the bearksin of her totemic groom. The improper lady of the carving seems to be the ancestral mother of the Mormonts, while her child would be the first Lord Mormont, the offspring of a totemic bear-maiden wedding.

That the Mormonts who are said to be so poor when it comes to material wealth own a Valyrian bastard sword “Longclaw” seems to fit with the Wayland the Smith legend. In the legend, Wayland gives the princess his magical sword and she becomes the mother of the totemic ancestral Wayland-bear bloodline. And of course the name alone of the sword suggests a tie with a bear.

Longclaw also gives us an answer to the necessity of the skinchanging lie – it’s a bastard sword. Both the bastard sword Longclaw and the improper lady of the carving suggests House Mormont was a bastard line. Normally, the child of an unwed woman would be regarded a bastard, who has no right to inherit his family’s name , land and hall. And yet, none of Maege Mormont’s daughters are regarded as bastards, nor are Alysane’s children.

Mormont snorted. “My sister is said to have taken a bear for her lover. I’d believe that before I’d believe one fifteen feet tall. (aCoK, Jon I)

There is no mention of Maege’s husband. Instead she claims, to her brother, that she took a bear for a lover. Alysane explicitly claims she is unwed to Asha Greyjoy and that her son and daughter were fathered by a bear. A bear being the father of their children I already established to be an obvious lie, even if they can skinchange.

She-bears, aye,” said Lady Maege. “We have needed to be. In olden days the ironmen would come raiding in their longboats, or wildlings from the Frozen Shore. The men would be off fishing, like as not. The wives they left behind had to defend themselves and their children, or else be carried off.” (aSoS, Catelyn V)

While Maege explains to Catelyn how the women of Bear Island learned to defend themselves and their children against the raids of ironment and wildlings, while the men were out on sea fishing, some readers have gone to this extreme vision that the men of Bear Island are stay-at-home fathers protected by their women. Jeor, Jorah and the men Alysane takes with her to fight at Deepwood Motte are evidence enough that such an interpretation goes overboard. The women of Bear Island took to arms to defend themselves and their children, not their husbands.

If they are neither widowed, nor wed, then why don’t they marry? At least their children would not be bastards, and then there is no need to lie about a bear being the father of their children. The answer is the preservation of the Mormont name and bloodline. One of the duties of a noble House is to have heirs and carry on the name. And House Mormont was recently in trouble in that regard. Jeor had only one child, only one son, Jorah. And Jorah failed to produce an heir with both his wives. His first Glover wife could not bear him any childen and died after her 3rd miscarriage after nearly 10 years of marriage.

“Still, the island suited me well enough, and I never lacked for women. I had my share of fishwives and crofter’s daughters, before and after I was wed. I married young, to a bride of my father’s choosing, a Glover of Deepwood Motte. Ten years we were wed, or near enough as makes no matter. She was a plain-faced woman, but not unkind. I suppose I came to love her after a fashion, though our relations were dutiful rather than passionate. Three times she miscarried while trying to give me an heir. The last time she never recovered. She died not long after.” (aCoK, Daenerys I)

And there is no mention of Jorah having any children with Lynesse Hightower, whom he married nine years before the start of events in aGoT. Jorah has been in exile for five years in 298 AC of aGoT, which means he fled Westeros with Lynesse in 293 AC, and his marriage did not last longer than four or five years since they married after the Tourney of Lannisport (celebration of the victory against the Ironborn rebellion) in 289 AC. While Jorah had plenty of marriage offers as Lord Mormont, since his father had joined the Night’s Watch by the time he was a widower, the Greyjoy rebellion prevented Jorah from making any decision, so it seems he was not long a widower before he met Lynesse. Jorah notes he is thrice Dany’s age in 299 AC, when she is fifteen, and so Jorah was Jeor’s only living son for what seems to be forty-five years (born around 254 AC).

Maege is Jeor’s sole sister. Her eldest daughter was Dacey Mormont. Alysane is the second eldest and almost of an age with Asha Greyjoy. Asha is twenty-four and remarks Alysane started young if she has a daughter of nine. Indeed if Alysane is anywhere between twenty-three or twenty-six this means she had her first child between fourteen and sixteen in 291 AC. Dacey seems to have no husband either and while theoretically Dacey could have been born a decade before Alysane, Catelyn’s thoughts about her suggest that Dacey must be years younger than Catelyn and not yet thirty during the Red Wedding. So, Dacey was probably born between 271-275 AC.

Taking a rough timeline into account, Maege started having children when Jorah, the heir of House Mormont, was between sixteen and twenty one, and her brother Lord Jeor Mormont was above his forties. It seemed that Jeor was unlikely to produce other children of his own. With just one male heir to an island that has a rough history of being beset by ironborn and wildlings, Jorah and Maege seemed to have been the sole members of the House to carry on the name. And as the years rolled by with Jorah unable to have an heir of his own, the preservation of House Mormont fell completely on Maege. At the very least she attempted to beget a male heir, for she had five daughters – Lyanna Mormont is the youngest, born in 290 AC.

But there is an issue with Maege’s children being the branch to preserve their dynasty on Bear Island. Normally, children get the name of their father and a son of a noble House equal to or higher than that of his wife’s tends to be more than a consort. That is exactly what many of Stannis’s southern knights are after when they appear in the Northern territory. What the Boltons attempt to do when they proclaim Jeyne Poole to be Arya Stark and wed her to the legitimized Ramsay Bolton. It is what Robb Stark fears and Tywin and Tyrion hope for when Tyrion is wed to Sansa Stark – the usurpation of a noble house and seat through marriage – and exactly the reason why Robb creates a will to appoint his heir and bar Sansa from inheriting Winterfell.

Take note that Alysane chooses to disclose Asha Greyjoy this, not long after Justin Massey attempts to charm Asha constantly. To Catelyn and most likely Robb’s bannermen, Maege and Dacey remain mute about absent husbands and fathers, only hinting at it by mentioning the lady of the carving. Since Maege’s daughters all carry the name Mormont, instead of Snow, the others most likely simply assume there must have been some lowborn husband. But Alysane talks of it explicitly, to a warrior woman who is a historical enemy of hers.

“He wants you,” said the She-Bear, after his third visit….[snip]…
“He wants my lands,” Asha replied. “He wants the Iron Islands.” She knew the signs. She had seen the same before in other suitors. Massey’s own ancestral holdings, far to the south, were lost to him, so he must needs make an advantageous marriage or resign himself to being no more than a knight of the king’s household. Stannis had frustrated Ser Justin’s hopes of marrying the wildling princess that Asha had heard so much of, so now he had set his sights on her. No doubt he dreamed of putting her in the Seastone Chair on Pyke and ruling through her, as her lord and master. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

If Maege got herself a noble husband of a strong noble house in the North, when Jorah was still young and unwed and there was still a chance that he could get an heir, there was no way she could make it a condition that her husband would forfeit passing on his name to their children. And what were her chances in demanding him to waiver being Lord Whateverhisname of an island that has no other riches than game and wood? Maege could only enforce that if she wed a noble of far lower birth than herself or a commoner. In the South that would be manageable with a knightly house, but the North has no knights, and therefore no knightly houses. The problem for Maege was that she was not sure enough yet that her possible children would end up having to continue House Mormont, but that the risk for that to happen was big enough. Maege risked her reputation by not marrying at all, took an anonymous lover and claimed the father of her children is a totemic bear. In this way, she repeated what House Mormont’s improper ancestral mother did. So, it may be impproper and shady, but not being queens of King’s Landing or princesses of Dorne, this seems the only possible solution to their lineage issues.

And we see Alysane picking up Maege’s torch at the time it becomes almost certain that Jorah will father no heir, not even with his second wife, and is getting into financial trouble. The year after Lyanna Mormont is born, Alysane’s first child is born, two years before Jorah flees Westeros, while she is still very young.

“Do you have brothers?” Asha asked her keeper.
“Sisters,” Alysane Mormont replied, gruff as ever. “Five, we were. All girls. Lyanna is back on Bear Island. Lyra and Jory are with our mother. Dacey was murdered.”
“The Red Wedding.”
“Aye.” Alysane stared at Asha for a moment. “I have a son. He’s only two. My daughter’s nine.”
“You started young.”
Too young. But better that than wait too late.” (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

Not until 298 AC does Alysane have her second child, a son, a male heir, explaining why Alysane remained at Bear Island at the start of the war. While Dacey, the unmarried heir, takes the most chances, being one of Robb’s close battle companions.

It is sometimes argued that Alysane lies to Asha about having a husband to protect him from the Ironborn. But that is a very odd claim to make. Why would Alysane protect the knowledge on the identity of her husband more than the knowledge of her children, including the only male heir, and the whereabouts of her sisters?  If she would lie about being married to protect her husband from being captured by Ironborn in a raid, would she then not also deny having children at all? Would she then not remain mute about her youngest sister of ten commanding Bear Island for the moment? And if she were widowed, there is even less reason to lie about it.

No, Alysane is passing along vital lineage information to Asha – the ruling Mormonts are all women, with only one male heir, her own son who is a toddler of two, and the only reason I can fathom Alysane telling Asha this is presenting a way for Asha to keep the Iron Islands for herself. At the time, Asha does not yet realize it, not believing anyone will ever be able to take the Iron Islands away from Euron, but with Masey hoping to have Asha as a prize and either Theon dead or unable to have an heir in the future, the continuation of House Greyjoy will fall on Asha. There is even a chance she might be pregnant already, having been unable to drink the abortive tea due to her capture at Deepwood Motte, the same night she shared her bed with her lover Qarl the Maid, a thrall’s grandson. She herself already goes by the nickname “the Kraken’s daughter”. It seems George wrote this totemic ancestry tale of the Momont women in Asha Greyjoy’s arc as a checkhov’s gun for her to remember and apply in her own tale, once she finds herself with child – she could claim she is a skinchanger and that a kraken fathered her child.

After Jorah flees and becomes an exile, Meage becomes ruler of House Mormont. She has five daughters, with Dacey as heir, and certainly within marriagable age, and yet she too seems to remain single, despite her elegance and looking pretty.

When she wore a dress in place of a hauberk, Lady Maege’s eldest daughter was quite pretty; tall and willowy, with a shy smile that made her long face light up. It was pleasant to see that she could be as graceful on the dance floor as in the training yard. (aSoS, Catelyn VII)

You would think, that normally, some second son would be interested in marrying the heir of Bear Island. If Justin Masey can see past Asha Greyjoy’s attire, then surely some other Lord’s son could see an opportunity in Dacey Mormont. Nor does Dacey appear to have any children. It seems that Dacey opted out of marriage and children, and that Alysane volunteered in maintaining the bloodline in the same manner her mother Maege did. And perhaps not so coincidentally, she has her mother’s looks too.

Catelyn had grown fond of Lady Maege and her eldest daughter, Dacey; they were more understanding than most in the matter of Jaime Lannister, she had found. The daughter was tall and lean, the mother short and stout, but they dressed alike in mail and leather, with the black bear of House Mormont on shield and surcoat. (aSoS, Catelyn V)

Her proper name was Alysane of House Mormont, but she wore the other name as easily as she wore her mail. Short, chunky, muscular, the heir to Bear Island had big thighs, big breasts, and big hands ridged with callus. Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth. All those layers made her look almost as wide as she was tall. And ferocious. Sometimes it was hard for Asha Greyjoy to remember that she and the She-Bear were almost of an age. (aDwD, The King’s Prize)

In conclusion, it seems that Meage, Dacey and Alysane all made some sacrifice to ensure the continuation of their house. None of them married, thereby preventing any man from usurping their home seat, and two of them risked their reptuation by having bastards with lovers but keeping those children legitimate through the claim of a totemic bear. In that sense, Dacey’s comment about the lady of the carving is also a sign of recognition to her mother – improper it may be, but they love her nonetheless.

Personal commentary: I hope Lyanna Mormont writes as strong a letter to Daenerys as she did to Stannis, if Dany were to ever decide to make Jorah Lord over Bear Island again. He cannot be blamed for remaining childless, but to squander away his home and his house’s name, while his aunt and cousins sacrificed the possibility of a respectable marriage to ensure house Mormont would remain house Mormont. 

Many have wondered why a House would simply give away a 500 year old Valyrian sword away. Jorah abandons Bear Island and the ancestral Longclaw. Instead of keeping it, Maege sends it to Jeor at the Wall, where Jeor gives it to Jon. It is another indication that Maege seems to consider the ancestral totemic bear bloodline from which she and Jeor are descendants finished. The bloodline only continues now through the female line with a new totemic bear. It is still House Mormont, but a new “bear” as ancestral father.

Wayland’s sword was given to his princess for his bloodline, but at some point in the legends ends up in the hands of the hero Sigurd’s foster-father. His foster-father gifts the sword to Sigurd who slays the dragon Fafnir with it. Fafnir used to be a dwarf, but after killing his father and betraying his brother for a hoard of gold and treasure, he gained the form of a dragon guarding his hoard. At Castle Black, Jeor Mormont becomes Jon’s emotional foster-father. On top of that he is a bear character who can gift a precious sword to a hero after a test. And it is hard not to think how befitting Fafnir’s tale sounds of Tyrion with Casterly Rock as the hoard. But that is for another essay.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

At least for the last two generations, the Mormont women seem to establish a new totemic bear ancestry in order to avoid usurpation of their house and seat through marriage. Regardless of their ability to skinchange (which is uncertain), GRRM brings the Mormont bloodline as well as the Mormont warrior women, their offspring and the bear-lovers within a social, acceptable matrlinieal context. They do this out of necessity, the same way the Bear Island women took to arms out of necessity.

The improper lady of the carving at their gate as well as the ancestral Valyrian sword Longclaw suggest that the Mormont bloodline is actually a bastard bloodline since the beginning, but that people and other houses allow for it with the claim that a bear is their male ancestor.

This type of cultural practice to prevent other houses of taking a female heir to wife to usurp their seat in the way the Lannister and Boltons attempt to do with House Stark and Winterfell, and Orys Baratheon did with Storm’s End of the Durrandons, was most likely featured in Asha Greyjoy’s arc so that the Kraken’s daughter can do something similar by claiming a kraken as a father of the child of her lowborn lover.

Note: Tormund as husband and father to bears will be handled in a bear essay of Jon’s arc.